Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.09.17

Eric W. Robinson, The First Democracies. Early Popular Government Outside Athens. Historia Einzelschriften 107.   Stuttgart:  F. Steiner, 1997.  Pp. 144.  

Reviewed by Mogens Herman Hansen, The Copenhagen Polis Centre
Word count: 3491 words

The principal purpose of this book is to take issue with the widespread opinion that the Athenians invented democracy (p.9 n. 4), and that the true form of demokratia was the type of constitution introduced only some decades after the reforms of Kleisthenes, i.e., by the reforms of Ephialtes (35).

Chapter 1

The first chapter is an introduction devoted to the definition of democracy. I note that Wolfgang Schuller in his review of Robinson's book finds the chapter superfluous.1 Schuller is perhaps right, but I know for sure that if Robinson had not written the chapter he would have been severely criticised by I don't know how many other reviewers for not offering a definition of what he meant by "democracy". And the chapter is not devoid of interest. In the first section (13-16) Robinson sensibly distinguishes between democracy as a set of political institutions and democracy as a set of political ideals (13). His book is principally about democracy as a form of government; and, being an American citizen, he focuses almost exclusively on liberal democracy; but -- that said -- I find it perfectly reasonable that, among the innumerable Anglophone books on democracy, he chooses Robert Dahl's Democracy and Its Critics (1989) as both authoritative and typical of the modern (western) understanding of what democracy is (15, 31).

Robinson notes, correctly, that Robert A. Dahl's four first democratic principles fit both direct and representative democracy and, in fact, direct democracy better than representative! (31). I also appreciate Robinson's comments on the question "who are the people?" (14, 32): if one insists on "the rule of the whole of the people" being a sine qua non of democracy and infers that Athenian demokratia was not a democracy because the full citizens constituted a minority of the population, then one has to infer, too, that USA was not a democracy in the 19th century, for the American citizens constituted only a minority of the population due to the exclusion of all women and a large proportion of the black males. As for modern democracy, Robinson reminds us (note 67) that "modern Germany hosts a large Gastarbeiter (population with limited rights)."2

All the way through Robinson is judiciously aware of the fact that the modern concept of democracy has a long history spanning from the second half of the 18th century to the present day. Let me just add a few observations: according to the 7th edn. of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1842) s.v. democracy, "the most perfect example of democracy is afforded by the United States of North America at the present day" (i.e., when there were still slaves, and women had no political rights). And when President Wilson on 3 April 1917 talked about "making the world safe for democracy" none of the democratic states he had in mind was a true democracy, but rather an oligarchy of citizens, viz., a state ruled by a minority of adult male citizens, like the ancient, medieval and early modern examples of democracy. On the other hand, around the turn of the century a surprisingly high percentage of American citizens did in fact take an active part in the election of president and congressmen, whereas today less than 50% of the citizens cast their vote; and in midterm congressional elections participation comes, at most, to a third of all voters. So, if one insists on democracy being the rule of the whole of the people, the USA has, once again, become an oligarchy and does not deserve any longer to be called a democracy.3

In the second section (16-25) Robinson investigates possible forerunners to Greek democracy and dismisses Thorkild Jacobsen's case for a Sumerian democracy whereas he devotes a longer section to democratic government in India north of the Ganges River in the first millennium B.C. in the so-called mahajanapada states.

The third section (25-33) is a balanced comparison of ancient and modern democracy emphasising both similarities and differences. But among the theorists who combine representation with democracy (26) I miss the most influential of all, viz., Alexis de Tocqueville. And in note 47, discussing direct democracy and nation-wide referenda at least Italy and some twenty American states ought to have been added to Switzerland, see, e.g., I. Budge, The New Challenge of Direct Democracy (Cambridge 1996) 84-104.

Chapter 2

After the description and definition of democracy in Chapter 1 follows Robinson's analysis of demokratia in Chapter 2 (34-64). I like Robinson's way of starting with Aristotle's Politics (34-44) and then moving backwards to the concept of demokratia in earlier authors (45-62). Robinson very sensibly underscores (35) that Aristotle describes and defines not only contemporary democracy, but also earlier forms of democracy which in the fourth century were classified as politeiai rather than demokratiai (Politics 1297b25) (43), that Aristotle distinguishes between several different forms of demokratia (actually four forms),4 and that his final and extreme form of demokratia is not just modelled on Athenian democracy but in several important respects differs from the institutions and ideals we know from Athenian sources (see also 44 and 64). After these general observations follows a precise and fully documented survey of what Aristotle understands by demokratia. Also, Robinson correctly observes (what too often is overlooked) that Aristotle is consciously using demos in two different senses: sometimes in the sense of "the common people" about a social class (= hoi aporoi), and sometimes in the sense of "the whole of the people", denoting all citizens, poor and wealthy alike (37-8).

