BMCR 2021.11.16

Building democracy in late archaic Athens

, Building democracy in late archaic Athens. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. xi, 347. ISBN 9780190083571 $74.00.


A subtitle for this book should be ‘if these walls could talk’, because talk they do, and in a wonderful manner. Jessica Paga demonstrates that we should be viewing building activity in Attica in the years between 508/7 and 490 B.C.E. as a coherent programme undertaken by the new regime—the “democracy” after Kleisthenes’ reforms —to demonstrate physically that a new dawn had arrived in Athens. She does so in a nuanced, complex, and convincing fashion. Her methodology incorporates the archaeological remains in an exemplary manner, using them as the basis for her investigation of the early democracy, and placing them—rather than the limited literary sources for this period—at the core of the conversation. The book is especially strong in offering a balanced approach to the physical remains and the issues surrounding their interpretation. Lingering debates over the dating of these building are carefully treated, and nowhere does the author push the evidence too far. This leaves enough room for the reader to decide whether to accept the offered dating or not. The book offers an insightful analysis of a pivotal period in Athenian history.

The introduction provides a historical overview, including events such as the Peisistratid tyranny and the attempts by Isagoras to establish an oligarchy. Much ink has been spilled on these, but rather than burdening the reader with too many details, Paga cites the relevant literature for the reader to consult. On one of the pressing issues of the early Athenian state, the author belongs in the camp of ‘late developers’, supporting the thesis that the potential of Attica, still unrealized under the Peisistratid tyranny, was only fully unleashed with the Kleisthenic reforms. A case in point is the military capacity of the Athenians. According to Paga, the reforms must have been implemented quickly—and successfully—for the Athenians to repel the invasion by the Boiotians and Chalkidians in 507/6. While this victory can stand as a measure of the success of the new government, the question remains whether its military reforms had actually been implemented that fast.[1] In my opinion, the need to defend against invaders could have prompted an initial response, with the specifics of deme registration or military allotment to a deme a later concern. This is especially true since the war probably lingered on after the Athenian victory.[2] The military reforms could thus have followed a gradual course, adapting to challenges as they came along. This does not contradict Paga’s thesis; in fact, it could strengthen it by underlining how these building projects went hand in hand with the gradual development of these reforms to implement a new political order.

The author next turns to the evidence on the ground: archaeological remains. The analysis of these is divided into four chapters: the Akropolis, the Agora, the astu, and the demes. Investments were made in all these areas in order to establish the new democratic order, however slippery that term is at this early stage.

The first investigation, of the Akropolis, sets a high standard. Paga convincingly demonstrates that the destruction of the Archaic “Bluebeard Temple” and the construction of the Old Athena Temple and Old Parthenon were deliberate choices of the young regime. She offers a wide palette of reasons for this radical break with the past. One is a desire to start anew, reflected in the construction of a new temple. Another, perhaps more speculative interpretation, concerns the corrupting effect of Kleomenes’ occupation of the Bluebeard Temple in 508/7. His presence there, as recorded by Herodotus (5.64–65), defiled the Akropolis and its sanctuaries, leaving Athena’s shrine in urgent need of purification. The extent of Kleomenes’ hubris was such that a simple ritual cleansing would not have sufficed, hence the decision to construct a new temple. The construction of the Old Parthenon was thus prompted by numerous factors, the celebration of the new regime being the most prominent one, along with a desire to erase a painful part of Athenian history.

The Agora is the theme of the second chapter and deals with how this space was reshaped to embody the democracy. Paga insightfully discusses difficulties related to the establishment of a new agora and the date of the Old Bouleuterion. She makes the interesting proposition that the Doric columns were incorporated into its entrance to grant an aura of sanctity to this beating heart of the democratic order, especially because the columns served no particular structural function in the building. This supports her argument that this gathering place and other sites in the astu were completed for the purpose of reinforcing the new order. The same applies to the shift of the Agora from its older location. The precise setting of the Old Agora is unknown, but the general location is placed near the Ilissos river area, an area that witnessed a lot of Peisistratid investment. Moving from this location and its connotation with the Peisistratids, the move to the new Agora was meant to symbolise a new dawn for Athens, Attica, and its inhabitants and a break with the tyrannical past.

Chapter 3 tackles the astu. Paga provides fresh perspectives on the purposeful nature of the new constructions. These insights come from the study of sightlines and viewing axes. Her analysis reveals how some of the new features of the democracy in the astu, such as the Pnyx and the Agora, were interlinked and intervisible, ensuring that the physical connection between the foundational blocks of the democracy was always before the public eye. When the people would assemble on the Pnyx, they could see the landmarks of the Agora with its democratic connotations at the same time as they were performing their democratic duties. It also physically demonstrated the functions of the democratic bodies; whereas the Boule (in the Agora) could provide the agenda to be decided upon in the Assembly, it was the latter that ultimately held the reigns. As Paga puts it: ‘The elevated position of the meeting place on the Pnyx visually reinforces this system of oversight’ (p. 166). The spatial connections further reinforced the coherence of the building programme. The connection between core and periphery was also ritualised in other ways, for instance in the procession that was part of the City Dionysia.

