BMCR 2022.03.33

Decrees of fourth-century Athens (403/2-322/1 BC)

, Decrees of fourth-century Athens (403/2-322/1 BC). Volume 1: The literary evidence; Volume 2: Political and cultural perspectives. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. 1320. ISBN 9781108612425. $210.00.

When, nowadays, Athenian democracy is the subject of public debate—as increasingly it has been, no doubt related to the challenges modern democracy is currently facing—terms like ‘representation’ and ‘freedom of the people’ in an anachronistic use are likely to emerge. Of course, as the readership here is aware, these are modern misconceptions of an ancient political institution that was a far cry from what is now considered a democratic system. As appears from this impressive study by Peter Liddel, however, it was the decree, not ‘representation’ or ‘freedom of the people’, that ancient audiences primarily associated with the rule of the Athenian demos, as the decree was the means par excellence by which the assembly took decisions and initiated political actions.

The two volumes under review are dedicated to the decrees of fourth-century Athens. They bring together all the literary evidence and offer an in-depth analysis of the deployment, status, and legacy of Athenian decrees. The study may be considered as the culmination of Liddel’s scholarly work (of over more than a decade) on inscriptions in literature, decree culture in Athens (and beyond) and Athenian political institutions.[1] While recent studies have addressed both Athenian democracy as a political institution (e.g. M. Hansen, R. Osborne) and inscribed evidence for decrees enacted by the demos (most notably S. Lambert), the decrees mentioned by the literary sources have largely been overlooked and have not yet been brought together—a gap now filled by the present work. Moreover, Liddel also addresses the significance of the decree beyond the formalistic and procedural issues concerned with its production, establishing the wider cultural significance that this originally political transaction gained over time. The study has two clear aims. Volume I contains all literary testimonia for fourth-century decrees, while Volume II comments on the political, social and cultural significance of decrees by investigating questions such as: how were decrees deployed by the orators in political and litigious contexts? How was knowledge about them disseminated? How were they represented by literary authors before and after the fourth century?

Given the broad scope of the themes it covers, this study is of interest to a wide array of scholars, especially those interested in the Attic orators, epigraphic culture, the publication of civic documents and the dissemination of their knowledge, literary epigraphy, political institutions, decrees, and—not least—Athenian democracy. The work also offers valuable (prosopographical) data by providing several useful tables and appendices: e.g. lists of decrees’ proposers and a list of the decrees issued by the Athenian boule and honorific decrees. All aspects combined are likely to make this study a standard work for Athenian decrees for years if not decades to come.

Volume I presents all the literary testimonia for fourth-century decrees in Athens in several inventories. The material is preceded by a brief introduction explaining the criteria for inclusion and the structure of the inventories, and is then divided into two main inventories. Inventory A contains the decrees and proposals of the Athenian assembly that are firmly attested in the literary sources. Each entry provides on a case-by-case basis the literary context, the Greek text with a translation, a commentary, the decree’s date, and a bibliography. Inventory B presents those sources that can be identified as decrees with less certainty and is, therefore, more concise. Both inventories are organized chronologically and preceded by a so-called checklist, i.e., an overview of all entries. The inventories are followed by two appendices, containing lists of decrees of the Athenian boule and of honorific decrees, and the volume is concluded by generous and helpful indices: an index locorum, one of names of the proposers, one of honorands, and a general index.

How does one do justice to almost 1000 pages of decrees? Let it suffice to say that the author is to be praised for having structured the material according to several indicators such as the degree of certainty with which decrees are attested. This may not make the inventory comprehensible at first sight but does render the quality of the research underlying the inventory convincing. As a truly minor point of criticism, the insertion of page numbers in the checklists would have been helpful in navigating through the material, considering the size of the inventories.

Volume II opens with establishing its focus as being on the role of the decree as a political institution and introduces three theoretical approaches to assess how decrees were part of and determined human behaviour. ‘New Institutionalism’ helps to study decrees as an ‘institutional thing’, shaping human behaviour and channelling political activity. This approach puts the focus on the influence of institutions rather than the actions of individuals. Bourdieu’s social capital allows the author to analyse how the deployment and knowledge of decrees served as an expression and confirmation of individual status and aspiration, while memory studies help to assess the rhetorical significance of decrees as well as their deployment by contemporaries.

These critical perspectives are especially drawn upon in the first two chapters. Chapter 1 discusses several themes to establish the authoritative status of the decree despite its (probable) formal subordination to laws and its vulnerability to graphe paranomon-claims. It points to the high profile of decrees in the work of the fourth-century orators, which suggests that their audience would have been receptive to decree-deploying arguments. Sadly, the discussion, especially in 1.4, is not always easy to follow, because of the abstract reasoning and ample use of institutional vocabulary. I could not escape the impression that this chapter is the least developed of the whole study, noting several typos, vague formulations and repetitions throughout. Chapter 2 delves into the ways in which decrees were used for political self-interest and allowed orators to express normative criticism on behaviour and activity. An important insight, fundamental also for our understanding of how the ancients engaged with texts (or with information in general), is that orators, overall, mostly display interest in the general nature of decrees. However, they do not seem to have examined them in detail. Moreover, Liddel points out that orators rarely misrepresent the content of contemporary decrees, which indicates that their audiences at least knew the decrees to such an extent that they could hold them accountable.