On one important issue, however, I hold a different view from that advocated by Robinson: he believes that "we may safely eliminate Solonian Athens as a candidate for democracy" (39), and adds that "although Aristotle records that some called Solon's state demokratian ... ten patrion, his ensuing discussion makes clear that he viewed the constitution as mixed" (note 20). Yes, indeed, but as a mixed democracy, i.e., a democracy type 1.5 There can be no denying that Aristotle, like all his contemporaries, took the Solonian constitution to be an early form of demokratia, and that he believed that the Solonian reforms were a change from oligarchy to democracy. Aristotle and his contemporaries may well be wrong about that, but that is a different matter and does not belong in a chapter about the ancient Greek concept of demokratia, see below. The section on democracy in earlier authors opens with a brief discussion of the name Demokrates (Hesperia 53 [1984] 355-60, ca. 470 B.C.) and demou kratousa cheir at Aesch. Suppl. 604, ca. 463 B.C.). Both sources are taken to reflect the term and concept of demokratia -- and both antedate the reforms of Ephialtes! The rest of the section is devoted to Herodotos (47-50), the Old Oligarch (50-52), the Suppliants of Euripides (52-55) and Thucydides (55-62).

Discussing Herodotos Robinson argues forcefully against the view -- still held by many ancient historians -- that Otanes' description of popular rule in the Persian Debate at Hdt. 3.80 shows that isonomia, and not demokratia was the term used for popular government in the period between Kleisthenes and Ephialtes. The democratic constitution described at 3.80 is explicitly called demokratia at 6.43 (47). Furthermore, the Persian debate undoubtedly reflects Greek sophistic political thought (48); thus it belongs in the mid-fifth, not in the late 6th century (50). If, however, we insist on interpreting Herodotos' political terminology historically, Robinson reminds us (47) that "Herodotos states directly at 6.131.1 that Cleisthenes established ten demokratian at Athens." And he is inclined to believe that the terms demokatia and isonomia were both in use in the late 6th century (47, 50) and described the same type of constitution, but from different points of view.

There are many judicious observations on the other authors and in this context it suffices to comment briefly on Robinson's interpretation of Thuc. 2.37: to me es oligous all es pleionas oikein is taken to mean that "the management of affairs is not given over to the few but to the many", and ouk apo merous is interpreted as "not in rotation." I agree on both issues. Finally, on kai onoma men ... demokratia kekletai. metesti de ... Robinson suggests a novel interpretation: he takes demokratia to be a reference to, principally, the other, i.e., the non-Athenian type(s) of democracy: "Thucydides ... contrasts the unique Athenian system with ordinary demokratia in the Periclean Funeral Oration" (63). A fascinating thought, but I do not know whether I am persuaded, since Thuc. 2.37 opens with the statement that the Athenian constitution was a paradeigma, which indicates that most contemporary democracies were modelled on the Athenian, and thus not to be contrasted with the Athenian democracy as described in the rest of 2.37.

To conclude -- apart from his refusal to believe that Aristotle and his contemporaries took Solon's constitution to be a demokratia -- what Robinson writes in Chapter 2 is mostly well argued, judicious and to the point. On the other hand, I would like to draw the attention to what in my opinion are three omissions.

(a) Today almost all ancient historians believe that the Great Rhetra is a genuine archaic document, quoted by Plutarch (Lyc. 6) who took it from the Aristotelian Politeia Lakedaimonion. It is also generally believed that the garbled text of the last clause: gamo d' angorian emen kai kratos should be emended to damo d' ... kratos etc.6 But if we accept the emended text of the Great Rhetra as an archaic document we have to infer that the concept of demokratia and, in a sense, the term itself can be traced back to the 7th century B.C. and associated with the Spartan constitution.7 Alternative interpretations are (a) to hold that that the Rhetra -- via Aristotle -- comes from the essay about the Lycourgan laws composed by king Pausanias after 394 B.C. in his exile (FGrHist 582) and that Pausanias tampered with the text,8 or (b) to reject the obvious emendation of gamo into damo,9 but not many historians are prepared to accept these alternatives. Furthermore, all historians seem to assume that the damos referred to in the Rhetra comprises all spartiatai and that the well known problems with second class citizens developed later than the Great Rhetra. In any case, Robinson ought to have devoted a section to the Great Rhetra as the oldest possible reference to democracy and demokratia.

