Ancient and modern

MPs should be grateful not to be in ancient Athens

If they feel hounded now…

19 April 2014

9:00 AM

19 April 2014

9:00 AM

If the continuing rows over the expenses and lifestyles of certain MPs cast all of them in a bad light, it is a mystery why decent members do not take action to hasten the exit of their more shameless colleagues. If they do not, then the press will continue to hound them — but not half as hard as ancient Greeks hounded their officials, and not just officials either.

Plato’s ideal republic was ruled by ideal guardians, but as he admitted, man’s nature ensured he would have to settle for second best: decree and law. Even critics of Athenian radical democracy, where the people (male citizens over 18) in Assembly were sovereign, agreed that the system worked remarkably well because of the accountability to which both the Assembly and the courts ensured officials and citizens were subject.


First, all officials, whether appointed by election or lot, had effectively to hand over their property and civic freedom to the state. Then they underwent dokimasia — a scrutiny of basic civic requirements, such as treatment of parents, payment of taxes, fulfilment of military obligations and production of legitimate children. Any citizen could at this stage lodge an objection.

Every five weeks during his year of office, the official would be subject to a performance audit. Any vote of no confidence by the Assembly would result in the official standing down until cleared. At the same Assembly, any citizen too could be accused of conduct prejudicial to the state’s interest, e.g. treason, bribery and so on. Quite right: a citizen who persuaded the sovereign Assembly to take a disastrous course of action needed to be punished for it.

Finally, at the end of his term of office, an official had to present his records for a full audit of his conduct by public accountants. Finances, decision-making and results would be scrutinised and, again, any citizen could lodge a complaint. Only when fully cleared could an official honourably lay down office, reassume control of his property (etc) and take up normal civilian life.

On balance, MPs would probably prefer hounding by the press.

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  • elainedecoulos

    Just brilliant. So proud to be Greek!

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