Cover Page


Series Editor’s Preface




PART I The Greek Experience in Long-term Perspective

1 Exploring the Greek Needle’s Eye:

Intercivilizational Connections

Aspects of the Polis

Cultural Extensions of the Political

Between Monarchy and Community

The Transformation of the Political: with Meier against Meier

Politics and the Political

Religion and the Political

Greece in the Axial World

2 Transformations of Democracy:

Ancient Athens and Our Present: From Evolution Towards Discontinuity

A Democratic Revolution Around 1800?

“Democracy” After the Democratic Revolution

Democratic Thought at the Time of “Democratization”

Action and Representation: Size and Self-understanding of Ancient and Modern Democracy

The Instituting and the Instituted: Stability and Change in Democracy

Exclusion and Inclusion: The Relation Between Political Citizenship and Economic Involvement

Conclusion: the Greeks and Us

PART II Ways of Polis-making: Grasping the Novelty of the Political

3 To Act with Good Advice:

The “Political Sphere,” the Risk of Acting, and Tragedy

Origin and Political Function of Tragedy

Acting Too Quickly

Ill-advised Action: Creon and Oedipus

The Riddle and the Oracle

Antigone and Orestes: Personal Autonomy, the Climax of Aboulia, and the Recognition of Human Fallibility

No Certainty Anywhere: The Fragility of euboulia


4 Democracy and Dissent: the Case of Comedy

Freedom of the Ancients and Freedom of the Moderns

Comedy and the “Company of Athenian Critics” of Democracy

Criticism of Democracy on Stage: from Cratinus to Aristophanes

A Closer Look at Aristophanes



5 Democracy, Oratory, and the Rise of Historiography in Fifth-century Greece





6 Political Uses of Rhetoric in Democratic Athens

Rhetoric and Politics in Democratic Athens(Fifth to Fourth Century BCE)

Rhetoric of Crisis

Rhetoric of Democratic Characterization

Literary Rhetoric and New Perspectives on Politics


7 Law and Democracy in Classical Athens

Amateurism and the Athenian Legal System

The Athenian Popular Courts and Public Order

8 Democracy and Political Philosophy:

Solonian Legislation, Political Thinking, and Institutional Evolution

The “Sophists,” especially Protagoras

Democratic “Accounts” and Socratic Self-examination10

Democracy, Philosophy, Eudaimonism

Perfecting Nature, Living with Self-respect: Lysias on the Athenian Past

The Political Eudaimonism of Plato and Aristotle

Conclusion: the Vital Points of Contention


9 Inscriptions and the City in Democratic Athens

Athenian History and Athenian Inscribing to 480 BCE

Athens and Athenian Inscribing from 480 to 403

Athens in the Fourth Century


PART III Changing a Way of Life: Democracy’s Impact on Polis Society

10 The Impact of Democracy on Communal Life









11 The Demos’s Participation in Decision-making: Principles and Realities


12 Democracy and Religion in Classical Greece









13 Democracy and War

A Clash of Democrats and Kings, Part I

Democratic Generals

Democratic Decisions About War

War-time Economies

Casualties of War

War as Stressor

A Clash of Democrats and Kings, Part II

Wartime Democracy, Part I: Democratic Corcyra and Civil War

Wartime Democracy, Part II: Athens vs. Syracuse

Democracy and War: Some Conclusions

PART IV Political Concepts and Commitments

14 Perfecting the “Political Creature”: Equality and “the Political” in the Evolution of Greek Democracy

Egalitarian Elements in Early Greek Society

The Political in Early Greece


Equality and the Political in Late Fifth-century Democracy: the Politicized Citizen





15 Tyranny and Tragedy in Nietzsche’s Understanding of the Greek Polis

What is the Problem with Tyranny?


16 The Liberty of the Moderns Compared to the Liberty of the Ancients

Freedom of the Polis and in the Polis

The Liberty of the Moderns Compared to the Liberty of the Ancients

Freedom Beyond Contract and Exchange


The Ancient World: Comparative Histories

Series Editor: Kurt Raaflaub


War and Peace in the Ancient World
Edited by Kurt Raaflaub

Household and Family Religion in Antiquity
Edited by John Bodel and Saul Olyan

Epic and History
Edited by David Konstan and Kurt A. Raaflaub

Geography and Ethnography: Perceptions of the World in Pre-Modern Societies
Edited by Kurt A. Raaflaub and Richard J. A. Talbert

The Roman Empire in Context: Historical and Comparative Perspectives
Edited by Johann P. Arnason and Kurt A. Raaflaub

