Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.10

Fulvia de Luise (ed.), Legittimazione del potere, autorità della legge: un dibattito antico.  Collana Studi e Ricerche n. 10.   Trento:  Università degli Studi di Trento, Dipartimento di Lettere e Filosofia, 2016.  Pp. 290.  ISBN 9788884436368.  €12,00.  

Reviewed by Stefania Giombini, Universitat de Girona (

Open Access
[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

From 2011 to 2015, the cooperation between the University of Trento and the University of Turin resulted in three meetings on politics and classical antiquity, with the purpose of analysing and better understanding the dark time the political language seems to be living nowadays. This book is the output of the third of these meetings.1

The volume focuses on power and the processes through which the Greek world tried to legitimise it. After a brief preface by de Luise, which presents its contents, Mario Vegetti, in his introduction, focuses on five basic answers given by the Greeks, in the V and IV centuries B.C., to the issue of the foundation of power, according to Plethos, Nomos, Kratos, Areté, and Episteme. The volume is composed of six different sections, adding Basileia to the five principles identified by Vegetti. Ten essays are situated in the specific segments, but Kratos, Episteme and Areté have only one paper each, thereby reducing dialectical exchange on the subjects.

Starting from Pericles’s Funeral Oration, Luciano Canfora shows the ideological aspect of Athenian politics based on the forced exportation of democracy that Athens carried out towards both allied and subjected cities. This exportation occurred through supporting the poorest classes with the aim to control the landowner classes, who later rose up during Athens’s fragile moments.

Maurizio Giangiulio deals with some paradoxes of Athenian democracy, in two parts. In the first, he discusses what he considers the first paradox of Athenian democracy, viz. that participation, which should be intrinsic to democratic organization of all the citizens, had not been achieved. In the second part, he discusses the paradox of slavery, which is the essential prerequisite for Athenian democracy since it allowed the lower classes not to be subjects to the higher ones. Regarding the first topic, Giangiulio focuses especially on the Ekklesia, which he finds limited since it included only a small percentage of the citizens entitled to participate. Giangulio argues that this is not a matter of citizenship but rather of the concept of democracy if one accepts that democracy means the participation of all the citizens.2 Giangiulio is ready to acknowledge that this failing is not significant, or at least essential in the construction of Athenian democracy because it found ‘i suoi veri segreti’ (its true secrets, p. 42) in social cohesiveness, via forms of community integration and the political power of individual citizens.

More focused is Valentina Pazé’s position, that the central point of democracy is not in the ‘forza del numero’ (the strength of numbers, p. 55) but in political debate, since it is discussion that produces the decisions that are taken. Pazé essays a comparative analysis of our idea of democratic assembly and the classical one: the gap is in the non-horizontality of the Greek one, which, more than a debate between citizens, limited itself to a skirmish between ‘professionals of the word’ (hence the role of rhetoric) and Sophists.

The Episteme section comprises an essay by de Luise on the development of the Platonic idea of political power associated with episteme. Recreating the idea of the knowledge that must belong to the ruler, de Luise outlines a clear path of interpretation from Republic to Statesman, which begins with praise of knowledge as an instrument that leads to power, and later the idea that the legitimacy of power based on knowledge necessarily requires a review of the archetype of the polis and a new type of ruler who can, with his knowledge, place himself above ordinary, low level political practice.

This essay is followed by the quite long one by Alberto Maffi on the principle of majority, which opens the Nomos section. Maffi returns to a theme he has previously discussed,3 though from another point of view. At the beginning, he focuses on defining the peculiarities of the principle of majority in judicial and political practice: this principle seems to be part of the Greek ‘panhellenic’ world, and it is used for the public interest (unlike the private, which requires consensus). The most complicated and innovative part of Maffi’s contribution consists in his analysis of the principle of majority in Aristotle’s Politics, where it becomes crucial to the ruling group. To counterbalance the political strength of the minority, Aristotle introduces a series of corrective actions, which pursue an ideal political balance between rich and poor. Since the role of the latter is not binding in oligarchies, the principle of majority is effective more on a consultative level than on a deliberative one. In the politeia, instead, the principle of majority preserves its effectiveness within a deliberation sphere. Maffi outlines a new interpretation of the fourth book of Politics based particularly on the value which Aristotle places on the highest possible participation of the citizens in deliberations.

Silvia Gastaldi also discusses the Aristotelian Politics, where the best constitution is the one by the mesoi, but they are not numerous enough to effectively form their own government. Therefore, it will be necessary to fall back on the politeia, with a mixed constitution involving both democrats and oligarchs. However, the politeia does not work since agreement between opposite parties does not seem achievable, nor has historically ever been achieved.

One of the most interesting essays of the volume closes the Nomos section. Francesca Scrofani establishes a promising connection between Plato’s Laws and Minos through the presence of the concept dogma poleos. She shows that it has different meanings in these two works: it is, in fact, the polysemy of the term dogma that modifies its sense. In Laws, dogma does not mean decree, as many have thought, but is rather the idea of a law that must be received and digested and come from a god or from somebody who has knowledge; thus it is a conviction, a firm belief, and therefore it has the ambition to be in its right formulation, in other words how it should be. In Minos, dogma is a decision of the city that comes from a poll, from a direct expression of the citizens: on one hand, one notes a certain democratic influence, on the other hand the original prescriptive aspect of the term is restored, which in Laws was missing. Scrofani says she is not sure the author of the Minos is one of Plato’s disciples, given the work’s level of analysis and its uniqueness; it is to be hoped that she says more in a forthcoming work.

