BMCR 2008.01.10

Eleusína: Théatro mias Antidrastikés Outopías

, Eleusina : theatro mias antidrastikēs outopias. Athens: Institouto tou Vivliou, A. Kardamitsa, 2006. xix, 207 pages ; 21 cm. ISBN 9603541885

The unwary reader might suppose, on the basis of the flamboyant title of this book (‘Eleusis: Scene of a Reactionary Utopia’), that it perhaps attempts to address matters of religious interest. In fact, however, this rather controversial volume is far from being a comprehensive discussion of Eleusinian mysticism and its various discontents, for the book is devoted only to the oligarchic state established at Eleusis in the wake of the restoration of Athenian democracy at the end of the fifth century BCE.

Anastasiadis (henceforth A.) focuses primarily on the notion of this exceptional oligarchic state situated within the Attic borders as a major separatist event in Athenian history. Although much of this bizarre short-lived episode is well-worn ground in spite of the ragged evidence, A. goes so far as to contest the traditional idea that the oligarchic self-ruling community at Eleusis was an abortive plan of mass emigration from the Athenian city — an excessive response, that is, to the rampant social divisiveness of the day and a welcome way of offering a safe haven for the antidemocratic dissidents.1 A. attempts to demonstrate that, even though most critics treat the Athenian polis of the fifth century BCE as a solid democratic community with the rare capacity to overcome political disenchantment in spite of the ever-existing tensions, the bitter disappointment at partisan excess and the growing feeling of dissatisfaction with the institutions of democracy during the turbulent war years not only paved the way for a twice-repeated oligarchic challenge in 411 and, more intensely, in 404 BCE, but also gave rise to an unprecedented pro-autonomy movement that found its most eloquent expression in the ephemeral reactionary state of Eleusis. The pocket of oligarchs at Eleusis, then, should not be seen as a peculiar, although inevitable incident of modest historical value generated by a concourse of terrible events, but as a genuine attempt at establishing an alternative regime within the Attic borders — a remarkable full-blown political and social experiment that signals a most serious fissure in the democratic management of the affairs of the state and for that reason goes to the heart of the Athenian dilemma over effective government and honest administration.

In the first chapter (pp. 1-26), A. examines Plato’s brief dialogue Crito in an effort to unearth important evidence of an Athenian ambivalence towards the prima facie indissoluble link between the citizen and the democratic administration. By placing special emphasis on Socrates’ courageous refusal to flee from prison before the capital sentence was executed, he suggests that self-imposed expatriation should not be merely treated as a gesture of utter desperation, an act of sheer folly, or even an unmistakable sign of absolute spinelessness, but rather as purposeful and politically meaningful. The upshot of A.’s case is twofold: that we should not hypothesize a complete absence of centrifugal tendencies in fifth-century Athens; and that we should reckon with the possibility that oligarchic groups entertained the idea of removing themselves from democratic jurisdiction. We cannot therefore exclude the possibility that the establishment of a sovereign community of oligarchic dissenters at Eleusis in the wake of the restoration of democratic order attests a pro-independence mentality that had already taken root in the Athenian city-state.

A caveat on such speculations is essential. One should highlight the obvious fact that the transient Eleusinian community of antidemocratic advocates is the only such occurrence worthy of note; even A. admits that the so-called oligarchic utopia at Eleusis presents itself as an exceptional instance of massive expatriation. In my view, the book’s point of departure looks like special pleading; in the following chapters, however, A. adds greatly to our understanding of the ousted oligarchs at Eleusis, because his fascination with the idea of Athenian separatism to some extent subsides and other exciting sides of the debate are gradually brought into sharper focus.

In the second chapter (pp. 27-67), A. turns his lens of enquiry to a wide range of primary and secondary sources of information about the oligarchic position at Eleusis. But on this point, as A. is quick to note, there is no explicit and unchallenged evidence for his thesis, and most scholars hold that the Eleusinian state acted simply as a provisional safe place, a temporary sanctuary for antidemocratic dissidents. It is no accident that modern commentators stress the importance of the reconciliation agreement of 403 BCE at Athens, a remarkable instance of political wisdom, and treat the oligarchic exodus to Eleusis as another phase in this difficult process of social reorganization in the face of acute civic acrimony.2 We are in the dark about the political conditions under which this peculiar assemblage of oligarchic militants operated; I see, however, no reason to doubt that it is extremely difficult for a community to organize itself sufficiently into a fully-fledged state over the span of two years. It is to A.’s credit that most pieces of available information are analyzed in detail; Xenophon, Diodorus Siculus and Aristotle’s Athenaion Politeia, among other ancient sources, offer an initial frame for considering the internal political history of the Eleusinian community of oligarchs. The crucial questions, however, remain, and it is regrettable that the author’s fixation on Athenian pro-self-rule policies throws them into the shade: can we see in any of these passages indisputable evidence of alternative polity that reflects a pro-home rule ambition and, if not, can we provide a wider perspective from which one would come to grips with the ideas this act of deliberate mass expatriation puts forward? It is my view that in no event of this tumultuous period is it so clearly manifest that the Athenians yearned for the cessation of hostilities and the termination of civil strife; it is not unreasonable to argue that the Athenian amnesty of 403 sought in earnest the purposeful forgetting of political divisions and, in this respect, tolerated, if only for a short time, the independent oligarchic community at Eleusis with the purpose of mitigating internal dissension and eliminating possible causes of further civil disunity.3 This chapter is thus a salutary reminder that there is still a place for theoretical works on the reconciliation agreement, which has not been fully explored.

