BMCR 2000.04.18

The Associations of Classical Athens: The Response to Democracy

, The Associations of Classical Athens: The Response to Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 345. $55.00.

The classical Athenian democracy was remarkably stable. While other Greek cities were troubled by recurrent socio-political unrest, democracy remained virtually unchallenged as the preferred form of government in Athens for almost two centuries. The two brief suspensions of the democracy at the end of the fifth century have more to do with Athens’ fate in the Peloponnesian war than with immanent weaknesses in the democracy itself. Accordingly, a central problem in the study of Athenian political culture is accounting for this stability.1 In his new study, The Associations of Classical Athens: The Response to Athenian Democracy, Nicholas Jones argues that the web of Athenian associations or koinoniai played a key role in maintaining the democracy. Under the rubric association, J. includes the deme, the phyle, phratry, the club, school, and regional and cultic association. What links these apparently diverse associations, according to J., is their common “condition of response” to the democratic government. J.’s thesis, set out in chapter one, is that these associations not only acquired their distinctive characteristics in reaction to the democracy, but that they also compensated for the failings and limitations of the classical democracy (47). Chapters two through eight attempt to support this claim with detailed investigations of the major associations known from the classical period. The evidence is mainly epigraphic, the records of the demes, phylai, phratries, cultic genê, and orgeones, although J. also draws upon comedy and forensic oratory. Chapter nine examines the associations of the Cretan city in Plato’s Laws. Chapter ten summarizes the arguments and places J.’s reconstructions in the broad context of Athenian history.

The substantive arguments in this study proceed from a somewhat idiosyncratic reconstruction of Athenian democracy. It is widely accepted that Athenian democracy was highly participatory: the use of the lot to fill most offices and the annual rotation of office provided ordinary citizens with historically unprecedented opportunities for political participation. J. rejects this prevailing view, arguing instead that the classical democracy was not highly participatory in practice. In maintaining this thesis, J. relies exclusively on M. H. Hansen’s institutionalist conception of Athenian democracy and government.2 Following Hansen, he identifies the characteristic features of Athenian democracy as: egalitarianism, direct rule, minority citizen participation, and exclusivity. J. contends that these features constituted severe and potentially fatal barriers to participation and that, in particular, egalitarianism and direct rule prevented ‘men of ability’ from exercising their talents in the arena of central government (47-50). J. also points to the physical structure of democratic institutions and the geographic realities of Athens and Attica which set practical restrictions on citizen participation. Following Hansen, J. notes that limited Assembly seating necessarily excluded the majority of citizens from democratic decision making. He further argues that the physical distances between rural demes and the urban center compounded the problem — here rejecting Hansen’s view that Athenians customarily walked long distances to the city’s center (99).

The Athenian citizen body was a notoriously exclusive minority population in Athens and Attica. Hansen estimates that there were about 30,000 Athenian citizens in a total population of 300,000 in the second half of the fourth century (1991.93-94). According to J., this was the most significant ‘failing’ or destabilizing aspect of the democracy. The question is: who in the classical democracy would have perceived the exclusion of non-citizens to be a real problem, and why? J.’s answer is interesting, although it certainly needs more fleshing out than he offers anywhere in the book. He implies that the intense politicization of the citizen body would have spilled over into the majority population of non-citizens. “Even the non-citizens were, arguably, a politicized sector. By 393 Aristophanes’ Ekklesiazousai had explicitly aired the possibility of a democratic government run exclusively by women… [I]t would be wrongheaded to suppose that the matter of non-participation was not a live issue on the grounds, say, that such ideas had never occurred to anyone or still lay centuries in the future” (290).

In chapters two, three, and four, J. argues that the deme association was the most significant counterbalance to the destabilizing force arising from the large number of politically excluded residents. J. is not the first historian to emphasize the crucial role of the deme in democratizing Athenian culture: David Whitehead and Robin Osborne have both shown that the deme association imitated the institutions of the central government, bringing democratic practice and participation to the local level of the neighborhood.3 These neighborhood democracies complete with assemblies no doubt compensated for the ways in which the democracy was de facto exclusionary with respect to its own citizens. J., however, is interested in how the deme compensated for the exclusion of non-citizens. He focuses on the interaction between what he calls the ‘constitutional deme’, the deme based on descent, and the more encompassing ‘territorial deme’ based only on residence (56-57).4 He argues that the territorial deme eventually supplanted the narrowly defined constitutional deme. According to J., citizen women were responsible for the gradual rise of the territorial deme — not because they banded together to demand privileges or entitlements — but because they enjoyed a unique dual status. While women were considered members of the deme based on descent in matters of sexual reproduction and religion, for purposes of politics they were shut out like the mass of other territorial residents. Accordingly, the fact that they belonged to both the constitutional and territorial demes at once provided a conceptual precedent for the enlargement of the constitutional deme through the inclusion or recognition of those who could never, technically speaking, be members (133-135).

J. argues that the territorial deme eventually gained ascendancy because the constitutional deme lost its monopoly on the ability to issue decrees. This global claim is based on a number of late fourth and third century decrees from Eleusis and Rhamnous. In chapter four J. charts a gradual expansion of the types of people issuing decrees: first the ephebes stationed in the forts, then soldiers, and finally the residents of the deme, begin to publish decrees, either alone or in conjunction with the demesmen (142). While J. may be correct to interpret this change as evidence for a new privileging of a deme based on residence, it seems likely that the process of transformation is more complicated than he acknowledges. All of J.’s evidence derives from the garrison demes of Eleusis and Rhamnous. This strongly suggests that deme level democratization was prompted by factors other than, or in addition to, intrinsic weaknesses in the narrowly defined constitutional deme. I will return to this point shortly.

