Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.01.43

Marie-Joséphine Werlings, Le dèmos avant la démocratie: mots, concepts, réalités historiques.   Paris:  Presses universitaires de Paris ouest, 2010.  Pp. 379.  ISBN 9782840160755.  €25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by James Kierstead, Stanford University (

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

This book is a revised version of Werlings's doctoral thesis, which was submitted to the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense in 2008 and was awarded the Prix René Rémond in 2010. It offers an exhaustive analysis of the instances of the word δῆμος in archaic literature and epigraphy, from Mycenaean times to the reforms of Solon. Although her decision to limit the scope of her investigation to texts produced in archaic and earlier times means that the picture of the pre-democratic dēmos her book produces is incomplete, her analysis is wide-ranging in both time and space, her discussions of individual texts are on the whole judicious and stimulating, and the apparently narrow philological task she has set herself has nonetheless some important implications for the political history of the archaic Greek city-states and for the history of democracy.

The work has three goals. First, it seeks to detach the word δῆμος from its classical usage, not only showing the richness of its significations in the archaic period, but also distinguishing it from other terms designating the people, for example λαός and οἱ κακοί. Second, it attempts to understand the relationship between the two fundamental meanings of δῆμος, the totality of inhabitants of a given territory and a sub-group of those inhabitants, the poor; and to use this understanding to attain a fresh perspective on the rise of the polis. Finally, it aims to utilize this new perspective to write a new political history of the archaic city-states, or at least to set the contours within which such a novel account might be written (16-7).

Werlings's methodology is to consider one by one every instance of the word δῆμος (in its various forms, along with a few other related words) in the archaic literary and epigraphic sources. (It is partly in making full use of inscriptions that Werlings considers her book an advance upon the earlier works of Forti-Messina and Donlan, 17). She believes that this approach will enable her to avoid imposing on archaic realities the potentially misleading categories of analysis of political theories drawn from another age, whether the twenty-first century of the common era or the fourth century preceding it (19). But her intention is not simply to write the history of a word or words; instead, ‘il s’agit, à travers les mots, d’atteindre la réalité politique et sociale qu’ils désignent et de la définir dans les contextes dans lesquelles elle apparaît.’ (20)

For Werlings, the Mycenaean damos as it emerges from the study of the relevant tablets has three salient features: it is rural and anchored in a particular territory; it has a complex internal structure; and it is self-subsistent, though at the same time linked to the palace through various functionaries (29). Previous studies drew a distinction between the damos and the laos (or *rawo), the class of producers and the class of warriors, and imagined that they were overseen by a wanax (political ruler) and rawaketa (military leader) respectively (40-1). For Werlings, all that can reliably be said is that the damos is a collectivity that is almost never found in association with a particular leader, while the existence of the *rawo, by contrast, is deduced purely from the existence of a functionary called the rawaketa. This dependence of the *rawo upon the rawaketa contrasts with the position of the damo, which appears to have its own dependent labourers, slave and free (45).

In the next chapter, Werlings provides a detailed analysis of the usage of λαός and δῆμος in the Homeric epics. Against those scholars who see the laos as an essentially military group, Werlings agrees with Benveniste that a laos is simply any group of men under the authority of some leader (51-2). A dēmos, by contrast, is in the first instance a region or territory, and then the population inhabiting that territory (65). She concludes that the two terms represent two different but complementary ways of thinking about a human group: insofar as it follows a leader, it is a laos; insofar as it inhabits a certain territory, it is a dēmos (87).

The chapter on archaic city-states outside Sparta and Athens is arranged geographically by region, and ranges from the Ionian islands to Asia Minor; the evidence analyzed is mainly epigraphic, with the exception of the sections on Boeotia, Megara, and Mytilene (144-58), which consist of readings of relevant passages in the poetry of Hesiod, Theognis, and Alcaeus respectively. Werlings's survey reminds us of the abundant evidence for democratic practices outside of Athens in the late archaic period; the best example is perhaps Elis, where inscriptions suggest the dēmos already had considerable powers by the end of the sixth century (133).

