Introduction: Alternatives to the Democratic Polis
The second half of the fourth century bc Aristotle’s school undertook a major research project: a collection of ‘constitutions’ (politeiai) of Greek states. The project’s primary purposewas to underpinAristotle’s writing of his Politics (as the transitional passage at the end of his Nicomachean Ethics makes clear); but the ‘constitutions’ clearly also circulated independently,since the ancient lists of the works of Aristotle mention a collection of 158
constitutions of states ‘democratic, oligarchic, tyrannic, and aristocratic’1.
The project covered the full range of constitutional forms; and from the surviving fragments of eighty-odd individual studies known to us, we can see that it also covered communities of widely differing types and locations2.
The major Greek poleis (‘city-states’ or, perhaps better, ‘citizen-states’)3 of the mainland and islands—places such as Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Miletos,
Samos, Naxos, and Aegina—were there, together with Syracuse, Akragas,
Taras, Croton, and other major powers of Magna Graecia; but so too were small poleis such as Troizen, Cythnos, Melos, and Tenedos. Indeed, the project clearly embraced the whole Greek world, from Massalia (modern Marseilles) in the western Mediterranean, via Cyrene in Libya, to Soli in Cilicia, as well as cities whose Greek nature was marginal, such as Adramyttion and Kios inMysia, and,most famously,Carthage, which was not Greek
at all4. It included communities not regarded as poleis, and even some which were not unitary states.
There were studies of a number of communities known as ethnee, such as the Aetolians, Acarnanians, Ambrakians, Arcadians,Achaeans, Bottiaeans, Epeirotes, Lycians, and Thessalians, several of which are discussed in this volume; and the islands of Cyprus and Crete were dealt with en bloc rather than in terms of the various local political communities which they contained5. The complete project must have painted a marvelously diverse picture of political organization and activity over the Greek world of the Mediterranean, a picture reflected, albeit often dimly,in the illustrations Aristotle drew from it for the Politics.
Sad to say, little of this diversity is reflected in the picture of ancient Greek politics current in popular perceptions or presented in many educational syllabuses, which for the most part concentrate on one particular political system—the Athenian democracy (deemokratia) of the fifth and fourth centuries bc. Even within the world of specialist academic research,although recent years have witnessed a burgeoning number of studies of other Greek communities, democratic Athens remains the central focus of historical studies of ancient Greece, especially in the study of politics6. In 1992 and 1993 this concentration on Athenian politics reached a climax as a consequence of the celebrations of the 2,500th anniversary of what many interpret as the birth of Athenian deemokratia, the reforms of Kleisthenes in 508/7 bc. These celebrations were marked by a variety of academic and popular events, ranging from specialist scholarly colloquia and publications
on democratic Athens, through broader conferences on democracy embracing
participants from both academic and political life, to cultural events open to the general public such as exhibitions and multi-faceted occasions like the ‘DemocracyWeek’ held in London in June 1993.
It was against this background, and at the very time of the democracy celebrations, that (in concert with our former colleagues John Smart and David Whitehead) we resolved, as organizers of the Leeds–Manchester Greek History Research Seminar, to initiate a series bearing the title ‘Alternatives to the Democratic Polis’. The thinking behind the series, as
advertised in the initial call for papers, was to combat the ‘danger of tunnel vision, a perspective which ignores the variety of ancient Greek state forms and the plurality of constitutional patterns’. Instead, we aimed ‘to give the variety and plurality their due by examining alternatives (theoretical and actual) to the polis and/or to democracy in archaic, classical, and early hellenistic Greece’. Our aim, in short, was to provide a counterbalance to the then current democracy celebrations, to redirect attention to the range of political systems and communities beyond that of the democratic polis, and particularly Athenian deemokratia, and to encourage a more rounded analysis of Greek political life. One of our intentions was to bring together into a common forum work being done, sometimes in isolation, by scholars of different generations from a range of academic institutions both in Britain and elsewhere. The outcome exceeded even our expectations. Such was the
response of colleagues wishing to place their work within the series that it ran for three academic years, commencing in October 1992 and culminating in a day conference at Manchester in May 1995. Our theme had clearly answered to a need felt by these scholars for a view of the ancient Greek state which was not dominated by democratic Athens. The response also testifies to the reality of modern historical research, which, contrary to
popular presentation, has for some years past extended its horizons to the full range of ancient state formations. It is hardly coincidence, moreover,that our own initiative should have coincided with the inauguration of the massive collective research e·ort of the Copenhagen Polis Centre, whose work, though focused upon study of the polis, both concurs with ours in examining the range of such communities throughout the ancient Greek world and has embraced in practice the study of communities other than
In this volume we present a selection of papers from the seminar series under the title Alternatives to Athens:Varieties of Political Organization and Community in Ancient Greece. ‘Athens’ stands here as the prime representative of the forms of constitution and state (democracy and the polis) which have dominated the attention of most modern observers of ancient Greece.
