BMCR 2022.09.23

Democrazia e buon governo. Cinque tesi democratiche nella Grecia del V secolo A.C.

, Democrazia e buon governo. Cinque tesi democratiche nella Grecia del V secolo A.C. Milan: Edizioni Universitarie di Lettere Economia Diritto, 2021. Pp. 232. ISBN 9788879169851. €32,50.

The Athenian democracy has traditionally been denied self-reflexivity. According to this view, there was never anything like a systematic theory of democracy in Athens, but only a democratic ideology; even more broadly, outside of Plato and Aristotle there is no political theory to be found in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.[1] Mosconi challenges this longstanding idea by identifying how democratic ideas coalesce during the fifth century around five distinctive theses which, as the book seeks to demonstrate, amount to a veritable democratic political theory.

While historians of Athenian democracy have long shifted their attention to the more richly documented fourth century (Osborne 2010, 1–2), Mosconi’s focus is squarely on fifth-century Athens. Plato and Aristotle are accordingly included in the discussion only when they can be shown to reflect fifth-century views. In this way Mosconi helpfully redirects the attention away from exemplary thinkers to widely held democratic “theses”.[2] To frame these theses the book also makes use of contemporary political theory, consciously relying on a small selection of mostly American studies from the last thirty years (esp. by Robert Dahl and Jason Brennan). After the pioneering efforts of Moses I. Finley, Mogens H. Hansen and Josiah Ober among others, recent years have seen an intensification of the dialogue between political theory and Classics;[3] building on this trend Mosconi hopes that the arguments of the book can be “a tool for reflection for those concerned with contemporary politics too” (p. 13). The comparison between ancient and contemporary democratic theory is in fact intended to show that “similar ideas, whether decades or millennia apart […], tend to be couched in similar terms” (pp. 173–4).[4]

The introduction lays out the book’s agenda, which centers around five “theses” that summarize the main arguments used by fifth-century Greek democrats (mostly from Athens, but not only: p. 10). These five theses were used to defend democracy as the most effective and advantageous form of government (defenses of democracy based on moral grounds are excluded: see pp. 7–8). While the individual theses will not in themselves be new to students of Athenian democracy, Mosconi’s main contribution is to discuss them in a systematic fashion as a coherent theory (pp. 8–9). Mosconi also justifies his use of contemporary political theory (pp. 10–11), which is intended to stress the similarities between ancient and modern arguments in favor of democracy.

Chapter 1 argues that every democratic system is affected by two tensions: equality vs. efficiency, equal rights vs. unequal skills. Mosconi substantiates this claim with an extensive array of classical sources and selective references to contemporary political theory. The book’s method of assembling different classical sources that contribute to a shared democratic theory can be already seen operating in this discussion, in which Mosconi interestingly argues for instance that Herodotus’ Constitutional Debate grapples with the same theoretical problems as Aristotle’s Politics (pp. 28–9).

As Mosconi briefly suggests in chapter 1 (pp. 30–1), the democratic theses were likely born as a defensive reaction against anti-democratic attacks. Chapter 2 makes a case for this idea by showcasing the different theses that critics of democracy deployed to deny the feasibility of democratic governments. Individual differences notwithstanding, the anti-democratic theses all amount to the same claim: the dēmos is unable to govern. Mosconi notes that the antidemocratic arguments are internally consistent (p. 34) and can thus even be seen as an antidemocratic, or specifically oligarchic, theory (p. 34, n. 4). The rest of the chapter accordingly weaves together well-known antidemocratic texts (e.g., Pseudo-Xenophon, Herodotus’ Constitutional Debate) into a coherent whole, in a way similar to what the next chapters will do with the democratic theses.

