Sunday, August 31, 2014


Johann P. Arnason, Kurt A. Raaflaub, Peter Wagner (ed.), The Greek Polis and the Invention of Democracy: A Politico-Cultural Transformation and its Interpretations. The Ancient World: Comparative Histories. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Wiley–Blackwell, 2013. Pp. x, 400. ISBN
9781444351064. $139.95.

Reviewed by Alexandra Lianeri, University of Thessaloniki (

Version at BMCR home site


This sophisticated volume engages with a constantly reinvented meaning of democracy by means of a complex return to the walls of Athens. On one level, it re-examines Athens from the viewpoint of the relation between democracy and the wider frame of the polis society. It thus explores
concepts, commitments and practices of the polis that encountered dēmokratia and reshaped it by means of opposition and dissent. On the other hand, it returns to Athens from the broader diachronic scope of modern democracy with the intention of challenging the developmental logic leading
from antiquity to the modern democratic paradigm. As the editors point out, when observers consider ancient Greek democracy as a ‘success’ story, they overlook the fact that democratic practices were contested in the past and stand today as a challenging and problematic project rather than a
triumphant finale to history (2).

This enterprise is organized around four distinct sections. In the first, the authors re-assess the Greek experience of democracy from the broader perspectives of historical-comparative sociology and the history of political thought. Johann Arnason takes on Christian Meier’s question of the
emergence of the political in Greece1 as a distinct version of the Axial breakthrough indicating cultural interaction with Near Eastern centres. Against a background centred on the problems, virtues and possibilities of monarchy, the Greek notion of the political involved the shaping
of a polycentric field of conflicts associated with different patternings in diverse polis-regimes. Peter Wagner also enquires about the Greek concept of the political by exploring the trajectory of ancient and modern democracy in the context of the radical transformation of western political
languages between 1770 and 1830. He argues that our relation to dēmokratia is one of conceptual and institutional transformations manifesting a constant element that sustains the modern return to Athens: a ‘democratic political imaginary’ holding that the people rule themselves, as the
etymology and past usage of the term indicate.

In its second part, the book examines the embeddedness of democracy in the practices of the polis-society through an analysis of genres of expression and interpretation. Egon Flaig explores how tragedy was one of the answers given by Greek intellectuals to the contradiction between collective
will formation and acting on the one hand, and the lack of undisputed normative and moral orientation on the other. The tragic entanglement stating that ‘who acts will suffer’ indicated a connection between ‘doing’ and ‘bearing the consequences’, inviting reflection about the fragility of
normative rules. Comedy is then studied by Lucio Bertelli as a discursive mode of dissent. Unlike other dissenters in Athens, such as Pseudo-Xenophon and Plato, Aristophanes aimed at educating the democratic citizenry and fixing the vices of the people, whose lack of wisdom and learning was not
considered to be an irreparable flaw.

Jonas Grethlein argues against the straightforward relation between historiography and democratic culture by examining the ambiguous attitudes of the first historians towards oratory. He suggests that while Herodotus and Thucydides criticize the speeches both explicitly and implicitly, the
very form of their criticism contains democratic features creating a tension that is parallel to the one between content and form in Plato. Also focusing on rhetoric, Harvey Yunis explores the evolution of its political uses on the basis of two categories: primary political rhetoric composed for
delivery in political or judicial institutions, and literary rhetoric as a written genre that did not aim to affect immediate decision making. The latter genre developed a complex artistic prose deployed by critics of democracy seeking to reshape the readers’ understanding of a historical event
or a domain of knowledge.

The interpretive operation of the Athenian legal system is discussed by Adriaan Lanni as intertwined with democracy through its pervasive ‘amateurism’. It was not only that every player in the system was fundamentally a layman; argumentation in popular courts also reflected democratic
ideology especially as regards the expression of hostility toward expertise. On the grounds of this amateurism, Athenian courts were arguably more successful at maintaining order and promoting political stability than other legal systems. Ryan Balot shifts the discussion to the tension between
ancient Greek political thinking and practice with the aim of exploring within democratic politics certain ideological strands that informed the Socratic, Platonic, and Aristotelian political projects. This enterprise sustains a broader thesis about the dialectical intertwining of political
thought and practice in Athens, which is traced back to Solon and precludes a binary opposition between democratic and anti-democratic discourses. Finally in this section, Elizabeth Meyer focuses on the history of inscriptions in Athens to argue against the easy connection between the epigraphic
habit and the regime of democracy. Inscribing on stone was an act of memorializing and monumentalizing involving diverse cultural habits, such as honor and praise, religious traditions, political institutions and the culture of the city itself.

The third part of the book explores democracy’s impact on the polis society. Sara Forsdyke discusses the uneven ways in which democracy influenced communal life. She suggests that tradition and innovation combined to produce a hybrid society in which the new did not wholly dispel the old and
the existence of sophisticated formal institutions did not preclude the informal participation of women, metics and slaves in the life of the community. Claude Mossé also focuses on democracy’s principle of political participation to highlight the relation between the ambiguity of concepts such
as dēmos, kratos, isonomia, isēgoria, and so on, and the actual historical conditions that framed participatory practice, such as class-divisions and the interdependence between the dēmos and the Athenian political elite.

Robin Osborne examines the relation of democracy and religion. Discussing how religious beliefs and practices made possible a democratic ethos, he contends that “it was in relation to the gods, and not simply in relation to other men, that individuals came to acquire and envisage their
capacities for autonomy.” (292) On the other hand, while religion in Athens cannot be reduced to democracy, its links to certain democratic institutions and practices, such as the number of competitive festivals open to participation by all, made the expression of religion the expression of a
democratic community. Lawrence Tritle shifts attention to the impact of war on democracy and democratic society, discussing the impacts on the Athenian community of changes in military ministry after the Persian wars, the relation between war and democratic decision making, the economy, and the
ways in which the Athenian democracy dealt with the question of casualties and the social consequences of war’s trauma.

