BMCR 2020.11.17

The discourse of kingship in classical Greece

, The discourse of kingship in classical Greece. Routledge monographs in classical studies. London; New York: Routledge, 2019. Pp. vii, 242. ISBN 9780367205300 $112.00.

“Let us again praise virtue for a king.” So said Philodemus, in the middle of the first century BCE, praising his patron Piso. Oswyn Murray saw the treatise as a careful naturalization of the virtues of heroic and noble kingship even though kingship did not exist at Rome, an intensely oligarchic world but one teetering on the brink of brutal despotism. Murray hints at the fundamental deceit; the examples are of heroes camped outside Troy, warriors but not bellicose, counsellors not rivals. By the time of Horace, the reality is clear; the Greeks suffer for their princes’ folly, their mutiny, treachery, injustice, lust, and rage.[1]

Atack’s elegant and clever book situates itself amid recent discussions of kingship, from Graeber and Sahlins to Strathern.[2] It focuses on texts from Herodotus to Aristotle, between the Homeric king and the late Hellenistic period of Philodemus. The focus is Greek even when speaking of foreign kings, and notwithstanding Atack’s impressive awareness of the huge literature on external kings in their own contexts (and bibliography in general). It takes a more historical approach than Lynnette Mitchell’s survey, but shares the insistence that kingship could be exemplary.[3] This focus has enabled a sharp and coherent argument about discursive strategies on the position of kingship within the classical polis. Although the organization is by groups of texts in a chronological order, three key themes form a broad structure; the king between historical reality and cosmic principle, between historiography and myth, and between virtue and vice.

Atack’s analysis of Herodotus emphasises his positive approaches to kingship, Greek and otherwise. Kings possess a specific beneficent role, within the constraints of nomos, to bring political unity and stability. This reflects the cosmic significance of kingship in several cultures and is distinct from tyranny which flouts nomos and is not true kingship. Whereas Mitchell positioned the argument between basileia and tyrannis as a characterization dependent on context not essence, Atack argues that Herodotus distinguished them as essentially different. (Atack does not treat Herodotus’ account of Pisistratus in detail, but it would be interesting to read along these lines). She also touches only briefly on queens, who often have a ‘special status as knowers’ (20), distinctively stronger and more sagacious than tyrants and indeed some kings. Female regality is an intriguing notion, especially within a cosmic framework, and even these brief comments are thought-provoking.

Atack turns to theatre. It has long been noted that the democratic kings of tragedy are a surprise. Were they simply gestures at Pericles? Atack must be right to reject this reductive reading, and to see them as a more complex engagement with the problem of leadership. She sees Sophocles and Euripides as pessimistic about the democracy. By contrast, in comedy, human leaders are distinctly less than divine figures, who for all their faults (perhaps because of them) are not tyrannical. So Oedipus at Colonus transmits his power to Theseus alone, but Peisetairos is an uncomfortably tyrannical figure in the City of the Birds. This is one place where Atack is thinking about political myths and we will come back to that.

The third chapter is about historical representations of Athens’s royal past, specifically Theseus, in historical or historically motivated works. Atack’s approach to Athenian local history is to see it as somewhat instrumentalized within a patriotic context, and close to the politeia tradition. Her reading of Isocrates is notably more rich, and the pivot from the mild Theseus of the eponymous work, and Theseus as foreign monarch in the Philip-obsessed Panathenaicus is carefully achieved. This chapter will merit careful reading alongside Rosalind Thomas’ account of local histories, noted but too recent for substantial engagement in this book.[4] Atack argues that the Atthidographers were operating in ways similar to the notion of ‘invention of tradition;’ it might be better to see this as a rather richer engagement with the tradition that existed, a more urgent historiographical response to Athens’ precarious cultural pre-eminence, which might then bring them closer to the engaged reading which Isocrates offered.

The next three chapters are best treated as the arc of an argument. The argument begins with a ‘Socratic’ position of the kingly art of politics; then moves via Xenophon and Isocrates to the notion of authority through the virtue of the monarch; and ends with Plato’s later rejection of both historical or historicized myths on the one hand, and virtuous shepherd-kings on the other, to arrive at the more or less impossible philosopher-king. This is a highly simplified version of the drive of Atack’s narrative, but shows her intricate crossovers between politics, history, philosophy and myth, and a story which takes us from a sort of myth via historicization back to the cosmic king.

