Monday, April 22, 2013


Christian Mann, Peter Scholz (ed.), "Demokratie" im Hellenismus: Von der Herrschaft des Volkes zur Herrschaft der Honoratioren? Die hellenistische Polis als Lebensform, 2. Berlin: Verlag Antike, 2011. Pp. 171. ISBN 9783938032404. €42.90.

Reviewed by Noah Kaye, University of Haifa (

Version at BMCR home site


This is the second volume produced by a research project of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft called "Die hellenistische Polis als Lebensform: Urbane Strukturen und bürgerliche Identität zwischen Tradition und Wandel.", directed by Martin Zimmermann. The goal of the project is to understand the fact of the endurance of the polis by examining the adaptation of its traditional functions in the new environment dominated by monarchy. The sixth volume is due out soon, but for more on the project, see BMCR 2010.02.30, on the inaugural book of the series. The focus of the volume edited by Christian Mann and Peter Scholz is the problem of social and political inequality in the Hellenistic polis. The central question is, at a time when every polis was a democracy in name, did increasing social stratification affect nominally egalitarian political institutions and the culture of democracy they were meant to uphold?

Christian Mann brings us up to speed on general studies of the Hellenistic polis and lays out the specific methodological problems associated with an analysis of democracy in this period. Chief among those problems is the question of the legitimacy of the comparison of these democracies to classical Athenian democracy. Mann defends the Athenian point of reference on grounds that the Athenian democracy best approximates the democratic ideal as envisioned by the political scientist Robert Dahl. As for the question of periodization, the now infamous caesura of 338 B.C.E and the Battle of Chaironeia is replaced with a decisive break placed c. 150, at the dawn of what Philippe Gauthier three decades ago named the basse époque hellénistique.1 It may be that we have become too comfortable with this story, as Mann seems to acknowledge when he points to the problem of generalization, an issue often bowed to in this volume, but not resolved in any new way. One has the impression that the activities of Hellenistic kings could make the difference, but these activities are only treated here at the level of high politics, and regrettably, never where they mattered most for the cities: at the level of direct interaction between polis institutions and royal authorities.

Peter Scholz gathers the literary evidence for democratic theory and practice in the Hellenistic polis, a useful counterbalance to the weight of the epigraphic evidence. But as Scholz shows, much of this evidence is problematic if taken straightforwardly as evidence for or against the survival of democratic norms. Polybius is shown to be decidedly uninterested in the nature of the dêmos, which is in his thought an undifferentiated, unwieldy, and most importantly, static mass of citizens. Famously, for the Megapolitan, the Achaian koinon represents the height of dêmokratia, a claim that Scholz aptly summarizes but does not subject to scrutiny. The rest of Scholz's theory review consists of summaries of Stoic, Epicurean, and Peripatetic positions on democracy and more broadly on political engagement. On Stoic thought, a crucial change is noted that begins already with the so-called middle Stoicism of Diogenes of Babylon, but comes more fully into view with Diogenes Panaitios and Poseidonius. Just why this change occurs when it does is a question that is not broached. The chapter also includes an overview of democratic practice as reflected in our literary sources. Fragments seem to suggest that the notion of a "demagogue" existed, a label seemingly foisted upon Chremonides and Glaukon in the case of Athens, and thus a democratic will capable of being manipulated. Several historical episodes are adduced, the siege of Abydos by Philip V in 200 as the paradigm, which imply that mass politics worked – the elite did not always get their way. Finally, Cicero's unkind portrait of the popular assembly of Tralleis in Pro Flacco is read against the grain, discussed for what it can actually show us about the vitality of the institution of the ekklêsia.

While largely limiting his focus to the epigraphy of one region, Asia Minor, Patrice Hamon takes up an important problem for the study of all Hellenistic poleis which roundly declared themselves democracies. The question is, "What do these cities mean when they speak of their dêmokratia?" Specifically, Hamon wants to know whether the egalitarianism that we associate with classical, especially Athenian democracy, survives alongside the diversity of political systems that went by this name after Alexander; and further, to follow the fortune of a fundamentally political concept into the socially reordered world of the basse époque hellénistique. Within this framework, Hamon is able to show very well that the Hellenistic polis preserved the institutions and even the quintessential mechanisms (klêroteria) that had produced political egalitarianism in the past. Then, for the very late period, which witnessed the appearance of a new group of towering civic benefactors, especially after the demise of the Attalid kings, he points up nicely the tension between an enduring notion of the polis as a collective of equal citizens, and the new collectivities promoted by these "big men," which preserve the status distinctions of the polis, while simultaneously absorbing many resident non-citizens. Yet there is a kind of blind-spot inherent in this framework, namely the problem of change. How are we to understand the passage from the old world to the new? Both the concept of to koinon ("Gemeinwesen") and that of to ison ("Gleichheit") are said to have changed over the course of time, with no explanation offered as to how or why. Hamon may be showing the way forward with his focus on the institution of the gymnasium, which may have been one of the engines of change. In addition to providing a very up-to-date review of the growing scholarship on the Hellenistic gymnasium, which includes discussion of unpublished ephebic lists of Pergamon (p. 66, n. 26), this treatment has the great merit of advancing the concept of "Gymnasiongemeinschaft" (p. 68) – the society of the gymnasium, which Hamon suggests was distinct from the imagined community of the polis, while eventually affording that very community a greater degree of social cohesion than it could manage on its own.

