BMCR 2007.03.41

Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece. With chapters by Paul Cartledge and Cynthia Farrar

, , , Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece. With chapters by Paul Cartledge and Cynthia Farrar. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. xii, 242. $34.95.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Rather more than ten years after the celebration, in 1993, of the 2500th anniversary of the reforms of Cleisthenes, Raaflaub,1 one of those involved in the debates prompted by that celebration, has assembled a team of scholars to consider once more the origins of Greek democracy, trying to retain an awareness of the on-going processes of development, not only in Athens but in Greece as a whole, while focusing particularly on the three ‘ruptures’ in Athens associated with Solon, Cleisthenes and Ephialtes.

Raaflaub in ch. 1 looks back at the debates of the 1990’s, at the essentials of the Athenian democracy of the late fifth and fourth centuries, and at the problems of the evidence (and the shortage of it) for the period before c. 450. He stresses that the Athenians ‘own the copyright’ for the word ‘democracy’, but that the democracies of the modern world are significantly different from, and not direct descendants of, ancient Greek democracies; and he notes that in connection with ancient Greece scholars disagree (and the contributors to this book will disagree) on the point at which the label ‘democracy’ first becomes appropriate. He ends by emphasising the need to do justice both to the long-term development and to the particular ruptures.

In ch. 2 Raaflaub and Wallace survey the evidence for ‘”People’s Power” and Egalitarian Trends in Archaic Greece’. After beginning with the seventh-century law of Drerus in which ‘the polis‘ decides to limit repeated tenure of the office of kosmos (ML 2, trans. Fornara 11), they look at Homeric society, emphasising the importance of the ordinary people both in armies and in assemblies, and at Hesiod, who was or represented himself as ‘a voice from the people’. They then consider the communitarian nature of hoplite fighting (with competition among the elite diverted to athletics), and the military and political egalitarianism adopted by seventh-century Sparta (stressing that the Great Rhetra anticipates Aeschylus’ Supplices in combining demos and kratos, but that in Sparta obedience triumphed over freedom). More briefly they then look at the anti-aristocratic effect of tyranny and of the movements which led to the downfall of tyrants, at colonisation, the development of written laws, and social action and association. Whether the phenomena should be described as democratic (notably, by E. W. Robinson2) or as pre-democratic, archaic Greece certainly laid suitable foundations for the building of democracy.

Next come three chapters focused on the three major ruptures in Athens’ political development, those associated with Solon, Cleisthenes and Ephialtes. Wallace in ch. 3 mentions Solon in his title and places Solon in the centre of the chapter, but ranges widely: Athens’ development is outlined from Cylon to Ephialtes and Pericles, and developments in other cities in the seventh and sixth centuries are brought into the picture. Wallace’s main claim is that popular demands and political awareness were not a fifth-century innovation but can be detected from an early stage, and not only in Athens; that ‘popular revolutions upturning aristocracies and kings roiled [a favourite word of his, but new to me] many communities’. In Athens he attributes an active role to the demos in the resistance to Cylon, the appointment of Draco as lawgiver, the appointment of Solon when ‘the people rose against the notables’ (‘Solon was not attempting to politicize the people. His poems show that they were politicized already’), the backing of Pisistratus’ bids for tyranny, and Cleisthenes’ winning over of the demos (and he accepts Ober’s account, below, of the demos‘ active role on that occasion). The demos was not interested in day-to-day affairs, but it made ‘decisive interventions’ at critical moments — and finally, after the establishment of the Delian League, interest and involvement in day-to-day politics did become worthwhile for the demos.

