The Boule (The Senate)

The Athenian legislature also included a deliberative body known as the Boule. It was made up of 500 members -- 50 from each of the 10 tribes -- who were chosen by lot and served for the period of one year. The Boule would meet every day except festival days and propose legislation which was then ratified by all the citizens in the Ekklesia.

The Old Bouleuterion, about SOO B.C. Model by Fetros Demetriades and Kostas Papoulias. Athens, Agora Museum. Excavations have revealed the foundations of a nearly square building (23.30 m. X 23.80 m.), with a cross wall dividing the structure into a main chamber and entrance vestibule. The main room probably had five supports, although the foundations for only three have been found. There is no trace of seats, but they might be restored as rectilinear tiers of wooden benches on three sides.

The Boule met in a building known as the Bouleuterion, which lay along the west side of the Agora square. It originally dated to the years around 500 B.C. and had simple wooden seating sufficient to accommodate the 500 members. During the first century of its use, it served also as a display area for numerous important documents, laws, and treaties:

Nevertheless I still wish you to hear the words on the stone in the Bouleuterion concerning traitors and those who attempt to overthrow the democracy.... These words, gentlemen, they inscribed on the stone, and this stone they set up in the Bouleuterion (Lykourgos, [Speech] Against Leokrates 124, 126).

In the late 5th century a new Bouleuterion, immediately adjacent to the old one, was built to house the 500 senators. The Old Bouleuterion was then given over entirely to archival storage.

Fragment of a marble basin, about 500 B.C. L.: 0.235 m. Athens, Agora Museum I 4869. The fragment preserves part of an inscription around the rim which reads: ΟΒΟΛΕΥ, "of the Bouleuterion", indicating ownership of the basin by the Senate, or Boule. It was found just south of the foundations of the Old Bouleuterion.

A fragmentary marble basin or perirrhanterion, marked as belonging to the Bouleuterion, presumably held the holy water in which the Athenians were accustomed to wash or dip their hands before entering any sacred space. Like most Athenian public buildings, the Bouleuterion was under the protection of the gods.

The deities of the Boule were Zeus Boulaios, Athena Boulaia, and Hestia (goddess of the hearth) Boulaia. Despite the religious aspects of the building, violence and sacrilege occurred occasionally during troubled political times, as in 404/3 B.C.:

Theramenes leaped to Hestia Boulaia... [and] he was torn from the altars by those who had been so instructed and dragged through the middle of the Agora to his death (Diodoros Siculos 14.4.7, 5.3).

The Boule had a wide range of concerns and duties, such as overseeing the performance of magistrates, ensuring a sufficient food supply, and defending the country including maintaining the fleet. Elections and much of the financial administration were also under the control of the Boule.

Reconstruction drawing of a meeting -in the Bouleuterion. Drawing by Richard Anderson. Agora Museum Archives.
Excavations in the Athenian Agora are conducted by the American School of Classical Studies.
Primary funding is provided by the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI).