Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.01.40

Susanne Carlsson, Hellenistic Democracies: Freedom, Independence and Political Procedure in Some East Greek City-States. Historia Einzelschriften 206.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010.  Pp. 372.  ISBN 9783515092654.  €66.00.  

Reviewed by Eric Robinson, Indiana University (

[Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

Carlsson's Hellenistic Democracies is an extraordinarily useful study. A lightly revised version of her Uppsala dissertation, the book tackles the issue of the nature of Hellenistic democracies, primarily through an examination of the inscriptions of four city-states: Iasos, Kalymna, Kos, and Miletos.1 In one long, four-part chapter Carlsson examines what can be gleaned about the public organization, officials, and decision-making of each polis based primarily on analysis of a wide selection of its inscribed decrees from the Classical to the Late Roman periods. Following the same schema for each of the four city-states, Carlsson produces and scrutinizes a large amount of data about governing structures and procedures. Some of the material considered, such as the public organizations (tribes, demes, etc.) rarely matter for assessment of the nature of the democracy and seem to be noted mainly for comprehensiveness. But many other emergent factors do matter, including the numbers of officials and boards (a great many), terms of office (sometimes as brief as six months), the frequency of assembly meetings (when determinable, once per month plus special sessions), how often individuals moved decrees (fewer over time), whether amendments to bouleutic proposals in the assembly are attested (in several cases), and the appearance and context of terms such as autonomia, eleutheria, and demokratia in the decrees.

Carlsson wisely does not make too much of any one indicator. To try to argue that democratic government flourished or failed to flourish solely on the basis of, for example, a multiplicity of official boards, or the appearance of the term demokratia, would not be very persuasive. Instead, evidence accumulates slowly but steadily and on a very broad front for the book's overall conclusion: down to roughly the mid-second century BC the decrees of each of these four city-states show active, independent democratic governments at work. Thus Carlsson infers that democracy in the Hellenistic period, while not exactly like its forerunner in the Classical era, continued in vibrant fashion longer than scholars used to be willing to credit. This conclusion is in line with other recent work in the field. In particular it seems to pick up and develop threads from Rhodes's and Lewis's Decrees of the Greek States.

Carlsson does not grasp at every available straw to make her case. For example, she does not make much of the so-called "demos decrees" of Kos, claimed by Sherwin-White in Ancient Kos to be proposals directly to the assembly by individuals, bypassing the council, and thus radically democratic. Carlsson reasons (with Rhodes) that the absence of an enactment formula in four of the five documents leaves open the possibility that the council had been involved after all. She further explains how even if the council was avoided, such may not indicate a greater degree of democracy. And she hypothesizes that some of the decrees could have been local, deme decrees, which would explain the failure to mention a council.

Carlsson is aware of the limitations of her evidence. Epigraphic documents by their nature do not normally provide the political context for the decisions reached and procedures used. Thus, what may appear to be an openly democratic process could have been engineered by a cadre of local elites or coerced by an overbearing regional power. A deficit of testimony from literary histories exacerbates the problem. Similarly, what look like constitutionally significant changes in procedure over time could reflect nothing more than a change in epigraphic habit. Carlsson admits that she prefers to take the documents literally, and makes no apology for doing so beyond acknowledging the possibility of more skeptical interpretations. This is reasonable. For one thing, she has numbers on her side: with hundreds of decrees from these four city-states distributed across multiple centuries, the possibility that this or that individual decree was "fixed" makes little difference, and the burden of proof would seem to fall squarely on those who would see shadow oligarchies and dominating hegemons pulling the strings in all these cities decade after decade. Carlsson can also point to one instance where a known loss of independence resulted in discernable epigraphic changes: after Kalymna was incorporated as a deme of Kos at the end of the third century BC, the number of Kalymnian decrees falls precipitously and the council and prostatai disappear from the record, among other notable changes. This is a convincing point to make. Further examples of the immediate epigraphic impact of non-democratic or subjugated regimes (if they could be found, presumably from other Hellenistic city-states) would have helped Carlsson justify her literal interpretations, though producing such would have pulled her beyond the scope of her four chosen cases.

