Athens had many different kinds of magistrates and officials. Officially speaking, they were of different kinds only and not of different rank, even though in real life the positions varied in regard to prestige and political power. The one exception was the military magistrates, where we do find a hierarchy. Most offices, however, were considered to be of equal rank, and in addition one almost always had to share one’s position with others: until the middle of the 4th century BC, collegiality was the rule. Any office was shared by several individuals, often ten, in line with the basic decimal structure of Athenian politics. Any citizen 30 years of age or over could aspire to some office; only the thetes were excluded. Even during the most radical phase of Athenian democracy, this law remained unchanged, but we get the impression that nobody reallybothered to implement it. The positions that were to be filled by drawing lots were de facto open to every citizen, while the positions filled by election, that is the ones for which some special abilities were required, were both by law and in reality the preserve of the most prominent citizens. Apparently, the democratic government was prepared to leave such functions to members of the elite, especially those from old noble families, who had the right kind of education and background. Those leading elements in Athenian politics were never common, inexperienced citizens whom the popular vote suddenly brought to power. The participation of aristocrats and of nouveaux riches shows that nobility or wealth usually did not imply an antidemocratic mindset, despite a number of exceptions that prove the rule. The noble and non-noble wealthy took part, and were always allowed to take part, and in leading roles too, in the political life of the democratic polis. We even find them as the instigators of ongoing democratization.
In the polis, many tasks, in the fields of religion, finance, public works, defense, jurisdiction, and so on, had to be carried out. These ranged from menial part-time jobs to crucial functions. In the 4th century BC, Athens may have had some 700 magistrates and officials, not counting the lowliest tasks. In the 5th century BC, with an empire to rule, the number of Athenian bureaucrats would have been even larger than that. If one considers the rapid turnover, it is obvious that a great manyAthenians, rich and poor, came to occupy some official position, usually for a period of one year.
In the 6th century BC, the archontes were the most important magistrates of the polis. But after the early 5th century BC, after they were chosen by lot, they lost much of their political power. While the archons remained the titular heads of the polis, power shifted to
Financial and military magistrates, who never were chosen by lot because their job called for specialist knowledge. Especially the ten army commanders, the strategoi, came to be the true leaders of the polis. In addition to their strictly military tasks, the strategoi also supervised the military training of the young citizens, the collection of the war taxes, the liturgies of a more or less military nature (the trierarchy and the gymnasiarchy), and all jurisdiction concerning military and liturgical matters. They also were involved in the sending out of colonists, the distribution of grain, and the conclusion of treaties. They were present at the meetings of the boule and enjoyed special privileges during military campaigns. In the 5th century BC, several strategoi were among the important rhetores, rhetorician-politicians who played a leading role in the political decision making of the polis. Pericles is the best known example. In the 4th century BC, when ever more professional soldiers served as strategoi, the political importance of the office again diminished.
As we just saw, for an extended period strategoi were quite influential in the polis. But their influence and power appear to have been strictly limited. A strategos had to be chosen; a strategos was subject to controls; a strategos held his position for one year only (though with the possibility of repeated re-election, in contrast with most offices for which one was chosen by lot); a strategos had colleagues; a strategos could be removed from office; and a strategos was held accountable at the ekklesia. For a strategos to become a turannos was almost impossible. The Athenian constitution safeguarded the balance between the different organs of government. The power of every single constituent part was constrained by every other constituent part. This was not owing to foresight on the part of the founding fathers of Athenian democracy; Athenian government came about as the result of ad hoc politics, but it worked well: despite a few moments of crisis, Athenian democracy kept functioning well into the second half of the 4th century BC. It guaranteed a large measure of stability, and Athens escaped the continuing civil unrest, stasis, that was the scourge of many poleis.