Andreas Victor Walser's contribution is a thorough analysis of popular participation in the administration of justice as an index of democracy in the Hellenistic polis. It takes on several old theses of democratic decline gleaned from the epigraphic record of the civic judiciary. Against Geoffrey de Ste. Croix's view that a class of oligarchs managed to assume control of the courts already by the beginning of the third century, a view which was, Walser notes, insufficiently grounded in the imperfectly understood case of Ptolemais in the Thebaid (OGIS 48), a large body of evidence is adduced to make favorable comparisons to classical Athens on three scores. These are, first, size: Walser wants us to believe that the large number of jurors we meet in interstate arbitrations was in fact the norm within the polis; second, appointment by lot: while admitting the ambiguity of some of the archaeological evidence, Walser makes a strong case that, if not universal, the practice survived; and, third, jury pay, usefully gathering the testimonia (p. 91, n. 66). What changes is both that foreign judges proliferate in interstate arbitrations, but they also appear for the first time judging disputes between citizens of a single polis. Here Walser argues pointedly against the notion that this development represents a decline in the judicial autonomy and what L. Robert called, the "démocratie judiciaire" of the city (p. 97-98). Indeed, foreign judges were so common in this period that a guesthouse was built in part specifically for their accommodation in Sparta, so an inscribed roof tile seems to attest (p. 101, n. 102). But their activities were largely ad hoc, regulated by the laws of each particular city, and crucially, confined to the domain of debt, contracts, and commercial disputes, an area of the law, which, as fourth-century Athens knew well, was particularly technical. Unlike classical Athens, a middling Hellenistic polis needed to turn to outsiders for this competence. Meanwhile, the citizens manned the rest of the courts, (which are ably described, though one might add the case of Eirenias of Miletos to the evidence of Halikarnassos and Kos for courts charged with validating portfolios of honors for benefactors (p. 93 and SEG XXXVI 1046 Block II line 14)). However, this very issue of competence comes to distinguish the Hellenistic norm from an Aristotelian ideal of much broader participation, especially once competence is recast as aristocratic virtue. Walser notes a trend toward a greater emphasis on the fitness of judges to decide the cases before them, neatly illustrated by the case of Chalcis vs. Eretria and Karystos (CID 4), which was appealed on grounds that the judges were not selected aristindên, "nach Massgabe ihrer Tüchtigkeit, was natürlich nur bedeuten konnte: aus der aristokratischen Elite" (p. 104).

The final contribution in the volume is a case study of Iasos. For anyone interested in the political institutions of this polis in Caria, Roberta Fabiani's article should now represent the source of record, at least until she publishes more of the conclusions announced in this piece. Taking issue with Susanne Carlsson's treatment of Iasos in the Swedish scholar's recent volume,2 Fabiani lays out afresh nearly the entire political system of the city, with a special emphasis on assembly procedures. The transition from the Hekatomnid to the Hellenistic polis is brought clearly into focus. A detailed prosopography of the city's magistrates is also provided. But the import of the study for the main themes of the volume rests in its explication of two major moments of institutional change. First was the introduction of the ekklêsiastikon at the end of the fourth century, a revenue scheme that paid people to attend the assembly (I. Iasos 20), which, Fabiani underlines, appeared alongside the new office of prostatai (of the dêmos). She sees here a moderate democracy of a distinctly Aristotelian bent. The second moment occurs in the middle of the third century when the board of prytanes seems to take on an unassailable power over the assembly's agenda. Fabiani takes a relatively dim view of the prospects for an amelioration of the negative effects of this reform on popular democracy by means of the ephodos procedure. The restriction of access to the political arena and the concentration of power in the hands of the few, the emergence of the "Herrschaft der Honoratioren" of the book's title, at least in Iasos, occurred not c. 150, but nearly a century earlier.

This volume will not serve as a primer to Hellenistic democracy. But it will serve as a useful companion to two recent monographs better suited to that purpose, Susanne Carlsson's and Volker Grieb's.3 (I note in passing that the book contains a number of typos (e.g., pp. 48, 72, n. 45, 92)). It has the great merit of providing the reader with the full range of criteria on which the participatory character of Hellenistic democracy should be evaluated. Moreover, it is a fine demonstration of how we turn the history of the institutions of the polis into social history.


1.   Gauthier, Philippe. Les cités grecques et leurs bienfaiteurs. Paris. 1985.
2.   Carlsson, Susanne. Hellenistic Democracies: Freedom, Independence and Political Procedure in Some East Greek City-States. Stuttgart. 2010.
3.   Grieb, Volker. Hellenistische Demokratie: politische Organisation und Struktur in freien griechischen Poleis nach Alexander dem Grossen. Stuttgart. 2008. ​

1 comment:

  1. In addition to N. Kaye's reference to current work by N. Papazarkadas, note P. Demont, "Le kleroterion ('machine à tirer au sort') et la démocratie athénienne", Bulletin de l'Association Guillaume Budé 2003, 26-52, for a neat presentation of the evidence (with awareness of the late Hellenistic issues as well as of the Classical testimonia).