Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 3.

P. J. Rhodes, Ancient Democracy and Modern Ideology. Duckworth Classical Essays. London: Duckworth, 2003. Pp. 142. ISBN 0-7156-3220-5. UKú10.99.

Richard J. Evans
Department of Classical and European Studies, University of South Africa

Thucydides (6.89) places in the mouth of Alcibiades some rather derogatory remarks about the workings of Athenian democracy. He is, at the same time, obviously one of the very few contemporary sources for a system of government, which has since held the world enthralled. Today it remains the case that there cannot be a more popular or passionate topic on which to write a series of essays.

In this slender volume[[1]] Rhodes seems to have two specific purposes in mind. The first is the message that democracy 'is a subject that has always aroused strong passions, and what historians have made of democracy in the ancient world has often been coloured by their attitude to its possibilities in their own time' (from the back cover). The second, contained in the preface, is that this 'book examines the ways in which Athenian democracy has been perceived and studied, over the centuries and particularly in recent times, and argues that, although total objectivity and disengagement are not and never have been possible, scholars who aspire to objectivity and disengagement are likely to do a better history, and also to be more useful to our own world, than those who rejoice in their subjectivity and in their engagement with our world' (p. 8). Implicit, moreover, is the injunction that we should not only study the historians of antiquity in their own context in order to eliminate their own bias, but also study any modern historian's attitudes to the subject and how that might affect views and conclusions.

'Democracy, which for many centuries was condemned as mob rule, came to be seen positively in the 19th century and became the form of government in which almost everybody claimed to believe in the 20th century' (p. 7). Athenian democracy was, however, different from the form of government called 'democracy' that is practiced in some parts of the world today. Athenian democracy was exclusive; and those who participated in this form of government were limited, from 451 BC, to adults over the age of eighteen who had citizen fathers and Athenian mothers. But today democracy is not necessarily less exclusive. True, no longer excluded are adult women, but foreign residents (metics) remain so, as are the forgotten non-citizen, foreign and illegal residents, such as in the USA where, at the last count, about ten million resided doing the work of a slave class (p. 21). Of course, democracy was also practiced in states beyond Attica, but Rhodes has little time for these (p. 18). For the sake of obtaining a complete picture, other examples of Ancient democracy -- some much less exclusive, Syracuse for example -- warrant discussion. Because of a lack of these comparisons, on reflection, it would have been more appropriate to entitle this work 'Athenian Democracy' rather than 'Ancient'. Rhodes makes his focus fairly clear in claiming that Athens was 'self-consciously democratic' (pp. 19, 25), in other words Athens was, or is perceived today, as the champion of democracy. Thucydides would have us believe as much (2.40f.), but he is not always believable.

A title that includes the words 'ancient' and 'modern' inevitably must involve some discussion, which relies on parallels and comparative examples. This can also lead to trouble, however. For instance, it is simply misleading to state that 'American independence . . . marked the beginning of the end of the European states' overseas empires' (p. 47). Victoria, it will be remembered, did not become an 'empress' until Disraeli's government in 1877, while the Prussian empire achieved its overseas provinces only towards the end of the nineteenth century. Both events occurred long after the United States of America were formed. Nonetheless, it interesting to note how Greco-Roman civilisation could be invoked particularly in the nineteenth century in support for, or evidence against, such diverse, but fundamental social issues -- at least in modern times -- as slavery and the rights of women.

Views about Athenian democracy, and its subsequent fairly recent evolution into its representative form, from the Renaissance to the twentieth century are discussed in Chapter 3 where Rhodes notes that: 'now almost all governments profess to embody democracy and almost all people active in or writing about politics profess to approve of it' (p. 33), even if, as the author admits, they do not always understand what representative democracy means and translate the theory into whatever it is they want it to be. A broad survey concerned with the changing views of scholars in Germany, France and Britain from the nineteenth century down to the present, including Rhodes' own previous research follows in Chapter 4. This is perhaps of some interest to the general reader and of use to students, but it remains a broad survey and nothing more. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the 'modern agenda' has become less overt as historians seek to understand the past without using it to justify either their own work or their own interests. The change from an alignment with a European classical education and the decline of interest in the Classics as a whole including the relevance of Athenian democracy in North America and Europe is dealt with next (Chapter 5). A recognised shift in education -- some no doubt would maintain a downward slope -- has seen as a constant modern verdicts on Athenian democracy and either its defence or its denigration (pp. 58-61). There is much here to stimulate debate both in the lecture room and outside, but in the end, does it really matter? What was there was there and cannot be changed, while the 'contemporary relevance of Athenian democracy' (p. 60) in an age of justification is governed almost entirely by economics.

As a work surely designed for a wider audience than the academic community, it might have been useful and informative, among other quite extended endnotes to have explained why the 'Old Oligarch' (p. 18) reappears in the text as just [Xenophon] (for example, on p. 20). It may be pushing the argument a little far to suggest that Athens 'encouraged or required' democracies among its allies by citing Erythrae and Miletus, a generation and fifty years respectively after the foundation of the Delian League. The Athenians lived easily with, and side by side, any state and any constitution which suited the moment; and democracy was no guarantee of friendly relations (viz. Syracuse in 415 BC). Syme's work on the provincial at Rome (p. 135) was published in 1999, and hence no longer an 'unpublished draft'.[[2]] Some minor errors may be noted (for example on p. 79). Still, this work is thoughtful and mostly accessible and if not exactly rekindling the fire, will certainly maintain the temperature of the heat, in the continuing debate on the relevance of ancient democracy and inevitably of Greek civilisation for today's global village. Finally when Rhodes says 'history is more useful when it does not try too self-consciously to be useful' (p. 90), it would possibly have made his message that bit stronger if the 'Ancient' of Ancient History or even the 'Ancient' of Ancient Democracy was emphasised.


[[1]] Chapter 1, 'History' (pp. 9-17); Chapter 2 'Democracy' (pp. 18-26); Chapter 3, 'Democracy: Good or Bad?' (pp. 27-33); Chapter 4 'Democracy: Fashions in Scholarship' (pp. 34-53); Chapter 5, 'Athenian Democracy and Us' (pp. 54-69); Chapter 6, 'How to Study Athenian Democracy' (pp. 70-90). There are also endnotes (pp. 91- 116), an extensive bibliography (pp. 117-37), and a brief index (pp. 139-42).

[[2]] Anthony Richard Birley (ed.), Sir Ronald Syme: The provincial at Rome, and Rome and the Balkans, 80 B.C.- A.D. 14 (Exeter 1999).