Highways, Byways, and Road Systems in the Pre-Modern World
Edited by Susan E. Alcock, John Bodel, and Richard J. A. Talbert

The Gift in Antiquity
Edited by Michael L. Satlow

The Greek Polis and the Invention of Democracy
Edited by Johann P. Arnason, Kurt A. Raaflaub, and Peter Wagner


Series Editor’s Preface

The Ancient World: Comparative Histories

The purpose of this series is to pursue important social, political, religious, economic, and intellectual issues through a wide range of ancient or early societies, while occasionally covering an even broader diachronic scope. By engaging in comparative studies of the ancient world on a truly global scale, this series hopes to throw light not only on common patterns and marked differences, but also to illustrate the remarkable variety of responses humankind has developed to meet common challenges. Focusing as it does on periods that are far removed from our own time, and in which modern identities are less immediately engaged, the series contributes to enhancing our understanding and appreciation of differences among cultures of various traditions and backgrounds. Not least, it thus illuminates the continuing relevance of the study of the ancient world in helping us to cope with problems of our own multicultural world.

In the present case, “comparative history” is understood differently. Here an ancient phenomenon, the invention of democracy in fifth-century BC Athens, is placed not only in its broad social and cultural context but also in that of the re-emergence of democracy in the modern world and the role it played in the political and intellectual traditions that shaped modern democracy, and in the debates about democracy in modern social, political, and philosophical thought.

Earlier volumes in the series are War and Peace in the Ancient World (ed. Kurt A. Raaflaub, 2007); Household and Family Religion in Antiquity (eds. John Bodel and Saul Olyan, 2008); Epic and History (eds. David Konstan and Kurt Raaflaub, 2010); Geography and Ethnography: Perceptions of the World in Premodern Societies (eds. Kurt Raaflaub and Richard Talbert, 2010); The Roman Empire in Context: Historical and Comparative Perspectives (eds. Johann P. Arnason and Kurt A. Raaflaub, 2011); Highways, Byways, and Road Systems in the Pre-modern World (eds. Susan E. Alcock, John Bodel, and Richard J. A. Talbert, 2012). Other volumes are in preparation: The Gift in Antiquity (ed. Michael Satlow), and Thinking, Recording, and Writing History in the Ancient World (ed. Kurt A. Raaflaub).

Kurt A. Raaflaub


Johann P. Arnason is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne and Visiting Professor at the Charles University in Prague. His research has focused on historical sociology, with growing emphasis on the comparative analysis of civilizations. Recent publications include Civilizations in Dispute: Historical Questions and Theoretical Traditions (2003); Axial Civilizations and World History (co-editor, 2005).

Ryan K. Balot is Professor of Political Science and Classics at the University of Toronto. He specializes in American, early modern, and classical political thought and various aspects of Athenian democracy. He is author of Greek Political Thought (2006) and editor of A Companion to Greek and Roman Political Thought (2009), and is completing a book on “Courage and its critics in democratic Athens.”

Lucio Bertelli is Professor Emeritus of Classical Philology at the University of Turin. His main interests concern Greek political thought and theory, the origin of Greek historiography, and the reflection of historical knowledge in the comic theater. His recent books include La memoria storica di Aristofane (2001) and Platone contro la democrazia (e l’oligarchia) (2005). He is co-editor of an edition with translation and commentary of Aristotle’s Politics.

Egon Flaig is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Rostock. His research interests include deliberative dynamics in Greek assemblies, the origin and dynamics of majority decision, and the cultural conditions for the emergence of anthroponomic political orders. He is author of Weltgeschichte der Sklaverei (2nd ed. 2011); Die Mehrheitsentscheidung. Genesis und kulturelle Dynamiken (2012).

Sara L. Forsdyke is Professor of Classical Studies and History at the University of Michigan. Her research has focused on Greek law, social and cultural history, and historiography, Athenian democracy, and ancient slavery. She is the author of Exile, Ostracism, and Democracy: The Politics of Expulsion in Ancient Greece (2005) and Slaves Tell Tales and Other Episodes in the Politics of Popular Culture in Ancient Greece (2012). She is currently working on a book on slavery in Ancient Greece.

Jonas Grethlein is Professor of Classics at Heidelberg University. His research interests lie in archaic and classical Greek literature, hermeneutical philosophy, and narratology. His recent publications include Das Geschichtsbild der Ilias. Eine Untersuchung aus phänomenologischer und narratologischer Perspektive (2006) and The Greeks and Their Past: Poetry, Oratory and History in the Fifth Century BC (2010).

