Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.01.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.01.17

Eric W. Robinson, Democracy beyond Athens: Popular Government in the Greek Classical Age.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. ix, 275.  ISBN 9780521843317.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Mogens Herman Hansen, Denmark (


This book is a continuation of Eric Robinson's earlier book: The First Democracies. Early Popular Government Outside Athens (Stuttgart 1997). In the earlier book he argued, in my opinion persuasively, that democracy was not an Athenian invention that spread from Athens to the rest of the Greek world in the course of the classical period. In a number of poleis popular government can be traced back to the sixth century before it was instituted at Athens by Kleisthenes in 508/7.1 In his new book Robinson attempts on the basis of the evidence we have for democracies outside Athens during the Classical period (Chapters 1-3) to investigate the reasons for the spread of democracy throughout the Greek world, to assess what role Athens played in the process (Chapter 4) and to examine the extent to which the political institutions in democracies outside Athens were similar to or different from those practised by the Athenians (Chapter 5).

In a short introduction (1-5) Robinson lists his reasons for classifying a polis as democratically governed. The best scenario is if the constitution of a polis in a reliable contemporary source is called δημoκρατία or δῆμoς (in the sense of democracy) or if those in power are described as δημoτικoί or ἄπoρoι vel sim. Robinson is, of course, aware that our sources often are biassed and that the terms could be used tendentiously. He also points out that the classification of a polis is less convincing if one of these terms is used retrospectively in late authors, such as Polybios, Diodorus or Arrian. Among Robinsons other indicators are the existence of a popular assembly, large jury courts, use of the lot for filling offices, procedures such as the euthynai or ostracism, low property qualifications or none at all, public pay for political participation, as well as freedom and equality as political ideals. Again we are warned, e.g., that euthynai are attested in non-democratic poleis too, 2 and that the existence of a council and a popular assembly does not in itself warrant the inference that the polis in question was a democracy.3 Taking all these caveats into account Robinson judiciously distinguishes between poleis for which democracy is attested with a "high degree of certainty" or with a "lesser degree of certainty" (182, 184-85).

Robinsons analysis of democracies in the Classical period outside Athens is based on an inventory of fifty-four democratically governed city-states. They are described individually in the first three chapters, which constitute the bulk of the book (6-181) and are listed in figure 4.1 (184-85).

The inventory includes long and valuable descriptions of the constitutional history of some of the poleis, e.g., Argos (6-21), Mantinea (34-40), Syracuse (67-92), Kamarina (96-100) and Kyrene (129-36). Other poleis are treated rather briefly, e.g., Samos (179-80) and Thasos (180-81).

Robinson classifies the 54 entries in the inventory as "city-states" (2, 183) but that is not quite accurate. Two of his entries are Achaia (25-8) and Thessaly (61-4). Thus the inventory comprises 52 city-states and two regions: Achaia and Thessaly, each consisting of a number of poleis. For the fourth century B.C. the CPCInv. lists 14 poleis in Achaia and 23 in Thessaly.4

It seems that for a very short period in 366-5 all the Achaian poleis were democratically governed (Xen. Hell. 7.1.43), but such a short glimpse of democracy is not enough to warrant the inclusion of the individual Achaian poleis in an inventory of democracies. On the authority of Dem. 17.10, however, it seems reasonable to enlist at least Pellene (CPCInv. 240) for a period after 366-5, and perhaps the other Achaian poleis as well (27). By including altogether 13 Achaian poleis the number of democratic poleis goes up from 52 to 65. Polybios states that in the Classical period the constitutions of the individual poleis varied, but that the federal constitution was democratic down to the age of Philip and Alexander (2.41.6). It is a moot point to what extent Polybios' account of the early history of the Achaian League can be trusted. 5

Thessaly is included mainly because Robinson (62-63) decides to believe that Kritias in 406 tried to establish democracy in some Thessalian poleis (Xen. Hell. 2.3.36). I prefer to follow Gehrke who firmly rejects the story,6 and I suggest that Thessaly be deleted from the inventory.

It is obvious to compare Robinson's inventory with the other inventory of democracies outside Athens, viz., the one in the Copenhagen Polis Centre's Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis (Oxford 2004), where types of constitution are discussed in the introduction (80-86), individual cases are described throughout the inventory and the evidence is surveyed in Index 11 (1338-40). The comparison shows that Robinson's inventory includes 9 poleis not classified as democracies in the CPCInv., while the CPCInv. records 44 other poleis not mentioned by Robinson. Furthermore, for the 43 democratically governed poleis found in both inventories there is sometimes disagreement about the periods during which the constitution of a polis was democratic.

