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PRYTANE´UM (πρυτανεῖον). The nearest approach that modern usage makes to the Prytaneum of a Greek state may be found in the town-hall or hôtel de ville; but the religious character attaching to it gave it a much higher significance, and it had also state purposes which were peculiar to cities of ancient Greece, being non-existent even at Rome, where, as will be pointed out, we have a near parallel on the religious side. The Prytaneum, so far as our evidence goes, was a requisite for every Greek state (Paus. 1.43; 5.15); but only in the capital, not in demes or villages attached to it. Its archaic history appears to be as follows. Every Greek tribal settlement of primitive times (and probably the same holds good for most nations of the world) had a common hearth in the chief's house, where the fire was scrupulously preserved, because of the difficulty in those days of procuring fire at all. To pursue this question further is unnecessary here: any book on the folk-lore and customs of almost any primitive nation will supply examples: numerous references are given in a paper on the Prytaneum by Mr. Frazer (Journal of Philology, 14.28, 1885). The perpetual maintenance of this fire was the duty of the chief, but delegated by him to daughters or slaves; in Rome, no doubt, to daughters, who reappear in history as the Vestals [VESTALES]. If the settlement was moved, the firebrand was taken carefully from the hearth and carried onward, a custom which Parkman has particularly noted in the Indian tribes of America; and similarly, if a swarm of colonists went out to settle elsewhere, they took fire with them.

What had in early times been a necessity became afterwards a religious ceremony, and accordingly, we find practically the same usage--even, as it seems, the shape of the primitive chiefs dwelling--surviving in civilised Greek and Roman states. When one state or πόλις absorbed others, which had previously had separate πρυτανεῖα, the chief town alone retained a πρυτανεῖον common to all: that is to say, a single βασιλεὺς replaced the many chiefs, and his single palace contained the common hearth for the sacred fire. That this is not mere surmise may be seen from Thuc. 2.15; Plut. Thes. 24, where we are told of the abolition of the separate πρυτανεῖα, and the establishment of the common πρυτανεῖον in the ἄστυ: and though the single ruler at Athens became βασιλεύς, and not πρύτανις, yet [p. 2.514]even this latter title in some states, as at Rhodes, continued to be the title of the chief magistrate. It is reasonable then to assume that the Prytaneum in Greek states was originally the house of the king or chief magistrate, and that similarly at Rome the temple of Vesta was once part of the king's house or Regia (see Middleton, Rome, p. 181; Frazer, op. cit.).

At Athens it is probable that there were several changes in the position of the Prytaneum before the building which Pausanias knew by that name under the northern side of the Acropolis (Paus. 1.18). Full discussions of these migrations of the state hearth will be found in E. Curtius, Attische Studien, and in an article by Schöll in Hermes, 5.340. We have little doubt, though it cannot be proved, that the original Prytaneum of the “Cecropian” city was upon the Acropolis, but of that no trace in the ground, and little, if any, in literature, has been discovered (Pollux, 9.40, however, seems to allude to this Prytaneum). It may, we think, be now considered as fairly established that the historical Prytaneum was in the old Agora of the “Theseian” city, i. e. of the city formed by the aggregation mentioned above; and this Agora must be placed to the south of the Acropolis. Here it is likely that there were both the Prytaneum or state hearth and dining-place for those state-guests who will be described hereafter, and also an original Thesmothesion for the archons to dine in.

Later on, when the city spread, and the Agora was shifted (perhaps, as Curtius thinks, by Pisistratus), the Ceramicus quarter having become the centre of Athenian life and business, the θόλος was built near the βουλευτήριον (Paus. 1.57); and there the Prytanes thenceforth dined, for the obvious reason that they could not quickly pass from their business to their meals; and in that neighbourhood also, for the convenience of the Archons, was their dining-place, the Thesmothesion: here too was the στοὰ βασίλειος, the office of the Archon Basileus, which to some extent represented the old βασιλεῖον of kingly times. A very fair inference has been drawn from the shape of the Tholus, a round building with a pointed “umbrella-shaped” roof, that it preserved the orthodox shape of the old Prytaneum; and so, further, that πρυτανεῖα represented the primitive circular wattled huts, with peaked roof and hearth in the centre, where dwelt the chief of the tribe: if this theory is correct, it will apply also to the circular temples of Vesta. At a later time, probably after the Roman conquest, the larger building was constructed which Pausanias (1.18) describes as the Prytaneum on the northern side of the Acropolis, containing the statue of Hestia, to represent the sacred hearth of the state, the statue of Peace and the remains of Solon's tables of law [NOMOS] which denoted its sovereign character, and some other statues.

There were then probably three Prytanea of different dates: (1) the oldest in the Acropolis of prehistoric times; (2) that in the old Agora, south of the Acropolis, which, even after the Tholos took part of its duties, remained as the Prytaneum of the classical age, and was still the state hearth from which fire was taken for colonies, having itself supplied the sacred fire kept also for the altar in the Tholos; and (3) the Prytaneum of Pausanias, which seems to have supplanted the older Prytaneum (No. 2) for all purposes, unless we are to conclude from the way in which Pausanias speaks of τὸ ἐν πρυτανείῳ καλούμενον δικαστήριον (1.28), that the judicial court [see PHONOS] of that name was not transferred to the new building. It may be noted that in this court, as well as in the general term of πρυτανεῖα for court fees, we seem to have a relic of the old royal or palace jurisdiction.

