Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.06.44 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.06.44

Robin Osborne, Athens and Athenian Democracy.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. xix, 462.  ISBN 9780521605700.  $39.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Joseph Wilson, University of Scranton (


This is a dense and difficult book, closely reasoned and meticulously documented. The chapters saw life first in some other contexts, so there is a certain discontinuity in the narrative flow. While the work’s title suggests an overall discussion of the Athenian democracy, in fact the book focuses on the fourth-century B.C.E. evidence for the democracy, while paying less attention to the 5th and 6th centuries.

Osborne divides the work into 5 sections, with a prefatory first chapter consisting of his inaugural lecture as Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge. In the opening chapter, Osborne makes clear his indebtedness to, as well as his independence from, two of the prior holders of the Cambridge chair, A.H.M. Jones and Moses Finley. Osborne offers his selection of 18 articles now collected in book form as his own effort at “joined up writing” to encompass the totality of the Athenians’ democratic experience, in the process making good some deficiencies of his predecessors, including the role of women, religion, law, and the visual arts, all areas in which Jones and Finley had shown rather less interest.

The first of the five actual parts of the text deals with democracy per se, and its workings – yet this is to some extent misleading, as it is not a technical manual on the processes of the workings of the boule and ekklesia. Rather, Osborne looks closely at the inscriptional evidence, especially that from demes, to determine and reveal the manner in which a diverse population of citizens and metics, often including members of other demes who coincidentally find themselves, from business or military service, temporarily in residence in demes not their own conducted government and participated in political life. These divisions, spread throughout Attica, are instructive on how the Athenians managed to conduct their affairs, usually without sliding into chaos and mob rule. Of particular interest is Osborne’s analysis of the decrees from Rhamnous, which demonstrate the manner in which people of various backgrounds formed themselves to create a more or less solid corporate entity.

The second section deals with the relationship between Athenian political practice and economics, including a discussion of the vexed question of slavery in Athens. Osborne does well to avoid permanently unanswerable questions regarding the pure number of slaves in Athens – given that there was never a census taken of slaves, and the estimates of “myriads” of slaves who might be enfranchised to strengthen the Athenians military (Hypereides), or the loss of which weakened the Athenians during the Dekeleian war (Thucydides), are liable to claims of hyperbole and the instability inherent in the definition of “myriades”, Osborne’s approach of determining the prevalence of slaves in Athenians life is surely the more sound approach. On the whole, however, Osborne reaches essentially a familiar conclusion, that the utilization of a slave economy was necessary to maintain the ideology of the radical democracy, that there was an inherent level of equality among all free men made possible by the fact that men did not generally employ other citizens as laborers.

In one of Osborne’s best and most persuasive chapters, “Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Subsistence,” he breaks down [Dem.] 42, a challenge against one Phainippos for an antidosis, to demonstrate brilliantly the need to revise the picture promoted by Finley, that the countryside primarily responsible for meeting the subsistence needs of the polis did so by a fairly unsophisticated process of supporting the city directly by merely selling off excess production. By a painstaking breakdown of the finances of Phainippos as a test-case, and by analyzing the extent of the liturgy and taxation system applicable to the wealthiest Athenians, Osborne demonstrates that the liturgic class needed considerable amounts of cash merely to maintain its position, one that, even allowing for the silver of Laurium, could only be met by developing fairly significant financial instruments and by engaging in profitable manufacturing as well as farming. The countryside, to put it succinctly, needed cash as much as the city needed food. Osborne’s demonstration of the yield of profit from the distribution of barley (a crop concerning the value of which we are comparatively well informed) is an excellent example of the good use to which basic math can be put by the historian.

Also within this section is the chapter “Is it a Farm?”, one of Osborne’s familiar hobby-horses dating back to his book Demos; the question of what constitutes a farm and whether, in consequence, we can consider the Athenians to have a significant rural population remains a matter of intense interest to him. Langdon, CJ 86 (1991), 209- 213, seems to have disposed of this matter well, but Osborne rightly calls attention to the fact that one cannot automatically assume that a collection of buildings in a field constitutes a farm, in the sense commonly understood. Moreover, an attendant chapter on the mobility of land and populations is by far the least successful and convincing of all his efforts in the book. A small army of comparative evidence is amassed from England, Russia, and France, only to be answered rather weakly by the acknowledgment that insufficient evidence is available from ancient Athens to make calculations of anywhere near the same value. On the whole, the exercise, while entertaining, offers little of value: comparative evidence cannot realistically be applied when there is nothing to which it might be compared.

Part 3 deals with the Athenian legal system. Osborne remarked in his prefatory chapter that “Athenian law has become one of the liveliest topics within Greek and Roman history,” and his own contributions have served very much to make it so. Primarily, the section focuses on the relationship of the court system to the democracy, and on the role of voluntary prosecutions in Athens, those conducted by sycophants and, by the process of menusis, by slaves. On sycophancy, another problem emerges: Osborne takes a decidedly the minimalist position, and this may be the correct approach, that there is no overwhelming evidence that the courts were clogged with sycophantic prosecutions. Two caveats, however. One, that the comic poets could not have made fun of something that did not really exist, and two, as Athens declined laboriously in the latter days of its existence as an independent democracy, sycophancy, which guaranteed a certain amount of public employ, may have been tolerated and popular simply as a potential source of income. Aristophanes’ portrait of the greedy dikast in the Wasps likely became more accurate, rather than less so, in the litigious hotbed of the middle and late 4th century B.C.E. than in the late 5th.

