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Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. Rhetoric, Ideology, and Power of the People
Publisher: Princeton University Press | 1989 | ISBN: 0691094438 | Pages: 408 | PDF | 2.63 MB
This book asks an important question often ignored by ancient historians and political scientists alike: Why did Athenian democracy work as well and for as long as it did? Josiah Ober seeks the answer by analyzing the sociology of Athenian politics and the nature of communication between elite and nonelite citizens. After a preliminary survey of the development of the Athenian "constitution," he focuses on the role of political and legal rhetoric. As jurymen and Assemblymen, the citizen masses of Athens retained important powers, and elite Athenian politicians and litigants needed to address these large bodies of ordinary citizens in terms understandable and acceptable to the audience. This book probes the social strategies behind the rhetorical tactics employed by elite speakers. A close reading of the speeches exposes both egalitarian and elitist elements in Athenian popular ideology. Ober demonstrates that the vocabulary of public speech constituted a democratic discourse that allowed the Athenians to resolve contradictions between the ideal of political equality and the reality of social inequality. His radical reevaluation of leadership and political power in classical Athens restores key elements of the social and ideological context of the first western democracy.
Josiah Ober's book is no longer new, but it is still as fresh as when it first came out, in the 1980's. It should be required reading for anyone interested in the way Athenian democracy worked, or how any democracy can work, for that matter. Ober focuses, not on the notorious periods of civic strife and oligarchic revolution, but on the working democracy, especially during the period of the great orators (4th century B.C.). The question, he implies, is not "why did the democracy break down," but "why did it work as well, and as long, as it did?" Ober finds the answer in "ideology," which for him is the symbolic language--of word, posture, gesture, and deed--that allowed the upper class ("elite") political leaders to communicate with an audience composed mostly of lower class citizens who might not be expected to be very sympathetic to them. My only quibble is that Ober may assume too lightly that things worked the same way in the 5th century (the "Age of Pericles"); but he does address himself to this question, and uses what little evidence there is to elucidate it (e.g. the various speeches preserved in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War; the plays of Aristophanes, etc.). Ober also does his best to draw parallels and conclusions that are relevant to modern political systems, especially "democracy" as it is practiced in the U.S. It's compelling reading--but before taking it on, you might want to bone up on your Greek history a little bit. Make sure you know who Demosthenes was, and his role in trying to help Athens figure out how to respond to the rising power of Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great!