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History (1)

Antiquity

Ecclesia

Ecclesia. The assembly of the people, which in Greek cities had the power of final decision in public affairs.
    (1) At Athens every citizen in possession of full civic rights was entitled to take part in it from his twentieth year upwards. In early times one ecclesia met regularly once a year in each of the ten prytanies of the Senate; in later times four, making forty annually. Special assemblies might also be called on occasion. The place of meeting was in early times the marketplace, in later times a special locality, called the Pnyx; but generally the theatre, after a permanent theatre had been erected. To summon the assembly was the duty of the Prytanes, who did so by publishing the notice of proceedings. There was a special authority, a board of six Lexiarchi (lexiarchoi) with thirty assistants, whose business it was to keep unauthorized persons out of the assembly. The members on their appearance were each presented with a ticket, on exhibiting which, after the conclusion of the meeting, they received a payment of an obolus (about three cents), in later times of three obols. After a solemn prayer and sacrifice the president (epistates) communicated to the meeting the subjects of discussion. If there were a previous resolution of the Senate for discussion, he put the question whether the people would adopt it or proceed to discuss it. In the debates every citizen had the right of addressing the meeting, but no one could speak more than once. Before doing so he put a crown of myrtle on his head. The president (but no one else) had the right of interrupting a speaker. If his behaviour were unseemly, the president could cut short his harangue, expel him from the rostrum and from the meeting, and inflict upon him a fine not exceeding 500 drachmae ($83). Cases of graver misconduct had to be referred to the Senate or Assembly for punishment. Any citizen could move an amendment or counter-proposal, which he handed in writing to the presiding prutaneia. The president had to decide whether it should be put to vote. This could be prevented, not only by the mere declaration of the president that it was illegal, but by any one present who bound himself on oath to prosecute the proposer for illegality. The speaker might also retract his proposal. The votes were taken by show of hands. The voting was never secret, unless the question affected some one's personal interest, as in the case of ostracism. In such cases a majority of at least 6000 votes was necessary. The resolution (psephisma) was announced by the president, and a record of it taken, which was deposited in the archives, and often publicly exhibited on tables of stone or bronze. After the conclusion of business, the president, through his herald, dismissed the people. If no final result was arrived at, or if the business was interrupted by a sign from heaven, such as a storm or a shower of rain, the meeting was adjourned. Certain classes of business were assigned to the ordinary assemblies.
    The functions of the ecclesia were:
    (a) To take part in legislation. At the first regular assembly in the year the president asked the question whether the people thought any alteration necessary in the existing laws. If the answer were in the affirmative, the proposals for alteration were brought forward, and in the third regular assembly a legislative commission was appointed from among the members of the Heliaea or jury for the current year. The members of this commission were called nomothetai. The question between the old laws and the new proposals was then decided by a quasi-judicial process under the presidency of the thesmothetai, the proposers of the new law appearing as prosecutors, and advocates, appointed by the people, coming forward to defend the old one. If the verdict were in favour of the new law, the latter had the same authority as a resolution of the ecclesia. The whole proceeding was called "voting (epicheirotonia) upon the laws." In the decadence of the democracy the custom grew up of bringing legislative proposals before the people, and having them decided at any time that pleased the proposer.
    (b) Election of officials. This only affected, of course, the officials who were elected by show of hands, as the strategi and ministers of finance, not those chosen by lot. In the first ecclesia of every prytany the archon asked the question whether the existing ministers were to be allowed to remain in office or not, and those who failed to commend themselves were deposed.
    (c) The banishment of citizens by ostracism.
    (d) Judicial functions in certain exceptional cases only. Sometimes, if offences came to its knowledge, the people would appoint a special commission of inquiry, or put the inquiry into the hands of the Areopagus or the Senate. Offences committed against officials or against private individuals were also at times brought before the assembly, to obtain from it a declaration that it did, or did not, think the case one which called for a judicial process. Such a declaration, though not binding on the judge, always carried with it a certain influence. (e) In legal co-operation with the Senate the ecclesia had the final decision in all matters affecting the supreme interests of the State, as war, peace, alliances, treaties, the regulation of the army and navy, finance, loans, tributes, duties, prohibition of exports or imports, the introduction of new religious rites and festivals, the awarding of honours and rewards, and the conferring of the citizenship.

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