Nathalie Karagiannis is author of Avoiding Responsibility: The Politics and Discourse of EU Development Policy (2004), editor of European Solidarity (2007), and co-editor of Varieties of World-Making: Beyond Globalization (2007). Among her articles closer to the interests of the present volume are “Varieties of Agonism: Conflict, the Common Good and the Need for Synagonism” (2008) and “Imagination and Tragic Democracy” (forthcoming).

Adriaan Lanni is Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School. Her research interests include ancient law and contemporary American criminal justice. She is the author of Law and Justice in the Courts of Classical Athens (2006) and of Law and Order in Ancient Athens (forthcoming).

Elizabeth A. Meyer is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on Greek and Roman political history, especially in their intersection with law, and Greek and Roman epigraphic, documentary, and archival practices. Her books include Legitimacy and Law in the Roman World: Tabulae in Roman Belief and Practice (2004) and Metics and the Athenian Phialai-Inscriptions: A Study in Athenian Epigraphy and Law (2010).

Claude Mossé is Professor Emerita of Ancient History at the University of Paris VII. Her research has focused on Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greece. Her best-known work is La Fin de la démocratie athénienne. Aspects sociaux et politiques du déclin de la cité grecque au IV e s. av. J.-C. (1962). She is author of many other books, including recently Au nom de la loi. Justice et politique à Athènes à l’âge classique (2010).

Robin Osborne is Professor of Ancient History in the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of the British Academy. His research ranges widely over the history, art, and archaeology of Classical Greece and particularly of Classical Athens. His recent books include Athens and Athenian Democracy (2010) and The History Written on the Classical Greek Body (2011).

Kurt A. Raaflaub is Professor Emeritus of Classics and History at Brown University. His main fields of interest are the social, political, and intellectual history of archaic and classical Greece and of the Roman republic, and the comparative history of the ancient world. His books include The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece (2004) and (co-authored) Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece (2007).

Tracy B. Strong is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. His main focus is modern political thought, especially of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Among his publications are Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transfiguration (latest ed. 2000) and Politics Without Vision: Thinking Without a Banister in the Twentieth Century (2012). His current project deals with music, language, and politics in the period from Rousseau to Nietzsche.

Lawrence A. Tritle is Professor of History at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. His current research focuses on the individual’s experience of war and the wider consequences of violence on culture and society. His books include From Melos to My Lai. War and Survival (2000) and A New History of the Peloponnesian War (2010).

Peter Wagner is ICREA Research Professor in the Department of Sociological Theory, Philosophy of Law, and Methodology of the Social Sciences at the University of Barcelona. His main research interests are in social and political theory and historical, political, and cultural sociology with a particular emphasis on the comparative analysis of contemporary social configurations and their historical trajectories. His recent books include Modernity: Understanding the Present (2012); Modernity as Experience and Interpretation (2008) and Varieties of World-Making: Beyond Globalization (co-edited, 2007).

Harvey Yunis is Professor of Humanities and Classics at Rice University in Houston. His research focuses on rhetorical and political theory and the artistic prose literature of Classical Greece. He is the author of commentaries on Demosthenes, On the Crown, and Plato, Phaedrus, and of Taming Democracy: Models of Political Rhetoric in Classical Athens (1996).



In one way or another, diagnoses of our times tend to center on the question of democracy. The principles of democratic rule and human rights are widely evoked in public debate and in international and domestic politics as if they were both unequivocal and uncontested. Political scientists speak – albeit less confidently than twenty years ago – of “waves of democratization” as if they were a natural and naturally recurring phenomenon. Over the past forty years democratic breakthroughs have happened in Southern Europe, Latin America, parts of East Asia, Eastern Europe, and South Africa. On the other hand, reasons for doubt are all too visible around the world – from the rising Chinese superpower to the beleaguered European Union. In short, democracy is on the agenda as never before, but as a challenging and problematic project rather than a triumphant finale to history. Those who take its ultimate victory for granted are indulging in prophecy.

This ambiguous situation is the background to contemporary reflections on the history of democracy. Those who saw it as an irresistible force were by the same token inclined to derive it from a long and linear pattern of political evolution. The first clear-cut breakthrough to democracy occured in Ancient Greece. Even if we accept that the debate on precursors and proto-forms of democracy in the Ancient Near East is still open (e.g., Fleming 2004), no convincing case has been made against the claim that the innovations of the democratic polis went far beyond anything previously known. This is where practices of collective self-­determination were very consciously developed and where a new term was coined to label these innovations: dēmokratia. True, the era of the democratic polis was relatively short, and the term fell out of use again for a long time. The rise of modern democracy revived interest in ancient precursors, not always along the same lines: evolutionist views, ­exemplified by the notion of ancient Greece as a “seedbed society” (Parsons 1971), made the connection in terms of developmental logic, but those who stress the historical contingency and vulnerability of democracy can – as will be seen in some contributions to this volume – also draw on analyses of the Greek experience. The two approaches seem to agree on a basic point: democracy has become the key concept, principle, and problem around which political practices are organized.