First the nine poleis not recorded as democracies in CPCInv. With reference to Diod. 11.68.5 and 11.76.4-5 (for the period after 466) and Thuc. 7.55.2 (for the period 415-13) Robinson argues that Gela (100-02, CPCInv. 17), Himera (102-03, CPCInv. 24), Kamarina (96-100, CPCInv. 28) and Selinous (105-6, CPCInv. 44) were democratically governed during both periods, Messana/Zankle (111-15, CPCInv. 51) and Rhegion (111-15, CPCInv. 68) during the first. Since no names of poleis are mentioned at Diod. 11.68.5 and Thuc. 7.55.2, and since democracy is not mentioned at Diod. 11.76.4-5, the authors of the CPCInv.'s chapter about Sicily (Nielsen, Fischer-Hansen and Ampolo) preferred to leave the question undecided.7 However, reconsidering the issue I find that Robinson is probably right in including these six poleis among the democracies outside Athens. For two other western poleis (Herakleia (115-19, CPCInv. 52) and Kaulonia (109-10, CPCInv. 55) the evidence is less convincing, and for Sikyon (50- 53, CPCInv. 228) it is shaky, as Robinson openly admits.

This review is not the place to list and discuss all the democratic poleis recorded in the CPCInv. but omitted from Robinson's inventory. A few examples will suffice. Of the Ionian poleis Robinson includes Ephesos (172-73, CPCInv. 844), Erythrai (175, CPCInv. 845), Miletos (176-78, CPCInv. 854), Samos (179-80, CPCInv. 864-65) and Teos (140-45, CPCInv. 868). But from Arrian 1.18.1-2 we can infer that many more Ionian poleis became democratic in 334: Ἀλκίμαχον δὲ τὸν Ἀγαθοκλέους ἐπὶ τὰς Αἰολίδας τε πόλεις ξὺν δυνάμει οὐκ ἐλάττονι ἐξέπεμψε καὶ ὅσαι Ἰωνικαὶ ὑπὸ τοῖς βαρβάροις ἔτι ἦσαν. καὶ τὰς μὲν ὀλιγαρχίας πανταχοῦ καταλύειν ἐκέλευσεν, δημοκρατίας δὲ [τε] ἐγκαθιστάναι...8 The CPCInv. lists five more Ionian poleis as democratically governed: Chios (CPCInv. 848), Klazomenai (CPCInv. 847), Magnesia (CPCInv. 852), Kolophon (CPCInv. 848) and Priene, (CPCInv. 861). For all five poleis there is specific evidence corroborating Arrian's general verdict: Chios (PEP Chios 32.3-4), Magnesia (I.Magnesia 1-2), Klazomenai (Rhodes-Osborne, GHI 18), Kolophon (Thuc. 3.34.4; IG I 3 37.47-49) and Priene, (I.Priene 2, 4, 9). More epigraphical evidence from other Ionian and Aiolian poleis would undoubtedly increase the number of democracies in these two regions.

The cult of Demokratia provides us with some other examples and here the evidence is primarily numismatic. In Athens demokratia was made divine and worshipped by the Athenians as a goddess (IG II 2 1496.131-32, 140-41). A similar deification of democracy is attested in other poleis. In the late 4th century B.C. the Knidians struck bronze coins with the head of Demokratia on the obverse and the legend ΔΗΜΟΚΡΑΤIΑ (CPCInv. 903). This piece of evidence is duly noted by Robinson (172) and Knidos is recorded as one of the 52 democracies. Again, the island polis of Telos struck bronze coins in the second half of the fourth century B.C. with the legend ΔΑΜΟΚΡΑΤIΑΣ on the obverse alongside the head of Athena (CPCInv. 525), and in 2005 a unique coin struck ca. 340 B.C. by Metapontion (CPCInv. 61) was sold at a coin auction in USA: obv. head of Demokratia and the legend ΔΑΜΟΚΡΑΤIΑ (Classical Numismatic Group Inc. Printed Auction Triton VIII). However, neither Telos nor Metapontion is included in Robinsons inventory.

