BMCR 2005.04.03

Rural Athens Under the Democracy

, Rural Athens under the democracy. EBL-Schweitzer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xiv, 330 pages).. ISBN 0812202376. $59.95.

In Rural Athens Under the Democracy, Nicholas Jones has given us an ambitious, thoughtful study of Attika outside the ἄστυ proper. For him, the city walls were more than defensive architecture; they also divided Attika into distinct cultural zones characterized by different settlement patterns, modes of social organization, and physical Realien. The rural culture was historically prior to the urban one, with limited mixing between the two before the Peloponnesian War. But the pressure of annual Spartan invasions and the resulting migration within the walls led to a mingling of mores which found expression in a variety of elite representations constructing “the Rural” for a largely urban audience. J. pursues primarily epigraphical and literary approaches in attempting to study rural Athens from an unusual vantage point: its own. The book follows naturally from the author’s earlier The Associations of Classical Athens: The Response to Democracy (Oxford, 1999); both works try to illuminate marginalized Others thrust into shadow by the dominant urban democracy. J. addresses a variety of topics touching on his theme: the location of rural homes; the role of deme centers; rural patronage structures; “agrarian” festivals of Dionysos; the diet, clothing, speech, and religion of country folk; and representations of the Rural in Old and New Comedy, and in philosophical works (especially Plato). Overall the work is clearly a success, and contains many valuable contributions to the field.

Nevertheless, some of J.’s conclusions will find more acceptance than others. Sometimes the question is one of emphasis. Does the evidence presented suffice to substantiate J.’s claim that “a consistent state of estrangement, alienation, even hostility” (14) characterized rural/urban relations? And was it truly the case that “when the rural resident passed through a gate of the Themistoclean fortifications and came into contact with the dominant cultures of the intramural populations, nothing less than a thoroughgoing inversion of all that was familiar, accepted, and valued was in the offing?” (14) This reader for one would prefer a middle ground: that important differences and tensions between town and country certainly existed but that shared experiences such as military expeditions, service on the βουλή, and attendance at deme functions had more of a unifying effect than J. allows. At other times, J. may not do full justice to the complexities of historical causation. For instance, the Spartan incursions during the Peloponnesian War were undoubtedly an important factor behind the increased mixing of rural and urban cultures. Yet the rise of Athens as an imperial city earlier in the fifth century and the increased economic opportunities it thus offered must also have played some part. And demographic trends, the development of μετοικία as a distinct status, and the introduction of Perikles’ citizenship law are likely to have some bearing on the question as well.

J.’s arguments depend heavily on the geographical location of demes in relation to the city’s walls and not the type of Kleisthenic trittys (coast, plain, city) to which they were assigned. He classifies each of the 139 demes as either intramural (Kollytos, Kydathenaion, Skambonidai, Melite, Koile) or extramural (all the rest). Nevertheless, he is sensitive to nuance: some nominally extramural demes (e.g. Piraeus, Thorikos, Eleusis, Rhamnous) had certain urban characteristics, while some intramural demes supported a limited amount of agriculture.1 In general, though, the farther a deme was from the ἄστυ, the more rural it was. J. also grants that there were individuals with a foot in both rural and urban camps; however, he characterizes them as an atypical wealthy elite “with access to exceptional means of mobility, education, and social contact.” (14)

Within this analytic framework, Ch. 1 takes up the question of rural settlement patterns. J. scrutinizes a variety of epigraphical records, focusing most fruitfully on security ὅροι. These markers identified buildings/structures and plots of land encumbered by debt. J. classifies them according to both type and deme and finds a significant pattern: within the city there were numerous markers encumbering structures without land, but in the extramural demes (apart from a few instances from Eleusis and Rhamnous, and a special case from Teithras) there were none. He therefore sides with Langdon and others against Osborne: rural Athenian landowners regularly lived on their land in isolated homesteads, and not in nucleated villages such as deme centers.2 J.’s control of the material here is admirable, although two caveats deserve mention. First, as J. acknowledges, his classification of ὅροι by deme relies heavily on their potentially arbitrary provenience and not internal textual evidence. Second, while his study focuses on the period of the democracy, i.e. 508/7-322/1 B.C., the datable ὅροι cover a significantly later period, namely 363/2-184/3. Thus, while his discussion is thorough and convincing, his conclusions ultimately rest on a premise of continuity in settlement patterns extending well into the post-classical period.

