Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.05.24

Deborah Boedeker, Kurt Raaflaub, Democracy, Empire and the Arts in Fifth-century Athens.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press , 1998.  Pp. viii, 504.  ISBN 0-674-19769-0.  $50.00.  

Reviewed by Simon Hornblower, University College London
Word count: 2702 words


Deborah Boedeker, Eric Csapo, Jeffrey Henderson, Tonio Hölscher, Lisa Kallet, Lisa Maurizio, Margaret Miller, Ian Morris, Kurt Raaflaub, Christopher Rowe, Suzanne Said, Alan Shapiro, Robert Wallace, Harvey Yunis

This big and important book, consistently interesting and well-edited, addresses a central problem. Fifth-century Athens was a democracy, and an imperial power. What was the connexion between these two characteristics on the one hand and the city's artistic achievement on the other?

The book appears with impressive speed, only three years after the conference on which it was based, held at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC in August 1995. There is however no sign of haste: not only is the presentation virtually immaculate, but immense care has evidently gone into the arduous job of integrating the contributions and eliciting further responses from contributors and others (note for instance the letter from Eric Csapo quoted at pp. 425f. and dated November 5 1997). There are fourteen names in the list of contributors; twelve are teachers in North American universities, one is from Germany (Tonio Hölscher) and one from the UK (Christopher Rowe). There is however nothing parochially North American about the flavour of the book. On the contrary, it is intercontinental in its approach (just as its contributors are, see below, fair-mindedly scrupulous in their efforts to be panhellenic not Atheno-centric in their discussions). Thus for example Suzanne Said's chapter on 'tragedy and politics' in effect rebukes modern American interpreters of Greek drama for ignoring the contributions of Italian Marxist critics of the 1970's and 1980's (p. 282). The range of expertise drawn on is wide, and this is the place to notice that the word 'arts' in the title is a little misleading in that there is no restriction to the visual or performing arts. Rhetoric (Yunis), philosophy (Christopher Rowe), the sophists (Wallace) and historiography (Boedeker) are all the subjects of separate chapters. One can sympathise with the editors' presumed wish to avoid the slippery word 'culture' (though see p. 8, foot) but in fact the book's subject is really classical Athens considered as a cultural phenomenon. (Even the restriction to the fifth century is not total because Rowe manages to smuggle in Plato.)

The introduction (ch. 1) honestly states a preliminary difficulty before the book is allowed to get on to the main problem stated in the first paragraph above. Granted that modern students assume a connexion between empire+democracy and artistic achievement, it is a strange fact that the contemporary -- as opposed to fourth-century and later -- sources do not boast of the cultural achievement. Boedeker and Raaflaub are certainly correct here; in particular they rightly agree with Christian Habicht's political rather than cultural interpretation of the famous claim of Thucydides' Pericles that Athens was paideusis tes hellados (2.41.1): Athen in hellenistischer Zeit (Munich, 1994) 230. Boedeker and Raaflaub's negative conclusion ("the Athenians' pride in their accomplishments rested more on military victories and imperial power than on culture and the arts", p.8) is picked up in later chapters. Thus "apart from the Tyrannicides, only Persian War leaders received public commemoration in art" (Eric Csapo and Margaret Miller, pp. 118f.; see Boedeker p.193 where this conclusion is qualified slightly); see also Hölscher 181f. on the rarity at Athens of monuments other than those which recorded "those concrete heroic accomplishments in war that accorded so well with the traditional agonistic values".

Raaflaub's authoritative and judicious ch. 2 ("the transformation of Athens in the fifth century") plugs the gaps or perceived gaps in the rest of the volume, such as warfare, economic developments, society (including women and slaves) and religion (five excellent pages). If religion and women really did not feature in the rest of the book at all, that would be grounds for complaint, but in fact women are discussed elsewhere, though less than some readers will wish. They are there, in Lisa Maurizio's chapter 14 on the Panathenaic procession. As for religion, it too gets in via the Panathenaic procession, but it is also prominent in Alan Shapiro's ch. 6 on authochthony.

Lisa Kallet brings financial acumen, characteristic scepticism of received views, and wide knowledge to ch. 3, 'accounting for culture'. The most remarkable new suggestion here is that the Athenian demos was not only a tyrant in its relations to the allies (well-known ancient sources concede as much), but was a big-spending megaloprepes tyrant in the way it spent money on the city; in fact it was a domestic tyrant. Kallet sees this as a "more positive construction" of the tyrannical role (p. 54). This is an intriguing suggestion, notwithstanding the obvious consideration that most of the same fifth-century Athenians were so keen on their tyrannicides (Hölscher 160 and Boedeker 190, with acknowledgement to Rosalind Thomas: "everyone's ancestors were staunchly anti-tyrannical". For some not-so-keen Athenians see Boedeker p.202). At p.57 Kallet cites Alcibiades' stress, as reported by Thucydides, on his liturgies; this may need some refining in view of a study too recent for her to have drawn on, Paul Millett in C. Gill and others Reciprocity in ancient Greece (1998) 227-52 at 244ff., who argues that Alcibiades' statements cannot be taken to illustrate elite behaviour in the later fifth century.