The editors and contributors to this volume agree on the centrality of democracy for understanding current politics as well as the significance of the ancient Greek experience for world history. However, they also maintain that there are many more questions that need to be asked about the Greek experience itself and about its relation to current democracy. Most fundamentally, these questions are as follows. When later observers consider ancient Greek democracy a “success story” in human history, they tend to overlook that democratic practices were highly contested at the time. It is easier to find critics of democracy than supporters, even if recent scholarship has shown that some of the critics – most notably Plato – had stronger links to the democratic universe of discourse than traditional readings have suggested. Thus, first, there is a need to investigate in detail the practices of democracy in the polis and the ways in which they were interpreted by those who participated in or commented upon them at the time. Such investigation, second, will also throw more light on the similarities and differences between ancient Greek democracy and our own. True, in recent decades numerous studies have made important contributions to answering those questions. But by elaborating an image of ancient democratic society through detailed studies of various aspects of life in ancient Greece, rather than merely an account of political ideas and institutions, and by focusing specifically on the interactive relationship between democracy and society as well as culture – that is, on the ways in which democracy changed society and culture and these changes in turn affected the idea and practice of democracy – this volume permits us to gain a clearer picture not only of ancient democracy but also of the specifics of modern democracy, of democracy in the current societal context. Third, the democratic trajectory – from beginnings to decline and absorption into a resurgent monarchic order – must be examined in the long-term context of political transformations in the Greek city-states, from the archaic to the classical period. In one way or another, the ancient Greeks have been credited with particular achievements in the political sphere, and it is not self-evident that this is all about democracy; nor has the claim that a developmental logic of the polis led to democracy gone uncontested. This question becomes more complex when considered in light of the larger Greek world, with its broad – albeit insufficiently known – spectrum of political forms. The Athenian experience of democracy, however momentous and creative, was not the only case of its kind. Yet the less known but clearly less significant democratic episodes in other poleis (Robinson 1997, 2011) were only a small part of the picture. This book is not designed to deal with the whole range of “alternatives to Athens” (Brock and Hodkinson 2003), but growing awareness of the diversity within this category should at least be acknowledged. For one thing, Sparta is now increasingly seen as a part of the broader Greek picture, and therefore as a revealing focus of comparison with other cases, rather than a unique and anomalous exception (Hodkinson 2009: chs.11–13).

The review of contemporary interpretations of ancient democracy in this volume will thus be accompanied by re-interpretations of the historical experience in the light of modern democracy. We will emphasize that ancient Greek democracy inaugurated a novel constellation of political problems some of which are clearly recognizable for us today. But they also gave specific answers to these problems many of which can no longer be given today. To make this distinction is crucial for understanding in which way we are, or are not, linked to the past. And a clearer grasp of both sides to the question, the ancestral heritage and the historical novelty of modern democracy, will help to clarify whether or in what sense the claim that “there is no alternative” – notoriously made on behalf of a neo-liberal vision that has now faded – can be adopted for democracy.

This work at retrieval of experiences and interpretations proceeds in four steps. In a first step, which also defines the overall framework of the book, we will re-assess the significance of the Greek experience from the angles of historical-comparative sociology and the history of political thought. For some time, during the 1980s and the 1990s, as the combined effect of developments in the humanities known as micro-history, linguistic turn and postcolonial studies, it had become difficult to ask the question of our relation to antiquity. Micro-history had embarked on the study of small-scale interactions based on documents in local archives selected over short periods. As a consequence, longer-term processes and spatially more widely extended relations had been lost out of sight. Worse, it had become methodologically inappropriate to try to study them, and in some sense their very existence had been questioned. The linguistic turn happened in a wide range of forms, but one of the consequences of the new emphasis on language use was to multiply the meanings of any given term by situating it in its specific context of communication with other contemporary authors. As Quentin Skinner (1969: 8) famously maintained, there are no “perennial problems” in the history of political thought that any particular concept, such as “liberty” but also “democracy,” can be seen as addressing across time. Finally, postcolonial studies suspected that any privileged interest in ancient Greece would tend to reproduce or reinforce a Eurocentric perspective on world-history, while it was precisely such a bias that needed to be challenged.

As will become clear from their contributions to this book, the editors have – to a varying degree – drawn lessons from these developments. Micro-history had turned against the inclination of prior historiography easily to reason in terms of epochs and large-scale institutions without asking about the precise interactions and connections that hold phenomena of long duration and wide extension together. The linguistic turn was a highly necessary reaction against the common assumption of determination by structures and interests without asking about the meaning that was given to historical occurrences by the speaking and writing of human beings that lived through them. And history-writing had been dominated by a European, or more generally Western, perspective that too often looked at other societies in terms of what they lacked in comparison to Europe or the West.

However, the correction of unjustified assumptions or forms of intellectual domination does not make key questions go away. Even after the micro-historical, the linguistic and the postcolonial turn, the question why we globally refer to our political practices by a term coined in Greece almost 2,500 years ago remains valid and, arguably, significant. And even though we no longer start out from the assumption that democracy as we know it was invented in Greece at that historical moment, we would still like to understand whether there have been moments in history in which essential components of our concept of politics were realized, why this was possible, and how it affected society, politics, and culture – moments of extraordinary collective creativity that changed, whether temporarily or lastingly, the terms in which certain issues were debated and handled. In other words, we consider our work as having taken on board the intellectual turns of the 1980s and 1990s, or at least the genuine concerns behind them, and having emerged with a widened conceptual and methodological consciousness to address questions that existed before those turns but can now be approached in a different way.

Christian Meier’s recent work on the Greek “culture of freedom” (2011) shows how classical questions can be linked to new perspectives that serve to clarify the exceptional character of Greek culture. The most decisive departure from established patterns was a new relationship between culture and freedom, fundamentally different from the traditions that had developed around more or less sacral monarchies or – much less frequently – entrenched aristocracies, such as the Roman. Following Meier, several aspects of the Greek culture of freedom may be distinguished, and they were all important for the course of Greek history and for later uses and understandings of the Greek legacy. Decentered and unstable power structures needed a complementary cultural warrant which also imposed its own logic (this autonomy of culture was already foreshadowed by the authority of epic poetry). Further shifts of the power balance between elites and communities led to a proliferation of different regimes; these historical experiences were reflected in a plurality of cultural genres, easier to maintain in the absence of monarchic or otherwise durably concentrated power, and in an increasingly articulate reflection on alternative forms of political life.

The Greek culture of freedom calls for comparative and long-term historical perspectives. In this light, Johann P. Arnason takes on the question of the significance of the “political revolution” in ancient Greece and discusses it in the context of recent shifts in the debate on the Axial Age. As a first step, the regional settings of changes occurring in this period must be taken into account. The Greek breakthrough took place in close connection with cultural transfers from Near Eastern civilizations, but this twofold transformation of an outer periphery was very different from the more contained changes that occurred within the core region and inside the orbit of its power centers. The contrast between Axial orientations in ancient Greece and ancient Israel is to be seen in this geopolitical light. It seems clear that the first major step towards a Greek Sonderweg, departing from Near Eastern precedents, was an innovative form of political life; and this view fits in with a more general tendency to question the assumptions that intellectual or religious mutations are always the most decisive aspects of Axial transformations. The Greek case is discussed with reference to Christian Meier’s thesis on the “emergence of the political” as a uniquely Greek achievement. Taken in the most literal sense, this turns out to be an excessive claim, but the basic insight behind it can be defended in more moderate terms. We can speak of a political domain in pre-Axial civilizations; in archaic and classical Greece, it was transformed in fundamental ways, but this was not the only example of its kind (restructuration of and reflections on the political sphere are also central to Chinese culture during the same period). For a better grasp of the Greek path, we need a closer analysis of the complex interrelations that enter into Meier’s conception of the political field; a Schmittian over-emphasis on the distinction between friend and foe must be avoided, and so must the equation of the political with democracy. The main point is the understanding of the political domain as a polycentric field of tensions, open to different patternings in diverse civilizational settings.

While Arnason reasons in terms of historical-comparative sociology, Peter Wagner addresses a very similar question in terms of the history of political thought. He underlines how the view that the modern understanding of democracy gradually and over very long temporal distances evolved from the ancient one has been abandoned over the past few decades. Now there seems to be a consensus in intellectual historiography, inaugurated in parallel by Michael Foucault, Reinhart Koselleck, and Quentin Skinner and their associates, that our political language underwent a major transformation between 1770 and 1830 in the course of which all key concepts changed their meaning, often radically. Somewhat surprisingly, though, this finding has sparked only little interest in analyzing the reasons why earlier meanings could no longer be retained and how practices and institutions that referred to political concepts were transformed in the light of the altered meaning of their supporting concepts. Wagner explores these issues with a view, less to give full answers, but at least to phrase in new terms the difference between ancient and current democracy.

