BMCR 2021.04.20

Dangerous counsel: accountability and advice in ancient Greece

, Dangerous counsel: accountability and advice in ancient Greece. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2019. Pp. viii, 240. ISBN 9780226653792 $30.00 (pb).


Accountability and advisory roles have re-entered the limelight in recent years, especially in the USA, as Matthew Landauer pithily observes in his book. His observation on the relevance of accountability and advisory roles in the current-day USA serve as an epilogue for an insightful book, wonderfully written and eruditely argued, which takes us through different regimes and constitutions in Ancient Greece, namely autocracies and democracies. The comparative approach helps to clarify the role of advisors or counsellors (sumbouloi) within Greek political theory. Landauer argues that far from a democratic exception, the notion of accountability and advice ran synchronically through the world of Greek politics. The core of the book consists of tracing the demos-tyrant analogy; throughout the journey across various sources and contexts, thereby creating a history of ideas, in the Berlinean sense, for ancient Greek ‘political theory’. This analogy forms the foundation for a lively analysis of the similarities in accountability between tyrannies and democracies, a thought-provoking thesis that Landauer does well to support. Briefly summarised, those responsible for taking the actual decision bore no accountability – such as the tyrant or the demos – but rather the advisors in both situations felt the burden of responsibility and were rewarded or punished for it accordingly.

The introduction sets out the goals and ambitions for the book. Landauer acknowledges that scholars invested in democratic exceptionalism will express doubts over the comparison between two seemingly opposing constitutions. He views the demos-tyrant analogy in the sources as inherently conveying a sense of sameness, not as oligarchic snobbery towards the hoi polloi, but as capturing the essence of accountability or lack thereof between the two.

Chapter 1 comprises an investigation of accountability and council in the Athenian democracy. The chapter is built upon the solid foundations laid down by known experts like Mogens Hansen and Josiah Ober. The author traces the various institutions of the Athenian polis and the possibility to hold councillors accountable, such as the dokimasia and ethunai, or more extreme examples such as the eisangelia or the graphe paranomon. Moving beyond the scope of Athens, Landuaer briefly treats the case of fourth-century Boiotia as a test case for the workings of democracy as compared to oligarchy. While the comparison is useful and interesting, some still doubt whether the koinon was ‘democratic’ in the 370s; nor does Landauer engage with the difficulty of accepting Plutarch’s testimony concerning the graphe paranomon in the 379 trial of Epameinondas and Pelopidas, if indeed it occurred at all, a possibility not entertained by him.[1] I also find (minor) fault with his interpretation of the Heliastic Oath, where he makes too strong a distinction between divine and political accountability; although both were judicated separately, religion and politics were so entwined that his separation between the two aspects comes across as artificial.[2] Furthermore, I would argue that at least some engagement with inscriptional material could have been illuminating here, to demonstrate how accountability was inscribed and more important, how the demos presented itself in the political landscape. This is not to diminish the quality of the investigation, but the inclusion of inscriptional material could have further enhanced the strength of revisiting the demos-tyrant analogy, simply because the demos in that way did take credit and singled out the advisors accountable for the proposed decrees and laws.

Chapter 2 explores the lack of accountability of tyrants. It revisits the ‘near-misses’ of tyrant accountability – Peisistratus, Gelon and Maiandrus – to demonstrate how possibilities to hold tyrants accountable were missed through a mix of fear, popularity and cunning. Landauer then showcases his comfort with a variety of settings and sources by analysing a varied palette including Aeschylus, Plato, Aristophanes and Xenophon. The latter two – Aristophanes with Wasps and Knights, Xenophon with his depiction of the Arginusae trial – are used to investigate the common analogy further, leading to some intriguing and convincing arguments. Rather than viewing Aristophanes through a monolithic prism of oligarchic criticism of democratic practices, he actually shows the limits of the demos-tyrant analogy and invites his audience to question it as well, thereby showcasing his support for the democracy, as it were. Similarly, Xenophon does not only exude oligarchic worries over democracy, but dramatizes the Arginusae trial to highlight the demos’ lack of accountability and the tension between democratic equality and lack of accountability in Athens. Both interpretations may invoke criticism, but certainly help to progress our understanding of these sources.

The following chapter tackles the question of the accountable advisor in Herodotus’ Histories. Indeed, this was one of the most thought-provoking chapters as Landauer questions a lot of assumptions about the ‘Persian councils’ and the seemingly inherent dichotomy between ‘free Greek, democratic practices’ and the closed, irreverent Persian councils of the King. In my opinion, the case made here is wonderfully argued; instead of viewing the many inferences of advisors requesting permission to speak from the King as impediments to speech, as previous scholars did, these requests were normative explorations of how the King and advisor could traverse their asymmetrical power relationship. Additionally, the analysis reveals how scholars have focused too much on the outcome of royal decision-making, such as Cyrus’ campaign against the Messagetae, rather than the actual process. In fact, there were more similarities in the dynamics of discourse between democracies and the court than previously identified. In the end, Landauer views Herodotus as providing a theory of political counsel that dramatizes the process of advice-giving through salacious reports and stories.

