Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.04.05

J. L. Marr, P. J. Rhodes (trans.), The 'Old Oligarch': The Constitution of the Athenians Attributed to Xenophon. Aris & Phillips Classical Texts.   Oxford:  Aris & Phillips, 2008.  Pp. 178.  ISBN 9780856687815.  $36.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Delfim F. Leâo, University of Coimbra, Portugal (
Word count: 1752 words

As stated in the "Preface" (ix), this edition of the 'Old Oligarch' was begun by J. L. Marr, who discussed previous drafts with P. J. Rhodes, and finally asked the latter to join him in finishing the book. The final version of the volume was produced by Rhodes, although both authors share joint responsibility for the book as whole (including Greek text, English translation and the various interpretations expressed along the work). The result is a very complete approach to this small treatise, too often neglected by literary critics and ancient historians, thus providing an analysis capable of attracting the attention of specialists, students and general public as well. This kind of balance is not easy to maintain, but Marr and Rhodes (henceforth M&R) have managed to achieve it, by combining an incisive introduction with an easily readable translation (without betraying the recognized immaturity of the anonymous author) and an illuminating commentary that usually refers the reader to the English version, but does not disregard the Greek original.

The Introduction (pp. 1-29), although fairly short, is divided by M&R into eleven smaller sections which offer an easy and well-informed approach to the main lines of discussion concerning the treatise. In the first (The Name 'Old Oligarch'), they address the problem of an expression which , although widely used by English-language speakers, may nevertheless lead to error, by suggesting that the author is an old person and a traditional oligarch. In fact, the reality is probably the opposite: the author is almost certainly a young (and relatively immature) person who, although being opposed to the democratic regime, does not express the opinions of a conventional oligarch (whose arguments he partially discredits in his discussion). Nevertheless, the expression reflects the difficulty, felt already in antiquity, of attributing this work to Xenophon and is thereby a practical way of dealing with the problem of authorship implied by the traditional title, 'the Pseudo-Xenophontic Athenaion Politeia'. M&R have chosen to refer to the author as 'X' (following Gomme), meaning that the author is unknown rather than that they are using an abbreviation for Xenophon. M&R tend to share the standard position among scholars that Xenophon is not the author of the treatise, but correctly call attention to the fact that the arguments (discussed at length in section 4) are not as conclusive as some scholars usually maintain they are.

In the second section (The Title of the Work), the authors discuss the pertinence of attributing to the treatise the title 'Constitution of the Athenians' ('Athenaion Politeia'), rightly considering it to be no less misleading than the expression analysed in the previous section, because it may suggest a kind of objective constitutional and institutional history of Athens (somehow comparable to the Aristotelian 'Athenaion Politeia'), when the treatise is, on the contrary, a generalising work, with a strong argumentative character, with almost no factual details such as might reasonably be expected from a constitutional historian (e.g. dates, facts and names). This title probably results from a misappropriation of the first five words of the opening sentence and is due to a later commentator and not to the author of the treatise. This generalising nature of the work also makes it hard to fix the date which should be assigned to it (as discussed in section three: The Date of the Work), because the lack of internal and external evidence makes it very hard to establish both a date after and a date before which the treatise must have been written. The dates assigned by scholarship oscillate from the 440s to the fourth century (a conspectus is given in pp. 31-32); M&R give preference to 425-424, a possibility first proposed by W. Roscher. As they pertinently assert (p. 6), one important consequence of this date is that it turns the treatise into "the earliest surviving example of a literary text in Attic prose, and the earliest prose critique of Athenian democracy".

The next section, 'The Authorship of the work', is the longest. Diogenes Laertius (II.57) makes it clear that its attribution to Xenophon was already disputed in antiquity. Modern scholars tend to consider the two short pieces of the 'Constitutions of the Athenians and of the Lacedaemonians' as separate works, and to identify Xenophon as the author of the 'Constitution of the Lacedaemonians', but not of the 'Constitution of the Athenians'. In reviewing the arguments generally used by scholars to justify this opinion (concerning style and chronology), M&R do not challenge that perspective, because they too find Xenophontic authorship highly improbable, but their analysis has the undeniable advantage of showing that the grounds for denying that authorship are neither irrefutable nor self-evident.

