Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought

Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought

Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought

Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought


The Classical Athenians were the first to articulate and implement the notion that ordinary citizens of no particular affluence or education could make responsible political decisions. For this reason, reactions to Athenian democracy have long provided a prime Rorschach test for political thought. Whether praising Athens's government as the legitimizing ancestor of modern democracies or condemning it as mob rule, commentators throughout history have revealed much about their own notions of politics and society. In this book, Jennifer Roberts charts responses to Athenian democracy from Athens itself through the twentieth century, exploring a debate that touches upon historiography, ethics, political science, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, gender studies, and educational theory. Roberts has given us an excellent study of [the Athenian] legacy.... Athens on Trial deserves praise both for its conception and its execution.--Eric W. Robinson, Bryn Mawr Classical Review A first-rate intellectual and cultural history.--Stephen Goode, The Washington Times Roberts ... writes with learning, wit, acerbity, profundity, and engagement on the vicissitudes of the idea [of democracy] in its supposedly original Athenian form.--Paul Cartledge, New Statesman & Society


In every country the aristocracy is contrasted to the democracy, there being in the best people the least licentiousness and iniquity, but the keenest eye for morals; in the people on the other hand we find a very high degree of ignorance, disorder, and vileness; for poverty more and more leads them in the direction of bad morals, thus also the absence of education and in the case of some persons the ignorance which is due to the want of money.

—The anonymous fifth-century author of the Constitution of the Athenians

Democracy might be isonomia to its champions, but to its enemies it was a perversion of justice, an exploitative class government rationalized by a misunderstanding of the essence of equality. To such thinkers, Athens's diplomatic setbacks appeared to be the natural outgrowth of her democratic system, and by the time the Greek city-states lost their autonomy on the field of Chaeronea in 338, an elaborate multipronged attack had been mounted on the Athenians and their democracy. There is no need to reconstruct this attack as one reconstructs democratic theory, from snatches here and there. Rather, it is splashed unsparingly over the corpus of Greek literature.

The claims of class

The nature of the attack on Athens varies according to the speaker or writer, but it is important to remember within what frame of reference Athens's critics operated. a theoretician like Plato might dream of a state basking in the beatific autocracy of a man wise beyond ordinary mortals, but few Greeks would have advocated monarchy or tyranny as the best government for classical Athens; it was to defend Hellenism against the horrors of Eastern despotism that the Greeks had united in battle against the Persians. Though the neat oppositions of Pericles' funeral oration were not always before people's minds, still the essential question for most contemporaries once the Persian threat had receded was how Athenian democracy compared not to monarchy or to tyranny but rather to oligarchy. Except for the members of Athens's own empire, within which Athens favored governments similar to her own, most . . .

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