The chapter on Sparta begins with discussions of a few key fragments of Tyrtaeus and Alcman (4 and 12 West and 3.3 and 17 Davies, 184-204), and continues with a narrative of the progressive delimitation of the Sparta damos through colonization and warfare (205-10). The second half of the chapter is devoted to a detailed discussion of the Spartan rhetra (210-21), whose importance lies (for Werlings) in its institutionalization of the already existing practice of mass assemblies through the stipulation that they should take place regularly or periodically, ὥρας ἐξ ὥρας (217).

Werlings's approach to Solon’s reforms is again marked by an awareness that mass assemblies were by this time already a longstanding practice in Greek city-states. So for example she interprets Solon’s claim ἐγὼ δὲ τῶν μὲν οὑνεκα ξυνήγαγον/ δῆμον in fragment 36 West to mean, not that he formed a ‘popular party’, or that he reconciled rich and poor, but that he called an assembly before enacting his reforms (229-30). For Werlings, Solon did not so much reform institutions as recognize and codify already existing practices. Solon’s chief contribution was in fact to render possible the more thoroughgoing institutional reforms later carried out by Cleisthenes (263).

The Conclusion returns to issues of the dēmos and territoriality (268-72), the dēmos and the collective voice (272-82), and finally to the inherent ambiguity in the term dēmos between the whole of a population and to the poor within it, an ambiguity, the author concludes, which has not ceased to haunt democratic communities to the present day (282-9).


The payoffs of Werlings's philological method for the understanding of the development of archaic politics are often evident in the implications she draws from the pattern of a word’s usage in a particular context. So for example after observing that the word λαός – used of groups with leaders, remember – gradually disappears at the end of the archaic period, she suggests that this pattern is related to a decline in structures of hierarchy associated with the rise of the classical polis (88). And after noting how sparingly the word δῆμος is employed in Theognis' denunciations of οἱ κακοί, she draws the implication that δῆμος could not easily be applied to a subset of the populace rather than the populace as a whole (120).

If Werlings's interpretations of the textual evidence are usually sound, she occasionally underestimates the difficulties involved in deducing historical realities from literary works, whose narratives are pursuing literary agendas of their own. So for example Aigyptios's claim in Odyssey Book 2 (26-7) that this is the first time the assembly on Ithaca has met since Odysseus sailed for Troy cannot be taken straightforwardly as evidence that Homeric assemblies met, as a rule, only when the need arose; the lines are surely motivated partly by a narrative need to emphasize the importance of Odysseus to Ithaca and the collapse of its sense of community since his departure.

On one occasion at least she fails sufficiently to interrogate a word that is not among her chosen few but is crucial to the overall meaning of a phrase: in contending that the rider appended to the Spartan rhetra (Plut., Lyc. 6.4- 5), does not change the fact that the final decision appears to rest with the citizen assembly (221), Werlings fails to consider the possible force of the word ἀποστατῆρας, which may well imply that the kings and elders could reject, and not simply delay, decisions of the people. One route available to those who believe that the Spartan assembly was in fact sovereign in the classical period is to follow the proposal made by Ogden 1 in an article not cited by Werlings that the rider is in fact older than the body of the rhetra and was thus at some point overruled by it.

Since Werlings's declared aims include putting forward – or at least preparing the way for – a new understanding of the politics of the archaic Greek city-states (of ‘réalités’ as well as ‘mots’ and ‘concepts’, to quote her sub-title), it should not be considered unfair to comment briefly on the limitations of her methodology in providing anything approaching a complete picture of the political developments of the age. There are two major limitations in focusing on texts of the archaic period: it excludes all texts of later periods that might provide accurate information about earlier times; and it excludes all non-textual evidence from the archaic period, notably the evidence of archaeology.

