Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.09.18 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.09.18

Maurizio Giangiulio, Democrazie greche: Atene, Sicilia, Magna Grecia. Studi Superiori, 1006.   Roma:  Carocci editore, 2015.  Pp. 182.  ISBN 9788843078301.  €17.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Randall Souza, University of California, Berkeley (

With this book Maurizio Giangiulio issues a stern but implicit warning to capitalist democracies everywhere: socioeconomic inequality and political equality cannot coexist. The scope of the book is much more restricted, as the author himself acknowledges (“it does not deal with political theory nor discuss current topics”, p. 9). Giangiulio limits himself to describing the ways in which democratic regimes came about and either endured or ended in five major Greek cities. Athens, Syracuse, Croton, Thurii and Tarentum were governed by democracies for longer and shorter periods, but in each case an ideological opposition to gross social and economic inequality along with tangible measures to prevent it were prerequisites for a functioning democracy.

The first three chapters constitute, effectively, “Part 1: Athens.” In Chapter 1, Giangiulio argues that democracy came about as a result of two main factors: a “structural ‘break’ of a truly cordoned-off social order in aristocratic-oligarchic communities” and “the formation of communitarian structures in which broader circles of free people were politically integrated” (p. 29). He begins with a review of the historiographical tradition, with roots in the 18th century, that has produced a widespread belief that the Greek poleis, Athens above all, were naturally egalitarian and structurally disposed toward democracy. Giangiulio places himself firmly in the camp of Kurt Raaflaub and others for whom Athenian democracy began in earnest with Ephialtes and Pericles in the 460s BCE, but even Raaflaub is too linear for him. He is certainly right to observe that “This process was long, complex, and troubled, and the results were never assumed. Attainment of democratic structures took place only in some cases, far from numerous, and passed through various intermediate phases...” (p. 27). He is right to differentiate isonomia from demokratia and to emphasize the work required to create a “new order” (passim). But he will rightly receive pushback from scholars with a nuanced evolutionary view of ancient Greek political institutions, for whom the “long, complex, and troubled” process is exactly what they believe led to democracy in its fullest form. They will find little advantage in posing the questions as Giangiulio does, or in employing the nebulous concepts of “structural break” and “political integration”.

In Chapter 2, Giangiulio identifies the Persian Wars of the early fifth century BCE as the fundamental cause of a crisis within Greek aristocracies, which led among other things to a fully functioning democracy in Athens. In Giangiulio’s account, Persian victories over the Greeks in Ionia showed how aristocratic societies marked by “Ionian luxury” suffered from military weakness, and he claims that the subsequent threat against mainland Greece led poleis there to re-evaluate the aristocratic status quo that might render them unable to defend themselves. Giangiulio’s verdict on the Greeks’ ultimate defeat of the Persians is that “the civic bodies, the great hoplite armies and the navies were essentially the protagonists of the victory, not the socioeconomic élites” (p. 35). The reconstruction of Athens after Salamis and Plataia, in the 470s BCE, was therefore the true birthplace of Athenian democracy in name and in reality, a “new political culture” that gave all citizens a share in communal decision-making processes.

Chapter 3 presents democratic Athens in its glory, beginning with the revolution, as Giangiulio would have it, of Ephialtes and Pericles that brought it into being. The institutions (sortition, jury pay, etc.) and individuals (Pericles, Cleon, etc.) surveyed here will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in Athenian democracy, so I will not rehash them here. Two things stand out in this chapter. First, the fourth century receives rather little attention and later centuries none at all, which is surprising given the amount of work being done these days on polis institutions after Alexander. There is not a single citation of Habicht’s work, for example, nor any justification for the chronological restriction. More positively, this chapter is where Giangiulio actually begins to develop his argument about the tensions between socioeconomic inequality and political equality in a democracy. Athenian democracy succeeded more or less for 130 years (on his count) both because social and economic elites accepted that all citizens would participate in political processes, and because non-elites newly endowed with political clout accepted that there would be inequalities in wealth and status among citizens. The aristocrats did not often exclude the masses from communal decision-making, and the masses did not often murder the rich or seize their property.

The second part of the book turns to the Western Greek world to examine democracies in Sicily and southern Italy, some of them quite short-lived. In Chapter 4 Giangiulio takes on Syracuse, where democracy existed between ca. 466-405 BCE as a new invention between the tyrannies of the Deinomenids and that of Dionysius I. In Chapter 5 we go to Croton, where democracy arose in the 430s as the product of a popular revolt against the Pythagoreans (though nothing is known of Crotoniate democracy in action). In Chapter 6 Giangiulio argues that the democratic regime in Thurii lasted nearly 25 years after its foundation in the 440s BCE before succumbing to an oligarchic takeover, not the 10 years sometimes supposed. In Chapter 7 we see the democracy of Tarentum at its birth in the 470s BCE and at its apex under Archytas in the mid-fourth century. Giangiulio presents the histories of these cities with a focus on different degrees of equality in economic, social, and political spheres, though it has to be said that he uses a more lenient definition of democracy for the western Greek cities than for Athens, which he will not allow to have been a democracy before Ephialtes.

