ECCLESIA (Gr. ἐκκλησία, from ἐκ, out, and καλεῖν, to call), in ancient Athens, the general assembly of all the freemen of the state. In the primitive unorganized state the king was theoretically absolute, though his great nobles meeting in the Council (see Boulē) were no doubt able to influence him considerably. There is, however, no doubt that in the earliest times the free people, i.e. the fighting force of the state, were called together to ratify the decisions of the king, and that they were gradually able to enforce their wishes against those of the nobles. In Athens, as in Rome, where the Plebs succeeded in their demand for the codification of the laws (the Twelve Tables), it was no doubt owing to the growing power of the people meeting in the Agora that Draco was entrusted with the task of publishing a code of law and so putting an end to the arbitrary judicature of the aristocratic party. But there is no evidence that the Ecclesia had more than a de facto existence before Solon’s reforms.
The precise powers which Solon gave the people are not known. It is clear that the executive power in the state (see Archon) was still vested in the Eupatrid class. It is obvious, therefore, that a moderate reformer would endeavour to give to the people some control over the magistracy. Now in speaking of the Thetes (the lowest of the four Solonian classes; see Solon), Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens says that Solon gave them merely “a share in the Ecclesia and the Law Courts,” and in the Politics we find that he gave them the right of electing the magistrates and receiving their accounts at the end of the official year. Thus it seems that the “mixed” character of Solon’s constitution consisted in the fact that though the officials of the state were still necessarily Eupatrid, the Ecclesia elected those of the Eupatrids whom they could trust, and further had the right of criticizing their official actions. Secondly, all our accounts agree that Solon admitted the Thetes to the Ecclesia, thus recognizing them as citizens. Under Cleisthenes the Ecclesia remained the sovereign power, but the Council seems to have become to some extent a separate administrative body. The relation of Boulē and Ecclesia in the Cleisthenic democracy was of the greatest importance. The Ecclesia alone, a heterogeneous body of untrained citizens, could not have passed, nor even have drawn up intelligible measures; all the preliminary drafting was done by the small committee of the Boulē which was in session at any particular time. In the 5th century the functions of the Ecclesia and the popular courts of justice were vastly increased by the exigencies of empire. At the beginning of the 4th century B.C. the system of payment was introduced (see below). In 308 B.C. Demetrius of Phalerum curtailed the power of the Ecclesia by the institution of the Nomophylaces (Guardians of the Law), who prevented the Ecclesia from voting on an illegal or injurious motion. Under Roman rule the powers of the Ecclesia and the popular courts were much diminished, and after 48 B.C. (the franchise being frequently sold to any casual alien) the Demos (people) was of no importance. They still assembled to pass psephisms in the theatre and to elect strategi, and, under Hadrian, had some small judicial duties, but as a governing body the Ecclesia died when Athens became a civitas libera under Roman protection.
Constitution and Functions.—Throughout the period of Athenian greatness the Ecclesia was the sovereign power, not only in practice but also in theory. The assembly met in early times near the sanctuary of Aphrodite Pandemus (i.e. south of the Acropolis), but, in the 5th and 4th centuries, the regular place of meeting was the Pnyx. From the 5th century it met sometimes in the theatre, which in the 3rd century was the regular place. From Demosthenes we learn that in his time special meetings were held at Peiraeus, and, in the last centuries B.C., meetings were held at Athens and Peiraeus alternately. Certain meetings, however, for voting ostracism (q.v.) and on questions affecting individual status took place in the Agora. Meetings were (1) ordinary, (2) extraordinary, and (3) convened by special messengers (κύριαι, σύγκλητοι and κατάκλητοι), these last being called when it was desirable that the country people should attend. At ordinary meetings the attendance was practically confined to Athenian residents. According to Aristotle there were four regular meetings in each prytany (see Boulē); probably only the first of these was called κυρία. It is certain, however, that the four meetings did not fall on regular days, owing to the occurrence of feast days on which no meeting could take place. In the κυρία ἐκκλησία of each month took place the Epicheirotonia (monthly inquiry) of the state officials, and if it proved unsatisfactory a trial before the Heliaea was arranged; the council reported on the general security and the corn-supply, and read out lists of vacant inheritances and unmarried heiresses. In the sixth prytany of each year at the κυρία ἐκκλησία the question whether ostracism should take place that year was put to the vote. For all meetings it was usual that the Prytaneis should give five days’ notice in the form of a programma (agenda). On occasions of sudden importance the herald of the council summoned the people with a trumpet, and sometimes special messengers were despatched to “bring in” the country people (κατακαλεῖν).
After the archonship of Solon all Athenians over the age of eighteen were eligible to attend the assembly, save those who for some reason had suffered atimia (loss of civil rights). To prevent the presence of any disqualified persons, six lexiarchs with thirty assistants were present with the deme-rolls in their hands. These officers superintended the payment in the 4th century and probably the toxotae (police) also, whose duty it was before the introduction of pay to drive the people out of the Agora into the Ecclesia with a rope steeped in red dye which they stretched out and used as a draw net (see Aristoph. Acharn. 22 and Eccles. 378). The introduction of pay, which belongs to the early years of the 4th century and by the Constitution (c. 41 ad fin.) is attributed to Agyrrhius, a statesman of the restored democracy, was a device to secure a larger attendance. The rate rose from one to two obols and then to three obols (Aristoph. Eccles. 300 sqq.), while at the time of Aristotle it was one and a half drachmas for the κυρία ἐκκλησία and one drachma for other meetings. Probably those who were late did not receive payment.