Chapters five and six are devoted to the relatively under-studied tribe or phyle. On the basis of extant phyletic decrees, J. shows that the tribes were mainly engaged in conferring honors on their members for services they performed while acting in statewide positions.5 In many cases, the tribe represents itself as a specific recipient of the honorand’s benefactions along with the state. J. explains this apparent peculiarity by speculating that citizens were honored by their tribes for using their official position to advance tribal interests (190). “[T]he phyle organizations,” J. states, “… do appear to have ended up…serving as instruments of representation. Some scholars have denied the existence of representative government in ancient Greece, but I think there can be little doubt that these state officials and liturgists, all known to have been selected “by phylai,” were given strong incentives to regard the phyle from which they had been selected as a kind of constituency and to represent the interests of that constituency in the various fora of Athenian city life” (193-194). J. offers no account of how the liturgist or ephebic officer might have politically represented his tribal constituency to the democratic government or “in the various fora of Athenian city life.” Accordingly, the argument that the phyle developed into an instrument of quasi-representative government fails to convince and seems driven less by the evidence than by J.’s own assumption that representative government would have developed in response to direct rule (48).

Previous scholarship on the deme association has focused on the deme’s role in fostering a common democratic identity at the local level of the neighborhood through its imitation of the polis’ democratic institutions. J., however, stresses the particularities and introversion of the demes exemplified by, inter alia, deme-specific cult practice. It was the phratries, according to J., with their homogenous cult practices, that especially engendered a common Athenian identity (213-4). J. makes the original, though not uncontentious, argument that the democratic government provided generic phratry monuments in the Agora to make “… participation in phratry life accessible to urban dwelling phrateres cut off from their ancestral (and hereditary) phratric centers” (208). While J. considers the phratry an important collectivizing association of Athenian life, he also underscores the phratry’s role in allowing and promoting social differentiation. The phratries were divided into various sub-groups (the genos, oikos, orgeones, and thiasos), organized according to non-democratic and non-egalitarian principles of socio-economic status and kinship. According to J., these sub-groups enabled Athenians “… to interact on a more realistic basis reflecting shared backgrounds and interests” (218).

One of J.’s principal claims is that the Solonian law on associations preserved in Justinian’s Digest attests the state’s dual role in validating and regulating associations (appendix two contains a commentary on the law). The law allowed designated associations to make arrangements for themselves provided they did not conflict with the laws of the state. In 307 Sophokles of Sounion proposed a decree that effectively brought philosophical schools under the regulatory control of the demos. Sophokles, however, was indicted for making an illegal proposal. In chapter eight J. suggests that Sophokles’ law was judged illegal because it conflicted with the Solonian law (229). The remainder of the chapter reviews previous scholarship on the genos, considering its limited claim to associational status, the orgeones, and regional associations. Chapter nine argues that the construction of associations as mediating structures between citizens and government in the Cretan city in Plato’s Laws was influenced by Athenian civic organization.

In the concluding chapter, J. locates his study of associations in the larger diachronic context of the history of Athenian democracy. He challenges the view that correlates the decline of the phratry, phyle, and deme associations with the suspension of the free democracy.6 He argues instead that immanent weakness in the structure of the democracy and these associations was responsible for the decline. He maintains that the rule of double endogamous descent for admission to the deme, phratry, and phyle, combined with the formal exclusion of non-citizens, doomed these associations to extinction. Their demise was facilitated, according to J., by the emergence of an alternative to the constitutionally defined association (303-305). Here J. returns to the decrees from Eleusis and Rhamnous to attest the emergence of a ‘counter deme’. There is surely something deeply paradoxical about using evidence from the two demes (with the exception of Piraeus) that are known to have continued to publish documents in the third century to attest the generalized decline of the deme association that is itself attested by a fall off in inscribing. The fact that it is the ephebes and ‘soldiers in the forts’ who prompt the change in inscribing suggests that J.’s monocausal account of institutional change is not the whole story. Foreign policy and military considerations may have as much or more to do with local level democratic change than immanent institutional weaknesses.

While this study takes a strongly modernist and perhaps anachronistic approach to government and democracy, it nevertheless raises important questions and makes a valuable contribution to the study of Athenian democracy. Although “the classical Athens reconstructed in this book is an Athens of institutions,” as J. remarks, the democracy that emerges is not a disembodied constitution or an exclusive domain of citizen men (305). J.’s holistic approach to Athenian associations treats democracy in its wider cultural setting, leading to an emphasis on the inevitable interactions between citizens and non-citizens, and on the way democratic institutions shaped and were shaped by the majority population of non-citizens.


1. See J. Ober, Mass and Elite, (Princeton, 1989) 17-20; S. Wolin, “Norm and Form: The Constitutionalizing of Democracy,” in P. Euben, J. R. Wallach, and J. Ober (edd.), Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy (Ithaca 1994), 29-50.

2. See The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes, (second ed. London 1999).

3. D. Whitehead, The Demes of Attica 508-7 – ca.250 BC: A Political and Social Study, (Princeton, 1986); R. Osborne, Demos: The Discovery of Classical Attika, (Cambridge, 1985), and “The Demos and its Divisions in Classical Athens,” in O. Murray and S.R.F. Price (edd.), The Greek City from Homer to Aristotle (Oxford, 1990).

4. J. notes (57) that Whitehead anticipates the idea that there were two conceptions of the deme (1986.76-77).

5. Appendix three 321-323 contains a list of all known documents of the phyle.

6. For the decline of the phratry in the third century see S. D. Lambert, The Phratries of Attica (Ann Arbor, 1993) 273-275. On the decline of the deme see Whitehead 1986.260-263.