BMCR 2013.01.12

Response: Gabriel Herman and Shimon Epstein on Forsdyke on Herman (ed.), Stability and Crisis in the Athenian Democracy

Response to 2012.10.37

Response by

I am grateful to Sara Forsdyke for her thoughtful review of my edited volume, and especially for her acceptance of my claim that the widespread practice of scrutinizing Athens through a narrow, unexamined lens of current Western mores is methodologically unsound.1 Forsdyke finds ‘unobjectionable’ my suggestion that we should strive to pass moral judgments on Athens according to standards that transcend our personal experiences and perspectives, approving even of my contention that, looked at this way, the treatment of women in ancient Greece appears less unfair, and the attitude to slaves less cruel, than generally assumed in research. Forsdyke even goes so far as to acknowledge that ‘Athens clearly was exceptional in many regards, even by comparison to some modern states’, which seems to be a welcome volte-face, in view of the longstanding habit of characterizing Athens with less favorable adjectives.

However, three points in Forsdyke’s review need to be addressed. First, she writes that in my 2006 book,2 I extended the argument for Athenian exceptionality ‘in ways that minimize the extent of violence and extra-legal conflict in classical Athens’, thus simplifying Athenian reality in ways that are ‘unsatisfying’. Forsdyke claims that since popular forms of justice and extra-legal forms of violence coexisted with the formal legal system, Athens was less stable and less ‘great’ than presented in our volume.

I must state for the record that, so far from minimizing the amount of violence in classical Athens, the premise that ‘there must have been plenty’ was the starting point of my discussion of the subject,3 and that, so far from simplifying Athenian reality, extra-legal measures such as self-help, ‘conducting away’, punishments carried out in private, popular forms of justice and magical means for harming enemies figure prominently in my book.4

As to the issue at hand, it does not really matter whether violence and extra-legal means for solving differences existed; what matters is their volume and scope. To put it another way, to undermine the argument for Athens’ greatness and stability, it must be demonstrated that such ‘shortcomings’ were sufficiently strong to disrupt political order. Insofar as I am aware, the evidence for such a demonstration for democratic Athens does not exist.5 In my book Morality and Behaviour, I tried to identify some of the destabilizing forces that could have endangered that democracy’s existence. These included the antagonism between the citizen elite and a large population of discontented slaves, the antagonism between the rich and poor, and that between oligarchs and democrats.6 Features of the sort listed by Forsdyke – popular forms of justice, extra-institutional rituals of protest and street theaters – were omitted simply because there was no indication whatsoever that they formed a threat to the city’s stability. Add to this the fact that Athens was remarkably free from vendettas, blood feuds, duels, private armies,7 and that the cry for the abolition of debts and the redistribution of land was never heard, and you’ll be bound to reach the conclusion that its characterization as stable and ‘great’ may be retained notwithstanding the features pointed out by Forsdyke.

Second, Forsdyke finds ironic the fact that our volume (the central conclusion of which is that ‘Athens enjoyed “unusual stability’’) is dedicated to the memory of Alexander Fuks, a scholar whose work focused ‘in large part on the study of revolution and social unrest in ancient Greece’. However, in Fuks’ view only the Hellenistic Age was rife with revolution.8 The Classical Age was ‘a time of balance and tranquility ’,9 in which ‘the striving for economic and social change was merely a marginal phenomenon ’.10 Athens, moreover, was absent from the map of social economic movements even in the Hellenistic Age.11 To put it another way, Fuks’s conclusions in this respect neatly match our own.

Shimon Epstein will now respond directly to the third point:

Forsdyke writes that I argued in my article that one of the reasons for the relative harmony in Athens was ‘the fact that the Assembly was attended by only a fraction of the entire citizen population, and that fraction rarely corresponded neatly to the socio-economic or other divisions of the citizenry’. I meant, however, something rather different. My argument was that minority attendance of the Assembly, and the systematic under- or over- representation of certain civic groups, could raise doubts concerning the legitimacy of democratic decisions. Athenian democrats countered that problem by playing down the level of divergence that existed between those civic groups and by creating a fiction of harmony and unity of interests and behaviour.12 This fiction acted as a stabilizing force in both the fifth and fourth centuries.


1. G. Herman, ‘The Problem of Moral Judgment in Modern Historical Writing on Ancient Greece’, in the volume under review, pp. 45-66.

2. G. Herman, Morality and Behaviour in Democratic Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

3. Herman (above, n. 2), p. 206. The issue of violence is discussed at pp. 206-15.

4. Herman (above, n. 2), pp. 234-38 ( boethein sauto and apagoge); pp. 292-93: apotympanismos carried out in private: p. 305 (scapegoat ritual); p. 322 (curse tablets).

5. Aristotle lists private feuds as a potential cause of stasis, but it might be significant that his examples come from cities other than Athens (e. g. Pol. 1303 b18ff, 1306 a35ff).

6. Herman (above, n. 2), esp. pp. 72-80 and 277-78.

7. Cf. Herman (above, n. 2.), pp. 206-215.

8. Alexander Fuks, ‘Patterns and types of social-economic revolution in Greece from the fourth to the second century B.C.’, Ancient Society V (1974), 51-81, reprinted in Social Conflict in Ancient Greece (Jerusalem and Leiden, 1984: The Magnes Press and E.J. Brill), edited (posthumously) by Menahem Stern and Moshe Amit, pp. 9-39, at p. 9.

9. Fuks, Social Conflict (above, n. 8), p. 12, my italics.

10. Alexander Fuks, ‘Social revolution in Greece in the Hellenistic Age’, La Parola del Passato CXI (1966), 437-448, repr. in Fuks, Social Conflict (above, n. 8), p. 41, my italics.

11. Fuks, Social Conflict (above, n. 8), p. 43, n. 3.

12. S. Epstein, ‘Direct Democracy and Minority Rule: The Athenian Assembly in its Relation to the Demos’, in the volume under review, pp. 145-174, at p. 147.