Chapters 3 and 4 are the core of the book. Chapter 3 examines three democratic theses that revolve around the general principle that average citizens are better at governing even if they have less technical expertise. The first two theses are extracted from two famous Thucydidean speeches (the use of Thucydides’s speeches is discussed in pp. 57–9). Mosconi gathers parallels from other fifth-century text to prove that these theses were widely held in one form or another by Greek democrats. The first thesis (59–74) is put forward by Cleon (Thuc. 3.37.3–4): citizens who are intellectually inferior but possess moderation are better politicians than those who are intelligent but excessively proud. Mosconi analyzes this and other claims by Cleon not as self-indulgent paradoxes, as has sometimes been done (cf. p. 63), but as serious statements about democracy, exploring their ramifications by comparing them to Herodotus and other contemporary texts (pp. 65–74). The second thesis is extracted from Athenagoras’ speech (Thuc. 6.39.1): the clever are the best at making good proposals, but the common citizens are the best at choosing among the proposals. While Athenagoras’ statement has been dismissed even more often than Cleon’s (p. 77), Mosconi argues that it is instead supported by the internal logic of the passage and by important resonances with other democratic texts, including Cleon’s speech (pp. 82–5). With an expansive digression Mosconi then contextualizes Athenagoras’ claim by examining the separation of proposals and choice in Greek assemblies from Homer to Thucydides (pp. 85-101): here the discussion of the relation between speakers and audience in the Athenian assembly offers a particularly valuable contribution to recent debates (pp. 94–101). The third thesis corresponds to Aristotle’s theory of the wisdom of the multitude as elaborated in Politics 1281a–1282a. Mosconi’s aim in this case is to show that this thesis shares important assumptions with the positions of Thucydides’ Cleon and Athenagoras (pp. 103–14), and that the basic idea is already suggested in fifth-century sources (pp. 114–25). The analysis of Thuc. 6.18.6 (pp. 115–18), which according to Mosconi gestures towards Aristotle’s insights, offers an interesting appreciation of Alcibiades’ political use of a difficult medical metaphor (Mosconi however does not cite Brock 2013, 75 and Rechenauer 1991, 297–303).

Chapter 4 discusses the fourth and fifth theses, which are both based on the idea that every citizen is sufficiently competent to participate in the government. The fourth thesis, attributed to Protagoras in Plato’s Protagoras, holds that through its laws and debates the democratic city teaches every citizen enough political virtue to participate in the government. Mosconi argues that Protagoras’ thesis is already suggested by Thucydides’ Pericles in his Funeral Speech, which in its programmatic ambition corroborates the idea that the thesis was widely held in the fifth century (pp. 132–7). Mosconi accordingly holds that Pericles’ version of this thesis was founded not on propaganda but on the Athenian political reality, in which democratic institutions really gave all citizens enough competence to govern well (here an important point of reference is Ober 2008). Mosconi then offers a long excursus to justify the “epistemic failures” of the Athenian dēmos (pp. 145–65), which features valuable comparisons with the contemporary information world. The fifth thesis, drawn again from Protagoras’ Great Speech in the Protagoras, states that any member of a democracy already meets the minimum threshold of expertise needed for government simply by virtue of being part of a democracy. Mosconi argues that the same idea is echoed in Plato’s Meno, in Simonides’ poem for Skopas and in Pericles’ Funeral Oration (170–4). Mosconi interestingly identifies in the sources what could be seen as antidemocratic rebuttal to this democratic thesis, namely the idea that effort and experience are required to become good citizens (pp. 177–8) – this is a particularly good example of how the positive side of the democratic political theory might have initially been conceived as an answer to the antidemocratic critique (cf. pp. 30–1).

In the fifth and final chapter Mosconi argues that even within the antidemocratic critique there are substantial concessions to the key democratic claim that the dēmos is able to govern. This chapter is thus a complement to chapter 2 and can be easily read in conjunction with it, insofar as it does not substantially advance the arguments of chapters 3 and 4. The chapter consists in a discussion of the Old Oligarch (pp. 182–6) and of Thucydides’ comments on the Sicilian expedition (pp. 186–194). As Mosconi shows, Thucydides’ diverging assessments of the people’s knowledge (and lack thereof) regarding the Sicilian expedition (Thuc. 2.65.11 and 6.1.1) can be attributed to the different temporal moments considered (Mosconi should have however cited at least Rood 1998, 159–82). Thucydides’s text suggests that the dēmos, initially ignorant about Sicily, successively reached a sufficient knowledge of the facts to make a politically reasonable decision; the failure of the expedition should in fact only be blamed on the successive choices of the generals. According to Mosconi’s view, even the narrator’s voice in Thucydides would concede that in normal conditions the dēmos has enough epistemic capability to constitute a buon governo.

