Thursday, August 6, 2015


Melissa Lane, Birth of Politics: Eight Greek and Roman Political Ideas and Why They Matter. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015. Pp. x, 382. ISBN 9780691166476. $26.95.

Reviewed by Joanna Kenty, University of New Hampshire (

Version at BMCR home site


The Birth of Politics is the latest of Melissa Lane's books introducing ancient ideas to modern audiences.1 Each of the book's eight chapters focuses on a central theme: Justice, Constitution, Democracy, Virtue, Citizenship, Cosmopolitanism, Republic, and Sovereignty. In each case, Lane's aim is to choose concepts that may or may not have originated in classical antiquity but that took on a form in that period that informs our modern understanding of politics. Lane is the 1943 Professor of Politics at Princeton University and approaches classical antiquity from the perspective of a political theorist and historian. She also sought to choose concepts that would resonate most strongly with modern political life, the ones which would strike general readers as immediately relevant and thought-provoking, although she limits her discussion almost entirely to antiquity. Greek terms are transliterated. She also promises to (and does) present diverse and conflicting ancient perspectives on these ideas, "on the grounds that what makes Greek and Roman ideas such good resources for thinking is the remarkably wide spectrum of possibilities of power they covered. …Rather than confine the value of the Greeks and Romans to just one position on the spectrum of politics –as either proudly committed to popular self-rule or philosophical critics of it, for example – we can learn most by exploring the whole range of ideas that they generated" (p. 4). Throughout the book, her emphasis is on critiques, preoccupations, questions, and problems rather than on answers or solutions, and on the ancient sources themselves. The result is engaging for the general reader, and the chapters might also offer useful introductions for undergraduates to major figures and eras of classical political philosophy.

The chapters are organized roughly chronologically. Chapter 1 focuses primarily on Hesiod and Solon, chapters 7 and 8 on Roman material. The chapters build from one to the next. In each, she has selected a few major authors around whom to orient her discussion. She offers biographical information and historical context (complemented by four timelines dispersed over the course of the chapters) for each of these major authors and their works, explaining how the authors' ideas were shaped by political-historical circumstances.

Chapter 1, on Justice, begins with Hesiod's Works and Days and proceeds to Solon's attempt to address economic injustice, launching from there into a discussion of to whom concepts of justice are relevant, who can live a just life; she argues that slaves, metics, and women live outside the rubric of justice in the eyes of classical Athenian law (a controversial argument). She explores ways in which these basic ideas of justice were questioned in the 5th century by the sophists, tragedians, and historians, wrapping up with a brief discussion of the Melian dialogue. As she puts it, "The idea of Justice is one that, for Greek thinkers, underpins human civilization; yet it is vulnerable to divine and human misdeeds and misconstruals" (55). This chapter is somewhat disjointed; Justice comes off as a particularly slippery organizing concept, and the chapter may have suffered from its position, since the chapters do build on each other.

Chapter 2 deals with Constitution, her translation of politeia, both in the narrow sense of the institutions and laws of a polis and in the broader sense of a way of life that binds a community together and establishes internal order. Lane begins with Herodotus' presentation of the Persian Wars as a "clash of constitutions" and particularly with the debate on constitutions in Book 3. Here she focuses on arguments for and against what we would call autocracy and oligarchy. She links the idea of autocracy in Herodotus to the reigns of the Pisistratids in Athens and of Dionysius I in Syracuse, and compares Herodotus' argument for oligarchy to Sparta and to the Old Oligarch's critique of democracy. She concludes with the problem of reconciling imperial rule with a democratic or oligarchic constitution.

In Chapter 3 Lane hits her stride with the idea of Democracy, which she defines as the power of the demos to judge cases, to control officials, and to initiate legal or legislative action (126). Returning to the Herodotean constitutional debate, she moves through the Constitution of the Athenians and Thucydides' Mytilenean debate in discussing what it really meant for the "common people" to "rule" Athens. She discusses the place of the socio- economic elite in such a scheme, the ways in which the people exercised their power in different iterations of the Athenian democracy, and the "democratic" way of life which extended beyond politics narrowly defined to Athenian cultural practices like the Panathenaea. The end of the chapter confronts overly simplified modern characterizations of ancient democracy as "direct" or anti-liberal, which unduly widen the distance between their "democracy" and ours. "Athenian democracy is not so far beyond our ken that it is irrelevant to ours, but nor is it merely a clumsy shadow of mechanisms that the moderns have supposedly perfected. The very discontinuities between ancient and modern practices make reflection on certain shared values – and their different institutional expressions – all the more instructive" (127).

