Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.10.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.10.37

Gabriel Herman (ed.), Stability and Crisis in the Athenian Democracy. Historia Einzelschriften 220.   Stuttgart:  Steiner Verlag, 2011.  Pp. 164.  ISBN 9783515098670.  €46.00.  

Reviewed by Sara Forsdyke, University of Michigan (

This volume collects papers delivered at a conference of the same name held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in October 2008, and dedicated to the memory of Alexander Fuks. Fuks' work focused in large part on the study of revolution and social unrest in ancient Greece, and thus it seems somewhat ironic that the consensus of the papers, according to Herman, is that Athens enjoyed "unusual stability" under almost two centuries of democratic rule. Indeed, Herman is eager to point out in his preface that "none of the participants has adopted the view that has lately won some currency in research, namely that Athenian society was much given to lawlessness and feuding, and as such was unstable" (p. 9).1

I will start with Herman’s own essay in the collection, since it addresses this theme directly. Herman argues that contemporary historians have become too lax in allowing current norms to determine their judgment of ancient Greek society. Herman suggests that historians should aim at greater objectivity by comparing ancient Greece to other historical societies and by being more critical of their own societies. For example, by comparison to all societies before the twentieth century, the treatment of women in ancient Greece was not egregiously unjust. Similarly, Herman suggests that we would be wise to look more closely at new forms of slavery in the modern world, including "forced labour, forced prostitution, forced marriage, the exploitation of children, migrant and contract labourers" which are "many times crueler" than slavery in ancient Greece. These arguments allow Herman to conclude, along with M.I. Finley, that Athens was indeed "the greatest Greek state" and was not only remarkably stable but also humane and just “by reference to comparable historical communities” (emphasis in the original) (p. 65).

Phrased this way, Herman’s argument is unobjectionable. Athens clearly was exceptional in many regards, even by comparison to some modern states. The problem comes when Herman (and others) extend the argument for Athenian exceptionality in ways that minimize the extent of violence and extra-legal conflict in classical Athens.2 While the norm of the rule of law certainly existed, the Athenians held other values (e.g., personal honor) that sometimes conflicted with the smooth application of that norm.3 Furthermore, there is considerable evidence that popular forms of justice coexisted with the formal legal system, and that the Athenians viewed extra-legal, yet communally sanctioned, violence as the appropriate response to certain offences.4 Herman’s interpretation of classical Athens simplifies this complex reality and is therefore unsatisfying.

The other contributions to this volume make less provocative claims. P.J. Rhodes examines appeals to the past under the Athenian democracy from the time of Ephialtes down to the Lamian war. Rhodes suggests that while appeals to the past provided support for opposed sides in violent civic conflicts in the fifth century, by the fourth century such appeals allowed ideological cover for change without violent revolution.5 The reason for this change is that following the disastrous oligarchic revolutions of 411 and 404, democracy was almost universally accepted as the better regime. Now the debate concerned the proper contours of democracy, and it is here that rival conceptions of the ancestral constitution could lead to modifications to the existing regime rather than its violent overthrow.

R.W. Wallace "seeks to reinforce but also circumscribe" the scholarly view that the Athenian democracy validated citizen rights through the marginalization of women, slaves and foreigners. According to Wallace, already by the mid fifth century, Athenian society became more inclusive and open. Wallace draws on a range of evidence to support this claim, including the sympathetic representation of women, slaves and foreigners in tragedies such as Aeschylus' Suppliant Women, Sophocles' Ajax and Euripides' Alcestis. The problem here is that while Wallace is right to highlight controversies in Greek literature about these 'outsiders,' it is difficult to establish that these debates had an impact in everyday life. For every text that suggests increasing acceptance of these groups, another can be found to indicate the opposite. For instance, while Plato and pseudo-Xenophon may bemoan the freedom of women, metics and slaves in a democracy, Athenian funeral orations continue to give no official status to these groups. In reality, the situation was probably more complex than is allowed for by the linear narrative of increasing openness.

P. Low asks whether the misbehavior of Athenian officials overseas was a threat to the stability of the democracy at home. Relying on the epigraphical evidence for the most part, Low shows that the Athenians were concerned to regulate the behavior of their officials abroad through a system of punishments and rewards. She concludes that while this system was effective, it was not always applied in an equitable manner. Some generals, for example Timotheus, were not rewarded adequately for their services since they did not cultivate the goodwill of the People. The failure, moreover, to participate in the quest for honor generated mistrust and – especially if combined with the receipt of honors granted by foreign states – could lead to suspicion of undemocratic behavior. While Low does not claim that these resentments between Athenian officials overseas and the People at home led directly to instability, she does argue that they were a "factor" in the politics of Athens that has not received much attention by scholars.

