Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People

Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People

Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People

Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People

Synopsis

This book asks an important question often ignored by ancient historians and political scientists alike: Why did Athenian democracy work as well and for as long as it did? Josiah Ober seeks the answer by analyzing the sociology of Athenian politics and the nature of communication between elite and nonelite citizens. After a preliminary survey of the development of the Athenian "constitution," he focuses on the role of political and legal rhetoric. As jurymen and Assemblymen, the citizen masses of Athens retained important powers, and elite Athenian politicians and litigants needed to address these large bodies of ordinary citizens in terms understandable and acceptable to the audience. This book probes the social strategies behind the rhetorical tactics employed by elite speakers.


A close reading of the speeches exposes both egalitarian and elitist elements in Athenian popular ideology. Ober demonstrates that the vocabulary of public speech constituted a democratic discourse that allowed the Athenians to resolve contradictions between the ideal of political equality and the reality of social inequality. His radical reevaluation of leadership and political power in classical Athens restores key elements of the social and ideological context of the first western democracy.

Excerpt

Thanks to the influence of the dedicand, I had begun to think about the role of elite and egalitarian institutions in democratic society long before I first read the Attic orators. Yet I had been studying the orators for quite a while before the elitist tone of Demosthenes' comments on Aeschines in On the Crown struck my attention. That was ten years ago. Given this extended period of gestation, it is perhaps inevitable that my purposes and intentions in writing about mass and elite in Athens should be manifold. First, the book is meant to be a contribution to Greek history: an attempt to explain the social roots and internal functioning of the political system of an ancient city-state. I hope that many of those who consider the history and culture of fifth- and fourth-century Athens intrinsically interesting, as I do, will find this study valuable in formulating or reformulating their own assessments of classical Greece.

My other primary goals in writing the book may be less self-evident. Some historians of Greco-Roman antiquity, including myself, have embraced the technique of employing models devised by modern social scientists to help explain ancient society. When models are used crudely or mechanically, however, the results are unlikely to be persuasive. I propose that it is now time for students of the classics to take a dynamic approach to methodology and theory. A field that engages a relatively large number of scholars in studying a relatively small body of texts, and in which cross-disciplinary work is inevitable, presents an ideal environment for the production, refinement, and testing of critical theories and social models. And these models and theories may have relevance well beyond the study of the Greco-Roman world and its cultural products. The book is therefore intended as an example of a radical approach to classical history. I have combined a central tenet of Annales-School social history—the importance of understanding the “mentality” of ordinary people—with a major insight of modern literary theory: viewing texts as symbol-systems that must be understood in relationship to their receptors. The result is a reading of the political development of an ancient state that is more concerned with rhetoric and popular ideology than with constitutions, personalities, factions, or foreign relations. I hope to show that Athenian decision-making processes were coherent without being . . .

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