Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.09.58

György Németh, Kritias und die Dreissig Tyrannen: Untersuchungen zur Politik und Prosopographie der Führungselite in Athen 404/403 v. Chr. Alte Geschichte, HABES, 43.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006.  Pp. 203.  ISBN 3-515-08866-0.  €39.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Roger S. Fisher, York University (
Word count: 2998 words

Németh's monograph, based on over twenty years of research and, in some respects, a summary and restatement of earlier work published in a number of articles, is a welcome addition to a field and a methodology that for Greek history continues to be neglected and undervalued. The monograph is subtitled "investigations into politics and prosopography" and divides into almost two distinct parts. The first three chapters (using more traditional approaches to ancient history, such as source criticism and political narrative history) address three aspects of Athenian society and politics in the period of the Thirty: the nature and composition of the Thirty as an oligarchy, the social status of the hoplite class, and the role of the cavalry class in supporting the oligarchy. The next two chapters form a prosopographical catalogue of individuals and their association with the Thirty, either as members or supporters, or as their victims. The final, sixth chapter offers a brief, but intriguing, analysis of the property and social status of the Thirty and their supporters.

In Chapter One, Németh begins with the question why the oligarchs were thirty in number rather than twenty, ten, or indeed, any other number. Németh canvasses the possibilities and concludes that the number thirty was not a result of Spartan influence or precedent but was based on an Athenian model. He then asks whether the Thirty were a cohesive faction or what might be called a "unity cabinet" of competing interests. According to Lysias, Theramenes chose one third of the members of the Thirty, and Németh asks how he could have been so easily removed later on if one third of the Thirty were ostensibly his supporters. Németh's practical solution is to discredit Lysias' account of how the Thirty were chosen. Németh is not reluctant to take a firm position on one side of a complex question, even if it means dismissing a literary source simply because it does not fit into a hypothesis. To his credit, however, Németh is scrupulous about canvassing all the possible solutions to a problem (which he documents in detailed footnotes). This means that his readers are able to weigh and assess the material and form their own opinions on questions that in many cases may never be resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

Németh continues this "enquiry approach" by asking who was the "leader" of the Thirty and whether there was a "first man" in this period akin to Perikles. Németh admits that it is a difficult question to answer, but he does not even seem to consider whether there was a "first man" at all (given the different dynamic to the politics of the period). This leads to a lengthy, digressive discussion of Kritias and his connections (all of which are summarized on p. 31). It seems important for Németh to determine whether or not Kritias was part of the Four Hundred in 411 B.C., as if such a connection will explain or account for behaviour in other circumstances. The problem is that in this digression Németh has left prosopography, which is "collective biography," far behind in order to focus on the biography of one man. He concludes that Kritias was never a democrat and that his exile in Thessaly forged the Kritias who became the politician most often associated with the Thirty.

Chapters Two and Three, on the hoplites and cavalry respectively, are useful and also canvass vexed questions, but again it is disappointing that Németh does not use his prosopographical data to shed light on these topics -- all the questions he addresses are answered using traditional source criticism. For example, Németh begins Chapter Two asking what was the cost of a hoplite's panoply and whether hoplite status was itself a sign of wealth. But he goes on to argue that hoplite status was not an indication of much wealth -- in doing so, unfortunately, he reduces the importance of hoplite status as a socially distinguishing marker (and thus renders less important the prosopographical value of such status). Németh's key piece of evidence here is Socrates, who was surely an exceptional case. The fact that Socrates was a member of the citizen body under the Thirty could be explained on the basis of other factors, such as Socrates' friends among the Thirty, rather than as an indication of the sociological characteristics of the hoplite class generally. Indeed, Németh concludes that Socrates was a member of the Thirty for ideological reasons.

In determining the cost of a hoplite's panoply, Németh goes all the way back to Homer. Németh concedes the difficulty in converting prices and relative values over several centuries and between rural, heroic societies and urban, monetary economies. His calculations are rather brief and hard to follow. His general conclusion is that there was no significant change in the cost of a set of armour for a hoplite and that generally a panoply could be purchased for a relatively modest sum. This is an important conclusion, if correct, but begs many questions that Németh seems to brush aside. It is hard to believe that the cost of a set of armour did not go up and down with supply and demand, or that the cost did not fluctuate, for example, in times of war and peace and in direct relation to the supply of materials, the presence of a sufficient number of craftsmen at a given time, and the ability of craftsmen to produce a complete set on demand. Németh also discounts the effect that repaired and restored armour might have had on the price of armour and questions whether armour could have been inherited.

Németh then considers the size of the hoplite census and the number of those citizens able to pay cash for a set of armour. To be a member of the hoplite class, a citizen must have been able to purchase a set of armour. But once purchased, what further was required in order to maintain the status? Németh continues to speak of the number of citizens who could "afford" a set of armour, but this overlooks the fact that the purchase was likely a one-time event. If a hoplite already had a set of armour, and the census status of being a hoplite, why would he need cash? Also, we cannot dismiss the possibility that armour could be loaned or that the money to purchase armour could be loaned by family and friends, to be repaid at a later date.

The next topic is the number of hoplites -- this is an important question, but one of a more demographic than prosopographical nature. There was no central list of hoplites (p. 53) unlike for the cavalry (p. 57). Németh concludes that the number of 3000 citizens under the Thirty left out about 6000 citizens of former hoplite status (p. 56). Later Németh concludes that the distinction was between hoplites who owned land as separate from those of hoplite status who did not own land.

Turning to the question why the oligarchy decided on a citizen body of 3000, Németh canvasses eight possible explanations for that particular number. Németh discounts the idea that the number of 3000 citizens came from direct emulation of Sparta (just as he had earlier concluded that the number of thirty tyrants was based on an Athenian model) and argues that the number was based on other considerations, although he does suggest that the fact the number may have been of a similar magnitude to the number of homoioi in Sparta could have been useful for the Athenians. In other words, they could have it both ways. But, of course, this reopens the question of which came first, the emulation or the other considerations. In any event, Németh argues that the number 3000 came first and foremost from political theory -- based on notions of an ideal state consisting of 3000 citizens, 300 cavalry, and 30 oligarchs. Thus Kritias, who started out as a philosopher but became a politician out of the demands of circumstance, returned to his roots as a political theorist under the Thirty.

The cavalry (Chapter Three) play an important role in Németh's account of the Thirty. Németh makes the important distinction between cavalry status and cavalry service -- the number of mounted cavalry was relatively small (only 96 at Marathon, for example), until the cavalry became democratized in the middle of the fifth century. Németh concludes that the men who actually served in the cavalry were recruited from the hoplite class and not just from the cavalry class (the hippeis). Prosopographically this means that the two highest levels of Athenian society become less distinguishable and cavalry service itself cannot be used as a marker of high social status.

In the later half of the fifth century, the cavalry became "democratized" -- the number was increased to 300 (not, Németh argues, to as many as 1200, as some sources suggest), but even this number exceeded the number of young men available for service in the ranks of the cavalry class. As a result of the change in number, the cavalry were now recruited from the ranks of the cavalry class as well as the ranks of the 500-bushel men (who now received a state subsidy to support the cost of maintaining a horse and equipment).

Németh argues that the new, expanded cavalry class achieved a kind of class pride based on their role in defending Attika and also from their exemplary service abroad. At the same time this new cavalry class resented the financial burdens that were imposed by the radical democracy as a result of Peloponnesian War. Many hippeis were killed or exiled by the Thirty, but many also served them. What are we to make of this apparent inconsistency? Németh's conclusion is that the cavalry who supported the Thirty were the "aristocratic cavalry" and formed the cadre of young "daredevils" -- the young, ambitious, and reckless aristocrats who resented the demos. Thus he equates the young "knife bearers" who worked with the Eleven against Theramenes and with the bodyguards of the Thirty (p. 87). This is all plausible but perhaps incapable of proof. The argument that the number of bodyguards is the same number given for the cavalry who stayed in Athens does not prove they are one and the same group.

Németh also argues that the size of the cavalry under the Thirty was about 300, which he argues was the number of hippeis and 500-bushel men who remained in Athens. This sets up a very neat, perhaps too neat, formula for the structure of the Thirty (30 oligarchs, 300 cavalry, and 3000 hoplites). Németh explains why the cavalry supported the Thirty, and later the Ten, by arguing that the oligarchs gave the cavalry a status it did not enjoy under the radical democracy of the late fifth century. Németh concludes that the period under the Ten was actually the rule of the cavalry class (p. 88).

Later Németh concludes that the supporters of the Thirty were middle class. It is not clear how this is reconciled with the hypothesis that the "aristocratic cavalry" supported the Thirty and the Ten. If, as Németh argues, the Thirty were largely middle class, could one push the argument a bit and suggest that the cavalry that remained in Athens formed a middle class with rising expectations rather than an old, disillusioned aristocracy? Many members of the cavalry lost their property in the Archidamian and Decelean Wars. Furthermore, given that many members of the cavalry class were killed or left Athens, is it even correct to call those who remained "the cavalry" as Németh does (p. 88)?

The second half of the monograph (Chapters Four and Five) sets out the prosopography of the members and supporters of the Thirty as well as their victims. Unfortunately, these two chapters are probably the least satisfying in that analysis quickly gives way to raw information. Prosopography is more than identifying and cataloguing individuals. Lysias, as Németh notes, tells us how the Thirty were selected, but does not tell us who actually made up the Thirty. One wishes that Németh had pushed the prosopographical material more to see if, working from the characteristics of the known members of the Thirty and their supporters, it is possible to detect patterns that reveal more about the social history of this period (see, for example, the recent dissertation by D. L. Kellog, "The Attic deme of Acharnai: History and Identity," University of Pennsylvania, 2005).

