Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.08.41 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.08.41

Vincent Azoulay, Paulin Ismard (ed.), Clisthène et Lycurgue d'Athènes: autour du politique dans la cité classique. Histoire ancienne et médiévale, 109.   Paris:  Publications de la Sorbonne, 2011.  Pp. 406.  ISBN 9782859446826.  €30.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Carol Atack, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The title of this edited volume might suggest, in its invocation of the politicians thought to have dominated respectively the beginning and end of classical Athenian democracy, a return to a ‘great man’ analysis of Athenian democracy, or a traditionalist periodisation of the ‘Solon to Socrates’ variety. But this carefully curated set of essays, originating in a 2009 colloquium, questions existing methodologies and assumptions, explores the filters through which we receive and understand both politicians of the title, and subtly destabilises the idea of Athenian democracy as a single or consistent phenomenon. The two moments of Cleisthenian and Lycurgan Athens are seen as twin poles or mirrors, reflecting different versions of the idea of a democratic city and its communal life. These positions provide twin vantage points for an interesting exploration of Athenian democracy and political culture throughout the classical period (though most innovatively in the contributions with a focus on Lycurgan Athens), resulting in a significant contribution to work on the subject.

The editors in their introduction underline their commitment to exploring politics in a broad sense (le politique, indeed ‘(le) politique élargi’, p. 255) rather than a narrower institutional focus (la politique) (pp. 6-7). The emphasis on a broad conception of politics also serves as a rebuke to approaches with an institutional focus on Athenian democracy, here occasionally identified with Mogens Herman Hansen’s work (by Faraguna, p. 67; Duplouy, p. 106). A thoughtful engagement with existing classical scholarship marks many contributions to this volume; Lévêque and Vidal-Naquet’s reinvention of Cleisthenes provides an obvious starting point. At the other pole, Patrice Brun’s recent questioning of identification of 330s Athens as ‘Lycurgan’ is challenged by Faraguna, Lambert and Azoulay, though supported by Oliver’s inquiry into the importance of other leading politicians during the period. 1

Refreshingly, the collection opens with a pair of essays on the reception of Cleisthenes and Lycurgus, ancient and modern. Reception topics often seem to mark the end of edited collections, as if they were both temporally and conceptually marginal or subsidiary to the main project, but their prominent positioning here emphasises the importance of understanding the shifting responses to each man. Pascal Payen explores the modern (and early modern) reception of the pair, or rather the continuing lack of interest in either figure prior to the rise of the idea of liberal democracy. Cleisthenes as a revolutionary, Payen notes, emerged in the histories of Grote, and thus the idea of an ‘Athenian revolution’—the focus of much debate since Ober’s 1996 collection—simply wasn’t present in the historiography available to eighteenth century revolutionaries.2 Giorgio Camassa follows this with an investigation of the reception of Cleisthenes within Athenian democracy, expanding from the historiographically notorious constitutional proposals during the 411/10 oligarchy as reported in the Ath. Pol. Camassa makes an interesting case for oligarchical spin in the presentation of Cleisthenes. However, his paper also serves as a reminder of the paucity of sources for the earlier period, a situation also apparent in Egon Flaig’s paper on the adoption of the tyrannicides rather than Cleisthenes as heroes of early democracy in Athens.

In contrast, Michele Faraguna has a wealth of primary evidence, from inscriptions to rhetoric, with which to resolve the problem of whether there was such a thing as ‘Lykourgan Athens’, a question he answers in the positive. However, the idea that the Lycurgan era represented the culmination of political and cultural trends evident from at least the 350s is broadly agreed by all participants.

The third section problematises the opposition of the title, starting with Alain Duplouy’s investigation of different ranks of citizenship in the archaic polis. He uses this inquiry to counter models of Athenian democracy that rely too heavily on Aristotelian models. This challenge to the largely Aristotelian established model of polis citizenship is an excellent example of this book’s overall project of questioning assumptions about Athenian democracy.

