Cicero, in the Senate, accusing Catilina of conspiracy. Fresco by Cesare Maccari (1889). Palazzo Madama, Rome. Photo by AKG London


Rules or citizens?

Ancient Athenian and Greek practices afford us insights into how and why to maintain real accountability in public life

by Melissa Lane + BIO

Cicero, in the Senate, accusing Catilina of conspiracy. Fresco by Cesare Maccari (1889). Palazzo Madama, Rome. Photo by AKG London

What is anarchy? The word evokes lawlessness, a generalised disorder. But the root meaning of anarchia has nought to do with law or lawlessness. It is formed in classical Greek from an-archē, a negative or privative compound of the noun archē, among the meanings of which are ‘beginning, origin’; ‘first place or power, sovereignty’; and ‘magistracy, office’ – ideas connected by the power of initiating action. In anarchia, an authoritative leader, ruler or officeholder is absent.1 In classical Athens in particular, it became a designation for a particular vacancy: an absence of the officeholder called not only an archon (from the same root, of course), but the archon: the one archon out of nine in Athens (and some other city-states) who gave his name to the year in which he served. For Athenians did not keep track of their years by consecutive numeration, as we do, but rather named each year after the archon holding this office. What we call the year 403/02 BCE, for example, they knew as the year of Eucleides’ archonship.

The archons were the titular and most august of the 700-odd offices that were filled in democratic Athens every year. Most of these officeholders, including the archons, and an additional 500 members of the council, were chosen by lottery, though the Athenians imposed careful checks both before and after the lottery to eliminate those delinquent on their taxes or in other civic duties. A minority (about 100, mainly military) were chosen by election. All male citizens were eligible to participate in the proceedings of the Athenian assembly and to be put forward to serve on the council and on the popular juries, each of which played a vital role in Athenian power and government. For the most part, rather than being policymakers in their own right, the Athenian officeholders carried out broadly defined administrative roles. They did however enjoy the power to issue commands within their own domain and enforce them with fines and sometimes other punishments.

A vacancy in an archonship might mean that it had simply not been filled. But anarchia could stretch all the way to what we might call ‘expungement’. I have borrowed this term from the worst potential punishment that I learned to fear as an undergraduate at Harvard University. In that context, expungement means not simply being rusticated, sent down or expelled, but expunged from all matriculation records. When this happened in ancient Greece, anarchia served as a kind of non-name, erasing and replacing the name of an archon (and especially an eponymous one) who had been putatively installed, but who (we can infer) was judged not to be a real, valid or genuine officeholder. In some cases, this meant erasing the officeholder’s name from the public inscriptions of the calendar, with anarchia incised instead.

We find surviving inscriptions of anarchia incised in stone in the archon list of the northern Aegean polis of Thasos in the late 5th century, and in Athens some centuries later. The appearance of the anarchia inscriptions is especially dramatic for the later Athenians as it contrasts with their usual ‘practice’, at least in a later period, as the classicist Harriet Flower describes, ‘of publicly recording the names of traitors and other notorious offenders on stelai that were prominently displayed in the city’2 (whereas, in Rome at the time, unworthy citizens were more frequently condemned to damnatio memoriae or sanctions against being remembered as a citizen). Anarchia in this sense could become an index of what we today would call political legitimacy and illegitimacy, preserving the presence or absence of a valid officeholder at the core of anarchy, in a way that its common interpretation as lawlessness fails to capture.

To be sure, in Athenian history, instances of anarchia in this sense were rare: in seeking them out, I have pulled together 11 cases of asserted or implied anarchia in the 11 centuries of documented history (with some gaps) of named Athenian archons. Of these, five can be read as illustrating anarchia as expungement. Here, we will look more closely at just one, described by what I’ll call ‘the anarchia assertion’ about the expungement practised by at least some Athenians of the name of Pythodorus, who held the special archonship in the year 404 to 403 BCE, during part of which Athens was governed by an oligarchic group who held power briefly and brutally. Known as the Thirty, they went down in posterity as the ‘Thirty Tyrants’, whose power ended when a counterrevolution reestablished a democratic constitution.

The anarchia assertion about the year of the Thirty first appears in the text of Xenophon’s Hellenica. Xenophon was an Athenian general, historian and friend of Socrates, who lived during the period of the Thirty. He wrote his history some time in the mid-4th century BCE, including markers dating each year by archon names (though there is debate whether these sections of the text are authentically mid-4th century or an interpolation from the 3rd century):

Pythodorus [was in that year] archon at Athens. But because he was chosen in the [regime of the] oligarchy, the Athenians do not call the year by his name, but call it ‘the archonless year’ [anarchia].3

Xenophon, or at least his work as transmitted, credits Athenian public memory as erasing Pythodorus from his place in calendrical identification in favour of a declaration of anarchia. On this account, the Athenians (or at least a good number of them) asserted that there had been no real archon in office in that year.

