Eric W. Robinson, The First Democracies: Early Popular Government Outside Athens. Historia Einzelschriften, Heft 101. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1997. Pp. 144. ISBN 3-515-06951-8. DM64.00.
Richard J. Evans
University of South Africa, Pretoria
Greek history in antiquity is very often perceived, and not by students alone, as the history of Athens: and the history of Athens is as often regarded as simply a history of democracy, itself an institution which passes as unique to the Athenians and their polis structure. It is therefore refreshing to come across a volume which appears to be devoted precisely to a study of democracy beyond the agora of Athens and even the frontiers of Attica, yet to a period in which Athens is held up to be the progenitor of popular participation in government as a result of Solon's reforms. It was clearly not alone in experimenting with constitutional development, even if, because 'Athens was the most famous democracy of the ancient world, it is often assumed that both the concept and the constitution itself originated there' (p. 9).
In chapter 1 ('Defining Democracy' , pp. 13- 33) Robinson begins with an attempt at a definition of democracy, its characteristics, the parameters within which poleis that adopted this form of government operated, and the fairly self-evident differences, especially exclusive citizenship, between the various ancient and modern forms. It is quickly apparent that in an age of flux, in constitutional terms, any move towards an exact designation is going to be fraught with difficulties, but primarily by the intrusion of 'modern as opposed to ancient sensibilities' (p. 16). Similarly, the formal origin and the pioneers who adopted such a constitution, whether it was the Greeks, as they themselves believed, or whether it was in an identifiable proto-democratic community in the Near East, for example Sumer (p. 18), or in states even further east, rapidly bogs down because of the lack of reliable source material. Myths and legends may preserve an element of veracity in descriptions of the societies they serviced, but no historian worth his salt would attach over- riding importance to such texts. But the diversity of the information available does give Robinson cause for the sanguine comment (p. 21), that while the 'case for actual democracy existing in any of these early cultures is extremely weak, we at least find further ground to overturn obsolete notions' of undiluted despotic monarchies, and that some popular participation in government was an early phenomenon. However, there still appears to be no good reason to doubt the provenance of Hellenic demokratia and there 'is no indication that there was a developmental connection between Greek democracy and a hypothetical precursor' (p. 25). The closing pages of this chapter (pp. 25- 33) will be particularly well appreciated by students who are new to ancient history and Greek democracy per se. It is less obviously useful to fellow specialists who ought to know and understand the often radical divergence between the mass participation in governing in antiquity, and the popular electoral systems employed in modern states.
Robinson proceeds in chapter 2 ('Demokratia', pp. 35- 64) to an analysis of the literary sources -- mostly Classical Athenian -- for early Greek democracy, and what this concept actually meant to each individual writer. First off Aristotle (pp. 35-44), with his extensive discussion and multitudinous definitions of demokratia -- or should that read 'moderate oligarchy' (p. 42)? Indeed, the Politics 'provides the most thorough treatment of comparative constitutional theory' (p. 35), but Aristotle himself is also a late commentator on the emergence of democratic government in the archaic period (p. 45) and, arguably, his accuracy may be suspect. On the other hand, he was fully aware that constitutional progression had not come to a halt, that maturation continued even in his own time and, therefore, his 'relative lateness means that he was in a better position to judge shifts in terminology than earlier authors were' (p. 43). The very breadth of his treatise allows recognition of the fact that democracy 'was not monolithic . . . that there were different forms . . . being practiced in many places . . . with no suggestion that they owed their appearance to the Athenian example' (p. 44). Moreover, Aristotle is virtually the sole writer, though often vague, to mention events of a constitutional nature in Greek city-states, which could conceivably have taken place before 500 BC, and the heyday of Athenian democracy.
