BMCR 2003.06.25

Die Athenische Demokratie

, Die athenische Demokratie. Beck'sche Reihe ; 2308 C.H. Beck Wissen. Munich: Beck, 2003. 124 Seiten : Illustrationen.. ISBN 340648008X. EUR 7.90.

This little book is an entry in Beck’s attractive “Wissen” series of short, inexpensive monographs. In the field of classical antiquity there are, for example, volumes on Die griechische Frühzeit, Die Etrusker, Karthago, Augustus und seine Zeit, Hannibal, Sparta, among other subjects. The title and length of the present book, sight unseen, led me to expect a nuts-and-bolts sort of presentation, as in Christopher Carey’s excellent Democracy in Classical Athens (London 2000). And, indeed, the author does provide many details of the practical functioning of democratic institutions in classical Athens. But the principal concerns of the book are situated on a rather higher level of abstraction, as in the work of Josiah Ober and Kurt Raaflaub.1 Angela Pabst is Professor of Ancient History at Erlangen, where she helped form an interdisciplinary study-group, “Demokratia,” so the comparative value of research into Athenian democracy is also a prominent leitmotif in this book.

The first chapter (9-65), longer than the other three together, is divided into three investigations of key concepts in the vocabulary of ancient democratic theory and practice: “die zentralen Prinzipien der antiken Demokratie”; these are sophisticated semantic-field studies really. In each case, the bases of discussion are passages in authors such as Plato, Thucydides, Aristotle, Xenophon, the Old Oligarch, and occasionally the dramatists. The first section deals with the notion of “The Power of the People.” Pabst is at pains to show that the entire concept of rulers and ruled is precisely what democratic reform sought to minimize in political life. The second section concentrates on “Equality,” distinguishing the specific senses of the word in social and economic as well as political terms, and contrasting modern denotations. The third section, on “Freedom,” delineates various manifestations of personal and political liberty — freedom of speech within the ekklesia, etc. It also discusses the status of the unfree or less free in Athenian society.

The second chapter (68-80) sketches the actual processes of governance at Athens, focusing on the sequence “consultation, decision, preparation, execution.” The dynamics of action by and interaction among public officials, advisory bodies (Areopagus, Boule of 500) and the assembly of citizens is detailed.

Chapter 3 (81-101) examines some of the practical aspects of everyday life within a democratic society. Pabst offers here some acute analysis of occupations, informal and formal distinctions of status among citizens, male and female, and non-citizens (slaves, metics). She draws chiefly on court cases for her evidence.

A final chapter (102-13) makes careful discriminations between ancient and modern concepts of democratic government. Pabst judiciously assesses the extent to which the institutions and ideas of democratic Athenians are germane to present-day notions and theories.

An appended “Zeittafel” (114-17) helpfully plots particulars of the development of democracy against general trends in ancient Greek history.

This thoughtful and thought-provoking book achieves both a terse summary of Athenian political practices and a discerning analysis of certain philosophical nuances of what might be called the vocabulary of democracy. Though perhaps not a book for beginners, owing in part to its rather complex prose style, it is a handy guide to many of the topics of current, more exhaustive investigations by both German and Anglophone scholars.


1. Pabst cites neither Ober nor Raaflaub nor the English-language book most like hers in its concerns and conclusions: R.K. Sinclair, Democracy and Participation in Athens (Cambridge 1988). The need for concision imposed by the scale of works in the series no doubt also ruled out citation (esp. vis-à-vis chapter 3) of such pertinent sources as K.J. Dover’s Greek Popular Morality (Oxford 1974). Her sixteen-item “Literaturverzeichnis” (118) is restricted to recent works in German (a few are translations), notably by G.-A. Lehmann, C. Meier on the ancient side of things, and G. Sartori and M.G. Schmid on the modern.