Detemporalising Athenian democracy: the case of Demopolis

Historical examples and analogies can be a problematic resource for political theorists. They illustrate and illuminate practices unfamiliar in the world of the present, making possible reforms easier to envisage – as the figure of the engaged citizen of classical Athens, sitting in the assembly and on jury courts, accountable to scrutiny by fellow citizens, and holding important offices by lot, does for proponents of increased participation in democratic life. But such historical analogies can bring a great deal of additional baggage, obscuring the picture being drawn with historical details that complicate and confuse. With Athenian democracy, we might worry that the participation of citizens rested on the labour of chattel slaves, as well as the exclusion of women from political debate and discussion, if not from all aspects of the civic labour of citizenship.

Athens' Pnyx and Acropolis in 1829
The Pnyx and the Acropolis, Athens, in HW Williams’ 1829 view

Josiah Ober, in his recent book Demopolis: Democracy Before Liberalism in Theory and Practice, observes the difficulties brought by the ‘variety of historically contingent features’ (p. 18) that historians find in any society they survey, with particular attention to these features of Athens. When these contingent features reveal aspects of that society which are deeply unacceptable to readers of the analogy, or severely at odds with their values, they undermine the benefit of the comparison. But do these limits of analogy render it a pointless exercise, or can we make use of analogies while acknowledging their deficiencies and limitations?

In Demopolis, Ober addresses this problem explicitly by setting an abstract model against his historical survey of Athens. He takes the interesting approach of running both historical example (Athens, as ‘practice’) and thought experiment (Demopolis, as ‘theory’) alongside each other, rather than as replacement for each other.

Ober’s purpose is to offer a model for a democracy that is distinct from liberalism, yet provides a cogent reason for choosing democracy as the basis of a secure and prosperous life, which does not required the surrender to authority required by the creation of the state in Hobbes’ Leviathan. He argues that ‘disambiguating democracy as such from the overfamiliar hybrid, liberal democracy clarifies what democracy is good for’ (p. 1); by separating the practices of organising a society from the ‘moral commitments’ of liberalism, Ober aims to show that democracy in its ‘basic’ form is desirable as a form of social organisation. His first move is to explore Athenian democracy as a form of democracy that did not rest on the values of modern liberalism. Although versions of values such as freedom and equality were key to Athenian democratic ideology and rhetoric, they were clearly distinct from the highly individualised forms of those values within modern democratic thought.

However, many of democratic Athens’ practices are unacceptable to modern-day proponents of democracy; Ober points to the usual complaints about Athenian democratic exclusivity. Even in acknowledging Athens’ deficiencies as a model for today, he offers a vision of Athenian political culture that imports some anachronistic ideas, notably the idea of pluralism. Ober argues that Athens’ size, and origins in the merger of separate communities, rendered it diverse, but this downplays the emphasis on cultural homogeneity and shared origin in Athenian political mythology, particularly the emphasis on the Athenians’ original connection to their land through the myth of autochthony. One might consider whether Athenian political mythology and values reduced the epistemic value of democratic debate within the city. So Ober’s vision of the democratic practice of historical Athens is somewhat idealised in its emphasis on diversity and pluralism, pressing issues for contemporary democracies but regarded as evidence of decay and civic disintegration by Athenians such as Isocrates.

Rather than simply base his argument for ‘basic democracy’ on an appeal to the historical example of Athens, with its well-acknowledged flaws, Ober sets up a second track in which he designs an imaginary political community that delivers the same results, the Demopolis (‘People’s City’) of the book’s title:

[Demopolis] is meant to capture real but hard-to-observe features of a basic democratic political regime by abstracting from readily observed features of real-world politics. (Demopolis, p. 4)

Demopolis offers the story of the foundation of a political community that avoids the deficiencies of Athens, but as its Greek name suggests, Athens remains its inspiration. The value its citizens place on their ‘dignity’ has ancient parallels as well as modern ones, for example, and can be paralleled in ancient responses to tyranny.

Using imagined societies as a vehicle for political theorising is a method as old as western European political theory itself, given the ancient Greek practice of writing constitutions (politeiai) for imaginary cities as a way of thinking about political problems, but as Demopolis shows such societies rarely escape the context of their originator. In the 5th century BCE Hippodamus of Miletus, for example, developed imaginary models of cities alongside plans for real ones that were actually built, such as the grid plan of Athens’ port, the Piraeus (Aristotle Politics 2.8.1267b22-30). Aristotle uses Hippodamus’ writings as the starting point for a discussion on the problem of changing the law, a body of work that can be read alongside other imaginary politeiai such as those written by Plato.

