Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.03.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.03.10

Hans Beck (ed.), A Companion to Ancient Greek Government. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World.   Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.  Pp. xviii, 590.  ISBN 9781405198585.  £120.00​.  

Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk, Universiteit van Amsterdam (


In 1958 the philosopher Hannah Arendt presented her book The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press). In it, she paid ample attention to the ancient Athenian society, presenting an idealised picture of the times and position of notably Pericles. It was a picture few ancient historians would endorse, nowadays, in fact merely relying on formal constitutional structures and ideals without paying close attention to everyday reality and practice. However, Arendt’s position sadly merely reflects the status of many people’s thinking on ancient Greek government, not only in her day but to this very day. As Beck rightly states in his Introduction, “[t]he study of ancient Greek government has become somewhat unfashionable in classical scholarship for the most part of the twentieth century” (1), never superseding or replacing Georg Busolt’s three-volumed Griechische Staatskunde (München: Beck, 1920-26). As Greek government studies had increasingly developed into Greek ‘state-law-studies’, the field finally found itself in a cul-de-sac. However, new paths have been found and trodden over the last two decades-and-a-half or so and the volume under review is a clear testimony to new approaches towards Greek government currently explored. In this new approach, the aim is not so much to strive for a synthesis, but to elucidate various elements of Greek political culture as it was practised (my emphasis) in various poleis.

Beck’s Companion consists of 32 contributions, divided into 7 sections or, as they are called in this volume, parts, exclusive of an “Introduction” (by Hans Beck) and an “Epilogue” (by Uwe Walter), each discussing a specific theme. The 7 parts are: “Greek Government in History” (chapters 1-4); “Ancient Templates and Typologies” (chapters 5-10); “To Rule and Be Ruled: Greek Governing Bodies” (chapters 11-14); “Process and Procedure” (chapters 15-18); “Responsibilities and Realms of Action” (chapters 19-24); “Space and Memory” (chapters 25-28); and “Government Beyond the City-State” (chapters 29-32). As it is impossible to pay attention to all contributions within the limits reasonable for a review, I will try to highlight a number of them, reflecting above all my personal interests.

In chapter 2, “The Classical Greek Polis and its Government” (22-37), Barry Strauss discusses the century and a half between the end of the Persian Wars and the death of Philip II of Macedon, primarily focusing on Athens, being the best-documented of the Greek poleis. Having outlined ten propositions regarding the Greek poleis broadly, Strauss focuses on three themes, sc. ‘Athens and Sparta’; ‘Three Ages of Athenian Democracy’; and ‘Athenian Democracy in Action, Fourth-Century BCE’. Of these themes, I found especially the second, even if brief, good reading, though the ‘Old Oligarch’ perhaps might have served in this theme as well as Aristotle does in the third. However, for a wider audience the ten propositions occasionally seem more important—especially propositions 8 (on the tensions between individual rights and the interest of the community) and 9 (on the balance in a democracy of the rights of ‘the few’, the elite, and ‘the many’, the poor and ordinary people,: 24-5)—if only to avoid it being deluded by modern politicians trying to get their way.

Destined “to investigate the beginnings of Greek reflection on politics, institutions and constitutions”, chapter 5 by Kurt A. Raaflaub (“Archaic and Classical Greek Reflections on Politics and Government. From Description to Conceptualization, Analysis, and Theory”, 73-92), in spite of its title, primarily rests on the Archaic period. Like Strauss’s, also this chapter is divided in three parts, ‘The Archaic Period (c. 750-480 BCE)’, ‘The Fifth Century’, and ‘Outlook: New Departures in the Early Fourth Century’, the first two subdivided in 7 and 3 themes respectively. Though answers varied in time and place, Raaflaub clearly demonstrates that generally the centrality of the community in the polis was the dominant factor in Greek political thinking.

To some extent Plato’s views on the state might be regarded as an exception to the rule Raaflaub formulated. “Plato’s View on Greek Government” is the subject of chapter 6 (93-104) by Luc Brisson, in five parts, to a large extent dedicated to Plato’s main works on the state, its leaders, and its laws. Plato’s focus was perhaps ultimately the good of the community, but his direct attention was to construct what he considered to be a just and virtuous society in which philosophers (like Socrates) would lead the way and would not risk death. In fact he sketched an altogether new, sometimes terrifying, concept of (Athenian) politics, in which traditional competition, often the driving force of developments, was (formally) eradicated. Taken together, Brisson presents a useful, even though brief, synthesis of Plato’s view of the state.

