Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.09.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.09.35

Claudia Tiersch (ed.), Die Athenische Demokratie im 4. Jahrhundert: zwischen Modernisierung und Tradition.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016.  Pp. 384.  ISBN 9783515110693.  €63.00 (pb).  ISBN 9783515110716.  ebook.  

Reviewed by Christopher Welser, Augsburg University (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

All periods of Greek history are problematic, each in its own way. The central problem of the Archaic Period, for example, has long been to find a well-defined set of causes that can plausibly account for all the trends that are generally agreed upon as characterizing that era. With respect to the fourth century BCE, on the other hand, the problem is more fundamental because the trends that characterize the period are themselves the subject of much debate. In the specific case of Athens, it no simple matter to determine whether democracy faded or flourished, whether economic inequality increased or diminished, whether there was a real shift in self-identification from the public to the private sphere—and so on. In general, a fair assessment of the relatively abundant evidence for fourth-century Athens seems to reveal contradictory tendencies on almost every dimension. It has long been almost habitual for historians to speak of these contradictory tendencies in terms of continuity and change.

The 2012 Berlin colloquium from which this book of essays emerged posed the problem in slightly different terms, proposing as its theme Athens “zwischen Modernisierung und Tradition.” The hope behind such a formulation, as Claudia Tiersch explains in her introduction, was that the idea of modernization might offer a theoretical framework capable of bringing conceptual order to our picture of Athenian society in the period after the Peloponnesian War. As developed in other contexts, theories of modernization (discussed in some detail by Tiersch) seek to account for such processes as rationalization, bureaucratization, socio-economic differentiation, and growing individualism, all of which seem to be operative in Athens in the fourth century. As it happens (and as John Davies observes in his concluding reflections), few of the contributions to this volume actually employ modernization as an important explanatory mode. Nevertheless, the book is a valuable collection of essays from some of the most distinguished scholars of classical Athens, providing an incomparable snapshot of the current state of the field. Some of the essays are surveys or summaries, some offer new interpretations, but virtually all are worth reading by those interested in the problems of fourth-century Athenian history.

In keeping with current trends, more than a third of the eighteen essays (not including Tiersch’s introduction and Davies’ conclusion) deal with issues of trade and finance, and particularly with the interface between the private economy and the state. A central theme of no fewer than four essays is the extent to which the Athenians understood market processes and tried to direct them in socially beneficial ways. Edward Cohen, for example, offers an overview of the incentives that shaped the expanding market for maritime loans and highlights the Athenians’ deliberate pursuit of policies designed to ensure their city’s continuance as the most attractive entrepôt for seaborne commerce. Armin Eich, meanwhile, looks at some examples of Athenian state intervention in prices and production (mainly with respect to the market for grain) and concludes his paper with a brilliant analogy: although the ancient Athenians produced no systematic treatises on the building and operation of triremes, we do not doubt that these were subjects that concerned them deeply and that they knew well. Likewise, we can infer from their interventions in the economy that they possessed a pragmatic conception of how it worked. Some sense of that conception’s intellectual content is provided by Raymond Descat, who offers a portrait of an emerging market mentality among the Athenians. Descat boldly connects several apparently disparate pieces of evidence to suggest (albeit not in so many words) that the economic rationalism we associate with the physiocrats and Adam Smith was present in some form more than two thousand years before. In contrast to Descat, who describes the development of a new economic mindset, Christophe Pébarthe argues that the Athenians were perforce conscious of the interdependence between politics and economics even in the fifth century, and that their fourth-century policies were a continuation of earlier efforts to solve similar problems.

Three other essays also deal primarily with aspects of Athens’ economy. Ronald Stroud reviews the current state of scholarship on the Athenian Grain-Tax Law of 374/3, one of the most interesting (and complete) Athenian epigraphic documents to appear in recent years. Stroud concentrates, appropriately, on major aspects of the law that have not yet been adequately explained: these include the identity of the one-fiftieth tax that is one of the law’s chief subjects, the nature and operation of the symmories in lines 31-36, the instructions to the apodektai in lines 56-61, and the peculiar absence from the law of any reference to the nomothetai or to provisions for inscribing and erecting the stele on which it appears. Epigraphic texts—specifically, the polētai records of silver mine leases—also form the basis of Kirsty Shipton’s paper, in which she argues that the profile of a typical lessee seems to have changed somewhat over the course of the mid-fourth century. Investors around 340, she finds, are probably less wealthy than those in 367/6 (a trend also observed by Xenophon at Poroi 4.28) and less likely to have family connections with the mining industry. A final paper on an economic topic—though from a very different perspective—is by Claire Taylor, who proposes that a qualitative conception of poverty as a lived experience might prove more useful in tracking changes in fourth-century Athenian society than a more conventional quantitative approach.