Ch. 2 argues for the existence in rural Attika of a patronage system along the lines of the patronus/cliens model familiar from ancient Rome. Drawing on Burford’s findings that most farms were 60 plethra or less, and that the largest known was 300, J. claims that landholdings in ancient Attika were (pace Hanson) generally characterized by inequality and that the average smallholders were subsistence farmers working roughly 55 hectares.3 As such, they were susceptible not only to crises such as flood and drought but to regular periodic shortages of labor as well. In the face of such circumstances they resorted to buffering and risk-minimizing strategies (à la Gallant and Cox) and also to “vertical integration.”4 Kimon’s patronage of the Lakiadai is a prominent example of this practice. J.’s primary evidence here comes from honorary deme decrees. The vast majority of these inscriptions are extramural, and fully 75% of the honorands are prosperous men who are praised for their φιλοτιμία. By contrast, most honorary inscriptions at the tribal level celebrate men who held polis-wide office. From this J. concludes that extramural demes were characterized by a different sort of patronage system from intramural demes. Residents of the former offered their support to local “big men” in exchange for assistance, whereas urban dwellers had a wider range of state-sponsored options for support. Despite their similarities, rural communities were far from identical. Ch. 3 offers four case studies that demonstrate the considerable diversity obtaining among rural demes of various sizes and locations. Based on an analysis of surviving decrees from Akharnai, Aixone, Halai Aixonides, and Teithras, J. defines a typical rural deme thus: given enough distance from the ἄστυ, it tended to be a “cohesive, internally focused community acknowledging the priority of village over individual and household.” (121)

Ch. 4 examines one of the events central to life in many rural demes, the “Agrarian” (J. prefers the term to “Rural”) Dionysia held during the month of Posideion. He argues for the rural roots of the festival and attempts to reconstruct its early particulars. On his view the original celebration included events like jumping on a greased and inflated goatskin and hopping on one leg. In time the festival made its way within the city walls, where it took on more of an urban flavor, including agonistic competitions. It subsequently was reintroduced to the countryside in its altered form and celebrated in larger rural demes spaced fairly evenly throughout Attika. This rural-urban-rural model of transmission and transformation is intriguing and seems plausible. Si parua licet componere magnis, consider for a moment an ostensibly rural phenomenon dear to the American midwest and west, namely rodeo. Here too we find a festival of local origin that celebrates rural pursuits associated with animals, fertility, and slapstick/buffoonish humor (to say nothing of public consumption of cheap and fatty meats). In time these events move to urban/suburban locales with different audiences and undergo various changes (the addition of advertising, a shift in emphasis among events, alteration in the role of the clowns, the addition of amplified music of a different genre). And it is then the urbanized, retrofitted version of the festival which is brought back into rural locations by troupes of traveling performers.

Ch. 5, entitled “Realities,” seeks to establish “the fundamental ‘otherness’ of extramural Attica.” (159) J. examines differences between rural and urban residents with regard to diet and dress, speech and religion. His findings here are well-supported, if not entirely surprising. Like their urban brethren, country folk subsisted largely on cereals, legumes, olive oil, wine, cheese, vegetables, and fruits, with occasional portions of meat and fish. Although they enjoyed greater access to wild foods, they had less access to imported items. When it came to clothing, agrarian residents again made more use of local products, often employing items made from animal skins (e.g. caps, himatia with sheepskin fringes, leather corselets, goatskin sandals); by contrast, urban residents wore more woolens produced on looms.5 With regard to speech, J. argues that rural residents tended to speak in distinctive ways and that on the whole they were less literate than their urban counterparts. On his view the epigraphical records of rural demes provide support for the view that the terms ἄγροικος and ἀγράμματος were largely synonymous. Many honorary decrees contain clauses calling for them “to be read aloud to an audience assembled in the theater in the deme for a religious festival” (180), thus ensuring their transmission to the illiterate. Moreover, similarities among decrees from different rural demes suggest the strong possibility of direct “urban [i.e., polis] governmental intervention.” (181)

One conspicuous omission from J.’s chapter on “Realien” is an account of any differences between the rural and the urban economies. Even if rural folk were primarily subsistence farmers engaged mostly in barter, many of them still had substantive financial dealings. After all, the ὅροι crucial to Ch. 1 show that important rural debts and assets were denominated in drachmas and thus part of a monetarized economy. The leasing of their lands likewise enmeshed rural associations in the financial system of greater Attika. And, at an individual level, every citizen farmer was subject to conscription and thus eligible for military pay; such service may have fallen disproportionately on rural dwellers (Ar. Peace 1185-1186). Thus one question relevant to J.’s entire inquiry is the extent to which the economy of rural Attika was monetarized. How did it participate in the development and spread of coinage? What were the particulars of its ties to the city economy? And how did it relate to the development of the κάπηλος mentalité traced by Kurke and others?6 While one may perhaps infer J.’s views on some of these questions, more explicit argument would be welcome. But, rather than focus on economic factors, J. prefers to locate the primary rural/urban divide in a multi-faceted cultural “conservatism” (186) that stood in contrast to the dependence of city dwellers on the polis and its institutions. In rural Attika, “shame, honor, prestige stood at the apex of the Gemeinschaft so uncompromisingly threatened by the Gesellschaft of Athens’ intramural conurbations.” (190)