Where Plato’s views appear to favour an oligarchy (of philosophers), Nino Luraghi (in chapter 9, 131-45) focuses on “One-Man Government. The Greeks and Monarchy”. In Greek political culture, monarchy was “a foreign concept that could be rendered in Greek only with a descriptive compound” (131), in spite of some familiarity with basileis, e.g., in Persia and Macedonia, and the occurrence of tyrannoi in the Greek world itself. Their power “was mostly considered illegitimate and they were usually depicted in negative terms” (131), whereas the power of a basileus tended to be legitimate. In two themes Luraghi describes the almost constant controversy, also in Greek literature, between the rights of the polis and its citizens on the one hand and on the other the wish (perhaps sometimes even the need) for a more or less omnipotent leader. Both due to Luraghi’s knowledge of etymology and the scope of his observations (e.g. as regards fourth century BCE political thinking) I found this an inspiring chapter.

The same conclusion goes for Josine Blok’s contribution (chapter 11, 161-75) on “Citizenship, the Citizen Body, and its Assemblies”, challenging the traditional exegesis of Aristotle’s definition, in his Politics (sc. 1275b17-24), of a politēs. She does so by focusing on the structures of citizenship and the community (my italics) of politai. It is a worthwhile addition to the discussion on the development and distribution of tasks within the (notably Athenian) society.

Pierre Fröhlich discusses “Governmental Checks and Balances” (chapter 17, 252-66). Though the concept (my italics) of the balance of power within the state was alien to the ancient Greek world, in practice something that might be described as such did exist, at least in the Classical and Hellenistic periods. Fröhlich describes several mechanisms intended to achieve such a balance and does so focusing on five fields (exile; balancing decision-making bodies; the balance and distribution of magisterial power; control procedures; legal proceedings and sanctions). Fröhlich argues (265) that the framework he describes is paradigmatic, but I believe evidence, certainly from non-democratic poleis but even from Athens itself, is too scarce to warrant this confidence, even though it might be an attractive thought.

“Public Administration” (chapter 19, 287-301) is the title of the contribution by Frances Pownall. Again, it mainly focuses on the Classical Era in Athens and even there the evidence is not abundant. In spite of these caveats, I found Pownall’s contribution clarifying and useful, especially for a more general audience. By its nature, public administration effortlessly links to the subject of Adele C. Scafuro’s “Keeping Record, Making Public. The Epigraphy of Government” (chapter 26, 400-16). In historic times, (practically) all Greek cities kept records, even if they were kept and preserved in different ways. To some extent, the manner they were displayed largely determined the way they were kept. A conspicuous way of keeping them is through inscriptions, mostly in stone: Hedrick estimated in 1999 that there were by then about 100,000 published Greek inscriptions (401). A special place among these is occupied by state decrees, in various forms, now assembled in P.J. Rhodes and D.M. Lewis, The Decrees of the Greek States (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997) and still augmented, i.a. by updates in the Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum (see: S.E.G., Leiden University). Scafuro provides the readers of this chapter with a very useful review of available sources for state documents and their use, making it a veritable treasure-trove.

In chapter 30 (466-79), Jeremy McInerney discusses “Polis and koinon. Federal Government in Greece”, federal systems of government, e.g., practiced in the different leagues. McInerney stresses that the various leagues were quite dissimilar, their main shared characteristic being that some form of federal, common, authority was recognised, that stood up for particular needs. Even though I find McInerney’s explanations occasionally rather vague, he provides the readers with some elementary features of the Greek federal states (470-1). Nevertheless, I believe that the author has left too many ends open. Here especially, but, I must admit, also in at least some of the other chapters, I thoroughly missed the ‘Guide for further reading’, a feature common to most other volumes in the Blackwell Companion series I know.

The epilogue by Uwe Walter I found, though at places somewhat high-flown, basically inspiring and inviting to spend time and energy to investigate various elements of ancient Greek government. This brings me, however, to ask for whom this volume is intended. In spite of all efforts to produce an accessible book on ancient Greek government (all classical texts have been translated), I firmly believe it is too specialised to be really attractive to a wider audience, and specialists will not find many surprising elements in it, though they might use it as a convenient look-up tool. In that case, however, the general index (581-90) would hardly be sufficient and a proper index locorum is painfully absent. Still, the bibliography (525-80) is excellent and massive, once one is able to find one’s way in it (it has no arrangement according to subject). Moreover, also the arrangement of subjects of the chapters is a logical one and the chapters are generally well written. I could, therefore, see the book also as a useful tool for, e.g., a class on Greek government for undergraduate students in ancient history.

Though it was not the aim of the new approach to Greek governmental studies to strive for a synthesis, it seems an act of irony that a work like the one under review, dedicated to explore those new research fields, in some way thereby becomes a kind of new synthesis itself. In any case, this collection of contributions is a real asset in that it unequivocally shows that ancient Greek governmental studies is a dynamic field of study. Moreover, the book was carefully produced and the number of typos is limited.

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