The next three chapters deal with decree-making and decree-recalling as social and political practices. Chapter 3, the most epigraphically orientated part of the book, considers the discrepancies between epigraphic and literary depictions of decrees and investigates the dissemination of knowledge about decrees. Arguing for the view that the dissemination of knowledge was conducted mostly socially, Liddel also offers many valuable insights into the ancient perception of inscribed accounts in public space, a topic of increasing interest to modern epigraphic scholarship.[2]

Chapter 4 investigates the wider relevance of Athenian decrees by pursuing the question what interests non-Athenians might have had in decrees passed by the demos and to what extent the Athenians themselves might have imagined that foreigners would have paid attention to what they decreed. Liddel identifies the latter as a rhetorical strategy employed to heighten a sense of urgency among the assembly.

The final chapter takes the form of a sort of overarching assessment as it provides a broad analysis of the engagement with and ideas about Athenian decrees in literary authors. It opens the scope to fifth century and Hellenistic and Imperial authors after the previous chapters have largely examined partial aspects of this topic in contemporary authors. Liddel now asks whether the views found in the fourth-century orators continued to play a role in later traditions. While this is only partly the case, the discussion reveals the broad cultural significance Athenian decrees continued to have after the fourth century, originating from their role as a political institution. The conclusion, finally, serves as a wrap-up to both volumes, stressing the very different picture emerging from the literary sources as opposed to that found in the epigraphic evidence.

Overall, the approach taken, considering the role of decrees as an institution, results in an interesting study that offers new perspectives on decree-making as a form of political activity in Athens. The author convincingly shows how decrees developed from an institutional process to a phenomenon bearing wider cultural significance. Liddel draws on a wide range of evidence (clearly presented in Volume I), scholarship and theories and easily navigates between a wide range of sources. I found the arguments appealing, well-reasoned and easy to follow even though, for informed readers, many of the conclusions might not necessarily be new or surprising. Also the comparison between the epigraphic and literary evidence on decrees (presented in Table 1) is of great value, as well as the presentation of source material for fourth-century Athens.

An insight of this study that I found particularly interesting is what emerges from Liddel’s analysis of the orators’ engagement with and attention to the actual content of decrees, which he shows to have been rather broad and general. I found his understanding of the distribution of knowledge as socially produced helpful and preferable to the more formalistic approach offered by Ober in his study on knowledge and Athenian democracy.[3] Decrees appear to have been associated with specific, high profile and important events and changes in Athenian history, that is, as beacons of memory of the collective actions of the demos. A modern parallel that came to mind are the (in)famous, well-known rulings of the Supreme Court in the US. We might well envision what Athenians knew about their decrees in analogy to what modern day citizens know about certain rulings: people are familiar with the name of the ruling (e.g. Roe v. Wade) and roughly aware of what the decision is about as well as its relevance, but will probably never have looked into it in detail or be able to cite specific phrases.

Some quibbles remain but some go on the account of the publisher. The bibliography is not complete and seems to be drawn up a bit carelessly.[4] Typos and imprecise diction occur occasionally, and this reviewer could not help noticing that, especially in chapter I, the footnotes seem to have been composed in haste.[5] One aspect that makes it difficult for the non-specialist reader to navigate through this vast and rich work (despite the frequent cross-references) is the sober Table of Contents. There is a lot of valuable material to be found in the book that might very well get lost behind the title of fourth-century decrees. While the larger chapters are often further divided into subsubsections such as 5.4.2 (against which I do not bear any grudge as such), the Table of Contents does not represent this richness of detail.

These are, however, only formal and minor points of criticism that should not distract us from the fact that the author is indeed to be praised for this formidable piece of work. It is essential reading for anyone interested in Athenian democracy, fourth-century orators, the workings of ancient decrees and epigraphic culture. I recommend it wholeheartedly: Volume I offers a rich and exhaustive source book for anyone working on decrees in fourth-century Athens, while Volume II makes an enjoyable read from beginning to end. Let it be decreed, and honourably so.


[1] See e.g. the edited volume with P. Low, Inscriptions and Their Uses in Greek and Latin Literature. Oxford 2014; ‘The decree cultures of the ancient Megarid’, Classical Quarterly 59.2 (2009) 411-436; Civic obligation and individual liberty in ancient Athens. Oxford 2007.

[2] See e.g. A. Petrovic, I. Petrovic, and E. Thomas (eds.), The materiality of text – placement, perception, and presence of inscribed texts in classical antiquity. Leiden/Boston 2019.

[3] J. Ober, Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens. Princeton 2008.

[4] In Volume II, Veyne 1976 is missing; Makkink lacks a date of publication (1932); Henry 1981 is omitted too, unless 1983 is meant here (p. 63 n. 9). It could further be noticed that the bibliography does not refer to contributions to volumes in a consistent way, alternating between citing first the editors or the title of the volume.

[5] Especially p. 42 n. 111 (‘in the wider the period’, decrees and ‘her’ changed place, semicolon missing after Lambert); p. 46 (bracket missing before this; only C instead of BC); 63 (‘communuication’); p. 198 (‘is a not a history’); p. 228 (‘in supportive of’); p. 232 n. 158 (‘classicisng’). It is difficult to tell without being able to check the text file, but there seems to be a lot of double-spacing in the footnotes too.