This last argument shows the book at its best, namely in detailed discussions of individual passages, and in particular of Thucydidean material, often in connection with contemporary debates in political theory. In addition to these numerous and valuable individual points the book puts forward a much larger thesis: the existence of a veritable democratic political theory in fifth-century Athens. The lack of a conclusion is thus particularly frustrating, insofar as the book never offers a synoptic picture of how such theoretical edifice would operate as a whole. Similarly, a different organization of the book might have strengthened Mosconi’s case, for instance by devoting more space to the five theses, which are given only two chapters out of five. More importantly, notwithstanding the constant comparison to other fifth-century sources, it is hard to dispel the sense that the five theses come from a remarkably narrow set of canonical authors and works (Thucydides, Thucydides, Aristotle’s Politics, Plato’s Protagoras, and Plato’s Protagoras respectively) – a problem compounded by the fact that the fifth-century parallels too are often drawn from a few famous passages (e.g., Herodotus’ Constitutional Debate or Pericles’ Funeral Oration, both used multiple times).[5]

These criticisms are perhaps inevitable for a book that deals with one of the most well-studied periods of Greek antiquity (Mosconi commendably cites, although often selectively, works published as recently as 2021). But the book’s main idea has the great and timely virtue of questioning what a theory, and especially a political one, should look like, thereby prompting the reader to look for it beyond philosophical treatises. Every scholar interested in Athenian democracy will therefore gain many insights by rereading familiar texts assembled in a new and bold framework.[6]


Brock, R. 1991. “The Emergence of Democratic Ideology.”  Historia : Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 40 (2):160-169.

Brock, R. 2013. Greek political imagery from Homer to Aristotle. New York ; London: Bloomsbury.

Canevaro, M., A. Erskine, and B. Gray, eds. 2018. Ancient Greek history and contemporary social science / ed. by Mirko Canevaro, Andrew Erskine, Benjamin Gray [et al.]. Vol. 9, Edinburgh Leventis Studies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Farrar, C. 1988. The origins of democratic thinking. The invention of politics in classical Athens. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Finley, M.I. 1973. Democracy ancient and modern. New Brunswick (N. J.): Rutgers Univ. Pr.

Jones, A.H.M. 1957. Athenian democracy. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lane, M. 2014. The birth of politics: eight Greek and Roman political ideas and why they matter. Princeton (N. J.): Princeton University Press.

Ober, J. 2008. Democracy and knowledge: innovation and learning in classical Athens. Princeton (N. J.) ; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Osborne, R. 2010. Athens and Athenian democracy. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Piovan, D., and G. Giorgini. 2021. Brill’s companion to the reception of Athenian democracy : from the late Middle Ages to the contemporary era. Leiden ; Boston: Brill.

Rechenauer, G. 1991. Thukydides und die hippokratische Medizin : naturwissenschaftliche Methodik als Modell für Geschichtsdeutung. Hildesheim: Olms.

Rood, T.C.B. 1998. Thucydides: narrative and explanation. Oxford ; New York: Clarendon Press.


[1] E.g., Jones 1957, 41; Finley 1973 [1985], 28; Brock 1991. The only possible exception that has been proposed is Protagoras (Farrar 1988).

[2] For a similar decentering of individual political thinkers cf. Lane 2014.

[3] See e.g. Piovan and Giorgini 2021 and Canevaro, Erskine, and Gray 2018.

[4] All translations from the book are mine.

[5] It might have been interesting to see whether non-literary evidence could have changed the picture, for instance with a discussion of selection by lot in fifth-century institutional design as a comparandum for thesis five.

[6] The book is complemented by a selective but useful index, which includes among other things both Greek words and political theorists. The book has a few typos: p. 36 n. 17 ἄκρηστος for ἄχρηστος; p. 129 in the passage quoted λυσιτελεῖ γάρ should be preceded by a punctuation mark; p. 132 the number of footnote 21 is not superscript.