BMCR 2021.10.18

Ideology of democratic Athens: institutions, orators and the mythical past

, Ideology of democratic Athens: institutions, orators and the mythical past. New approaches to ancient Greek institutional history. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020. Pp. 264. ISBN 9781474466424 £85.00.

Not only did the classical Athenians compulsively recount, dramatize, paint, sculpt, and otherwise cite and allude to legendary events from their city’s history, they also tolerated remarkable variation in the plots of their national myths. By some accounts the Amazons invaded Attica entirely unprovoked; by others it was in retaliation for Theseus’ abduction of Antiope. Sometimes the Athenian ancestors were said to have secured burials for Adrastus’ fallen comrades by means of diplomatic negotiation; in other tellings, the conflict culminated in a battle between Athens and Thebes. Isocrates, for one, was inconsistent about which version of that story he preferred. In the Panathenaicus he relates the peaceful version of events, whereas some half-century earlier, in his Panegyricus, he had selected to remember a war. But what is most telling is how, in the Panathenaicus, he actually draws attention to the instance of self-contradiction that he might have skated quietly over: “let no one suppose,” he admonishes, “that I do not realize I am telling a version contrary [τἀναντία τυγχάνω λέγων] to the account of the same events I manifestly wrote in my Panegyricus.” He continues:

But I think no one who grasps just how significant these events are is gripped by such ignorance and envy that he would not praise me and consider me prudent to have spoken about those events in that way then, but in this way now. (12.172)

In Ideology of democratic Athens: institutions, orators and the mythical past, Matteo Barbato seeks, in a sense, to account for the logic of Isocrates’ “in that way then, but in this way now” (τότε μὲν ἐκείνως νῦν δ᾽ οὕτω). After an introduction and two chapters that establish the settings in which the Athenians recounted their myths (Chapter 2) and the discursive parameters that regulated how they recounted them in a given setting (or here “institution,” Chapter 3), he undertakes four case studies in the multiformity of the myths and the contexts in which their variants found expression: the myths of autochthony (Chapter 4), of the Athenians’ provision of refuge to the children of Heracles (Chapter 5), of the Amazonian invasion of Attica (Chapter 6), and of the intervention with Thebes on behalf of Adrastus (Chapter 7). Each myth becomes a springboard for an examination of how, in selecting for certain variants, raconteurs also recalibrated the definitions of cardinal Athenian values: eugenia in the case of autochthony; charis and philanthropia in the case of the Heraclids; hybris in the case of the Amazonomachy; and hybris and philanthropia in the case of the campaign for burial of the Seven.

At its highest level, the ambitious book is a contribution to the historical study of Athenian democratic ideology. Barbato sets out to reconcile the work of Nicole Loraux (representing a Marxist tradition) and Josiah Ober (representing a culturalist one) by defining “Athenian democratic ideology as a fluid set of ideas shared by the majority of the Athenians as a result of a constant process of ideological practice influenced by the institutions of the democracy” (2-3). He makes his case by drawing upon methods of New Institutionalism, specifically Discursive Institutionalism, which according to Vivien A. Schmidt (who coined the term), focuses “on the substantive content of ideas and the interactive processes of discourse by which they are generated and communicated in given institutional contexts.”[1] Barbato himself never defines the word “institution,” though in practice it here seems to differ little from what most students of ancient Greek literature and culture will be used to thinking of as performance context: the theater, the funeral oration, the courtroom, the Assembly, and so on. The book’s emphasis is therefore on the use of national myth, and the unwritten rules—the structuring grammar—for doing so on various occasions, state-sponsored ones in particular.

The circumstances in and according to which Athenian playwrights and orators refashioned national myths is a worthy topic, and Barbato points to several instances in which plot variants also signaled ideological variation and malleability. Thus, while funeral orators implied the eugeneia born of autochthony was a shared characteristic of all Athenians, on other occasions (in Euripides’ Ion and Apollodorus’ Against Neaera)—or rather in the context of other democratic institutions (the theater and the courtroom)—eugeneia was more restricted, conceived of as the inheritance of the elite descended from Athens’ earthborn kings. One of the central, and most compelling, conclusions of the book is that the nature and plurality of the city’s performance-based institutions, each with its distinct but unwritten rules, enabled the Athenians to live comfortably with multiple and significant variants of their core national myths. The values illustrated by these myths, Barbato argues, were “themselves flexible and tended to adapt dynamically to different institutional settings of the democracy” (216). In other words, Athenian values were as multiform as their myths, and different contexts demanded the promotion of different versions of both. Thus the “institution” of the funeral oration called for a democratic interpretation of the Athenian “value” of eugeneia, which in turn accounts for, e.g., Demosthenes’ insistence on the ancestral autochthony of all Athenian citizens in his funeral oration for the war dead of Chaeronea (Dem. 60.3-5).

The analyses rest mainly, though not exclusively, on the textual evidence of tragedy, funeral orations, and Assembly speeches. Readers more at home in literary studies and cultural history may occasionally balk at Barbato’s fairly positivistic, and occasionally quantitative, approach to literary interpretation. (Tables enumerate explicit references to myth in tragedies and satyr plays, in the extant funeral speeches, and in the extant forensic speeches.) Points of serious and longstanding contention in the scholarship are sometimes reduced, in the service of constructing taxonomies and deriving generalizations, to statements of taken-for-granted fact. (For example: the function of the epitaphios logos was “to construct an imagined community” [8]; “the Greeks … did not perceive a clear boundary between myth and history” [18]; “In order to win first prize, tragedians tried to offer something to both the elite and the mass attending the dramatic contests” [80].) Comedy is relegated to footnotes, which seems curious for a study of the relationship between national myth and democratic ideology in classical Athens. (Comedy contains some significant and layered references to these myths; for example, the male chorus in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata explicitly refers to Micon’s painting in the Stoa Poikile of Theseus’ battle with the Amazons.) Engagement with foundational works on myth in Athens—works by, for example, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Robert Parker, Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, and even Loraux herself—occurs almost exclusively below the line. For this reader, at least, it was unnerving at times to see so much cultural production titrated and treated as hard data.