At Athens the πῦρ ἄσβεστον was, according to Plut. Num. 9, as also at Delphi, kept up not by vestal maidens, but by aged widows (γυναῖκες πεπαυμέναι γάμων), who perhaps represented the female slaves of the primitive chief, as the Roman Vestals represented the daughters. As regards the supply of sacred fire for colonists starting to found a new state, see above, and compare COLONIA Vol. I. p. 474.

Sitesis.--It will be convenient to describe here all the classes of persons who were entertained at the cost of the state, though it must be understood that it is entirely erroneous to suppose that they all dined in the Prytaneum--at any rate before the Roman conquest; whether they did so later is open to dispute. We cannot doubt that in the invitation to dine in the Prytaneum we have a relic of the custom that the γέροντες or chief counsellors should dine at the king's table, and that the hospitality should be extended to other honoured citizens, or distinguished visitors. This custom was not peculiar to Athens; for we have record of entertainment in the Prytaneum as belonging to various Greek towns. Athenaeus mentions it in Thasos, Naucratis, and Mitylene (i. p. 32; iv. p. 149; x. p. 425): we hear of it also at Tenedos (Pind. N. 11.8), Rhodes (Plb. 29.5), Cyzicus (Liv. 41.20), and to this list many additions can be made from inscriptions. In fact, we are brought to the conclusion that if πρυτανεῖα as state hearths were probably universal in Greek capital towns, the public entertainment of certain officials, citizens, or foreign guests was at least general.

As regards the regulations of this entertainment at Athens, we are able still to gather a good deal of evidence. Plutarch (Symrp. 4.4, 1) tells us that Celeus first had a daily entertainment of εὐδόκιμοι καὶ ἀγαθοὶ ἄνδρες. Looking to the connexion of Celeus with the Eleusinian rites, we may conjecture that this tradition is the attempt to explain the right of the Eleusinian priests to partake in the σίτησις. There is at any rate little doubt that the early rulers of Athens thus entertained three classes of persons, viz. magistrates, priests, and unofficial guests, alike distinguished Athenians and foreign princes or envoys. Those who by right of office dined with the king (or, after the end of the monarchy, dined together) were σύσσιτοι (also ἔνσιτοι): those unofficial persons, who were invited to dine besides, were παράσιτοι (cf. Plat. Lach. p. 179 C), but this word became limited to the subordinates of the priests [PARASITI]. The word ἀείσιτοι or αἴσιτοι is of later times (see below). We must carefully notice also a threefold division of place in historical times: I. the Prytaneum, in which the unofficial guests dined; II. the Thesmothesion, [p. 2.515]where the Archons dined; III. the Tholos. It is of course not impossible, as Schöll thinks, that the Archons had a separate Thesmothesion for dining in the old Agora as well as in later times; but on the whole it seems more likely that before the alteration of the Agora all alike dined together in the Prytaneum; but when, as stated above, the government offices were transferred along with the busy life of Athens to the inner Ceramicus, the division of meals began, and the Archons dined thenceforth in the Thesmothesion.

I. The meals in the Prytaneum continued as before, for (a) foreign princes and envoys of other states, the formula for whose invitation is καλέσαι τοὺς πρέσβεις ἐπὶ δεῖπνον (or ἐπὶ ξένιαεἰς τὸ πρυτανεῖον εἰς αὔριον, i. e. for the day following their audience in the assembly, and as the conclusion of their mission (Poll. 8.138; Dem. F. L. p. 350.31; [Dem.] de Halon. p. 81.20): the invitation ran in the name of the senate, βουλὴ καλεῖ (Aristoph. Ach. 124; Dem. l.c.) or the δῆμος (Dem. Polycl. p. 1210.13): Demosthenes says ἐκάλεσα (F. L. p. 414.234), as being the member of the senate who proposed it: (b) citizens who had done good service; e. g. who had returned from a successful embassy: (c) citizens honoured with this entertainment for life, the honour to which Socrates refers in his Apology. Such were (1) Olympic victors (Plat. de Rep. v. p. 465 D; Plut. Arist. 27; Athen. 6. 237) and victors in the other great games (Insc. Ephem. 29, 2). Schöll appears to be right in his view that this honour was given to an Athenian who won the chariot-race at Olympia, or the gymnic contest at any of the four games; (2) distinguished generals or statesmen (Aristoph. Kn. 709; Aeschin. F. L. § 80; Dem. Aristocr. p. 663.130); and lastly (3) the representatives of certain families, in which the honour was hereditary: thus we find it a privilege for the nearest representatives for the time being of Harmodius and Aristogeiton (Isae. de Dic. her. § 47); the nearest representatives of Demosthenes (Plut. Dem. 31).