The case studies of Iasos, Kalymna, Kos, and Miletos form the heart of Carlsson's work, but there is more — perhaps too much more. Six chapters precede the central case studies in an extended prolegomenon covering in broad strokes such themes as democracy ancient vs. modern, autonomy and sovereignty ancient and modern, uses of the words autonomia and eleutheria in Hellenistic inscriptions, hegemonic power and interstate relations generally in Greece, and constitutional study through inscriptions. Though occasionally enlightening with respect to each subtopic, these surveys do not tie themselves closely enough to the book's overall argument. Only the last of them seems essential: there Carlsson explains succinctly the formulas and contents of Greek decrees and the kinds of questions she will be asking of them in the case studies that immediately follow. The prior chapters, however, read almost as filler. One understands why they are there: Carlsson seeks to assess the whole picture of democratic freedom and independence in Hellenistic Greece and argue for their persistence. Such a broad topic would seem to invite a consideration of what democracy is, from a variety of theoretical perspectives, as well as the challenge to city-state autonomy and independence posed by hegemonic powers like the Hellenistic kingdoms and, eventually, the Romans. But the neutrality of Carlsson's approach frustrates: it is often difficult to know what conclusions relevant to Hellenistic democracy she would draw and where the book's argument is heading,2 and this goes on for almost 150 pages. The scholarly objectivity is laudable; the sense of aimlessness is not.

The book has an excellent set of appendices. One lists in chronological order all of the decrees used for the case studies, complete with collection references, the enactment and motion formulae used, the proposers, titles of officials mentioned, and a summary of the main contents. A second appendix collects and describes the titles and functions of all of the officials appearing in the documents studied. A third notes and briefly discusses all of the occurrences of the word demokratia in Hellenistic inscriptions. (Carlsson argues in the book that the use of this term and other key words like autonomy and freedom generally show them to have been thought of as desirable — and, importantly, normal — conditions for many Hellenistic city-states.) The book also includes a general index and an index locorum covering both literary and epigraphic sources.

A few minor errors of presentation and representation can be pointed out.3

Collecting and analyzing all of the documents that Carlsson has was no simple task, and she has done it in a way that is logical, meaningful, and convenient for future researchers. Her surveys of wider issues of hegemony and autonomy in the Hellenistic period, if not as well focused, nevertheless add to the value of the volume. In all, the book may well become the standard guide to issues relating to democracy, freedom, and independence among Hellenistic cites, especially as concerns eastern Greece.

Table of Contents

1. Setting and Sources

2. Democracy Then and Now

3. Autonomy and Sovereignty

4. Autonomia in Practice

5. International Relations

6. Constitutional Studies

7. Modes of Government – The Cases
7.1 Iasos
7.2 Kalymna
7.3 Kos
7.4 Miletos with Didyma
7.5 Hellenistic Democracies – Iasos, Kalymna, Kos, and Miletos

8. Epilogue

Appendix A: Chronological table of decrees
Appendix B: Titles of Greek officials
Appendix C: Demokratia in Hellenistic inscriptions


Index locorum
General index


1.   It is remarkable that Carlsson's is the second book in two years devoted to this subject, focusing on some of the same city-states, adopting a similar overall thesis, and appearing in the same monograph series as Volker Grieb's Hellenistische Demokratie. Readers may find the BMCR review of Grieb's book at 2008.12.27.
2.   There are exceptions. Chapter 5's discussion of international relations and city-state independence, for example, occasionally makes clear what one ought to conclude from the evidence, as with the wall-building in four cities in the late fourth century (pp. 118-9).
3.   In one of her references to my study The First Democracies Carlsson innocently misrepresents my meaning: at p. 26 she writes as if I endorsed the various claims for pre-Greek democracy, whereas in reality I voiced skepticism about them. On pages 7 and 24 the note on transliteration and other conventions is needlessly repeated. On p. 215 the italics machine has gone crazy and taken over several lines of text.

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