CJ Online Review: Robinson, Democracy Beyond Athens

posted with permission:

Democracy Beyond Athens: Popular Government in the Greek Classical Age. By Eric W. Robinson. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. 2011. Pp. ix + 275. Hardcover, £63.00/$103.00. ISBN 978-0-521-84331-7.

Reviewed by Sydnor Roy, Temple University

This book provides an overview of democracies that have some attestation in the Classical period (480–323). Robinson utilizes a wide range of literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence to construct a convincing argument that democracy was wide-spread outside of Athens. He succeeds in revealing the problems of an Atheno-centric view of ancient democracy and opens the door for more work on how democracy functioned and spread.

The introduction offers a working definition of democracy that includes both institutional and ideological criteria. The primary principle he follows, however, is “whether or not contemporary Greeks did call or would have called (as best we can determine) such a state demokratia” (3). Robinson argues that each facet of his definition of democracy should be handled on a case-by-case basis in terms of the polis in question and the source material. He recognizes the potential for authorial bias and the multivalent connotations of several terms, but analysis of these problems does not feature strongly in his case studies of individual poleis. In addition, his definition of democracy includes the feature that “freedom and equality serve as guiding principles of the order” (4). This is a particularly vague criterion and it receives little attention. Robinson uses a cautious approach to identifying democracies. He collects corroborating data and presents strong “big picture” arguments for the democracies he identifies.

The first three chapters offer case studies of poleis that seem to have had some form of democratic government at some time in the Classical period. Each chapter covers a wide geographic area (the Greek mainland; western and northwestern Greece and Cyrene; and eastern Greece). The cities are organized alphabetically, although especially prominent (Syracuse) or closely linked (Abdera and Teos) cities break this schema. In each case he reviews and situates the evidence, and also offers brief conclusions about each democracy’s nature. When necessary, Robinson digresses into issues which are potentially distracting, such as the dispute over Syracuse’s constitution during the Sicilian Expedition and Athenian influence over the constitutions of eastern Greek cities. These three chapters build Robinson’s argument and will serve as a useful reference work for other scholars.

Chapter Four includes a number of informative tables and graphs which provide a picture of the geographic and temporal spread of democracy. Robinson tackles the argument that Athenian democracy was the model and motivating factor for democracy because of Athens’ role as a military and cultural power. His strongest argument is that the incidence of democracies in the Aegean did not increase at a greater rate than democracies outside of the Athenian sphere of influence. Given the assumption that Athens promoted or even installed democracies in its subject states, the evidence is surprising. I agree that this suggests that something more is at play in motivating democracy. Robinson then proposes two explanations for democracy’s expansion. First, he argues for the influence of regional democratic powers such as Argos and Syracuse and imperial pressures from Persia or Alexander. Second, Robinson offers peer polity interaction as an explanatory model. This model has been applied to both Archaic Greece and Hellenistic Greece to explain the development in parallel of similar structures in autonomous poleis. These kinds of interactions contributed to the spread of knowledge about democracy. It is difficult to see the difference between Athens’ role as cultural hegemon influencing the spread of democracy and Athens’ involvement in peer polity interaction, although his contention that the (primarily non-Athenian) early travelling sophists spread democratic ideology is another convincing argument that more factors than Athens alone are involved. He concludes that Athens played a role as a regional hegemon and as a participant in peer polity interaction, but claims that it is mistaken to see Athens as the chief cause of democratic expansion. What is missing here is a more overt discussion of Sparta, which could also have been a factor in spreading as well as inhibiting democracies.

