Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.02.12

Julia L. Shear, Polis and Revolution: Responding to Oligarchy in Classical Athens.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. xv, 368.  ISBN 9780521760447.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Matt Simonton, Stanford University (


Scholarly works on the revolutions at Athens at the end of the fifth century BCE tend to treat one of the two regimes only, or focus on reconciling the sources, or deal primarily with the legal issues involved. Julia L. Shear seeks to understand the Athenians’ responses to the coups in their entirety – whether legal, ritual, or even architectural, whether at the level of the individual or of the collective – and how these responses changed from the Four Hundred to the Thirty. In assessing the Athenians’ choice of responses, the author builds up an ambitious framework with which to interpret a wide array of evidence. (Indeed, in its breadth and interdisciplinarity this book does for the period in question what Greg Anderson’s study on the “Athenian experiment” did for the Kleisthenic era.)1 In a work as comprehensive as this one, some parts of the argument are inevitably more convincing than others. In this reviewer’s eyes, moreover, certain methodological assumptions need to be reassessed. However, these issues do not ultimately diminish the importance of the book as a wide-ranging, up-to-date, and innovative account of a crucial period in Athenian history.

In Chapter 1 Shear situates her work alongside recent accounts of late-fifth-century Athenian politics. She promises to go beyond the studies of Loraux and Wolpert, who focus on the Thirty, and criticizes Loening, Todd, Quillin, and Wolpert again for “concentrat[ing] on individual men and their particular decisions which are not put in the larger context of Athens after the Thirty or the city’s collective actions” (5). Shear will incorporate material culture: she rightly treats inscriptions not as “texts on pages” but as “monuments in their own right” (5), whose placement, content, and interaction with the viewer gave rise to different “dynamics” (a favorite word of the study) which affected individual and group behavior. Here Shear draws upon recent scholarship concerned with cultural memory, stressing the importance of ritual for collective remembering and the inevitable contestation that enters into the process of memorialization. At the chapter’s end the book’s major claims are set out: the responses to oligarchy included not only literature and oratory, but also “inscribed documents, the buildings, monuments, and spaces of the city and the city’s public rituals” (14); these responses changed over time; the Agora, in particular, was transformed “from a multi-use space…to the space of the democratic citizen” (17); and the events of 404/3 were remembered “selectively as external war, rather than stasis, which together with the Thirty, was consigned to the gaps of memory” (17-18).

Chapter 2 assembles the evidence for the revolution of the Four Hundred, particularly Thucydides and the Athenaion Politeia. Shear follows many in seeing Thucydides as full of intrigue and violence, the Ath. Pol. as reflecting serious constitutional debates. The “hero” of the revolution of 411 for the Ath. Pol. is identified as Kleitophon (22), the language of whose proposals signaled an attempt to appeal to democratic sensibilities. As for Thucydides, Shear plausibly connects his treatment of the Four Hundred, especially the hardcore oligarchs, with the rhetoric of the hostile trials that occurred after the fall of the regime. Overall, Shear gives more weight to the Ath. Pol.’s picture of a crisis of constitutional ideology during the period, citing the constitution of Drakon, Thrasymachos 85 B1 Diels-Kranz, and passages from the Thesmophoriazusai as instantiations of a genuine patrios politeia debate. Whether or not we wish to use these as evidence (the first two cannot be securely dated and the last is not explicitly concerned with anything patrios), it should be noted that the historicity of the debate does not require that the arguments were put forth in good faith. Whatever evidence [Aristotle] and the other sources give us, Thucydides might still be right that it was a politikon schema (8.89.3), with empty and confusing slogans masking a ruthless power-grab.

Chapters 3-5 analyze the responses to the Four Hundred. Shear first looks at the process of collecting and inscribing laws during the period 410-404, focusing in particular on Drakon’s homicide laws (IG I3 104), the laws on the council (IG I3 105), the sacrificial calendar (SEG lii 48), and other fragmentary laws (IG I3 236, 237). Here the author’s epigraphical and archaeological expertise yields new insights about the location and practical dynamics of these monuments. Through a painstaking examination of the fragments of the sacrificial calendar, for example, she convincingly shows that it was originally made up of separate stelai set into the annexes of the Stoa Basileios (89-96, with indispensable figures and tables here and throughout the chapter). Since the stone on which the archons swore their oath was also next to the Stoa, the archons “would quite literally have been surrounded by the relevant legislation” they were swearing to uphold (105). This powerful image reveals the payoffs to be gained from linking texts, social theory, and archaeology.

We are on less certain ground with the following chapter, which argues for a triumphalist democratic interpretation of various post-411 building projects, such as the new council house, the Stoa Basileios, and the temple of Athena Polias. Shear may be correct about the first two, given the strong analysis in the preceding chapter on the inscribed laws and the fact that the new bouleuterion lacked a vestibule that would hinder access to its proceedings, thus making them more public. The claim, however, that the temple of Athena should likewise be seen as democratic because “the demos did decide to finish the temple” whereas “the oligarchs could have undertaken the project…but…chose not to do so” (126), is strained. (Is a four-month reign really long enough to render the lack of building activity significant?) Nor was I convinced that the inscriptions on the acropolis set up by the Four Hundred constituted a “problem” which was solved by the reinstituted democracy carrying on exactly as before, thus allowing new decrees to obscure the oligarchic ones (128-29). There is insufficient evidence to argue that this amounts to a conscious strategy.

