Democracy and Civic Participation in Greek Cities Under Roman Imperial Rule: Political Practice and Culture in the Post-Classical Period*
|November 1, 2016||Posted by Cédric Brélaz under E-journal, History, Research Symposium Papers|
Citation with persistent identifier:
Brélaz, Cédric. “Democracy and Civic Participation in Greek Cities Under Roman Imperial Rule: Political Practice and Culture in the Post-Classical Period.” CHS Research Bulletin 4, no. 2 (2016). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:BrelazC.Democracy_and_Civic_Participation.2016
By the age of Dio Chrysostom and Plutarch the Greek popular Assemblies, the very nerve-centre of Classical Greek democracy, were already in full decay, although some of them still met and might even discuss important matters, as is evident from the works of Dio and Plutarch themselves. Gradually, however, they died out altogether, as their functions became too trivial to be worth preserving.
1§1 This quotation is taken from Geoffrey De Ste. Croix’s book The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, published in 1981. The title of his book makes sufficiently clear what the political orientations of the author were. In this monumental study, De Ste. Croix provided a reinterpretation of the whole of Greek history through a Marxist view and blamed the Romans for the dissolution of Greek democracy. De Ste. Croix devoted a whole chapter to what he called “The Destruction of Greek Democracy in the Roman Period.” Notwithstanding the Marxist foundations of De Ste. Croix’s interpretation, the author’s view on the so-called destruction of Greek democracy by the Romans continues to be cited by historians who, ironically, are not Marxist, but use De Ste. Croix’s assumption as a source of authority to support their own arguments. The scholarship generally assumes that the disappearance of Greek democracy correlates with or was even caused by the rise of Roman rule in Greece and in the Eastern Mediterranean in the second century BCE, and is reluctant to admit that the people still had a significant share of the power in local communities of Greek-speaking provinces in the Roman Empire at a time when Greeks definitively lost their independence.
1§2 In what follows I will propose a reappraisal of the issue regarding the evolution of Greek democracy in the Roman Imperial period. In particular, I will raise the following questions:
- To what extent was Greek democracy affected by the constant support given to Greek aristocrats by Rome from the second century BCE onward as well as by the rise of the Imperial regime?
- To what extent were the people involved in the civic life of Greek cities during the Imperial period and was their participation characteristic of democracy?
- How did political thinkers and orators of the time assess the concept of democracy?
1§3 By addressing these questions, I will break out of De Ste. Croix’s interpretative model and engage with a new, more dispassionate discussion about Greek democracy in the post-classical period. In this paper, I will argue first that democratic features referred to in inscriptions were not just empty and anachronistic vestiges—as De Ste. Croix assumed, and as some scholarship still assumes. Rather, the people continued to play a key role in the political life of Greek cities at that time, though not in the same way as in Classical Athens. Second, I will argue that, even if the concept of democracy was no longer used by Greek cities and political thinkers to describe political regimes at that time (and we will have to explain why), it can, to some extent, be used to describe civic participation in Greek cities under Roman rule.
To what extent was the political life in Greek cities affected by the interference of Rome?
2§1 When it first intervened in the Greek world at the beginning of the second century BCE, the Roman Republic took several measures to foster local aristocrats who were ready to comply with the requirements of Roman rule, but only because they wanted to avoid democratic factions seizing power. Rome gave political and military support to local aristocrats and, in some cases, even changed political constitutions in order to restrict the exercise of civil rights and reserve local offices for the wealthiest citizens who would not introduce revolutionary—namely democratic—changes into local politics, as Livy stated concerning the situation in Thessaly shortly after the Second Macedonian War. The decree adopted by the Roman Senate in 170 BCE about the situation in the small Boeotian city of Thisbe is a prime example of Rome’s interference in Greek local affairs and of Rome’s concern for ensuring support from local aristocrats, since the senatusconsultum officially entitled the members of the aristocratic faction who had remained faithful to Rome to keep power for the next ten years. Pausanias’ assumption that, in the aftermath of the Achaean War, the Roman consul Mummius’ intention was to dissolve democracies throughout Greece and replace them with governments based on property-qualifications deeply influenced modern scholarship’s view that the Romans were responsible for the destruction of Greek democracy, as De Ste. Croix argued. All of these measures were taken in the immediate context of Rome’s military intervention and were intended to aid Rome in securing control of Greek cities after the Hellenistic kingdoms were defeated and abolished. There is no evidence, however, for the interference of Rome on a broader scale in the shaping of political constitutions or in the creation of local offices throughout the Greek world. Therefore, despite some second-century involvement in Greek affairs, Rome is not solely responsible for the long-term alterations that affected democracy during the Hellenistic period.