Plato’s Kallipolis, the imaginary city discussed in his Republic, is probably the best-known example of such an experiment from antiquity, although, as Ober notes, it is ‘neither realistic nor democratic’ (p. 144). Yet, despite its lack of realism, Kallipolis doesn’t entirely escape from the social experiences and knowledge of its creator. The shock value of Kallipolis derives from its mixture of similarities to and differences from the Greek societies that Plato’s readers recognised, such as Sparta and Athens. As Aristotle’s critique of the Republic shows, Plato’s thought experiment takes existing values of Greek political thought, such as community, to an extreme, but it can still be discussed within the same framework as Hippodamus’ imaginary society, or the historical Sparta.

Can Demopolis escape from historical contingency, and enable Ober to demonstrate the possibility of an inclusive but epistemically authoritative democracy not based on post-Kantian liberalism? Ober hopes that it will provide an example of a possible democracy that avoids both the limiting features of the ancient polis and the baggage of modern liberalism. He narrates a possible origin story, in which a group intends to establish a life in which they can flourish in conditions of security, prosperity and non-tyranny (pp. 39-40). The third of these is the most significant (given that prosperity and security are universal aims of human community), connecting Demopolis’ Founders with those of the United States of America, and contrasting them with the citizens of Hobbes’ thought experiments in his Leviathan.

Ober’s use of a parallel thought experiment offers an alternative to Nicole Loraux’s valorisation of the usefulness of exploring the differences between ancient and modern societies, even at the risk of anachronistically posing our own questions and treating them as models. In the end it is the modern contingencies that raise the larger questions; is the project of disentangling democracy and liberalism itself driven by contemporary ideological concerns? If Athens’ idealised replacement Demopolis is an inclusive and diverse society, has that replacement already at its foundation instantiated features of liberal society?

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Ober’s starting point, or the details of his analysis of Athenian democracy, with Demopolis he has delivered an important contribution to methodological debate in political theory. But both his Athens and Demopolis demonstrate the difficulty of detemporalising political exempla; his Athens cannot escape anachronism, while Demopolis looks backward to its inspiration.


  • Hobbes, T. (1996) [1651], Leviathan, ed. R. Tuck (Cambridge).
  • Loraux, N. (1976), ‘Problèmes Grecs de la Démocratie Moderne’, Critique, 32, 1276-87.
  • Loraux, N. (1993), ‘Éloge d’anachronisme en histoire’, Le Genre Humain, 27, 23-39.
  • Ober, J. (2017) Demopolis: democracy before liberalism in theory and practice (Cambridge).
  • Shipley, G. (2005), ‘Little Boxes on the Hillside: Greek town planning, Hippodamos and polis ideology’, in M.H. Hansen (ed.), The Imaginary Polis: Symposium, January 7-10, 2004 (Copenhagen), 335-403.

Counting backwards: genealogy and anachronism

The shifting boundary between the near and the distant past is blurred by ancient Greek writers when they establish temporal frameworks by counting backwards in years and, once a more distant and less well-known period is reached, generations. With multiple lists in operation – one for every city and Panhellenic temple, victors from the Olympics – and with the genealogies of royal dynasties stretching back to incorporate divine ancestors, there was plenty of opportunity for the manipulation of lists, for error and invention, and for debates about accuracy. Generating synchronisms, placing the same event on points in different lists, was a particular challenge for historians, and so became a site of historiographical criticism. Failed synchronisms and arguments about them result in a type of anachronism that is characteristic of Greek historiographic debate and spills over into other genres whenever the past is debated, as their use by both Thucydides and Isocrates shows.

For writers of contemporary history such as Thucydides, the use of officer lists based on the records of cities is transparent and supported by documentary evidence. While Thucydides organises his account of the Peloponnesian War by seasons, he uses the officer-list system to establish its start date (2.1-2.2.1), and his Athenian readers could have referred to an inscribed version of the list (IG I 3 1031) that had been set up in Athens during the later part of the fifth century, possibly as late as 410 BCE:

My account sets out the events in chronological order, by summers and winters. The Thirty Years Treaty agreed after the conquest of Euboea lasted for fourteen years. In the fifteenth year, when Chrysis was in her forty-eighth year as priestess at Argos, Aenesias was ephor in Sparta, and Pythodorus had two more months of his archonship in Athens, in the sixth month after the battle at Potidaea, and at the beginning of spring, in the first watch of the night an armed force of slightly over three hundred Thebans entered Plataea, a city in Boeotia allied to Athens. (Thucydides 2.1-2.2.1, translation Hammond)

inscription fragment
Athenian Archon List (527/6-522/1 BC?) IG I3 1031, fragment c. Agora Museum, Athens (I 4120); squeeze from Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents, Oxford.

Thucydides found the practice of using office-holder lists to establish dates imprecise (5.20.2-3), and suggested his own improvements for greater precision in narrative and analysis. But not all historians were, like Thucydides, concerned with the very recent past. The further back in time the Greeks went, the less precise their dating systems became. In classical Athens, for example, before the list of annual archons began, there were lists of officials with longer terms in office, and kings stretching back to Kekrops, the half-snake figure who emerged from the ground to found and rule the city. The kind of information in the lists changes as they go back in time, a change perhaps marked by a shift from years to generations as the unit of counting, and the separation of these distinct lists in the Athenian tradition; although the origins and development of the lists are unclear, later writers transmitted complete versions of them.

