Wednesday, January 13, 2016


Luca Asmonti, Athenian Democracy: A Sourcebook. Bloomsbury sources in ancient history. London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2014. Pp. xiv, 246. ISBN 9781441113719. $39.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Christopher Welser, Colby College (

Version at BMCR home site


This book aims to fill a significant gap in the market by providing "an introduction to the culture and practice of democracy in ancient Athens" directed primarily to "undergraduate students in classics and ancient history" (p. 1). Although teaching sourcebooks exist for Greek history generally and for Athenian history in particular, there currently exists no sourcebook on the important topic of Athenian democracy. In many respects, Asmonti's book is admirable in its conception of what such a sourcebook should be. Unfortunately, however, the book seems to have been rushed into print without editing and revision, and its usefulness is undermined by an unusually large number of mistakes of every kind, as well as by a failure to adequately explain, annotate, and contextualize the selected sources for the benefit of the undergraduates who are its primary audience.

The descriptive blurb on the book's back cover (and also its Amazon page) offers insight into what it was supposed to be. The blurb claims, among other things, that the book "conclud[es] with a survey of Athenian democracy in the Hellenistic and Roman Age," that all sources are presented "with full annotation and commentary," that the sources in the book include material from Cicero and Tacitus (among other ancient authors), and that the book includes "an A-Z of key terms" and "an annotated bibliography with suggestions for further reading in the primary sources." Unfortunately, none of these claims is true, nor are some similar claims made in the book's Preface and Introduction. In the following paragraphs, I attempt to review this book on its merits, but it seems clear that the book I am reviewing cannot be the book its author originally intended to publish.

The sources Asmonti has selected are organized into thirteen units, which I will call chapters. These are further divided into forty-five sections, mainly on the basis of chronology. After an initial chapter on the origin and meaning of the word polis, twelve more chapters cover Athenian history from the synoecism of Attica down to the end of the fourth century B.C.E. Only the seven sections in the last chapter deal with the fourth century, with the result that Athenian democracy in that period gets somewhat short shrift. Asmonti has made an effort to include a rich diversity of source materials, including oratory, drama, and inscriptions, but many of the sources in the book are unlikely to be very useful to students, for the simple reason that they are presented (pace the book's back cover) without commentary or annotation. They receive clarification and context only from the introductions to the sections into which they are organized, and these often refer to individual sources only glancingly, "citing" them, so to speak, in support of a particular point: e.g., "Solon thus became part of an international and political network [h, i]" (p. 52). The introductions are thus no substitute for footnotes, bracketed glosses in the body of the text, or individual introductions to particular sources. In most cases, it is unreasonable to expect that an instructor will be able to compensate for this deficit. For example, when students read in one of the sources that Aristides was "much loved by the Athenians owing to his surname" (17[e], p. 94) they are given no hint of what that surname might be. Likewise, no attempt is made to explain the complicated banter about "the Old and the New" that dominates Clouds 1177-1200 (10[l.], pp. 59-60). The presence in the sourcebook of fourteen endnotes (pp. 219-220), all but three of them to Chapters 1-4, confirms that a more extensive annotation of passages was part of Asmonti's original intention, but as they stand, these notes serve little purpose. Three of them are devoted to identifying three fragments of Solon's poetry in the Ath. Pol. as "Solon, fragment 28," with no indication of which edition of the fragments is being referenced. Another of the notes identifies "the year [sic] of the 61st Olympiad" (p. 74) as "534/543," which is both confusing and incorrect.

Apart from the lack of specific annotations, the sourcebook contains none of the apparatus that might ordinarily be expected in a book like this, such as maps, timelines or—again, despite what the back cover seems to allege—a glossary. On p. 90, there is a table listing the ten tribes established by Cleisthenes with the three trittyes that were included in each, but—apart from the fact that the spellings of the names of the trittyes in this table do not match those we find in ancient documents, including one that appears in translation three pages earlier—it is hard to imagine what readers of this book are expected to do with the information in this table in the absence of accompanying map. Even Asmonti's section introductions, though often helpful and insightful, sometimes assume knowledge the undergraduate reader cannot be expected to have. A sentence in the Introduction begins "As we have seen, according to the Old Oligarch…" (p. 9)—but the Old Oligarch has not yet been mentioned. Another difficulty, if this book is to be used in college classes, is that the introductions tend to present the views of ancient critics of Athenian democracy as if they were Asmonti's own: e.g., p. 138: "Pericles was able to contain the inevitable excesses of popular rule and give a coherent direction to the affairs of Athens."