After these explorations of the long-term significance of the Greek experience, the stage is set for detailed analyses of the embeddedness of polis democracy in the practices of polis society. The second section of this volume addresses this issue through detailed analyses of genres of expression and interpretation. It is well known that comedy, tragedy, historiography, rhetoric, and (political) philosophy are among the genres that, in large part, usually are thought to have been invented in Greece, similar to democracy, or, at least, to have taken specific form in the context of the Greek city states and societies. The former claim can possibly be sustained for tragedy, historiography, and philosophy, whereas the more modest latter claim is certainly true for comedy and rhetoric as well. Surprisingly, though, it is here probably for the first time that the way in which these genres of expression were not only used, but partly formed in the first place to address the key problems of polis democracy, is being systematically explored across the whole range of these genres. (In the context of democracy’s connection with empire such questions were explored in Boedeker and Raaflaub 1998; see also Meier 1990 and 1993; Sakellariou 1996.)

The idea that Greek tragedy is – in some fundamental sense – a political art is not new, but it has not translated into more substantive agreement on its character and contents. Egon Flaig’s chapter takes a major step beyond earlier treatments of this issue. Tragedy has commonly been seen as a product and a self-reflective institution of Athenian democracy. The flowering of tragedy as a poetic genre took place during the heyday of radical democracy in Athens; the democratic regime developed very effective ways to integrate the production and performance of tragedy into the collective life of the polis; and conversely, it has not been hard to find in the extant tragedies evidence of reflection on aims pursued and problems posed by democratic practices. Farther-reaching and controversial claims argue that tragedy could only have developed in a democratic polis, and tragic themes can be understood as expressions of democratic ideology or – in more flexible versions – as rooted in the problematic of democratic thought. Flaig rejects these constructions of causal links and uniform contents as unfounded; more importantly, he shows that central concerns of tragic discourse relate to the problems of a political sphere that emerged well before the democratic turn and constituted a more general feature of Greek civilization. He does not claim that “the political” was a Greek invention or creation; but the unprecedented autonomy of the political sphere, already evident in archaic times, was based on institutional developments and organizational innovations that set the Greek case apart from earlier and contemporary cultures. Collective will formation was institutionalized to an otherwise unknown degree. At the same time, this did decidedly not become an obstacle to open conflict, the collective life of the polis was uniquely open to controversy, and the clash of opinions gave rise to alternative visions of political order. On the other hand, the use of the majority principle enabled the Greeks to dispense with unanimity and thus enhance their capacity for collective action. This new pattern of the political sphere generated new problems, among which the tension between adversarial deliberation and accelerated decision-making was one of the most obvious. This is, as Flaig shows, a prominent theme in Sophoclean tragedy, where “dangers stemming from the impulse of acting all too quickly” are – among other things – associated with the deceptively sovereign “swiftness of mind” seen in Oedipus’s solving of riddles, and contrasted with the more communal deliberation on the meaning of oracles. But the tragic message is not that acting in common and with good advice guarantees success. The fundamental insight that “who acts will suffer” excludes any facile solution to the human predicament.

Lucio Bertelli takes up the question of comedy as an outlet for public criticism in democratic Athens. This issue is of course related to the more general problem of dissent during the fifth century; it has proved difficult to clarify the status and the sources of articulate opposition. When it comes to specific genres and media, the question is in part about Athenian drama in general, but Bertelli focuses on comedy (on tragedy, see Egon Flaig’s preceding chapter). Nevertheless, some of his comments relate to the broader genre, not least the comments on assumptions that have obstructed debate. Contrary to widespread views, “democratic ideology is not [a] solid block…, but rather a diverse yet coherent mixture of tendencies and tastes”; it is also a mistake to reduce “criticism in comedy to a univocal model.” Such preconceptions have not helped to identify a meaningful relationship ­between comedy and democracy, and many scholars have therefore opted for the “carnival-ritualistic” theory, which can still portray comedy as a counterculture, but without significant implications or practical effects on the political level. This approach tends to retain the notion of an univocal model while abandoning the attempt to identify it with a political message. This is the starting-point for Bertelli’s criticism: as he sees it, awareness of political issues and aggressive – albeit variously transposed – intervention in political debates are constitutive features of comedy, but the choice of targets and the “means of aggression” change over time and across the thematic range. Bertelli’s reading of Aristophanes illustrates these points. And that justifies the comparison with Socrates, anticipated by Leo Strauss but here proposed on different grounds. For Bertelli, Socrates addressed the man in the street and wanted to make individual citizens “virtuous and intellectually capable”; Aristophanes spoke to the citizenry as a whole, and to him “it was enough to make them aware of the mechanics of political power and to teach them how to defend themselves from it.”

