Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.04.22

P. Flensted-Jensen, T.H. Nielsen, L. Rubinstein , Polis & Politics: Studies in Ancient Greek History. Presented to Mogens Herman Hansen on his Sixtieth Birthday, August 20, 2000.   Copenhagen:  Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000.  Pp. 651.  ISBN 87-7289-628-0.  $66.00.  

Contributors: J. Crook, M. H. Hansen, Mark Golden, J. McK. Camp II, P. Perlman, T. Fischer-Hansen, P. Funke, J. Roy, H-J. Gehrke, V. Gabrielsen, W. Burkert, M. H. Jameson, J. E. Skydsgaard, O. Murray, K. A. Raaflaub, S. J. Miller, M. Piérart, B. S. Strauss, C. W. Hedrick, P. C. Millett, S. Hornblower, M. Ostwald, P. Cartledge, P. Gauthier, J. Buckler, E. Badian, P. J. Rhodes, E. M. Harris, M. J. Osborne, W. Schuller & M. Dreher, J. Ober, V. Bers, D. MacDowell, M. Gagarin, R. W. Wallace, A. L. Boegehold, M. B. Richardson.

Reviewed by John Lewis, St. Edmund's College, Cambridge (
Word count: 4225 words

The polis is a singular phenomenon, as is one of its most respected and feared scholars, Mogens Herman Hansen. His Copenhagen Polis Center (CPC), under whose auspices this festschrift was produced, is a haven for polis-philes of every persuasion. Hansen's own tenacious attention to the concepts associated with the polis, as well as his passion to define it, are legendary, and it is appropriate that this volume concern itself with those concepts and that need for definition. Although divided into two sections, "The Polis" and "Politics in the Polis" (thus the title of the book), the essays share no explicit theme apart from the polis itself and the need for definitional integrity in understanding it. As befits this project, there are various themes uniting these examinations. Eleutheria, isonomy, physical and political integration, federalism, the use of sources and evidence, and the relationship between the particular and the general are topics that cut across the editors' arrangement. It is a challenge to the reader to abstract these conceptual similarities and apply them in different contexts.

Wit is not lost in this book; two original poems serve as an introduction. John Crook's "Introductory Flourish," a poem placing discussion of Hansen in the realm of the Elysian Shades Cleisthenes, Demosthenes et al, leaves us Perikles complaining: "And now he's got the polis in his sights, / but with this new 'comparative dimension', / And where we thought we had exclusive rights / Aztecs and Mzaqb come vying for attention." Take a prod at mankind, says Herodotus, "And likenesses will start to show." It is these likenesses across disparate contexts, often as a means to find differences, which reveal Hansen's approach, which has taken him at times far beyond the Classical world. Not unsurprisingly for a festschrift, the full scope of the efforts of the CPC cannot be appreciated in this single volume, especially limited as it is to the archaic and classical periods of Greece.1

Hansen's own poem gets down to business with a pseudo-history of the textual analysis of a fictitious papyrus: "Hush! You know our science's blessing; / if there are words you cannot see, they can be read by guessing." εροτη' ηιμεροεντα, the reading that underpins the accepted interpretation of a beautiful love poem, is subversively reconstructed by the seven-times doctored German ("when at the bottom of a ρηο he saw a tiny curve.../ the letter βετα, suddenly, must be the reading now!") as φλεβοδε τα τμετηεντα; clearly it's a treatise on plants! (and the path to another doctorate, this time in botany). "The German Doctor's new and thorough re-interpretation / provides a crucial insight into ancient vegetation." The moral of the story? "And if you're ever traveling in southern parts, my dear / and you find a fragment of an ancient writer here / I beg you, preserve our sanity! / Take pity on reading humanity / and burn it!"

The first half of "The Polis" section of the book deals nominally with "The Physical Aspects of the Polis," a focus necessarily broader than buildings and walls. Golden surveys recent trends in Greek and Roman demographic studies, offering a warning against too strong an attachment to "average figures" of population.2 This is fitting introduction to one of CPC's primary tasks: to form proper generalizations about the polis that are derived from primary evidence. The reader observes that every polis needs to have some population, but it may be of any size, within a certain range, and it changes over time. This is of course Aristotle's point as to the physical and population size of the polis.3 Golden's point is well taken: the application of an average to a particular instance is dangerous if used in a Procrustean way.

The same attention to data as the foundation of abstract understanding is found in J. McK. Camp's "Walls and the Polis," who concludes that the phenomenon of defensive walls may be sufficient for defining the polis. We might wonder if Aristotle himself had to state that walls were not a sufficient defining characteristic precisely because many people thought they were; a wall would not make the Peloponnesus a polis because it was not a political community. The conclusion follows: walls may suffice to indicate a polis only because we have identified a political community within those walls; if the walls are sufficient to indicate such a community, this is because the social context is Greek.

The section continues with Perlman addressing the problem of dating the first emergence of the polis. She follows John Camp's 1994 CPC suggestion that distinctive features of the polis may be detected on Crete prior to the second half of the eighth century. Having surveyed the first 700 years of Gortyn, she concludes that by the eight-century the community on Hagios Ioannis had both walls and a central authority capable of organizing community space and deploying resources. It is again the presence of a political community inside a physical wall that allows us to identify an emerging polis.

Fischer-Hansen then turns to the question of production in the polis, considering (and graphing) the physical evidence for workshops and crafts production in Sicily and Magna Graecia, between the eighth and third centuries BC. This offers a challenge to the view, held by Moses Finley and others, that consumption and not production was central to the ancient polis. This of course has wide implications for our understanding of the relations between town and countryside in the ancient world, and for our conclusions about Athenian relations with their allies / subjects. If we do not consider the material values that the polis could offer to the countryside farmers, we may fail to grasp the value of the polis itself, and how it could maintain its political authority without military subjugation.

The last two essays in the first half of this section deal with frontiers, and the interaction between poleis seen in two different contexts. Funke considers "Grenzfestungen und Verkehrsverbindungen in Nordost Attika. Zur Bedeutung der attisch-boiotischen Grenzregion um Dekeleia." The Dekeleia route provides evidence for trade between Attica and Boiotia, and suggests that hard and fast political divisions are related to exchange relationships between traders. Roy then discusses "The Frontier between Arkadia and Elis in Classical Antiquity." Although commentators such as Pausanias often observed the border as between the two regions, this was not a settled observation in earlier Greek times. Since there is little physical separation between Arkadia and Elis, whatever frontier there was could only defined once the two areas developed regional identities. For Arkadia this existed in the sixth-century, but for Elis this was a late fifth-century development. Consequently the "frontier" shifted as poleis either shifted their loyalties from one side to the other or shifted "ethnic identities." The reader may remain unconvinced that "ethnic identities" is the proper concept here, but the idea that the boundary should be defined in terms of the various poleis and not by regions is convincing.

The second half of the first section is Community Aspects of the Polis. Gehrke's German contribution examines citizen relationships within Ethnos, Phyle and Polis, while Gabrielsen adopts primarily a perspective on the relations of poleis in federal communities. Gabrielsen's "The Synoikized Polis of Rhodes" challenges the orthodox view that the poleis of Ialysos, Kameiros and Lindos on Rhodes were synoikized politically and physically between 411-408 BC. Pre-411 Gabrielsen see an ancient understanding that the Rhodian people had a common organization and traditions: unified "Rhodian" citations go back to the "regional and ethnic Rhodioi" in Homer, Hekataios, and Thucydides. Post-411 Gabrielsen sees political "separateness," which he explains by a federal state comprising the three poleis. The theme of political unification (or not) will be taken up further by Buckler in his discussion of the Boiotian Confederacy of 378-355 BC. If neither of these arguments is fully convincing, the reason may be an insurmountable dearth of evidence, as well as the difficulty involved in understanding ideas such as "unification" and "federation" in a Greek context.

Burkert returns to the internal perspective in "Private Needs and Polis Acceptance. Purification at Selinous." He interprets a fifth century ritualistic lead tablet as a public proclamation of a private religious ritual. Generalizing this conclusion, the problem of pollution following a murder, for instance, becomes politically critical only when it is publicly declared; otherwise a killer simply leaves. Engaging here with Sourvinou-Inwood, Burkert maintains that the idea that "Greek religion was basically operated through the polis" needs qualification.4 Jameson presents a similar theme in his examination of "An Altar for Herakles," a small fourth century Athenian artifact.5 This is evidence for small group associations, centered on cults, that rose as larger and more formal groups, such as the demes, declined. Jameson relates this to the Heraklean thiasoi, of which three are known with certainty, and to a probable seven or eight further examples in IG II2 2345. Jameson cites Lambert in suggesting that the thiasoi may have been more inclusive than the rigid phratries and gene.

In a brief note, "The Meaning of Polis in Thucydides 2.16.2," Skydsgaard observes a range of meanings of polis in Thucydides' statement that "each man abandoned his own polis." This is consistent with a political synoikism of Theseus, which did not physically unify the nucleated settlements of Attica; the term polis can telescope, referring to a particular settlement as well as to Attica under Athens. Murray expands this question by asking "What is Greek about the Polis?" This brief but rich article discusses the wide-range of meanings attached to polis, including its shift from small settlements to its use as a means of maintaining Hellenic identity in Hellenistic times. Murray follows on his "Cities of Reason" theme, concluding that neither its organization nor its economic and religious structures serve to differentiate the Greek polis from other examples of the city-state. The Greekness of the polis "lies rather in the form of the political rationality that the Greeks chose to substitute for other forms of communal tie."6

Part two of this volume, Politics in the Polis, begins with Political Ideology: Democracy and Oligarchy. Raaflaub is concerned with the history of political concepts, examining anachronistic uses of fifth-century political concepts to describe archaic phenomena. Discussing Plataian autonomy and the cult of Zeus Eleutherios on Samos, Raaflaub understands that the concept of eleutheria became politicized in Athens in the early fifth century. Isonomia and eleutheria were used to distinguish Greek men from the subjects of tyrants and the Persian king. The retrojection of a political meaning of eleutheria onto earlier history is not an accurate account of the archaic meaning but reflects a progression in the concept's history. The reader wonders whether this supports, or undercuts, Murray's claim to political rationality as deeply entrenched in Greek history.

Miller follows the same question, shifting to the non-political use of isonomy in early athletics. His "Naked Democracy" begins by distinguishing Greek athletic events that were decided by objective criteria from those that were dependent upon subjective determinations. The hippikos agon depended upon the status and wealth necessary to racing a team of horses, while the gymnikos agon was open to everyone. Competing naked was a means of shedding one's external support, of "leveling class distinctions" and participating as an equal with every other athlete. In supporting the connection between naked athletics and democracy, and between non-political and political isonomy, Miller should ask how naked athletics served to distinguish those with the schole to participate as citizens from those who worked all day--the isonomy may be narrower in scope than this article suggests. The political roles of the "Juges des mains," of those who actually ran Athens, and of the basileus, explored in later essays by Gauthier, Rhodes and Gagarin, are not unconnected to Miller's discussion.

Piérart takes up an approach shared by Buckler and Gabrielsen, namely an attempt to demonstrate that a particular polis had a certain general form of political organization. In this case it is Argos, which Piérart claims was unified under a democratic regime. Care is required here, given the use of political categories that are not clearly identified with institutions in Argos.

Strauss compares the democratic and oligarchic use of military tactics to the development of the democracy in Athens. Using distinctions in the contest of war that bear comparisons to Miller's athletic distinctions, Strauss focuses on the political implications of Kimon's tactics at Eurymedon in 467. Kimon's "aristocratic" tactics contrast with a more "democratic" reliance on rowers rather than marines, on ramming and retreat rather than boarding and deck fighting, and on avoiding casualties rather than pursuing a frontal victory at any price. Kimon's tactics may reflect his non-democratic political stances, and may be directly related to his subsequent ostracism. Possibly a similar reason was behind the Trial of the Arginusae Generals in 406, and their chase after the enemy at the expense of retrieving wounded sailors in the water. The "democratic" navy implies "democratic" tactics, and "oligarchic" tactics are open to prosecution.

Democracy not only corresponds to athletics and military tactics; it is revealed in the practices of public writing. Hedrick's "Epigraphic Writing and the Democratic Restoration of 307" examines the increase in epigraphic evidence during the restoration of the democracy. In particular, this shows an attempt to distance the new regime from the previous oligarchy, and to claim legitimacy from the earlier democratic tradition. This is of course a familiar phenomenon, witness G. W. Bush's attempt in America to claim the values of America while separating himself from his predecessor, (or claims by Augustus to have saved the Republic?). In a wider sense, however, the Athenian evidence suggests openness in the democracy rather than a constraining traditional ideology. The purpose of writing was not commemoration but information, to allow "whoever wishes" to know what is happening. The phrase σκοπειν τωι βουλομενωι, of which Hedrick finds eight examples, has an obvious democratic ring.

In a methodologically interesting article, Millett takes Hansen to task in "Mogens Hansen and the Labelling of Athenian Democracy." Millett is unable to agree with Hansen that substantial differences existed between the fifth and the fourth century democracy. For example, increased jury pay in the early fourth century is solidly democratic. But Millett also shifts the terms of the debate from Hansen's institutional to Ober's socio-political perspective. This explicit focus on probable rather than potential effects leads Millett to tighten the criteria by which he judges a conclusion. For example, he considers the connection between the ekklesia and the eisangelia to be a "loose linking" rather than a firm connection. Consequently, the likely conclusion would differ from that of Hansen. By refusing to elevate Hansen's democratic ideals into guiding principles, Millett favors a measure of expediency in explaining political action. This makes explicit much of what underlies other questions about the polis; for instance, the reader might wonder to what extent expediency figured in the Trial of the Generals versus the democratic / oligarchic ideal that Strauss favors. Possibly the truth is that the range of what is expedient may be determined by the ideals, just as the ideal population of a polis existed for Aristotle within a certain range.

Hornblower engages in more subversion, exploring the intertextuality of the Old Oligarch and Thucydides in order to support a fourth century date for the former. If Hornblower is right then the OO becomes a source of fourth century ideals (similar to pseudo-Plato's Menexenus), then its relationship to fifth century history becomes problematic. Ostwald continues by reiterating many of the problems involved in understanding oligarchy and oligarchs. It is always helpful to be reminded that Greek political life did not consist "in tensions and competition between organized political parties" (p. 387). Ostwald suggests a re-examination of Aristotle's terminology of oligarchy as by the euporoi rather than the plousioi, a break from Plato that redefines the distinction from the banausoi.

Cartledge's "Boiotian Swine F(or)ever? The Boiotian Superstate in 395 BC" returns to the familiar yet elusive Oxyrhynchos Historian passage, with an attempt to establish not its historical accuracy but rather its connection to the history of Greek political thought. A key point here is the application of isonomy to oligarchy, and the way in which the relations between poleis as well as the relations between citizens within a polis can be isonomous. However, the way in which isonomy could apply to a citizen in a federal league remains, for this reader, a vexing question. This article turns on the same issue as that of Strauss and Miller, with isonomy a central concept in multiple contexts.

"Practical Politics," the second part of this section, deals with more concrete issues of political life, starting with Gauthier's question as to the extent and use of hand voting. That this was not completely democratic is implied by the use of officials, up front like the Athenian proedroi, to judge the voting rather than to count with precision. A parallel in this volume is with Gagarin's later examination of the basileus in the Athenian courts and the problematic relationship between the all-powerful crowd and its leaders.

The focus on practical politics can ultimately not be separated from the physical and community aspects of the polis, as seen in the next essay, Buckler's "The Phantom Synedrion of the Boiotian Confederacy 378-335 BC." His view is that the members of the confederacy were just that: individual states sending presbeis without the political union of a common council. However, his interpretation of the assassination of Euphron in Xenophon's Hellenica and the revolt of Byzantium from the second Athenian Empire, ultimately depends not only on evidence but also on a definition of what a synedrion is, a conceptual point that the Hansen school (if there is such a thing) has not failed to engage.