There are points where the richness of the presentation encourages questions. What did Socrates himself say about kings and kingliness and how was it received? Given contemporary drama, was this all very bland, or was it rather more troubling and oligarchic in tone? How did it feel in Athens to be told that the art of governing was kingly? Should we even think of a different translation – the sovereign art of governing, or even just noble? Atack insists that we not denude the word of its meaning, and that must be right, but might we identify a more semantically rich register?

The chapter on virtue monarchy (122-50) is extremely interesting as a treatment of the speculum principis, the mirror of the prince. Atack subtly challenges the value of the exercise when she notes for instance that Cyrus was Cyrus only before a tiny proportion of the members of his kingdom (144). The withdrawal of the absolute imperial monarch from ‘the reciprocal processes of the polis’ is a good line and a sharp point (Alain Duplouy’s performative model springs to mind as an account of how the polis élite were bound into reciprocal action).

Lastly, Atack’s careful reading of late Plato is highly illuminating, but also suggests a dead end; Plato’s complex cosmic model was not nearly as comprehensible as the shepherd-king or the historicized myth of a good ruler, not least because it seems unattainable. Atack resists a straight historical context in Plato’s Sicilian rebuff, but also leaves out any other contexts. Would a Pythagorean have made more sense of all this, for instance? Are we missing perhaps other discourses in which this exalted cosmic kingship made more sense?

The book ends with a philosophically sharp account of Aristotle’s notion of the pambasileus, flagging up the ways in which Aristotle set citizen virtue and virtue kingship as potentially compatible rather than in opposition. This is a natural endpoint, but it is also tantalizing. Much happened after Aristotle in the conversation about kingship. So one is tempted to ask whether the three axes identified above as the structure could be used to continue the discussion?

The virtue-vice axis clearly remained profoundly interesting. It could sustain a significant biographical industry, and is the heart of the mirror of the prince tradition. On political myth, Atack indicates in her introduction that she wants to follow Cassirer in arguing that ‘the propaganda function of political myth can illuminate the study of ancient political myth’ (8).[5] This is interesting and provocative, and Atack has shown that myths are certainly turned to political use. Moreover she invokes Gehrke’s intentional history model, and thereby the link between history and myth can be usefully blurred. A critical reading might press a little harder on issues around audience, or on Atack’s invocation of Castoriadis’ political imaginary. On the first, if one invokes propaganda, one has to have an answer to the question of whom one is trying to persuade. What was the propaganda for? Some part of the answer seems to go back to the persistent image Atack has of the king as unifier, a symbol or a moment of singular clarity. In this context it is interesting that Atack invokes Castoriadis, who tended to press for diversity and the need to be able to reimagine society. One of the striking aspects of Atack’s kings is that they close off avenues. They begin but do not self-replicate (or if they try to, do so disastrously); the moment of unity passes; the philosopher king fails. The pressing question arises as to whether the myth of kingship, however inventively reconstituted is largely nostalgic, an obstacle to communal flourishing.

The importance of the myth of the unifying king then intersects importantly with Atack’s invocation of Strathern’s immanence. Atack is surely right to stress the persistent reversion to kingship within a cosmic order. On her reading, this cosmic order is somewhat instrumental; it was a step that made other political arguments work. What happens if one takes the notion of a belief in immanence really seriously? The special relationship of kings and gods works its way out variously in Atack’s work, and is potentially one of its most significant arguments.

Atack’s book then works on at least two levels. First, it offers astute readings of some well-known texts, and succeeds without any doubt in reconceptualizing the Greek discourse of kingship (and kingliness) in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, in Athens especially. Second, it asks challenging methodological questions about sole rule and regality, which make the book of a wider interest. Atack’s framework might work interestingly in relation to the Roman emperor, for example.[6] The argument is concise and clear, and should provoke debate at the same level of seriousness and intellectual ambition with which it is written.


[1] Hor. Ep. 1.2.14-16; O. Murray, ‘Philodemus on the Good King according to Homer,’ JRS 55 (1965): 161-82.

[2] D. Graeber, M. Sahlins, On Kingship (Chicago, 2017); A. Strathern, Unearthly Powers: Religious and Political Change in World History (Cambridge, 2019).

[3] L. Mitchell, The Heroic Rulers of Archaic and Classical Greece (London, 2013).

[4] R. Thomas, Polis Histories, Collective Memories and the Greek World (Oxford, 2019).

[5] E. Cassirer, The Myth of the State (Oxford, 1946).

[6] Obviously intersecting works include C. F. Noreña, Imperial Ideals in the Roman West: Representation, Circulation, Power (Cambridge, 2011) and C. Ando, Roman Social Imaginaries: Language and Thought in Contexts of Empire (Toronto, 2015).