Sources and Documents

Our understanding of the workings and history of Athenian democracy comes from a variety of sources. Most useful, perhaps, are the ancient literary texts that survive, many of which have been cited repeatedly in this catalogue. Two works in particular shed light on the Athenian political system: Aristotle's Athenian Constitution and pseudo-Xenophon's Constitution of the Athenians. Written about 325 B.C.

Aristotle's work records the constitutional development of the city over time and then describes the constitution of his own day. Archaeological discoveries in the Athenian Agora have done much to confirm and illuminate his descriptions. The other work, which survives in the writings of Xenophon but which cannot be by him, is also of considerable interest. It was written almost a century before Aristotle and is a much shorter description of the democracy written by an unsympathetic, antidemocratic observer.

Three bone styluses, 2nd-1st century B.C. L.: 0.067-0.127 m. Athens, Agora Museum B 1292, 705, 707. The stylus was a writing implement used for scratching letters onto wax tablets. The flat end could be used to smooth the wax and thus erase letters. Important documents or decrees would then be transferred from the impermanent wax to papyrus or stone. Of the materials on which the Athenians wrote, only the stone inscriptions have survived in any quantity.

An even more direct source than the literary texts are the laws, decrees, treaties, statue bases, and records that the Athenians themselves kept. The democracy, with average citizens holding public offices which changed hands every year, required elaborate and accurate record-keeping. Written on papyrus, lead sheets, and wooden boards, many of these documents were copied onto marble blocks, which survive today. Some 7,500 inscriptions have been found in the Agora excavations, and over 10,000 more come from other areas of Athens and Attica.

The central archives building of Athens, known as the Metroon because it also housed a sanctuary of the Mother of the Gods (meter), contained thousands of documents, now lost. It stood in a central location among the public buildings of the city, next to the Bouleuterion. It overlooked the great open Agora square, just as the National Archives overlooks the Mall in Washington, D.C.

24.3 The Metroon in the 2nd century B.C. Drawing by Marian H. McAllister.

The records and decrees of Athens were stored in the Old Bouleuterion where the Boule met during the 5th century B.C. Toward the end of the 5th century, the senate moved to the New Bouleuterion, but the archives stayed behind in the Old Bouleuterion, and the building became known by a new name, the Metroon, named for Rhea, Mother of the Gods, whose cult was also housed in the building.

In a speech of Deinarchos against Demosthenes delivered in 323 B.C., we learn that a document was deposited "in the keeping of the Mother of the Gods, who is established as guardian for the city of all rights recorded in the documents" (Deinarchos Against Demosthenes 86). Over fifty such references in the ancient sources describe a full range of documents kept in the building: laws, decrees, records of lawsuits, financial accounts, lists of ephebes, sacred offerings and weights and measures. None of the archives have actually survived, since most of them must have been kept on papyrus or some other perishable material.

Aerial view of the Metroon and New Bouleuterion foundations.
Excavations in the Athenian Agora are conducted by the American School of Classical Studies.
Primary funding is provided by the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI).