Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.11.22

Harold B. Mattingly, The Athenian Empire Restored. Epigraphic and Historical Studies.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1996.  Pp. xviii + 561.  

Reviewed by Thomas J. Figueira, Rutgers University (
Word count: 2482 words

Over forty years ago H.B. Mattingly embarked upon a lonely crusade against epigraphical orthodoxy for its specification that seemingly earlier letter-forms in the inscription of Athenian political documents were firmly diagnostic in the fixing of chronology for Athenian decrees. Mattingly argued that a large number of inscriptions were in fact the product of the 420s and not the mid-century period. Specifically, he actively opposed the dogma that restricted the appearance of the three-barred form of the letter sigma to the period before 446. His redatings were firmly resisted by the surviving editors of The Athenian Tributes Lists (ATL), B.D. Meritt, H.T. Wade-Gery, and M.F. McGregor, by influential Oxford epigraphists and historians like A. Andrewes, R. Meiggs, and D.M. Lewis, by their numerous students and protégés, and indeed by the main body of Anglophone scholarship. This volume collects thirty articles and contributions of its author on fifth-century Attic epigraphy belonging to this campaign. The chapters are printed in chronological order, with the first group having been published in 1961 and the last chapter in 1990. They are supplemented by four additional notes in the form of appendices.

Americans have a strongly inculcated bias--or at least they were once taught to have one--in favor of heretical dissident voices that are raised against a "stifling" consensus. It is essential therefore to note that, despite his divergence on styles of lettering and chronology, Mattingly mostly maintained a conventional, even conformist picture of the course of the "Athenian Empire," opting in essence merely to delay the onset of certain stages of "imperialism" as they had been portrayed by ATL or by Russell Meiggs in several influential articles (and later in his canonical The Athenian Empire [Oxford 1972]; note Mattingly p. 315). Given Mattingly's penchant for ignoring, misunderstanding, or minimizing the work of the last twenty years,1 his volume is pervaded with the musty air of outdated formulations that sound odd indeed at the beginning of the 21st century.2 His was an insistent and indefatigable voice, not quite crying out in the wilderness, but not quite prophetic either.

While filled with a great deal of assertion on historical matters and some observations, the book provides very little thorough historical interpretation.3 Concerning the central point, the significance of so massive a redating of inscriptions,4 analysis hardly transcends permutations on one banality, that Kleon was really one bad guy (consider pp. 5, 13, 69, 105-5, 144, 217-18, 494-95). It has been thirty years since W.R. Connor published his powerful rethinking of the emergence of Kleon and other demagogues (The New Politicians of Athens [Princeton 1971]), but Mattingly has still failed to confront the challenge of that work. It is also a problem of this work's advocacy that it fails to seek substantive reconciliation with the narrative of Thucydides. While anyone might accept the absence of a few events from Thucydides or his silence over some developments in nature of Attic hegemony, the cumulative effect of placing so many inscriptions in the 420s implies that a veridical history of the Archidamian War ought to have been substantially different from the Thucydidean account. It would be an interesting exercise for a good (and patient) MA student to outline the 420s in dual columns in which one column would list the events actually recounted by Thucydides and the other recreate the decade according to Mattingly's redatings and the background "discoveries" proposed to contextualize them.

The author has two main tools of argumentation on behalf of his redatings. One exploits similarities in epigraphical phrasing as though these were strongly probative. This approach forgets that there may well have been appreciable incidental variation in our small surviving set of enactments, some of it traceable to the idiosyncrasies of the framers of legislation, and that much hegemonic lawmaking had a cyclic and tralatician quality in which problematic areas like tribute collection had to be revisited intermittently (note the decrees proposed by Kleinias, Kleonymos, and Thoudippos). Indeed, it may strain belief that some of the variations in expression could be diagnostic of chronology, since they often fall within the range of stylistic variance of classical prose authors. The self-referentiality of these arguments eventually becomes almost fetishistic, but, to be fair, all such judgments traverse a terrain of considerable subjectivity. Mattingly's second method mobilizes assorted historical congruencies and occasionally flimsy analogies, all too many of which convey an impression of ad hoc argument.5 A seasoned student of these issues is tempted to raise a standing objection over the failure of the author to plead his case that the redatings have explanatory power except in support of the author's progression of a very broadly drawn Attic imperialism.

Overlooking for the moment the grave deficiencies of this work, it may be useful for the professional to have this material collected, for Mattingly has read the documents obsessively and his learning is often on display. Although his grasp of historical argument is often deficient, there are also many insights about specific detail. There are three indices (a topical and geographical index, index of names, and index locorum) that will allow scholars to extract all the commentary on a particular issue or inscription. Appendix 5 is a concordance that provides equivalencies among IG I^3, IG I-II^2, SEG, Athenian Tribute Lists II, R. Meiggs and D.M. Lewis SGHI, M.N. Tod GHI, D.W. Bradeen and M.F. McGregor Studies in Fifth Century Attic Epigraphy, M. Walbank Athenian Proxenies of the Fifth Century B.C., and various other occasionally relevant journals and collections. This last resource will be an absolute necessity for students and those scholars who have not focused their research on the Athenian ἀρχή, as the text contains a confusion of outdated and inconsistent citations.

Inasmuch as this volume has been entirely reset (with some new typographical errors), one may well wonder why references have not been modernized and homogenized throughout. Authorial intervention has been limited to "necessary corrections." Yet, to raise that question merely invites a contemplation of the perversity of the entire enterprise. With one impulse toward its assembly I could surely have sympathized. Since his redating of one of the controversial documents, the Egesta Decree, has received recent support, no one mindful of the author's age and length of service would begrudge a reprinting of these articles with a pro forma declaration of victory (rather like Senator Aiken's advice to declare victory in Vietnam and "redeploy"). Unfortunately, Professor Mattingly has not been content with that posture. His appendices and other recent publications reveal a continued eagerness for contesting the same old issues in tired formulaic terms. Hence, what the scholarly community had a right to expect was a very different volume from the work under review, namely a synthesis of the epigraphical and chronological arguments on the main documents, shorn of recantations,6 contradictions, inconsequentialities, repetitions, answers to out of favor arguments and theories, and reactions to personal affronts from dead adversaries. The familiar axes have continued to be ground on the favorite questions, but I dare say that the old discussion of some topics on which there has been a massive amount of more recent work (such as the nature and historicity of the Peace of Kallias) is virtually useless.

It was difficult to decide which imposture propounded in this volume might take pride of place. At first I was inclined to think that the title had priority, before opting for a claim made on behalf of the author in the preface by Mortimer Chambers and repeated by the author himself in his introduction. Chambers asserts that his recent investigation, assisted by new technology, which appears to have strengthened the claim of Antiphon (archon in 418) rather than Habron (458) to stand in the prescript of the Egesta decree (IG I^3 11), ought to prompt a general reconsideration of the historical contexts of many other inscribed documents from the Attic 5th-century ἀρχή. It is a bit hard to understand why that response should be triggered by the new dating of this particular inscription (however laudable the new approach may be).7 The Egesta treaty had always been a strong, possibly the best, candidate to breach the orthodoxy on the significance of its three-barred sigma, the epigraphical criterion that had placed the treaty with Egesta before 446.8 In the 1950s, W.K. Pritchett had directed devastating criticism against the conclusion that the archon's name could be determined beyond its ending.9 T.E. Wick had moreover written two important pieces arguing on behalf of a date in the year of Antiphon (JHS [1975]; CP [1975]), and won many converts, without recourse to the main tenets of Mattingly's work on the nature of the Athenian empire. Incidentally, Mattingly himself diverged significantly from a dating in 418/7, accepting 421/0 (pp. 271-76).10

The treaty with Egesta is naturally not a document that one would expect to be very informative about the history of Attic hegemony for topics such as ideology, central jurisdiction, bureaucratic oversight, techniques for domination, redistribution of economic output, or diplomatic protocols. The Syracusan expedition as conducted may well have been dire folly, but the treaty scarcely determined that course (cf. Thuc. 2.65.11). Even if we could be certain that Athens did not have an earlier treaty with Egesta (cf. Thuc. 6.2.2), a later date for this agreement has little impact for the evolution of Attic policy when weighed against the interest in west Greece demonstrated by the colonization of Thourioi in the 440s. Once again, one might be more indulgent toward Mattingly if we were ever told exactly what marked the deeper significance of this specific redating for the history of Attic imperialism. Instead we are treated to vague formulations about opening western Greece (pp. 105-6; cf., e.g., 261-66 276-78, also idiosyncratic in their own way).

Definitively establishing a date of 418 for the Egesta treaty would confirm (to be sure) the prudence of those prepared to endorse the doubts of Mattingly and Wick, as well as acting to lessen our inhibitions about moving other inscriptions with three-barred sigmas after 446. Its effect, however, on the reception of Mattingly's scholarship is exactly opposite to what Professor Chambers contends. The concentration on the rule of the three-barred sigma kept the debate focused upon the minutiae of epigraphical interpretation rather than on historical analysis. That caused the majority of ancient historians, let alone nearly everyone else, to lose interest in a controversy in which the threshold level for participation was so high, being set by the arcana of letter-forms and legal formulae. Moreover, Mattingly's curiously persistent manner of choosing his academic interlocutors has had a pernicious impact on the subject. It has been a very long time since anyone (including Mattingly himself) has bothered to ask whether Mattingly's massive redating of "imperial" inscriptions contributes to a cogent reconstruction of 5th-century Athenian history. Hence, this collection does not come within a parsec of justifying its title, The Athenian Empire Restored.11

Let me consider another odd contention made in the preface and introduction, one echoing one of the main thrusts of the whole Mattingly project of redating, namely that the "Standards", or, as it is better known, "Coinage," Decree should now be dated to the 420s. Although the treaty with Egesta and the Coinage Decree have been juxtaposed in this manner, the contents of the two enactments have nothing in common, as the author knows well.

The date of the Coinage Decree of legislation cannot now be certainly determined. As I have argued elsewhere (The Power of Money [Philadelphia 1998]), even if this piece of legislation is moved chronologically, it cannot possibly have the role in history ascribed to it by Mattingly (or, for that matter, by the ATL he is so determined to controvert). I restrict my self to a half-dozen reasons; there are many more that might be mustered. First, there is Mattingly's peculiar argument that finding a few series of coins that terminate in the late 420s amounts to proof of his chronology, when the whole history of fifth-century minting down to the Ionian War is a record of cessations and curtailments by dozens of mints. Why privilege a handful of cases for special causation or attribute to them especial explanatory power? Second, how did the Coinage Decree represent imperialism by tightening economic control? What were the specific material mechanisms by which such exploitation was practiced? Not only are we never given an answer, but after 550 pages of this book, I am doubtful that the author even recognizes the nature of the question. Third, Mattingly has never appreciated the fragility of some of the early and crucial restorations of the inscriptions which contain fragments of the decree. Rather he has treated several clauses with the authority of text actually on the stone, despite his recognition that D.M. Lewis had demolished one of the principal props of the traditional interpretation (357). Fourth, Mattingly has never considered the intractability of monetary practices to ancient administrators. Sharp changes in policy were impossible to impose on thousands of economic actors in millions of transactions. Massive recalls and reissues of coins were infeasible and unenforceable interventions in daily life. Mattingly is especially weak on how coins actually circulated in the 5th century, invariably ascribing political causation to the content and deposition of hoards or ascribing economic trends, such as the growing preponderance of Athenian coins within the Aegean, to conscious policy. (Note the discussion of the Jordan Hoard, IGCH #1482 (497-503).) Fifth, Mattingly has not elucidated satisfactorily the issue of Attic interest in metrological standards, which in his analysis seems purely gratuitous authoritarianism. The usage "Standards Decree" has been lately picked up by Mattingly (521). The implication that this denomination is more appropriate, however, seems inversely proportional to the success of the analyst in actually explaining why the Athenians would choose to legislate on metrological standards at all. There is a good deal of close and, at times, valuable discussion of metrological standards in this work, but a sound rationale for this sort of Attic intervention in local economic life is wanting. Finally, what was it about minting, an activity gradually relinquished by the majority of states in the Attic alliance or never even adopted, that makes legislation affecting it an infringement of autonomy as that concept was viewed in the late 5th century? Athens had held the prerogative from the very outset of the Delian League to determine which states were tributary (Thuc. 1.96.1), and the process of assessment opened to Attic scrutiny the operations of the allied fiscal regimes that generated revenue for paying tribute. In the event that Athens did forbid coining to a few surviving allied mints, how would that action relate to the aforesaid wide-ranging powers?

Advanced students and working scholars will continue to be stimulated by the exhaustive analyses of inscriptions provided by Mattingly, even though they may withhold judgment on his rethinking of the decade of the 420s. By its construction and demands on its reader, however, this work has unfortunately forfeited a wider audience.


1.   Among scholars with recent relevant works who are neglected, note E. Badian, F. Bourriot, W. Gawantka, A. Giovannini, J.H. Kagan, L. Kallet-Marx, C. Koch, H. Leppin, T.R. Martin, M. Piérart, P.J. Rhodes, L. Samons, W. Schmitz, M. Schoenhammer, B. Smarcyk, M. Vickers, J. Walsh, and this reviewer.
2.   For an example, note the treatment of Athenian "tampering" with the Peloponnesian League in the late 430s and similar developments (19-23).
3.   One exception is a farrago of contentions on Attic finances (158-59). Others are an astonishingly ham-handed analysis of Attic imperialism (167-70) and a ghastly stretch on the eisphorai (215-22). For less disappointing stabs at conventional analysis: contrast 188-89; 259-63; 490.
4.   The mania to redate is so pervasive that it even encompasses an apocryphal document such as the Congress Decree (18-26).
5.   Some examples: 10 (with ns. 21-22) on the relationship of the Kleonymos Decree and the Coinage Decree; 12-13 on the timing of the assessment in 425/4; 15 on Kleon's procurement of ships; 17 on the shared enforcement responsibilities of Attic official and allied magistrates; 25 on redating Perikles' confrontation with Thoukydides to the late 430s; 33-34 on Eleusinian building commissioners' reclamation of debts; 41 on the similarity of two barely attested Milesian oligarchic coups; 74-78 (long string) on the military situation during the Mytilenean revolt; 79-80 on the Attic colony at Poteidaia; 90-92 on the office of general in the mid-420s which segues into the Koroneia epigram (92-93); 136-37 on dating the Brea Decree to the 420s; 145-46 more on Koroneia and Delion; 154 on the "old-fashioned" Attic script of the Kos copy of the Coinage Decree; 165-66 on the context for Attic/Chian relations in 425/4; 197-99 on the Periclean telesterion at Delphi; 209 on IG I^3 179.7; 211-13 on the epigraphical usage of acropolis; 246-48 on the linked chronology of the Kallias and Hestiaia Decrees; 267-69 on the development of perpetual alliances; 303 on amphora sizes and stamps; 422 on the gaps in the activity of northern Aegean mints; 424-25 on the iconography of Abderite coinage; 488 on Herodotus writing in Athens in the 420s; 498-99 on Perikles' Pontic expedition; 501-02 on Cypriot campaigns, 507-8 on Zeus Soter.
6.   Regardless of what one makes of these for issues of credibility, they were bound to disconcert general readers. Note 97, 117, 124, 128, 139, 147, 271-72, 351, 361, 364, 384-85, 413, 432, 481.
7.   It might also be objected that the very necessity for the application of state-of-the-art technology to the problem demonstrates that no one claiming to read an archon's name in line 3 of IG I^3 11, including Mattingly, could possibly have been justified in their confident earlier assertions.
8.   Along with the Miletos decree (IG I^3 21); here pp. 35-44, 170-74, 321-23, 338-40, 394-97, 453-60, 481-85.
9.   CP 47 (1952) 263; AJA (1955) 58-59.
10.   For Egesta in this work, see 99-106, 263-4, 271-72, 276-78, 350-51, 396-98, 473-76, 511-12; also AJP 105 (1984) 344-45; Historia 41 (1992)129-30.
11.   It is one of the oddities of this work that the essay that comes across as the most persuasively argued and the most prudent is Chapter 8, "Athens, Delphi and Eleusis in the Late 420s" (181-204), in which Mattingly states that "I have deliberately been keeping on the whole within the boundaries imposed by what is still accepted epigraphic dogma". This is what prosecutors call an "admission against interest". Moreover, of Mattingly's assorted redatings, one of the strongest concerns the Kallias Decree, and paradoxically that one does not involve the evolution of "imperialism" (although the treatment is hardly ATL-friendly). See pp. 208-13, 215-48.

Read Latest
Index for 2001
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:27:39, Friday, 03 April 2009