Because of the first omission in particular, Werlings's book is best read in conjunction with Eric Robinson’s 1997 volume, The First Democracies2, which she surprisingly fails to cite, and which makes extensive use of post-archaic sources, especially Aristotle, in reconstructing democratic institutions in sixteen archaic city-states outside Athens. In many instances, having recourse to classical sources would have strengthened Werlings's case; for example, she bases her contention that the Spartan assembly did not simply confirm or reject motions put to it, but engaged in full deliberation, entirely on Tyrtaeus fragment 4 West, when the fact at issue emerges quite clearly from the classical narrative historians3.

The archaeological evidence would also have strengthened Werlings's central case – that the demos was already a central force even in the archaic city-states – while giving it greater content, by for example drawing attention to the apparently simultaneous increase in the power of the δῆμος in a number of city-states and in the number of undifferentiated adult male burial plots – suggesting a developing egalitarianism – across mainland Greece4. In any case, Werlings's decision to focus her account of Solon’s reforms on the fragments of his poetry contrasts strikingly with other recent accounts of sixth-century Athens that make an effort to move away from familiar texts and the perennial controversies surrounding them5.

Werlings's concentration on the word δῆμος unsurprisingly results in a narrative of the origins of democracy that presents the process as led gradually forward by a collectivity, rather than periodically spurred into movement by individual statesmen. At times, though, she may understate the extent to which the development of democratic institutions were dependent upon institutional design as well as to the mere existence of a unified dēmos. For instance, she declares that Arist. Pol. 2.12, 1274a, 15-9 shows that Solon’s reforms were concerned with ‘la question de l’existence du demos’ (243); but what the passage seems more concerned with are concrete institutions (such as euthunai) through which the dēmos might effect its will.

An unresolved issue of historical causation stemming from Ober’s characterization of the Cleisthenic revolution as dēmos-led6 is that it appears to raise the question of where that dēmos came from, in other words, how and when it emerged as a collective agent. Werlings's careful study goes some way to providing an answer to the second part of that question: far from being a classical invention, the dēmos was a ancient social unit with roots in Mycenaean times. It leaves unanswered the first part of the question – what forces, active in archaic Greece but apparently in few other periods of world history – shaped the dēmos into a collectivity with enough agency to make dēmokratia viable. But it remains, within the limits its author set it, a reliable, useful, and stimulating book.

Table of Contents

Introduction: 11-20
Autour du dēmos dans les royaumes mycéniens: 21-46
Λαός et δῆμος dans les épopées homériques: 47-108
Le dèmos dans les cités grecques archaïques – à l’exception de Sparte et Athènes: 109-78
Le damos spartiate et son rôle politique dans la Sparte archaïque: 179-222
Le dèmos athénien à l’époque de Solon (début du VIe siècle): 223-266
Conclusion: 267-290
Annexes: 291-348
Bibliographie: 349-79


1.  D. Ogden, (1994), ‘Crooked speech: the genesis of the Spartan rhetra,’ JHS 114, 85-102
2.  E.W. Robinson (1997), The First Democracies: Early Popular Government Outside Athens, Stuttgart: Steiner
3.   See e.g. A. Andrewes (1966), ‘The Government of Classical Sparta’, in Badian (ed.), Ancient Society and Institutions: Essays in Honour of Victor Ehrenberg, Oxford: OUP, 1-20
4.   I. Morris (1996), ‘The Strong Principle of Equality and the Archaic Origins of Greek Democracy’, in Ober and Hedrick (eds.), Dēmokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern, Princeton: PUP, 19-48.
5.   See e.g. G. Anderson (2003), The Athenian Experiment: Building an Imagined Political Community in Ancient Attica, 508-490 BC, Ann Arbor: UMP
6.   J. Ober (1993), 'The Athenian Revolution of 508/7 BCE', in Dougherty and Kurke (eds.), Cultural Poetics in Ancient Greece, Cambridge, CUP, 215-32

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2012
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 22:41:08, Thursday, 26 January 2012