Ch. 6 examines literary representations of rural life. The title’s chapter, “Images,” reflects J.’s view that these representations are fundamentally creations of the town: they reflect not so much reality as urbanites’ views (and caricatures) of the Rural presented for the entertainment of other urbanites. For instance, in Aristophanes’ Clouds“the play’s prevailing mood is one of urban hostility to a recognizably real, hardly idealizing, characterization of rural experience and sensibility.” (202) In the Oikonomikos, Xenophon’s choice of Socrates as interlocutor marks the perspective of Iskhomakhos, of the dialogue, and ultimately of the author himself as urban. And Theophrastos’ Rusticity ( ἀγροικία, Kharakteres 4), clearly a rural farmer of some substance, is viewed through an urban lens: “the author seems to assume that all readers are urban, and that the urbanite’s attitude toward ruralists is such that the specific behaviors ascribed to them are so laughable as to require no explicit characterization or commentary.” (213) J. recognizes that there were indeed points of contact between country folk and city folk and that the very existence of images of the “Rural” implies a certain amount of mobility and mutual acquaintance. However, on his view the traveling was done mostly by ruralites whose trips to town were “like the visits to the zoo in Pittsburgh by local Amish or Mennonite rural families — a relatively rare occurrence likely to attract stares and musings on cultural differences.” (214) By contrast, Menander’s Dyskolos is a rara avis offering a portrait of rural life as seen from its own vantage point. While J.’s discussion of the literary evidence is invariably insightful, here too there is somewhat of a lacuna, for he makes scant mention of ways in which the countryside is presented in comedy’s dramatic sibling, tragedy. Yet passages such as the Ode to Colonos ( OC 668-719), the Ode to Man ( Antigone 332-375), the progress narrative of Prometheus Bound (440-470), and the pervasive agricultural metaphors (plowing, domestication of animals) found in the Antigone and OT suggest the ability of the genre to contribute to (and potentially complicate) J.’s argument.

Ch. 7, “Philosophy,” examines the approaches taken to the “Rural” by Hippodamos, Phaleas of Kalchedon, Aristotle, and, above all, Plato. J. relies on biographical information to suggest that,”like many of his peers, Plato may have been an urban-dwelling absentee landlord.” (240) The settings of his dialogues are “conspicuously topographic, monumental, public . . . occasionally out of doors . . . Athenian, and above all, urban.” (241) Even the famous outing with Phaidros along the banks of the Ilissos leaves Socrates near the walls of the ἄστυ : philosophy is a thoroughly urban affair. The bulk of the chapter examines the “social topography” of the Republic, Kritias, and Laws. J.’s main argument is that Plato connects the evolution of human society to changes in prevailing “socioeconomic regimes” (266); these changes are in turn dictated primarily by shifts in settlement patterns. As people move from mountains to foothills, foothills to plains, and plains to coast, they progress from pastoralism to agriculture and then commerce, long-distance trade, and empire.

In conclusion, Rural Athens Under the Democracy is an exemplary work of scholarship that is well worth reading. Its ability to combine epigraphical and literary evidence is particularly impressive, and its thesis is provocative and important. While individual readers may be less than fully convinced by some of J.’s claims, all will come away from this fine work with a far better understanding of what rural life in ancient Attika really entailed.


1. J. is particularly indebted to David Whitehead, The Demes of Attica, Princeton, 1986.

2. Merle Langdon, “On the Farm in Classical Attica,” Classical Journal 86 (1990-91): 209-213; Robin Osborne, “Buildings and Residence on the Land in Classical and Hellenistic Greece: The Contributions of Epigraphy,” Annals of the British School at Athens 80 (1985): 119-128.

3. Alison Burford, Land and Labor in the Greek World, Baltimore, 1993; Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization, New York, 1995.

4. Thomas Gallant, Risk and Survival in Ancient Greece: Reconstructing the Rural Domestic Economy, Stanford, 1991; Cheryl Cox, Household Interests, Princeton, 1998.

5. Maria Pipili, “Wearing an Other Hat: Workmen in Town and Country,” in Beth Cohen, Not the Classical Ideal: Athens and the Construction of the Other in Greek Art, Leiden, 2000: 153-179. In some respects this article serves J. as a model for what he hopes to accomplish on a broader scale.

6. Leslie Kurke, Coins, Bodies, Games and Gold: The Politics of Meaning in Archaic Greece, Princeton, 1999.