Schöll (in Hermes, xxii. p. 561, 1887) shows that the daughters of such persons were dowered by the state.

II. The meals of the Archons, as mentioned above, were transferred to the Thesmothesion in the New Agora.

III. In the Tholos or Skias, for the same reason which made the Archons dine in the Thesmothesion, that they might be near their business, the Prytanes and certain other officials, during their tenure of office, took their meals together, after sacrifice offered at the state hearth; for the sacred fire was now in the Tholos as well as in the Prytaneum. Who these officials were may be gathered from the account of the ἀείσιτοι, though it is possible that the number of offices so privileged may have been greater in the period to which our extant lists belong than in earlier times.

The ἀείσιτοι (or αἴσιτοι) are not found under that name before the second century A.D.; and, though we cannot say when they were first so called, it is clear from Athen. 6.234 that παράσιτοι was used in that sense by a pupil of Aristotle. It must be particularly observed that αείσιτοι does not, as is often supposed, mean, those who had this privilege for life: the element ἀεὶ in the word means for the time of his office: for example, ἀεὶ γραμματεύων was ἀείσιτος. No one who studies the lists of ἀείσιτοι preserved in inscriptions can doubt this for a moment. We have a number of Prytany lists dating from the middle and latter half of the second century A.D. In these we find a list of the Prytanes, and then a separate heading ἀείσιτοι, under which came, first the Eleusinian priests, Ἱεροφάντης, δᾳδοῦχος, ἐπὶ βωμῷ, ἱεροκηρυξ, πυρφόρος (for these offices, see ELEUSINIA Vol. I. p. 721); then the lay officials connected with the Prytaneis, viz. the clerk of the βουλή, the clerk of the Prytanes (ὑπὲρ τὸ βῆμα), the keeper of records (ἀντιγραφεύς), the under-clerk, the custodian (or priest) of the Tholos ( ἐπὶ τῆς Σκιάδος)=apparently the priest of the Phosphori, and lastly the flute-player at the sacrifices (ἱεραύλης). Now in these lists it is noticeable that, whereas the Eleusinian priests, who held office beyond the year, appear under the same name in various years, this is not the case with the lay ἀείσιτοι. Take for instance the inscriptions, C. I. A. 3.1029-1032, which range from the years 165 to 169 A.D., the four lists being shown to fit these four different years. The Hierophant Flavius of 165 appears in 166; a Julius replaces him in 167 and reappears in 168; the daduchus and hieroceryx bear the same name in all four lists. But when we come to the various clerks, we find that the same name never appears in two different years--(the inscriptions 1032 and 1034 are for the same year, 168 A.D.). The same holds good of the sacred officials of the Prytanes, the ἐπὶ σκιάδος and ἱεραύλης. It may be well, however, to say a word about the former. He was apparently both the custodian of the Tholos or Skias, and also the priest who offered the daily sacrifice at the state hearth for the Prytanes. In an inscription of 180 A.D. (C. I. A. 3.1042) he is called ἱερεὺς τῶν φωσφόρων καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς Σκιάδος. Schöll explains the Phosphori as = Dioscuri, but surely it is more likely that the word should mean the Light Deities who were honoured in the torch-race [LAMPADEDROMIA], and from whom the sacred fire was derived.

The only point remaining for consideration is the condition of things in the newer Prytaneum which Pausanias describes in the second century A.D., the larger and more elaborate building north of the Acropolis, of which we have spoken above. Did the union of the separate meals follow the erection of this larger Prytaneum, so that those who were fed in the old Prytaneum and in the Tholos thenceforth amalgamated? Curtius declares that it did; Köhler (in Hermes, 5.340) denies it, and refers to the lists of the age of Pausanias, which seem to imply that the Prytanes and the ἀείσιτοι still dined apart in the Tholos. It cannot be said, however, that the lists distinctly prove this; and the view of Curtius may, after all, be correct. In other words, it is possible that the Tholos was still a sacred place for the offering on behalf of the Prytanes, with the ἐπὶ σκιάδος, as before, in charge of it, but was no longer used for their meals. (On the subject of the Prytaneum and the σίτησις, see Frazer in Journal of Philology, 14.28; Curtius, Att. Stud. ii.; Schöll in Hermes, v. and xxii.) [G.E.M]

(Appendix). Ath. Pol. 62 notes that the Athlothetae dined in the Prytaneum in the month in which the Panathenaea was celebrated, from the 4th of the month onwards. It should be observed also that this treatise (100.43) speaks of the prytanes as still dining together in the Tholos (cf. p. 515 b).

hide References (12 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (12):
    • Aristophanes, Acharnians, 124
    • Aristophanes, Knights, 709
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 1.18
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 1.43
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5.15
    • Plutarch, Aristeides, 27
    • Thucydides, Histories, 2.15
    • Polybius, Histories, 29.5
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 41, 20
    • Plutarch, Numa, 9
    • Plutarch, Theseus, 24
    • Plutarch, Demosthenes, 31
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