In Chapter Four Németh tackles the vexed question of how the Thirty were chosen, rejecting Loeper's hypothesis that the Thirty was structured by city, coastal, and rural trittyes. Using this method, Loeper, Kirchner, and others had sought to identify the demes for individual members of the Thirty and their families. In rejecting this hypothesis, and in minimizing the likelihood of making family connections between individuals, Németh reinforces the conventional view that there is a diminished possibility for any meaningful prosopographical analysis of the period.

Chapter Five examines the prosopography of the victims of the Five Ephors, the Thirty, and the Ten. But Németh is only able to identify 16 named victims of the Thirty (although his table on pp. 151-152 lists only 15 named victims). Of these 16 (or 15) named victims, 4 are otherwise unknown to us. The sources tell us that there were about 1500 victims of the Thirty in the first eight months alone. Given the natural tendency of our literary sources to mention the most prominent names for the period, the focus on 16 known victims may seriously skew the collective biography of this dark period in Athenian social history.

The final chapter, Chapter Six, is a brief, but interesting, section on the property of the Thirty and their supporters. Németh concludes that the Thirty and their adherents appear to be much less well off than their victims (note that it is a large leap to infer social status from the value of seized assets). Németh concludes that the economic status of the Thirty and their adherents confirms the ancient sources that tell us that they were greedy men who killed and exiled people solely for their property. He also compares the Thirty and their adherents to the aristocrats accused of defacing the herms and revealing the Mysteries on the eve of the Sicilian expedition and finds that the Thirty and their adherents are, comparatively speaking, of a lower economic status. Németh does not consider other explanations for why the Thirty and their adherents appear to be much less well off than the aristocrats accused of defacing the herms and revealing the Mysteries. For example, perhaps the Thirty and their followers suffered more in the war years following the Sicilian disaster, particularly as Athens lost her maritime empire. Furthermore, the accused in 415 B.C. were seized suddenly and unexpectedly, whereas the Thirty and their followers had time to conceal assets before being arrested.

That the Thirty were motivated by greed is well attested in the ancient sources. The prosopographical evidence presented here unfortunately cannot contribute much to the debate. As Németh notes, most of the victims are unknown to us, and it is very difficult to draw conclusions from a few well-attested individuals who may not be at all representative of the group as a whole. But the broader question is one that Németh does not consider -- why did the so-called "middle class" support the Thirty? Middle classes do not always behave in such a way. Is it perhaps not possible that the so-called middle class supporters of the Thirty wanted back what they had lost? One could probably look with profit to historical studies of other similar periods of "terror" and explanations for the behaviour of mobs -- for example, the theory that revolutions are caused by frustrated rising expectations at the top rather than at the bottom of a revolutionary society (i.e., Crane Brinton's classic The Anatomy of Revolution).

The index is a bit disappointing. One would expect in a work of a prosopographical nature that the index of names would provide more detail than simply the nomen. In one instance, to avoid confusion, Németh does differentiate Thucydides from Thucydides Melesiu (p. 38), but this kind of precision is quite minimal in the index. The prosopographical section in the centre of the monograph provides more detailed information on each name, but that section is not organized like an index.

Some minor typos are evident ("Bough" for Bugh on p. 75; "suchs" for such on p. 93, n. 10; "recents" for recent on p. 75). The unfortunate error in the table of contents where the page number for Chapter 2.4 is given as p. 59 (for what should be p. 63) is readily apparent. The monograph shows also some inconsistency in editing and organization (on pp. 140-141, for example, six ancient sources are quoted in a list -- five in German translation with the Greek text in footnotes and one in Greek with no translation). The writing is repetitious in several places, and the text might have benefited from some revision -- for example the same phrase ("sichtbar für den Rat an die Schranken zu treten") appears within two lines on p. 86. A lengthy quote on p. 154 reappears verbatim (with the same typo) in a lengthy footnote on p. 166, n. 17.

In summation, one wishes at times that Németh was more prepared to ask the historical and sociological questions that might better describe and account for the social history of the period. One gets the impression that overall Németh is inclined to discount the value of prosopographical evidence in favour of more traditional methods such as source criticism and historiography. Otherwise, Németh's monograph is well-researched and thorough. For the questions he does ask, the "enquiry approach" works well, and he does a good job summarizing his major conclusions and "showing his work," so to speak. Where no conclusive answer is possible, he summarizes the arguments of other scholars and allows readers to draw their own conclusion.

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