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Theramenes (d. 403 BC), Athenian statesman, was the adopted son of Hagnon, a prominent conservative who in 430 impeached Pericles, and after the Sicilian expedition became one of the ten probuli (commissioners) appointed to devise economies in the administration.

As a pupil of the sophist Prodicus he acquired facility in public speaking. Under his father's patronage he joined in the conservative reaction which came to a head in 411, when hopes of a Persian alliance or peace with Sparta strengthened the existing dissatisfaction with the democratic rule. Theramenes specially studied the constitutional side of this movement and formulated a new party-cry, "the constitution of our fathers."

It was no doubt largely due to his advocacy that the probuli, strengthened by further members, were commissioned to draft new measures on behalf of the public safety and to examine Cleisthenes[?]' "ancestral code." In their report the following measures were recommended:

  1. annulment of the act against promulgating illegal measures
  2. abolition of pay, save for the troops in the field and the archons;
  3. restriction of the franchise to 5000 able to serve "with person and purse"
  4. the appointment of a special board to choose the 5000.
When these proposals were passed (apparently in a packed assembly outside the walls), a Constituent Assembly of 100 was elected, nominally by the 5000, who as yet were a mere phantom body, in point of fact by the leading conspirators. The new constitution provided for a boule whose members were to be recruited by lot from all citizens above thirty; the functions of this body to be exercised by four sections succeeding one another by yearly rotation and serving without pay; all high officials to be chosen by it out of its own members. This scheme embodied the chief reforms desired by Theramenes, and marks the triumph of his policy. But before it could be carried into effect it was superseded by a "provisional constitution," which gave unlimited power to a boule of 400 (chosen by a roundabout system which favoured intrigue) and its nominees, the ten "absolute" generals. This extreme reaction displeased Theramenes, who in return began to agitate for the calling of the 5000 into real existence. Furthermore he warned Athens against the treason of the extreme oligarchs, and induced the troops to raze a mole erected to facilitate a Spartan descent on Peiraeus.

After the disaster of Eretria[?] (see Peloponnesian War), which caused the fall of the extremists and the institution of a government of "5000" (i.e. all citizens who could afford a suit of armour), Theramenes stood in high esteem. After assisting in the prosecution of his former colleagues he received the command of a squadron with which he helped to win the great victory at Cyzicus (410) and to recover the Bosporus. After the triumph of the radical democrats which followed upon these successes he lost his high command. At Arginusae[?] (406) he fought as a simple ship's captain, but after the battle was commissioned by the generals to rescue some drowning crews, an order which, with his ill-trained and exhausted troops, in a heavy storm, he was unable to carry out. For this failure the generals were severely criticized at Athens; an inquiry by the boule led to their arrest, and before the ecclesia they aggravated their case by pleading (i) that the storm made a rescue impossible, (ii) that Theramenes was to blame. Theramenes in reply brought out the implied contradiction in these statements, and in consequence the assembly condemned the accused to death and subsequently returned Theramenes general.

Late in 405 Theramenes went as plenipotentiary to Lysander to obtain peace terms; after long negotiations he proceeded to Sparta and arranged a settlement which the Athenians ratified (April 404). In spite of this peace the disorder in Athens did not abate. The restored fugitives selected five "ephors," including Critias[?], to organize a revolution, while the radicals opposed that return to the "ancestral constitution" for which Theramenes had stipulated. Hereupon Lysander returned to Athens and had a Constituent Committee elected, of whom ten members were nominees of each section. In this body Theramenes at first assumed the chief part, and the new measures rescinding the laws against the Areopagus and suppressing sycophancy were well received. But, exactly as in 411, a more violent party under Critias, forgetting its real duties, appointed an autocratic boule of its own creatures, and proceeded by judicial murders and confiscations to earn for the new government the name of "the Thirty Tyrants." Theramenes protested, and managed to get a citizen-body of 3000 admitted to a share of the government. Critias, however, fearing a renewal of the collapse of 411, disarmed the people and decided to remove Theramenes before he could create a new democratic party. The latter successfully repelled Critias' denunciation of treason, but was led away by violence and forced to take poison. His well-known gibe, "Here's to the noble Critias," attests his strength of mind at the hour of death.

Theramenes demonstrably had a definite policy throughout his career. His ideal was a return to a 6th century constitution, which his contemporaries could equally regard as a moderate oligarchy or a restricted democracy. The main features of his programme were:

  1. property qualification for franchise
  2. abolition of pay
  3. transference of some judicial powers from the popular courts to a restored Areopagus.
At times he seemed likely to succeed, but amid the violent oscillations of party he could not definitely join any one faction. Aristotle, however, discerned Theramenes' real policy, and, like Cicero and Caesar, in later years ranked him among the greatest Athenian statesmen.


The Constitution of Athens with its numerous documents affords much valuable knowledge, but does not give the inner history of 411. Thucydides viii. supplies this, but his knowledge of the constitutional side of the revolution and of Theramenes' activity is somewhat fragmentary. Xenophon (Hellenica, i., ii.) was an eye-witness in 406-403, but is clearly inaccurate in his details and prejudiced throughout. Lysias[?] (c. Eratosth. and c. Agoral) gives an avowedly hostile account of Theramenes. Diodorus xiii-, xiv., goes too far in making Theramenes a pure democrat. See also Plutarch, Cicero, chap. 59; Cicero, de Oratore, iii. 16, 59.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

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