Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Classical Dictionary. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 27 November 2022



  • Arnold Wycombe Gomme
  •  and P. J. Rhodes


  • Greek Law

Archontes (‘rulers’), the general Greek term for all holders of office in a state. But the word was frequently used as the title of a particular office, originally at least the highest office of the state. Archontes are found in most states of central Greece, including Athens, and in states dependent on or influenced by Athens.

In Athens by the 6th cent. bce there were nine annually appointed archons. The powers of the original hereditary king (basileus) came to be shared among three officials: the basileus, who retained particularly the religious duties; the archōn, who became the civilian head of state; and the polemarchos (‘war-ruler’), who commanded the army. (The Athenians believed that there had been a gradual transition from kings through life archons and ten-year archons to annual archons; annual archons allegedly began c.683/2 bce.) Six thesmothetai (‘statute-setters’), judicial officials, were added to the original three; and in the 5th or 4th cent. the board was made up to ten with the addition of the secretary to the thesmothetai, so that one could be appointed from each of Cleisthenes (2)'s ten tribes (phylai). Whether direct election was retained throughout the 6th cent. is disputed; from 487/6 the method used was klērōsis ek prokritōn, allotment from an elected short list; and at a later date allotment replaced election for the first stage. See sortition. By the early 5th cent. the two highest property classes (pentakosiomedimnoi and hippeis (4)) were eligible for appointment, and in 457/6 eligibility was extended to the third class, the zeugitai. Almost certainly, a man could only be a member of the board of archons once in his life; after his year of office he became a member of the council of the Areopagus for the remainder of his life.

In the 6th cent., and presumably before, the archons and in particular the one entitled archōn were the most important officials of the Athenian state. Solon was archōn when he was commissioned to reform the state in 594/3, and it is a sign of continuing trouble afterwards that there were years when no archōn was appointed and that an archōn called Damasias refused to retire at the end of his year. Hippias (1) was archōn in the first available year (526/5) after the death of his father Pisistratus. However, the creation by Cleisthenes of ten stratēgoi (‘generals’), appointed annually by election and eligible for re-election, began a process by which in the 5th cent. the generals became the most important Athenian officials while the archons became routine officials.

In the later 5th and 4th cent. the archons' duties were particularly religious and judicial: earlier they had given verdicts on their own account, but now they conducted the preliminary enquiry (anakrisis) and presided in the jury-court which decided the verdict. The archōn was responsible for a number of religious festivals, and for lawsuits concerning family matters. The basileus was responsible for the largest number of religious matters, and for homicide suits. The polemarchos was responsible for some festivals, including the games in honour of those who had died in war, and for lawsuits involving non-citizens. The thesmothetai were responsible for the system of jury-courts as a whole, and for most ‘public’ lawsuits (in which any citizen might prosecute). In the elaborate organization of the court system developed in the 4th cent. all ten members of the board were involved in the selection of the jurors who were to serve each day, each supervising the procedure in his own tribe.

By the end of the 5th cent. it had become standard practice to identify each year by its archōn, and so he is sometimes referred to as the eponymous archōn, but that expression is not found in Greek texts until the Roman period.


  • Athenaion politeia 3; 8. 1–2; 22. 5; 26. 2; 55–9; 63–6.
  • R. K. Sinclair, Democracy and Participation in Athens (1988).
  • D. L. Stockton, The Classical Athenian Democracy (1990), 108–111.
  • M. H. Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (1991).