The term ‘alternatives’ is intended in several overlapping senses. Some of the political ideas and systems discussed in the following chapters were directly contemporaneous with democratic Athens and were either projected alternatives to her democratic system or external powers, possessing a variety of different political formations, with whom the Athenians had to compete or negotiate. Other chapters discuss ‘alternatives to Athens’ in the looser sense of ways of organizing politics and society other than through democracy or the polis: providing, as our subtitle suggests, case studies of the widely varying forms of political or social organization, community, and identity which developed within the Greek world and among neighbouring peoples between the archaic and hellenistic periods. Finally, ‘alternatives to Athens’ is also intended in the historiographical sense to signal the broader
perspective and more flexible approach we should adopt both to the study of ancient society and politics and to the political heritage we derive from Greek antiquity.
The domination of Athens
The world of Greek politics represented in this volume differs so vastly from the Athenocentric image which so powerfully informs modern perceptions that it is worth considering the reasons for this divergence between image and reality. There are, it seems to us, two principal reasons for the modern over-concentration on Athenian deemokratia: the overwhelming one sidedness in the amount and quality of our information, and the tendency of modern liberal democratic society to look back to its supposed predecessor
in the ancient past. Both reasons deserve some scrutiny.
It is obvious and undeniable that Athens is much the best-documented political community of ancient Greece. In part, this is due to the fact that,of all the 158 ‘constitutions’ referred to above, only the Athenian Constitution survives in anything more than a fragmentary condition, following its discovery on a papyrus recovered from the sands of Egypt in the late nineteenth century. In part, it is a reflection both of Athens’ size and power,
which made her a dominant force in Greek affairs, and of her role as the leading cultural centre, which made the greatest contribution to the Greek literary and artistic heritage. Hence, to a wealth of contemporary writings there was added an abiding interest throughout antiquity in matters Athenian; and many works relating to her affairs were subsequently copied or at least cited in later periods. Even before the discovery of the papyrus text of the Athenian Constitution, the work was already much the best known
of all the Aristotelian constitutions owing to its frequent citation by other ancient writers (Gigon 1987: 581). The rich documentation of Athenian political life, however, is also due to the link between Athenian democracy and the ‘epigraphic habit’: the Athenians had an ideological commitment to the publication of records of public business, normally in the form of inscriptions on stone.
Whatever view one takes of the use which they themselves made of this material8, the extensive surviving remains of the archive which they created leave us uniquely well informed on the detailed working of Athenian democracy. It is easy for such a wealth of material to create what is sometimes called ‘the tyranny of the evidence’. Since we can answer a much wider range of questions about Athens in much fuller detail than is possible for other states, there is sometimes a tendency to concentrate upon these richer sources of material, which offer a more secure niche for academic specialization.
To say this is not to ignore the increased attention which has undoubtedly been given by a number of recent scholars to the history and archaeology of other Greek states (as is evident from the Recommended Reading below).
However, the sheer paucity of detailed information about their political systems inevitably restricts the depth of analysis on this subject in relation to other aspects of their societies9. Moreover, the existence of particular local studies has hardly produced a general reassessment of Greek politics upon a less Atheno centric model such as would hold sway in basic courses and textbooks on Greek political history10.
At first sight, these observations might appear to be contradicted by the case of Sparta. The quantity of information about Spartan public affairs is indeed slight compared with that concerning Athens11. The Aristotelian Constitution of the Lakedaimonians (as the Spartans called themselves) survives only in brief fragments; the Spartans’ cultural contribution
was negligible; and extant inscriptions recording their public business in the classical period can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Yet recent years have witnessed several studies of the operation of Spartan politics;12 and her constitution is often discussed as a working alternative to Athenian deemokratia (Powell 1988; Finer 1997: i. 336–40). The case of Sparta is, however, less of an exception than it might seem. First, modern scholarly
study of Sparta is by no means as universal a phenomenon as the study of democratic Athens. The subject is comparatively neglected in scholarship in the United States, in marked contrast with the veritable industry of recent American studies of Athenian democracy. Secondly, there is a vast gulf between the character of modern studies of Athenian and of Spartan politics. In contrast to recent in-depth studies of the detailed operation of Athenian democratic institutions and ideology, studies of Spartan politics
are frequently reduced to elementary, and often controversial, debates concerning
basic ‘facts’ of political procedure13.Thirdly, our capacity to engage in more substantive discussion of Spartan politics, as of most other aspects of her society, is to a considerable extent a spin-o· from the political and cultural prominence of Athens and from the perceived opposition between the two states in classical Greek politics and ideology.