The rise of Greek historiography is one of the cultural innovations widely ­perceived as at least akin to the democratic spirit. Jonas Grethlein’s chapter ­considers this question from a new angle and raises doubts about the direct ­connections that have hitherto seemed plausible. For Grethlein, it is crucial that Greek uses and understandings of the past – articulations of cultural memory – had already found expression in “epics, elegy, tragedy, and oratory,” and that ­historiography emerged in a reflected relationship to these pre-existing genres. More precisely, the works of Herodotus and Thucydides, which we have to take as starting-points (speculations about Herodotus’s forerunners are inconclusive), demarcate their critical inquiry into the past from earlier modes of commemoration (and Thucydides adds an effort to distinguish his approach to history from that of Herodotus), but they also preserve some basic features of an older view of history that was first spelt out in the Homeric epics. A strong concern with the fragility and uncertainty of human existence in history goes hand in hand with a non-­developmental view. The suggestion is not that the notion of development was absent from Greek thought, but neither the epics nor Herodotus and Thucydides imposed it on history. Other modes of memory are too limited in scope to make comparison on the same level possible; as Grethlein argues, it can nevertheless be shown that a critical reference to oratory was of major importance for the emerging genre of historiography. Oratory was “the primary genre besides poetry in which the Greeks encountered their past”; in the form of funeral orations, it became an integral part of democratic institutions, and the exemplary use of the past was a standard device of political rhetoric. As Grethlein sees it, Thucydides’ critical attitude to oratory is evident in his reflections on method (now more adequately understood than in earlier scholarship) and in the presentation of particular cases, most famously Pericles’ funeral oration. The importance of the latter as a key to the self-understanding of democratic Athens at its most articulate is not in dispute, but Grethlein’s reading places a new emphasis on the contrasts between representation and practice. Both this outstanding example and the more general critique of rhetoric indicate a distance from democracy, and a closer look at Herodotus suggests the same conclusions, even if the critical stance is much less pronounced. On a more fundamental level, Grethlein’s interpretation stresses the limits to political readings of Greek historiography: if it emerges as a response to and a move beyond the models created by earlier genres, it is by the same token not reducible to direct intellectual effects of fifth-century transformations. But the final conclusion is not that the new horizons opened up by Herodotus and Thucydides have nothing to do with democracy. Despite the critical attitude of the authors and the cultural logic of the genre, a certain affinity with the spirit of democratic politics is apparent in both cases.

A closer look at the operative mechanisms and resources of Athenian democracy helps to clarify its relationship to social and cultural conditions. The role of rhetoric, a key factor in the functioning of democratic politics, should be seen in this perspective. Harvey Yunis shows how the uses and ramifications of rhetoric interacted with a broader set of trends. The perfection of rhetoric as a skill and the elaboration of a discipline dealing with this skill belong in the context of a more general cultural movement: the “consciousness of ability” (Könnensbewusstsein) which Christian Meier (1990: ch.8) identifies as the closest approximation to an idea of progress in the ancient world. A growing reflexive awareness of human capacities and their perfectibility was one of the main currents of fifth-century culture. With reference to the sociological tradition, it seems appropriate to speak of civilizing processes. In that regard, rhetoric plays a double role: as an important part of an evolving larger complex and – in virtue of its influence on discourse and writing – as a medium of reflexivity across the spectrum. Within its own domain, the reflexive turn began with the separation between form and message, which Yunis singles out as a basic operative distinction; it enables the choice of different forms to present the same message to varying audiences. Further development gave rise to techniques and traditions as well as criteria of expertise, and thus to growing professionalization. Rhetoric served the competitive pursuit of power, but it also fostered a diversity of views while maintaining “the supremacy and decision-making prerogatives of the demos.” In a broader sense, reflexive uses of rhetoric made it the “chief mode of public literary expression,” and this new role found classic expression in texts as different as Plato’s Apology of Socrates and the speeches included in Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War. The tradition that evolved out of these beginnings was, as Yunis notes, to dominate public communication until the end of antiquity.

The role of law in Athenian democracy is a relatively neglected topic, at least in comparison to political institutions and imperial ambitions, and so are the distinctive features of Athenian law. This very lack of detailed coverage has perhaps made it easier for some scholars to suggest far-reaching revisions of the mainstream view, be it in the sense that the rule of law was more fundamental than popular power or on the more cautious note that fourth-century democracy evolved in such a direction. Adriaan Lanni analyzes the distinctive legal culture and legal practices of democratic Athens; her argument results in a strong case against linking the Athenian order to the rule of law; but this is not to suggest that legal procedures were unimportant for the functioning of Athenian society, or that the Athenian case is uninteresting for the comparative history of law. As Lanni sees it, “the Athenian courts were arguably more successful at maintaining order and promoting political stability than Rome, the city commonly credited with ‘inventing’ law.” To understand how the courts – the key legal institution – came to play this crucial role, the whole ideological, political, and social context must be taken into account. But there is no evidence of democratic theorizing on law, and it is therefore difficult to grasp how the Athenians perceived and interpreted their legal system. Yet the very absence of legal reflection seems to fit into an overall picture that can be put together from various parts of the record. From a modern perspective, “pervasive amateurism” appears as a defining trait of the Athenian approach to law. A diffuse conception of legal authority, a pronounced distrust of legal expertise, and unsystematic patterns of legal argument formed a framework that was obviously not conducive to theoretical or practical rationalization. This constellation corresponded to a general characteristic of Athenian legal norms: they were, by modern standards, “shockingly vague” and did not lend themselves to precise definitions of crimes or penalties. But the very indeterminacy of formal rules enabled the courts to balance them against other kinds of evidence and combine them with extra-statutory norms and conventions. It would be misleading to describe this fusion of multiple references as a way of maximizing social control. Not only had the democratizing process led to a de-centering of power and thus – to a significant extent – undermined the traditional patterns of control; the overall transformation of Athenian society had also, as Lanni notes, created a situation where there was “no consensus on a hierarchy of norms.”

Interpretations of Greek political thought have in recent years moved beyond traditional views. More attention has been given to the emergence and role of political thought prior to the formation of political philosophy in the exemplary Platonic–Aristotelian sense. Ryan Balot approaches this field on the basis of the Athenian experience. It has often been noted that Athenian history, from Solon’s reforms through the unusually statesmanlike tyranny of Peisistratus and the subsequent Cleisthenic reform to the radical democracy of the fifth century, represents a very specific concatenation of changes (sketched also by Raaflaub in this volume). Solon’s political and literary legacy is the point where a history of political thought can link up with this background. Balot’s view of the trajectory from Solon to Aristotle is that changing conceptions of politics can neither be understood as results of a self-contained analysis of issues and principles, nor – in the case of philosophy after the Socratic turn – as a unilateral response to the democratic regime and its failed imperial ambitions. Rather, “political thinking and political practice were always intertwined in a relationship of dialectical tension and ambiguity.” Since democracy raised both political and intellectual life to higher levels of intensity, the tension between thought and practice was most pronounced in classical Athens. Political thinkers reflected on the latent presuppositions of institutions in place, revealed the internal contradictions of ideals invoked and acknowledged by the regime, and combined themes of political culture – in the key cases democratic ones – in ways that challenged the established order. At its most articulate, their problematization of ideologies and practices resulted in models of a different order, one of which (Plato’s Republic) became the most controversial foundational text of the Western philosophical tradition.

In this context, it is difficult to draw a clear dividing line between democratic and anti-democratic ideas. And the ambiguity can be traced back to earlier beginnings. Hardly any historian would now defend the image of Solon as the founder of Athenian democracy, but the democratic potential of his reforms was to prove important for later developments. Balot’s analysis suggests that this was not least due to Solon’s emphatic and poetically amplified appeal to the entire community of citizens. On the other hand, Balot is skeptical about the sources sometimes used to reconstruct fifth-century democratic thought. It seems more important to grasp the underlying connections between democracy and those who denounced its failings. Plato’s Socrates – of the historical person we have too little independent knowledge to compare him with this literary reincarnation – is “an exemplary democratic citizen.” His new kind of inquiry “helps to make sense of democratic ideals and practices in a way that democracy itself could not do.” More specifically, there are at least three aspects of the democratic cultural-political complex that can be identified as sources of the Socratic project, within which they were transfigured and recombined in ways that lend themselves to further variation: the emphasis on effective accountability of officials, the scrutiny of civic conduct in legal settings, and the idea of virtue as an ultimate priority of political life.