Osborne shows particular interest in the role that the courts play in establishing and maintaining the status of citizens; effectively, he posits that the courts are a mechanism for controlling the relationships between citizens, usually of roughly equal status, rather than a mechanism for general control over the population. It is in this light he examines the evidence that can be proffered by women and slaves. Since women can only serve as witnesses by giving depositions under oath, any potential challenge to the status of the male citizen is coming, effectively, not from the woman, but from the gods who serve as guarantors of the oath. Similarly, the evidence of slaves, wrung by torture, is confirmed by the slaves’ bodies. In neither case does the actual witness, of diminished status, serve as a threat to the citizen hierarchy.

Another question that emerges from the section on law is the notion of an “open texture” to Athenian law. Osborne has been criticized for suggesting that the variety of available legal procedures in Athenian law, apographe, dikai, graphe, and phasis, each with their own inherent risks to the prosecutor and the defendant, constitute the sort of open texture of law defended by Hart and dismissed by, inter alios, Dworkin; open texture should properly refer to substantive, rather than procedural, law. In fact, Osborne does nothing of the sort, as he makes clear in his endnote to Ch. 9, where he maintains his actual position, that the open texture of Athenian substantive law made possible, or perhaps desirable, the different procedures available to an Athenian prosecutor. Osborne misses an opportunity that greater familiarity with American law might have afforded him: the possible relationship between open texture and substantive due process and its potential for analyzing the procedural options available in Athens. It is an area that might merit study.

The section on law concludes with the chapter, “Changing the Discourse,” in which Osborne discusses the Thirty and the relationship between democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny in the Athenian mind. Osborne makes the point that while tyranny is never completely apart from the Greek consciousness (the rapidity with which tyranny came back to Syracuse after its departure in 463, and at different outposts throughout the mainland, guarantee that), it served for the most part as a straw man for Athens – the real danger to the radical democracy was always from oligarchy, which in fact the Athenian system, on the ground, seemed most clearly designed to combat. Osborne emphasizes the role played by the defeat of the expedition to Syracuse in changing the politics of the Athenians and causing them to call into question their democracy for the first time, thus creating the conditions for an oligarchic revolution with a modified democracy in 411, and the rule of the Thirty subsequent to and consequent upon the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Osborne takes seriously the claim that, from the outset, at least, the Thirty were attempting serious constitutional and legal reforms, while acknowledging that, by the end of their efflorescence, they had degenerated into a tyranny in the conventional sense.

The final two sections of the book are the most disappointing, as Osborne moves his discussion from history, epigraphy, and law to the plastic arts and religion. He offers two chapters (14-15) of analysis on the Parthenon frieze. His most valuable insight in Ch. 14 is his insistence on the role of the viewer, forced to create a procession by the act of viewing while s/he is in motion, until s/he arrives at the chryselephantine statue of Athena. Osborne’s essential point is that the frieze becomes, in effect, diachronic, and the viewer of the frieze contemplates, in manufacturing his/her own Panathenaic procession, all the processions that have ever taken place and will ever take place. This interesting perspective, however, smacks somewhat of assertion, rather than proof. Joan Connelly’s reading of the central scene of the east frieze as the sacrifice of the daughters of Erechtheus, AJA 100 (1996), 53-80, dismissed out of hand by Osborne, offers a better mythological reading and one more consistent with the program of the rest of the Parthenon, and is in no way diminished by the “context” of the presence of the statue of Athena; rather, the presence of the goddess Athena opposite the central scene of the frieze may just as easily be a reminder that, for mortals, the cost of anything may be everything (Athena is a notoriously ruthless divinity – just ask Arachne, Ajax, the Trojans, or Tiresias, inter alios). In the next chapter, Osborne’s elaboration of the frieze’s relationship to the pediments and metopes in the Parthenon in an attempt to create a unified program, or at least a unified viewing experience for the worshipper, has, by his own admission, failed to persuade scholars.

The final part of the work, composed of three chapters on Athenian religion, is on the whole more successful, but still not up to the standard set in the first three sections, where one suspects that Osborne is on more comfortable ground. Osborne’s analysis of the competitive festivals in which the Athenians engaged emphasizes the role that those festivals served in promoting the democratic ideology and minimizing personal ambition (especially in the case of those organized by tribe, like the dithyrambs of the City Dionysia), diffusing the glory of victory while defusing the potential embarrassment of defeat. His discussion of the mutilation of the herms prior to the Syracusan expedition in 415 B.C. attempts to put into context not merely the act of destruction of the religious icons, but also their manufacture in the first place. While this chapter is valuable, in the end Osborne falls back on the position he maintained in his chapters on the Parthenon frieze, that the herms were a way for Athenians to look at themselves – somehow, one rather doubts that, given what a herm actually looked like. Of course, following his own somewhat idiosyncratic logic, the mutilation of the herms becomes a form of self-mutilation. Finally, in the chapter “The Ecstasy and the Tragedy,” Osborne looks at artistic and literary examples of Maenads to determine the nature of Athenian religious practice. The approach is interesting – rather than attempting to determine if there were historical Maenads and what, particularly, the practice of historical Maenadism may have entailed, he seeks from the use of the Maenad in vase-painting and literature to determine how the Athenian women actually experienced religious devotion, and how the Athenians came to normalize that devotion. A final coda discusses the relationship between ritual and political behavior, and how an individual Athenian’s involvement in all the ritual activities of his/her life strengthened political identity and unity.

This is a substantial book by a great scholar; it will test the acumen of readers on account of the range of subjects attempted, the extensive documentation, the novelty of thought and the easy command Osborne demonstrates over a wide range of evidence, both inscriptional and literary. It will be of particular value to scholars and teachers focusing on fourth-century practices and institutions, although the author does provide valuable insight into earlier periods of Athenian democracy. Although, like any collection, it can be difficult to follow, the utility of having the articles collected in one place on the whole outweighs any narrative deficiencies, and the book should remain a standard work for some time.

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