Book Review: “Classical Greek Oligarchy” by Matthew Simonton

In some ways Matthew Simonton’s recent book Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History is very helpful. In other ways, it could have used a little more exposition of some of its supporting points.

The book is primarily helpful because it explores Classical Greek oligarchy: a topic that has received far too little attention. The reasons for this lack of scholarly and popular attention are fairly obvious: first, the modern world has a bias in favor of democracy. Second, we don’t have many textual sources from oligarchies; Athens and Athenian writers dominate the record. Though, ironically, most of those Athenians are notoriously anti-democratic, so our oligarchic sources are as complicated as they are spartan (heh). Simonton has done us a service in gathering both the textual and the epigraphic sources into one place, and then doing the hard work of systematizing them into a coherent whole.

Specifically, across six chapters he explores five aspects of Classical Greek oligarchy. He begins with a chapter explaining his method and stating the problem he wants to explore:

“Given the general unpopularity of oligarchy and the widespread appeal of democracy as a constitutional alternative, what accounts for the survival of oligarchy during the Classical period?” (6)

The second chapter explores how oligarchs balanced power among themselves while keeping it out of the hands of the demos. In the third chapter, we see how oligarchs simultaneously seduced and manipulated the people while putting on the appearance of working primarily for the common good. The fourth and fifth chapters examine how oligarchs controlled public spaces and information, respectively. The sixth chapter (and a short afterward) outline how oligarchy collapsed into democracy, and was for all intents and purposes an obsolete form of government during the Hellenistic Era (not unused, but obsolete).

Simonton’s analysis throughout draws heavily on modern studies of authoritarian regimes and game theory, while simultaneously engaging fully with the available ancient sources. Along the way he has given us a good overview of oligarchic cultural methods of pursuing and keeping power—an overview that is well-written, thoroughly researched, and a good model of how to use spotty ancient sources to their utmost. Clearly this is going to be an important book in the discipline—and not just because it’s the first major study of Classical oligarchy to be published in more than a century (though also because of that).

With that said, there are some problems with Classical Greek Oligarchy which keep it from being as helpful as it could have been. First, Simonton clearly doesn’t believe in oligarchy. By which I don’t mean to say that he denies its historical or current existence. I mean that this book assumes that “oligarchy” is an illegitimate form of government that exists only by suppressing the more legitimate democratic states that would otherwise spring to life.

Of course, there’s no shame either in having a political position or in letting it affect our scholarship. That is one of the healthy driving forces behind robust academic discussion (like this, for example). But, with this particular topic, this specific bias creates a set of somewhat unique problems. For one thing, as noted above, the extant primary sources are very nearly unanimously pro-oligarchy and anti-democracy. And I think, though I am happy to be corrected here, that all of our major Athenian sources are anti-democratic. Herodotus, Aeschylus, and Aristotle have some very nice things to say about democracy, but they’re not Athenian. Our Athenian sources, Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, “The Old Oligarch”, and Aristophanes, all excoriate democracy. Contradiction of source materials in small ways merits mention and defense. Contradicting unanimous source materials merits… well… a heck of a lot more than just “mention and defense.” We do not get that from Simonton in the book, and I think a discussion of why contemporary prejudices are allowed to swamp ancient evidence about ancient regimes would have strengthened Classical Greek Oligarchy.

What I don’t want to get into here is the question of whether or not Simonton is right to reject oligarchy. That’s a different conversation (one which I am happy to have, just not in the course of a book review that’s already waxing long).