(b) In a speech (probably written in 419 B.C.) Antiphon mentions daily offerings performed by the prytaneis in the Council of Five Hundred hyper tes demokratias (Ant. 6.45). We do not know when these offerings were instituted. It is not impossible that they go all the way back to Kleisthenes; they probably took place towards the mid-fifth century, in which case this attestation of demokratia antedates all others and shows that, as long back as the sources go, demokratia was the label used by the Athenians themselves about their own constitution. There is no basis for the belief that demokratia was a term invented by the critics of popular rule.

(c) Finally, in Fragment 251 D.-K. Demokritos prefers poverty in a demokratia (connected with liberty) to wealth under a tyranny (connected with servitude). Demokritos' comparison of democracy and tyranny must be dated ca. 420 and is especially important in this context because, apart from Herodotos, it is our oldest explicit non-Athenian reference in literary sources to ancient Greek democracy.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 is devoted to Robinson's main thesis that ancient Greek democracy emerged in the course of the 6th century, long before Kleisthenes' reforms of 508/7, that it was a fairly common form of constitution found in Hellas as well as in the colonies, and that the prominence of Athenian democracy as the model of popular government belongs in the 5th and 4th centuries.

Commenting on Robert A. Dahl's "Strong Principle of Equality" as a prerequisite for the emergence of democracy Robinson finds that, in Archaic Greece, the equality of full citizens is best attested in two fields: burial customs and colonisation.

Following Ian Morris10 he notes that from ca. 750 B.C. there is all over Hellas a marked and continuing decline in the wealth of grave goods, and undifferentiated citizen plots begin to appear. The changed burial practice is taken as an indication of the rise of the polis and a more egalitarian ideology. That Attika seems to be a significant exception to the early decline in grave goods is taken by Robinson to be an indication that Athens lagged behind most of Greece in this kind of social equality (66-70).

Next, Robinson explores the early Greek colonisation and, following John Graham11 he reminds us that colonists usually went out "on fair and equal terms" and "shared out the territory on an equal basis" (71). Again, Robinson notes (72) that Athens did not send out colonies in the archaic period until an expedition to Sigeon ca. 600 B.C.

Robinson concludes that egalitarianism was not the special discovery of any one Greek state or region and is best attested outside Attika.

After the introduction on early equality comes the most important part of Robinson's book: his case for the view that there were many early Greek democracies outside Athens and that several of them antedated the Athenian demokratia. Robinson's argumentation takes the form of an alphabetically ordered inventory of altogether seventeen poleis which he adduces as probable or, at least, possible examples of early democracies. The seventeen poleis are: Achaia and her colonies, Akragas, Ambrakia, Argos, Chalkis, Chios, Knidos, Kos, Kyrene, Elis, Herakleia Pontika, Mantinea, Megara, Naxos, Samos and Syracuse.

Robinson's seventeen case studies demonstrate beyond any doubt that the Greeks themselves believed that demokratia had existed for at least a century before Kleisthenes, and that it was a fairly common and widespread form of constitution. That is indeed interesting and important. But does the inventory show, too, that constitutions resembling the Athenian classical democracy did actually exist in 6th-century Hellas? There are two major difficulties involved in his interpretation of the sources.

(a) In several cases the sources for early democracies are late, for example, Polybios or Diodoros. Although Polybios is often an excellent source, and although Diodoros for more than a century has been deplorably underrated, I find it difficult, on the authority of Pol. 2.41.5-6, to follow Robinson (73-8) in believing that Achaia had been a democracy after the overthrow of King Ogygos (date?), or on the authority of komisamenoi ten demokratien at Diod. 11.53 to believe that the Akragantinoi re-established their democracy which must, then, have existed before the reign of Theron (488-72). In most cases the principal source is a passage from Aristotle's Politics. That is more satisfactory, but I miss a general discussion of the reliability of the historical examples adduced by Aristotle in his Politics.

(b) With little regard for historical facts the typical Greek polis was prone to project its constitution backwards and hold that the existing political system was the patrios politeia introduced by the ancestors. The Solonian democracy is one such example,12 and several of the early democracies in Robinson's inventory may reflect such a constitutional "foundation myth", advocated by one of two opposed factions, rather than a historical fact.

