BMCR 2003.12.22

Ancient Greek Democracy: Readings and Sources

Eric W. Robinson, Ancient Greek democracy : readings and sources. Interpreting ancient history. Oxford: Blackwell Pub, 2004. xi, 326 pages : maps ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0631233938 $69.95.

This volume provides an up-to-date survey of issues vital to understanding ancient Greek democracy. An important strength of this book is its topical organization; each of six chapters focuses on a central question, using key ancient texts followed by two or three top-notch scholarly articles. This invites the audience, “students and other interested readers,” to shift their focus through various perspectives and to revisit important ideas in differing contexts. Although Athens necessarily remains the primary focus, the volume delivers on its promise of an examination that is broader than Athens, showing the derivation of democracy not from some single inventor but rather as a result of “attitudes and conditions widespread in the Greek world,” stretching from pre-democratic roots in Homer and Hesiod into fifth-century Syracuse. This book will elevate and enliven those students of Greek history and culture who have some grounding in the fundamentals of Greek history.

Demokratia remains the conceptual focal point of the book, and this thematic unity is strengthened by continual engagement with key terms, such as hubris, liberty and equality. To assist the student, a five-page Introduction provides a historical sketch of the appearance of democracies across the Greek world, giving an overview of the term demokratia, establishing the generally negative views of democracy that followed in Rome and the Renaissance, and bringing forth a range of works dealing with the subject in our own age. There is a two-page glossary of transliterated terms, and a twelve-page index. Each essay includes its original bibliography, and there is a short list of further readings with each chapter. A proper respect for the Greek democratic achievement, along with critical engagement, is maintained throughout. But students must be cautioned not to infer that democracy became nearly dominant in Hellas, that it superseded other forms of governance as a whole, or that the only alternative to it was tyranny. This implication could be drawn from the very brief historical overview.

Chapter One, “Prelude to Democracy: Political Thought in Early Greek Texts,” poses the question of origins: “Where did the idea come from?” In Homer and Hesiod the reader sees “a glimpse of the kind of thinking that in time led to the development of Greek democracy.” Such poems, demonstrating attitudes “toward power, authority, and the role of the community at large in political decisions” are properly distinguished from historically accurate chronologies of events (7-8). Selections here include some 600 lines of verse from Iliad books One and Two; a prose translation of Odyssey 2.1-259 (the assembly called by Telemachus); and two pages from Hesiod, Theogony 81-97 and Works and Days 213-69. Translations throughout are from established works; for example, Lattimore for the Iliad, Shewring for the Odyssey, and Athanassakis for Hesiod.

The interpretative readings that follow will expose readers to an energetic, healthy debate with attendant challenges and disagreements. Kurt Raaflaub’s contribution, “Homer and the Beginning of Political Thought in Greece,” emphasizes Homer’s awareness, and use, of the community in the dispute between the Greek leaders. Not only do the kings violate the heroic code that serves as the foundation of their authority, but they in fact jeopardize their positions by incurring the disapproval of the people. The extent to which Homer may, or may not, engage in critical thought about contemporary institutions is the crux of the criticism that Lowell Edmunds (“Commentary on Raaflaub”) brings to bear. By distinguishing a concern for political institutions from political thought and then accepting an anti-aristocratic strain in Homer, Edmunds establishes a context whereby he can challenge the idea that the fundamental situation in the Iliad is truly political. The rival interpretations of the Thersites scene — Raaflaub holding that it validates an anti-aristocratic principle, while Edmunds sees kingship as vindicated — will demonstrate for readers the range of disagreements possible even for texts that are often read.

Ian Morris, in his “Equality and the Origins of Greek Democracy,” introduces his theory of a conflict in archaic culture between elite versus middling ideologies, with the result that “the elitist ideology suffered major reverses,” and claims to a monopoly on political skill could not be made by the elites (46). This made popular rule possible. Readers must realize that this is a theory about the development of Greek political life, developed from archaeological evidence that is interpreted in terms of class struggle; the basics of that evidence must be derived elsewhere. For many readers, ideas such as Dahl’s “Principle of Equal Consideration of Interests” will require more discussion than is offered here. Further, the article brings in important poetic evidence — Archilochus, Theognis, Alcaeus, etc. — that could not be provided in this volume. Students will need additional information, and foundational discussions of the ideas involved if they are to be able to evaluate this interpretation. A reader might hope that the thirty pages devoted to Morris’s important essay had been followed by a response, even if excerpted.

