Kleisthenes and Athenian Democracy: Vision from Above or Below?
This article reviews the recent book of Greg Anderson and contributes to ongoing debates about the significance of Kleisthenes and the development of Athenian democracy. Anderson demonstrates exhaustively that Athens of the sixth century lacked any significant military capacity, making it vulnerable to invasion and a minor player in Greek affairs, and was afflicted with limited and ineffectual public institutions. Thus public life largely consisted of unfettered rivalries between leaders of a handful of elite clans, who competed for preeminence through conspicuous consumption, private alliances, the leading of private military ventures, and the securing of magistracies and religious roles for themselves and their fellow clansmen. This could be a high-stakes contest that sometimes resulted in one or another leader and his clan forced out of the city by their rivals, with public life eventually breaking down into the long tyranny of Peisistratos and his sons. If we fast-forward to 490 BCE, Anderson reminds us how everything had changed. At the battle of Marathon Athens deploys an army of 9000 citizen hoplites, far larger than that of any other city-state (including Sparta), and, with this unexpected victory over the Persians, confirms its status as a dominant power in the Greek world. Moreover, the decision to go to war, like others concerning foreign affairs and an ever-increasing range of public activities, was taken in the new popular boulē (‘council’) and ekklēsia (‘assembly’). Although political proposals, in 490, were still made by elite Athenians as part of their efforts to be first among their peers, it was now the dēmos (‘people’) ultimately deciding which proposal the city should pursue. This popular adjudication reduced the traditional instability engendered by elite competitiveness, with the people themselves now reserving the right to expel prominent members of the elite through the new institution of ostracism. This general picture of the transformation of late archaic Athens has been drawn before and probably represents the consensus position of those scholars currently working in the period. Nonetheless things start to get very interesting when Anderson considers why archaic Athens was so weak and when exactly this transformation took place. The novel argument of his book is that Athens of the sixth century was far from properly integrated with its surrounding region: the effectiveness of city-based institutions and leaders fell a long way short of the borders of Attike, no mechanism existed to register the free male inhabitants of the region as citizens of Athens or to involve them in its political and military affairs, and these inhabitants had no sense of being part of a collectivity covering all of Attike. Additionally non-elite Athenians played no part politically or otherwise in the public life of the archaic city. Anderson rejects the standard view that the involvement of non-elite Athenians in politics and warfare and the integration of Athens and its region were gradual, long-term processes, involving reforming leaders such as Solon and Peisistratos. Instead he believes they were achieved only as part of the tribal and political reforms of Kleisthenes and his associates in 508/7. Even then, Anderson maintains, for non-elite Athenians a sense of shared Athenian identity and of being part of the dēmos took much longer to develop, being as it was the result of the mixing of citizens in tribal activities, their experience of new political institutions and the cultural programme of Kleisthenes and his successors (pp. 22, 40, 81, 83, 119, 124-5, 197, 216).