This is a thought-provoking book with an elegant and appealing principal theme, which does in a very understated way what great books in the Classics do: it invites us to apply our understanding of the modern world to antiquity and bring the lessons of antiquity to bear on the modern world. Only in a handful of places does Giangiulio point out the relationships explicitly, but the book is rich in suggestive ideas and implications. This tendency to leave connections implicit, admirable in avoiding polemic, unfortunately extends to the argumentation of the book as well; the chapters devoted to the case studies are almost entirely self-contained, and while there are sporadic cross references, and themes of equality and inequality can be detected throughout, there is no unifying idea aside from the proposition that socioeconomic inequality was in tension with political equality. It is an interesting proposition, but something more in the way of analysis would have been welcome. How and why did western Mediterranean democracy differ from Aegean democracy? Did the context in which democracy arose (post-war reconstruction at Athens and Tarentum, popular revolt at Syracuse and Croton, Athenian policy at Thurii) affect its structure or its success? The definition of who was a citizen changed frequently in each city—to what degree was the size and makeup of the citizen body a factor in political, social, and economic dynamics? A concluding section of some sort would have been a place for Giangiulio to show us what is to be learned about Greek democracy from studying his examples. As it is, the book ends with the fall of Tarentum to the Romans in 272 BCE, and readers will be left to tie up whichever threads they wish to unite, from Aeschylus to Enlightenment historiography, from Thurii’s brief democratic interlude to Athens’ persistently democratic regime, and from the birth of ancient democracy to its eclipse.

Some readers may try to, anyway. This book is not actually intended for scholars of Greek democracy, though they may find it engaging. It is, as Giangiulio says himself, aimed “at the educated reader and at the engaged student, [and] confronts problems of Greek history in the Classical period, without indulging in sophistication and jargon” (p. 9). That may be the reason why the text often eschews traditional references keyed to specific ideas or positions in favor of short and rather casual bibliographic essays, organized by chapter and section, which precede the final list of works cited. In-text citations are often too vague to be useful (e.g. on pp. 51-52, 78-79). The result is that it is nearly impossible to trace the intellectual histories of many of Giangiulio’s claims, which is disconcerting in a study that directs considerable energy toward the intellectual history of Greek democracy. The book is short; Giangiulio stops himself more than once from pursuing important questions further; nowhere does he explain why he has chosen to discuss the democracies of Magna Graecia as opposed to those of mainland Greece and the Aegean world. All of this suggests that the ideal audience is composed of amateurs rather than students or active scholars.

The book is well produced and includes a full bibliography on ancient democracies, though I have already noted that the references to this bibliography are not likely to be very helpful. Misprints are rare.1 Still, readers’ uncertainty about the aims of the book may be amplified by the publisher’s jacket copy, which claims, in part, “While specialized studies often avoid responding to the questions that Greeks’ ‘government of the people’ poses for our political culture, in this volume the important political implications of the subject are attentively dealt with and discussed.” As should be clear by now, that description does not match the book’s contents.

Those contents are intriguing if not always conclusive or new. One must read the bibliographic essays very carefully to perceive the sources of Giangiulio’s inspiration, and even then it may not be possible to know whether in any given instance he is presenting his own analysis or distilling the work of other scholars. Readers desiring a stimulating series of explorations with gestures toward the extant bibliography on Greek democracy will be quite satisfied; those in search of more conventional thesis-and-evidence scholarship would be better served by any number of the recent volumes and monographs on the topic. 2

Democrazie greche accomplishes a number of admirable goals. In the first place, it identifies a central tension in any democracy that tolerates socioeconomic distinctions. Second, it shows that the histories of several Greek democracies can be read as struggles to accommodate that tension. Third, it provides a series of case studies showing that, in the classical Greek world, democracies tended to lose out to oligarchies—the ideological commitment to political equality tended to give way before the commitment to social and economic capital accumulation did. This warning should be no less alarming for having been delivered almost surreptitiously in an otherwise redundant book of Greek history. ​


1.   I only found three: “aristorazie” for “aristocrazie” on p. 22, “Tutttavia” for “Tuttavia” on p. 99, and “Ober (1969)” for “Ober (1989)” on p. 153.
2.   To name just three examples: Raaflaub, K. A., Ober, J. and Wallace, R. W. (2007). Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press (BMCR 2007.03.41); Árnason, J. P., Raaflaub, K. A., and Wagner, P. (2013). The Greek Polis and the Invention of Democracy: A politico-cultural transformation and its interpretations. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K: Wiley-Blackwell. (BMCR 2014.08.64); Robinson, E. (2011). Democracy beyond Athens: Popular Government in the Greek Classical Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (BMCR 2013.01.17). ​

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