Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.09.47 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.09.47

Oliver Grote, Die griechischen Phylen: Funktion – Entstehung – Leistungen.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016.  Pp. 284.  ISBN 9783515114509.  €52.00.  

Reviewed by James Kierstead, Victoria University of Wellington (

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This book is a significant contribution to the growing literature on ancient associations. Grote’s examination of the evidence is wide-ranging and assured, and his argumentation is always clear and cogent, even on the rare occasions when it fails to convince.

The work focuses on the origins, nature, and political functions of the phylai (‘tribes’). The bulk of the book is made up of thorough examinations of the phylai. in ten different poleis. These case-studies provide the basis for the more theoretical discussions that end the volume.


We begin with Kyrene, where a catastrophic defeat by the Libyans sometime after 565 led to a demographic imbalance between a minority of descendants of the original Theran settlers and a majority of relatively recent migrants from other parts of the Greek world. In reaction to this, the reformer Demonax divided the inhabitants into three phylai: one for those ultimately from Thera, one for Peloponnesians and Cretans, and one for people from the islands (Hdt. 4.161.3). The new phylai integrated the newcomers into the body politic and helped structure new political institutions such as a Council (Hdt. 4.165), which in turn enabled the Battiad monarchy to be effectively neutered.

In Sikyon, Hdt. 5.68.1-2 tells us that Kleisthenes changed the names of the three Doric phylai to Archelaoi (rulers – his own phylē), Hyatai (pig-men), Oneatai (donkey-men), and Choireatai (swine-men). Pace Herodotus, Grote argues that Kleisthenes’ changes were not meant to mock the Sikyonians: after all, what sort of ruler would needlessly insult three quarters of his population? Instead, the new phylai were meant to distinguish Sikyon from its rival Argos and thus build up its internal solidarity and even its military performance (which may actually have worked: see e.g. Aristot. Pol. 1315b 14-6, 60).

Grote attributes the legendary stability of the Spartan system to the Great Rhetra, which he reads as a reform to civic subdivisions (‘die Gliederungstruktur der Bevölkerung,’ 81). The point of these reforms was to build up solidarity, both in the army (Tyrt. 10 implies that phylai fought together) and in public life, where membership in phylai and obes helped the Spartiate find his ‘Sitz in Leben,’ (109). The phylai also helped build up a public sphere, a pre- condition for a functioning Assembly.

The Gortyn Law Code mandates that an heiress can only marry someone outside her phylē once she has exhausted all the options within it (col. 7.50-8.35). For Grote, this was to ensure a rotation of the powerful office of kosmos among all the city’s great families. The kosmos was rotated through the phylai, and the great families needed to be kept within their phylai if the system was not to be circumvented. The system eventually broke down in the fourth century, probably because the phylai were never equal in power, and the most powerful phylai came to find waiting for office intolerable. The Gortynian phylai also sent members to a Council.

The situation at Dreros is less clear, but a seventh-century inscription (Koerner no. 91) contains the phrase πόλι ἔϝαδε διαλήσασι πυλᾶσι, ‘the city decided after consulting the phylai.’ Grote takes this to imply that representatives from each phylē met in a deliberative Council, which he identifies with the ‘Twenty of the polis’ mentioned in the famous inscription limiting iteration of the office of kosmos (ML 2).

At Korinth, the Suda says there were eight phylai; these eight probably replaced the traditional three Doric phylai sometime after the end of Cypselid rule (c. 580). Grote thinks that the phylai played a more political role than the territorial mere (‘parts’); their purpose was to filter out local interests and construct a more general conception of the public good. This they did partly by sending ten members each to a Council of Eighty and one member each to a Council of eight probouloi. Selection of probouloi by phylai meant that any individual group seeking to make itself dominant was sure to face opposition.

There were probably three phylai in archaic Argos, but from around 460 four phylai are mentioned (e.g. ML 42), and soon after we hear of a college of four hiaromnamones. Grote thinks the new phylē, the Hyrnathioi, consisted of perioikoi that Aristotle tells us were integrated into the citizenry following the disastrous defeat at Sepeia in 494 (Pol. 1303a6-8). The new phylē not only incorporated the poor, rural Hyrnathioi into a mainly urban citizenry, but also ensured their participation in political life. Hyrnathioi could now become Ilarchs, one of whom was selected from each of the four phylai.

At Miletus, the top magistrates were the six molpoi, five prosetairoi and a single, powerful aisymnētēs. There were also six phylai, but instead of each of them selecting one molpos each year, three phylai selected two molpoi one year, with the other three getting their chance every other year. Each of the six phylai would get to select an aisymnētēs only once every six years (SIG3 I 57). Grote suggests that the point of all this was to avoid having molpoi from one phylē two years in a row, as well as to ensure that each group of molpoi would have an ‘opposition’ consisting of members of the phylai without molpoi that year.

The famous βολὴ δημοσίη at Chios (ML 8) probably had fifty members from each phylē. Its role was to provide oversight of magistrates, and hence prevent local ‘big men’ from making themselves tyrants. The Assembly could hardly be trusted with such a task; the ‘Masse des Volkes’ was, according to Grote, too vulnerable to manipulation by leaders (202). On the Council, by contrast, rivalry between elite leaders could be harnessed as a means of blocking bids for absolute power.

