BMCR 2005.03.13

Athenian Democracy

, Athenian democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. xiv, 358 pages : maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0195221397. $19.95 (pb).

In reviewing a book which collects articles on Athenian democracy originally published as long ago as 1924 and as recently as 2001, it is important to first establish the criteria on which the book is to be judged. For the most part, it can be taken as a given that the articles reproduced here under the editorship of a world-renowned authority on the subject are all gems of their kind and all represent significant contributions to the field. What can more fruitfully be evaluated is the extent to which the collection fulfills the stated aims of the series, especially in introducing “English-speaking students to central themes in the history of the ancient world and to the range of scholarly approaches to those themes, within and across disciplines.” The series description does not further define what is meant by “students,” but it seems to me that upper division undergraduate courses will be best served by this book. Those teaching a graduate seminar on Athenian Democracy will likely have their own idiosyncratic list of “gems” they want their students to read, and at any rate in that context single articles will hardly do to familiarize students with the contribution to the field of a Mogens Hansen or a Josiah Ober. Conversely, the articles collected here will probably be both too focused topically and too detailed methodologically for most lower level undergraduate Greek history surveys, where a textbook approach is more useful. However, in an upper division undergraduate course or the equivalent, where students are presented with lots of primary sources and are required to write research papers, this collection will prove invaluable as a set of examples “which illustrate the different kinds of questions which can be asked and the different kinds of approach which can help us answer them” (8). With this audience in mind, it is very helpful that the editor has been consistent in translating (but retaining) all Greek and Latin, in explaining the meanings of untranslatable ancient terms, in explaining the meanings of commonly used foreign phrases, and in translating quotations from modern European authors. The “Note to the Reader” (viii-ix) will provide a useful reference for students new to the conventions of scholarly citation. The collection also presents an article by Claude Mossé, “Solon, ‘Founding Father’ of the Athenian Democracy” (originally published 1979) not elsewhere available in English. Following a general introduction which briefly and ably outlines the history of and responses to Athens’ democracy, the essays are presented in four parts (“Political Institutions,” “Political Activity,” “Moments in History,” and “A View of Democracy”), each introduced by brief professional biographies of their authors. This collection will give students a much better idea of how we know what we think we know about the Athenian democracy, and will stimulate productive debates about how to go about increasing our knowledge and understanding of its history and character.

I begin with a few criticisms and progress to the more numerous items of value. In a book like this, one is likely to find fault not so much with what is included, since so much high quality work has been done on the Athenian democracy in the 20th century, as with what has been left out. In particular, it is striking that there are no articles dealing with the issues either of gender or of slavery, in spite of the prominence those topics have attained in the scholarship of the last two decades especially. R seems to explain this decision when he states that he “. . . believe[s] firmly that not every phenomenon which is attested for democratic Athens in the classical period is specifically a product of or is peculiar to the Athenian democracy . . .” (12). Nevertheless, a number of scholars have made strong arguments for the essential place in the political ideology of democratic Athens of particular attitudes toward gender and freedom.1 Most instructors will find it necessary to supplement the volume with a discussion of these.

Likewise, given that one of the stated aims of the series is an introduction to “the range of scholarly approaches,” it is disappointing that R does not show much interest or precision in describing the numerous social scientific and literary theories that have impacted the study of ancient history in the 20th century. For instance, the closest R comes to defining his own positivism is to write that he is “happy disentangling intricate details” (161-162), presumably in contrast to scholars like Finley and Ober, who often suppress detail in the interest of creating simpler, and therefore more comprehensible, models. Elsewhere R seems to want to identify Marxism with a critique of historical objectivity (7-8). However, the Marxist claim that all historical writing is “ideologically driven” does not necessarily deny the possibility of historical objectivity. Rather, most Marxists would assert that a truly objective account strips away the representations of false ideologies to reveal the true motor of history: the changing mode of production and the development of class exploitation and conflict.

Conversely, while R correctly understands that postmodernism implies a critique of historical objectivity, I would question his ascription to the influence of postmodernism of Mossé’s “doubts about how far we can believe what [Solon] is said by our non-contemporary sources to have done” (239). On the contrary, Mossé affirms the possibility of historical objectivity by asserting that the historical Solon, whose poetry indicates that he abolished debt-bondage in Athens, should be distinguished from the mythologized Solon of late fifth and fourth century political propaganda, the idealized founder of a moderate democracy which reserved special political power for the wealthiest citizens. While Mossé’s article is revisionist and Marxist in tone, with its narrative of a false ideology propagated for the purpose of legitimizing the privilege due to wealth, there is nothing particularly postmodern about it. Thus the articles have not been presented in such a way as to help teachers clarify for students the ways specific social theories have informed work on ancient Athens.

