Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.12.27

Volker Grieb, Hellenistische Demokratie: politische Organisation und Struktur in freien griechischen Poleis nach Alexander dem Grossen. Historia Einzelschriften 199.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2008.  Pp. 407.  ISBN 9783515090636.  €77.00.  

Reviewed by Sara Saba, Kommission für Alte Geschichte und Epigraphik, Munich (
Word count: 1700 words

The 2008 book by Volker Grieb treats the difficult and interesting theme of Hellenistic democracy in free cities. As the author suggests at the beginning of his work, for decades the general tendency was that of studying the topic of democracy only in relation to the Classical Age, while its development and very existence in the Hellenistic Age was often considered of secondary importance, if not outright ignored. This resulted in the rather common view that ancient democracy did not survive the political and social changes brought by the Hellenistic period. In the last two decades, however, attitudes have shifted in scholarship on this issue and Grieb enters the debate by asserting his disagreement with the above-mentioned long-held opinion. Through the analysis of institutions, political praxis, and relevant historical events of Athens, Cos, Miletos, and Rhodes, Grieb tries to make a case for the vitality of democratic forms of government, the demos' active role within them, and their impact on the international scene after Alexander the Great.

To each polis he dedicates a chapter, and these are invariably articulated in somewhat rigidly conceived sections that study the demos, the political institutions of the community first at a local and then at a city level, after which follows a section misleadingly entitled demokratia, eleutheria, and autonomia and then a final treatment of the changes brought about by Roman influence and domination on these communities.

The first chapter is dedicated to Athens, for which it must be stressed that the author handles a rich and complex amount of material well by systematizing it in a readable study. His analysis of the institutions is shorter than it could have been and leaves room for discussion on a few points, such as for example his treatment of the demoi, whose importance he sees undiminished throughout the centuries. His faith, however, rests on weak, indirect evidence that seems to have more to do with pragmatism than with a constant role of these units in political life. For example, the author uses the 4th century honorary decrees for prytaneis as a proof for this constant political relevance on the basis of the fact that the names of these officials were listed according to the demoi to which they belonged. Regrettably, for Athens the author does not offer any analysis of what he calls political praxis in the subsequent chapters. After this section follows that entitled entitled "demokratia, eleutheria, and autonomia", which is not a history of ideas or an analysis of their use through the sources, rather a pragmatic discussion of historical events written with an eye to the People's1 participation and to the freedom a community had in pursuing an independent foreign policy. Given that these correspond to Grieb's definition of demokratia, eleutheria, and autonomia and that he uses them to measure the democratic level of a city, a systematic study of the context where they appear, although one could object that this is a whole new book, would have given this section a different standing. In the specific case of Athens, skeptics may wonder whether popular participation measured via, mainly, honorific decrees is a reliable factor for establishing the actual maintenance of a form of government whose significance may have changed. This would not, by the way, mean that the institution of the polis was not vital or that democracy did not exist, only that it existed with a modified content. Be that as it may, the author's view emerges strongly from these pages: he sees Athens as a city that, with sporadic interruptions due to historical events, never failed her democratic animus. It was only when Roman influence became a physical presence that her institutions lost their democratic shape and creed.

Cos is next in this study of Hellenistic democracies. Following the usual scheme, the author offers his interpretation of the available data on the island. A premise is necessary: once more I must stress that one of Grieb's merits is that of having meticulously gathered and studied a monstrous and widely scattered quantity of data. The treatment of the demos of Cos shows clearly the nuanced citizen and non-citizen status of the local inhabitants, on which, however, not enough is known. Grieb presents a short review of the activity of the most important political and decisional organs, along with the mention of the most relevant offices. In regards to the democratic structure of the community, he makes a convincing case. Its democratic form was certainly maintained in part thanks to a skilled foreign policy, which sought to preserve a constant equilibrium in the relationship with the Hellenistic kingdoms. The reader, however, has the impression that the author is determined to prove his thesis relentlessly. For example, this emerges in the section dedicated to political praxis, in which the stress falls on the role played by local notables, whose actions and benefactions, he believes, were made possible only by the final approval of local democratic organs. Important is the discussion of the homopoliteia with Kalymnos, which along with the weight given to the institution of foreign judges, goes to prove the affection that Cos had for her democratic institutions. Coans were often requested as judges, probably because of the stability of the island and the renowned laws that Antigonos wanted to use ad interim for the polis that should have come out of the sympoliteia between Teos and Lebedos. According to Grieb, Cos, like Athens, saw its democratic forms decline with the establishment of Roman power. Although they never underwent drastic changes, their role and function came progressively to an end.

The third chapter deals with Miletus with the usual precision in scrutinizing the available sources.2 The reader knows the drill by now: the first section is dedicated to the demos, then come the institutions, political praxis and the historical sections. In regard to institutions, it must be noted that Grieb assumes a critical tone towards a few of the results reached by Müller in 1976,3 although the sources still offer no conclusive evidence for determining the exact role and status of a few key offices. Grieb also rejects the hypothesis of a political role for the Molpoi, as suggested by Graf and more recently held by Herda. Their hypothesis is worth discussing, even if to be rejected, since it takes into account important aspects of the political and cultural life of a polis.4 The analysis of the political practice in Miletus and the conclusive historical sections reach a result that is identical to that presented for Athens and Cos. This section on Miletus is the least convincing, at least for this reviewer. The documents analyzed are all too well known and their difficult interpretation appears all too univocal, even telic at times. Decisive proofs on many points are lacking, and institutions, as portrayed by official texts (which have their own set of problems), fail to support the radical conclusions offered by the author who tries to read either too much or too little into these sources. A good example is his remark on the first few lines of one of Miletus' eponyms' list, I. Milet 3. 123, which separate the three concepts of demokratia, eleutheria, and autonomia for linguistic reasons; Grib goes on to assert and see a somewhat hidden meaning in this.5 On the other hand, the standard enactment formulae are read literally, so that in a way a democratic procedure is warranted by their very presence. Miletus' political, institutional and constitutional history requires a more nuanced interpretation. Simply put, between black and white there are many shades of grey.

Rhodes is the last stop in this overview of Hellenistic democracies. The usual descriptive pattern is used here too. The point of view with which the author battles, is that which assumes the presence of an oligarchic kernel in the democratic shape of Rhodes, whose presence is sensed in the high society of the island whose notables are often defined as a naval aristocracy. These would have influenced the political form and direction of the polis, but that a well-off part of the citizen body was meant to support the expenses of a strong fleet, for example, does not mean that the polis was not ruled with democratic institutions. That Rhodes was a democratic polis, according to ancient standards and approaches, hardly needs heated debate. Even for the democracy in this community, the author envisions a parabola whose descending line starts with Roman influence.

A summary and general overview end the book and a couple of the author's observations are worthy of a short note. Grieb reserves a few pages to the concepts of eleutheria, autonomia, and demokratia, but he discusses them mainly by opposing Ma's thesis that considered these concepts as interchangeable.6 As Grieb rightly states, they were so only up to a point. This leads to new observations on autonomy and the people's participation in the life of city-states, but the renewed pessimism on the actual chances that citizens were given, once the Romans made their presence felt, should be toned down. The coming of Rome certainly defined new boundaries, but citizens of poleis, and especially, as always, prominent ones, found different stages where they could act. One last point that deserves attention is Grieb's discussion of the concept of a constitutional koine as once offered by Busolt. In order to prove his point, Grieb compares democratic communities with poleis that were knowingly under the direct influence or control of kings,7 thus showing that the presence of certain widespread institutions did not always equal a democratic modus regendi.

In his work, Grieb collects and studies an imposing amount of evidence very carefully. It is no new thesis, however, that Hellenistic democracy -- or better: democracies -- were a reality with which historians have to come to terms. The new aspect that the author brings out concerns the foreign policy, specifically the active role that these communities could have, in comparison to dependent poleis, on the international scene. As said, the book contains a huge amount of information that has been certainly scrutinized attentively, but it suffers from the unconditional belief of the author in his thesis, which leads to a univocal interpretation of the sources, whose nature is often disregarded.


1.   The author is radically opposed to the translation of demos as People, Volk, Popolo, et alia because of its potential ambiguity. Given the specific context of his discussion, however, I fail to see the danger of misinterpreting this term. For example, on p. 319 the author quotes Berthold R.M., Rhodes in the Hellenistic Age, London 1984 and adds a "[sic!]" by the word people: I believe Berthold's statement is crystal clear and there is no doubt on my mind on the significance to attribute to the word in that specific citation. This constant polemic overreaches its scope.
2.   On p. 211 Insch. von Milet I.3.150 is called sympoliteia instead of isopoliteia.
3.   Müller H., Milesische Volksbeschlüsse. Eine Untersuchung zur Verfassungsgeschichte der Stadt Milet in hellenistischer Zeit, Göttingen 1974.
4.   Graf F., "Apollon Delphinios", MH 36, 1979, pp. 2-22; Herda A., Der Apollon-Delphinios-Kult in Milet und die Neujahrsprozession nach Didyma, Milesische Forschungen Band 4, Mainz 2006.
5.   See p. 239 and especially n. 243.
6.   Ma J., Antiochos III and the Cities of Western Asia Minor, Oxford 1999. Grieb refers to Carlsson S., Hellenistic Democracies, Uppsala 2005 for a longer discussion of these points.
7.   Here, it must be signaled that in Pergamon the strategoi were not royal appointees and did not supervise the city, as an old, long-held opinion stated. Instead, Müller and Wörrle have relatively recently shown that the official in charge of supervising the polis was the so called ἐπὶ τῆς πόλεως. See H. Müller -M. Wörrle, "Ein Verein im Hinterland Pergamons zur Zeit Eumenes' II", Chiron 32, 2002, pp. 191-235.

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