The third chapter (pp. 68-125) is the real strength of the book, attaching even more weight to the internal politics of the Eleusinian gathering of hard-core oligarchs. The meticulous discussion goes some way towards compensating for the comparative neglect that this intriguing topic has suffered from modern commentators. But it must be remembered throughout, and at this critical juncture of the book A. is fully alert to the ensuing complexities arising from flights of interpretation, that the dearth of evidence with regard to the organization of the antidemocratic state at Eleusis militates against any attempt to offer general assertions and indisputable assurances. All this caution goes to show that the reconciliation convention developed out of a welter of contrasting passions and rivalling claims; the confused state of the existing sources and the almost complete lack of information regarding the internal history of the Eleusinian conclave of oligarchs underscores not only the muddled nature of the events but also the pressing need for the Athenian democracy to erase the past and promote a welcome façade of compromise and harmony. The leading thought of the analysis is that the extraordinary conditions under which the dissenters constructed their Eleusinian base eventually rendered impossible the creation of a firm and lasting foundation for military efficiency and civic unanimity. Limited financial means and inadequate manpower did not allow the oligarchic revolutionaries to build an independent political and social structure; it is no wonder that in less than two years the antidemocratic society at Eleusis became unstable and was then violently dismantled and subsequently integrated into the Athenian city. A. is right that it would be futile to attempt further conjecture about the system of governance at Eleusis on the strength of attested Spartan institutions; he presses the point that the implementation of foreign oligarchic prototypes was not in any way feasible given the inevitably corrosive effects of the shrinking economic resources and the severe population shortage.

In the last chapter (pp. 127-179), by treating separatism as directly comparable to exile, self-exile and voluntary emigration, A. hopes to bolster the value of his programmatic statement regarding the notion of the Eleusinian community of oligarchs as a reactionary movement of hardnosed advocates of political separation. Of far greater weight for understanding social confusion in Athens in the latter years of the fifth century is the author’s strong emphasis on the gradual waning of the people’s deep-seated feeling of commitment to the city-state and its principles. One is tempted to argue that the mass self-banishment of the oligarchs in 403 might have prompted further reflection on the nature and consequence of human values and the extent to which they are integrated into political agreements. So far as we can tell, the amnesty arrangement in the years following the breakdown of the regime of the Thirty recognized the need to inculcate such long-neglected democratic virtues as unity and tolerance.4

To sum up: even if the leading point the author advances does not often satisfy, he has a way of posing the problem in a challenging fashion; thus the reader will find himself forced to think again, and deeply, about issues he has taken for granted, especially with regard to questions involving end-of-the-war Athenian sensibility and patriotism. All in all, this book constitutes an extremely interesting though highly contentious study presented in stimulating form; the concise English summary at the end of the volume (pp. 199-207) makes it all the more valuable for the non-Greek-speaking reader.


1. On this tempestuous period of Athenian history with special reference to the oligarchic community at Eleusis, see (e.g.) C. Mossé, Athens in Decline 404-86 B.C., trans. J. Stewart (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973); E. Lévy, Athènes devant la défaite de 404. Histoire d’une crise idéologique (Paris: École française d’Athènes, 1976) ; B. S. Strauss, Athens after the Peloponnesian War: Class, Faction and Policy 403-386 BC (London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1986); M. Ostwald, From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law: Law, Society, and Politics in Fifth-Century Athens (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 337-524. Cf. also the perceptive commentary in P. Krentz, Xenophon Hellenika II.3.11-IV.2.8 (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1995), pp. 140-156.

2. On the compromise pledge of 403 in Athens, see principally T. C. Loening, The Reconciliation Agreement of 403/2 B.C. in Athens: Its Content and Application (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1987). Cf. also R. J. Buck, Thrasybulus and the Athenian Democracy: The Life of an Athenian Statesman (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1998). On recent insights, although at times rather speculative, see E. Carawan, “The Athenian Amnesty and the ‘Scrutiny of the Laws'”, Journal of Hellenic Studies 122 (2002), pp. 1-23 and “Amnesty and Accountings for the Thirty”, Classical Quarterly 56 (2006), pp. 57-76.

3. On the amnesty pact as a powerful means of public amnesia, see (e.g.) N. Loraux, Mothers in Mourning, with the essay “Of Amnesty and its Opposite” trans. C. Pache (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998) and The Divided City: On Memory and Forgetting in Ancient Athens, trans. C. Pache and J. Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2002); A. Wolpert, Remembering Defeat: Civil War and Civic Memory in Ancient Athens (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). On the Athenian end-of-the-war response to the events in the context of Greek tragedy, cf. also A. Markantonatos, Tragic Narrative: A Narratological Study of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2002), pp. 170-197 and Oedipus at Colonus: Sophocles, Athens, and the World (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2007), esp. pp. 167-193.

4. See recently the challenging discussions by W. Tieman, J. M. Quillin, A. Wolpert and J. Ober in the Transactions of the American Philological Association 132 (2002).