In Chapter Five, Robinson draws provisional conclusions about the nature of democracies beyond Athens. He introduces the premise that Athens is the only “fully realized” democracy. He convincingly argues through primary source material that the Greeks at least did not consider Athens the sole true democracy. I was surprised, however, to see no mention of Polybius here, who explains why he rejects Athens as a model in his constitutional comparison (6.43). Robinson then reviews democratic commonalities. The problem here is that he finds as common practices the very elements he listed as criteria for democratic constitutions in the first place. Next he addresses some “false commonalities.” He argues against the position that sea power and democracy go hand in hand by examining prominent non-democratic naval powers, such as Minoan Crete, Corinth, Aegina, Samos, and Phocaea. It would have been much more convincing to emphasize democracies that were not naval powers. In his discussion of democratic peace, he uses the evidence of ancient democracies to refute the view, common in modern political thought, that democracies do not go to war against each other, although he acknowledges that constitutional form increasingly became a motivation for alliances during and after the Peloponnesian War. Robinson then presents variations between different democracies, such as differences in populist tendencies, the titles of officials and institutions, means of voting, and the education of citizens. The result is a complex picture of how ancient democracies may have functioned.

Even in light of this study and the discussion of archaic democracies in this book and discussed in more detail in Robinson’s The First Democracies (1997), it is difficult not to view Athens as the paradigm for ancient democracy. The overwhelming amount of Athenian primary source material provides us with the fullest picture of a working democracy. But this should not lead us to develop political theory from a singular example of political practice. What this book succeeds in doing is to remind us that we should not use the institutions and ideology of the Athenian paradigm alone to set the rules for what constitutes a democracy nor should we conflate it with Greek democracy in general. Rather, we should cast a wider net and be more flexible when examining and proposing arguments about ancient constitutions.

Classical Tweetup on Thursday!

The folks at Chiron sent this one along:

Chiron has always supported the direct method for teaching classical languages. In other time Comenius already encouraged to avoid an excessive use of grammar in teaching. Nowadays methods such as Ørberg LLPSI, Rouse’s Greek boy or Athenaze are more and more usual in our classrooms.

Today more than ever we should treat our languages for what they are, something alive, to be used, to be touched, to be spoken. Against the black future offered by the Wert law in Spain, which reduces the presence of Classics in secondary school, we intend to bring Latin and Greek to the fore, display them on the network as they are, far from the academicism of the classrooms: alive languages ready to be used, tools to communicate. And, for that purpose, we will use social networks. So we encourage all willing students and teachers of classical languages to participate in the Pipiatio Classica, on Twitter, to be held next Thursday, November 15th. Of course, all we are going to write will be in Latin and Greek.

Introduce yourself, meet people, learn to express yourself in Latin and Greek. Mistakes are allowed! Let’s learn together! Add the hashtag #pipiatioclassica to your tweets in order to follow the event from here.

We also encourage all the institutions or associations related to the Classical World to take part in it and to disseminate it.

… not sure what time the festivities begin …

Roman Tapestries

Tip o’ the pileus to Amy Burvall for alerting us to this art project … a bit of the official description should be enough to get you to click through:

In “Heavenly Bodies” NASA is playing a part in the maintenance of our gods. Cesar Augustus was declared upon his death a god in 14BC. We see a marble bust of him strapped in a space suit awaiting his ascension. Apollo’s lyre is in need of repair. From the International Space Station’s cupola we see him awaiting his upgrade. Romans meet at the Saturn moon Enceladus. Caligula on Mars!

CJ Online Review: Ceserani, Italy’s Lost Greece

posted with permission:

Italy’s Lost Greece: Magna Graecia and the Making of Modern Archaeology. By Giovanna Ceserani. Greeks Overseas. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. x + 348. Hardcover, $74.00/£45.00. ISBN 978-0-19-974427-5.

Reviewed by Alun D. Williams, Cardiff University.

The study of Greek colonization has seen something of a resurgence in recent years, and as this revival was stimulated in no small part by a re-examination of traditional scholarly assumptions, Ceserani’s intellectual history of European responses to Magna Graecia is both timely and much needed.