In my opinion, Robinson ought to have spelled out these two as well as some other problems in a methodological introduction to his inventory. Let me add, however, that there are many judicious observations brought in connection with the interpretation of individual passages, and that, anyway, the source criticism applied by Robinson is usually more careful and cautious than that used by historians who happily reconstruct the Athenian constitution in the archaic period on the basis of passages in Plutarch's Lives which cannot be traced back to named earlier authors.

Thus, not all Robinson's seventeen case studies are equally convincing, but some are, and I find it expedient here to present a brief review of three of his examples:

Kyrene (No. 10, 105-8). At 4.159-62 Herodotos tells us that Demonax of Mantinea was summoned to Kyrene where he reorganised the tribal system, stripped the king of most of his powers and gave them to the people (es meson to demo etheke, 4.161.3). Robinson ingeniously combines this reform with the one described by Aristotle at Pol. 1319b19-23: those who introduced the democracy in Kyrene reorganised the tribal system just as Kleisthenes did in Athens. Most commentators date this reform to the 5th century, but, emphasising the central position of tribal reform in both accounts, Robinson persuasively connects the passage in Aristotle with Herodotos' account of Demonax's reform. There can be little doubt that both Herodotos and Aristotle took Demonax's constitution to be a demokratia, and, following Herodotos, Aristotle -- and Robinson -- I am prepared to believe that this constitution, introduced in Kyrene ca. 550 B.C., was as much of a democracy as the one introduced in Athens by Kleisthenes in 508/7.

Elis (No. 11, 108-11). An even more convincing case for early democracy is Elis where Robinson's case for an early democracy builds upon an important article by J. O'Neil.13 Several early inscriptions refer to a council and an assembly (demos plethyon), IvO 7, cf. 3 & 9. What prevents us from taking this constitution to be democratic in the ancient Greek sense of the term? The inscriptions are dated by Jeffery to ca. 500 B.C. +/- 25 years. Even preferring a late date there is no reason to believe that the early Elean constitution was modelled on the Athenian.

Chios (No. 7, 90-101). Here the important source is the constitutional inscription of ca. 600-550 B.C. = Meiggs-Lewis, GHI 8. On the one hand, Robinson duly notes Ampolo's important point that demosie boule does not mean a democratic, but a public council14 and, thus, does not in itself indicate any form of popular government. On the other hand, Robinson has a point when he holds that the legible part of the inscription, with its indisputable references to a council and an assembly, may well reflect a political system not essentially different from that found in Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries.

Other instances of early democracies principally attested in Aristotle's Politics, but sometimes supported by earlier sources, are: Ambrakia ca 580 B.C. (No. 4, 80-2); Chalkis in the 6th century B.C. (No. 6, 88-90); Herakleia Pontike ca. 560 B.C. (No. 12, 111-3); Megara sometime in the archaic period (No. 14, 114-7); and Syracuse ca. 491-85 (No. 17, 120-2).

I would like to add one source to Robinson's seventeen case studies: In his account of the Ionian revolt Herodotos tells us that in 494 after the suppression of the revolt, Mardonios expelled all the tyrants from the Ionian poleis and installed democracies instead (Hdt. 6.43.3), a passage discussed by Robinson in connection with the Persian debate (47) but not in connection with early democracies outside Athens.

Robinson's impressive collection of evidence adds up to a strong "wigwam" argument, i.e., one built of a number of not very strong parts that gathered together add up to a strong argument in favor of a certain conclusion. I think it can be so and, reading the book, I am even more convinced than I was before that the Atheno-centric view of early democracy has been misguided.15 Robinson successfully demolishes the view that democracy was invented in Athens in the period following Kleisthenes' reforms and spread from Athens to the rest of the Hellenic world. The tide turned only in the 5th century when Athens had become the strongest of all poleis and its democracy a model for popular government in the rest of Hellas (Thuc. 2.37.1), especially among the members of the Delian League (Thuc. 3.82.1; Xen. Hell. 3.4.7; Arist. Pol. 1307b22-3).

