BMCR 1995.02.08

1995.02.08, Roberts, Athens on Trial

, Athens on trial : the antidemocratic tradition in Western thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. xviii, 405 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780691056975 $29.95.

The story of the Athenian democracy’s reception in later ages may surprise many people, particularly those living in Western countries. Brought up to accept the values of a free society and taught to respect the accomplishments of the ancient Athenians (to the extent that one is taught about the Greeks at all), a modern citizen might expect that the famous democracy at Athens has always been highly esteemed. As specialists have long known, the truth is far different. For the past two millennia the Athenian democracy has been reviled by the vast majority of those who wrote about it. From fifth century BC Greece to Ciceronean Rome to Renaissance Europe to the time of the American and French Revolutions, the word “democracy” has carried a distinctly foul odor to most political observers. In particular, critics have targeted the democracy at Athens for regular abuse, vilifying it as wildly unjust, intemperate, and fatally unstable. Even the architects of the American democracy could not resist attacking the perceived failings of the Athenian constitution, the example of which they claimed they were strenuously avoiding.

Jennifer Tolbert Roberts has given us an excellent study of this legacy in Athens on Trial. Ten year’s in the making, R.’s book explores the history of the anti-democratic tradition, beginning with the indictments made by the Athenians themselves and proceeding through the centuries up to about 1850, when the tide of sentiment finally begins to turn in Athens’ favor. R. also offers insights into more recent scholarly trends, though she does not claim the same degree of depth in covering late nineteenth and twentieth century scholarship as she can for that of earlier eras.

The pattern which R. elucidates is not one of unmitigated antagonism, but rather one in which the occasional strands of praise for the Athenian order became lost amid the louder and more frequent shouts of censure. As she puts it, “…the dominant Western tradition about Athens became what it did through an ever-growing accretion of literature that systematically ignored dissonant texts challenging the received wisdom.” (15) The few positive voices preserved in the tradition could have been picked up by later critics, but were not. Most often a commentator brought up Athens’ history as a cautionary tale, an exemplum to bear upon some issue of contemporary politics (“We do not want to do x; the Athenians under their irresponsible democracy did that and came to a sad end”). The government was chaotic; it mistreated its noble leaders; the mob ruled in a heartlessly fickle manner. These sorts of indictments popped up repeatedly in widely separated centuries, to the point where they become almost axiomatic. Not until the appearance of Grote’s influential History of Greece and the eloquent liberalism of John Stuart Mill does the stock of the Athenian democracy rise precipitously and enduringly. Yet even in the democratic age of the late twentieth century, Athens is not free from criticism. Now many chastise the Athenians for not being radical enough: their strict exclusion of women and slaves from political participation would be utterly unacceptable in today’s democracies.

Chapter One (Introduction) provides a quick historical outline of the hostile tradition and discusses some of the sources upon which it rested. R. contends that much of the criticism is based on weak evidence and misreadings of the ancient authors. She is surely correct here; in any case, as she notes, “if it were clear that the Athenian democrats were guilty as charged, the vigor and longevity of the anti-Athenian tradition would occasion little interest.” (13) R. does voice some understandable sympathy with the most recent strand of criticism, that which faults Athens for its (by modern standards) exceedingly narrow citizenship. To her credit she is honest about her sympathies and proceeds to place these attacks (from the “left,” as it were) within the larger continuum of anti-Athenian views, nicely expanding the breadth of the book’s vision.

The next three chapters explore the beginnings of the hostile tradition, concentrating on ancient Athens itself. Chapter Two contains a brief narration of the evolution of the Athenian democracy, and then attempts to recover its “theory” or “ideology.” While one may doubt whether there was a single, abstracted doctrine for us to recover, R.’s exercise serves the valuable purpose of establishing in what the Athenian constitution consisted, according to our best sources. Relevant portions of Herodotus, Euripides’Suppliants, Plato’s Protagoras, and Thucydides (particularly his reporting of the words of Pericles) are profitably discussed with a view to revealing the aims and characteristics of the democracy at Athens. This chapter establishes a relatively positive, historically responsible description of what the constitution was about, at least according to some of its proponents. It is against this picture that the avalanche of criticism from contemporary and later ages should be compared. Chapters Three and Four examine the aristocratic biases of most (surviving) Greek authors, beginning with the elitism expressed in the Homeric and Theognidean texts, and proceeding to the more specifically anti-democratic criticisms found in the Old Oligarch, Thucydides, Isocrates, and the philosophic tradition of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. From these figures we hear for the first time that poor people make bad citizens; that the masses cannot rule competently, and are to be blamed for Athenian military failures; that the popular constitution contributed mightily to a fatal moral decline in the state. Democracies are also said to be unfair, for they treat all citizens equally despite the fact that some men are clearly better than others. In addition, democracy is inherently chaotic and unstable. As R. proceeds to demonstrate, the speciousness of most of these contentions proved to be no impediment to their tiresome repetition in later literature.

