Boule (ancient Greece)

In the cities of ancient Greece, the "boule" (Greek: βουλή, plural βουλαί or "boulai" from the ancient Greek verb βούλομαι ("boulomai") meaning "to will" (after deliberating); Latin: "volo") was a council of citizens (called βουλευταί transliterated as "bouleutai") appointed to run daily affairs of the city. Originally a council of nobles advising a king, "boulai" evolved according to the constitution of the city; in oligarchies "boule" positions might be hereditary, while in democracies members were typically chosen by lot, and served for one year.

Little is known about the workings of many "boulai", except in the case of Athens, for which extensive material has survived.

The Athenian Boule

The original council of Athens was the Areopagus. It consisted of ex-archons and was aristocratic in character.

olonian Boule

The Athenian "boule", with its distinctive advisory function, is thought to have been established by the archon Solon in 594 BC. Originally it was made up of 400 men, 100 from each of the four traditional tribes of Athens. Very little is known about how the "boule" functioned at this time and its existence has even been doubted. However, evidence for its existence is as secure as evidence for other sixth century institutions.

The Reforms of Cleisthenes

Under the reforms of Cleisthenes enacted in 508/7 BC, the "boule" was expanded to 500 men, 50 men from each of the ten new tribes, also created by Cleisthenes. The 500 men were chosen at the "deme" level, each "deme" having been allotted certain number of places proportional to population. Membership was restricted at this time to the top three of the original four property classes (the "Pentacosiomedimni", Hippeis and Zeugitae, but not the "Thetes") and to citizens over the age of thirty. The former restriction, though never officially changed, fell out of practice by the middle of the fifth century BC. Members of the "boule" served for one year and no man could serve more than twice in his life. The leaders of the "boule" (the "prytany") consisted of 50 men chosen from among the 500, and a new "prytany" was chosen every month. The man in charge of "prytany" was replaced every day from among the 50 members. The "boule" met every day except for festival days and ill-omened days.

The "Boule" in the Democracy of the late Fifth Century

After the reforms of Ephialtes and Pericles in the mid-5th century BC, the "boule" took on many of the administrative and judicial functions of the Areopagus, which retained its traditional right to try homicide cases. It supervised the state's finances, navy, cavalry, sacred matters, building and shipping matters and care for invalids and orphans. Its own members staffed many boards that oversaw the finer points of these many administrative duties. It undertook the examination of public officials both before and after leaving office (most offices lasting one year) to ensure honest accounting and loyalty to the state. It heard some cases of impeachment of public officials for high crimes and mismanagement or serious dereliction of duties. At some point in the late fifth century, pay was instituted for those serving in the "boule"; this may have been a way to encourage poorer citizens to volunteer, who would otherwise be reluctant to serve. The "boule" was considered the cornerstone of the democratic constitution, providing a locus for day to day activities and holding together the many disparate administrative functions of the government. Because of the rotation of members, it was assumed that the "boule" was free from the domination of factions of any kind, although there is some evidence that richer citizens served out of proportion to poorer citizens. This may be due to the heavy investment of time required, time that poorer citizens would not have had to spare.

"Boulai" in other Greek Cities


In Sparta the functions usually associated with the "boule" were performed by the "gerousia", the council of elders. As might be expected, members of the "gerousia" were older, over sixty,came from the leading families and served for life. The "gerousia" served the familiar advisory functions of a boule, in addition to trying important criminal cases, supervising laws and customs and perhaps playing some role in foreign wars


*Aristotle. "Constitution of Athens" 4.3, 46.1, 62.3
*Hignett, Charles. "A History of the Athenian Constitution" (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958).
*Jones, A.H.M. "Athenian Democracy" (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1957).
*Rhodes, P.J. "The Athenian Boule" (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1972).
*Struble, Robert, Jr. "Treatise on Twelve Lights", chapter six, subsection entitled [ "Ancient Greece."]

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