Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Alex Gottesman, Politics and the Street in Democratic Athens. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xii, 247. ISBN 9781107041684. $95.00.

Reviewed by Benjamin Keim, Pomona College (

Version at BMCR home site


In this timely volume, described as 'the first in-depth study of the classical Athenian public sphere,' Alex Gottesman assesses the significance of extra-institutional communication within the Athenian democracy (p. i). Acknowledging the complementary roles of Athenian institutions and ideologies, Gottesman draws our attention to that middle ground, abuzz with rumor-mongerers and publicity stunts, where decrees were effectively enacted and verdicts truly enforced. Here initial sketches of Athenian social spaces and networks (Chapters One and Two) are followed by case-studies illustrating how diverse individuals—whether rhetores or slaves, historical Athenians or Plato's Magnesians—might employ rumor and publicity to effect changes within civic institutions (Chapters Three through Seven).

Gottesman prefers 'the Street' over 'public opinion' as his organizing concept for two reasons (ix-xi). First, his 'Street', derived from an Arabic metaphor that has gained wider currency in the aftermath of September 11th and the Arab Spring, has both positive and negative connotations, of vibrant sociality tinged with revolutionary fervor. Second, this 'Street' explicitly includes the politically marginalized. While both Arab and Athenian Streets feature politicking across social divides, the negative side of the Athenian Street is revealed not by an affinity for regime-shattering upheaval but rather by the intrusion of emotion and irrationality into institutional affairs.

Although he recognizes the importance of these institutional affairs, Gottesman believes too much attention has been focused on the Assembly and the courts: we overlook 'shabby Athens' (and the shabbier residents of Athens) instead of privileging the Street as the center of Athenian democracy (4, 26n.1). Drawing on Danielle Allen's model of the multiplicity of public spheres,1 Gottesman divides Athens into an institutional sphere (defined as the world of the Assembly, Council, and courts, 8-11) and an informal, 'extra-institutional public sphere' that 'existed wherever people gathered and socialized' (20). While institutional discourse was primarily uni-directional, the informal sphere was marked by multi-voice, multi-directional debates that yielded not only policing (as detailed within the earlier works of Virginia Hunter and David Cohen) but also rampant politicking.

Chapters One and Two elaborate this vision of the informal public sphere by painting the Athenians' spatial and social worlds in very broad strokes. Chapter One embarks on 'a tour of the Agora' that reveals an arena of orderly chaos, a mixed marketplace in which citizens and non-citizens were jostling side by side. Gottesman argues resolutely against 'a common view' of the Agora as a purified space in which trade and ritual were segregated: although there was a line between commercial and civic functions, it was a 'particularly fine' and 'porous' one (40-3). The institutional and non-institutional are separate and yet inseparable.

Chapter Two surveys 'Athenian social networks' and the manner in which these 'overlapping and extensive' networks effectively created a kind of face-to-face society (63). Within his introductory remarks Gottesman suggested associations were a significant means of institutional and extra-institutional interaction at Athens (7), and here, drawing inspiration from Kostas Vlassopoulos' work on 'free spaces', he surveys the range of citizen and mixed, inherited and voluntary associations at Athens as 'spaces in which people socialized across statuses' (45). While voluntary citizen associations might conjure up threats of political conspiracy, even more concerning, from a civic perspective, were those associations, such as financial eranoi or religious thiasoi, that brought citizens and non-citizens together (52-5). Yet individuals regularly associate even without formal ties, and in this city of words they were chattering away everywhere they went, especially around the Agora. The mixed-status banter within these public venues, whether the proverbial barbershops or workshops such as that depicted on the Foundry Cup, was critical to the enacting of the democracy's institutional decisions (63). If, without this banter, without action by individuals and groups, the decisions enacted by the institutions would not come into effect, we might well expect individuals to try to manipulate this dynamic (76). And so they did.

Chapter Three opens with a delightful reading of Plutarch's Solon as the embodiment of 'the problem of non-institutional politics', a leader who is worrying about the corrosive effects of Thespis' and Pisistratus' theatricality yet who is also carefully orchestrating his own rallying cry against Salamis (77-9). Thus the tension at the heart of this study emerges once again: while Athenian institutions could not function without the Street, the passions and potential irrationality of the Street threatened the ideological foundations of those institutions. Turning to Aeschylus' Suppliants, Gottesman adopts the playwright's critical eye as Pelasgus, absent any compelling 'institutional' reason to support the Danaids' appeals, does not reason with his fellow Argives (as Theseus does with the Athenians in Euripides' Suppliants) but instead employs the 'publicity stunt' of supplication to persuade them by other means (88-94). Similar passages extolling persuasion by argument, rather than performance or emotion, are adduced from comedy, historiography, and oratory: across genres and across centuries authors suggest that manipulative displays and emotional appeals should not be a part of institutional discussions, yet leading Athenians appear more interested in appropriating, rather than prohibiting, such theatricality.

Supplication remains prominent within Chapter Four, 'Institutionalizing Theatricality in the Assembly', as Gottesman considers the eight fragmentary fourth-century Attic inscriptions attesting (with the formula περὶ ὧν ἔδοξεν ἔννομα ἱκετεύειν) supplication within the Assembly. Each of these inscriptions involve the award of honors to non-citizens, honors that other contemporary foreign honorands were granted without supplication. Gottesman argues compellingly that these acts of supplication may be attributed to the ambitions of those citizens who were serving as sponsors. Read against the backdrop of fourth-century Athens' ever-increasing nostalgia for the past, these inscriptions suggest that leading Athenians of this period—from Eubulides to Lycurgus—viewed such efforts as yet another means of competing publicly. While such sponsorships might yield (rumors of) monetary reward, more significant was the 'symbolic profit' reaped by performing this traditional Athenian role of protector of suppliants (108).

