Democracy in Classical Athens

Democracy in Classical Athens by Christopher Carey - review

Christopher Carey, Democracy in Classical Athens, Bloomsbury, 2017 (2nd edition) p.181 p/b £14.99

This is a reissue of Carey’s 2000 short introduction to the history and theory of Athenian democracy.  The book is aimed principally at beginner or intermediate students of Greek history or civilisation who are studying 5th century Athens; it is recommended for both those interested in Athenian history and politics as well as those studying the literature for the political elements of comedy and tragedy.  Greek language students would also find it useful to fill in the background to many puzzling Greek words: Carey always uses Greek terms for the political phenomena he discusses (in Roman transliteration).  For one example among many, graphe paranomon (the possibility of prosecution against illegal proposals) receives a number of separate discussions at different parts of the book.  Carey does not retreat from using such specific Greek technical terms, but they are always given careful explanations.  The treatment begins with an account of the historical development of democracy in Athens from its archaic beginnings through the 5th century and into the fourth.  Carey continues his account of democracy into periods where many history courses leave off and examines how the democratic system ended under Macedonian rule.  This section will interest historians, but students of politics may find much in the chapter on ideology, and in the examination of the core bodies (council, assembly and law courts) and of the officials who served the city.  The final four chapters range more widely treating the role of religion in Athenian politics, the system of local government in the demes and finally how the archaeology of Athens can help understanding of its politics.  These sections (expanded in this second edition) would be helpful to students of non-linguistic Classical Civilisation to give a wider understanding of the society they are studying through literature or history.  Students of Greek comedy will find here many aids to understanding the satirical jokes that Aristophanes launches at his targets, and those studying tragedy will be able to place their texts in a wider sociological context after reading especially these chapters.  Political analysis can be difficult to read and it will be best to take short passages one at a time to extract their full sense and import, or to study a topic in class with the aid of this as a textbook.  It is to be hoped that young people will still be introduced to the philosophy of democracy by studying its beginnings as well as its latest manifestations.  They will find here an up to date introduction to democracy’s most fundamental characteristics as shown in its first appearance; they will also be guided to its faults and to the ancient criticisms made of what is still an unusual system of government. 


John Bulwer