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.

Anchoring Innovation

It might seem fanciful to claim that the project ‘Anchoring Innovation’, now underway in Classics departments in the Netherlands following a major government grant, addresses some of the same themes as our Leverhulme-funded ‘Anachronism and Antiquity’. It appears odd, after all, to speak of ‘innovation’ and ‘anachronism’ in the same breath. But what makes this claim valid are the implications of the term ‘anchoring’.

The aims of the ‘Anchoring Innovation’ project are set out in a programmatic paper by Ineke Sluiter published in the European Review. The goal, Sluiter writes, is ‘to identify how people in Antiquity dealt with change in ways that allowed them to feel an unbroken sense of self, identity, group cohesion and cultural belonging within the different and certainly not monolithic entities that made up ancient society.’ Through the metaphor of ‘anchoring’, the project seeks to analyse how the past clings on even amidst innovation.

Sluiter offers a number of examples of continuity in change that reflect the sort of temporal multiplicity that is central to our anachronism project. She invokes the notion of anchoring to explain why the architectural writer Vitruvius suggested that some seemingly otiose features on stone buildings (for instance, the small projections known as guttae, ‘drops’) were based on functional features such as pegs found in old wooden buildings. A different method of ‘anchoring innovation’ is offered by the building programme on the Acropolis at Athens following the devastating Persian invasion of 480 BC. While the Athenians built a new Parthenon and Erechtheum, they used the remains of the old temple of Athena to reinforce the north wall of the Acropolis (where they can still be seen to this day) ‒ remains which, Sluiter notes, ‘would have reminded the Athenians of the historical events that led to the new building activities, which were therefore securely “anchored” in the past’.

While the Dutch project uses anchoring as a metaphor, physical anchors offer fruitful material for our anachronism project. In a geographical account of the Black Sea, the versatile second-century AD writer Arrian offers an account of an object to be found in a temple at Phasis, a city at the eastern end of the sea, famous as the location of the Golden Fleece:

There the anchor of the Argo, is shown. The iron one did not seem to me to be ancient ‒ and yet in size it is not like present-day anchors, and in shape it is somehow different ‒ but rather it appeared to me to be more recent. Ancient fragments of a stone anchor were also shown, so that one might reckon that these are more likely to be the remains of the anchor of Argo. (Periplus of the Black Sea 9.2)

Rather than making explicit the grounds for his suspicions about the authenticity of the iron anchor, Arrian mentions in passing two features that give that claim a superficial plausibility: its size and shape. It is the following statement that stone fragments are more likely to be authentic that makes clear the basis of his reasoning.

The grounds for Arrian’s suspicions are laid out more fully by the British polymath George Stanley Faber (1773‒1853) in one of his enquiries into the key to all mythologies:

the story was a mere fiction of the priests. … Those impostors do not seem to have considered, that such pretensions involved a direct anachronism. Anchors are never once mentioned by Homer, the remarkable exactness of whose descriptions is well known; hence we may reasonably conclude, that they were a subsequent invention. How then could the Argo have had an anchor, when its imaginary voyage is unanimously supposed to have been prior to the siege of Troy?

Faber is here picking up the historical approach to archaic poetry found in ancient scholarship. The claim that anchors are not mentioned by Homer was in fact disputed in ancient scholarship. Homer does mention in nautical contexts the casting of eunai, ‘beds’, and these ‘beds’ are sometimes glossed in the margins of manuscripts as ‘anchors’ and even described as iron: ‘he calls the iron anchors of the boats “beds” because the boats are bedded by these and at rest’ (scholion on Odyssey 9.137). But it is clear from a number of passages that eunai were stones rather than curved metal anchors (Greek agkura is cognate with words meaning ‘bent’); indeed, according to another ancient commentator (on Iliad 18.570),  the word ‘stone’ (lithos) was preserved as a term for ‘anchor’ (anchoring innovation in action!).

Clearer support for Faber’s position is found in ancient scholarship on Pindar. Pindar’s celebrated Argonautic narrative in his fourth Pythian ode includes the detail that the departing heroes ‘slung the anchors above the prow’ (4.191-2). Critics in antiquity objected that anchors ‘did not exist in the time of the heroes: therefore we say that Pindar has composed this in a peculiar way’. The word here translated ‘in a peculiar way’, idiōs, is evidently gesturing towards the anachronism of Pindar’s description. Both the Pindar scholia and Faber point to the contrasting practice of the epic Argonautica written by Apollonius of Rhodes, who, in Faber’s words, ‘with great propriety gives his heroes a large stone for an anchor’. Implicit in these accounts is a view of technological advance: the age of the heroes did not know the use of iron.

Arrian’s discussion of the touristic sights of ancient Phasis invites comparison with other ancient evidence for Argonautic relics. Apollonius alludes to the Argonauts exchanging at Cyzicus, a city on the southern shores of the Propontis, a light for a heavy anchor, and it is known that Callimachus alluded to the same story. The original light anchor was subsequently dedicated in a temple of Athena, and scholars at the start of the nineteenth century (such as Arrian’s translator Thomas Falconer) could still wonder whether the stone fragments which Arrian mentions were the remains of this anchor.

Hellenistic stone anchors


The story that the Argonauts exchanged anchors may originally been have an attempt to explain the existence of two different relics. But why cast it as an exchange of light for heavy? The increasing weight of the new anchor perhaps chimes with the wild and inhospitable reputation of the Black Sea which the Argonauts were about to enter. It also follows a common evolutionary schema ‒ a move from small to large ‒ that would have particularly point in those accounts that portrayed the Argo as the first ever ship: by trial and error the Argonauts arrived at the optimum size. This evolutionary schema stands in tension, however, with Arrian’s comment that the size of the iron anchor he saw at Phasis was appropriate to the age of the heroes. Arrian was evidently following the Homeric image of the extraordinary strength of the ancient warriors, able to throw rocks that men in the poet’s day could not lift.

There was nothing especially innovative in Arrian’s reasoning about the anchor at Phasis. What it does show is how a sense of anachronism, though sharpened by the need to work through the implications of competing evolutionary and devolutionary narratives, was grounded in philological commentary on ancient poetry. Whatever new insights emerge from the projects on anachronism and innovation currently underway in Oxford and the Netherlands, it is not too far-fetched to claim that they will themselves be anchored in the spirit of historical criticism fostered by critics in antiquity.


  • I. Sluiter, ‘Anchoring Innovation: A Classical Research Agenda’, European Review 25: 1 (2017), 20–38.
  • S. Faber, A Dissertation on the Mysteries of the Cabiri: or, The Great Gods of Phoenicia, Samothrace, Egypt, Troas, Greece, Italy, and Crete). Being an Attempt to Deduce the Several Orgies Of Isis, Ceres, Mithras, Bacchus, Rhea, Adonis, and Hecate, from an Union of the Rites Commemorative of the Deluge with the Adoration of the Host of Heaven, 2 volumes (Oxford, 1803).
  • T. Falconer, Arrian’s Voyage round the Euxine Sea: Translated, and Accompanied with a Geographical Dissertation, and Maps (Oxford, 1805).