2§2 One of the characteristics of political life in Greek cities in the Late Hellenistic period is the concentration of power in the hands of the local elite. Unlike in Classical Athens, members of the council (boulê) were no longer appointed for short periods by drawing lots, but were now the coopted lifetime members of a board which was open only to the citizens who were wealthy enough to provide their homeland with benefactions. These men, who referred to themselves as the ‘first’ (prôtoi) or the ‘best’ (aristoi), used birth, education, ethics and wealth to distinguish themselves from the rest of the population and monopolized local offices. Although the rise of the local elite in Late Hellenistic cities was certainly reinforced by the intervention of Rome in the second century BCE, because of Rome’s constant support for local aristocracies, it was not solely effected by Rome. Rather, there was an inner evolution of Greek society during the Hellenistic period. The euergetism emerging in Hellenistic cities led Michael Wörrle to coin the term ‘Überbürger,’ referring to the local dignitaries who practiced this kind of social, economic and political system by offering benefactions for the public good in return for public honors; but this did not, I think, lead to the dissolution of democracy in the Late Hellenistic period. Rather, euergetism was a dynamic phenomenon and, in some ways, was the Greek city’s strategy for coping with the rise of these local ‘big men’. In this regard, Angelos Chaniotis has rightly emphasized the theatricality which prevailed in the public life of Greek cities during the Hellenistic period. The game of benefactions and honors gave dignitaries a space where they were able to express their desire for power and to gain prestige, but at the same time the most important democratic institutions, like the popular assembly, remained and were not replaced by formal oligarchies.
How democratic was civic life in Greek cities under Roman rule?
3§1 The commonly held view until recent times has been that popular assemblies during the Roman Imperial period were just a superficial vestige of the true democratic tradition dating back to the Classical period, as stated by De Ste. Croix. He writes: “In many other Greek cities some of the old constitutional forms were preserved, even when they had become an empty shell”. The assumption is that if the people were still given a role in public life during the Imperial period, it was only because the local elite were willing to maintain the traditional framework in which the performance of civic life was taking place since they needed the participation of the people for their own legitimization, but, in reality, the people no longer had political power.
3§2 Paradoxically enough, in his remarkably well-documented twenty page Appendix entitled “The Destruction of Greek Democracy in the Roman Period,” De Ste. Croix collected many pieces of evidence—literary sources as well as inscriptions—mentioning the dêmos or the ekklêsia during the Roman Imperial period which can be seen as proof that popular assemblies continued to meet and discuss the interests of the citizen body on a regular basis in Greek cities at the time. The only reason De Ste. Croix was prevented from conceding that the political life of Greek cities under Roman rule maintained some democratic features was his ideologically biased assumption that democracy was suppressed because of the rise of the local elite and of Rome’s hegemony. However, a closer examination of how political institutions operated in Greek cities at the time shows that a form of democracy still remained. Dozens of copies on stone of decrees from Asia Minor cities reveal that the people, as a political body, continued to play a crucial role in the administration of the local communities. For instance, two recently published decrees from the Lydian city of Iulia Gordos, dating to the first century CE, suggest the following details about Greek civic life:
- The people still played a major role in civic life, interacting with the Council in the decision-making process and issuing decrees, in this case in honor of a local man of distinction named Attalos.
- The people were still perceived as the chief representatives of the political community’s will, since the very word dêmos sufficiently referred to the city as a whole in the dedication accompanying the statue depicting Attalos which was erected in his honor, as well as to the collective body of citizens when Attalos restored the taxation system for their benefit, according to the decree.
- Patriotism and commitment towards their fellow citizens are some of the values for which local dignitaries were praised in these decrees.
3§3 Apart from a few exceptions, the epigraphic evidence dating back to the Roman Imperial period is sparse and does not allow us to study in detail the civic life and the functioning of the political institutions of any Greek city at that time. The situation regarding the involvement of the people in civic life may also have varied significantly depending on the city, on the period taken into consideration and on the circumstances. But if we try to give an overview of civic participation in Greek cities during the Roman Imperial period relying on the extant epigraphic evidence, we should emphasize two points here:
- There was no general wealth-based restriction to prevent the citizens from taking part in the popular assemblies in the Greek cities during the Roman Imperial period. In some cases, social or ethnic discrimination could prevent some categories of the population from enjoying full civil rights. But these few exceptions do not affect the whole picture we obtain from the epigraphical record which points to a broad participation of citizens in the popular assemblies, as is also made clear by the fact that the division of the citizens into several tribes was still in effect during the Imperial period, not only for the purpose of the political body’s ritual performances or celebrations, but also apparently during voting processes in the ekklêsia.