S. Epstein argues that there was considerable harmony of interests among Athenians despite scholarly theories about the role of class and other types of divisions in generating conflict in the fifth and fourth centuries. Whereas elite writers tended to play up the level of divergent interests (wealthy vs. poor, old vs. young, urban vs. rural, and hoplite vs. sailor), Epstein suggests that these divisions did not significantly affect the smooth operation of the democracy. A major reason for this relative harmony, according to Epstein, is the fact that the Assembly was attended by only a fraction of the entire citizen population, and that fraction rarely corresponded neatly to the socio-economic or other divisions of the citizenry. Furthermore, Epstein suggests, the Athenians were a ‘traditioned group’ – a term used by modern social psychologists to refer to communities with a strong set of common symbols, values and commitments. While it is undoubtedly true that the Athenian democracy was relatively stable compared to other Greek states, in this reviewer’s view, Epstein underestimates the level of political conflict in classical Athens.

R. Zelnick-Abramowitz suggests that the Areopagus council was not an antidemocratic institution, but in fact acted in defense of the democracy on several occasions in the fifth and fourth centuries. For example, Zelnick-Abramowitz argues that the Areopagus played an important role in organizing the defense of Attica in 480, and subsequently in the crises of 405 and 338. On this basis, she suggests that the august and formerly aristocratic Areopagus was harnessed for democratic purposes. Perhaps the most persuasive point in this essay is the observation that there is no evidence that the Areopagus played a role in the oligarchic revolutions of 411 and 404 – a revealing absence that suggests that this institution was not a hotbed of reactionary political dissent.

D. Schaps argues that the Athenians combined a sense of pragmatism with their religious scruples. Unlike the more superstitious Romans, the Athenians adapted their practices to suit their circumstances, for example, by lowering the interest rate on a loan from Athena in order to suit their straitened circumstances after the disaster in Sicily. According to Schaps, however, the construction of the Erechtheum in 410-9 is a sign that the Athenians took the gods seriously in times of crisis, and did not focus only on practical solutions to their situation.

A. Yacobson explores the significance of the fact that a force of Scythian archers was employed to keep public order in Classical Athens while Republican Rome never developed a police force. Yacobson suggests, following Gruen, that the difference lies in the constitution. Whereas the placement of a police force under the authority of the Consuls in Rome would destabilize the delicate balance of powers, the command of the Scythian archers by the Athenian prytaneis, who served only for a day, was less of a threat to the democracy.

In sum, this collection provides some challenges to traditional interpretations of the Athenian democracy. While not all these new perspectives are convincing, they nevertheless ask useful questions and engage in worthwhile debates.

[For a response to this review by Gabriel Herman and Shimon Epstein, please see BMCR 2013.01.12.]


1.   While it is true that Fuks' study of social unrest spanned the entire Greek world, and covered not just the classical period but the Hellenistic and Roman periods as well, nevertheless, many of the chapters of his book Social Conflict in Ancient Greece (Jerusalem/Leiden 1984) cover Athenian authors, and the animating idea of the book is that social and economic unrest caused significant upheaval in ancient Greece.
2.   G. Herman Morality and Behaviour in Democratic Athens: A Social History (Cambridge, 2006).
3.   See D. Cohen, Law, sexuality and society. The enforcement of morals in classical Athens (Cambridge, 1991), Law, Violence and Community in Classical Athens (Cambridge, 1995) and more recently V. Wohl Law’s Cosmos. Juridical Discourse in Athenian Forensic Oratory (Cambridge 2010).
4.   See S. Forsdyke “Street Theater and Popular Justice in Ancient Greece: Shaming, Stoning and Starving Offenders Inside and Outside the Courts” Past and Present (2008) 1-50, reprinted with some modifications in S. Forsdyke Slaves Tell Tales And Other Episodes in the Politics of Popular Culture in Ancient Greece. (Princeton, 2012).
5.   For fuller discussion of appeals to the past in the context of the oligarchic revolutions of 411/0 and 404/3, see now J.L. Shear Polis and Revolution. Responding to Oligarchy in Classical Athens. (Cambridge, 2011).

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