BMCR 1991.01.17

The Birth of Athenian Democracy

, The Birth of Athenian Democracy: the Assembly in the Fifth Century B.C.. Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. 86 pages. ISBN 0195065867.

Recent scholars of Greek and Roman political history have expanded the field from military and institutional processes and events to include social (class) attitudes and economic structures, ad hoc family alliances and conflicts, and the role of ideology and informal expressions of public opinion. This has reinvigorated Athenian history, among others, where the study of so-called “constitutional history” received a transfusion of a century’s (just now) new life by F.G. Kenyon’s publication (1891) of the Egyptian papyrus containing the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia. Even so, or even more so with this ancient epichoric monograph, teachers and textbooks often have continued to dangle before dubious students a fleshless skeleton, a descriptive anatomy of laws and offices and boards and legal and judicial groups without the power-brokers, nasty menaces, and the oily baksheesh. Who among us has not been frustrated or put to sleep by the dusty later chapters of Ath.P. 42-68?

Ostracism might serve as an example of a natural human social strategy, sometimes benign and sometimes lethal, that the Athenians regularized and codified into law in a humane and limited way. They even placed potsherding annually on the sixth prytany’s agenda ( Ath.P. 22.4, 43.5). This unprecedented transfer of the social and political police power from neighbors, or worse, malevolent thugs of the night and their smiling aristocratic padroni, to the political light of limited exclusions for the uppity and ratified constitutional practice attracts many a historian’s attention to the generally conservative Athenian assembly. Perhaps the attraction increases as she watches newly autarchic and empowered political communities in Eastern Europe struggle with institutionalizing new freedoms and limiting the constraining powers of institutional and extra-institutional “enforcers.” Political co-operation reduces potential political conflict in a manner that minimizes damage to the process (Ar. Pol. 1284a 17, 1284b 17, 1302b 17, 1308b 19).

Thukydides 2.65.9 means to shed light on a systemic weakness of the local and imperial government as part of a general evaluation of Perikles and his successors, but his analysis of the democracy in process remains controversial, both as to what he means to say and his correctness: “in name (theory, pretence, popular belief?) it was turning out to be a democracy, but in fact (practice, truth, after analysis?) rule (administration, power?) of and by the leading man.” This brachyologic, somewhat Thracian sentence polemically exaggerates—for so it seems to me—Perikles’ power and predominance in a paragraph unique and peculiar in many aspects. The aristocratic analyst, often elsewhere sympathetic to the achievements of the democracy, emphasizes the success of Perikles’ eloquence on the membership of the corporate organs of government in order to devalue the effect of rotation and sortition (cf. 2.37.1), to minimize the actual power that the institutions wielded, to dismiss the abilities of his competitors, and even to disguise the weight of Perikles’ own family-ties, wealth, and patronage (e.g., see Ath.P. 27.4, but cf. Thuk. 2.65.8). No one, certainly, then or now, has disputed the fact that Perikles needed to go through the democracy’s institutional procedures and the evidence suggests that he did so by means of his democratic persuasiveness, not by force or by verbal bluster and non-verbal threats of broken fingers.

Therefore, as M.H. Hansen (1989) has eloquently argued, the uniquely elaborate web of political institutions and formal procedures developed to power, police, and promote the fairly simple society of archaic and classical Athens demands that the modern student understand that structure fully before proceeding to other approaches, because (a) most of our detailed ancient information pertains to it, (b) the complexity of institutions in Athens seems to accompany (or, perhaps, must complement) a simplicity in extra-institutional modes of political conduct, and (c) these large governing bodies, the assembly, the council, and the courts clearly ran the city, the city-state, and the empire, however much was executed through magistrates, most of them appointed “by the bean.” The Athenians depended on the walls, doors, shoescrapers, toilets, and windows of this political house to keep their profitable business reasonably clean and efficient. You therefore must study the plumbing and engineering of the solid edifice before trying to look through the walls and identify short-cuts and back-channels.

Once upon a time, the books of Busolt, Beloch, Cloché, Jones (my favorite), Ehrenberg, and Hignett dominated the study of Athenian constitutional structure and development. The spate of books in just the last decade has deluged the historian, as I hope partial listing ( nomen sapientibus sat) makes clear: Davies, Bleicken, Ostwald, Sinclair, Ober, and especially Hansen, not to mention more specialized studies such as those of Meier, Krentz, J.T. Roberts, Whitehead, Carter, Rhodes, Trail, and Wallace. Professor Starr refers to nearly all of them studying traditional issues, chiefly when did the assembly come to determine state policy and how and why did the assembly become effective just then (preface). I do not find that Starr’s presentation here answers these questions, or shows much influence from the methods and enlarged purview of social and ideological historians. We have a sketch of development and of the “perfected” system, but no search for the dynamics. On the other hand, Starr’s focus on the fifth century is fully justified by its substantial differences in structure, spirit, and economic infra-structure from later periods, even though our fourth-century sources are much fuller.

Starr’s book delivers five chapters, each partly historical, partly descriptive of the Athenian ekklesia.“Appearance” covers the years 632-510, “Consolidation” covers 508-404, “Voters” considers potential and actual hand-raisers in the assembly, ca. 431. This last chapter shifts the emphasis from historical evolution to institutional constants, and the last two chapters continue with daily operations: “Functions” describes duties in regard to religion (sporadic); finance; election, direction, and examination of public officials; foreign policy; and “justice” (rare). The best chapter, “Meetings” describes typical and atypical sessions, the brutal but brief oligarchical hiccoughs of 411 and 404/3, and it offers summary but magisterial evaluation (57-64) of the assembly with the help of Thukydides’ epideictic encomiastic epitaphios delivered perhaps in somewhat similar form by Perikles.

The subtitle better describes the contents than the main title. “Birth” labors a both tired and inappropriate metaphor, since Starr himself shows the democracy developed over at least a half-century and did not burst full-grown on the scene, Athena-like or even human baby-like. Starr little attends to the assembly’s imperialistic foreign policies and their consequences on domestic power-structures, to ideology on the individual, group, or corporate level, or to the notably stable terms of political and social discourse such as “equality” or “freedom,” as they are parsed, for instance, by Bleicken, Raaflaub, Vidal-Naquet, or Winkler on the ephebate. 1 Diversions into lively, telescopically compressed narratives of external history puzzle the reviewer about precisely what level of audience is intended. The educated layman, if he turns off “Thirtysomething” or “The Simpsons” on his multi-channel, split-screen television, will profit most from this succinct, judicious if limited synthesis of recent work.

An essay this brief cannot pause to address many vexed controversies that plague the student of Athenian law, constitutional process, and chronology, such as the installation of ostracism, Solon’s archonship, the graphe paranomon. 2 Some labels need explanation or justification, like Perikles “leader of the radical wing” (27). We may expect consistency: “the assembly … displayed too often an unwonted ruthlessness” seems less right than the situation after Arginousai pushed the assembly once “to such a ruthless conclusion” (31, 48).

Starr develops a nice argument against the denigration of the Athenian direct democracy and its dominant organ, the assembly, as the possession and preserve of a small elite, in brief, as a sham. 3 He shows that the approximately 18.5% of the Attic population who could have voted compares well with the allegedly more democratic example of the United States in 1860 when only approximately 20% of the population was eligible (32-34). Furthermore, while the Americans further widened the rolls of voters, the percentage of eligible voters who do vote continues to dwindle in the nominal (or rather, ideational) “representative” democracy. 4