Chapter 4 tackles the Mytilenean Debate in Thucydides. Landauer shows his erudition here and his command of a much discussed, but vexing source demonstrates the possibilities of his approach. He cleverly moves through Cleon’s and Diodotus’ arguments to explain how Cleon views the populace as easily swayed by rhetoric rather than content, while Diodotus abhors the discrepancy in reward and punishment between advisors and decision-taker in Athens. Interestingly, Landauer points out that Cleon may have given the better speech considering how close the vote eventually was. What’s invigorating about the analysis is that Thucydides, while any theoretical concerns are not ascribed to him as they are to Herodotus, nevertheless understood that the question of responsibility (for the Mytilenean Revolt) could fluctuate and was open to interpretations, as evidenced by the different views presented by Cleon and Diodotus. This is a rewarding chapter, though I think it could have benefitted from Josiah Ober and Tomer Perry’s article on Thucydides and Prospect Theory for understanding the various outcomes that the proposed actions could have had. The article would have elucidated a particular aspect of Thucydidean thinking and the manner in which he compared Pericles to his successors as leaders of the Athenians.[3]

The next chapter treats parrhesia or frank speech in democracies and autocracies, relying mostly on the Isocratic oeuvre, particularly On the Peace and his Letters to Philip (Antipater) and Nicocles, with a bit of Demosthenes sprinkled in. Landauer demonstrates the importance of frank speech for tyrants and democracies alike. It ensures the right course can be taken, as opposed to flattery, since it creates the right circumstances for proper advice and debate, either in the assembly or the king’s council. Frank speech’s centrality creates an equal playing field within the democracy and therefore acted as a remedial virtue to oppose flattery and bad counsel. The latter could have detrimental results if they were adhered to by leaders of democracies and thus needed to be avoided.  Similarly, a sole ruler would be wise to allow for frank counsel, since that prevents a devolvement into a sycophantic court where no debate can be held and which can only lead to the downfall of the autocratic rule.

Finally, the question of demagogy receives its due in chapter 6. This is perhaps the most dense chapter material-wise, but invigorating and lucid at the same time. By exploring Plato’s Gorgias, and thus contrasting the powerful orator Gorgias portrays with Socrates, Landauer is able to demonstrate the incompatibility of rhetoric dominance over the demos, or vice versa, by investigating Socrates’ contention that no one really knows what ‘good’ is or means, thereby disproving Gorgias’ theorem that rhetoric can sway every person or audience. The text points out the limits of demos and orators to dominate each other. Instead, the relationship between Athenian leaders and the demos is problematic, with neither truly being passive on-lookers and listening soaking up the truths, demands and desires of the other. It is more likely to view Socrates’ criticism of the power of the demos as illuminating the limited power orators could have. Socrates offers a hypothetical situation in which full influence of one party over the other could be attained; either the demos had to communicate perfectly with the orators, or orators had to become like the demos. In effect, neither reached that goal.

This last chapter brings me to a small matter of criticism; Landauer focuses extensively on the culpability of humans but omits the relationship with the gods (as referred to above concerning the Heliastic Oath). Accountability towards the gods even rose above the intra-human relationship and certainly, a polis could have a collective soul and responsibility vis-à-vis the gods that could not be overlooked. It would have added an additional layer of investigation and may have explained why certain persons or people could have been held unaccountable, as they would still need to warrant their decision-making to the gods if necessary; the Arginusae trial would have made for a rewarding case study in that sense. Nevertheless, that is a minor remark on what was an exceptionally stimulating book.

The book is edited well; the only thing really missing is one reference: Noémie Villacèque, Spectateurs de Paroles. Délibération démocratique et théâtre à Athènes à l’époque Classique (Rennes 2013). Normally, I would prefer not to focus on such a minor detail, but Landauer engages with it extensively in a footnote (p. 210 n.29) making the inclusion of this reference more important.

Inevitably, most of the democratic investigation rests on Athenian evidence. Some specialists may also find fault with the reductionist approach and the move away from democratic exceptionalism, but the thorough analysis should take away any lingering doubts. Regardless of some of the minor criticisms mentioned above, Landauer has written an invigorating and thought-provoking book that may not find agreement everywhere. Yet that is precisely what makes this such a rewarding read and what I think merely demonstrates the advantages of the comparative method employed in this book. The synchronic treatment of political theory through a wide spectrum of sources means this book is suitable for anybody working on these diverging texts, such as Plato’s Gorgias, Thucydides or Aristophanes’ comedies. In sum, any historian working on Athenian democracy or political scientists curious about the politics of advice should find a copy of this book.


[1] P.J. Rhodes, ‘Boiotian Democracy?’, in S.D. Gartland (ed.), Boiotia in the Fourth Century. Philadelphia 2016: 59-64; J. Buckler. ‘Plutarch on the Trials of Pelopidas and Epameinondas (369 B.C.)’, CP 73.1 (1978): 36-42.

[2] See A. Sommerstein and A. Bayliss, Oath and State in Ancient Greece (Berlin; New York 2013): 69-80.

[3] J. Ober and T. J. Perry, ‘Thucydides as a Prospect Theorist’, Polis 31 (2014) 206–232.