The practical side of politics is the focus in Badian's re-examination of the chronology of the Cleisthenic reforms. Badian continues to argue against a fast implementation of the changes. The need for concurrence of the Assembly, the census, and the required calculations (using pre-abacus counting methods), in context with wars and other concerns, make it impossible for the reforms to have occurred in a single year. Rhodes follows with a general essay asking "Who Ran Democratic Athens?" Certainly the question of what the political "system" was in Athens, within which Perikles and others had to function, is as central to the Cleisthenic question as it is to matters of the developed democracy, to equality in athletic competitions, to military tactics and to vote counting.

Harris follows Hornblower in offering a "Subversive Essay" on the non-authenticity of Andokides' De Pace. His conclusion that it is a forgery is supported widely by factual inaccuracies and anachronisms, including problems with eirene and spondai, and more narrowly by lack of correspondence between lines 3-9 and Aischines De Falsa Legatione.

For CPC the polis is not a phenomenon confined to the archaic and classical periods, as Osborne's close reading of the evidence for the archon chronologies of 261/0 to 249/8 makes clear. Osborne makes no claim to have solved these dating problems, but he makes a solid methodological point by refusing to discount the sporadic existence of secretarial cycles in the period. Such cycles require independent certification, which can be found in part by recognition of the Metonic cycles, introduced in 432/1 in Athens. Osborne's complex paper presents a reconstruction that shows 9 archons between Arrheneides and Thersilochos (261/0 to 251/0 BC), not 13 as he published in 1989.7

Part Three of this section, "Athenian Law," begins with this volume's only dedicated consideration of tragedy in relation to the democratic polis, "Auswahl und Bewertung von Dramatischen Auffuehrungen in der athenischen Demokratie" by Schuller and Dreher. The focus on practices highlights parallels between dramatic stage and jury, which are expanded with respect to the laws in the contributions that follow.

Ober's "Living Freely as a Slave of the Law. Notes on Why Socrates Lives in Athens" uses the procedural nature of Athenian law to deny that Socrates faced an ethical choice. In this view, only under a substantive law system could Socrates could face a "hard choice between his freedom of conscience and his duty as a citizen," since only the substance of a law could directly contradict the dictates of his conscience. In Athens, claims Ober, the law was procedural and was determined by each person's pursuit of the truth in a jury context. Consequently Athenian law could never demand that Socrates give up the pursuit of the truth, since the law was determined by procedures that follow closely Socrates' own actions on the streets. If faced with a judgment to stop philosophizing he could reject the judgment and contest it through persuasion.

There are multiple criticisms possible here; I will offer only one. Ober's argument fails to recognize that a death sentence is substantive indeed, no matter its derivation. The jury did not leave Socrates free to contest and persuade; his choices were to leave or die. If Socrates did not face a moral choice before the verdict, he certainly faced one afterwards: to die in the only place he could (formerly) pursue the examined life or to go live where this was impossible. A person's ability to persuade ends when the jury enforces its decree--unless one wishes to make a statement through one's own death. Ober remarks that Socrates leaves each person to figure out the details of his own ethical life, which may be why Crito was not Plato's last word on political obligation and law. Yet Plato did lay down rules in his later works that were substantive and coercive, even if derived through dialectic. Although Athenian law was primarily procedural, to elevate "substance" and "procedure" into mutually exclusive categories is a problem.

Athenian law as procedural is taken further by Bers, who argues that the complex procedures of selecting jurors and magistrates (e.g., AthPol 63-66) were not, as Aristotle claimed, to prevent corruption and fraud, but were rather elaborate ceremonies "aimed at alleviating the Athenians' anxiety about the democratic jurors--their general quality, number and probity." There is, Bers maintains, a deeper reason for this complexity: the Athenians "needed to be satisfied, for otherwise the authority of the courts would crumble, and the democracy with it." However, the reassurance they needed may have been found only through procedures that actually did lessen fraud by linking complexity with solemnity and tradition.

