Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.07.04 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.07.04

Sviatoslav Dmitriev, The Birth of the Athenian Community: From Solon to Cleisthenes.   Abingdon; New York:  Routledge, 2018.  Pp. xi, 392.  ISBN 9781138083516.  $154.95.  

Reviewed by Cezary Kucewicz, University of Gdańsk & Wolfson College, University of Cambridge (


Modern studies on ancient Greek citizenship usually turn to Aristotle’s definition of what made someone a citizen of a polis (Politics 3.1-2). The main factor, according to Aristotle, that distinguished a ‘perfect citizen’ (haplos polites) was a right to membership in the political and judicial bodies. His account makes it clear, however, that the term polites extended to other residents of a polis who had no right to hold political offices (e.g. minors, old men, metics), which problematises any simple divisions between ‘citizens’ and ‘non-citizens’ applied to ancient Greek communities. Such divisions, as Sviatoslav Dmitriev argues in his latest book, characterise most scholarly studies on citizenship in ancient Greece, which fundamentally fail to consider the complexity of the social fabric of Greek poleis. The Birth of the Athenian Community attempts to offer a different view, reassessing the early Athenian social and political organisation through the lens of kinship and family relations that played a crucial part in the development of the concepts of citizenship in Athens and the wider Greek world.

The Introduction sets out the main questions which Dmitriev attempts to tackle: Who were the Athenians? How were they organised? What made someone an ‘Athenian’? Answers to these questions, he maintains, have relied on retrospective traditions associated with Solon, widely credited in scholarship as the founder of citizenship in Athens. Such traditions, Dmitriev suggests, were based on concepts which had little to do with the social realities of Archaic Athens. Arguing against a bipartite division into citizens and non-citizens, Dmitriev proposes a tripartite structure of early Athenian community that emerged and crystallised in Athens over the Archaic period. His book is correspondingly divided into three parts. The first deals with the kinship community of the astoi, the second with the legal community of the politai, and the final with the political community of the demotai. These communities, as Dmitriev argues, partially overlapped but altogether represented the most important social entities in early Athens. Focusing in particular on the reforms of Solon and Cleisthenes, the main aim of the book is to trace the ‘origins, evolution, and diverse forms of interaction’ (p. 10) between these communities in early Athens.

The first part examines the development of the Athenian kinship community and the effects of Solon’s legislation on its structure and organisation. In Chapter 1, Dmitriev looks at the social status of the astoi (native citizens) who formed the backbone of the kinship organisation in Athens. Their status was inseparably linked with the institution of engyetic marriage—strictly regulated and open only to the astoi—, which produced legitimate children (gnesioi) who had the right to inherit property and become members of the wider kinship community. The latter had its own administration and officials, prominent already in the homicide legislation of Draco, responsible for the interests of the astoi. The laws of Solon, as Dmitriev argues, clarified the status of legitimate children born from engyetic marriages by introducing a firm principle of legitimacy and dividing the Athenians into gnesioi and bastards (nothoi). As such, the kinship community combined the principles of kinship and legitimacy; following Solon’s reforms the latter took priority over the former. Despite emphasising the importance of noble birth, Dmitriev does not engage with the controversial subjects of aristocracy and the ‘Eupatrids’ in early Athens, preferring instead to focus mostly on Classical evidence.

Chapter 2 provides a more in-depth examination of the impact of Solon’s legislation on the kinship community, focusing on the system of census classes (tele) and the various laws that affected the Athenian astoi. Contrary to most scholarly interpretations, these reforms, Dmitriev suggests, were not designed to weaken the position of the astoi but ‘served to both homogenize the kinship community and secure its privileged status in Athens by cutting across local, family, and clan divisions’ (p. 57). He argues that Solon’s legislation targeted specifically the kinship community—his four census classes for instance being comprised only of the astoi—laying down the principles of the legal and social equality of its members. Solon’s laws on guardians, heiresses, testaments, and adoptions similarly applied only to the astoi, securing the long-term survival of individual families and strengthening the kinship community. While most modern theories see the reforms of Solon as a response to the agrarian crisis of early sixth-century BC Athens, Dmitriev seems to downplay such interpretations, preferring to see the legislation as designed to address challenges facing the kinship community, such as ‘the extinction of individual families, furthered by personal animosity and enmity among relatives, and external pressure from the mounting numbers of non-kinsmen’ (p. 80).

The privileges of non-kinsmen are discussed in the second part of the book, which deals with the legal community of Archaic Athens. While all Athenian astoi belonged to the legal community of the politai by virtue of their birth, politeia could also be granted as a special privilege to resident aliens and outsiders who were not part of the kinship community. As such, Dmitriev divides the legal community into politai ‘by nature’ and politai ‘by decree’ from the Athenian demos, but whether such divisions were formally delineated in Archaic times is not clear, since most of Dmitriev’s evidence again comes from the Classical period. Chapter 3 begins with an investigation of grants of politeia ‘by decree’, ascertaining the status and rights associated with politeia in Athens. The latter consisted of a variety of legal and economic privileges (e.g. enktesis, aprostasia) that extended to both politai ‘by nature’ and ‘by decree’, giving the recipients of Athenian politeia a legal standing equal to that of the astoi. But, despite this overlap, Dmitriev argues that the legal community of the politai was not identical to the kinship community of the astoi, since it included many non-astoi politai who did not belong to the kinship community.

