BMCR 2016.04.28

Les cités grecques (VIe-IIe siècle avant J.-C.): essai d’histoire sociale

, Les cités grecques (VIe-IIe siècle avant J.-C.): essai d'histoire sociale. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2015. 476. ISBN 9782130633624. €29.00 (pb).


The primary focus of this book is not immediately evident from its title. It is a social history of the Greek city-states, but one that makes a more focused and sustained case for the hierarchy and inequality that permeated Greek society. Drawing on recent approaches in the social sciences,1 the book describes the realities of life in the Greek world as a “système d’inégalités,” decidedly distant from the egalitarian ideal for which the author feels it is too often celebrated. In this sense, it seeks to counter the (diverse) current of scholarship that privileges the political egalitarianism of the democratic polis over the demonstrable inequalities of wealth, resources, and status. Roubineau does not explicitly engage with the arguments of specific scholars, referring generally to “penseurs modernes” (5) who assert this primacy of political egalitarianism in the Greek polis. This egalitarian viewpoint is not quite orthodoxy,2 but it has been influential, making a general and accessible presentation of an alternative perspective a welcome addition to the field of synthetic treatments of the social history of the Greek world.

The result bears some resemblance to a “daily life in ancient Greece,” but its systematic focus on hierarchy and inequality animates it with a quality that is often absent from works of this genre. Roubineau succeeds in presenting a synthesis that is accessible to the general reader without depriving it of argument and sophistication. The discussion approaches the topic synchronically, drawing on evidence from the sixth century down to mid second century B.C.E. In terms of his starting point, Roubineau sees two important developments dating to the late seventh to sixth centuries that contributed to the rise of this system: the emergence of widespread institutional slavery and the juridical definition of citizen status. As an endpoint, Roubineau prefers the mid second century (the now conventional beginning of the basse époque hellénistique), which he views as a more important turning point for the Greek polis than the battle of Chaironeia. The author draws on a wide array of source material, from the traditional literary sources to less commonly exploited epigraphic material. Inevitably, Athens still figures largely, but Roubineau gives the reader a sense of rich documentation from various parts of the Greek world, particularly the cities of Asia Minor. For the non-specialist, however, the cultural and political diversity of the Greek world is not made readily apparent by the work, and regional distinctions and diachronic developments are collapsed in favor of a synthetic presentation of a universalized “Greek city.”

The book explores the theme of inequality and social life across four parts, each dedicated to a pillar of this “system.” The first part (“Un système d’inégalités”) consists of three chapters (Ch. 1 “Le poids des statuts,” Ch. 2 “Bon genre et mauvais genre” and Ch. 3 “Liturges et mendiants”). With Finley, Roubineau sees status as a spectrum extending beyond the formal categories of slave-free-foreigner.3 Roubineau explores the gradations within these categories of slave (chattle slaves, dependent populations, public slaves) and of foreigner (e.g. from the transient visitor to the honored proxenos or recipient of fiscal privileges). Turning to the citizen body, the next two chapters investigate status and gender (including the position of prostitutes) and the barriers of birth and wealth. The final chapter has the particular merit of focusing attention on the issue of poverty, which is only beginning to receive due attention in the scholarship, particularly by a recent volume La pauvreté en Grèce ancienne, to which Roubineau also contributed.4

Part 2 (“Structures du quotidien et hiérarchies sociales”) turns to the material texture of everyday life, tracing the social distinctions and markers of status that permeated all aspects of society, from clothing (Ch. 4 “Costume et nudité”), to food (Ch. 5 “Culture de la faim et raffinement alimenaire”), to housing and funeral monuments (Ch. 6 “La maison et la tombe”). Moving beyond legal categories, Roubineau describes the ways in which each of these areas demarcated and reinforced the intricate hierarchy of Greek society. The discussion of the food and consumption is particularly rich, dealing variously with the ideology of consumption, the thorny problem of the frequency of famine and shortages in the Greek cities, and the day-to-day diets and habits of rich and poor. Drawing on useful anthropological and sociological perspectives, Roubineau identifies a “culture de la faim” that dominated the lives of poorer member of society and provides a detailed reading of Greek foodways as a reflection of social hierarchies.

Part 3 (“La fabrique des héritiers”) shifts much of the focus from the polis to the household, arguing that wealth, resources, and opportunities were closely guarded by marriage (Ch. 7 “Les enjeux du mariage”); reproduction, and thus the pattern of inheritance, (Ch. 8 “Le contrôle des naissances”); and education (Ch. 9 “L’éducation: l’oikos ou le bouclier”). The final chapter (Ch. 10 “La mobilité sociale: petits pas et opportunités”) reviews the evidence for social mobility, maintaining that there were only limited chances for the improvement of social standing, primarily through manumission, acquisition of citizen rights, or personal enrichment. Roubineau locates Greek society somewhere between “inert” primitive societies, marked by little to no social mobility, and modern societies with a much greater incidence of mobility, but ultimately stresses the degree to which the social order was designed to replicate itself and guard as much as possible against potential for the downward social mobility of elites.

The final part (Part 4 “La toile des liens sociaux”) provides a brief synthesis of typical forms of social organization (tribe, deme, phratry, etc.) in Ch. 11 (“Formes et niveaux de sociabilité”) before turning to a more interpretive discussion of the level of mutual aid and solidarity in the final chapter (Ch. 12 “La cité égoïste: communauté, solidarité, et aide sociale”). Drawing a sharp contrast between the egalitarian ideals of the democratic polis and the underlying realities, Roubineau pointedly labels the polis a “cité égoïste.” By this he means that there were few institutional structures in place to provide for the poor outside of the maintenance of war orphans or those maimed in battle. In order to mitigate against risk, individuals had to turn to ones family, those bound by ties of philia, or private associations.

A brief conclusion and historiographical appendix (“Histoire ancienne et histoire sociale” 397-403) review the main trends in social history (mainly French) of the past two centuries. Thirty line drawings, mainly of vase paintings, accompany the main text, along with a brief index of place names, and a select bibliography. The book draws on the author’s more specialized studies, and the reader is referred to these in a section entitled “Sources” at the end of the text. With its lively and accessible prose, full translations, and clear notes (directing the reader to a wide variety of primary sources and the essential secondary literature), the book is of particular use to students and to scholars in other disciplines seeking a synthetic overview of the social history of the Greek world. Specialists will find much familiar ground here but also a stimulating and provocative view of the ancient Greek world.


1. Particularly the work of A. Bihr and R. Pfefferkorn, Le système des inégalités. Paris: La Découverte, coll. « Repères – Sociologie », 2008.

2. For a notable critique, see e.g. L. Foxhall, “Access to resources in classical Greece: the egalitarianism of the polis in practice” in P. Cartledge et al., eds., Money, Labour and Land: Approaches to the Economies of Ancient Greece. London and New York, 2002, 209-20.

3. The Athenian case has recently been explored in depth by D. Kamen, Status in Classical Athens. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013.

4. E. Galbois, S. Rougier-Blanc (ed.), La pauvreté en Grèce ancienne: formes, représentations, enjeux. Scripta antiqua, 57. Bordeaux: Ausonius Éditions, 2013.