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Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens

Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People

Josiah Ober
Copyright Date: 1989
Pages: 408
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7sm1z
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  • Book Info
    Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2051-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  4. ABBREVIATIONS
    (pp. xvii-2)
  5. CHAPTER I. PROBLEMS AND METHOD
    (pp. 3-52)

    The form of political organization that evolved in thepolisof Athens over the course of the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries B.C. is one of the best known, most frequently evoked, but least well-understood legacies of the Greco-Roman world. Formidable stumbling-blocks stand in the way of a modern understanding of Athenian political life: the problems that arise because of our great chronological distance from classical Athens are compounded by our emotional proximity. Today the word “democracy” almost invariably carries a positive connotation. Democratic government—an anomaly in the fifth century B.C., an idea disparaged by ancient philosophers, and a...

  6. CHAPTER II. HISTORY OF THE ATHENIAN “CONSTITUTION”: A DIACHRONIC SURVEY
    (pp. 53-103)

    The institutional history of Athens has been rewritten many times since the late fourth century B.C. when Aristotle sketched it briefly in thePolitics(1273b33-1274a21), perhaps on the basis of the fuller treatment in theConstitution of the Atheniansprepared under his direction.¹ Many aspects of the Athenian constitution, including the nature of its ultimate form, are still hotly debated, but the main lines of development are tolerably clear. Happily, the personal motivations and long-term intentions of lawmakers—the subjects of much of the modern debate—are seldom at issue here. For the present argument, neither the long-term goals sought...

  7. CHAPTER III. PUBLIC SPEAKERS AND MASS AUDIENCES
    (pp. 104-155)

    If the key to social and political stability in democratic Athens is to be sought in communication between the Athenian elites and the masses, we must decide as best we can who was sending and who was receiving messages, what form messages took, and in what contexts the communication took place.

    Only after we have formed an idea of the participants in and the contexts of public communication can the actual content of the messages be properly assessed. Thus, before we can hope to understand the sociopolitical significance of the rhetorical texts available to us—the corpus of Attic orations...

  8. CHAPTER IV. ABILITY AND EDUCATION: THE POWER OF PERSUASION
    (pp. 156-191)

    Oratorical ability, as Michels points out, is a prerequisite for political leadership in a democracy.¹ Athenian politicians invariably possessed great public speaking ability, and their natural rhetorical skills had often been refined through formal education in schools of rhetoric (above, III.C).

    The political orators were, collectively, the most visible sector of the Athenian “educated elite,” but, as argued above (I.B, III.D.1) they never became a ruling elite. Analyzing how the topics of ability and education are treated in public discourse reveals both continuities and discontinuities between Athenian political experience and the functioning of modern democracy. How did the Athenians regard...

  9. CHAPTER V. CLASS: WEALTH, RESENTMENT, AND GRATITUDE
    (pp. 192-247)

    The unequal distribution of wealth among citizens was perhaps the most politically problematic condition of social inequality pertaining in democratic Athens. Athenian society was clearly divided along class lines. Most citizens had to work for a living; a few did not. The Athenian leisure class consisted of only some 5 to 10 percent of the total citizen population, but the great majority, perhaps all, of the public speakers represented in the corpus of Attic orators, both private litigants and expert politicians, were members of this leisure class (above, III.C). The wealthy public speaker (at least one known by his audience...

  10. CHAPTER VI. STATUS: NOBLE BIRTH AND ARISTOCRATIC BEHAVIOR
    (pp. 248-292)

    As a category of sociopolitical analysis, status is somewhat difficult to define. M. I. Finley was a prominent proponent of the use of status categories in the analysis of ancient societies, but he never offered a precise definition of status, remarking that it is “an admirably vague word with a considerable psychological element.”¹ What Finley meant by status is, however, clarified by the examples he cites, especially inThe Ancient Economy:status is defined in part by wealth but also involves the privileges associated with other attributes, notably birth and occupation.² Status is a broader and more fluid category than...

  11. CHAPTER VII. CONCLUSIONS: DIALECTICS AND DISCOURSE
    (pp. 293-340)

    Athenians of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. believed in political equality, and their state organization reflected this basic principle. But all Athenians were not equal. Some citizens had superior abilities to communicate their ideas, were highly educated, possessed fortunes sufficient to free them from the necessity of laboring, belonged to noble clans, and were able to engage in a style of life inaccessible to most of their fellow citizens.

    Throughout the period of the democracy, Athenian society remained stratified along lines of ability, class, and status. Social stratification was not only a matter of relative degrees of material comfort....

  12. APPENDIX: CATALOGUE OF SPEECHES AND CITATION INDEX
    (pp. 341-363)
  13. SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 364-382)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 383-391)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. None)