Although this sourcebook's lack of annotations and explanatory material is probably the biggest obstacle to its use in classrooms, the first thing most teachers and students will notice about it are the hundreds of small mistakes that were never caught or corrected by an editor. Several of these occur on almost every page. Typographical errors afflict not only the English text of the introductions and translations—e.g. "coalition of the Greeks chiefs" (p. 21), "he Athenians of the classical age" (p. 31)—but also many Greek proper names. Whatever proofreading was done missed even such misspellings as "Pyhtia" (p. 38), "Armodius and Haristogiton" (p. 77), "Psisitratids" (p. 91), "Panathneanea" (p. 154), and "Pyraeus" (p. 203). A number of the misspellings of Greek names in this book seem to reflect Italian spelling conventions: thus Sciros (p. 35), "Ipparchus" (twice on p. 92), and "Teophrastus" (p. 242). Cylon is spelled "Cilon" throughout (except for once on p. 45 when it is spelled "Cimon"). The same reliance on Italian may explain some of the book's errors in the transliteration of Greek words into English—on p. 13, κώμη (village) is rendered as choma (and chomai twice in the plural)—but it is harder to explain mistakes like "Oinos and Ysias" (for Oinoe and Hysiae on p. 96), and "Ellenotamoi" (p. 112, but "Hellenotamoi" on p. 153, where the word is defined as "treasures [sic] of the Greeks"). In transliteration, τριττύς and τριτττύες become "tritty" and "tritties" (though there are a few deviations from this general rule, as in the spelling "trytties" on p. 84). In general, there seems to have been little effort made to impose a basic consistency in such matters as spelling and formatting. On p. 85, the same city is "Sicyone," then "Sicyon," then "Sicyone" (twice), and then "Sicyon" again. "Enneacrunus" on p. 35 is "Enneacrounos" on p. 73 and "Enneacrunos" on p. 74, while the same building appears in three different places as stoa basileios (p. 35), Stoa Basileus (p. 49) and stoa basileos (p. 51). As the previous example suggests, transliterated words are sometimes italicized and sometimes not.

Individually, none of these mistakes is catastrophic, but collectively they become overwhelming. Moreover, there are places in this book where the lack of adequate editing is liable to cause real confusion for the students who are this book's primary audience. In a few cases, significant parts of sentences seem to be missing: "To attain this, Cleisthenes abolished the old four ethnic tribes (phylai) of the city, a new system based on residence" (p. 6). In many more cases, the wording of a sentence is misleading or unclear. On p. 25, a besieging army becomes "the besieged army." On p. 31 and 33, there are three references to the "original twelve tribes" of Athens (in the second instance only, twelve is written numerically, another example of the inconsistency of formatting throughout the book). On p. 46, the Greek Dark Age is referred to as "the so-called 'middle ages.'" On p. 175, the "Five Thousand" of the oligarchic revolution of 411/0 are twice referred to as the "Five Hundred." On pp. 188-189, Aeschylus becomes "Aeschines" four times, once in Asmonti's introduction to a passage from Aristophanes' Frogs, and three times in his translation of the passage itself.

More serious still is the occurrence throughout the book of a significant number of factual and conceptual errors that will be recognized as such by anyone familiar with the history of ancient Greece. On p. 5, Cimon is described as "the hero of the battle of Salamis." On p. 10, the date given for Pericles' funeral oration is 429. On pp. 35-36 and 39, there is considerable confusion about the reference to the diobelia in Frogs 138-143, which is presented as a source under the heading "Theseus introduced the obol." In introducing the section in which this source appears, Asmonti writes that "Heracles credits Theseus for introducing the obolon, which in this case is not the token to attend the dramatic festivals, but the coin which the dead carried in their mouth to pay Charon for the crossing of the Ades [sic] river." Surely, however, the converse is true, since the passage in question is talking about two obols (τὼ δύ᾽ ὀβολώ) and not a single coin. On p. 63 the oligarchic Bacchiads are paired with the Cypselids, who supplanted them, as equivalent examples of "enlightened tyrannies." On p. 82, Asmonti writes, misleadingly, that "[t]he bouleutai [of Athens] did not sit all together, but one tribe at a time….Each tribe was meant to represent the whole of the polis and for one month [sic] a year it was in charge of running the affairs of the state on behalf of all the Athenians." On p. 161, 460 is given as the date of the Thirty Years' Peace that was broken by Athens and Sparta at the start of the Peloponnesian War.

Unfortunately, the lack of editing vitiates even the readability of the translations, which might have been one of this book's great strengths. For the most part, Asmonti's renderings of the Greek texts into English are accurate and lucid. On the other hand, minor solecisms and errors of usage occur everywhere. Some fairly typical examples include: "it was a middle-sized polis, still quite smaller than the major centres of Peloponnese" (p. 31); "the Athenians did the very contrary" (p. 143); "to extort and retaliate the other members of the household" (p. 144); "the Athenian trierarchs at Samos set in motion to overthrow the democracy. The plot set out in the camp…" (p. 177). Certain words are regularly misused: "treaty" is used in place of "treatise" (pp. 14, 170, 207), and "norm" is used when "law" or "rule" is clearly more appropriate (pp. 46, 47, 48, 51, 87, 154, 172). All of these mistakes are understandable for someone not writing in his native language; what is hard to understand is why they were not noticed by an editor at the press and fixed before publication.

The Index of Passages and the Index of Names also contain numerous errors and are not particularly helpful. On the other hand, the bibliography, arranged by topics within each chapter, provides a good survey of the major secondary literature. There is actually much in this sourcebook that suggests it could have been far better if only it had been allowed to gestate longer and had received the assistance of a diligent editor. A future edition of the book, one that conforms to the vision outlined on the back cover and in the preface, would be a welcome addition to university syllabi.

1 comment:

  1. This book with sources and article excerpts on Greek Democracy (mostly Athens) has been out since 2003: