Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.7.23


Josiah Ober and Charles Hedrick (edd.), Demokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996 (on verso of title page but in fact 1997). Pp. xix + 466. $65.00. ISBN 0-691-01109-5 (hb); $24.95. 0-691-01108-7 (pb).

Contributors: Benjamin R. Barber, Alan Boegehold, Paul Cartledge, Susan Guettel Cole, W. Robert Connor, Carol Dougherty, J. Peter Euben, Mogens Herman Hansen, Victor D. Hanson, Carnes Lord, Philip Brook Manville, Ian Morris, Martin Ostwald, Kurt A. Raaflaub, Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, Barry S. Strauss, Robert W. Wallace, Sheldon S. Wolin, Ellen Meiksins Wood.


Reviewed by P. J. Rhodes, Department of Classics, University of Durham.

Books prompted by the 2,500th anniversary of Cleisthenes' reforms in Athens are continuing to appear, and this is the latest of them. It originated in a conference held in 1993 in Washington, D.C., which was intended "to further the project ... of applying insights gained from political and social theory to problems in Greek history, and in turn using the historical Greek experience of democracy as a resource for building normative political theory"; the papers have been substantially revised, as a result of discussion at the conference and subsequently. Few of the papers directly address the declared aim, but the aim is clearly apparent in the background of most of them. Many topics are discussed by two or more contributors, and to encourage the reader to pursue these cases of interaction the index singles them out in bold type.

Ober and Hedrick begin the book with a short Introduction, in which they first explain the book's origin and stress that the book records a dialogue and is intended to provoke further dialogue, and that the contributors do not speak with a single voice, and then summarise the contributions and the part which they play in the book as a whole.

The substance of the book is then divided into two Parts, of which the first is entitled "Liberty, Equality and Law". First Morris detects two rival traditions, an elitist and a "middling", in Greek poetry from the eighth century to the sixth, and with the aid of archaeology he tries to trace the fortunes of the two traditions, and to argue that by the end of the sixth century the elitist ideology was in disarray and the Greeks were ready to adopt democratic constitutions when prompted by suitable circumstances. Ostwald contrasts the Greek view of a citizen as one who shares in the community with the American view of a citizen as one who has rights on which not even the state may encroach. Wolin stresses that in Athenian democracy the demos became a true actor and enlarged the concept of the political in ways which affected even opponents of democracy such as Plato and Aristotle; he ends by contrasting the active Athenian democracy with the passive "electoral democracy" of our time.

Hansen argues that the concepts of liberty held by democratic Athens and by modern liberal democrats are not so dissimilar as it is currently fashionable to think, but that in spite of the similarity the modern concept has an independent origin and is not derived from the ancient. Wallace notes that, although in theory an ancient Athenian's freedoms were less secure than a modern American's, because Athens had no Bill of Rights to guarantee them, they were no less secure in practice because the Athenian state did not interfere with individual freedom except when it perceived a threat to the state, and there are many areas of private life (such as drinking alcohol) where Athens did not see a need to interfere but the paternalistic modern state does. Wood, in response to Hansen, stresses the differences between the freedom which banausoi enjoyed in Athens and the freedom of the higher-ranking citizens who rule in the name of the banausoi in a modern representative democracy, and stresses that for men like the founding fathers of the U.S.A. democracy was a negative precedent, an example to be avoided.

Raaflaub, starting with the equalities which were asserted by Athenian democracy, traces the development of these equalities in the Archaic world of the hoplite citizen, and ends by emphasising that, even in fifth-century Athens, the thetes did not in practice enjoy full equality. Cartledge likewise remarks that the equality which democratic Athens proclaimed in theory was tempered in practice, but goes on to remind us that Athenian practice was still much more egalitarian than Spartan practice. Roberts reflects on the excessive belief that democratic Athens had total equality which in recent centuries has been common to the perception of Athens from many different viewpoints. Boegehold ends Part I by putting together a number of Athenian texts linked by the theme that changing the laws is in itself undesirable.

Part II, entitled "Civil Education and the Education of Citizens", is more varied in its contents. Connor, who a few years ago suggested that the Great Dionysia was instituted after the fall of the tyranny as a festival of freedom, now suggests that Cleisthenes deliberately used the topsy-turvydom of Dionysiac worship to challenge the norms of aristocratic society. Cole spells out the procedures for oath-taking and examines the part played by oath-taking in Athenian public life, stressing that as only men were citizens only men could swear the oaths sworn by citizens. Dougherty contrasts the aristocratic representation of Athens as mother-city of the Ionians with the more democratic view, which developed in the fifth century, of the Athenians as autochthonous; she argues that Euripides in his Ion reconciles the two viewpoints, and uses Delphi as the place where problems are resolved.

Hanson defends the view of hoplites as a middle class, and looks at the ways in which democratic Athens persuaded its hoplites to side with the thetes rather than with the rich aristocrats: Athens continued to rely on hoplites (though not always in set-piece battles) while relying also on sailors; the empire brought prosperity for all, not only for the poor; democratic ideology praised the hoplites, and at the end of the fifth century the hoplites showed their acceptance of democracy by failing to support the oligarchic revolutionaries. Strauss goes beyond the familiar association of naval power with democracy to suggest that the experience of serving in a trireme helped to give the thetes their solidarity and self-confidence, and that the failure of our evidence to do justice to the thetes may reflect the biases of the evidence rather than the reality of the thetes' position in Athens.

Euben, with one eye fixed firmly on the controversies of present-day America, argues with particular reference to the Gorgias that philosophical dialogue is a democratic activity, and that Plato and the Platonic Socrates are not as straightforwardly anti-democratic as is commonly assumed, but may be understood as educating readers to be more critical, and therefore better, citizens of a democratic community. Barber, to my mind justifiably, finds Euben's position clever but perverse, and restates the contrast between Socratic-Platonic philosophy as a search for certain truth and democracy as a procedure to be followed where there is no certain truth.

Finally Manville, in a paper which (it appears from the Introduction) startled many people at the conference and is likely to startle many readers, compares democratic Athens not with the modern state but with the modern knowledge-based profit-making or non-profit-making organisation, whose members are expected to be enthusiastic participants rather than employees who know their place.

What does all this add up to? In its double preoccupation with ancient Athens and the present-day U.S.A. the book resembles, and to a considerable extent is the work of the same people as, Euben et al. (edd.), Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy (which I reviewed in CR 2 xlv 1995, 317-8). In this book, though the problems of the U.S.A. are prominent in a few contributions and visible behind most of the others, there is far more meat than in the earlier book for the reader whose primary interest is in Athens. Most of the contributions are of high quality and likely to inspire fruitful further thought; the ones which most impressed me are those of Morris and Connor, which are speculative but stimulating, and those of Raaflaub and Hanson, which make particularly important contributions to our understanding of Athenian democracy.