A century and a half before Aristotle, Aeschylus (c. 463) hints at demokratia in the Suppliants, before the great reforms of Ephialtes, and easily predates references by Euripides (pp. 52-55), Pseudo-Xenophon (pp. 50-52) and Thucydides (pp. 55-62), all of whom are heavily influenced by contemporary Athenian democratic practices. Although Robinson argues otherwise (pp. 63-64), by themselves they do not offer much tangible evidence for early democratic states in Greece. However, Herodotus, in the 430's, although hardly contemporaneous with the Cleisthenic reforms at Athens, which he describes (6.131), nor even with a supposedly Persian discussion concerning the merits of democracy, which is ostensibly but implausibly dated to 521 (3.80- 83), is the prime recorder of early democracies along with Aristotle. The inherent problem with Herodotus' evidence is that he was writing a history of the Persian Wars, not intent on 'setting up a careful scheme of constitutional classification' (p. 50). While his methodology was undoubtedly influenced by 'literary and rhetorical considerations', Robinson again displays much optimism in accepting that what is recorded by Herodotus for the sixth century is really applicable to that time. Of course, Herodotus may, like the other fifth century sources, relate governmental practices which he witnessed in his own day, and his evidence is, therefore, also open to question. But when he places a demokratia geographically at a distance from Athens it is likely to be believable, especially when his evidence broadly concurs with that provided by Aristotle. Thus, for example, the description of democracy found at Cyrene (pp. 105-108).
In chapter 3 ('Archaic Demokratiai', pp. 65-122) Robinson finally comes to grips with the various poleis in which there is evidence for popular participation. The city- state was essentially a socio-political edifice ripe for such a development (p. 65), and it is not remarkable that the emergence of the polis form in the eighth century should have coincided from the outset with mass participation in discussion, if not governing, as the Homeric texts well illustrate (p. 68). The Greek city-states are tackled in alphabetical order, which is slightly off- putting -- Acragas is found between Achaea and Ambracia (pp. 73-82) -- but this can be defended since the colonisation process, clearly closely connected with the advent of the polis, was an almost simultaneous phenomenon; and numerous colonies across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea reflect some form of democratisation in their initial stages. That these colonies did not acquire their participatory form of government from Athens is very clear from the evidence, which seems to point to experiments in democracy in as diverse a state as Argos (pp. 82-88) -- some sloppy proof-reading evident here (pp. 82-83) - - and Chios (pp. 90-101), and very obviously beginning in the archaic period, but reaching a climax towards the end of the sixth century. It is also manifest that the cyclical theories of government to which historians in antiquity were so warmly attached were really inappropriate to describe the evolution of constitutions: and we see experimentation in some kind of demokratia occurring, recurring and being perfected in cities such as Mantinea (pp. 113-114), Naxos (pp. 117-118) and Syracuse (pp. 120-122), as forms of oligarchy or tyranny/monarchy were established and dispensed with over several generations. As Robinson says in his discussion of Samian affairs: 'we cannot pretend that the absence of further democratic accounts in our sparse sources for archaic political history means that there were none' (p. 119).
Robinson concludes in his fourth chapter ('Conclusion', pp. 123-30), noting that 'convincing evidence exists for popular government before 480 B.C.' (p. 126), and 'that by the middle of the sixth century demokratiai had formed in a number of different states, and had probably appeared elsewhere even earlier. By the start of the fifth century the constitution was a well- established phenomenon' (p. 127). He states finally that an 'Athenocentric view of ancient democracy, naturally precipitated by the unusual depth of information afforded for classical Athenian history, ought not to obscure democracy's true origin elsewhere in Greece' (p. 130).
This is a very interesting and illuminating volume, with a useful and extensive bibliography (pp. 131-140): and the ideas presented here should contribute to a change in established perceptions about Greek democracy as being confined, or largely confined, to Athens. Sadly, the very proliferation in terms of survival, of the Athenian writers and the other sources makes a complete break from Attic predominance almost impossible; the author, at times, does fall exactly into the trap which he himself seeks to avoid, namely, an over- expansive discussion of those same Athenian writers at too great a length to the detriment of the study of the individual city-states where some sort of democracy was indeed practised. Democracy was evidently almost a commonplace in the pre- classical period in Greece, Magna Graecia and beyond, and Robinson notwithstanding some of my comments, has done much to bring this point to the forefront. This book will certainly enliven further studies in Greek democracy.