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date: 22 March 2018

democracy, non-Athenian and post-Classical

Democracy or people's power (see demos) was not an Athenian monopoly or even invention. (See democracy, Athenian.) The Archaic Spartan constitutional document (rhētra) preserved in Plutarch Lycurgus 6 explicitly says that ‘the people shall have the power’, but Sparta soon ossified. Sixth-cent. bceChios, as an inscription (ML 8) reveals, had a constitution with some popular features, though Classical Chios, like Classical Sparta, was no longer democratic: Thuc. 8. 24 (late 5th cent.) brackets Sparta and Chios and implies that both were oligarchies; for Chios see also Syll.3 986. Classical Greek states other than Athens, such as Argos (1), were or were perceived as democracies (Thuc. 5. 31. 6 and other evidence) but Athenian influence can usually be postulated (see democracy, Athenian). Thus assembly pay, a feature of the developed Athenian democracy (it was introduced only after the main Peloponnesian War) is also attested at Hellenistic Iasus and Rhodes, no doubt exported there originally from Athens. But imperial Athens, despite sweeping remarks in some ancient literary texts, was not doctrinaire about insisting on democracies in the subject states (Old Oligarch 3. 11; LACTOR 13. 101 ff.). It was more important to install or support favourably minded personnel. In any case, to impose ‘democracy’ on a tiny place like Erythrae in Ionia did not mean much, given the demographic facts on the ground: thus ML 40, the mid 5th-cent. ‘Erythrae decree’, shows that the rules for the council established there by Athens were much less rigidly democratic than those at Athens itself (120 members not 500; repeated membership allowed after only four years as opposed to twice in a lifetime; see boule).

Even in the Hellenistic period, i.e. after 322 bce when Athenian democracy in its classical form was suppressed by Macedon, there was, despite modern Marxist gloom on this topic, more democratic life in Greece (Athens included) than is often realized. Decrees preserved on stone show extensive participation ‘from the floor’, though intensive modern study of the whole corpus of such decrees has shown that some areas (Italy and Sicily; and fringe territories newly brought under Greek influence by Alexander (3) the Great and the Hellenistic rulers) were more backward in this respect than others. Even under Rome the city-assemblies of subject Greeks, although despised by the Roman élite (Cic.Flac.16), demonstrably mattered in local politics at least until Trajan (Dio Chrys.Or. 34; Plut.Prae. ger. reip.), although some, certainly, were now oligarchic (e.g. Roman Delphi: C. Vatin, BCH1961, 248–50), and all were increasingly dependent on ‘benefactor-politicians’ (see euergetism). Public statues personifying the dēmos suggest the continued Greek idealization of people-power under the Principate: e.g. K. Erim, Aphrodisias (1986), 85; SEG 9. 492.

Polybius (1) (bk. 6) treated some aspects of the Roman constitution in the middle republic as if they were fully democratic, and this perception is shrewder than has sometimes been acknowledged. M. Porcius Cato (1), for instance, can plausibly be seen as an essentially popular politician. More generally, views widely held in the earlier part of this century, about the importance of clientship or clientela (see cliens) and about the completeness of aristocratic control of politics, are now less in fashion. For instance, it has been asked, why do we hear so much about mass bribery at election-time if the assemblies were oligarchic and (as the usual view holds) dominated by the better-off? But there were always big differences from Classical Athens: at Rome, popular meetings (comitia; contiones) could be summoned only by a magistrate; and at the end of the republic the sheer power, both military and financial, of the military dynasts undermined even such democracy as there was. In any case the evidence of bribery cuts both ways: the prevalence of electoral bribery or ambitus always, and especially in the late republic when the stakes were higher, meant that elections expressed the popular will only approximately. (But in both republic and Principate there were other, cruder, outlets for popular feeling, such as demonstrations at the theatre or games, Cic.Sest. 106; see acclamation). It is also relevant that city assemblies tended to be dominated by the city population. Rome was not unique in this, but the size of Italy meant that the problem was specially acute. The puzzle of apparently popular elections within an essentially oligarchic framework can be solved by seeing instances of genuinely contested elections as occasional submissions to popular will—a kind of agreed form of arbitration. Finally we should remember that the analyses of Greeks like Polybius could themselves have had influence on e.g. the Gracchi: if you translate ‘tribunus’ as δήμαρχος‎ (a compound of ‘people’ and ‘rule’ first found in Greek at Syll3. 601, 190s bce) you import an idea not previously there. That is, the truth about 2nd cent. bce Rome may not be that Greek observers discovered hitherto unnoticed democratic features in the Roman constitution, but that Rome became more (but never fully) democratic precisely as a result of Greek influence exercised by those observers. (See also optimates; politics, (At Rome).


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P. J. Rhodes with D. M. Lewis, The Decrees of the Greek States (1996).Find this resource:

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F. Millar, Journal of Roman Studies 1986, 1 ff.Find this resource:

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I. Malkin and Z. Rubinsohn, Leaders and Masses in the Roman World (1995).Find this resource:

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