The final case-study is Athens. One function of the ten new phylai, which were placed on top of trittyes and demes, was ‘partikulare Interessen Schritt für Schritt auszublenden’ (213). But their real purpose was to make sure that magistrates were accountable—this is why the ten euthynoi and logistai, who were centrally involved in the scrutiny of magistrates, were selected from the phylai.

In his penultimate chapter, Grote criticizes the decades-old orthodoxy established by Roussel, that phylai were not remnants of a tribal past, but artificial creations of the developing polis.1 He questions whether phylai and poleis were as tightly linked as Roussel supposed; after all, Aeolic poleis lack phylai. And the phyla of the Homeric poems are already familiar and coherent units (see esp. Il. 2.362f.). Grote proposes that the phylai did, after all, originate as bands of settlers (‘Siedlungverbände’) that later became associated with particular localities. Phylai were formed and named according first to priority of settlement, and then to the perceived cultural difference from the earliest settlers.

The final chapter suggests a number of effects that the phylai might have had on the life of the polis. Phylai allowed face-to-face communication to be scaled up. They enabled a kind of representation, not in the modern sense, but as a ‘making present’ (Gegenwärtigmachen) of a particular group through a member of it. They fostered deliberation. They made possible ‘eine Dezentralisierung politischer Macht’ (250). They strengthened trust. Through them, local interests were transcended, and public-spiritedness built up. They acted as checks on individual members of the elite, and hence as mechanisms of stability.


I spotted almost no factual errors. But the assertion that semestrial terms for magistrates would be ‘äusserst ungewöhnlich, wenn nicht einzigartig’ in a Greek polis (181) is too strong: six-month terms are in fact attested for magistrates at Argos, Kos, Delphi, and Larisa.2

Much in the chapter on Athens struck me as debatable. The notion that Kleisthenes’ reforms were more about citizenship than democracy is surely contradicted by the wide-ranging and thoroughgoing reforms to political institutions that they encompassed. And the idea that Kleisthenes could not have expected much enthusiasm for politics from the Athenians themselves ignores the mass revolt that paved the way for his reforms.3

In the chapter on Sparta, I was unconvinced by the argument that the phrase φυλὰς φυλάξαντα means that phylai must have already been around; the fact that phylē-ing is the only thing that could be done to a phylē might instead imply that they were not so familiar. As for Herodotus’ report that a Spartan founded Thera with settlers ἀπὸ τῶν φυλέων (Hdt. 4.148.1), this was in fact a re-foundation, and the tradition Herodotus reports that there had been settlers on the island for several generations before this might explain the antiquity of the earliest archaeological finds, which go back to around 800.

This brings us to Grote’s brave assault on the Rousselian orthodoxy. His question about how the Doric poleis all ended up with the same phylai is a good one, but his scepticism about the influence of cultural interaction runs up against a good deal of contemporary work in institutional theory.4 As for the Homeric phyla, they would only be decisive if we could say for sure that the Homeric poems preceded the development of the polis, and we cannot.

Still, Grote may well be right that some kind of phyla existed before Roussel thought they did. But the point is perhaps not so much what happened before the development of the polis, but that there was a wave of reform in the late archaic period that gave us the phylai in their classical form, as fully-integrated components of the political institutions of the polis.

The political order that emerged from this wave of reform (and of which the phylai were a part) was designed, in Grote’s view, to guard against the danger of one-man rule. The polis that emerges from this book is thus very much a republican one. Not that democracies are absent; of Grote’s case-studies, only the Cretan cities and Sparta never experienced democracy. But democracy appears here only as one end of a spectrum of anti-tyrannical constitutionalism.

Indeed, the constitutional arrangements Grote carefully reconstructs for us often recall principles espoused by later republican theorists. The way that phylai fostered opposition as a structural element of the system would surely have pleased James Madison, who would insist that ‘ambition must be made to counteract ambition’ (Federalist 51) in the US constitution. And the way—in Grote’s view—Greek poleis sought, above all, to mitigate the risk of absolutism, is very much in sympathy with Philip Pettit’s more recent emphasis on ‘non-domination.’5

Grote has left it to other researchers to explore precisely how the phylai performed all the roles he proposes for them. How precisely, for example, did phylai build up trust? How did the internal solidarity the phylai built up contribute to a more general conception of the public good, rather than detracting from it? Scholars who hope to answer these questions will need to engage deeply with the contemporary social sciences.

While doing so, they will find a solid empirical basis for their theorizing in the detailed case-studies that make up the bulk of this commendable book. ​


1.   Roussel, D. (1976), Tribu et cité. Études sur les groups sociaux dans les cites grecques aux époques archaïque et classique. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.
2.   Argos, Kos: Robinson, E.W. (2011), Democracy Beyond Athens: Popular Government in the Greek Classical Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 14-15, 154-55; Delphi: Salviat, F. “L'oligarchie à Delphes: rôle et composition de la boula.” Hommages à Lucien Lerat (1984): 743-749; Larisa: Helly, B. “Décret de Larisa pour Bombos, fils d’Alkaios, et pour Leukios, fils de Nikasias, citoyens d’Alexandrie de Troade (ca 150 av. J.-C.).” Chiron 36 (2017): 171-203.
3.   Ober, J. (1996), “The Athenian Revolution of 508/7: Violence, Authority, and the Origins of Democracy.” In The Athenian Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 34-52.
4.   Finnemore, M. “Norms, Culture, and World Politics: Insights from Sociology’s Institutionalism.” International Organization 50 (1996), 325-47.
5.   Pettit, P. (1999), Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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