A further result of Simonton’s stance against oligarchy is a slanted view of what otherwise might be perfectly acceptable political practices. For example, after a discussion of “clientelism”, wherein oligarchs take on “clients” from among the people in order to keep the demos quiescent, Simonton writes:

“If Classical Greek oligarchs engaged in these sorts of practices [of clientelism]… they are in good company with contemporary authoritarian governments studied by political scientists.” (183)

This is true enough. But it is also true that if Classical Greek oligarchs engaged in such practices, they are likewise in good company not just with contemporary autocrats but also with elites in the Roman Republic, the Medieval republic of Venice, 19th century England, and all of American history. I am certainly not saying that Simonton needed an extended discussion of clientelism through history. Classical Greek Oligarchy is after all a book about, well, classical Greek oligarchy, not Roman, Medieval, or modern republicanism. But in another sense this is an important omission: some of the components of “oligarchy” need not automatically be sinister just because they are shared with current sinister regimes, they may merely be regular functions of regular governments. They may even be good functions of good governments. Heck, they may even be good functions of bad governments. The point is, the existence of such a mechanism in a bad form of government does not automatically make the mechanism bad, nor is it automatically the sign that the government itself is bad. The fact that Iran makes use of traffic cameras and speed limits does not mean these legal devices are inherently tools of oppression used to keep a population from rising up against the government.

For that matter, the use of such a mechanism to shore up the governing body is likewise not a bad thing. Governments of any sort have a perfectly legitimate interest in preserving themselves, and may use a variety of tools to do so. And, well, this is getting too much into the weeds for a book review. Suffice it to say, the negative view of oligarchy affects the analysis of government functions throughout.

A second criticism is that despite the subtitle claiming to offer “A Political History”, we don’t actually learn a whole lot about either the history or the politics of oligarchies. Simonton says as much in his Preface:

“With this term [political institutions] I do not restrict myself to political institutions conventionally and narrowly understood–voting bodies, magistracies, laws, and so on. The exercise of power in an oligarchy–as in a democracy–extended beyond formal rules, to broader communal practices… By ‘political’ in the subtitle, therefore, one should understand ‘dealing with the workings of power and institutions, broadly conceived, within societies (oligarchic poleis) characterized by a common constitutional system.” (xi)

In other words, if we’re looking to learn what the structures and institutions of Sparta were and where they came from or how they developed over time, we will have to look elsewhere. I suppose the subtitle “A Psychological and Sociological Investigation” would have been more awkward, but it also would have been more accurate.

Finally, Simonton’s conclusion that oligarchy historically tended towards democracy (at least until those evil Romans came along and re-established oligarchies) is in some sense technically accurate, but presented in a way that leaves out a critical factor: the rise of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Simonton says:

“As scholars are increasingly coming to acknowledge, oligarchy proved unsustainable as a viable alternative to democracy over the course of the Classical period, leaving government ‘by the people’ the sole legitimate political form in Hellenistic times.” (225)

Again, in once sense this is true, so long as we ignore the fact that in the Hellenistic Era, the existence of polis as an independent, free, or relevant unit had functionally come to an end. There were exceptions (Rhodes, Sparta, and Syracuse, for example–two oligarchies and a tyranny), but by and large this was the time of massive kingdoms. To be fair, Simonton is correct that the Greek cities tended increasingly towards democracy during this time. They also tended to be under the authority of the Seleucids, Antigonids, Ptolemies, or other superpowers of the time. Democracy and democratic action seem to have increased primarily as autonomy and relevance on the world stage decreased.

That said, I don’t think Simonton’s point here is completely moot. For example, I think the continual successful operation of the New England town meeting is a point in favor of the value of pure democracy as a form of government. But I don’t think its continued existence is a sign of democracy’s superiority over a manager-council form of government, even without accounting for the presence of the state and national governments. In the same way the democratic actions of cities under the sway of Hellenistic kingdoms are not automatically a sign of the inevitable decline of oligarchy. Further exposition here by Simonton of the Hellenistic context would have been welcome in working through some of his ideas.

Even with these criticisms in mind, I hope it’s clear that Simonton’s book is an important one. Classical Greek Oligarchy will hopefully restart a conversation that has too long lain dormant, but which needs to be had. We should also watch for more from Simonton, whose clear prose and skillful mining of source materials suggest that we can expect further high-quality output from this obviously gifted scholar.


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