Naturally, a number of the essays in this volume deal with democratic institutions and practices. Peter Rhodes provides an excellent summary of fourth-century constitutional changes in the archai through which the democracy was administered. He is inclined to accept the conventional view, common to many of the authors in the volume but perhaps worth reconsideration, that fourth-century Athens was characterized by increasing bureaucratization and “government by experts,” particularly in the realm of public finance. Rosalind Thomas looks at another facet of the democracy, discussing audience participation—shouting, laughing, jeering—in the assembly and lawcourts. On the whole, she tends to regard such manifestations as evidence of the potential volatility of the dēmos and its susceptibility to manipulation.1 Lene Rubinstein also emphasizes the possible intensity of Athenian popular sentiment, specifically in the lawcourts, where she looks at speakers’ demands for communal revenge and notes that such demands’ presence or absence in our texts seems to reflect Athens’ external political circumstances. A broader consideration of democracy is offered by Edward Harris, who argues against the oft-repeated claim that fourth-century democracy was characterized by a move away from the sovereignty of the dēmos and toward the rule of law; he notes that ancient sources unanimously regard the fourth century as a time of unrestrained popular supremacy, and he points out that even in the fifth century the Athenians “always believed that democracy and the rule of law went hand in hand” (p. 75). Although Harris sometimes seems to ignore the real tensions that can exist between the popular will and the rule of law —for example, in the trial of the generals after Arginusae—he is surely correct in insisting that the conflict so evident to us was largely invisible to the Athenians.2

A nuanced perspective on the ideological complexion of fourth-century democracy is provided by Peter Liddel, who analyzes honorary degrees as they appear in both literary and epigraphic texts. Like Rubinstein, he finds that changes in Athens’ external circumstances— the loss of empire, the struggle with Macedon—are reflected in the evidence he examines, a fact he regards as indicative of the city’s ongoing political vitality. Liddell also calls attention to indications of tension between the practice of honoring eminent individuals and the “collectivist” impulses of democracy, a tension perhaps relieved by the relatively numerous examples (in the epigraphic evidence) of honors for low-level administrators and boards of officials.

Danielle Allen, developing arguments from her book Why Plato Wrote (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), proposes an important revision of our picture of Athenian politics after Chaeronea. She argues persuasively that, contrary to what some scholars have believed, Lycurgus and Demosthenes were bitter opponents and that Lycurgus’ Against Leocrates is best explained as an indirect attack on Demosthenes; Demosthenes, stung by this provocation, then forced Lycurgus’ ally, Aeschines, to bring his long-suspended prosecution of Ctesiphon before a jury. Although Allen presents her essay in terms of Plato’s influence in Athenian politics, readers may find her reimagining of Athens’ political alliances more compelling than her linking of those alliances to a putative “culture war” over Platonism.

Three essays highlight issues of collective identity. Vincent Gabrielsen argues, on the basis of carefully documented evidence, that the growth of Athenian participation in voluntary (or “Hellenistic”) associations began well before 322 BCE, and that the rise of such associations represented a transition from a rigorously state-centered idea of group membership to a more inclusive conception of polis culture. Giovanna Daverio Rocchi portrays a similar tendency in Athenian life, with the primacy of the centralized state giving way to greater activity at the level of the demes, and to increased private munificence. Volker Grieb, tracing the history of Athens in the century after 322, suggests that the struggle against Macedonian attempts to limit the franchise resulted in a consolidation of dēmos identity that we can observe in the establishment, after 229/8, of a sanctuary of Dēmos and the Charites. Although Grieb’s portrait of a strengthened attachment to the dēmos may seem to be at odds with Gabrielsen’s and Rocchi’s descriptions of apparently more centrifugal processes, all three authors take the view that social connectedness in Athens increased even as Athenians’ connections with formal political institutions may have waned—a notable departure from perceptions of the late Classical and Hellenistic eras as a time of increased social atomization and intensifying anomie.