Nevertheless, the collection does include a wide range of questions and approaches. In the following survey, I group the articles according to connections I found interesting rather than according to R’s section breakdown. First, the articles that restrict themselves primarily to establishing basic facts illustrate a number of ways scholars have used evidence to support inferences. M.H. Hansen’s “How did the Athenian Ecclesia Vote” (1977 (1983)) uses the well-known literary and archaeological sources in conjunction with information about the physical constraints of assembly voting derived from the comparative example of the Swiss Landsgemeinden to support his contention that the hand votes of the ecclesia were not counted individually but were roughly estimated. M.M. Markle’s “Jury Pay and Assembly Pay at Athens” (1985) combines a sophisticated reading of the rhetoric of extant speeches, comedies, et al. with analysis of the nutritional requirements of poor Athenians to argue that jury and assembly pay did make it possible for the poor to attend and that they in fact formed majorities in these contexts. R himself, in “Political Activity in Classical Athens” (1986), uses the accumulation of anecdotal evidence to add to and refine J.K. Davies’2 periodization of Athenian political activity from the power of wealth through philia, to the preeminence of direct appeals to the citizenry through political rhetoric beginning in the late 5th century, to an era when some form of specialist expertise became a common starting point for a career in politics beginning in the mid-4th century.

Second, the collection reveals how productive the functionalist approach has proven to be for students of Athenian democracy, although R neglects to mention functionalism in his historiographical survey. By functionalism, I refer to analyses that explain particular customs or institutions synchronically and primarily by reference to how they contributed to the stability of the society, without providing an explicit explanation for why these particular customs or institutions emerged rather than alternatives that might have been less conducive to social stability. In “Athenian Demagogues” (1962 (1985)), M.I. Finley argues that “demagogues. . . were a structural part of the system” and that “the system could not function at all without them” (180). Finley looks beyond the rhetoric of the literary sources to make the crucial point that all those who wished to lead in democratic Athens had to use the techniques of the “demagogue,” but that those who earned the derogatory epithet were claimed to have acted in their own interests rather than in those of the community. Robin Osborne’s “Competitive Festivals and the Polis” seeks to explain why the democracy continued to encourage competitive behavior in its religious festivals in spite of its aristocratic overtones. He does so by showing how these competitions were conducive to democratic values and benefited the democratic state. While the festivals fostered hoplite and cavalry skills useful to the “collective interest of the city” (214), as well as individual ambition “especially important at times when there is a desire to widen political access” (219), the democracy neutralized the potential threat of competition by giving prizes to first, second, third, and fourth place finishers and by organizing competitors in arbitrary groups (215).

Other articles demonstrate the range of assumptions possible within a functionalist framework. For instance, Sterling Dow (“Aristotle, the Kleroteria, and the Courts” (1939)) finds in the Athenian procedure for choosing jurors, which he brilliantly reconstructs by reading Aristotle’s description in the light of the preserved allotment machines, proof of the Athenian “passion for logic” and “suspicion of human nature” (62). The mathematically rational Athenians Dow imagines contrast sharply with the Athenians as anthropological case study envisioned by Finley (see especially 173-75) and by Louis Gernet in “Capital Punishment” (1924 (1981)). Gernet starts from the mystery of a mass grave excavated at Phaleron to argue that there were two distinct types of capital punishment at Athens: one concerned with the religious expiation of miasma and involving stoning or hurling with the prohibition of burial, the second in which the state took over the function of private vengeance in cases of robbery and other types of kakourgia, inflicting punishments that were explicitly cruel and public, but not prohibiting burial (thus the mass grave).

A fourth set of articles leaves the realm of functionalism by focusing on the importance of contingency, events, and change. For instance, J.K. Davies (“Athenian Citizenship: The Descent Group and the Alternatives” (1977/8)) explicitly considers why alternative mechanisms for determining membership in the citizen-group, namely, wealth and service, were discarded for so long in favor of the descent group model, concluding that “time and time again, interest in its continuance was stronger than interest in its overthrow” (39). (I assume that the “interest” Davies refers to was the interest of the democratic majority.) Similarly, Mossé sees the history of the democracy as the product of a struggle between competing class interests. Her narrative implies that democracy’s “moderation” was, at least to some degree, achieved through the efforts of elite propaganda.