Nevertheless, the book is successful as a preliminary illustration of the generative potential of New Institutionalism for Classical Studies, and students of Athenian literature (in addition to those of history and political theory) should undertake to familiarize themselves with the approach. It is certainly refreshing to see a work at the intersection of historical scholarship and political science take literary texts so seriously; what is more, classical Athenian prose and poetry are all too rarely set on this kind of equal footing. This book is, to my knowledge, the first monograph to attempt to bring New Institutionalism to bear on an ancient Greek literary archive, and as such it raises promising new questions and provides several footholds for future work in the area.

Three directions in particular come to mind. One further step might be to examine, in the light of a New Institutionalist approach, how various authors and orators constructed catalogues of Athenian national myth. The core Athenian legends tended to travel in packs, and the Athenian catalogue of exploits (known as the Tatenkatalog) constituted a subgenre unto itself. These catalogues enumerated a fairly standard set of Athenian ancestral feats; they typically began with a small handful of events of legendary history (selected from precisely the myths that Barbato examines), then concluded with a roundup of Athenian successes in the Persian Wars. They seem to have been a fixture of funeral orations (though the Periclean funeral oration famously contains merely a praeteritio of one: Thuc. 2.36.4), but they also appeared in other prose genres (e.g. Hdt. 9.27, Xen. Mem. 3.5.10, Isoc. passim, see also Arist. Rhet. II.1396a) and were depicted on public monuments (the Temple of Athena Nike; the Stoa Poikile). In devoting separate chapters to each of four canonical Tatenkatalog myths, Barbato has sliced and diced cycles and sets that were originally conceived of as wholes. It would be interesting to see what light his methods might shine on the architecture and significance of such catalogues when considered in their entirety.

Given that Discursive Institutionalism is concerned both with how institutions shaped discourse and how discourse shaped institutions, future studies might also attend more to how the Athenian democratic institutions, and their rules of discursive engagement, evolved over time. It is, for example, not only the difference between “institutions” that accounts for the variants in how the myth of the war with the Amazons was depicted. When Lysias composed his funeral oration and Isocrates his Panegyricus, some seventy eventful years had already passed since the premiere of the Eumenides, in which Aeschylus’ Athena provides a brief account of the Amazonian invasion. Barbato’s own conclusions might be even more convincing if the evidence for the mythical allusions in tragedy, funeral orations, courtroom, and Assembly speeches were all co-temporary. It is certainly tempting, and rewarding, to read tragedy against the funeral orations, but one of the greatest (yet most often ignored) pitfalls of doing so is that most of our funeral oration texts date to the fourth century. As Giorgia Proietti has recently argued, even the Athenian Tatenkatalog was more dynamic over time than has been assumed,[2] and it would be beneficial to know more about how Athens’ democratic institutions evolved alongside and in response to the discourses that they both animated and conditioned.

Finally, Barbato’s monograph raises questions about how confident we can really be when it comes to categorizing the transmitted texts as examples of public or private discourse. In Plato’s Menexenus Socrates performs his funeral oration behind closed doors at a private house, yet Barbato analyzes that speech as a trustworthy witness to the institution of the epitaphios logos as publicly recited. Likewise, Isocrates’ Panegyricus and Panathenaicus, which may well have never been publicly performed, are read at face value as faithful representations of actual festival speeches. A great deal of fourth-century Athenian prose self-consciously toed or toyed with the line between public and private discourse, and I wonder whether something might be gained if future studies were to consider how authors regarded the discursive constraints that Barbato identifies as rules made to be bent, if not broken.

Ideology of democratic Athens thus raises many exciting questions and prospects; it is also generous in its work of laying a foundation for further applications of New Institutionalist methods to the study of ancient literature, culture, and political theory. One of the greatest enigmas of classical Athenian culture is that of how the Athenians so openly and easily told multiple truths about themselves. (What is likely the most famous example, which is not discussed here, consists in the varying accounts as to whether the Athenians “fought alone at Marathon”.[3]) With this book, Barbato has made a real contribution to our understanding of the cultural structures that potentially allowed the Athenians to juggle those several truths all at once. Some readers may find a fair bit to disagree with in terms of the methods and approach, but for all students of classical Athens it should open up new avenues of thought regarding some of the most fundamental and persistent questions about the workings of Athenian culture.


[1] Barbato’s monograph is the inaugural volume in Edinburgh University Press’s series New Approaches to Ancient Greek Institutional History, whose series editors are Mirko Canevaro, Edward Harris, and David Lewis.

[2] “Beyond the ‘Invention of Athens’. The 5th century Athenian “Tatenkatalog” as example of ‘Intentional History’.” Klio 97 (2015): 516-38.

[3] See esp. K. R. Walters, “‘We fought alone at Marathon’: Historical falsification in the Attic funeral oration.” Rheinisches Museum 124 (1981): 204-11.