Chapter Two takes a reader into “The Beginnings of Athenian Democracy: Who Freed Athens?” The evidence here is from Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens and Politics, Herodotus, Thucydides, a fragment from the Athenian Archon List, a drinking song to Harmodius and Aristogeiton and a scholium to Aristophanes’ Acharnians. The modern readings adopt opposite poles of interpretation; Josiah Ober’s emphasis on rhetoric and ideology brings an energetic response by Loren Samons. Ober’s well-known “The Athenian Revolution of 508/7 BC: Violence, Authority and the Origins of Democracy” argues that the events leading to the birth of democracy under Cleisthenes included a violent, leaderless, three-day riot that drove the Spartans from Attica. Samons’ answer, “Revolution or Compromise?” takes issue with Ober’s rejection of an institutional approach (and the “Iron Law of Oligarchy,” pace Syme) and his emphasis on democratic ideology. This, Samons maintains, substitutes its own models and elevates its own methods over analysis of institutions and prosopography. Samons’ criticism brings up a whole range of historical questions — such as Cleisthenes’ relationship to the tyrants, and his family connections, arrangements with Persia — that lead to a deeper issue: the relationship between historical evidence and ideology. This volume often returns to this vital point of methodology. (One awkward point for first-time readers is that page references to Ober in Samons have not been updated to match this volume.)

Chapter Three, “Popular Politics in Fifth-Century Syracuse,” questions the nature of Syracusan democracy in the sixty years post-460’s BC. Selections from Thucydides (from the speech of Athenagoras in favor of democracy), Aristotle’s Politics Book 5, and Diodorus 11 (the revolt in Syracuse) provide external points of comparison with democratic Athens. David Asheri’s interpretation of “Sicily, 478-431 BC,” and Shlomo Berger’s “Revolution and Society in Greek Sicily and Southern Italy,” being more overtly concerned with particular events and less with ideological and methodological issues, project nothing like the agonistic tone of the Ober versus Samons pieces. Robinson’s own piece, “Democracy in Syracuse, 466-412 BC,” clarifies in straightforward language some of the problems associated with the definition of demokratia, addressing those problems in terms derived from constitutional testimony. Robinson’s is the clearest essay so far in laying out the basic issues that must be grasped prior to tackling higher level scholarly disputes. Indeed beginning students might wish that Chapter Two had provided such a clear narration of events in 508 BC Athens, prior to considering the questions of method and ideology that dominate the agon between Ober / Samons. It might benefit students to read Chapter Three before Chapter Two.

The central questions of Chapter Four are theoretical, “Liberty, Equality and the Ideals of Greek Democracy.” The task here is to find the balance of power in a democratic polis. The readings are excerpted from Herodotus (the Persian Constitutional Debate), Euripides’ Suppliant Women; Thucydides 2 (most of the funeral oration, which is completed in Chapter Six below); and two sections from Aristotle’s Politics. Martin Ostwald, “Shares and Rights: ‘Citizenship’ Greek Style and American Style,” and M. H. Hansen, ‘The Ancient Athenian and Modern American Liberal View of Liberty as a Democratic Ideal,” provide outstanding comparative essays that bring in material from the European and American Enlightenments and encourage historical and conceptual comparison between the Greeks and later Europeans. Non-Greek-reading students will be able to tackle transliterated Greek concepts in order to understand certain similarities and differences between ancient and modern democracy. Hansen’s seven uses of eleutheria and eleutheros are contextualized with the positive and negative senses of freedom in Isaiah Berlin and Benjamin Constant (173-5). This demonstrates the complexity involved in grasping abstract political concepts, and provides a warning not to take a correspondence between the ancient and the modern for granted. At this point a reader should also realize that the criteria for selecting the essays have not been the same for each of the chapters and that there are broader issues of method and style needed to evaluate the multiple levels of interpretation being presented.

