Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.04.22 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.04.22

Henning Börm, Nino Luraghi (ed.), The Polis in the Hellenistic World.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2018.  Pp. 264.  ISBN 9783515120203.  €54,00.  

Reviewed by Ryan Boehm, Tulane University (

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

As the editors of The Polis in the Hellenistic World rightly note in their foreword, the study of the Hellenistic polis has entered the mainstream of research in ancient history (7). This volume represents a major contribution to the scholarship on the institutions and culture of the post-Classical polis and something of an appraisal of the state of research on questions fundamental to its study. The editors do not announce any particular agenda, nor does the book focus on a single aspect of the complex topic of the Hellenistic polis or a scholarly approach. The result is nevertheless a trim, well-produced volume that coheres well, features that distinguish the book from many others originating from conference proceedings.

A recurring theme of the volume is the thorny issue of the internal political life of the Hellenistic polis, in particular the questions of whether the power of increasingly wealthy elites made these cities democracies in name only, and if so, when this transformation took place.1 This focus is most central to the first three essays, all of which touch on aspects of the debate about the political culture of the post-Classical polis. These contributions coincide with and draw on a renewed interest in oligarchy, heralded in particular by M. Simonton’s important new book on the classical phenomenon and J. Winter’s comparative study,2 and recent work on stasis and its resolution.3

Clifford Ando (“The Political Economy of the Hellenistic Polis: Comparative and Modern Perspectives”) and Christel Müller (“Oligarchy and the Hellenistic City”) squarely tackle the problem of how an increasingly wealthy and influential elite affected the notionally democratic institutions of the Hellenistic polis. Both contributions begin from the premise, articulated in detail by Winters, that democracy and oligarchy are not mutually exclusive but rather compatible and frequently intertwined political regimes. Ando, drawing on comparative and theoretical work, argues that Hellenistic democracies are best understood as being controlled by elites who successfully used the discursive norms of the polis to conceal and justify their own control over the city. In other words, honorary decrees thanking elites for their euergetic activities granted “moral authority” (23) to the wealthy in a way that covered over the profound inequality, exclusiveness, and stratification of the polis and its institutions. Thus, for Ando, the norms of the political culture of the polis did not “tame” elites, as in the readings of Gauthier or Ma,4 but served to advance their interests. Müller presents a complementary argument, suggesting that we should look for “oligarchic situations” (29) in which the concerns of the wealthy elite subverted the egalitarian values of the democratic polis. Müller first reviews the use of the terms oligarchia and dēmokratia in Aristotle, Polybios, and the epigraphic documents and demonstrates that the essential characteristic of oligarchy is wealth, not other sources of social power and prestige. With reference to the debate about when elite influence decisively changed the political culture of the Hellenistic polis, Müller advocates taking a wider view and insists that trying to reconstruct an overall schema of this process that applies to all parts of the Hellenistic world is neither possible nor desirable. These essays are bound to spark further discussion and debate, but regardless of where one falls on the question of Hellenistic democracy, both contributions add important nuance and reorientation to the question.

Henning Börm (“Stasis in Post-Classical Greece: The Discourse of Civil Strife in the Hellenistic World”) highlights the fact that stasis has typically been studied primarily in the context of the Classical polis and provides an overview of how the character of the evidence for stasis in the Classical era differs from that of the Hellenistic period. In Börm’s view, the continued frequency of stasis represents another data set for exploring the vitality of political life in the post-Classical polis. Börm concludes that the discourse surrounding stasis and its causes did not change drastically in the Hellenistic period, but the more detailed and widespread epigraphic sources provide greater insight into the strategies for the resolution of stasis than the Classical evidence.

Turning to interactions among cities, Anna Magnetto (“Interstate Arbitrations as a Feature of the Hellenistic Polis: Between Ideology, International Law and Civic Memory”) and Peter Funke (“Poleis and Koina: Reshaping the World of the Greek States in Hellenistic Times”) provide valuable, updated reflections on two well-studied phenomena typical of the Hellenistic age. Magnetto tracks changes in the practice of interstate arbitration through the Hellenistic period. She argues that the procedure took on a heightened ideological value as an expression of civic values in a world of powerful hegemonic states, that cities submitted themselves to arbitration over increasingly complex legal questions, and that the outcomes became important cornerstones of the civic memory of the polis. Funke focuses on the case study of the Aitolian league and emphasizes the internal changes that developed over the course of the Hellenistic period as koina grew in influence. In particular he views the expansion and increased importance of the federal council, in which member poleis were represented proportionally by elected officials, and the enlargement of the council’s executive committee, as means of preserving the discrete civic identities of member cities, and ensuring their vitality, while simultaneously providing for a more responsive, flexible governing body.