To be sure, expungement never became standard practice for referring to the year of the Thirty in Athens. Other authors, from the orator Lysias immediately following the overthrow of the Thirty, to the author or authors of the Constitution of the Athenians (whom I like to think of as Aristotle’s graduate students) decades later, used Pythodorus’ name for that year in the customary fashion. It never became standard practice to regard archons as illegitimate just because they were installed under other rulers who later came to be seen as illegitimate. The earlier years under the Peisistratid tyrants of the late-6th century, for example, all continued to be designated by their respective archons’ names.

Nevertheless, the statement transmitted in the text of Xenophon deserves closer attention. The view of anarchia in the year of the Thirty as ‘the archonless year’ was later taken up in Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian of the 1st century BCE. Diodorus Siculus generally relied on one and sometimes two 4th-century sources for the history of classical Athens that are (mostly) lost to us. Diodorus tells us that in 404 BCE ‘[t]here was anarchy [anarchia] in Athens because of the dissolution of the political authority [Ἀναρχίας γὰρ οὔσης Ἀθήνησι διὰτὴν κατάλυσιν τῆς ἡγεμονίας]’.4 The dissolution of the political hegemony of the democracy – notwithstanding the installation of officeholders such as Pythodorus in what followed – leaves Diodorus in no doubt that it was a year of anarchy. The view would have a long life. A few centuries later, Pseudo-Plutarch, recounting the life of the Athenian orator Lysias, refers in passing to ‘the anarchia [of the year] before Eucleides [served as archon]’ – Eucleides, as I mentioned, having been archon in 403/02 under the restored democracy.5 In the 10th-century CE Suda, a dictionary-style compilation of centuries of classical sources, another Athenian politician who made his name in the struggle against the Thirty is described as having become prominent ‘in the time of the anarchia’.6

Why were the Thirty remembered, in this tradition, as not having installed an officeholder proper? After all, we know that they installed an eponymous archon, and we even know his name. In my view, Pythodorus was expunged from some practices of Athenian public memory as a statement on the illegitimacy of the Thirty themselves. As the nominal eponymous archon, he was iconic of the regime in power during the year in question. The question this impels is important: just what was it that was wrong with that regime? What was it that was illegitimate about the Thirty themselves, such that after their overthrow ‘the dispositions of the Thirty were now [after 403] judged illegal’7 – and Pythodorus’ name was expunged in linguistic practice, at least by many later Athenians, if the tradition transmitted by the likes of Diodorus and Pseudo-Plutarch is to be believed?

This accountability served as the defining feature of proper office in Greek and Roman constitutions

Two answers suggest themselves: that they came to power wrongfully, or that they used it in wrongful ways (procedure, or substance). But both options are too broad to capture the precision that the question merits. The answer hinges on accountability – and the integrity that accountability mechanisms are designed to test – as being at the heart of the meaning of political office. While the Thirty came to power without procedural impropriety, the role that they were rightfully assigned was nevertheless a role that lacked the limits and controls of an accountable office proper. Their exercise of power made a mockery of the accountability built into offices such as the eponymous archonship. Thus, what we see in the anarchia assertion is the way in which some Athenians and their literary successors recognised the lack of accountability in how they remembered the Thirty.

The central role of accountability emerges in another passage of Xenophon. Here he addresses how the Thirty actually came to power in Athens (albeit that the several sources for this narrative don’t all agree):

The people decided to choose 30 men, who were to draw up the ancestral laws, according to which they would govern.8

So the Thirty came to power through an official appointment by the Athenian democratic assembly (albeit meeting in the shadow of pressure from the Spartan general Lysander), to suggraphein the ancestral laws. That means they were to compose a law code, one expected to be more in accord with how the oligarchic faction understood Athenian political history. They were appointed as suggrapheis, a committee to write up laws and to ‘govern’ according to them.9 On that score, they fare reasonably well on a test of procedural propriety.10 The key point, however, is that, while a board of suggrapheis was an established nomenclature, it was not a role bound by the accountability that defined regular offices. Each member of such a board held an extraordinary post,11 which was free from the standard limitations defining office, such as term limits or accountability procedures. As the classicist Stephen Todd put it: ‘We have no evidence … that an extra-ordinary [sic] official appointed without fixed terms of office was liable to render monthly or even annual accounts during the course of his term.’12 It is precisely this accountability, the requirement of rendering accounts at the end of their term, and in Athens, being subject to other forms of control during their term as well, that served as the defining feature of proper office in Greek and later Roman constitutions.