The introduction engages with the relative neglect of Magna Graecia in understandings of the development of classical scholarship and outlines the aim of enabling a more “intricate” and “nuanced” understanding of the history of classical archaeology and modern Hellenism. The first chapter begins by discussing early work from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century, when for a short period Southern Italy became the place to experience “Greece.” We are then introduced to the tension between local and foreign perceptions of Magna Graecia, before moving on to the second chapter and the marginalization of Magna Graecia by Northern Europeans. Underwhelmed by its relative lack of visible material remains and influenced by contemporary colonial ideas, they came to focus on the region’s exoticism and primitivism instead of its classicism. Local scholars, contrastingly, created work to serve the needs of a Southern Italian intellectual milieu, yet wider interest in Magna Graecia saw a revival with the coming of the American Revolution, when it gained importance as an example of colonization and finally took a major place in the histories of Gillies and Mitford.

The third chapter focuses on the important but overlooked role played by Magna Graecia and Rome-based institutions in the formation of classical archaeology during the early nineteenth century. Although indebted to Neapolitan intellectual circles, foreigners working from Rome—in the context of growing German domination of the new discipline of archaeology and also an incipient division of scholarship along national lines—would progressively seek to distance themselves from local scholarship even as they exploited its knowledge and adopted its practices. The fourth chapter demonstrates how national differences came to be ever more pronounced later in the century with the emergence of national archaeological institutions. The author stresses the interrelationship between scholarship and political or intellectual developments – for instance the latest scholarly methods, colonial ideology and an often underplayed English nationalism, in shaping George Grote’s great History of Greece, a work which would further marginalize Magna Graecia. Focus then shifts to Paolo Orsi and the nationalistic Ettore Pais, neither of whom could prevent the region’s marginalization into the Fascist era.

With the fifth and final chapter, the discussion moves into the interwar period with an analysis of the pro-Fascist Emanuele Ciaceri, who sought to make the history of the Greek colonies speak to his hyper nationalist concerns, and the anti-Fascist Zanotti Bianco, who by contrast was indebted more to Orsi than Pais. In this same chapter comes the conclusion: an outline of trends in the study of Magna Graecia since that period and a consideration of its future in an age in which Hellenocentrism no longer prevails and where different perspectives, such as cultural interaction, have replaced Athenian classicism as the prism through which to see the region. The book ends by stressing the role of Magna Graecia in making, asserting and interrogating the identity of the modern west.

This is a work which leaves the reader with a much deeper appreciation of Magna Graecia’s place in the development of classical scholarship, yet certain opportunities were missed. Focusing on the region’s marginalization, this book is ideally placed to comment on recent debates surrounding the study of Greek colonization—not least the influence of contemporary colonial experiences in creating a vision of Greek ascendancy over native peoples and the superiority of mainland Greeks over those of the colonies. Here it is worth noting the only bibliographic omission of note—various useful contributions in Hurst and Owen, Ancient Colonisations: Analogy, Similarity and Difference (2005).

The book might also have made more of how ideas concerning political freedom (or liberalism) informed approaches to ancient Greece and underpinned the Athenocentrism which exerted such a defining impact on accounts of Magna Graecia and indeed Sicily, not least in the histories of Grote and E. A. Freeman. The exclusion of Sicily is at first glance glaring, yet considering the wealth of material that Ceserani has revealed for Southern Italy alone, entirely understandable. Nonetheless it would benefit the reader to know, in greater detail, how Ceserani sees the dynamics at play in Sicily.

With the exception of one or two typographical errors, this book is well presented. Its chronological approach works well in conveying the development of ideas, although a separate, concluding chapter, summarizing the key themes and findings, would have been helpful. As it is, the conclusion seems rather abrupt.

All in all, and most importantly, this book is well conceived and well executed. One of the best aspects is how Ceserani traces the debt of ideas from scholar to scholar and the depth of the context (personal, cultural and political) in which so great a range of scholars are placed. To conclude, this is a much needed work which accomplishes what it sets out to achieve. Regardless of the fact that it does not very directly engage with recent work on Greek colonization, it will undoubtedly prove of value to scholars specializing in that field and classical studies more broadly, in addition to appealing to those wider audiences interested in the history of classical scholarship and modern European intellectual history.

Classical Words of the Day