Section five (The Author and his Immediate Audience) addresses the confrontational character of the work. In fact, throughout the treatise the author gives the impression of quarrelling with a group of antagonists and interlocutors, whose argumentation he anticipates and responds to, thus achieving a certain vivacity. The presence of imaginary opponents can be detected some twenty times all through this short work. These interlocutors are sometimes referred to in the singular and other times in the plural, and, unlike the author of the treatise, who is Athenian, they are perceived as being foreigners (primarily Spartans), because although they share an anti-democratic perspective, their understanding of democracy is superficial, as can be inferred from the answers given to their somewhat naïve criticism of Athenian democracy. As for the place where the 'debate' took place, it has sometimes been suggested that the author was in exile when he wrote it, but M&R argue convincingly that the treatise was produced in Athens, by an Athenian, perhaps in the context of a rhetorical classroom exercise. This possibility would be consistent with the theory that the author is still very young and rooted in an oligarchic circle of family and friends. M&R speculate (commentary on 2.20) that he may have been a pupil of Antiphon, the orator and sophist, and this a conjecture is not improbable, on chronological, political and social grounds.

The analysis of the way the author of the work responds to his imaginary interlocutors, made in section six (The Author's Argument: the Self-interest Theory), shows that he considers their anti-democratic criticism to be pertinent, although objecting that this regime was effective as a whole in Athens, because the demos managed to pursue its own self-interest successfully. Consequently even if the author shares the oligarchic and aristocratic idea that democracy is a bad form of government, he recognises nevertheless that the system is effective, owing precisely to the self-interest theory. Acknowledgement of this fact enables him to have a deeper and more realistic understanding of the democratic regime, unlike his antagonists, who follow the traditional oligarchic perspective, which proves in the end to be more superficial.

In section seven (The Two-fold Class Division: the Demos versus the Oligoi), M&R note that throughout the treatise the term demos is used over forty times, usually in the political narrow sense of 'lower class', because for the author democracy is the rule of the poor (majority) over the rich (minority) in order to preserve their mainly economic self-interest. M&R correctly call attention to the fact that this two-fold class division and the restricted and pejorative sense given to the word demos, together with the idea that it corresponded essentially to the urban and landless poor, are a too simplistic way of perceiving Athenian society around 424 and therefore a fantasy--even if this fantasy is occasionally shared by modern scholars. Section eight (Class Designations and Class Labels) adds some further elements to this analysis, by discussing the several terms used to describe the two opposing political classes in which the Athenian citizen body was divided. As expected from the partial author's perspective, the words with a positive connotation are always applied to the members of his own class (the oligoi), and the opposite to the demos.

The last three sections are devoted to other stylistic features of the work, to its structure and finally to the facing Greek text. The critical apparatus supplied in this edition is highly selective and aims at including mainly different readings of the text, especially when it differs from that of Bowersock.1 Before beginning the treatise, M&R present a very useful conspectus of the dates assigned to it by different scholars (pp. 31-32) and a Select Bibliography (pp. 33-34) of twenty four titles, with a section on Xenophon, another on the 'Constitution of the Athenians', and Rhodes' commentary on the Aristotelian 'Athenaion Politeia'.2 Some readers will perhaps miss a more extensive list; certainly other works could easily be suggested. On the other hand, throughout the commentary many other studies are mentioned and considered, some of which discuss the treatise directly (e.g. p. 78, on Bechtle). This clearly shows that the first intention of M&R has been to provide a guiding select bibliography, and the works indicated by them are in fact important.

As already remarked, the English translation is easily readable; indeed it is so elegant that the immature style of the author is concealed. However, the most important and certainly most useful part of this book is the extensive (pp. 59-168) commentary provided by M&R. The perspective adopted is mainly historical and political, although there are also frequent philological and stylistic comments. M&R have pertinently chosen to direct their approach first to the treatise in itself, second to comparison with other ancient testimonies and finally to discussion of modern scholarship. It is a principle of the series in which this volume was published that the lemmata in the commentary refer to the English text of the translation and not to the original, and this corresponds to M&R's pedagogic intentions. Even though a full Greek text is provided, a very positive consequence of this option is that the regular non-classicist reader is also capable of following the commentary with no serious difficulties.

The volume includes in addition seven short appendixes (pp. 169-175). These usefully complement the Introduction and further elucidate the stylistic and ideological characterization of the author.

M&R's volume is not of course as monumental as Rhodes' commentary on the Aristotelian 'Athenaion Politeia', nor could it be, because the Greek original treatise now analysed is not comparable in importance to that fourth-century work. At any rate, it should be asserted that M&R's book has all the qualities necessary to become a standard work of reference among the studies that deal with the 'Old Oligarch'--and it is also fair to recognise that it will not be easy to improve on it.


1.   Bowersock, G. W., 'Constitution of the Athenians', in reissue of Xenophon, vol. vii. Scripta Minora [text and translation] (Loeb. London: Heinemann / Harvard UP, 1968), 459-507 and 515.
2.   Rhodes, P. J., A Commentary on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia. (OUP, 1981; reiussed with addenda 1993).

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