The ways that Greeks and Romans thought of and practised accountability are important and worth our attention. The influential scholar Mogens Herman Hansen wrote that: ‘Athenian leaders were called to account more than any other such group in history.’13 The claim points both to an Athenian distinctiveness and a common starting point of ‘calling to account’, an ideal that reverberates far beyond the classical world, especially in common-law regimes. The concept of accountability, two legal scholars have more recently reminded us, serves as the organising principle of administrative law. A recent Institute for Government report explains that, in the United Kingdom today, ‘accountability is about a relationship – between those responsible for something and those who have a role in passing judgment on how well that responsibility has been discharged’ – a formula that captures the same framework that applied in ancient Greece.

This Institute for Government report identifies oversight, regulation, inspection and scrutiny as the different forms of accountability. In ancient Greece, as opposed to modern bureaucracies, there was relatively little regulation or oversight: offices were defined with few rules or regulations. Officeholders were expected to simply get on with the job. No overarching civil service bureaucratic management structure existed to oversee them. Yet the ancient Greeks engaged in a tremendous amount of inspection and scrutiny about government and integrity in public life. They adopted mechanisms that made relationships of accountability – through active public scrutiny – alive and intensive.14 Accountability practices defined the end of every officeholder’s term, not only in Athens but also across a wide range of Greek cities. This was the practice not just in democratic governments but in oligarchies too. The Greeks referred to this intensive public performance review as εὔθυναι or euthunai (most often used in the plural, from the singular euthuna) which literally means the rendering of accounts.

Even officeholders who served on collective boards faced their euthunai individually. In Athens, as a rule, any citizen could bring forward a complaint to be investigated. So the accountability relationship was personal on both sides. Individuals were held personally accountable for their performance, never shielded by collective responsibility or bureaucratic hierarchy; and (at least in some democratic constitutions such as that of Athens) anyone in the citizen body could draw on their own experience or knowledge to lodge a complaint that brought real investigation. Athens stood out for not waiting until the end of an officeholder’s term to make inspection or scrutiny possible: as the historian Pierre Fröhlich noted in 2004: ‘Athens is the only city in which we know anything of procedures enabling sanctioning of a magistrate while in the course of his tenure.’15

Through routes of accusations lodged with the assembly or council, which could occasion a judicial trial, Athenian officeholders could be held to account during their tenure. Ordinary citizens also had the ability to prosecute officeholders in court themselves. For Athenian officeholders, the stakes were high. Life did not continue as normal. As Jennifer Tolbert Roberts observes in Accountability in Athenian Government (1982): ‘Only when his [euthunai] were complete … was it legal for a man to set out on a journey, transfer his property to anyone else, be adopted into a different family, or even make a votive offering to a god.’ Quite simply, the property and freedom of public officials were seriously restricted until their accounts were settled.

Ancient Athenian and Greek practices allow us insights into how and why one should maintain real accountability in public life, rather than letting it devolve into mere theatre. In Athens, accountability procedures and the control of public office gave the people as a whole an important role in defining, revealing and judging the misuse of office. It helped them hold every official accountable for his use of his office. From this classical practice, we can see a way to revitalise the dysfunctional accountability regimes under which we are currently suffering.

‘New managerialist’ approaches to accountability insist on spelling out the details of accountability targets in advance (targets set by insulated management, for the most part). By contrast, Greek accountability procedures left the terms of success and failure more open, with few regulations spelling them out in advance, thus allowing for popular judgment to be authoritative, but also exercised through proper procedures. In Athens, this allowed, on the one hand, individual citizens to assert themselves in bringing whatever charges they thought were merited; on the other hand, it also gave any accused officials the formal opportunity to defend themselves in a trial. The right of officials to quick trial over any allegations was a safeguard against vigilantism or what would today be a ‘trial’ conducted in the media and with little to no opportunity for fairness.