The prominence of Sparta in the contemporary classical literary record is largely an Athenian phenomenon, the majority of our evidence coming from writers who were either Athenians themselves (Thucydides, Euripides, Aristophanes,Critias, Xenophon, Plato) or persons, such as Herodotus and Aristotle,who were deeply influenced by Athens. The Athenians’ preoccupation with Sparta was the product of their own self-representation, with Sparta serving the role of the archetypal opposite or ‘Other’, her institutions presented in stark contrast—either positively or negatively in accordance with the writer’s attitude—to those of Athens (Powell and Hodkinson 1994; Greenstein Millender 1996). The sources’ presentation of Spartan politics often shares these concerns. Indeed, they have not been entirely absent from modern scholarship: it is notable that the main subject of recent debate has been the extent to which Spartan decision-making was open and democratic. The case of Sparta is indeed the proverbial exception which proves the rule about the dominance of the Athenian perspective in both the surviving historical record and the modern study of Greek political systems.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
edited by ROGER BROCK and STEPHEN HODKINSON
1.The quotation is from Diogenes Laertius 5. 27, item 143; What Hesychius means by a polis idiotikos in his parallel list is anyone’s guess. It is interesting that Diogenes’ list excludes the ‘good forms’ of democracy and monarchy, namely polity and kingship, which complete the list of six types of constitution in Aristotle’s Politics 3. 7.
2.For a recent edition of the fragments see Gigon (1987) 561–722, though his list of 148
constitutions identifiable by title or fragment is probably rather optimistic.
3.‘City-state’ is the orthodox English translation of the Greek term ‘polis’. The alternative
term, ‘citizen-state’, on which see Hansen (1993), lays stress on the polis as a community of citizens. For a succinct account of the polis see the article ‘Polis’ in the Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd edn.) by O.Murray. The meaning and reference of the term ‘polis’ are the subject of a major research project by the Copenhagen Polis Centre. One important qualification of the traditional view to emerge from their researches is the argument that autonomy was not an essential feature of a polis: see Hansen (1995a).
4.That there was a Carthaginian Constitution is an inference from the lengthy discussion in
book 2 of the Politics; it is not otherwise attested (Gigon 1987: 648–9).
5.On ethn»e see the section below on ‘Communities other than the polis’. On the Achaeans,Thessalians, Epeirotes, and Lycians see the respective chapters by Morgan, Archibald,Davies,and Keen. For the argument that the local Cypriot kingdoms should be regarded as poleis see Demand (1996). Aristotle’s treatment of Crete as a unity was founded on misconception:Perlman (1992); for elements of confederacy in one region of Crete, however, see the chapter by Sekunda below.
6.Besides the books mentioned in the next section of this introduction, one might note the
wealth of studies by M. H. Hansen, culminating in Hansen (1991), textbooks such as Sinclair (1987) and Stockton (1990), and more theoretical discussions like Farrar (1988) and Ober (1989).
7.For the publications of the Copenhagen Polis Centre see CPC Acts 1–5; CPC Papers 1–4.
8.Since the publication of Thomas (1989), many scholars have become more sceptical about the role played in Athenian public life by records and written documents.
9. J.B. Salmon (1984), for example, devotes only 8 pages (232–9) out of 464 to the constitution of Corinth, for want of evidence.
10.For example, in Buckley (1996), a valuable textbook for the requirements ofUK‘Advanced’ level syllabuses in Ancient History, nine out of eleven chapters on the internal politics of Greek states relate to Athens. With the exception of a chapter on tyranny and one on 7th- and 6thcent.
Sparta, the histories of Greek states other than Athens are discussed primarily in terms of
their foreign policies. Among works by academics aimed at a popular audience,Murray (1988b)devotes only two pages to oligarchy in classical Greece as a whole compared with sixteen on Athenian democracy in the 5th and 4th cents.
11.Compare the slender scale ofMacDowell’s book on Spartan law (1986) with the mountain of publications on Athenian law.
12. e.g. Andrewes (1966); Ste Croix (1972) 124–50; W. E. Thompson (1973); Lewis (1977)
27–49; D. H. Kelly (1981); Forrest (1983); Cartledge (1987) esp. 99–138.
13.e.g. the debate between Rahe (1980) and Rhodes (1981b) regarding the procedures for
electing the executive o¶cials known as ephors. Note the comments of Ste Croix (1972:
131) regarding Spartiate voting procedures: ‘It is a sobering reflection that our knowledge
of the persistence of these extraordinary procedures depends upon an aside of six words in
Thucydides, a couple of isolated remarks in Aristotle, and a single passage in Plutarch. There may well have been other unique features of Spartan constitutional procedure which our sources have failed to record.’