Virtue, her translation of aretĂȘ, is the theme of Chapter 4, and particularly Socratic and Platonic conceptions (insofar as they are distinguishable) of virtue as the ideal prerequisite for political participation and government. She analyzes Socrates' idea of virtue, framed as coextensive with knowledge and as the only truly worthwhile political or ethical goal, as a direct response to the Sophists and their perceived exploitations of their community. Socrates' political contribution, she explains, was to present his fellow citizens (and Plato's readers) with a choice: "Does the society support sustainable choices and decisions by its members, or do the incentives for unsustainable behaviour shape destructive actions that further undermine the value of the social contract?" (162). By "sustainable" she means just, fair choices free from corruption, which do not harm one's fellow citizens and thereby undermine the practice of virtue. Plato's advocacy of political virtue, as found in the Republic, The Statesman, and the Laws, is framed here partially as a corrective to fourth-century nostalgia for the fifth-century democratic society the Platonic dialogues represent. She ingeniously compares this to "the way that the Cold War, for all its problematic moral and political aspects, sometimes nostalgically seems a simpler and morally clearer political era" than today (153-4). Tensions between laws and individuals and the problem of the role of non-virtuous, non-philosophical citizens are particularly highlighted.

Chapter 5 moves from Plato to Aristotle in approaching the concept of Citizenship, particularly through Aristotle's discussions of geometric equality in the sharing of government, the three types of constitutions and their corresponding deviant or corrupt forms, and the role of law in society. The nature of the Aristotelian "political animal", as she points out, can be interpreted as validating democratic principles, although Aristotle himself did not apply the concept in a democratic way.

In Chapter 6, Lane explains the development of the Hellenistic schools of philosophy (Cynicism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Scepticism – no information is given in the chapter itself about our sources of information on these schools), orienting her narrative around the idea of Cosmopolitanism, i.e. the various anti-political (apolitical, non-political, or perhaps metapolitical) inclinations of the various schools. Her discussion of Scepticism culminates with Carneades' lectures on justice in Rome, which provides a transition to Roman material in Chapter 7, on Republic. She emphasizes the relationship between the Greek ideas of Justice, Constitution, Virtue, and Citizenship discussed in previous chapters and Roman concepts of honestas, utilitas, res publica, libertas, virtus and civitas. Polybius and Cicero are the central figures in the chapter, particularly Polybius' theory of cycles of constitutions and the superiority of Rome's mixed constitution, and Cicero's presentation of constitutions, the centrality of property rights to justice, "natural" law, and virtue in De Republica, De Legibus, De Lege Agraria (unnamed), and De Officiis. The chapter has more to do with appropriations and interpretations of Greek ideas in Roman contexts than with Roman politics per se, but it provides admirably succinct summaries of the political theories of Polybius and Cicero.

Chapter 8 is introduced as dealing with the notion of Sovereignty, i.e. imperium, and specifically the powers of the emperors. This is a little misleading; after briefly treating Tacitus' critique of the rise of the emperors and their appropriation of political power, Lane transitions to a much more relevant and insightful discussion of Seneca, via the De Clementia, on extrapolitical Stoic sovereignty over the self. She brings in the De Otio and the De Ira in discussing Seneca's justification for withdrawing from public political life to find freedom in one's private journey toward ethical self-rule. She also juxtaposes Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius as social opposites who nevertheless both found ataraxia and freedom in sovereignty over the self. The chapter ends with a brief mention of Musonius Rufus' defense of women's philosophical potential as a (limited) critique of political and social conventions and a brief reference to Plutarch's praise of philosophically minded temperance and discipline in his depictions of the Roman Republic.

In her conclusion ("Future of Greek and Roman Pasts"), Lane offers an explanation of why she finds the classics such compelling material for discussions of political ideas: in antiquity, politics was inseparable from other aspects of life and permeated them in a way which made political investigations uniquely urgent and productive. From our modern perspective, that urgency made Athens and Rome "natural laboratories" (317) for political controversies and experimentation with the "possibilities of power" (3), particularly popular power. Lane notes that it often seems that ancient authors' understanding of the common people's conceptually central and determinative role in politics allowed them to see what was necessary for sustainable and stable political regimes. Moreover, she suggests, they saw this more clearly than we often do ourselves, and the ancients' seemingly old-fashioned demand for individual virtue and self-rule as a prerequisite for the success of a constitution may offer a valuable corrective to modern political ills.

Lane's book is accessible for general readers and offers an enjoyable run through major traditions of classical political ideas, but this is not to say that it is an easy or frivolous read; on the contrary, it is thoughtful and challenging, dense and economical without being overwhelming. To a classicist's eye, it will be apparent that the author's training is not in the classics (in "the doings of the panoply of gods" in Hesiod, p. 29, or Octavian's "appointment" to "the new status of 'Augustus Caesar,'" p. 23, or the use of honestas and utilitas as if they were adjectives, p. 247 and 280-1, for example), but that she does have an exceptional grasp of political theory – particularly in Plato and Aristotle – and of the connections between ancient and modern political thought, which she communicates admirably.


1.   See the following BMCR reviews: Method and Politics in Plato's Statesman; Plato's Progeny; Eco-Republic: What the Ancients can Teach us about Ethics, Virtue, and Sustainable Living.

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