Chapters Five through Ten trace the course of the Athenian democracy’s reception from Roman times through the eighteenth century. In “Roman Adaptations” we learn how Greek topoi of democratic excess were pressed into rhetorical service by Roman authors. Cicero contrasts the sensible Roman fore-fathers with the politically foolish Greeks, who went so far as to conduct state business in contiones (public meetings); Plutarch, destined to become the most influential classical author from the Renaissance up through the eighteenth century, hammers home the message that the indisputable past greatness of Athens did not extend to its system of government. The abuse of leaders by an ungrateful demos, moral depravity, and the superiority of the Spartan constitution were all themes voiced repeatedly by Plutarch and other authors of the Roman era. Aelius Aristides (first-second c. A.D.) bucks the trend with his paean to Athens and her democracy in his Panathenaic oration, but his words were rarely remarked upon by posterity. Chapter Six makes passing reference to Orosius and other Christian authors before moving on to the rediscovery of Greek history in Renaissance Italy, where Bruni, Machiavelli, Guiccardini, and Giannotti trumpeted parallels between Florence or Venice and the glory of ancient Athens. These comparisons, however, were generally shallow and ill-informed, and when more serious political investigations were conducted Athens was inevitably found wanting: the supposedly stable, mixed polities of Sparta or Rome provided the more salutary political exempla. In chapters Seven and Eight R. explores early opinions in England and France, where the volatile mob-rule of the Athenian democracy contrasted unfavorably with monarchy, at least initially. Interest in Greek history was rising during the eighteenth century, as indicated by the appearance of the first narrative histories of Greece after 1729. A diversity of opinion began to grow as well. English liberals such as Trenchard and Gordon used Athenian examples in an approving way to highlight the need for the accountability of state ministers; Frenchmen such as Goguet, Jaucourt, and Voltaire also had positive things to say about the Athenian democracy. Nevertheless, the dominant opinion remained the superiority of Sparta over Athens and Lycurgus over Solon (and certainly Pericles), tiresomely repeated. The focus on classical constitutions and their relevance intensified in the age of the American and French revolutions, examined in Chapter Nine. The American revolutionaries, intent on achieving stability as well as freedom, shunned the example of Athens and the word democracy: they feared its reputation for chaotic government and took refuge in the concepts of representation (as opposed to direct democracy) and separation of powers. Neither did French radicals propose a restoration of democratic Athens. For them Athens provided examples of virtuous “martyrs” such as Aristides, Socrates, and Phocion—but the fate of such figures hardly reflected favorably on the Athenian demos. Monarchists in Britain and France, of course, took the opportunity afforded by the fearsome revolutions to lambaste republicanism and democracy in all its forms, ancient and modern. Chapter Ten chronicles the appearance of a new, aesthetic Hellenism in Germany in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The works of Winckelmann, Herder, Schiller, and Hegel share a romantic reverence for Athenian achievements in the arts and lifestyle, and credit democratic government for contributing to these successes. Such thinking foreshadowed the sea-change to come.

Chapters Eleven through Thirteen describe the dramatically different directions taken by scholars of the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Reaction against Mitford’s important yet predictably anti-democratic History of Greece began to appear in British review journals in the 1820s and earlier. But the decisive blow did not come until 1846 to 1856 when George Grote, a man steeped in German classical scholarship, published his own immense History of Greece. In it he set out to redeem the reputation of the Athenian system of government by conducting a spirited defense of the demos. Grote’s vigorous argumentation and sound scholarship lent his work a powerful influence in his own country, across the Channel, and across the Atlantic as well. No longer did the glory of Rome or Sparta eclipse that of Athens in the modern mind. Along with the growing philhellenism already at work in the nineteenth century, Grote’s history spurred a broad new appreciation for the Athenian democracy which still echoes to this day. Faultfinding has not ceased altogether, of course. Chapter Twelve investigates the most recent varieties of scholarly criticism: the city’s imperialism and its exclusions of women, slaves, and others in a starkly patriarchal society provide critics with ample grounds for reproach. The final chapter, the Epilogue, discusses the use to which Athenian history has been put in the twentieth century, offers thumbnail sketches of some of the most recent popular and scholarly treatments, and draws cautious and sensible conclusions from the whole.