Frank Daubner’s rich exploration of theoric networks in Northern Greece (“Peer Polity Interaction in Hellenistic Northern Greece: Theoroi going to Epirus and Macedonia”) is characteristic of another important trend in the historiography of the Hellenistic polis: fine-grained studies of regions and their local particularities. Daubner reviews the reasons why northern Greece is typically left out of discussions Hellenistic urbanism and peer-polity interaction and argues that by the fourth and third centuries, these poleis were fully integrated into the koine of civic practice. Daubner draws on the theorodokoi lists to reconstruct a picture of vibrant, self-confident urban centers bent on monumentalizing their cities and incorporating themselves into the network of Greek poleis and their institutions, even as they belonged to larger monarchic states. Daubner stresses that theoric networks were not “imagined communities” but active, vital systems that affected politics and culture in the Hellenistic world.

Graham Oliver (“People and Cities: Economic Horizons beyond the Hellenistic Polis”) explores the overall network of the Hellenistic cities through coinage and shipwreck data. Oliver’s aim is to complement the approach of the current orthodoxy of New Institutional Economics, which he views as running a risk of neglecting factors outside of the polis in its focus on internal civic institutions. Looking at degrees of continuity and change in long-distance commerce, the intersections between royal interests and civic agency that shaped the network of urban centers, and the role that mobile merchants fulfilled in facilitating economic exchange between cities, Oliver stresses how individual and corporate agency and constraining forces coexisted at each of these levels of economic activity. Oliver’s synthetic view of the factors that shaped economic activity beyond the polis and his application of quantitative data are salutary reminders of the manifold “contingent factors” (176) that impinged on the economic life of individual communities.

In a wide-ranging essay (“The Polis after Sunset: What is Hellenistic in Hellenistic Nights?”), Angelos Chaniotis explores the cultural history of the night in the Hellenistic city. Chaniotis stresses that the night was animated by a range of activities, from warfare to ritual acts, each of which took on a character distinct from their daytime counterparts. Chaniotis argues that from the mid-fourth century, changes in how the night was surveilled, secured, and illuminated increased nocturnal activity in the ancient city. He points to the institution of new officials charged with policing the city at night, the proliferation of nighttime voluntary associations, and the expansion of nocturnal religious rituals. As Chaniotis admits, the abundance of inscriptions from the Hellenistic era may partially distort this picture, but he makes a compelling case for the ways that Greek cities aimed at “taming” (203) the night in Hellenistic period.

Nino Luraghi (“Documentary Evidence and Political Ideology in Early Hellenistic Athens”) returns to the relationship between elites and the values of the polis. Taking a cue from recent interpretive approaches to reading royal letters, Luraghi reinterprets several important Athenian decrees and explicates the ideological constraints that shaped their formulation. He argues that the Athenians struggled to incorporate kings, their agents, and their domestic supporters into the idiom of Athenian democratic discourse. This discursive strategy allowed them to repackage the outcomes of the high politics of the Hellenistic age as internal affairs and thereby reserve agency for the polis and present novel political situations in ways that were familiar to the political culture of Athens. Thus, the Athenians could honor Hellenistic kings as civic benefactors rather than monarchs, domesticate powerful individuals like the Ptolemaic agent Kallias of Sphettos, and recast internal struggles among supporters of kings as contests between oligarchs and democrats.

Hans-Ulrich Wiemer (“A Stoic Ethic for Roman Aristocrats? Panaitios’ Doctrine of Behavior, its Context and its Addressees”) reexamines the question of the audience of Panaitios’ On that which is appropriate, the best-known Hellenistic Stoic treatise and the main source for the first two books of Cicero’s De officiis. Because of his connection to the senatorial circle associated with Scipio Aemilianus, scholars have assumed frequently that Panaitios wrote for a Roman audience. Wiemer revisits the position originally espoused by Wilamowitz that Panaitios primarily wrote neither for Roman aristocrats nor students of Stoicism, but for the youth of Greek aristocratic families. Wiemer compares the assumptions of Panaitios’ doctrine to the content and discourse of late-Hellenistic honorary decrees in order to argue that the elites of the Greek cities (like those honored as benefactors) were the intended addressees of his work. Wiemer stresses the value of Panaitios’ work, understood in this way, as evidence for the growing “aristocraticization” (251) of the late-Hellenistic polis.

The essays are uniformly excellent and represent important contributions by leading scholars in the field. A particular strength of the volume is the degree to which each of the papers intersects with ongoing research projects of the authors. The volume, it should be noted, does not aim to be comprehensive. It is neither a handbook nor a primer on the Hellenistic polis. Largely absent, for example, is any treatment of the polis outside of the “old” Greek world of the Aegean. The archaeology and urban form of the Hellenistic city are likewise not a major focus. The emphasis on the institutions of and interactions among the poleis of Greece and Asia Minor, however, proves to be a strength rather than a weakness of the volume. The essays complement one another well and represent a valuable resource for scholars and students interested in reevaluating questions central to the study of the Greek city-state in the Hellenistic era.

Table of Contents

Henning Börm and Nino Luraghi. Foreword (7)
Clifford Ando “The Political Economy of the Hellenistic Polis: Comparative and Modern Perspectives” (9)
Christel Müller “Oligarchy and the Hellenistic City” (27)
Henning Börm. “Stasis in Post-Classical Greece: The Discourse of Civil Strife in the Hellenistic World” (53)
Anna Magnetto. “Interstate Arbitrations as a Feature of the Hellenistic Polis: Between Ideology, International Law and Civic Memory” (85)
Peter Funke. “Poleis and Koina: Reshaping the World of the Greek States in Hellenistic Times” (109)
Frank Daubner. “Peer Polity Interaction in Hellenistic Northern Greece: Theoroi going to Epirus and Macedonia” (131)
Graham Oliver. “People and Cities: Economic Horizons beyond the Hellenistic Polis” (159)
Angelos Chaniotis. “The Polis after Sunset: What is Hellenistic in Hellenistic Nights?” (181)
Nino Luraghi. “Documentary Evidence and Political Ideology in Early Hellenistic Athens” (209)
Hans-Ulrich Wiemer. “A Stoic Ethic for Roman Aristocrats? Panaitios’ Doctrine of Behavior, its Context and its Addressees” (229)


1.   For reevaluations of democracy in the Hellenistic period, see especially C. Mann and P. Scholz (eds.). 2012. "Demokratie" im Hellenismus. Von der Herrschaft des Volkes zur Herrschaft der Honoratioren? Mainz; P. Hamon. 2009. “Démocraties grecques après Alexandre.” Topoi 16.2: 347-82; S. Carlsson. 2010 Hellenistic Democracies. Stuttgart; and V. Grieb. 2008. Hellenistische Demokratie. Stuttgart. The most important formulations of the varying positions on the power of elites in the Hellenistic cities are P. Gauthier. 1985 Les cités grecques et leurs bienfaiteurs (IVe-Ier siècle avant J. C.), (Paris 1985) and F. Quass. 1993. Die Honoratiorenschicht in den Städten des griechischen Ostens Stuttgart. Gauthier’s view that ca.150 represented a decisive turning point has also been questioned: e.g. C. Habicht 1993. “Ist ein ‘Honoratiorenregime’ das Kennzeichen der Stadt im späteren Hellenismus?” in M. Wörrle and P. Zanker (eds.), Stadtbild und Bürgerbild im Hellenismus. Munich: 87-92 (stressing continuity) and Mann and Scholz (2012), a theme of which is the diversity of individual cases.
2.   M. Simonton. 2017. Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History. Princeton. J. Winters. 2011. Oligarchy. Cambridge.
3.   In particular, B. Gray. 2015. Stasis and Stability: Exile, the Polis, and Political Thought, c. 404–146 B.C. Oxford and Börm’s own work.
4.   J. Ma. 2013. Statues and Cities: Honorific Portraits and Civic Identity in the Hellenistic World. Oxford.

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