As mentioned above, altogether 44 poleis recorded in the CPCInv. as democratically governed in the Classical period are passed over in silence by Robinson. In a good number of cases the evidence adduced in the CPCInv. is, I believe, conclusive. In some cases it is debatable and can perhaps be questioned, just as some of the entries in Robinson's inventory can be questioned, but Robinson does not explain why he omits any of the 44 poleis from his inventory. If we add the 44 poleis from the CPCInv. to the 52 in Robinson's inventory we reach a total of 96 poleis which for a shorter or longer timespan were democratically governed in the classical period (480-323 B.C.), and if we also add the 13 poleis in Achaia we end up with 109 attested democracies outside Athens in the Classical period. As to the chronological distribution of the attested democracies, this much higher total upsets the balance suggested by Robinson in Chapter 4 with Figure 4.2 (191). The peak is no longer in the fifth century (54 attestations) but in the fourth (65 attestations). But perhaps we should be more cautious when we compare numbers of democracies in the western and eastern part of the Greek world. The bulk of the evidence for fifth-century democracies is literary and concern the western part of the Greek world. The sources for fourth-century democracies are epigraphical and from the eastern part.

In Chapters 4 and 5 Robinson discusses what we can learn from the evidence collected in his inventory. Because of the nature of the evidence it is of course a very scattered picture, but several of the pieces of the fragmentary jigsaw puzzle are interesting and important. Robinson tells us (14, 198, 243) that in some democracies (Argos, Iasos, Kos) magistrates served not a year as in Athens but only six months, and Aristotle (Pol. 1308a15) describes a six months' term of office as a democratic institution which ensures that all citizens can participate in the administration of their polis. In his description of the Mantinean democracy Robinson emphasises (36, 241) that Mantinea is Aristotle's example of a moderate democracy in which the powers of the people were restricted to electing the magistrates and calling them to account (Pol. 1318b21-32) – not "a representative democracy" as Robinson suggests but certainly an indirect and not a direct democracy.9 He also points out (198) that ostracism or a similar procedure is attested in six poleis apart from Athens (Argos, Kyrene, Megara, Miletos, Syracuse and Tauric Charsonesos) but Athenian inspiration is attested only in the case of Syracuse and only in a late and not always reliable source (Diod. 11.86.5).

Robinson's main concern is to challenge the belief that ancient Greek democracy was Athenian democracy and that democracies in other poleis were copies of the Athenian constitution. In his earlier book he opposed the view that the cradle of democracy stood in Athens. In this book he wants to play down the view of Athens as "the driver of democratic growth" in the Classical period. Robinson aims to show that it is a rhetorical exaggeration when Perikles claims that the Athenian constitution is an example to others (Thuc. 2.37.1). Over 15 pages (186-200) he argues that in many regions poleis became democracies without any support or inspiration from Athens and that Athens supported oligarchy whenever it suited their interests. He concludes (199) that "the hypothesis that Athens drove the expansion of democracy throughout Classical Greece turns out to be extremely shaky". On the other hand, he does not deny "that Athens played any role in expanding the reach of democracy in Greece (it surely did)". In the next section he asserts that in Sicily from 466 to 405 it was Syracuse that was "the driver of democracy" (200-02), in the Peloponnese it was Argos and Elis (202-04) and in the Aegean democracy was promoted not only by Athens but also by other actors, e.g., by Aristagoras in 499, by Mardonios in 494 and by Alexander the Great in 334 (204-07).

My overall conclusion is that Robinson's book is a valuable contribution to an important issue. My main criticism is that his inventory is incomplete and that a thorough collection of the relevant evidence would result in an inventory with twice as many entries. I therefore recommend that he revise his inventory. The result might be further corroboration of some of his views, but that remains to be seen.


1.   See my review in BMCR 1999.09.17.
2.   See the groundbreaking investigation by P. Fröhlich, Les cités grecques et le contrôle des magistrats (IVe-Ier siècle avant J.-C.) (Paris 2004) 2, 529 (not mentioned by Robinson).
3.   Lene Rubinstein has pointed out to me that not even the attestation of the probouleumatic procedure is proof that the polis in question was a democracy, see IG XII 8.264, a Thasian decree passed ca. 400 B.C. when Thasos was an oligarchy.
4.   M.H. Hansen and T.H. Nielsen, An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis (Oxford 2004), 1329 (Achaia, including Helike destroyed in 373), 1330 (Thessaly).
5.   See Morgan and Hall in CPCInv. 474.
6.   H.-J. Gehrke, Stasis (München 1985) 375-76.
7.   As does D. Asheri in "Sicily 478-431 B.C.", Cambridge Ancient History 5, 2nd edn. (Cambridge 1992) 157.
8.   Quoted by Robinson at 206 n. 61.
9.   M.H. Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (Oxford 1991) 3.

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