Athens on Trial deserves praise both for its conception and its execution. For most of us the virtues of democracy appear so self-evident as to be hardly worth debating; all the more fascinating, then, to understand how and why leading intellectuals for centuries just as cavalierly dismissed democracy in favor of monarchy or aristocracy. R.’s book is as much about the rhetorical uses to which history may be put as it is about the Athenian government’s reception. The thorough, chronological approach allows the reader to observe fundamental shifts in the political and intellectual climate in different periods of European history as reflected by the opinions which surface abut Athens and Greek history. R.’s (mostly) non-judgmental approach to the material lends a sense of historical objectivity to the project, crucial lest one get sucked into the very partisanship one hopes to elucidate. Moreover, the book reads remarkably easily. Dashes of humor here and there demonstrate an active, appealing wit. (R.’s wry talents are put to the test in one or two of the middle chapters, when the reader confronts seemingly endless regurgitations of clichés about the virtue of Sparta and the decadence of Athens.) While her study is of sufficient substance and detail to occupy profitably most classicists, R. keeps it accessible to interested non-specialists with sparing use of the ancient languages (with Greek words always transliterated), and by including pithy historical summaries of key Athenian events in the early chapters. Footnotes are full and informative, and show a more than satisfactory command of the bibliography of a great many scholarly issues, both classical and post-classical. The index—particularly important in a work which parades such a bewildering collection of luminous and not-so-luminous literary figures before one’s eyes—lists references to proper names, important Greek and Latin terms, and key concepts (liberalism, representation, slavery, etc.). The bibliography is brief; readers are encouraged to use the index to locate the more obscure authors and titles.

One can always imagine ways that even successful studies might be improved. In some places Athens on Trial could have benefited from a bit more background. For example, the two paragraphs devoted to the fourth century Athenian democracy is clearly inadequate coming after the seven-page historical sketch of the sixth and fifth centuries. This reviewer is probably not alone in being hazy on fourteenth to fifteenth-century Florentine and Venetian political history: without a somewhat fuller narrative here it is hard to evaluate R.’s contention that the instability frequently assigned to the Athenian democracy in fact better suited the historical circumstances of the Italian states. Moreover, the book would have profited by more attempts at precise identification of the ancient sources used by some of the Renaissance and Enlightenment commentators. Reading about their (sometimes off-the-wall) opinions is certainly interesting, but it would add still more to know specifically what ancient (or modern) authorities they relied upon for their statements. What classical authors did they cite, if any? Was Plutarch always the source, or did the tracts of Cicero or Aristotle or the Old Oligarch fuel some of their treatises?

On a more nit-picking level, a few dubious statements and minor errors and omissions should be pointed out. R. ignores the battle of Plataia in her account of Greece’s defeat of the Persian threat, p. 28. Her repeated, questionable claim (pp. 14, 32, 47) that aristocrats betrayed the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami requires at least a footnote (cf. D. Kagan, The Fall of the Athenian Empire ([Ithaca, 1987], 388-93). Pages 51-2 contain the statement that “The theory of Athenian democracy sought to negate the concept of class.” This surely overstates the case: the Athenian democracy, unlike the modern ones we are used to, continued to organize the expected contributions of its citizens according to class and wealth. The direct involvement of all free males in governing the state seems not to have removed, in theory or in practice, the distinctions made between rich and poor Athenians, aristocrats and commoners, in terms of numerous public responsibilities (liturgies, manner of military service, etc.). Footnote 21 on page 320, which lists bibliography on the first appearance and meaning of the word demokratia, omits the extremely important contribution of M. H. Hansen on the subject, “The origin of the term demokratia“, LCM 11.3 (1986), 35-6. Pages 246 and 285 have typographical errors (“two to contributors” and “imortant” respectively).

These matters should not detract unduly from what is an impressive achievement by R. Her unique study succeeds admirably in providing a readable and informative account of the development of the anti-Athenian and anti-democratic traditions in Western literature. Anyone interested in Greek democracy and its reputation through the ages will profit immensely by reading it.