BMCR 2002.06.32

Oligarchia. The Development of a Constitutional Form in Ancient Greece

, Oligarchia : the development of a constitutional form in Ancient Greece. Historia. Einzelschriften ; Heft 144. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 2000. 96 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3515076808 EUR 28.00.

Martin Ostwald’s Oligarchia is a welcome addition to the ever-burgeoning scholarship on Greek politeiai. While most scholars have concentrated on the study of demokratia, especially as it was practiced in the Athenian city-state, the only full-length work on oligarchic government in Classical Greece remains Leonard Whibley’s Greek Oligarchies. Their Character and Organisation (New York and London 1896) produced more than a century ago. While Ostwald’s brief monograph does not aim to replace Whibley, his close examination of the literary sources adds greatly to our understanding of ancient Greek views of oligarchy.

The scope of this book is limited to an examination of how oligarchy was perceived and understood from the late sixth to fourth centuries BC, primarily through a close reading of Pindar, Herodotus, Plato, and Aristotle. Ostwald’s study reveals that oligarchy was a fluid notion of government inevitably based on property ownership, but varying in composition from one polis to another.

Ostwald begins by examining the early evidence for the tripartite classification of types of government “into the rule of one, the rule of a few, and the rule of the many” (13). Here he focuses primarily on Pindar’s famous passage (Pyth. 2.86-88) and the debate of Otanes, Megabyzus, and Darius in Book III of Herodotus. Much of this is well-worn ground, but Ostwald makes some interesting and useful observations, particularly about the way in which oligarchy is conceived in Herodotus.

Ostwald also examines the manner in which oligarchy increasingly became “the ideological opposite of democracy” (21) during the course of the Peloponnesian War. Ostwald notes that the sources for the institutions of oligarchic states during this period are “very thin indeed” (21), and that the extant sources refer mostly to the oligarchic revolutions in Athens in 411 and 404/403 BC. This situation leaves us largely in the dark about the operation of oligarchic governments in Thebes, Megara, and elsewhere (25-27). In addition, because the Athenian oligarchies were the product of revolutions and were short in duration, they are perhaps not accurate indicators of a typical oligarchic state. Indeed, the almost universal condemnation of oligarchy by Athenian orators during the fourth century BC almost certainly results from the horrors experienced by Athens during the regimes of the Four Hundred and the Thirty.

Next, Ostwald turns to the theoretical work of fourth-century BC philosophers, noting that Plato’s views on government were informed both by his philosophical concern with the Forms and by his familial relations with leaders of the brutal regime of the Thirty (31-32). As a result, Plato rehabilitated the term aristokratia, rule of the “best” (but significantly in the moral sense) in opposition to oligarchia (a mode of government based only on wealth and therefore inherently bad) (33-34).

Ostwald’s ensuing analysis of Aristotle occupies nearly half of his monograph. He discusses in detail Aristotle’s system of classification, which, unlike Plato’s, was not based on “transcendent principle or theory.” Instead, “each system is empirically identified in terms of the authority actually ruling and the values actually prevailing in each” (37). Indeed for Aristotle specific examples are crucial to understanding general types of governments, but, unfortunately, a discussion of examples of actual oligarchic states is beyond the book’s scope and so is not included.

The value of Oligarchia lies instead in Ostwald’s close analysis of Aristotle’s definition of oligarchy and its ideological underpinnings. Ostwald first focuses on the meaning of the words for property and wealth in the polis and their role in defining citizenship in oligarchic states. Of interest are the distinctions in meaning of three words commonly translated as “property”: κτῆμα, κτῆσις, and οὐσία. An interesting discussion of Greek social practices and prejudices in political life follows, in which Ostwald considers Aristotle’s use of the words εὔπορος and ἄπορος, noting that those who are εὔπορος have the means to devote themselves to public affairs, whereas an ἄπορος must concern himself always with his own business, but that these terms need not always correlate with material wealth or poverty (55). Ostwald’s meticulous consideration of these terms is an important contribution because citizen rights in oligarchies were always based on property. For anyone approaching the study of oligarchy, either as a theory of government or as it was practiced, this book provides a solid foundation.

While the content of the book is impressive, there are a number of bothersome lapses in proofreading. Whibley’s book is wrongly referred to as Greek Oligarchies: Their Classification (sic) and Organisation (7). The Athenian proxenos at Mytilene named by Aristotle is a certain Doxandros, not Dexitheos (61-62). There are also a number of lacunae and misspellings. For example: “By [h]is invitation” (7), “Government” (21), “its main differentia[?]” (43), and “depend[s]” (75).

In many respects this book is Ostwald’s own Protrepticus to an understudied area of Greek political life. It is a salutary reminder that the term oligarchia could reflect a wide-ranging type of political constitution and need not have been necessarily despotic or narrow. Ostwald’s excellent and too brief monograph surely will inspire further examination into the nature and history of oligarchy in the Greek world.