Sally Humphreys and Christian Meier take ideas rather than interests as their primary subject. Humphreys (“Public and Private Interests in Classical Athens” (1977/8)) traces how the notion of a division between public and private realms was promoted by democrats like Pericles as a way of limiting the political influence of personal ties among wealthy aristocrats. However, this rhetoric was easily and persuasively co-opted by the oligarchs of the late fifth century, who railed against the injustice of a political system in which they were forced to sacrifice their private fortunes to fund military ventures motivated by the private interests of a greedy demos. Conversely, Demosthenes would later challenge the public/private distinction by accusing wealthy pacifists of putting their own private interests before those of the community. Meier’s “The Greeks: The Political Revolution in World History” (1982 (2001)), a fitting conclusion to the collection, takes on the ambitious task of formulating an explanation for the development of Greek democracy in the context of world history. After usefully setting out the challenges involved in such a project, Meier makes a fascinating, albeit skeletal, argument that it was the “creation and/or discovery of the political” in the Greek world that set the course toward democracy. Crucial in Meier’s analysis is the development of an independent intelligentsia “in search of a static and unchanging model of good order” (343), who, thanks to the abundance of individual cases provided by the poleis and to the example of the failure of tyranny, in time came to accept eunomia as the dominant concept of good order (344). This intellectual development, in company with a host of attendant factors, such as the small size and close proximity of communities, easily legible alphabet, common language, and hoplite military organization, “tended toward the political empowerment of the people” (346). In order to create this condition, “an artificial political order had to be created in opposition to the social one” (347), that is, isonomia. Meier’s article is original and visionary, and brings up a host of issues that will inspire students looking for research projects.

But perhaps the most pedagogically useful part of this collection will prove to be the set of contrasting approaches to writing the history of the reforms of Cleisthenes represented by the articles of David Lewis and Josiah Ober. In “Cleisthenes and Attica” (1963 (1997)), Lewis explains a number of unresolved problems with the epigraphic evidence for the Attic demes with the theory that Cleisthenes conceived the deme -system and gerrymandered its divisions in order to insure the political survival of the Alcmeonid clan. In “The Athenian Revolution of 508/7 B.C.” (1993 (1996)), Ober uses a close reading of the literary sources together with a model of political persuasion developed from speech-act theory to demonstrate that in the creation of the democracy “the primary historical agent was the Athenian demos, acting on its own initiative and without aristocratic leadership” (261). The two analyses privilege different kinds of evidence, make contradictory assumptions, and are vulnerable to different criticisms. On the one hand, Ober’s thesis is supported by a close reading and literal interpretation of the historical tradition. This source of evidence, ultimately deriving (or so it claims) from the assessment of an eyewitness, makes it possible to inquire in detail about matters of agency. Literary evidence can be criticized because it involves the subjective interpretations of an observer implicated in the social context of events and because it may include distortions deriving from the process of transmission and interpretation occurring at each historiographical level. On the other hand, Lewis bases his analysis on epigraphic, archaeological, and topographical evidence. Since this evidence does not testify directly to matters of agency, Lewis must assume (based on an elitist paradigm) that Cleisthenes was the prime mover. Yet rather than representing a flaw to be ascribed to a lack of theoretical self-reflection, Lewis’ assumption provides him with an analytical hook that makes it possible to form a hypothesis from the otherwise inexplicable evidence. Likewise, Ober’s assumptions, derived from democratic theory and speech theory, make it possible for him to explain the literary evidence, which otherwise must be ignored or treated lightly. In the end, while Ober’s and Lewis’ assumptions remain contradictory, the stories they tell based on those assumptions do not: Cleisthenes may indeed have found himself riding a wave of popular self-empowerment, but in the process he may also have found a way to insure the political relevance of his family through the arrangement of the trittyes. The point is that without embracing specific models of political action, it is unlikely that either Ober or Lewis could have learned what they did from the evidence. This observation would tend to argue for conceptual purity in basic analysis, but against theoretical dogmatism in general synthetic works.3 In my opinion, the possibility for interdisciplinary discovery afforded by this kind of juxtaposition represents one of the most exciting benefits of a collection like this.


1. See, for example, Halperin, D. 1990. “The Democratic Body.” in Halperin, ed. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality. New York, 88-112; Finley, M.I. 1959. “Was Greek civilization based on slave labour?” Historia 8, 145-64; and Osborne, R. 1995. “The economics and politics of slavery at Athens.” in A. Powell, ed. The Greek world. New York, 27-43.

2. Davies, J.K. 1981. Wealth and the power of wealth in classical Athens. New York.

3. For another deliberate comparison of the results of contradictory approaches to the analysis of a particular historical event, see the set of papers published in TAPA 132 (2002): Tieman, W. “‘Cause’ in History and the Amnesty at Athens: An Introduction” pp. 63-70; Quillin, J.M. “Achieving Amnesty: The Role of Events, Institutions, and Ideas” pp. 71-108; Wolpert, A. “Lysias 18 and Athenian Memory of Civil War” pp. 109-128; and Ober, J. “Social Science History, Cultural History, and the Amnesty of 403” pp. 127-138.