Chapter Five homes in on the issue of “Power and Rhetoric at Athens: Elite Leadership versus Popular Ideology.” The readings bring two men forward from the crowd: Perikles, in Thucydides 2; and Meidias, in 14 pages lifted from Demosthenes 21 (the longest text passage in the volume). The evidence moves from Thucydides’ sublime evaluation of Perikles to the rudeness and insolence of Meidias according to Demosthenes. P. J. Rhodes, in “Who Ran Democratic Athens?” provides a commentary to the Thucydides passages while placing Perikles into the institutional framework of Athens. Peter J. Wilson’s piece, “Demosthenes 21 ( Against Meidias), Democratic Abuse,” turns from Rhodes’ focus on the institutions to the use of rhetoric to undercut democratic ideology, an approach that Ober builds on in his “Power and Oratory in Democratic Athens: Demosthenes 21, Against Meidias.” Readers should recall the previous salvos leveled by Samons against Ober and the debate between institutional versus ideological views of the democratic polis. Wilson’s piece in particular draws parallels between the operations of the theatre, the jury and the assembly, both institutionally and through the rhetoric that is common to all such audiences, while adding a layer of self-reflective meaning to Demosthenes’ words. This chapter also provides detailed examination of several key terms on Greek discourse (e.g., hubris) through interpretations that are the most tightly focused on the particular text sections of any in the volume.

Chapter Six takes on “Limiting Democracy: The Political Exclusion of Women and Slaves” by bringing in the close of the Perikles funeral oration, sections of Pseudo-Xenophon’s Constitution of the Athenians, Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen, and several passages in Aristotle’s Politics. The essays here address various contentious issues concerning the place of women and slaves in ancient democratic societies, starting from the ancient evidence yet remaining firmly aware of the effects of modern ideas on the conclusions that follow. As in other chapters, there is a strong awareness that exploring the culture of ancient Greece requires an understanding of the history of the ideas underlying modern scholarship. This is another of the motifs that continually resurface in this volume.

Robin Osborne’s “The Economics and Politics of Slavery at Athens” challenges the view that slavery was economically irrational and undemocratic and maintained simply as a prejudice. His survey of the economics of slavery leads to the opposite conclusion, that slaves did jobs which could not otherwise be economically performed, “or else yielded insufficient clear profit to enable a citizen family to survive, let alone to achieve upward mobility” (275). With Osborne having established that slavery was not a matter of ideology trumping economic irrationality, Michael Jameson’s essay, “Women and Democracy in Fourth-Century Athens,” confronts an ambiguous aspect of Greek democracy: that it both strengthened the divisions between free men and slaves, citizens and foreigners, and men and women, while making possible the concept of liberty so vital to later European history. Such ambiguities had consequences in fourth century Athens; as the democrats strengthened the distinction between slaves and free men, anti-democratic critics (such as Xenophon, and Plutarch, although the later historical position of Plutarch is not made explicit for readers) claimed to find conspiracies by the demos and excluded classes against aristocratic supporters. Jameson’s valuable discussion allows a reader to understand that ancient categories were fluid and that the polis of the fourth-century may have allowed women, foreigners and even women into its ranks.

In further challenges to rigid categories, Marilyn Katz, in “Women and Democracy in Ancient Greece,” criticizes the use of eighteenth-century models of domesticity as means to interpret women’s positions in Ancient Athens. Such models were based upon an inappropriate public versus private distinction, all derived from the views that eighteenth century scholars had of their own times. Katz demonstrates the influence of such ideas in brief excerpts from all three editions of the Oxford Classical Dictionary. But the error is not only one of postulating anachronistic views of domesticity, but also in the use of principles of natural law and individual rights to interpret the Greeks. Katz is surely correct, that “the topic of women’s exclusion from political rights remains inadequately theorized — trapped still by the contradictions of a liberal democratic theory and practice inherited from the eighteenth century” (306). A reader should now be motivated to return to the discussions of Ostwald and Hansen for a deeper look at their use of Enlightenment political concepts to understand the ancients.

This is a powerful volume that brings democracy into focus through connected readings that continuously widen the context of a reader’s understanding. Graduate students and scholars will find it invaluable. But many inexperienced students will need guidance with the essays; they will struggle with ideas such as “a subjective and an objective sense for the genitive” in Wilson (213), Ober’s understanding of “speech acts,” (104 f.), and Morris’s criticism of synchronic functionalism versus diachronic analysis (45). Instructors will need to evaluate the level of their students and plan strategies of engagement with what can be rival, and controversial, interpretations. But readers who want to rise above basic historical interpretations of democracy into the level of scholarship will find this an important resource.