Ober in ch. 4 argues, as he has argued before,3 for the significance of the rupture of 508/7, and for an unorthodox interpretation of it. Avoiding what he calls ‘individualist, institutionalist, and foundationalist premises’, he claims that the natural interpretation of Herodotus’ and Ath. Pol.‘s accounts of 508/7 is that Cleomenes was defeated by a spontaneous, leader-less uprising of the Athenian demos, and that Cleisthenes did not so much create the new order on his own initiative as respond to the desire of the awakened demos (which included both hoplites and thetes). He goes on to stress the victory of the citizen army over the Chalcidians and Boeotians c. 506, after the Peloponnesian arm of the attack organised by Cleomenes had collapsed; the institution of ostracism as a controlled ‘annual reperformance of the revolutionary moment’; and the building of the new fleet, and after the Persian Wars the creation of the empire, as signs that the citizens were already willing to trust even the thetes among them with military power.

Raaflaub in ch. 5 locates ‘the breakthrough of demokratia‘ in the mid fifth century. He argues that the term demokratia was coined in Athens about the 460’s, and that the reform of Ephialtes in 462/1 and the subsequent changes down to c. 450 not merely completed the development of the democracy but brought about a fundamental (and controversial) change in the position of the ordinary citizens in the state, and that this came about because Athens was attempting a foreign policy of a kind which no Greek state had attempted before, and was relying on a navy manned by the thetes to campaign not just in occasional emergencies but year after year. Solon, we know from his poems, had given to the people ‘as much esteem as is sufficient for them’, thinking that ‘This is how the people will best follow their leaders, if they are neither unleashed nor restrained too much’ (frs. 5 and 6 West ap. Ath. Pol. 12. i-ii). (Eccentrically, Raaflaub speculates that the four census classes with defined qualifications for membership were established not by Solon but in the mid fifth century.4) It is extracting too much from the texts to suppose, as Ober does, that Cleisthenes was responding to a spontaneously revolutionary demos, and it is unlikely that the thetes were important in the demos of Cleisthenes’ time. Both Solon and Cleisthenes were important in the development of Athens, but it was only in and after 462/1, Raaflaub maintains, that Athens became fully democratic. Except on the census classes, this is a view of Athens’ development with which I am in general agreement.

The book ends with chapters by two guest contributors, invited to reflect on what has gone before. The first, ch. 6, is by Cartledge. After stressing the differences between ancient and modern democracies, and the need to read our source texts in their ‘situational-rhetorical context’, he agrees with Raaflaub on the fifth-century coinage of demokratia, but regards the dispensation of Cleisthenes as the first, ‘however inchoate’, democracy, and that of Ephialtes as ‘a different, more evolved democracy’. Solon, he thinks, can at best be considered proto-democratic; and the regime established in 403 (seen by W. Eder as the true consummation of democracy5), was quantitatively more democratic but not so different in kind as to justify the denial of the word to earlier regimes. I agree both with M. H. Hansen that Greek poleis were ‘states’ and with Cartledge (p. 157) that, because the citizens were the polis, the notion that individual citizens might need to be protected against the state did not arise;6 and I agree with Farrar (pp. 178-9) against Cartledge (p. 161) that, despite its direct involvement of the citizens and its lack of a modern-style bureaucracy, Athens was not a ‘face-to-face’ community as smaller poleis, or smaller units within Athens, were.7

Finally we have Farrar’s ch. 7. She too regards the Cleisthenic rupture as the crucial one (and she endorses Ober’s interpretation of it), while granting that it was not until the time of Ephialtes that ‘full popular control of the institutions of government’ was achieved, and arguing that in and after 403 the democracy was reaffirmed, with new institutions to protect it against subversion by members of the elite. She sees as the essential Athenian achievement a middle way between some kind of imposed rule and the anarchy of unrestrained popular rule, and she then asks what modern liberal democracies might learn from Athens. As others have done, she contrasts the direct involvement of the Athenian citizens in governance with modern states’ reliance on full-time politicians and professional administrators. She notes the increasing use nowadays of referenda, opinion polls and the like, but considers them ‘neither demanding nor civic-minded’; she finds more promising British Columbia’s empanelling of a random sample of citizens to draft proposals for electoral reform and participation; and she suggests that a system for consulting random samples of citizens at local level may offer the greatest promise. She notes that both Cleisthenes’ reform, for Ober, and Ephialtes’ reform, for Raaflaub, involved the exploitation of a tectonic shift which was not artificially manufactured but was already occurring, and she concludes by asking whether such a tectonic shift, inviting exploitation, may be occurring in our world now.

