Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 16.
Deborah Boedeker & Kurt A. Raaflaub (edd.), Democracy, Empire, and the Arts in Fifth-Century Athens. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Pp. viii + 504. ISBN 0-674-01258-5. US$19.50, UKú12.95.
University of St Andrews
This substantial volume collects papers originally presented to a colloquium at the Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, in 1995. My copy was the paperback, which appeared at the end of 2003. Very occasional misprints (the overall production is excellent) remain uncorrected. The book comprises fifteen chapters. The first (pp. 1-14) and last (pp. 319-44), by the editors, introduce and summarise the dominant issues -- a commendable act of framing which gives the work greater cohesion than many such collections possess. The other thirteen pieces address specific areas of the intricate relationship between the arts (figurative, monumental, narrative, dramatic, rhetorical, intellectual) and the development of both democracy and empire in fifth- century Athens.
Raaflaub sets the scene with an informative survey of how Athens was transformed (politically, militarily, economically, socially) during the period (pp. 15-44). He lays particular emphasis on the scale and ramifications of thalassocracy. The consequences for artistic activity, however, are merely surmised, somewhat airily, at the end: 'it is not implausible to assume that all this had an impact on the arts' (p. 41). Lisa Kallet expands the economic picture (pp. 45-58); explaining the mix of different streams of public and private spending on 'cultural' works, she stresses that imperial revenues did not contribute as much as often thought -- even, arguably, in the popular perception of the time -- to the costs of the Periclean building programme. Ian Morris, representing a somewhat dissenting voice within the project, contends (pp. 59-86) that much fifth-century Athenian culture replicated wider Greek trends; an Athenocentric perspective is historically distorting. Using a version of 'the new cultural history', with its accent on an inclusive notion of material culture, Morris argues that both house-building and burial practices show a general pattern (documented comparatively from Argos, Corinth, Eretria, and Macedonia) of fifth-century 'restraint' followed by fourth-century extravagance. He claims a parallelism with visual art, where classical 'austerity' later gave way to more 'display and self-indulgence' (p. 63). Morris's command of archaeological data is impressive, but he leaves it entirely unclear how he would propose to elaborate his (rather fuzzy) comparison between houses/tombs and sculptural style. An inclusive notion of material culture can help refine some historical questions, but it can also blunt the point of others.
Eric Csapo and Margaret Miller advance the thesis (pp. 87-126) that the fifth century saw a shift, affecting both visual and verbal narrative, from 'aristocratic temporality' (focussed on self-validation by reference to the, mostly mythical, past) to 'democratic temporality' (more historical, linear, rational, and centred on the present and immediate future). The piece is an intellectually ambitious attempt to grapple with an important but elusive subject, the cultural evolution of attitudes to time. But any argument that, for example, endorses a sheer opposition between epic as 'absolute past' and tragedy as 'absolute present' (p. 111), or requires tragedy, as a phenomenon of a classical 'theater of self-determination', to be aligned with the view that 'men determined history, not history men' (p. 114), has allowed itself to become intoxicated with excessive conceptual schematisation.
Covering safer ground, Alan Shapiro (pp. 127-52) lucidly reconsiders the treatment in fifth-century visual art -- though mostly on vases, less so in public media -- of the idea of Athenian autochthony (qua descent from earth-sprung Cecrops and Erechtheus) as a 'charter myth' for the city. He treats the theme as an instance of how democratic culture adapted older myths. Tonio H÷lscher (pp. 153-84) takes a broader look at the visual arts, arguing reasonably for a 'multifactored' interplay between images and society. He emphasises that while the 'language' of fifth-century art was not specially Athenian, Athens made particularly intense use of it, both in public forms (where myth and military victories outweighed attention to democratic motifs as such) and in the more open-ended but still communally relevant thematic repertoire of vase-painting. Deborah Boedeker (pp. 185-202) also concentrates on visual art in examining how historical materials (above all, the Persian Wars) were introduced, in a mythologising spirit, alongside the established subjects of heroic myth. She maintains that in trying to 'read' the present through the past, the Athenians preferred (would-be) 'timeless' images of excellence to historiography's new way of reasoning critically about the past. Surprisingly (see p. 199 with p. 392, n. 88), she seems to think her position is consistent with that of Csapo and Miller (above), but in fact it cuts sharply across theirs.
