Aristotle’s ‘Constitution of the Athenians’
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
The Constitution of the Athenians is a work by Aristotle or one of his students. The work describes the constitution of Classical Athens, commonly called the Areopagite constitution. It was preserved on two leaves of a papyrus codex discovered at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt in 1879.
The Aristotelian text is unique because it is not a part of the Corpus Aristotelicum. It was lost until two leaves of a papyrus codex carrying part of the text were discovered in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt in 1879 and published in 1880. A second, more extensive papyrus text was purchased in Egypt by an American missionary in 1890. E. A. Wallis Budge of the British Museum acquired it later that year, and the first edition of it by Frederic G. Kenyon was published in January, 1891. The editions of the Greek text in widest use today are Kenyon’s Oxford Classical Text of 1920 and the Teubner edition by Mortimer H. Chambers (1986, second edition 1994). The papyrus text is now held in the British Library.
Ancient accounts of Aristotle credit him with 170 Constitutions of various states; it is widely assumed that these were research for the Politics, and that many of them were written or drafted by his students. Athens, however, was a particularly important state, and where Aristotle was living at the time, therefore it is plausible that, even if students composed the others, Aristotle had composed that one himself as a model for the rest. On the other hand, a number of prominent scholars doubt that it was written by Aristotle.
If it is a genuine writing of Aristotle, then it is of particular significance, because it is the only one of his extant writings that was actually intended for publication.
Because it purports to supply so much contemporary information previously unknown or unreliable, modern historians have claimed that “the discovery of this treatise constitutes almost a new epoch in Greek historical study.” In particular, 21–22, 26.2–4, and 39–40 of the work contain factual information not found in any other extant ancient text.
The Constitution of the Athenians (in ancient Greek Ἀθηναίων πολιτεία, Athenaion Politeia) describes the political system of ancient Athens. Some ancient authors, such as Diogenes Laërtius, state that Aristotle assigned his pupils to prepare a monograph of 158 constitutions of Greek cities, including a constitution of Athens.
The work consists of two parts. The first part, from Chapter 1 to Chapter 41, deals with the different forms of the constitution, from the trial of the Alcmaeonidae until 403 BC. The second part describes the city’s institutions, including the terms of access to citizenship, magistrates, and the courts.
The text was published in 1891 by Frederic George Kenyon. Shortly after, a controversy arose over the authorship of the work that continues today.
In chapter 54, Aristotle relates that the Festival of Hephaestus was “instituted during the archonship of Cephisophon”, which corresponds to 329 BC. In Chapter 62, Aristotle indicates that, at the time he was writing, Athens was still sending officials to Samos. After 322 BC, Samos was no longer under Athenian control. Based on this internal evidence, scholars conclude that the Athenian Constitution was written no earlier than 328 BC and no later than 322 BC.
Furthermore, that Aristotle does not mention quinqueremes despite mentioning triremes and quadriremes suggests that it was written no later than 325 BC, when quinqueremes are first recorded in the Athenian Navy.
- F. Blass, in Hermes15 (1880:366-82); the text was identified as Aristotle’s Athenaion Politeia by T. Bergk in 1881.
- Peter John Rhodes. A Commentary on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia (Oxford University Press), 1981, 1993: introduction, pp. 2–5.
- e.g., Rhodes, A Commentary on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia.
- J. Mitchell and M. Caspari (eds.), p. xxvii, A History of Greece: From the Time of Solon to 403 B.C.“, George Grote, Routledge 2001.
- Rhodes, 1981, pp. 29–30.
- Michel Sève, introduction à la Constitution d’Athènes, Le Livre de Poche, n°4688, p. 14 et seq..
- Aristotle (1935). The Athenian Constitution. Translated by Rackham, Horace. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p. 149.
- Aristotle (1935). The Athenian Constitution. Translated by Rackham, Horace. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 169, 171.
- Aristotle (1935). The Athenian Constitution. Translated by Rackham, Horace. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 4–5.
Originally published by Wikipedia, 12.10.2016, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.