Chapter 4 addresses the question of the demes and their place within the new regime. This may be the most illuminating chapter of the book for the purpose of demonstrating the extensive nature of the democracy’s vigorous building programme. Through several case studies, Paga demonstrates the democracy’s desire to articulate borders, unify the vast expanse of Attica, and invest in the political constellation that had arisen after the victory over the invading forces in 507/6. Well-known sites such as Rhamnous and Sounion are revisited by Paga. Investments in these demes were not just the result of local wealth or political importance, but also delineated and protected the border areas in the wake of the recent attacks by Chalkidians, Boiotians and Aiginetans. Paga interprets the expenditure for a new temple and substantial fortifications at Eleusis within this context. These changes to the Eleusinian deme’s landscape and sanctuary were a response to the precarious border situation and the recent capture of the deme by the invading armies. Building the fortifications aimed to safeguard the important deme, whereas the expansion of the temple not only reflected the growing stature of the Mystery cult, but also emphasised its role as a sanctuary belonging to the Athenian sphere and integral to Attica. In this context, a more extensive engagement with the kioniskos from Thebes that mentions the Boiotians’ capture of Eleusis during the invasion of 507/6 could have been fruitful.[3] Not only does it detail a Boiotian version of events, it also reveals the Boiotians captured Eleusis. The threat was therefore not just a perceived one, but a palpable one that could have been repeated in the wake of the continued conflict with the Boiotians. This is especially so because Eleusis is the only place along the extensive Attic-Boiotian border—save for Rhamnous—where significant investments were made. I would contend that this could reveal more about the fluidity of the border along the Kithairon-Parnes mountain range. Other, ‘lesser known’ sites are investigated as well, like Cape Zoster (Halai Aixonides), where construction demonstrates similarities with buildings erected elsewhere in Attica at this time. Paga suggests demes of minor importance for military purposes nonetheless received attention to strengthen the bonds within the peninsula. Similar connections between building styles can be detected in places like Ikarion and Brauron, which implies the same builders and architects were at work here. This suggests that these buildings formed part of a coherent programme, in which similar styles aimed to form a visual connection between the various parts of Attica.

These investigations on the ground lead to chapter 5, where she explains and argues what constitutes a building programme such as the Periclean or Peisistratid building programme. Instead she makes the case for a democratic building programme for the two decades after Kleisthenes’ reforms. She details its financing, defining demotic agency, and exploring the issue of whether to call the Athenian regime in this early phase a democracy or something else. This is a stimulating chapter, forcing a re-evaluation of who was behind the significant work undertaken in this short period of time. By stressing the efforts of the community and demotic agency, Paga moves away from the personality-driven focus that is central to the notion of building programmes, especially in Athens. A comparison between the buildings erected in the years between 508/7 and 490 and the Peisistratid, Periclean or Lykourgan building programmes reveals that the early democracy’s building programme is more deserving of that description than any other Athenian building programmes. The Kleisthenic programme far outstripped these more famous programmes in terms of the quality and quantity of its buildings, as can be gathered from Appendix 1. The sheer amount of work undertaken by the regime certainly demonstrates the capabilities of the isegoric structure put in place by Kleisthenes and his followers. It reveals how the agency was spread across a wide spectrum of people and cannot be pinned on one individual; the sheer amount of building projects could not have been the work of one individual’s vision. Paga casts her net wide in her examination of the finances required for this programme. She follows previous scholarship in stating that the rising fortunes of Athens may be tied to the fall of Miletos as a main trading hub. Other factors could have been the silver mines of Laurion, or even the income from sanctuary-owned lands and the organisation of festivals. Whether the booty obtained from war played as significant a role in financing new works, as Paga concedes, is up for debate, but this is a minor point and should not distract from her insightful analysis.[4]

The book ends with three appendices. The first is a useful overview of all buildings erected between 508/7 and 490, the second is a translation of the Hekatompedon decrees, and the third provides a more in-depth argument for dating the Old Bouleuterion and the Stoa Basileios to this period. The engagement with the Hekatompedon decrees is especially illuminating and shows how the young democracy implemented, and monitored, a sense of accountability and appropriate behaviour on the Akropolis. The tamiai, for instance, are instructed to monitor activities undertaken by the cult personnel while at the same time tracking their own activities and that of their fellow treasurers. Disregard of the proper conduct could be fined. These decrees thus demonstrate the desire of the early democracy to regulate conduct on the Akropolis, arguably to protect the sanctity of the sanctuary and to appease the gods. Protecting the sanctity is an especially pertinent aspect, considering the defilement of the sacred space by Kleomenes (see above).

The book is well produced and well edited, with many maps and pictures supporting its arguments. The colour pictures are particularly spectacular and well printed.

This book is highly recommended for all scholars of Athens and Attica, but it speaks to a wider audience as well. Indeed, every ancient historian who aspires to incorporate archaeology and literary sources in an exemplary fashion would do well to read this monograph.


[1] There is a group of scholars, most recently Valdés Guía, whose is too recent to have been included, who claim the military capacity of Peisistratid Athens was more advanced and extensive than previously assumed, see M. Valdés Guía, ‘War in Archaic Athens: Polis, Elites and Military Power’, Historia 68.2 (2019): 126–49.

[2] See for instance Hdt. 5.79-81 and the dedication at Olympia by the Tanagraians (NIO 128) with A. Schachter, Boiotia in Antiquity: Collected Essays (Cambridge 2016): 109-110. These demonstrate that the war between the Athenians and their neighbours did not end with the victory described by Herodotus.

[3] SEG 56.521. See also S. Lavecchia, ‘Becoming like Dionysos: Dithyramb and Dionysian Initiation’, in B. Kowalzig and P. Wilson (eds.), Dithyramb in Context, Oxford 2013: 59–75 for Theban counterclaims to Eleusis in later times.

[4] See also P. Hunt, War, Peace, and Alliance in Demosthenes’ Athens, Oxford 2010: 29–35.