In one sense this is a book which covers familiar ground. The reasons for and the stages in the development of the Athenian democracy have attracted plenty of scholarly attention; and in North America, more than elsewhere, looking to Athens for lessons for today has become a fashionable exercise. The contributors to this book do not offer anything startlingly new but present revised versions of cases which they have argued before. What is new about this book is that it is neither the single-minded expression of one author’s point of view nor the disjointed aggregation of separate studies which we find all too often in conference volumes, but an attempt by a group of scholars with shared interests and different emphases to engage constructively with one another’s views, in order not to iron out the disagreements or to campaign militantly for their own positions but to provide a stimulating interaction. The ‘wider public’ envisaged as part of the readership (p. 3) may find some of the material heavy going, but for students and their teachers this book provides rich food for thought.

Table of contents

Ch. 1 (pp. 1-21): K. A. Raaflaub, ‘Introduction’.

Ch. 2 (pp. 22-48): K. A. Raaflaub & R. W. Wallace, ‘”People’s Power” and Egalitarian Trends in Archaic Greece’.

Ch. 3 (pp. 49-82): R. W. Wallace, ‘Revolutions and a New Order in Solonian Athens and Archaic Greece’.

Ch. 4 (pp. 83-104): J. Ober, ‘”I Besieged That Man”: Democracy’s Revolutionary Start’.

Ch. 5 (pp. 105-54): K. A. Raaflaub, ‘The Breakthrough of Demokratia in Mid-Fifth-Century Athens’.

Ch. 6 (pp. 155-69): P. Cartledge, ‘Democracy, Origins of: Contribution to a Debate’.

Ch. 7 (pp. 170-95): C. Farrar, ‘Power to the People’.


1. For Raaflaub as the originator of this project see p. 20 n. 4.

2. E. W. Robinson, The First Democracies: Early Popular Government Outside Athens ( Historia Einzelschriften 107. Stuttgart: Steiner, 1997).

3. First in ‘The Athenian Revolution of 508/7 B.C.E.: Violence, Authority, and the Origins of Democracy’, in C. Dougherty & L. Kurke (edd.), Cultural Poetics in Ancient Greece (Cambridge University Press, 1993, 215-32; revised with an introduction in Ober, The Athenian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1996), 32-52.

4. Cf. his ‘Athenian and Spartan Eunomia, or: What to Do with Solon’s Timocracy?’, in J. H. Blok & A. P. M. H. Lardinois (edd.), Solon of Athens: New Historical and Philological Approaches ( Mnemosyne Supp. 272. Leiden: Brill, 2006), 390-428 at 404-21.

5. W. Eder, ‘Die athenische Demokratie im 4. Jahrhundert v. Chr.: Krise oder Vollendung?’ in Eder (ed.), Die athenische Demokratie im 4. Jahrhundert v. Chr.: Vollendung oder Verfall einer Verfassungsform? (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1995), 11-28.

6. M. H. Hansen, ‘Was the Polis a State or a Stateless Society?’ in T. H. Nielsen (ed.), Even More Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis ( Historia Einzelschriften 162. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2002), 17-48; Cartledge follows M. Berent, ‘The Stateless Polis: Towards a Re-evaluation of the Classical Greek Community’ (Cambridge: Ph.D. thesis, 1994).

7. Cartledge follows M. I. Finley, Democracy, Ancient and Modern (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973), 17; that view was rejected by R. Osborne, Demos: The Discovery of Classical Attika (Cambridge University Press, 1985), 64-5.