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→ Sources and the History of Athenian Democracy.

The Challenge of the Sources.

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Evidence for Athenian Democracy 

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 24, 2003

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· Sources and the History of Athenian Democracy ·

The study of ancient history is the study of ancient sources, which are the evidence on which accounts and descriptions are based. All textbooks, scholarly publications, and documentaries in any medium are based on the same body of ancient evidence. Only ancient sources count as evidence; all modern works are interpretation, efforts at explanation, or descriptions of that evidence.

Ancient sources can be difficult to find and difficult to interpret. For this reason, many books on Athenian Democracy that are aimed at a general audience do not refer to the ancient sources, or do so only occasionally. Thus, readers are at the mercy of the professional historians; they must assume that the historians have consulted the sources carefully, and they have little choice but to accept the historians’ interpretations of the evidence.

Read about the evidence
Dinarchus (Din. 3).
Plot on a Map
Piraeus (in text as “harbor”).

Books aimed at an audience of specialists, on the other hand, are more likely to refer to specific sources as they interpret events. The historian might make a statement—“In 324 BCE, Philocles was the general in charge of the harbor at Athens”—and then cite the ancient source on which this statement is based: Din. 3.1. This allows some readers to be less dependent on the author, but only those readers who are trained in ancient history. The reader must know what Din. 3.1 refers to, where to find it, how to read it (especially if the source is an ancient Greek text), and how to interpret it.

Dēmos: Classical Athenian Democracy can help bridge the gap between history written for general audiences and history written for professional specialists. Dēmos will offer all readers an account of Athenian Democracy organized by professional historians, but will also allow readers to access, understand, and interpret the sources for themselves.

Like a textbook, Dēmos organizes information about its subject and explains it for an educated general audience. Like a scholarly publication, Dēmos cites the ancient sources behind every assertion, so the audience does not have to believe the authors.

Read about the evidence
Dinarchus (Din. 3).

Because Dēmos is an electronic publication, and because many of the ancient sources are available electronically, the citations to ancient sources will lead directly to the sources themselves. To take the example given above, readers do not need to trust a modern historian who says that “Philocles was general in charge of the harbor”, because the reference to ancient evidence, Din. 3.1, is not only a citation of a source, but a link to that text, which is online as part of Perseus: an Evolving Digital Library. Readers who click on Din. 3.1 in their browsers will have instant access to the source, in English translation or in Greek.

Read about the evidence
Dinarchus (Din. 3).
Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol.).

But what is Din. 3.1? It is not enough to look at a piece of evidence without a good idea of the nature and value of that evidence. Professional ancient historians are trained to know what citations like Din. 3.1, or Aristot. Ath. Pol. 4.2 mean and how to interpret them, but this knowledge is not necessarily widespread. For this reason, Dēmos does not merely produce evidence when readers click on citations; it also offers, wherever possible, brief descriptions of the evidence so readers can put the evidence in context and judge for themselves how accurate and useful a particular piece of evidence might be.

Some sources may not be available online, and for some sources the articles describing the source may not yet be available on Dēmos. In these cases, citations will appear in the text, just as they would appear in a book, but without being an active link. When Dēmos cannot provide an article describing an ancient author, it will subsitute a link that will look up that author on the Perseus website. In these cases, as texts and articles become available, Dēmos’ articles will automatically generate links to them.

Dēmos offers its readers three things. First, it offers a description of classical Athenian Democracy written by experts and anonymously reviewed by other experts, thus ensuring a standard of quality. Second, it takes advantage of electronic repositories of ancient evidence to give its readers access to the sources behind that description. And third, it gives readers background information to help them interpret the evidence critically and in context for themselves.

Because publications of The Stoa are electronic, they will grow and develop over time. As more ancient evidence becomes available electronically, Dēmos will give better and better access to primary sources. Because historians often differ in their interpretation of the evidence, Dēmos will be able to add new articles and essays that reflect these ongoing debates, all the while allowing readers to evaluate the evidence (and take sides!) themselves.

The Stoa is dedicated to maintaining the highest standards of traditional scholarly publication, particularly in the two areas in which electronic publication is often weakest: authority and longevity. Print publications, books and journal articles, undergo anonymous review by acknowledged experts; this ensures that the publications are rigorous, accurate, and thus worthy of being seen as authoritative. Likewise, The Stoa publishes nothing that has not undergone similar review. Print publication is also durable—a citation to a book published in 1853 is still valid, since that book can be located in one or more of the world’s research libraries. This is the greatest weakness of most electronic publication, many of which either vanish altogether, or have their URL change and thus become inaccessible. The Stoa is committed to maintaining the durability of its publications, so they can be cited as sources as confidently as any printed work.

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