The section dedicated to the Basileia opens with Muccioli’s essay and its wider view in time and space, which focuses on the legitimacy of Hellenistic monarchies’ power in a comparative perspective, and perceives a fluctuation of the processes of legitimacy. On one hand, Muccioli is ready to scale down the religious-sacred aspect as the foundation and legitimacy of the power of such monarchies, while acknowledging its complexity; on the other hand, he notices monarchy’s theatricality in which clearly the rhetorical and aesthetic aspect aims to create a tangibly effective image of power.

The theme of the sacred reappears in Enrico Piergiacomi’s essay on Diogenes of Oenoanda and the so-called “Theological Physics-sequence”, where the Epicurean discusses the ethical device capable of stopping men from committing an injustice (coll. 3.1-6.2), a device documented for the first time in the thought by Critias, who does not seem to overpower Diogenes’s critical arguments. With a second device, which identifies Hades as the final judge, the outcome is the same, but in this passage (col. 6.2-12), Diogenes mentions Socrates and Plato. From this, Piergiacomi claims that Diogenes intends to criticize the myth Socrates tells to Callicles in Gorgias, although the criticism of the Socratic myth does not imply that Diogenes is endorsing the perspective offered by Callicles. In fact, the Epicureans never show disregard towards the nomoi and do not support the act of committing injustice.

The volume ends with an essay by Federico Zuolo on the unstable nature of tyranny. He analyses the possibility of a steady tyranny in Plato (Laws, Gorgias and Republic), Aristotle (Politics) and Xenophon (Hiero). For Plato, the tyrant is violent and irrational; Xenophon presents a tyrant with a certain level of self-awareness that cannot be expressed in the outer dimension of power; Aristotle offers a more neutral discussion, since tyranny, even if reprehensible, is nevertheless a form of government. Aristotle and Xenophon seem more realistic than Plato because they believe that a change of appearance for the tyrant is possible, even though not a change of his inner being. Zuolo concludes that it is always possible to imagine tyranny’s escape from instability because it does not enjoy any kind of legitimacy: it is a temporary and individual power that does not avail itself of an acknowledgement or a foundation; it is the pure form of power without any institutionalization.

As should be clear, the volume is full of perspectives and observations, which sometimes intertwine with one another and sometimes exhort the reader to meditate further. Special caution should be used with some terms, such as 'legitimacy', 'participation', and even 'democracy', since they are to be considered in the Greek sense as 'principles', without referring to contemporary political semantics: in such a way, the essays can thus provide a fruitful reading of the dynamics of power in ancient Greece. Thus, the aim of this book appears totally fulfilled.

Table of Contents

Fulvia de Luise, Prefazione. Un percorso di riflessione comune, 7
Gli autori, 13
Mario Vegetti, Introduzione. Un problema greco, 17
Luciano Canfora, Il grande secolo di Atene. Profilo dell’impero, 27
Maurizio Giangiulio, Due paradossi della democrazia di Atene, 35
Valentina Pazè, La parola pubblica come fondamento della democrazia?, 53
Fulvia de Luise, La scienza del potere ovvero il potere dei tecnici: la questione dei ‘migliori’ tra Repubblica e Politico, 75
Alberto Maffi, Il principio di maggioranza nella prassi politico-giuridica della Grecia classica e nella critica aristotelica, 109
Silvia Gastaldi, La politia di Aristotele: una costituzione possibile?, 153
Francesca Scrofani, La legge come δόγμα πόλεως nelle Leggi e nel Minosse, 175
Federicomaria Muccioli, Poteri ereditari o sacralizzati nelle monarchie ellenistiche, 199
Enrico Piergiacomi, Sugli dèi tutori di giustizia. La critica epicurea al giudizio dell’Ade del Gorgia di Platone, 223
Federico Zuolo, È possibile una tirannide stabile? La tirannide come modello politologico nella Grecia Classica, 261
Postfazione di Michelangelo Bovero, 289


1.   Ripensare i paradigmi del pensiero politico: gli antichi, i moderni e l’incertezza del presente (2011); Nomothetes, Kybernetes, Dikastes. Tre figure del potere (2013), Legittimazione del potere, autorità della legge: un dibattito antico (2015); see the Postfazione by Michelangelo Bovero. A fourth and a fifth meeting recently took place: Cittadinanza: chi è incluso e chi no, per gli antichi e i moderni, February 22nd 23rd 2017 and HOROI. Principi e definizioni. Sul libro terzo della Politica di Aristotele, Turin, May 11th–12th 2017.
2.   One must consider that the Greek term 'democracy' has the meaning of the rule the poor demos, and it is not exclusively related to the participation of the citizens in political decisions. Still, it is important to consider that democracy and participation are not interchangeable notions, as it is also evident nowadays in contemporary democracies, starting with the one recognized as reliable, the United States of America.
3.   On the principle of majority Maffi has also published: Origine et application du principe de majorité dans la Grèce ancienne, in: Bernard Legras, Gerhard Thür (ed.), Symposion 2011: Études d'histoire du droit grec et hellénistique (Paris, 7-10 septembre 2011) = Vorträge zur griechischen und hellenistischen Rechtsgeschichte (Paris, 7.-10. September 2011). Akten der Gesellschaft für griechische und hellenistische Rechtsgeschichte, Bd 23.  Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2012.

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