Procedure.—The proceedings opened with formalities: the purification by the peristiarchs, who carried round slain sucking pigs; the curse against all who should deceive the people; the appointment (in the 4th century) of the proedri and their epistates (see Boulē); the report as to the weather-omens. The assembly was always dismissed if there were thunder, rain or an eclipse. These formalities over, the Prytaneis communicated the probouleuma of the council, without which the Ecclesia could not debate. This recommendation either submitted definite proposals or merely brought the agenda before the assembly. Its importance lay largely in the fact that it explained the business in hand, which otherwise must often have been beyond the grasp of a miscellaneous assembly. After the reading, a preliminary vote was taken as to whether the council’s report should be accepted en bloc. If it was decided to discuss, the herald called upon people to speak. Any person, without distinction of age or position, might obtain leave to speak, but it seems probable that the man who had moved the recommendation previously in the council would advocate it in the assembly. The council was, therefore, a check on the assembly, but its powers were to some extent illusory, because any member of the assembly (1) might propose an amendment, (2) might draw up a new resolution founded on the principal motion, (3) might move the rejection of the motion and the substitution of another, (4) might bring in a motion asking the council for a recommendation on a particular matter, (5) might petition the council for leave to speak on a given matter to the assembly. Voting usually was by show of hands, but in special cases (ostracism, &c.) by ballot (i.e. by casting pebbles into one of two urns). The decision of the assembly was called a psephism and had absolute validity. These decisions were deposited in the Metroön where state documents were preserved; peculiarly important decrees were inscribed also on a column (stēlē) erected on the Acropolis. It has been shown that the power of the council was far from sufficient. The real check on the vagaries of amateur legislators was the Graphē Paranomōn. Any man was at liberty to give notice that he would proceed against the mover of a given resolution either before or after the voting in the Ecclesia. A trial in a Heliastic court was then arranged, and the plaintiff had to prove that the resolution in question contravened an existing law. If this contention were upheld by the court, when the case was brought to it by the Thesmothetae, the resolution was annulled, and the defendant had to appear in a new trial for the assessment of the penalty, which was usually a fine, rarely death. Three convictions under this law, however, involved a certain loss of rights; the loser could no longer move a resolution in the Ecclesia. After the lapse of a year the mover of a resolution could not be attacked. In the 4th century the Graphē Paranomōn took the place of Ostracism (q.v.). In the 5th century it was merely an arrangement whereby the people sitting as sworn juries ratified or annulled their own first decision in the Ecclesia.
Revision of Laws.—In the 4th century, the assembly annually, on the eleventh day of Hecatombaeon (the first day of the official year), took a general vote on the laws, to decide whether revision was necessary. If the decision was in favour of alteration, it was open to any private citizen to put up notice of amendments. The Nomothetae, a panel selected by the Prytaneis from the Heliaea, heard arguments for and against the changes proposed and voted accordingly. Against all new laws so passed, there lay the Graphē; Paranomōn. Thus the Nomothetae, not the Ecclesia, finally passed the law.
Judicial Functions.—The Ecclesia heard cases of Probolē and Eisangelia (see Greek Law). The Probolē was an action against sycophants and persons who had not kept their promises to the people, or had disturbed a public festival. The verdict went by show of hands, but no legal consequences ensued; if the plaintiff demanded punishment he had to go to the Heliaea which were not at all bound by the previous vote in the Ecclesia. Cases of Eisangelia in which the penalty exceeded the legal competence of the council came before the Ecclesia in the form of a probouleuma. To prevent vexatious accusations, it was (at some date unknown) decided that the accuser who failed to obtain one-fifth of the votes should be fined 1000 drachmas (£40). (For the procedure in case of Ostracism see that article.)
Summary.—Thus it will be seen that the Ecclesia, with no formal organization, had absolute power save for the Graphē Paranomōn (which, therefore, constituted the dicasteries in one sense the sovereign power in the state). It dealt with all matters home and foreign. Every member could initiate legislation, and, as has been shown, the power of the council was merely formal. As against this it must be pointed out that it was by no means a representative assembly in practice. The phrase used to describe a very special assembly (κατάκλητος ἐκκλησία) shows that ordinarily the country members did not attend (κατακαλεῖν always involving the idea of motion from a distance towards Athens), and Thucydides says that 5000 was the maximum attendance, though it must be remembered that he is speaking of the time when the number of citizens had been much reduced owing to the plague and the Sicilian expedition. From this we understand the necessity of payment in the 4th century, although in that period the Ecclesia was supreme (Constitution of Athens, xli. 2). The functions of the Ecclesia thus differed in two fundamental respects from those which are in modern times associated with a popular assembly. (1) It did not exercise, at least in the period as to which we are best instructed, the power of law-making (νομοθεσία) in the strict sense. It must be remembered, however, in qualification of this statement that it possessed the power of passing psephismata which would in many cases be regarded as law in the modern sense. (2) The Ecclesia was principally concerned with the supervision of administration. Much of what we regard as executive functions were discharged by the Ecclesia.
With this article compare those on Solon; Boulē; Areopagus; Greek Law, and, for other ancient popular assemblies, Apella; Comitia. See also A. H. J. Greenidge, Handbook of Greek Constitutional History (1896); Gilbert, Greek Constitutional Antiquities (trans. Brooks and Nicklin, 1895); Schömann, De comitiis Atheniensium; L. Schmidt, “De Atheniensis reipublicae indole democratica” in Ind. Lect. (Marburg, 1865); J. W. Headlam, Election by Lot at Athens (Cambridge, 1891). See also the histories of Greece by Meyer, Busolt, Grote, Evelyn Abbott, and J. E. Sandys’ edition of the Constitution of Athens (1892); for a comparative study, E. A. Freeman, Comparative Politics.