These accountability procedures might be at once fairer and more effective than the ones we practise in many democracies today. Modern practices to ensure integrity in public office focus on setting targets and rules in advance. The Greeks left these open to the judgment of the citizen body, while also allowing officeholders to defend their judgments in court trials if challenged – giving them, at least in theory, a fair hearing, rather than trial by media frenzy (though sometimes these procedures were flouted in ways that could approximate modern forms of mass hysteria or ‘mob rule’). At the same time, in Athens, any citizen could lodge accusations, making the public nature of accountability more meaningful than it tends to be in modern bureaucratically shielded contexts. And, most importantly, every single officeholder was routinely subjected to meaningful inspection, with their accounts being actively considered at the end of their period of office to determine whether they had passed muster.

Yes, aspects of these Greek practices depended on the smaller size of their polities, though Athens – with a population at its 5th-century zenith of about 250,000 total, of whom about 60,000 were male citizens – was far from a society in which everyone knew everyone by name or reputation. Elements of these classical procedures nonetheless lend themselves to adoption in modern conditions. For example, citizens today could lodge accusations electronically for a panel of other citizens, selected by lottery (with checks built in), to scrutinise and raise in a public broadcast and recorded interview of every officeholder upon leaving office. Of course, such procedures could still be open to abuse and politicisation, as happened from time to time among the Athenians, especially in the case of orators, while generals were often held accountable for substantive military failures (or for a concocted proxy of financial malfeasance) rather than for misuses of office of the kind that we today would recognise. (This question is complicated by the fact that general Athenian trial practices were different from ours – the questions of being a good citizen, in good standing, and of the general spirit of the laws being treated as unquestionably relevant and often dispositive.)

These procedures to foster integrity in public office in Athens and other Greek cities were not perfect. But they were more meaningful than those of today, both for the officeholders and for the public holding them to account. That the procedures left open to public negotiation the purposes that officeholding was expected to pursue was a key detail. Integrity in office was neither a process of comporting with prewritten rules, nor was it a matter of private conscience; it was a dynamic act of public, and publicly negotiated, understanding and debate, with real consequences for officeholders.

‘We must always live as if we expected to have to give an account of what we have been doing’

Like Greek constitutions, those of the Roman republic enact a basic continuity of expectations of officeholders. In Rome, in the late-1st century BCE, the republic was administered by ranks of officeholders. They were referred to as magistrates, and elected by a complex and varying set of public assemblies, some restricted only to certain groups of voting citizens. These Roman magistrates too had to lodge their accounts at the end of their year of office. It was, in republican and later imperial Rome, a more formalistic procedure than in democratic Athens, easily abused, and without a built-in mechanism for regular popular scrutiny. Cicero identified the comparative weakness of measures to ensure public integrity in the Roman republic, both in practice and in theory. He had made his name by prosecuting Verres, a corrupt Roman governor of Sicily. Cicero began the investigation of Verres himself, by looking up the accounts that Sicily’s governor had kept – only to discover what he called ‘the abominable and scandalous worthlessness of the accounts’.16 Later, Cicero proposed in De Legibus17 to reform accountability practices in Rome precisely along the lines of Greek institutions of euthunai.

We don’t know exactly how far Cicero would have gone. We don’t know whether he would also have wished to remove the ‘immunity from prosecution and sacrosanctity of their persons for their entire term of office’ that applied to Roman magistrates, in favour of the openness, even vulnerability, of Greek officeholders to popular or institutional prosecutions. Greek officeholders never enjoyed the same institutional protection as had those in Rome. For the Greeks, a magistrate was far from untouchable during his term of office. As the historian Alex McAuley notes in ‘Officials and Office-Holding’ (2013), from which the quotation above is also drawn, ‘if anything, as soon as one assumed authority one automatically became vulnerable to more vectors of accusation and oversight than any average citizen’. But in any case, Cicero, we discover, was willing to apply an expungement-like understanding of the requirements of integrity in public office to the corrupt or failed magistrates of his day.

In a speech written for the prosecution of Verres, Cicero highlighted proper accounting – and accountability – as central to the ethical integrity of public servants. He quoted the revered statesman Africanus’ maxim that: ‘We must always live as if we expected to have to give an account of what we have been doing.’18 More striking, we find Cicero using in Latin precisely the kind of condemnation of officeholders as not being proper or legitimate officeholders at all as I began by identifying in the Greek concept of anarchia.

In his speeches, Cicero argued that unethical conduct could undo officials’ public standing. For example, attacking the conduct of Piso and Gabinius during whose consulship (the Romans elected two consuls for each year) he had been forced into exile, Cicero later described them as having been ‘not consuls’, but ‘rather traffickers of the provinces, hucksters of your good name’ (non consules, sed mercatores provinciarum ac venditores vestrae dignitatis), and named them ‘brigands rather than consuls’ (non consules, sed latrones).19 These comments have been interpreted by the Latin scholar Ingo Gildenhard in his book Creative Eloquence (2010) as Cicero saying that ‘such characters as Verres, Piso or Gabinius had forfeited the right to be considered (former) magistrates of the Roman people, according to the logic that, if Roman officials are morally depraved and pursue courses of action subversive of the commonwealth, they cease to be Roman officials’.

In offering that interpretation, Gildenhard classes this purely as Ciceronian innovation, even idiosyncrasy – commenting further that: ‘All of these manoeuvres presuppose an idiosyncratic understanding of what a civis, legatus or consul is (or ought to be) that did not correspond to the traditional meanings of these terms.’ But while Cicero might have been departing from official Roman approaches to the language of public office, he did so consonant with a deeper set of Greek insights concerning the idea of anarchia: that without an orientation to the purpose of the duties of office, one is not – as the Greeks understood with their concept of anarchia – properly speaking in office at all.


1. The Liddell-Scott-Jones lexicon of classical Greek begins its entry for the word with ‘lack of a leader, commander’.

2. Harriet I Flower, The Art of Forgetting: Disgrace and Oblivion in Roman Political Culture (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), p 22.

3. 2.3.1, my translation. Most editors bracket these lines as interpolations, probably from the 3rd century (some extending the brackets to part or all of 2.3.2 as well). For the purposes of my argument, whether these lines are 4th-century by Xenophon or 3rd-century is not that important, as I am interested in all subsequent evaluations by Greek writers of the practices of Athenians in referring to the year in question.

4. Diodorus, Bibliotheca Historica, eds I Bekker, L Dindorf and F Vogel, 3rd edn (Stuttgart: B G Teubner, 1964), vol III, my translation.

5. Ps-Plut, Vit Dec Or, 3, 835F, in Plutarch, Vitae Decem Oratorum, ed Anton Westermann (Quedlinburg and Leipzig: Theod Becker, 1833), my translation.

6. Suda, no 1452.

7. Edwin Carawan, The Athenian Amnesty and Reconstructing the Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p 84.

8. 2.3.2, translation from Peter Krentz (ed) Xenophon. Hellenika I-II.3.10 (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1989).

9. Scholars disagree about whether the last clause of the Greek should be construed as meaning that by which the Thirty were to ‘govern’, or that by which the people were to be governed, though the former is more consonant with Xenophon’s usage of the same verb elsewhere, as argued by Martin Ostwald in From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law: Law, Society, and Politics in Fifth-Century Athens (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1986). There is a further debate about whether the text means that the Thirty were to govern indefinitely – as argued by Peter Krentz in his edition of Xenophon cited above – or only provisionally while the code of laws was being drawn up – as argued by P J Rhodes in A Commentary on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia (Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press, 1981), in the context of a parallel passage.

10. See Ostwald, From Popular Sovereignty, cited above: ‘the oligarchical rule on which they [the Thirty] embarked some time after their installation was not illegal’.

11. As a French scholar wrote in the 19th century, citing a number of 5th-century cases, the positions held by the suggrapheis might best be called positions ‘extraordinaires’: see Paul-François Foucart, ‘Inscription d’Éleusis du Ve siècle’, Bulletin de correspondance hellénique 4 (1880) 225-56.

12. Stephen Todd, ‘Lysias Against Nikomachos: The Fate of the Expert in Athenian Law’, in L Foxhall and A D E Lewis (eds) Greek Law in its Political Setting: Justifications not Justice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 101-31.

13. Mogens Herman Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes, trans J A Crook (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).

14. On all these mechanisms, see the overviews in McAuley, ‘Officials and Office-Holding’,186-7; Fröhlich, ‘Governmental Checks’, 256, 261-2; and, more generally, a standard study, Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, Accountability in Athenian Government (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982), to cite only from the Anglophone literature.

15. Pierre Fröhlich, Les cités grecques et le contrôle des magistrats (IVe-Ier siècle avant J.-C.) (Genève: Droz, 2004).

16. In Verrem II.76, trans C D Yonge.

17. III, 46-47.

18. In Verrem II.11, trans C D Yonge.

19. Both quotations, Post redditum in Senatu, 10; see related remarks in For Sestius, 17, 33. Quoted from ‘Post redditum in Senatu’ in Cicero, The Speeches, with an English translation, trans N H Watts, vol XI of the Loeb Cicero (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1923); cited to make a similar point by Ingo Gildenhard, Creative Eloquence: The Construction of Reality in Cicero’s Speeches (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), n 26 to p 10.