The "Constitution of the Athenians" (Greek: Ἀθηναίων πολιτεία, Athenaion Politeia), also known as "On the Athenian State", is a short treatise on the government and society of classical Athens. Its date and authorship have been the subject of much dispute. The treatise discusses the organisation of the Athenian government, focusing particularly on the relationship between Athens' democracy and its status as a naval power.


Though the treatise was once attributed to Xenophon, amongst whose works it was preserved, it is now taken not to have been his work.[1] The author of the work is sometimes referred to as the Old Oligarch – a name first used by Gilbert Murray.[2] Scholars disagree on the author's political views. Though most see the work as sincere and the author as genuinely oligarchic, some have seen the work as an intellectual exercise by an author who does not sincerely believe the arguments that he advances.[3]

Many scholars have tried to identify Pseudo-Xenophon with a known historical figure, though these attempts “have not yielded good results”.[4] One possible author who has been frequently proposed is Critias, who would become one of the Thirty Tyrants in 404. However, there is little evidence to support this position,[5] and Critias’ philosophy does not seem to match that of the Old Oligarch: for instance, the concept of justice proposed at Constitution 1.2 differs from Critias’ ideas on the subject.[6]


Dates suggested for the Constitution of the Athenians range from as early as 443 to as late as 406 BC.[7] Most scholars favour a date sometime during the Archidamian War.[7] A frequently cited terminus ante quem for the work is Brasidas’ expedition in 424; this was suggested by Roscher as having disproved the assertion at §2.5 that land powers could not send expeditionary forces far from home. However, Harold Mattingly argues that the work could in fact postdate this, as Brasidas' expedition was a drastic exception to the rule that land powers did not mount distant expeditions.[8] In fact, Mattingly argues, there is evidence that the work was composed later than is usually thought: he argues that the festival of the Hephaistia, mentioned at §3.4, was instituted in 421/0 BC, puts the Constitution after Brasidas' expedition.[9]


After an introduction in which the author lays out his thesis that, though he may dislike the Athenian system of government, he acknowledges that it is well-designed for its own purposes, the Old Oligarch begins to discuss specific aspects of the Athenian system and how they work to advance Athenian democratic interests.[10]

The Constitution of the Athenians focuses on the interdependency between Athens’ naval supremacy and its democracy.[4] The author discusses three features he considered characteristic of the Athenian democratic system. These were that the system benefited the common people, that it allowed social vices to be common, and that it was not interested in the pursuit of eunomia (“good order”).[11]



  1. ^ Horn 1945, p. 182.
  2. ^ Norwood 1930, p. 373.
  3. ^ Roberts 2011, p. 52.
  4. ^ a b Nakategawa 1995, p. 29.
  5. ^ Horn 1945, p. 29.
  6. ^ Nakategawa 1995, p. 44.
  7. ^ a b Mattingly 1997, p. 352.
  8. ^ Mattingly 1997, p. 353.
  9. ^ Mattingly 1997, pp. 353–4.
  10. ^ Sealey 1973, pp. 255–256.
  11. ^ Nakategawa 1995, pp. 33–34.

Works cited

  • Horn, Robert C. (1945). "The Constitution of the Athenians". The Classical Weekly. 38 (23): 182–183. doi:10.2307/4342124. JSTOR 4342124.
  • Mattingly, Harold B. (1997). "The Date and Purpose of the Pseudo-Xenophon Constitution of Athens". The Classical Quarterly. 47 (2): 352–357. doi:10.1093/cq/47.2.352.
  • Nakategawa, Yoshio (1995). "Athenian Democracy and the Concept of Justice in Pseudo-Xenophon's "Athenaion Politeia"". Hermes. 123 (1): 28–46. JSTOR 4477057.
  • Norwood, Gilbert (1930). "The Earliest Prose Work of Athens". The Classical Journal. 25 (5).
  • Roberts, Jennifer Tolbert (2011). Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9781400821327.
  • Sealey, Raphael (1973). "The Origins of "Demokratia"". California Studies in Classical Antiquity. 6: 253–295. doi:10.2307/25010657. JSTOR 25010657.\