Rather than smashing an orthodoxy, MacDowell defends the conclusion that Athenian trials took one day. Written as a response to Ian Worthington,8 MacDowell accepts the inductive conclusion that particular references to one-day trials can be extended to a general rule that trials took one day. Further, neither the number of prosecutors (up to ten in Demosthenes' trial of 323) nor the extreme length of speeches such as "On the Crown" invalidates this generalization. Gagarin follows, defending another orthodoxy: the general diminution of the power of the basileus from Homer to Classical Athens. Gagarin's essay, like Gauthier's, questions the role of a leader in determining the outcome of an agon, a theme also central to Miller's athletic agons.

Demosthenes' so-called "Areopagus Decree," evidence for the location of power in the Athenian democracy, is dated to pre-338 by Wallace. Evaluating the evidence for a post-Chaironeia date as "circumstantial but nevertheless significant," Wallace sees, for example, an emergency as underlying Demosthenes' ability to pass this nomos without facing a successful graphe paranomon challenge. A date of 346-340 is supported by evidence such as the anti-Areopagite law of Eukrates (337/6; SEG 12.87), which logically would express the anger of the demos at the misuse of an earlier law, not of one that had just been passed in an emergency. Arguments are raised here concerning the scope of the law, which Wallace sees as providing not a wide mandate for the Areopagus, but rather a limited scope of foreign affairs directed against traitors. The real purpose of the decree was to strengthen Demosthenes' anti-Macedonian ally.

The relationship between the particular and the general, a recurring theme, is further developed in the next two entries. Boegehold, "At Home. Lysias 1.23," rejects a textual emendation that serves to bring 1.23 in line with the structure of 41-42. The lessons here are three: don't make symmetry a principle of textual criticism; don't change a text to match what it should be; and don't emend something that works as it is: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Richardson follows this theme in discussing the location of inscribed laws in the fourth century, questioning the conclusion that laws were in one place. He rather maintains that "the site of each was individually selected with regard to the text inscribed on the stone." Considering Hedrick's view that a law was written in order to convey information, the site of an inscription is vital to the information it conveys and to whom, and the location is a guide to the audience. In the case of the Peiraeus stele IG II2 244, the primary audience of contractors and overseers is specific to its location, although possibly the law was inscribed elsewhere, for anyone interested.

The appearance of various themes in different places in the book--e.g., isonomia in Cartledge's Boiotia, Miller's athletics and Strauss's naval tactics--is an illustration of the richness of the Greeks and their ability to connect seemingly disparate phenomena under a wide conceptual understanding. This, no less, is a virtue of the CPC.


1.   M. H. Hansen (ed.), 'Introduction: The Concepts of City-State and City-State Culture', in Hansen (ed.), A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures (Copenhagen: The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, 2000):11-34.
2.   P. Garnsey, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World. Responses to Risk and Crisis (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1988):137.
3.   Politics 7.4.6-7.
4.   The tablet is published by M. H. Jameson, D. R. Jordan, and R. D. Kotansky. 1993. A Lex Sacra from Selinous, GRBS Monographs 11 (Durham, NC). C. Sourvinou-Inwood. 1990. 'What is Polis Religion?', in O.Murray and S. Price (eds.), The Greek City from Homer to Alexander (Oxford): 295-322.
5.   Agora I 1052; see B. D. Meritt, "Greek Inscriptions" in Hesperia 7(1938):77-146.
6.   O. Murray, "Cities of Reason," in Archives Européennes de Sociologie 28 (1987):325-346, with Hansen's comments appended. Murray's article reprinted in O. Murray and S. Price (1990), (eds.), The Greek City from Homer to Alexander (Oxford).
7.   M. J. Osborne. 1989. "The Chronology of Athens in the Mid Third Century BC," in ZPE 78: 209-242.
8.   I. Worthington. 1989. 'The Duration of an Athenian Jury Trial', in JHS 109: 204-207; 1992. A Historical Commentary on Dinarchus (Ann Arbor):284-285.

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