Ian Morris, who is less concerned with "high art" than with housing and funerary habits, looks at Argos, Eretria, Corinth and Macedonia and (basing himself on some rather indigestibly presented archaeological material) finds identical "cycles of display and restraint" (p. 81) to those at Athens: restraint in the fifth century, ostentation in the fourth. He thus raises acutely a problem of exceptionalism touched on elsewhere in the book. For instance Alan Shapiro rightly notes (p. 131) that the Athenians were not the only ones with an 'autochthony' myth: there is the Theban myth of the "sown men", and we can add the "acorn-eating" Arcadians. Again, Robert Wallace in his valuable ch. 9 protests against the usual view which associates the sophists too exclusively with Athens.

Csapo and Miller's chapter on 'politics of time and narrative' is one of the most ambitious and challenging in the book, and therefore it is a compliment to say that it is probably the one which will provoke most disagreement. It contains some splendid pages about artistic innovation in the fifth century. The authors distinguish between archetypal thought and what they call phenotypal thought, where phenotypes are concerned with the "empirical, sensory, relativistic and provisional: (p. 102, which should be added to the index under 'Phenotype"). Csapo/Miller think that the development from archetypal to phenotypal thought corresponds to that from archaic thought to classical thought, from preoccupation with the past to preoccupation with the future, from predetermination to self-determination, from proleptic/analeptic narrative to chronological narrative of the Thucydidean sort. One immediately tries thinking of exceptions to this schema, and indeed it works only very crudely for Thucydides himself (casual anticipation of the plague at 2.31, and of the post-Sicilian war at 4.81, not to mention the mother and father of all Thucydidean prolepses, namely 2.65). But all in all this is an enormously stimulating chapter, which ends with a provocative comparison between fifth-century innovations and the emergence of the modern novel (here it seems to me that the nineteenth-century Russian novels fit the generalizations imperfectly).

Alan Shapiro's handsomely-illustrated ch. 6 gathers and well discusses the evidence for autochthony and the visual, properly noting what is absent as well as what as what is present. For instance he notes that it still seems to be true that "in spite of Euripides, there is not a single certain representation of Ion in Athenian art" (p. 145). About Ion's father Apollo, Shapiro remarks (144) that the "belated entry of Apollo into Athenian genealogy came, ironically, at a time when the god's key role as patron of the Delian League had already been superseded by that of Athena as Reichsgöttin". The word "superseded" here is much too strong, in view of e.g. the implications of Thucydides 3.104 (Delos in the 420's); on this issue Shapiro seems unaccountably to have changed his mind since his different and I would say far preferable account in his contribution to P. Hellström and T. Linders (eds.) Religion and power in the ancient Greek world (1996) at 103ff. I note finally one minor slip: Shapiro says at 379 n. 35 that "Thucydides does not use the word autochthon", but this is incorrect, however it be taken. Th. has the word, at 6.2.2 (the Sikans), and he has the concept of Athenian autochthony, at 1.2.5 and 2.36.1; the second of these passages is admittedly from a speech, but the first is not. Perhaps Shapiro means that it is significant that Thucydides does not use the word autochthon about Athens, but it is not easy to think quite why this avoidance should be significant. At most I suppose one could say that what we have here is another argument for Dover's idea that 6.2-5 is from Antiochus on the grounds that it contains some untypical expressions.

I have already, more than once, mentioned Hölscher's admirable survey of images and political identity (ch. 7). He concedes that Sparta may have rivalled Athens in the extent to which it housed monuments which "focused ... on the city's glory in the Persian Wars" (p. 182; note again the scrupulous avoidance of Athenian special pleading). But he concludes that Athens was distinctive in "the sheer quantity and the ambitious scale of artistic achievements" (p. 183) and that the explanation is to be sought not only in the availability of lavish financial resources but in a "balancing act without net ... between euphoric self-assertion and profound self-doubt". In this chapter, as elsewhere in the book (e.g. p. 129 and n. 24), I note the curious omission of Michael Jameson's important study of the aggressive implications of the iconography of the Nike parapet (see Ritual Finance Power: Democratic Studies ... David Lewis (1994), 307-24).

Deborah Boedeker's perceptive chapter on 'presenting the past' develops some themes of the two preceding chapters, examining as it does both the visual evidence for the celebration of the Persian Wars, and the shift from a "timeless" to a "historical" way of using the past. Athenians, she suggests, were "timelessly" preoccupied with past, especially Persian War, deeds (too much so for their own good?), and this is part of the reason why "Athens did not play a more prominent role in the beginnings of historiography (p. 196); the contribution of Herodotus and Thucydides was to connect Athens' present "more causally, and sometimes more ironically, to its past" (p. 202).