There is, however, an alternative, too readily dismissed by Robinson. What if we believe what Aristotle writes in Pol. 1273b34-74a21 and in Ath. Pol. 9.1 and take "the Solonian constitution" to be an early democracy?16 As stated above, I have argued that most of the democratic reforms ascribed to Solon by 4th century writers are anachronisms and invented in order to buttress the view that the contemporary constitution was a patrios demokratia.17 On the other hand, some of the constitutional reforms may well have been Solonian, e.g. popular courts manned with jurors and a council of four hundred. If the main function of this boule was probouleutic as stated by Plutarch in Solon 19.1, i.e., to prepare business to be debated and decided in meetings of an assembly, then there is a case for Solon being the father of Athenian democracy. But was the Council of Four Hundred really Solonian and not a myth invented by the oligarchic faction in (probably) 411 B.C. (Arist. Ath. Pol. 31.1)? On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I believe in a Solonian Council of Four Hundred (but not in one with full probouleutic powers). On Tuesdays and Thursdays I am sceptical. On weekends I suspend judgment. As I am completing this review on a Sunday, evening I prefer to suspend judgment.


1.   In HZ 268 (1999) 722-3 "Der definitorische Aufwand, zumal auch mit modernen Begriffen, war vielleicht nicht notwendig."
2.   As far as I know some 10% of the German population, i.e., ca. eight million persons, are foreigners without political rights.
3.   Ca. 1900 some 70% of the citizens voted at federal elections, see Shefter, Politics by other Means. The Declining Importance of Elections in America (1990) 3. But in 1996 participation in the election had dropped to 49%: Statistical Abstracts of the United States (1998) 297. See also and F. Chr. Arterton, Teledemocracy (Washington, DC 1987) 46.
4.   For a persuasive explanation of a fifth type at 1291b30-92a38, see C.I. Papageorgiou "Four or Five Types of Democracy in Aristotle?" History of Political Thought 11 (1990) 1-8, which could have been mentioned by Robinson in n. 7 on page 37.
5.   Notice the opposition between enioi men (73b45-6) and eoike de Solon (73b41) where Aristotle states his own view and says that Solon did introduce a democracy (demon katastesai). This is, of course, a democracy type one (1274a15-21, cf. 1318b21-2 and 1281b32-4), see also Arist. Ath. Pol. 9.1 and 41.2.
6.   See, e.g., S. Hodkinson, "The Development of Spartan Society" in L. Mitchell & P.J. Rhodes (eds.), The Development of the Polis in Archaic Greece (London 1997) 87-8. For a full discussion see P. Oliva, Sparta and Her Social Problems (Amstedam 1971) 71-98. Most recently the emendation damo is accepted by, e.g. R. Osborne, Greece in the Making 1200-479 B.C. (London 1996) 179. His translation is "power and right to speak (?) belong to the people". Note the query after "right to speak" (angorian), whereas there is no indication of any textual problem after "the people".
7.   I advocated this interpretation in Det Athenske Demokrati i 4. rh. f.Kr. 1 (Copenhagen 1978) 59 with note 480. For a similar suggestion in a readable language, see S. Hornblower (ed.), "Creation and Development of Democratic Institutions in Ancient Greece," in J. Dunn (ed.), Democracy. The Unfinished Journey 508 BC to AD 1993 (Cambridge 1992) 1-16. The reference to the Great Rhetra is on page 1.
8.   But note that even the very sceptical Joseph Fontenrose takes the Great Rhetra to be an authentic archaic document in The Delphic Oracle (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1978) 271-2.
9.   In the Teubner edition by Lindskog & Ziegler (1973) the MS text is printed with an obelus before gamo, and all emendations are relegated to the apparatus criticus.
10.   I. Morris, "The Strong Principle of Equality and the Archaic Origins of Greek Democracy," in J. Ober and C. Hedrick (eds), Demokratia. A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern (Princeton 1996) 19-48.
11.   A.J. Graham, Colony and Mother City in Ancient Greece (2nd edn. Chicago 1983) 58-9.
12.   M.H. Hansen, "Solonian Democracy in Fourth-Century Athens," ClMed 40 (1989) 71-99.
13.   "The Exile of Themistokles and Democracy in the Peloponnese," CQ 31 (1981) 335-46.
14.   C. Ampolo, "La boule demosie de Chio," PP 38 (1983) 401-16.
15.   The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (Oxford 1991, Bristol 1999) 3; Polis and City-State. An Ancient Concept and its Modern Equivalent Acts of the Copenhagen Polis Centre 5 (1998) 104-5.
16.   Suggested by, e.g. O. Murray in Early Greece (2nd edn. London 1993) 184, 189, 200.
17.   Hansen (supra n. 12) 78-9 and (supra n. 15) 298-9.

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