Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ The Challenge of the Sources.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 24, 2003
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Describing classical Athenian Democracy is difficult because of certain problems inherent in our sources. First of these is the relatively small number of sources that survive. Many of the literary works produced by the ancient Greeks are lost forever. Of the thousands of inscriptions that the Athenians set up to publish the decrees of the Assembly, archaeologists have found only a fraction. The monuments and buildings of ancient Athens have either disappeared altogether, or stand in ruins. So when we try to reconstruct the history and institutions of classical Athenian Democracy, we must work with the small body of fragmentary evidence that survives.
Another challenge is the nature of the evidence. Unfortunately, no single source tells us everything we would like to know about the Athenian democracy, which was a complex system of institutions, laws, and practices, and which changed and developed over time. The Constitution of the Athenians (Aristot. Ath. Pol.) comes closest to offering a comprehensive eyewitness account, since this work, by Aristotle or his students, was written between
The Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians (Aristot. Ath. Pol.) and many of our other sources are not particularly favorable toward democracy, and this raises other problems. Critics of democracy (ancient and modern) tend to emphasize negative reports and to highlight problems. For Aristotle and others (see especially “Pseudo-Xenophon,” Ps. Xen. Const. Ath.) the Athenian democracy was barely better than “mob rule”, if it was better at all. We must, therefore, read these sources carefully and critically, to try to see through their bias.
The works of Aristotle and Pseudo-Xenophon contain actual descriptions of Athenian democracy, albeit critical ones, but most of our evidence does not come from sources that did not actually set out to describe the government of Athens. Much of our evidence comes from Athenian Oratory, speeches written as part of civil or criminal trials or political debates. These contain a large amount of information regarding the working of the democracy, its laws, its customs, and the actions of important historical figures. But they, too, must be read carefully. An orator, like a modern lawyer, aimed to win his case, not to provide us with truthful information, and so we should assume that any speech will contain truths, half-truths, and even outright lies.
Herodotus and Thucydides, the two great historians to come out of classical Athens, did set out to educate readers regarding historical events, and both tell us much about the Athenian democracy. But the evidence that these historians offer is shaped by their specific historical projects — Herodotus wrote of the conflict between the Persia and the Greeks (including, but not limited to, the Athenians), and Thucydides wrote of the period of warfare between Athens and Sparta at the
Read about the evidence
Aristophanes (Aristoph. Ach.).
Comedy, particularly the plays of Aristophanes, also provides us with information about the Athenian democracy. Comic plays often dealt with current events and included characters based on contemporary public figures. Aristophanes’ Acharnians (Aristoph. Ach.) opens with a dramatization of a meeting of the Assembly, from which we can glean valuable insights into how such meetings were conducted. But, of course, comedy is supposed to be funny, and so we must remember that a comedian might exaggerate the truth, or even invert it, for comic effect.
Archaeological evidence presents its own challenges and possibilities. On the one hand, a temple, sculpture, or painted vase represents a work direct from the hands of the ancient creator (unlike texts, which have been copied and copied, sometimes hundreds of times over thousands of years). Inscriptions record some actual decrees and laws, passed by the Athenian democracy, and inscribed on stone for the benefit of citizens of that democracy. But this evidence also needs to be interpreted. A bust of a historical figure may be idealized; a scene on a painting may represent a scene from daily life or a scene from mythology; an inscribed law may employ euphemistic language (a decree that urges the “protection” of a city may actually have referred to the conquest of that city), or may record a law that was in effect for a very short time.
For all of these reasons, it is important to read the ancient evidence with care, with a critical eye, and with an understanding of its context.
The authors of the articles in Dēmos: Classical Athenian Democracy offer their own interpretations of the evidence, but they also encourage all readers to consult the sources for themselves, to read them, compare them, to arrive at their own interpretations, and to form their own questions.
[Note on sources for dates: Precise dates for events in ancient history are very difficult to calculate. Each Greek city had its own calendar, and none of them were particularly precise — at Athens, for example, extra months regularly had to be added to make the calendar keep pace with the seasons. So even when we know when an event happened according to the Athenian calendar, it can be very difficult to assign that to a particular year in our own calendar. For this reason, we generally cannot give a single primary source for a date, but must appeal to the authority of secondary sources. Bear in mind, then, that all of the dates in Dēmos are, first, the product of calculation and argument, and second, not necessarily certain. — CWB]
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