The book’s final section examines key concepts of the ancient Greek democratic self-understanding and their transformation between antiquity and the present. Kurt Raaflaub enquires about the historical conditions in the polis that transformed a polis-being into “a truly political being”
(324). Tracing the history of the concepts of equality and the political, he recognizes significant democratizing processes in poleis other than Athens, but contends that the fifth-century Athenian breakthrough was unique as regards the extent and characteristics of political mobilization and
participation of lower class citizens. Tracy Strong explores the interrelation of tyranny, democracy and tragedy via a reading of Nietzsche’s consideration of politics as a form of agōn and of tyranny as the act of considering as accomplished the world that one has made. Tragedy preserved the
agōn by making available the experience of confronting two equally categorical positions and recognizing that disaster comes when one or the other or both insist on being taken as final. In the last essay, Natalie Karagiannis and Peter Wagner discuss the distinction between ancient and modern
liberty. They suggest that a concept of freedom elaborated between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE included an idea of personal freedom which it combined with the democratic idea of collective freedom. This concept can provide important components of a remedy for ‘modern’ freedom both with
regard to the idea of the human being as an atom and the consequences of individual liberty for the sustainability of political society.

The volume is part of the series The Ancient World: Comparative Histories which is intended to pursue the comparative study of ancient or early societies, while occasionally adopting a more diachronic scope (vii). Unlike other volumes in the series, which discuss civilizations from
Asia through the Mediterranean to the Americas, the comparative perspective deployed here is more complex. The frames of comparison utilize the diachronic history of the polis, the long-term history of Athenian democracy, and divisions and differences characterizing Athenian democracy, as well as
the interdisciplinary linking of classics, ancient history, the history of political thought, sociology, and political science. Indeed, with the exception of Arnason’s analysis and the introduction, the book consciously remains within the limits of the European, the Greek, and often the Athenian
world. As the editors explain in the introduction, while they recognize democratic ‘alternatives to Athens’, these do not become the book’s focus (2).

This perspective is not comparative if comparison is understood as a juxtaposition of objects that exist on a global scale, whatever the grandiose adjective ‘global’ may be taken to mean. However, if one accepts that comparison, as Jörn Rüsen notes, presupposes a certain transformation of
historical consciousness that challenges the historian’s own sense of the past in relation to what is ‘other’,2 then this transformation may involve various comparative frames and constellations. The reconstitution of one’s perspective on Athenian democracy by means of a comparative
approach involves replacing the image of Athens as a discrete entity with a complex set of relations. In other words, it involves identifying an entangled set of pathways that are open-ended and move in and out of other geopolitical and cultural topoi, but also in and out of the different topoi
inscribed in the diversity of the Greek poleis, in the juxtaposition of democracy and the polis society, and in the long-term history of ancient and modern democracy.

By grounding its comparative perspective on gaps, tensions and conflicts characterizing the history of democracy and the Greek polis, the book usefully complements works utilizing a broader comparative frame which have challenged the uniqueness of the Greek paradigm by relating Greece to the
Asian and Mediterranean worlds.3 Still, the inclusion of this broader perspective in the book through Arnason’s essay raises significant theoretical questions about the interrelation of the two models. Comparison allows us to reinvent the historical objects it brings together by
enabling their understanding in new terms generated by the comparative frame itself. This means that the image of Athenian democracy changes when historical data are examined, for instance, in comparison with the modern European democratic tradition; within the background of the diverse cultural
and political traditions of the polis; or in comparison with alternatives to Athens manifested within or beyond the Greek world. How is it possible to sustain a dialogue between the different images associated with these distinct comparative frames? When it is seen from a worldly perspective, a
comparative approach limited to the Greek poleis or Athenian democracy can justifiably be criticized as Eurocentric and Athenocentric, on the grounds that it naturalizes the imaginary uniqueness of Greek or Athenian history. Still, a broader frame does not straightforwardly imply a critical
perspective on Eurocentrism, insofar as comparisons may well rely on concepts derived from the European tradition, such as democracy and the polis, and thus prefigure the uniqueness of the Greek paradigm. So the analysis of tensions underpinning these concepts, attempted by this volume, may
serve to highlight paths of critique contained within the European tradition itself.4 Reflection on the different models of comparison as regards ancient history goes beyond the scope of the present review. Yet it attests to the book’s theoretical sophistication that it invites such a
reflection by suggesting that what we call ‘Athenian democracy’ is but a unifying category for a much more diversified, complex and interactive fabric of practices, concepts, historical objects and traditions, whose mutual opposition may grant new frames for comparative historiography in the
ancient world.


1.   Meier, C., Die Entstehung des Politischen bei den Griechen, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp 1980, Eng. tr. The Greek Discovery of Politics, tr. D. McLintock, Cambridge MA.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

2.   Rüsen, J., “Some Theoretical Approaches to Intercultural Comparative Historiography”, History and Theory 35, 1996: 5–22.

3.   See Horden, P. and Purcell, N., The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000; Lloyd, G. E. R., Ancient Worlds, Modern Reflections: Philosophical Perspectives on Greek and Chinese Science and Culture, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006, and
Disciplines in the Making: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Elites, Learning and Innovation, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009; Vlassopoulos, K., Unthinking the Greek Polis: Ancient Greek History beyond Eurocentrism, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007, and Greeks and Barbarians, Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 2013; Haubold, J., Greece and Mesopotamia: Dialogues in Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013.

4.   On this issue see Chakrabarty, D., Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.

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