BMCR 1990.01.09

The Classical Athenian Democracy

, The Classical Athenian Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. 201 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates. ISBN 0198721366 $45.00 (hb).

There has been a need for some time for an up-to-date introduction to the Athenian democracy: W.G. Forrest’s excellent work is now out of print and A.H.M. Jones’s masterful study is too difficult for the undergraduate student of ancient history. David Stockton has answered this need with The Classical Athenian Democracy. It is a book of sound scholarship, clearly written, and a pleasure to read.

S. describes his book as “intended not only for the students of ancient history but also for the educated and interested public” (p.2); to a large extent he has succeeded. S. carefully presents the issues that are central to the evolution and final form of the ‘developed democracy’ (by ‘developed democracy’ S. means the government at Athens from death of Ephialtes to the Macedonian conquest—see p.50); he consistently brackets his discussions with remarks regarding the certain or (more frequently) the uncertain state of our knowledge, and where controversy exists, he alerts the reader and directs them to the relevant bibliography. It should be noted that the student unfamiliar with the general outline of Greek history will not profit by this book as much as one who has already taken an introductory course at the undergraduate level. Although S. makes efforts to catch the reader up on essential events in the Greek world which affected the development of the Athenian constitution, these passages should be viewed as reminders; S. provides useful but necessarily brief discussions of (mostly) Athens’ fifth and (less so) fourth century empires (see especially pp.90, 104, 107, 127-29).

The great strength of S.’s book, and where it will be of most use for students already acquainted with Greek history, is that it brings the evolution of the political structure at Athens into focus. Especially illuminating in this regard are S.’s discussions of the physical realities of Athens and Attica (pp.5- 18), the limits of our precise knowledge of the Athenian constitution down to (and even including) Ephialtes (pp.19-56 passim, general statement pp.50-51), the relative absence of ‘political parties’ (p.120), the importance of the individual (pp.122-23) in the political life at Athens as opposed to family groups (which were dominant earlier, pp.126-27), and the political outlooks of the individuals who wrote about the Athenian democracy (pp.165-83).

The only substantive objection that can be raised about S.’s book is that it seems at times inconsistent in argumentation. A small example: on p.142 S. very reasonably cautions the reader not to think of “over-sharp distinctions between classes and sectional interests at Athens”; that being the case, it is misleading to speak of Alcibiades offending “‘middle-class morality,'” even if the phrase is used as a convenient and recognizable short-hand for ‘popular morality.’ An example of a more serious discontinuity is what S. has to say about rural Athenians; although he suggests that they would have had considerable influence at Athens especially during the periods when they were within the Long-Walls, he creates the impression that their voice would have been heard at other times as well (p.143). This observation does not agree with his earlier comments regarding the difficulty an Athenian citizen from the country-side would have encountered if he tried to attend the Assembly regularly (pp.6, 27, 84). The contradiction is especially felt on p.121, where S., in contrasting the broad participation in government at Athens with the narrower participation that existed at Rome, notes parenthetically that “most [Athenian citizens] lived fewer than a dozen miles from the city centre, and none much more than twenty-five”; this statement seems to be challenged by S.’s remark earlier in the book that “even a fit man in his prime whose home was only a dozen or so miles away needed four hours of brisk walking to reach Agora or Pnyx” (p.6). In order for us to believe that the Athenians of the country-side had a meaningful role in the shaping of Athens’ affairs, we have to believe that they made special efforts to make their way to the city. Perhaps they came the afternoon or evening of the day before an Assembly meeting and made plans for temporary accommodation; it is likely that there were inns at Athens (Arist. Frogs 549ff.), and perhaps friends in the city could offer a place to sleep (Plato Protag. 315d mentions that Callias converted a store room [ tameion ] into guest quarters for both a foreigner [Prodicus] and a citizen [Pausanias of Cerameis], among many other visitors [ plêthos tôn kataluontôn ]). Another blemish on this otherwise solid work is the unfortunate number of misprints.

But these are quibbles. S. has produced a book which will be of immense value for undergraduate and graduate level students who need an introduction to the difficult problem of trying to figure out how Athens worked at different points in its history.