The core of this volume is the section on the redefinition of to koinon, which is central to Azoulay’s own conception of what makes Lycurgan Athens different. Paulin Ismard’s essay on Cleisthenian reform starts from the point of view that modern scholarship has mythicised Cleisthenes as effectively as fourth-century Athenians mythicised Solon, portraying him as ‘un véritable démiurge “géometre”’ (p. 165). Ismard counters this image of radicalism with a picture of continuity between the various types of associations to which citizens belonged before and after Cleisthenes’ reforms, arguing that the change was more in the articulation of groups and the possibility of movement among and between them (p. 173). However, he supports the idea of a Pythagorean influence on Cleisthenes, noting that the spaces he detects between groups can be identified with the (musical) intervals of Pythagorean theory; Cleisthenes should be seen more as harmoniste de la cité than géometre (p. 174).

Azoulay’s own essay is the physical and conceptual heart of the volume; it opposes Ismard in distancing its subject, Lycurgus, from philosophical influences. In a careful and close reading of Lycurgus’ Against Leocrates, he examines the implications of Lycurgus’ use of eisangelia as a vehicle for prosecuting private citizens rather than magistrates and generals. His conclusion is that these prosecutions mark a profound shift in both the conception of to koinon, that which is shared in the community, and the relationship between rulers and ruled in the democratic city. This reading is attractive because it identifies what Lycurgus is doing without requiring him to be more of a philosopher than he was, as Danielle Allen’s reading does; while Lycurgus clearly draws on the language of philosophy, and demonstrates a great awareness of Platonic thought, his appeal to historical or mythistorical exempla place him at odds with the later Plato.3

Lycurgus’ rhetoric is further considered by Violaine Sebillotte Cuchet, who investigates the intersection of sex, genre and ideology in Against Leocrates. Lycurgus’ use of Praxithea, willing to sacrifice her daughters, as an exemplary Athenian to contrast with Leocrates (Against Leocrates 100-101), in addition to his injunction that women should hear this speech (ibid., 141), represent an unusual acknowledgement of women as citizens. This matches Azoulay’s claims for the extension of to koinon and, in Sebillotte Cuchet’s careful close reading, perhaps provides even more compelling evidence for it.

Inevitably students of Athenian democracy will turn to Josiah Ober’s essay, ‘Comparing democracies’. This is slightly at odds with the other papers, both in methodology and the debate in which it participates. One might expect ‘[a] spatial method with application to ancient Athens’ to involve an appeal to Lévêque and Vidal-Naquet, or something like the discussion of the role of demes, as in Evelyne Scheid-Tissinier’s essay on demes as political places, but the space involved turns out to be a conceptual space on to which one can map assessments of the character of democracies, measured by People’s Will against Constitutional Rules (Fig. 1, p. 309). Ober’s recent work has drawn more on the quantitative analyses and methodology of contemporary political science.4 I have some reservations about his use of qualitative data in place of the quantitative data that we lack for Athenian democracy, in that the data conjured up can gain a spurious authority through its presentation. Indeed, this might be a hopeless enterprise in less skilled hands, but Ober carefully leads the reader to consider the issues involved in the comparative assessment of democracies before placing on his grid his own perceptions of the two Athenian forms, Cleisthenian and Lycurgan, and describing the distance between them. With no Athenians to poll, he invents an Athenian from 507, Poseidippos, and imagines his response to the democracy of the 330s, reading the decree of Cephisophon, which forms part of the accounts of the curators of the dockyards (printed as an appendix to the chapter, pp. 321- 22) through his eyes.

Ober’s conclusion is that his first generation Athenian democrat would be heartened to see a great deal of continuity in the Athens of Lycurgus’ time (although I wonder whether he might be confused by the importance of the navy). This counters Sheldon Wolin’s view that the fourth century reforms were a betrayal of the intentions of the revolutionary founders, the cross-cultural pattern of ‘fugitive democracy’ inherent in post-revolutionary politics.5 This different engagement might seem to sit somewhat uneasily in a volume mostly remarkable for its coherence and the shared engagement of the contributions with the same academic debates. But it does show how a broader view of contemporary political science and political can enrich our thinking about ancient politics.

