Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.07.16

Nikolaos Papazarkadas, Sacred and Public Land in Ancient Athens. Oxford classical monographs.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011.  Pp. xii, 395.  ISBN 9780199694006.  $125.00.  

Reviewed by William S. Bubelis, Washington University in St. Louis (


Any work that illuminates how the religious and public domains of Athenian life intersected ought to be welcomed, and especially one such as this that throws significant new light upon a key node of that intersection, namely, land and landed property. In this ambitious and often erudite book, Papazarkadas takes up the challenge of elucidating the origins and nature of land (as well as built structures) that fell under the control or ownership of various corporate entities, ranging from phratries and demes to the polis itself as a manager of land ascribed to one deity or another.

To be clear, the book evinces no over-arching argument, for as the author expresses at the outset (p. 11), his purpose "has been to provide an exhaustive presentation of ancient testimonies of realty controlled by collectivities." As a resolutely empirical study of the almost wholly epigraphic evidence for that land and the manner in which Athenians utilized it, much of the book's value lies also in its microscopic treatment of several hundred inscriptions and related passages from the orators, lexicographers and others whose value has too often been overlooked or misinterpreted. Growing out of the author’s Oxford D.Phil. thesis of 2004, this revised and streamlined monograph is a boon to specialists of Athenian religion, history, law, and economics.

In Chapter 1, Papazarkadas concisely lays out the history of scholarship on public (and, divine) ownership of land in ancient Greece, and especially in Athens. The principal area of concern, the author rightly identifies, is that of the categorical relationship between sacred and public property, namely, whether and in what specific sense sacred property—managed as it was so often by a public entity—could justifiably be considered as merely another form of public property itself even if still considered somehow to partake of one or another quality of sanctity. While Papazarkadas correctly notes (p. 11; cf. p. 6) that this matter is also bound up with the nature of sacred and public funds and treasuries (to which the rents from the properties in question were often due) and that this intersection between property and the budgetary structures of demes, tribes, and so on ought to be an important criterion in judging the relationship of sacred to public, he largely eschews pursuing the matter further in the rest of the book (but note the partial exception of pp. 135-47). With respect to the extent of coverage possible in a book such as this, his choice is intelligible, but a more concrete, sustained treatment would have been useful, even if only in this chapter.

The deeper issue is one of methodology. Papazarkadas laudably identifies Moses Finley's pronouncements on the nature of sacred property as having played a key, if somewhat desultory, role in the scholarship on these properties, but in the book we find only occasional, fleeting remarks about how we should understand sacred and public land within the context of the larger Athenian economy (e.g. pp. 12-13, 98, 108, 150-51, 155, 232). Indeed, to judge by Papazarkadas' inconsistent use of the word 'economy' as limited to what we should more properly call 'public finance' (e.g. pp. 76, 92-98, 136 n. 174; but cf. p. 11, 155), it should be no surprise that he asserts (p. 14) that "theoretical schemes can only be useful if applied to concrete evidence" (cf. p. 226-27). In this case, Papazarkadas' express aim of providing that evidence inevitably leaves it to the reader to puzzle through the mass of it in his train without the benefit of any over-arching framework or argument. Accordingly, this approach also limits the author’s own reach toward broad issues and salient ideas, however illuminating and worthy of further investigation.

In Chapter 2, beginning with the polis itself as an administrator of sacred property, Papazarkadas abundantly details the property known to have been leased on behalf of such major divinities as Athena Polias and the Eleusinian Goddesses Demeter and Kore. In a generally synchronic mode Papazarkadas deftly illuminates a welter of texts to show that throughout much of the classical period the leasing of a wide array of properties, nominally under divine ownership, provided funds essential to the religious life of Athens (especially in the form of sacrifices). The system developed to conduct these leases, moreover, was robust enough to accommodate new gods to Athens, such as Asklepios and Amphiaraos, whose properties were extensive and valuable. In support of this chapter, appendices i and ii provide insightful treatment of two special kinds of property (the uncultivable Sacred Orgas at Eleusis and Attica's sacred olive trees (moriai), respectively) for which their particular quality of sanctity has long been a vexing problem.

But with regard to how early the relevant legal procedures concerning the leasing of the usual sort of properties originated, for example, there is reason for some disquiet. Papazarkadas suggests (pp. 74-75) that a single law must have established the necessary authorities and their responsibilities, and that this law (for which the earliest evidence dates to the decree of 418/7 on the leasing of property owned by Neleus, Basile and Kodros: IG I3 84) is none other than the same law on the relevant powers of the arkhôn basileus to lease sacred property as cited by Ath.Pol. 47.4-5 of the late 330s-early 320s. What is surprising, but receives only a single sentence treatment (p. 74), is the author's claim that somehow this law must have been altered by none other than the various commissions of anagrapheis charged between 410 and 399 with revising the ancestral laws attributed to Solon. Nothing supports such an inference, and a more likely explanation is that there were at least two (and surely many more) laws on the subject of magistrates' competencies and obligations that simply drew upon a common repertoire of legal principles and techniques that had a long history.

In Chapter 3, Papazarkadas turns to the tribes and demes, and here he carefully advances the argument that the demes in particular not only managed lands on behalf of divinities (as did the polis and, to a much lesser extent, the tribes) but also held other lands outright as their common public properties (as the polis and tribes evidently did not). The latter claim necessarily involves a sensitive re-appraisal of the fragmentary inscriptions recording Lykourgan-era sales of cultic land and now commonly known as the Rationes Centesimarum. In this regard, Papazarkadas also suggests (p. 113, 149-50), rightly I think, that the acquisition and lease of demotic lands originated with their archaic predecessors (naukrarai), whereas the classical tribes might have declined as landholders over time (see his salient remarks on tribal lands in the Oropia and elsewhere, pp. 102-11). Key to the vitality of demotic property management and religious life, Papazarkadas argues, is that through leasing or purchasing some Athenians also knowingly fulfilled a 'quasi-liturgical' service for their demes that was at least as important as their desire to profit themselves. This intriguing claim, however, requires greater support than that offered currently by the prosopography of attested lessees and their guarantors (cf. Chapter 4 and Appendix vii); profit may not in fact have been the principal motive for at least some of those actively engaged with demotic property. In other words, the author’s argument necessarily involves larger questions of economics that he does not address directly. Nevertheless, this idea might aid in explaining much of the institutional and tactical diversity with which classical demes managed their properties; local conditions, relationships, and traditions mattered strongly. One could only wish, therefore, that the author had pursued in a more systematic manner the briefly noted suggestion of V. Chankowski (p. 130) that the demes, even in the fifth century, might well have served as a laboratory for experiments prior to their deployment at the level of the polis.

In Chapter 4, Papazarkadas surveys those groups such as phratries, orgeones, and genê, whose property holdings became especially visible in fourth-century inscriptions and seem often to have been a concern to the demes and polis. Returning to the Rationes Centesimarum, the author offers a more plausible case for quasi-liturgical activity (here, of one-time purchases), but the author’s statement (p. 178) that “the Salaminioi would appear then to have possessed property that could elevate them to the status of affluent gentry” is inexplicable. As with each of the other chapters, this one offers a wealth of insight upon highly specific texts and the interpretative problems arising from them, but the disadvantages of not pursuing an over-arching argument seem more apparent here. Too many of the chapter’s ideas and readings are left wanting further vetting or synthesis.

In Chapter 5, Papazarkadas briefly considers the extent to which the polis itself held properties that were not sacred and offers the negative conclusion that the polis held no such purely public property from which it might derive its own avowedly public (i.e. dêmosion) income. Yet that conclusion arises out of the absence of evidence, not from positive arguments that the polis would not or could not have engaged in such practices, and Papazarkadas’ suggestion that the Athenians made use of common lands is interesting enough to beg for more support. Given the structure of the book, this short chapter (a mere 24 pages) ought perhaps to have been part of Chapter 1, where the polis’ sacred holdings were considered, or at least ought to have followed it closely.

The Conspectus consists of a brief historical sketch that draws together the author’s most salient ideas, chief among which perhaps is that even in the fourth century public and sacred lands were managed episodically and that the sales documented in the Rationes thus represent a watershed in the religious and financial life of Athens.

The seven appendices (including the two described above) might well have stood on their own as separate articles and admirably cover matters of taxation (iii on II21593), cult and topography (iv and v on the Theodoreion of the Prasieis and the location of the genos of the Pyrrhakidai, respectively), and chronology (vi on the Hellenistic archons of Athens and the genos of the Salaminioi). Appendix vii catalogues nearly a hundred individuals involved with the leasing of polis properties and is explicitly aimed at correcting the evidentiary base of K. Shipton's Leasing and Lending: The Cash Economy in Fourth-Century BC Athens BICS Supp. 74 (London: 2000).

Errors of typography and spelling are remarkably few (I do note, p. 128: “But if he duties…”), which is all the more commendable given the impressive number of fragmentary inscriptions whose texts require studious editorial presentation. The book offers no maps, which is curious given how frequently the author adjusts some or another point of topography. The indices, too, appear thorough, but the hero Paralos and the region known as the Paralia have no entries (cf. p. 138).

In sum, Papazarkadas has admirably achieved his aim of providing an exhaustive survey of land and other fixed property held by various groups of Athenians, usually on behalf of a divinity or in conjunction with that divinity's worship. One can only hope that the author will thus take a further step and apply his profound expertise in this difficult and important material to elucidating in a more theoretically informed manner how these property relations intersected with the broader historical development of Athenian economy and society.

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