Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.08.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.08.11

P. J. Rhodes (ed.), Aristotele, Costituzione degli Ateniesi (Athenaion Politeia). Traduzione di A. Zambrini, T. Gargiulo e P.J. Rhodes.   Milano:  Fondazione Lorenzo Valla, Mondadori, 2016.  Pp. lii, 402.  ISBN 9788804671695.  €35.00 (hb).  

Reviewed by Rainer Guggenberger, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (

Even if the Athenaion Politeia had not been written by Aristotle himself, but by one of his pupils or colleagues, it would still be one of our most important sources for the history of Athenian democracy. The information it contains was probably used as the raw material for some of Aristotle’s philosophical analyses, and possibly for parts of his Politics. It informs the reader about the events that led to the development of Athenian democracy, from its beginning at the time of Solon through to its pinnacle and decline in the fifth century BC. It contains details and insights that we otherwise would not have, for example aspects of the rise and terror of The Thirty in 404/3 BC that are mentioned in neither Xenophon’s Hellenika nor Lysias’ orations. This makes the Athenaion Politeia indispensable for historians and literary scholars interested in Archaic and Classical Greece. Its first and longer part focuses on the history of political organization in Athens. The second part shows in detail how the Athenian constitution worked in the fourth century BC.

There already exist several editions of the Athenaion Politeia (some of them listed in this edition, pp. XLV-XLVI), but this new one has the advantage of being bilingual, and relatively cheap, considering its academic quality. It is presented in Italian, although the introduction, by Rhodes, was originally written in English.

The book comprises a thirty-page introduction, a bibliography that lists previous (critical) editions and commentaries in chronological order, the Greek text of the Athenaion Politeia with a facing Italian translation, some additional fragments that probably come from its lost sections, and a generally well-executed commentary on the text.

The Italian translation is excellent in style, and intelligent, avoiding artificiality and forced translations of Greek terms that are better left untranslated. So in 30.6, the Italian transliterates βουλευτήριον (as bouleutērion) instead of ineptly translating it as ‘casa dei consiglieri’. At a time of new interest in Athenian politics, which has resulted in several conferences and workshops on Athenian constitutions – especially in Italy, where the last one, Athenaion Politeiai tra storia, politica e sociologia, took place in May 2017 in Cagliari – this Italian edition will surely find a ready market.

Since we just own two large papyri and no manuscripts of the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia, the apparatus criticus for the Greek text is usually rather spare—although some passages have more discussion, chiefly due to conjectures deriving from 19th- and 20th-century editions. There is no information on how the text used here was established, or which text was used as basis for this edition. That may not be that fatal, precisely because the Athenaion Politeia has come down to us on just two papyri, of which one (the Berlin papyrus) contains just the first parts. Nevertheless, for specialists working with more than one edition it would be helpful to know. It would also be nice to know whether Rhodes worked with the same Greek text when he wrote his popular English edition, published by Penguin in 1984.

Rhodes’ introduction, as well as that part of the commentary for which he was responsible, was translated by Gargiulo. Its first section deals with Aristotle’s relation to the Athenaion Politeia, and the importance of the work for the philosopher, and it discusses the possible use of the Athenaion Politeia and of other politeiai in the development of the Politics. The second section provides information on the history of the text, including the discovery of the Berlin and London papyri, and the most important editions, starting with the editio princeps by F. G. Kenyon in 1891. The following two sections introduce the structure and content of the Athenaion Politeia: the first part reconstructs the history of the Athenian constitution from its (lost) beginnings until the restoration of democracy in 403 BC; the second deals with how the constitution in fourth-century Athens worked. The two remaining sections seek to explain the language and style of the Athenaion Politeia, which differ from those of (other) genuine Aristotelian works, and discuss its dating (allowing that it passed through various revisions) and the form in which it began to circulate in antiquity. For specialists, the introduction will, in large part, rehearse familiar arguments, arriving at mostly sensible conclusions.

The commentary has under 250 pages, while the outstanding English commentary by Rhodes, published by Oxford University Press in 1982, has about three times more. But that does not mean that the Italian commentary (partly done by Rhodes himself) is lacking. Abstaining from too much detail in its analysis, it reliably covers the most important points, while avoiding over-generalization. The beginning of the commentary, detailing the socio-political circumstances of the period before the event with which the main body of the text begins, is especially well done (cf. pp. 155-61). The following paragraphs of the commentary contextualize the first words of our text, informing us about the Cylonian Affair (mentioned in Herodotus 5.70, Thucydides 1.126, Plutarch’s Vita Solonis 12) and its relation to Solon (cf. pp. 161-3).

The commentary mentions authors (e.g. Xenophon, Lysias, Diodorus) who refer to the same events and facts as the Athenaion Politeia, pointing out where and how they differ from the Aristotelian version. It even mentions where these authors use different terms from those used in the Athenaion Politeia (e.g. p. 298). Occasionally the commentary anticipates conclusions that would have been better left to the reader. At some points, the commentators ought to have expressed their opinions more cautiously, notably where they make inferences to the general from the particular, as happens on p. 288 where they express their opinion that, on a certain occasion, all Athenian laws were reformulated: the Athenaion Politeia only reports the reformulation of some of them.

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