BMCR 2004.03.21

Ancient Democracy and Modern Ideology

, Ancient democracy and modern ideology. Duckworth classical essays. London: Duckworth, 2003. 142 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 0715632205. £10.99.

The Duckworth Classical Essays series, according to the blurb, is meant to be a new series “of polemical, revisionist or exploratory essays on central themes of ancient history, literature and thought, and their reception in the modern world. The series unsettles received wisdom, and will provoke debate and controversy both within and beyond Classics.” Though many will disagree with what Rhodes (R.) has to say in his essay on ancient democracy and modern ideology, what he has written more than meets the aims of the series.

In the past half century or so (since Marxism became fashionable), there has been a tendency to apply our own and our societies’ attitudes and experiences to the ancient world in an effort to better understand it and its people and, by extension, to learn some lessons for our own world. Athenian democracy in particular has been the subject of this approach, and R. reviews a number of modern (especially American) discussions of Athenian democracy. He writes provocatively, and argues not only the danger of applying the present to understand the past but also how this approach affects historians’ interpretation of the source material. How methodologically sound, asks R., are historians when they allow their own attitudes and biases to influence their view of, and their writings about, the past? Have ideologies been responsible for the eclipse of objectivity by subjectivity? And, if they have, then how accurate, or more ominously how inaccurate, a picture of the past (in this case of Athenian democracy) is being painted, and how much is history being abused as opposed to used?

R.’s book has six short chapters taking up a little over eighty pages of text (pp. 9-90), a number of short notes (pp. 91-116), a good, comprehensive bibliography (pp. 117-137) and a select index (pp. 139-142).

In the first chapter (“History,” pp. 9-17), R. outlines his rationale for asking the sorts of questions outlined above. He discusses what history is, what it means to people, how to approach it, and how it ought to be used. It is the last two with which he is particularly concerned, and he cautions us that all too often ancient texts are distorted to fit a theory and/or that theory is dangerously applied to the ancient world. As he says, the past is the past; “we are dealing with people who lived and died, who did things, who thought, said, and wrote things, and who had things done to them; communities which existed and which prospered or failed to prosper; events and processes which occurred; and a body of evidence which requires interpretation but which cannot be twisted so as to mean whatever we want it to mean” (p. 17).

The next two chapters are a general discussion of ancient democracy. In Chapter 2 (“Democracy,” pp. 18-26), R. discusses what democracy meant to the Greeks and the differences between a democratic state and an oligarchic one. Attitudes to ancient democracy from the Reformation to today are surveyed in Chapter 3 (“Democracy: Good or Bad?” pp. 27-33). Of ancient states, Rome and Sparta evoked the most interest until the eighteenth century, when the political system of Athens came to be seen as “better” than that of Sparta. As a result principally of histories of Greece published in the early nineteenth century in England (especially Grote’s History of Greece) Athenian democracy came to be “accepted.” So also did the practice of seeing the relevance of ancient democracy to the modern world and vice versa.

With that in mind, we move to Chapter 4 (“Democracy: Fashions in Scholarship,” pp. 34-53), which deals with the generally approving Staatskunde tradition and prosopographical approaches, and then with the more critical view of democracy based on the Athenians’ exploitation of their allies, their use of slavery, and the political marginalization of women. The chapter begins with a survey of a number of British, European, Australian, and American scholars, from the nineteenth century to the present day, who have tried to explain how ancient democracy worked by analyzing its institutions (pp. 34-44). Then the rise of prosopography, with its focus not on institutions but on people and politics (itself influenced by earlier prosopographical work in Roman history), is briefly traced (pp. 44-46). The rest of the chapter is devoted to the “downside” of Athenian society (Finley’s work in particular is given prominence), and its implications for the democratic system (pp. 46-53). How can such a brilliant, cultured society as the Athenian be so exploitative and have such a double standard? Yet there are still some (Forrest and Stockton, for example) who can write enthusiastically about Athenian democracy while noting the downside. However, let us not forget that Athens was not atypical. By using a quote from V. D. Hanson’s How the West was Won, R. reminds us that “the sins of the Greeks … are largely the sins of man common to all cultures at all times” (p. 51; the quotation is from Hanson, p. 50).

Chapter 5 (“Athenian Democracy and Us,” pp. 54-69) is subtitled “America and the European Tradition.” Early American scholarship (as practised for example by Everett and Gildersleeve) was influenced by European traditions. Then came the opposing reaction of the relativists, especially in the U.S.A., who objected to a focus on only Greece and Rome and on the writings of “dead, white, European males” (p. 55). Some of R.’s laments about the resulting decline in scholarly practices (e.g. translating passages of Greek and/or Latin for those without the languages, or a simpler writing style because readers cannot follow long sentences or understand foreign phrases) are conservative, and will cause some hackles to rise on this side of the Atlantic. (I personally don’t like Thucydidean-length sentences and I don’t mind snappy titles/sub-titles of books.) Against a background of simplification, economically-driven publishers, eye-catching titles, and the like, R. states that “we must see the most recent American work on Athenian democracy” (p. 58). He goes on to consider scholars, such as Ober, who apply a contemporary approach to ancient democracy and who criticize those who do not, which R. sees as having a damaging effect on our understanding of that democracy.

In the sixth and final chapter (“How To Study Athenian Democracy,” pp. 70-90), R. begins with how to bring meaning to history. He again turns to the differing views of Athenian democracy of Hansen, based on an analysis of institutions, and of Ober, based on the ideology of the people as influenced by people and the system today. R., speaking as a “pluralist” as opposed to a “relativist” (p. 75), sees validity in asking the sorts of questions that both do, and by extension sees that both are complementary. Understanding how institutions worked helps to understand how a state worked, but that is only one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is the dynamics of political activity (p. 76). This side needs to be treated more cautiously, however, and R. has further critical words about several Americans scholars for their use of the present-day United States (and its beginnings) in trying to understand the political dynamics of the ancient Greek world. He concludes by urging historians to place themselves “towards the objective and dispassionate end of the spectrum” (p. 89), for that will allow them to do better history.

There are aspects of the Athenians’ democracy that have of course relevance to the modern world, such as the political education and activity of citizens. There are also aspects of the modern world that can be applied to ancient Athens, such as the condemnation of slavery or the need for political equality among men and women. The trick, as R. argues throughout his essay, is to walk the fine line of considering all aspects in as equal and as fair manner as possible, and without allowing a particular ideology to govern one’s approach at the expense of historical objectivity.

I want to end my review on a personal note. I was Peter Rhodes’s first graduate student; he supervised my M.A. thesis on the Pisistratid Tyranny, and I graduated in 1981. He terrified me then with his knowledge and incisiveness, and he still does for that matter (though nowadays I believe that I can bluff better). Critics may argue that he is too conservative or even that he has his own political agenda, despite what he says to the contrary (cf. p. 71). However, one of his virtues is that he is prepared to see and to think hard about all viewpoints and all approaches before making a decision on them. He is not unsympathetic to modern theory, and certainly does not peddle an atheoretical approach, but rightly urges caution. As he says on p. 17, “Making the past intelligible and interesting to us in the present requires us not only to do justice to our own needs but also to do justice to the people whom we are studying and to the material which we are studying; and, if we allow ourselves to be so preoccupied with the present that we cease doing that, we cease being historians.”