The next chapter, which expands upon the author’s previously published work, is stronger. Shear convincingly reconstructs the logistics of the oath of Demophantos, showing how the demos swore by tribe and deme in the Agora before the Dionysia of 409 and how this process promoted stability by “mak[ing] Athenian unity tangibly visible to all participants” (138). The chapter concludes with a detailed study of the events of the Dionysia of 409, including the rewards proclaimed for Thrasyboulos the assassin of Phrynichos (IG I3 102), the democratic pre-play rituals, and the production of Sophokles’ Philoktetes. Shear’s interpretation of the play’s content is compelling, but it is surprising that she neglects to engage with the issue of Sophokles’ relationship to the Four Hundred, especially since Jameson’s 1971 treatment of the subject is cited elsewhere in the book.2

The next part of the book, Chapters 6-10, applies a similar analytic framework to the reign of the Thirty. Shear persuasively interprets the Thirty’s destruction of stelai and reconstruction of the Pnyx as strategies to shore up their rule. The demos’s response came in the form of reinscribed proxeny decrees, honors for the heroes of Phyle (SEG xxviii 45), rewards for foreigners involved in the democratic restoration (Rhodes and Osborne 4), the decree of Theozotides (SEG xxviii 26), the sale of the property of the Thirty (SEG xxxii 161), the continued revision of the laws and the sacred calendar, and, of course, the amnesty itself. Shear places the swearing of the amnesty on 11 Boedromion at the temple of Meter in Agrai (208-12). She observes that future encounters with the inscribed agreements would have recreated the oaths through the reperformance entailed by reading aloud (215- 16).3 Chapter 9 returns to the Agora to argue that the Mint, buildings A and B in the northeast corner, and the bronze statues of Konon and Evagoras should be understood as a continuation of the process of transforming the Agora from a multi-use space into the space of the democratic citizen. Since, as Shear acknowledges, the Agora continued to be used for commerce and other apolitical activities, it is probably better to say that the Agora’s mundane characteristics were de-emphasized in favor of a greater political focus rather than supplanted.

Chapters 8 and 10 together contain one of the book’s most controversial claims, inspired by the seminal work of Nicole Loraux: that the Athenians “officially” remembered the regime of the Thirty as a period of external war rather than stasis. I do not think this can be sustained: the absence of the word “stasis” in the inscriptions listed above does not prove that the idea of stasis was purposefully banished from memory. Indeed, the use of the term “oligarchy” in the decrees implies stasis, evoking civic division and strife rather than concealing them. Also problematic is the author’s claim (260, 300-1, 318) that in 403, for the “first time,” “democracy is also being defined as not being oligarchy” in addition to not being tyranny. Shear recognizes that oligarchy is referred to several times in the aftermath of the Four Hundred, especially in the fragments of Antiphon’s apologia and in Lysias 20. She can explain this by labeling those speeches “individual” and “private,” but the appearance of “oligarchia” in the decree of Patrokleides at Andokides 1.78 shows that the Athenians “officially” remembered the Four Hundred as an oligarchy at least once in the period 410-404, and probably many other times.

This leads us to a more general problem of the book, the repeated contrast between “collective” acts and those of “individual men” (see, e.g., 4, 15, 165, 190, 224, 312). For Shear, decrees and monuments are “products of the demos” (227), part of the “public, collective sphere where the unified Athenians remembered democracy and its past and forgot oligarchy” (165), as opposed to dicastic speeches, which are the private acts of individuals. This schema, however, does not do justice to the fact that politicians and plaintiffs alike were performing before popular audiences. Arguments in court had to be crafted to meet demotic expectations, while decrees of the assembly were the outcome of a complex process of interaction between individual rhetors and the sovereign majority. The decisions enacted in the name of the demos which we possess on stone are thus more contingent, and less the product of a unified agent, than Shear allows. Her claim that “the demos created new ceremonies in the form of Demophantos’ oath” (135), for example, seems to me to get the relationship backwards: Demophantos convinced the demos to accept his proposal (in part by anticipating what he thought many of them wanted to hear); they did not demand anything of him en masse. Recognizing that the “products of the demos” lack collective intentionality, then, entails amending Shear’s proposed explanation for the success of the amnesty, that the “collective memory of the democratic city’s unity served to balance the individual actions of men working for their own ends” (312). This will not be the last word on the topic of responding to the oligarchy, but every future attempt will have to grapple with the evidence and arguments of Shear’s formidable study.


1.   The Athenian Experiment: Building an Imagined Political Community in Ancient Attica, 508-490 BC (Ann Arbor 2003).
2.   For more on the politics of the Philoktetes, see K. Hawthorne in CA 25 (2006), 243-76.
3.   J. W. Day has long espoused this approach to inscriptions, most recently in Archaic Greek Epigram and Dedication (Cambridge 2010).

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