The next three chapters focus on intellectual forms of expression. Robert Wallace (pp. 203-22) modifies the once orthodox, largely Plato-derived view of the sophists as radically different from earlier intellectuals, overwhelmingly centred on Athens, and obsessed with rhetoric. He paints a picture of a much more fluid, colourful, pan-Hellenic intellectual field, where musical theory/research was no less important than political thought. But he does discern a major division between the impact of sophists on Athens before and after 430: prior to that, they were positively engaged with and supportive of democracy; afterwards, they became associated with a disillusioned elite and with increasingly extreme views. On the rhetorical front, Harvey Yunis (pp. 223-40) follows Thomas Cole's well-known thesis that there was no full-blown theory of rhetoric in the fifth century; sophistic rhetoric was essentially empirical. But Cole, he suggests, badly underrated the formal and substantive advancement of rhetorical practice in the fifth century, when democratic pressures on public speakers led to techniques, not least that of antilogy (polarised debating), which in due course became assimilated into literary (not least, Thucydidean) and philosophical modes of writing/thinking. If Yunis, like Cole, believes (wrongly, in my view) that rhetoric only became fully theorised with Plato, Christopher Rowe argues (pp. 241-54) that Plato was not as straightforwardly antidemocratic as usually supposed. Once we see beyond the extreme idealism of the Republic, we can appreciate, according to Rowe, that the paradigmatic constitutions of the Politicus and Laws have been partly shaped by democratic principles of law, the common good of the citizens, and reciprocal involvement in 'ruling and being ruled', though all this is substantially modified by Plato under the influence of an unendingly Socratic commitment to rationality and intellectual progress.
Athens' two most home-grown fifth-century art-forms were those of tragedy and Old Comedy. Jeffrey Henderson (pp. 255-74) sets himself to combat any suggestion that Comedy was a peculiar, sui generis realm of discourse, standing somehow outside the larger current of political speech. Comedians, he insists, did not have unlimited freedom of speech; legal and forensic measures were taken to subject their works to general democratic control. But if comedy was a fully civic performance- art, it was also 'supracivic', tackling problems (including those of women) which went beyond those of assembly and courts; its poets, contrary to what many have thought, could expect to have some influence. I like Henderson's formulation of Old Comedy as 'a kind of experimental politics' (p. 273), and I think we might agree that the relationship between comedy and the life of the polis was complex. But I continue to differ with him on numerous issues too tangled to be pursued here (his notes document some of these). I will just mention a fundamental tension, not to say contradiction, in Henderson's position, since he seems to believe that Old Comedy served both as an agent of the demos's 'popular control' (p. 265) and as the voice of 'the politically excluded' (p. 269) -- a lesson, perhaps, in how the genre may trap those who try to pin down its polycephalic character. Suzanne Sa´d (pp. 275-96) provides a concise but usefully analytic conspectus of the different senses (from contemporary allusiveness to committed propaganda) in which tragedy has been taken to be a political genre. In combatting any one global model of interpretation, she uses the relationship between polis and oikos in Theban plays by each of the three great tragedians to give a sense of the dramatic subtleties that critics need to reckon with. More the pity, therefore, that she succumbs at various points to superficial generalisations (for example, Aeschylus 'is mostly interested in the community', as opposed to the family, p. 275).
The final chapter before the editors' summarising envoi is an interesting reappraisal of the Panathenaic procession (including its partial, stylised depiction on the Parthenon frieze) by Lisa Maurizio (pp. 297-318). Rather than a static reflection of democracy, the procession staged a dynamic intersection between political citizenship and a more all-inclusive 'religious citizenship' in which women and metics were prominent. In its use of order, objects, and costume, it gave its participants opportunities for competitive display in pursuit of honour and communal recognition. It was, therefore, an active contribution to a discourse about identity and status within the polis that could modify the codified categories of democracy per se.
The standards of scholarship and writing in this volume are maintained at a high level; bibliographical referencing is thoroughly Ó la page. This is an indispensable collection for specialist study of the whole culture of fifth-century Athens. If the contributors do not always convey total conviction in their modelling of connections between political institutions/structures and various types of image-making or formal public media of expression, that is a symptom of the difficulty and depth of the questions at stake in their colloquium.