Making temporal connections within the distant past posed a challenge. Genealogies, the typical form of lists from the distant past, could be used to establish the kind of synchronism that Thucydides uses at the start of his histories. This process permitted synchronism between the foundation myths of different poleis and the characters of different mythical cycles, but here there was less possibility of consulting records and more reliance on the conventional form of mythical narratives.

Arguing for and against the accuracy of synchronisms between myths became an important mode of criticism as such stories were used as examples in political contexts to establish relationships between cities. There were many possible causes of error; the corruption of ancestry lists, the need to establish synchronism with significant events such as the return of the Heraclids from the Trojan War to the Peloponnese, and the urge to assert priority for one’s patriotic account of civic origins. Myths involving culture heroes such as Heracles and Theseus generate problematic synchronisms as writers try to fit them into coherent narrative frameworks, or to establish a claim to temporal priority. Xenophon, for example, asserts that Lycurgus established the Spartan constitution at the same time as the return of the Heraclids (Xen. Lac. Pol. 10.6), a claim that is contrary to other developmental accounts of Spartan history that place Lycurgus after the early (mythical) history of the Dorian League founded by the returning Heraclids; Plato in his Laws suggests that the Lycurgan constitution resolved the problems of this earlier period, but again myth and history intertwine in a complex way (Pl. Leg. 3.683c-693c).

Arguing with myth in this way provided opportunity for parody and the comic repurposing of mythical material for rhetorical argument. Reading Isocrates’ Busiris, a complicated and paradoxical text that still puzzles commentators, shows how the critique of a claimed synchronism can be used as the starting point for broader criticisms. Isocrates is ostensibly writing to Polycrates the sophist, to point out errors in his defence speech in praise of Busiris, the infamous Egyptian king of heroic times. Busiris was said to sacrifice his guests, and was eventually killed by Heracles, as the Greek culture hero avoided this grisly fate, a scene frequently depicted on Greek vases.

vase painting - Heracles and Busiris
Heracles killing Busiris. Attic red-figure kalpis (hydria), ca 480 BCE. From Vulci. Staatliche Antikensammlungen 2428.

Isocrates aims to show that earlier writers on Busiris have got their genealogical calculations wrong, and that the encounter between Heracles and Busiris could not have happened. Polycrates could have used this simple method in his defence of Busiris:

Furthermore, it could be easily proved on chronological grounds (tois chronois) also that the statements of the detractors of Busiris are false. For the same writers who accuse Busiris of slaying strangers also assert that he died at the hands of Heracles; but all chroniclers agree that Heracles was later by four generations than Perseus, son of Zeus and Danaë, and that Busiris lived more than two hundred years earlier than Perseus. (Busiris 36-37, translation Van Hook)

The evidence that the criticism of Busiris is misplaced in time is a piece of evidence (pistis) that is clear (enargê). Of course, the idea of establishing an accurate genealogy of characters from the far-distant past that operates in a similar way to the chronology of a contemporary historian like Thucydides is itself rather paradoxical and a long way from being ‘clear’; Although there were standard exchange rates between years and generations, Isocrates’ use of both emphasises the paradoxes involved in chronological calculations of mythical narratives. Isocrates’ subsequent comments expand the related problem of the difficulty of knowing the different past, given the lurid slanders (blasphêmiais) written by poets that attribute all kinds of bad behaviour to the gods (38-40).

Isocrates’ real target in the Busiris is probably not the obscure sophist Polycrates but his rival educator Plato. The criticism of poets for slandering the gods is reminiscent of Socrates’ arguments against poetry in the Republic. Using Heracles and Egypt to think about the possibility of knowledge of the past further links both writers, via Herodotus’ challenges to the genealogical reckonings Greeks used to date Heracles (2.142-6); Plato echoes this passage in his Timaeus-Critias, with Solon replacing Hecataeus as the Greek visitor to Egypt.

With the traditional criticism of Busiris destroyed by chronology, Isocrates aims to show instead that Busiris should be praised for establishing the Egyptian constitution. However, the constitution that Isocrates describes bears a detailed resemblance to that of Plato’s Kallipolis in the Republic. Plato, Isocrates seems to be hinting, has not revealed a timeless ideal of how we should live, but has borrowed from a historical model itself established by a notorious barbarian and in existence at a time that has been identified with precision.

Isocrates’ manipulation of history and myth in the pursuit of political argument is a feature of his work that deserves more exploration, along with the construction and argumentative use of genealogies and temporal frameworks by other Greek writers. I will continue to investigate the political activation of anachronism in imaginary time by Greek historians and political theorists as our project continues.