With Chapter Five, 'Publicity Stunts in Athenian politics', foreshadowings of another twentieth-century concept are found within ancient mêchanai. An introduction to the three axes of Gottesman's interpretive model—What meaning was the stunt meant to convey to its original audience(s)? How did the stunt influence institutional decision-making? How effective was the stunt?—is followed by exegesis of three significant stunts: Pisistratus' acquisition of a bodyguard and ceremonial entry with Phye (118-25); Ephialtes' 'naked' supplication on the altar (125-31); and the 'mournful' Apaturia after the Battle of Arginusae (131-40). Throughout his readings Gottesman remains sensitive to the difficulties raised by the surviving account(s), and emphasizes the structure, rather than historicity, of the narrated events. While these three stunts marked pivotal moments in Athenian history, they should not be thought unusual but rather exemplary of Athenian political culture through the end of the Peloponnesian War. The subsequent disappearance of such stunts might be attributed, Gottesman argues, to a wide range of causes: the violent political upheavals of 411 and 404, the instigation of probouloi after the Sicilian Expedition, the emergence of the graphê paranomôn, or the increasingly complex methods of allotting dikastai to the courts (144-6). More positively, Gottesman speculates that the rise of pamphleteering allowed for new means of communicating with the same audience, even as speechwriters (logographoi) were subject to the same aspersions cast at rumor-mongerers (logopoioi)

Stunts of an entirely different sort are the concern of Chapter Six, 'Slaves in the Theseion'. The framing argument suggests that individual slaves might stage stunts in order 'to improve their personal circumstance', either by obtaining a new master or by improving their treatment by their current master (155). More particularly, Gottesman argues that the slaves in the Theseion, the lowest of the low, hoped that by attracting a would-be master and staging an aphairesis eis eleutherian they would be able to achieve new and improved connections (178). While this interpretation is not implausible, the acknowledged lack of any clear and unambiguous evidence for slaves in the Theseion should not distract us from this chapter's fundamental point, which is shown to be of great interest to citizens and slaves alike: in the absence of any central database or authority an individual's identity is determined entirely by whom he knows, and thus with the right performance all sorts of Athenian ties and identities might be forged.

With Chapter Seven, 'The Magnesian Street', Gottesman moves from Athenian practice to Platonic theory. In the Laws, unlike the earlier Republic or the later Aristotelian corpus, Gottesman finds a 'robust, inclusive public sphere' that is envisioned as a 'force for order and reason' (183-4, 209). Thus the Guardians of the Republic are replaced by Ho Boulomenos of the Laws (186); the elections of the Magnesian Council and Law Guardians are orchestrated to ensure widespread participation; women play key roles, as marriage inspectors and as residents, within the maintenance of civic order; and, perhaps most importantly, the infelicitously-dubbed 'Nocturnal Council' is reconciled with the remainder of the Laws through its junior members, who, as both watchers and watched, allow their fellow citizens the opportunity to assess their quality of their community's elderly leaders (197-203). Beneficial gossip is encouraged for the good of the community, and its good, non-slanderous character is assured by individuals' desire for virtue rather than honor. Although somewhat distant from Athenian realities, the content and expansiveness of the Laws allows Gottesman ample material with which to model and explore the interactions of complementary institutional and public spheres.

The main challenge of this volume—that we acknowledge the politicking that occurred outside of Athenian institutions, even if the dynamics and details of those exchanges are even more obscure than the institutional debates they shaped—is a worthy one.2 Throughout this volume Gottesman remains very sensitive to the limitations of his evidence and its interpretation, whether he is reading Aeschylean tragedy or fragmentary third-century inscriptions; although they are merely 'glimpses' of the Street, together his individual sources provide an outlook on the Athenian experience that demands additional study (210). I close by offering four suggestions: first, building on these foundations, we must continue refining our model(s) of Athenian spheres. Throughout this volume, for example, the Assembly, Council, and lawcourts are sensibly said to define the institutional sphere, yet on one occasion the theatre is also included within the ranks of key institutions (10). Second, continuing Gottesman's sensitive engagement with non-citizen perspectives, we must continue exploring the experiences of—and contributions made by—women, foreigners, and slaves to Athenian politics broadly understood. Third, following Gottesman's emphasis on Athenian associations and on Robin Osborne's vision of the "miniature poleis" within the polis, we must scrutinize not merely these particular groups but also the various arenas—symposia, gymnasia, etc.—in which they met. Finally, we must draw into our conversation additional sources, such as the dokimasia-speeches of Lysias and Aeschines, that shed light on the interactions of institutional and extra-institutional conversations. Although Gottesman suggests that the preponderance of elite literary texts means that '[w]e cannot access the Street directly' (15), the line of inquiry he sets out leads not into a cul-de-sac but rather down a broad boulevard that will reward our further exploration.


1.   Allen advised the University of Chicago dissertation, on supplication, from which this volume descended (xii).
2.   For another recent contribution, albeit with a much broader Greek perspective, see Sara Forsdyke (2012) Slaves Tell Tales: And Other Episodes in the Politics of Popular Culture in Ancient Greece (Princeton: PUP), reviewed BMCR 2013.02.24.

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