‘Rethinking the political class of democratic Athens’ is the title of the workshop announced by The Department of Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology of the University of Birmingham. The workshop is held online via Zoom, 26 January 2021.
Rethinking the political class of democratic Athens
Popular participation and the nature of political power in democratic Athens have long been the object of debate among scholars. This workshop will focus on a specific facet of this debate: the political class of Athenian democracy. Scholarship has so far investigated this topic either from a social and rhetorical perspective or from an institutional and epigraphical perspective and has come to contrasting conclusions concerning the existence and nature of a political class in democratic Athens.
On the one hand, scholars such as Jones (1957), Mossé (1984; 1995) and, to a lesser extent, Ober (1989) have taken the testimony of Thucydides and the Attic orators at face value and assumed that a relatively small political class existed and was clearly distinguished from the mass of ordinary Athenians within the political realm.
On the other hand, Hansen (1989) and Ruzé (1997) have analyzed the evidence on the proposers of Athenian decrees during the fourth and fifth centuries respectively and concluded that political initiative, despite the existence of a small group of professional politicians, was relatively widespread throughout the Athenian citizenry. Their view has been further developed by Lambert (2018), who has convincingly argued that, at least between 354/3 and 322/1 BC, the political agency was not the prerogative of a restricted group of wealthy and prominent men but was rather distributed among a large pool which included ordinary men who exerted their influence, especially through the Council.
The purpose of this workshop is to bring these contrasting views and bodies of evidence together and explore their overall impact on our understanding of Athenian politics and power dynamics. Such a holistic approach can help us to illuminate a series of issues that have animated the debate on politics in Athenian democracy.
A set of scholars, for example, has looked at the nature of Athens’ political class diachronically. In a seminal book, Connor (1971) argued that a substantial change in Athenian politics took place with the rise of Cleon around 430 BC. While the old politicians belonged to prominent families whose wealth was based on landholding and whose power derived from private bonds of philia, the new politicians came from families whose wealth derived from less traditional sources such as commerce and whose power was based on their philia with the dēmos.
This view has been challenged by Mann (2007), who has shown that non-aristocratic politicians existed both before and after 430 and argued that a change only took place around 420 with Alcibiades’ political exploitation of his elite status, and by Harris (2013), who has shown that Cleon’s only difference with previous politicians consisted in his inappropriate use of aggressive, legal tactics in the Assembly.
Another significant area of debate revolves around the existence of professionalism in Athenian politics. Hansen (1989), for instance, identified increased professionalism during the fourth century, when orators as rhetorical and political experts came to be distinguished from generals as military professionals. Kallet (1994) has similarly emphasized the importance of financial expertise as a source of power for Athenian orators as opposed to the financial ignorance of the dēmos, and Moreno (2007) has suggested that elite politicians during the fourth century exploited their expertise in matters of grain import to exert influence in the Assembly. The centrality of (mostly administrative) expertise has instead been questioned by Ismard (2015), who argues that the Athenians were suspicious of expert elites and thus entrusted public administration to skilled public slaves, while the knowledge and power gap between orators and dēmos has been challenged by Ober (2008), who has suggested that Athenian democratic institutions enabled the aggregation of politically relevant expertise dispersed throughout the masses.
Was there a political class in democratic Athens? How can we explain the diverging pictures of Athenian politics which emerge from literary and epigraphical sources? Did any major changes take place in Athens’ political equilibrium throughout the fifth and fourth centuries? What was the role of expertise and professionalization in Athenian politics? By tackling these and related questions and analyzing them from multiple angles, this workshop aims to renew and advance the debate on Athens’ political class. As a result, it will provide a nuanced and comprehensive view of the nature, breadth, composition, and very existence of a political class in Athenian democracy and shape the debate on the topic for the next generation of scholars.
How to attend
The workshop, which is part of a research project generously sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust, will take place on 26 January 2021 and will be held online via Zoom. The event is free and all are welcome! To register and receive the Zoom link for the workshop, please email [email protected]
Program (all times are GMT)
09:10-09:30 Logging into Zoom and introduction
Session 1: Theoretical approaches
09:30-10:15 Christian Mann (Mannheim)
The ‘iron law of oligarchy’ and classical Athens
Session 2: Perspectives from oratory and drama
10:30-11:15 Lucia Cecchet (Mainz)
Political class imagined: the rich, the poor, and the ideal rule of the mesoi
11:15-12:00 Natalia Tsoumpra (Glasgow)
Lead like a comic hero: public speakers and mass audiences in Aristophanes
12:00-12:45 Lunch break
Session 3: Political class and the Athenian Assembly
12:45-13:30 Mirko Canevaro (Edinburgh)
Cutting Athens’ political ‘class’ down to size: political leadership, popular participation and democratic deliberation
13:30-14:15 Myrto Aloumpi (Liverpool)
Who is philotimos in the Athenian Assembly? Individual ambition and collective achievement in deliberative speeches and political trials
Session 4: Perspectives from beyond Athens
14:45-15:30 Matteo Zaccarini (Edinburgh)
Xenophon’s hybris: leadership and accountability in Anabasis 5.8
Session 5: Final remarks and roundtable
15:45-16:15 Edward Harris (Durham/Edinburgh)