Jan Timmer and Katarina Nebelin both explore broad social measures, trust and diversity respectively, and engage relatively fully with issues of modernization. Nebelin examines Aristotle’s views of diversity, contrasting his belief that human diversity calls society into existence with his conviction that excessive freedom and equality are deleterious to the polis. Timmer observes that the increasing social complexity and individualism of fourth-century Athens required an increase in social trust, which ultimately had to be achieved through the “institutionalization of mistrust” so visible in fourth-century Athenian politics and, ultimately, through a general diminution of political passions (“ideologische Erkaltung”). Among all the essays in this volume, Nebelin’s and Timmer’s seem to have the most obvious relevance to our own times.

As I have said, nearly all the essays in this collection are worth reading; taken collectively, they furnish a highly stimulating conspectus of the dynamism and complexity of fourth-century Athens. The book’s one serious fault is a lack of adequate copyediting, which has resulted in inconsistent formatting, fairly numerous typos, and, in the case of one or two essays, serious grammatical errors and stylistic weaknesses that impinge on readability. Otherwise, however, this is a marvelous book.

Authors and Titles

Claudia Tiersch, “Die Athenische Demokratie im 4. Jh. v. Chr. zwischen Modernisierung und Tradition.” pp. 7-32
Jan Timmer, “Schritte auf dem Weg des Vertrauens—Überlegungen zu Chancen und Grenzen der Anpassung von Handlungsdispositionen.” pp. 33-53
Lene Rubinstein, “Communal Revenge and Appeals to Dicastic Emotions.” pp. 55-72
Edward M. Harris, “From Democracy to the Rule of Law? Constitutional Change in Athens during the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BCE.” pp. 73-87
Rosalind Thomas, “Performance, Audience Participation and the Dynamics of the Fourth-Century Assembly and Jury-Courts of Athens.” pp. 89-107
P. J. Rhodes, “Fourth-century Appointments in Athens.” pp. 109-119
Vincent Gabrielsen, “Associations, Modernization and the Return of the Private Network in Athens.” pp. 121-162
Giovanna Daverio Rocchi, “Political Institutions between Centre and Periphery, between Public and Private in 4th Century Athens. Constructing Shared Civic Identity.” pp. 163-183
Ronald Stroud, “The Athenian Grain-Tax Law of 374/3 B.C.: Unfinished Business.” pp. 185-193
Raymond Descat, “Continuité et changement: le comportement économique à Athènes au IVe s. a. C.” pp. 195-206
Edward E. Cohen, “Transformation of the Athenian Economy: Maritime Finance
and Maritime Law.” pp. 207-222
Christophe Pébarthe, “New Assessment on Trade and Politics in 4th Century B.C.E. Athens.” pp. 223-232
Armin Eich, “Konzeptionen zur politischen Steuerung und Beeinflussbarkeit von wirtschaftlichen Vorgängen (Athen, 4. Jh. v. Chr.).” pp. 233-252
Kirsty Shipton, “The Silver Mines Of 4th C Democratic Athens: An Economic Nexus.” pp. 253-260
Claire Taylor, “Social Dynamics in Fourth-Century Athens: Poverty and Standards of Living.” pp. 261-277
Danielle Allen, “Culture War: Plato and Athenian Politics 350–330 BCE.” pp. 279-291
Katarina Nebelin, “Vielfalt ohne Gleichheit? Das Problem der politischen und sozialen Vielfalt bei Aristoteles.” pp. 293-333
Peter Liddel, “The Honorific Decrees of Fourth-Century Athens: Trends, Perceptions,
Controversies.” pp. 335-357
Volker Grieb, “Konsolidierung und Modernisierung Athens Bürgerschaft im späten vierten
und frühen dritten Jahrhundert v. Chr.” pp. 359-384
John Davies, “Athens after 404: A Battleground of Contradictory Visions.” pp. 385-394


1.   A somewhat more optimistic treatment of this phenomenon is Joseph Roisman’s “Speaker-Audience Interaction in Athens: A Power Struggle,” in Free Speech in Classical Antiquity, ed. I. Sluiter and R. M. Rosen (Leiden, 2004), pp. 261-277.
2.   Raphael Sealey has suggested that for the Athenians the rule of law was a more important aspect of democracy than popular sovereignty: The Athenian Republic: Democracy or the Rule of Law? (University Park, PA, 1987).

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