Wallace as we have seen denies a special connection between sophists on the one hand and Athens+democracy on the other, though allowing that in the period before 430 "some of the sophists proved useful in democratic Athens"; thereafter their views became more extreme and they were regarded as more of a nuisance. This final and more tense phase of the fifth century is also examined by Harvey Yunis. Unlike many of the contributors, who as we have seen are at pains to recognise non-Athenian developments in their subjects, Yunis (in this agreeing with Thomas Cole) brushes aside those two mysterious Syracusan pioneers Tisias and Korax. Rhetoric became a techne in the full sense only with Plato (p. 228). There are valuable remarks on the "intermediate" figure of Thucydides (p. 239), who is seen as having one foot in the political world of the fifth century and the other in the literary world of the fourth. Yunis sees Thucydides as constituting a "crucial stage in the emergence of rhetoric" even though he did not have a conceptual apparatus to analyze language such as that developed by Plato and Aristotle. (For this last point see Cole Origins of rhetoric 110-11, but it now needs qualifying in view of June Allison, Word and Concept in Thucydides, 1997).

Christopher Rowe (ch. 11) argues convincingly that Plato's best state has more in common with democracy than with oligarchy, or rather that it was a "paradigm of what democracy should have been but in his view was not" (p. 252). Still staying with critics of the democracy, Jeffrey Henderson (ch. 12) reviews the restrictions on frank speech by comic poets, and concludes that all speech was allowed so long as it did not threaten the democracy or impede its processes. I miss a reference to the material on political censorship in the 1988 printing of Gould and Lewis' revision of Pickard-Cambridge, Dramatic Festivals of Athens p. 364. Suzanne Said's tragedy and politics chapter (13) is an extremely valuable and nuanced review of modern approaches to tragedy, distinguishing carefully between construction, endorsement and questioning of civic ideology. She notes the consensus (tragedy as political) which has built up over the past two decades, and a recent warning that it is in danger of becoming a "disabling cliché"; this phrase is attributed to Seaford, Reciprocity and ritual (1994) 203, but the reference does not seem to be right. In any case see now, for a full-length protest against the consensus, J. Griffin CQ 1998, 39-61. Said's chapter ends with perceptive accounts of Theban plays by each of the three great dramatists. And so to Lisa Maurizio (ch.14) on the Panathenaic procession; she ably brings out both its exclusive and its inclusive aspects.

The bibliography takes up no less than 65 pages of the book, and will itself be an extremely useful resource. The only blemish I have found is on p. 483 where Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood's name has disappeared so that her five entries are all introduced by a dash. I was surprised to see one book listed, with 1999 publication date and name of prestigious publisher, which I refereed myself as recently as December 1998, and I happen to know that another referee was reading it later still. This seems presumptuous on someone's part. Finally, some books are listed out of an understandable desire to be absolutely up-to-date even when it is at least once frankly acknowledged that no use could actually be made of them. See for instance p. 425 n.62 , about two edited volumes published in 1997, Pat Easterling's Companion to Greek tragedy and Christopher Pelling's Greek tragedy and the historian. This is fine in a way, but it it is perhaps less than fair to contributors who might have liked, and might be assumed to have been able, to make use of an item which appears in the bibliography; I think for instance of Peter Wilson on the choregia in the Pelling volume, which is very relevant to Kallet's chapter.

Boedeker and Raaflaub, who have already given us one brief summary of the papers in ch.1, do the same job at greater and more ruminative length, and attempt some conclusions, in the closing ch. 15. Noone, even from contributors of this quality, is going to look for new and grand explanations of such intensely studied phenomena as the themes of this book. In the preface to the fifth-century volume of the new Cambridge Ancient History (1992), David Lewis simply threw up his hands in despair: "why the Athenian citizen-body itself commanded a gene-pool of such potentiality is beyond us" (p. xiv). What do the editors of the present volume say, after agonizing about all these issues harder and longer than any of their readers or even their individual contributors have done or are ever likely to do? (Such is the fate of editors.) Hölscher's conclusion, already quoted above, seems to underlie the opening words of their final verdict, which is that "triumph alternating with uncertainty, boosted by unprecedented wealth and power, compelled the highly politicized Athenian citizens collectively to boast of their achievements and to implore the gods to support their city on its ride through uncharted waters" (p. 343). But they go on, surely rightly, to deny that "a single, let alone a simple, answer" can be found; some disciplines flowered earlier than others, some were directly linked to the democracy whereas others were not. This may not be an exciting conclusion but it is as good as we are going to get for a long time. The greatest strength of this book, in my view, is that unlike so many rhapsodic treatments of the Athenian cultural miracle, it never allows itself for a moment to forget to compare developments elsewhere. That must be in some degree be a tribute to the outstanding job the editors have done.

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