However, the coherence and focus of this collection is overall a strength; it provides a fresh perspective on Athenian democracy, and important new thinking on Lycurgus and Athens after Chaironea in particular. As a collection it has been well arranged and produced. The integrated bibliography (running to 40 pages) is itself a useful contribution, and references to both literary texts and inscriptions are separately indexed.6 The main index, although probably to be seen as a bonus in this type of book, features only references to classical names and texts. The engagement with current and recent scholarship that runs throughout this book would have been better served by an index that made it simpler for the reader to find the discussions of figures such as Loraux, Vidal-Naquet, or Brun across the book.

Table of Contents

Vincent Azoulay et Paulin Ismard: Clisthène et Lycurgue d’Athènes: le politique à l’épreuve de l’événement: p. 5
Part 1: L’événement et sa trace: réécritures anciennes et modernes
Pascal Payen: Clisthène et Lycurgue d’Athènes: le politique entre révolution et tradition. Détours historiographiques: p. 17
Giorgio Camassa: Les (nouvelles) lois de Clisthène et leur histoire: p. 43
Part 2: Politique de l’événement: mobilisation et prise de décision
Egon Flaig: La révolution athénienne de 507. Un mythe fondateur «oublié»: p. 59
Michele Faraguna: Lykourgan Athens?: p. 67
Part 3: Vraies coupures, fausses césures: problèmes de temporalité
Alain Duplouy: Deux échelons de citoyenneté? En quête de la citoyenneté archaïque: p. 89
François de Polignac: D’Ajax à Hippothon. Héros «marginaux» et cohérence des tribus clisthéniennes: p. 107
Graham Oliver: Before “Lykourgan Athens”: the origins of change: p. 119
Daniela Marchiandi: Les périboles funéraires familiaux à l’époque de Lycurgue: entre aspirations «bourgeoises» et tendances nouvelles: p. 133
Part 4: Redéfinir le koinon: cristallisations politiques
Paulin Ismard: Les associations et la réforme clisthénienne: le politique «par le bas»: p. 165
Stephen D. Lambert: Some political shifts in Lykourgan Athens: p. 175
Vincent Azoulay: Les métamorphoses du koinon athénien: autour du Contre Léocrate de Lycurgue: p. 191
Maria Chiara Monaco: Offrandes publiques et privées sur l’Acropole et l’Agora d’Athènes à l’époque lycurguéenne (340-320 av. J.-C.): p. 219
Part 5: Revisiter les normes du «modèle athénien»: le politique élargi
Josine Blok: Hosiē and Athenian law from Solon to Lykourgos: p. 233
Violaine Sebillotte Cuchet: Sexes, genre et «idéologie civique»: les dessus et les dessous du Contre Léocrate: p. 255
Évelyne Scheid-Tissinier: Les dèmes, lieux de citoyenneté, lieux de conflits: p. 275
Part 6: De Clisthène à Lycurgue: parcours transversaux
Pauline Schmitt Pantel: Moeurs et politique, entre Clisthène et Lycurgue: la face cachée du politique: p. 295
Josiah Ober: Comparing democracies. A spatial method with application to ancient Athens: p. 307
Claude Mossé: Clisthène et Lycurgue d’Athènes: un bilan: p. 325
Liste des abréviations: p.331
Bibliographie générale: p. 333
Index des sources littéraires: p. 373
Index épigraphique: p. 385
Index général: p. 389


1.   Brun, P. (2005), 'Lycurgue d'Athènes: un législateur?', in P. Sineux (ed.), Le législateur et la loi dans l'Antiquité (Caen: Pr. Universitaires de Caen), 187-199.
2.   Ober, J. (1996) The Athenian revolution: essays on ancient Greek democracy and political theory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
3.   Allen, D.S. (2000), 'Changing the Authoritative Voice: Lycurgus' "Against Leocrates"', Classical Antiquity, 19 (1), 5-33; (2010) Why Plato Wrote (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell).
4.   Ober, J. (2008) Democracy and Knowledge: innovation and learning in classical Athens (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
5.   Wolin, S. (1996) ‘Fugitive democracy’ in S. Bensahib (ed.) Democracy and Difference, Princeton, pp. 31-45.
6.   I did notice one misattribution, with Shear (2007) attributed to T. L. rather than J. Shear.

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