Chapter 4 reconsiders modern assumptions that credit Solon with the introduction of citizenship in early Athens. Dmitriev argues that possession of political rights—which most scholars equate with citizenship—did not define the status of politai in Solon’s Athens. The reforms of the latter established the legal equality of the politai, both astoi and non-astoi, but assigned political rights only to the top income property classes of the astoi. In effect, Dmitriev rather controversially argues that Solon defined political rights solely on the basis of birth and wealth. As a result, “neither astos nor polites meant ‘citizen’ because neither word defined political rights… The former word concerned membership in the kinship community, whereas the word polites designated one’s legal and social status in the city” (p. 139). The chapter finishes with a discussion of the emergence of first written laws and their impact on the legal community in Athens. Looking at the laws of Draco and Solon—which he optimistically accepts as genuine—Dmitriev suggests that written legislation mirrored the development of the kinship community and was aimed to preserve its privileged position in the city.

The third part looks at the political community of early Athens and Cleisthenes’ reform of the Athenian politeia. Chapter 5 begins with a study of ad hoc grants of politeia ‘by decree’ and ‘by nature’ in Athens and the wider Greek world. Dmitriev argues that such grants were an important political tool for Greek poleis, securing the support of the newly enrolled politai. Occasional grants of politeia ‘by nature’, a status that under normal circumstances belonged only to the Athenian astoi, led to a number of public scrutinies (diapsephismoi), carried out in order to withdraw politeia ‘by nature’ from any people of ‘impure birth’ (non-gnesioi). Dmitriev analyses the traditions behind the diapsephismoi of 510, 445-444, 403-402 and 346-345 BC, suggesting that grants of politeia to non-astoi foreigners or resident aliens were relatively common in Athens, helping to offset a decrease in the number of citizens, solicit extra military help when needed, and/or promote loyalty to a political regime.

In the final chapter, Dmitriev examines the political reform of Cleisthenes and its effect on the relations between the kinship and legal communities in Athens. In contrast to a number of debates on the subject, Dmitriev suggests that membership in the city’s social organisations (demes, phratries, tribes) did not determine the political rights of an individual; the latter depended wholly on the person’s legitimate birth, which determined one’s rights and membership in the social bodies. Cleisthenes’ reform re-organised Attica into demes—reserved only for the astoi, given equal political rights regardless of their standing in the tele; and tribes, which united both astoi and non-astoi politai, the latter of whom had access to social, legal and military participation in the polis but no political rights. Political rights, accordingly, remained in the hands of the kinship community, further homogenised and distinguished from the rest of the population in Athens. The Athenian demokratia, Dmitriev concludes, ‘remained the kinship democracy, since it belonged only to astoi as members of the kinship community of Athens’ (p. 242). The book ends with six appendices on smaller topics related to politeia in Athens.

The call for a more nuanced debate around the subject of citizenship and its ancient and modern definitions is the main contribution behind Dmitriev’s book. His study undermines the traditional identification of politai with citizens who enjoyed full political rights in Athens. The communities of the astoi, politai and demotai reveal a complex picture of multi-layered social identities in the Athenian polis, in which political, legal and economic rights were contested and negotiated. But while Dmitriev is right to question the ancient discourses that retrospectively attribute the emergence of citizenship in Athens to Solon based on later concepts of politeia, his study assumes that the laws and reforms ascribed to Solon and Draco in the same sources are historically genuine. Taking ‘an optimistic view on the evidence’ (p. 57), Dmitriev focuses exclusively on the impact of early legislation on kinship community, paying less attention to the wider social realities of Archaic Athens, in particular the economic inequalities between the landowning elites and the dependants that is reflected in the surviving sources. Some consideration of the latter puts doubt on the view that Solon’s main priority was to strengthen and homogenise the astoi at the expense of non-legitimate residents of the Athenian polis. Dmitriev’s assertion that the Solonian census classes were comprised only of the astoi seems especially controversial; the basis of his claim relies on a speech from a Demosthenic corpus and the fact that only the astoi could own property, even though he maintains that politai ‘by decree’ also had the right of enktesis. In general, Dmitriev devotes considerable space to the evidence from the fifth and fourth centuries BC, as well as the wider Greek world, which adds to the comprehensive nature of his study but means that his engagement with Archaic material is limited only to the reforms of Solon and Cleisthenes. The few discussions of the process and reasons behind the social and political development of Athens in the sixth century BC are, therefore, short and at times problematic. One wonders, for instance, about the relative numbers of the astoi and non-astoi in early Athens; the social status of the wealthy non-astoi, politically marginalised by Solon according to Dmitriev; or how the division into astoi and politai differed from the pre-Solonian social structure in Athens. Moreover, Dmitriev’s acceptance of some traditions concerning the laws of Draco or Pisistratus’ supposed ‘disarmament of the Athenians’ is questionable and reflects the author’s limited interest and engagement with the evidence base for the Archaic period.

All these reservations, however, should not detract from the fact that the book does offer a fresh insight into the early history of Athens, which provides an interesting angle for new studies on the social organisation of Archaic communities and the wider development of Greek concepts of citizenship. It encompasses an impressive range of scholarship and engages in a number of controversial scholarly debates with an original and often persuasive voice. But its main contribution lies beyond doubt in its nuanced discussion of citizenship and its impact on the political and legal rights of an individual—a subject as relevant today as it was to Aristotle.

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