- The popular assembly still played a crucial role in the multi-layered decision-making process with respect to the Council (boulê) and to the magistrates. From a close examination of the procedure referred to in decrees—most of them honorific—from Asia Minor cities in the Imperial period, one can infer that, beyond the formulaic phraseology of this kind of document, the dêmos was in many cases able to take the initiative on a decision alone. An issue could first be discussed in the ekklêsia and only later transmitted to the Council, or the people could ask the officials to prepare a decree or a law that would then be voted on by the ekklêsia and the Council, or the people could vote on a decree alone without the Council’s participation. All of the options, depending on the circumstances and on the city, are attested. Even a probouleuma—that is a decree prepared by the Council and needing to be ratified only by the ekklêsia—could result from a dialog between these two institutions and even from an initial proposal emanating from the dêmos. We cannot therefore assume, as some scholarship does, that the ekklêsia’s duties were definitively overwhelmed by the Council and by the probouleumatic procedure from the Late Hellenistic period onward.
3§4 The view that the people still played an essential role in the political life of Greek cities under Roman rule is also supported by the testimonies of the Greek orators and thinkers of the time, such as Dio Chrysostom and Plutarch. Dio’s vivid depiction in his Euboean Discourse of what a popular assembly looked like during the Imperial period suggests that the ekklêsia was a place where local elites were challenged by the people and that political life on the whole was very lively, if not turbulent. In Dio’s passage, the people were deliberately referred to as a crowd (ochlos / plêthos) instead of as a political body in order to emphasize the power the citizens could exercise toward the elite because of their number. The substantial weight the people had as a crowd is a crucial sociological factor explaining the tension existing between the people and the dignitaries in Greek cities under Roman rule, and in particular why the elite, regardless of any institutional or ethical consideration, could not simply ignore the people as a political force. The ability of the people to put pressure on local dignitaries was a significant incentive for euergetism.
3§5 Another illustration of the people’s influence in civic life is acclamation, that is, the expression of the popular will by the crowd spontaneously shouting together; a practice which became more and more common during the Imperial period. This should not be seen, however, as proof that the people were gradually depoliticized at that time, as is often assumed in scholarship. Acclamation was not necessarily an informal way for the people to express their opinion. Popular gatherings involving acclamation very often took place within legal assemblies and the shouting itself was often transcribed, engraved on stelae and displayed as if it were a formal decision emanating from the people. In some cases, acclamation by the people was just a preliminary step leading to the issuance of a decree by the ekklêsia in its usual institutionalized form.
3§6 If it is true that the people continued to be involved in civic life, as I have argued above, there were also deep changes in the political institutions and practice of the Greek cities in the Imperial period. The main change involves the status of councillors and the method of appointing officials. The fact that the members of the Council were no longer drawn by lot and renewed by rotation, that a property-qualification was required for a member to be integrated into the Council and that the officials were now selected only from among the councillors was a clear limitation of the people’s sovereignty and ability to take part in the government of cities. All of these changes were encroachments on democracy, since they restricted the people’s power. One may, therefore, ask whether the word democracy should be used to describe the political regimes and the kind of civic participation I have been describing thus far. To answer this question, I will look briefly at what had become of the idea and concept of democracy in Greek political thought and discourse during the Imperial period.
Was democracy still a relevant concept in Greek political thought during the Roman Imperial period?
4§1 The huge discrepancy between the presence of the democratic practices mentioned above and the almost complete absence of any reference to the idea of democracy in political thought at that time is striking. The most common uses of the word dêmokratia in the Imperial period referred to either the Roman Republic (in this sense, dêmokratia came to be translated as the Latin res publica) or Classical Athens (dêmokratia referring in this case to the idealized regime of the fifth century). The word dêmokratia, then, tended to become in the Imperial period a ‘fossilized’ concept used only to describe past political experience. Symptomatic of this, for instance, is the use of dêmokratia, together with monarchia and oligarchia, in an essay attributed to Plutarch whose purpose was to determine which form of government was best. This treatise was a formal rhetorical exercise fitting the Platonic and Aristotelian tradition of political philosophy. In this context, the author was ready to admit, at least from a theoretical point of view, the possibility of the existence of democracy as a political regime, even if he ultimately concedes that, as argued by Plato, monarchy should be regarded as the best regime. On the contrary, in his Precepts of Statecraft, which were intended as a kind of handbook teaching the local elite of his time how to behave in their political careers, the same Plutarch—although he very often refers to the actual role played by hoi polloi, “the multitude”, in the everyday life of the cities—did not mention dêmokratia, as if the nature of the political regime, and especially democracy, was no longer a concern for the Greek cities of his time. In the rare instances when Greek political thinkers and orators mention dêmokratia in the Imperial period, it is usually to depict this regime as something fictional. Dio’s Third Discourse on Kingship treats it as an impossibility because of the crowd’s irrationality, while Artistides’ Praise of Rome uses democracy as a metaphor for Rome, since bringing together different nations under its hegemony makes it a universal city and, therefore, the only true democracy.
4§2 It is telling that the Greek cities themselves did not use the word dêmokratia to describe their own political regime. A more general expression would have been preferred, such as the “ancestral constitution” (patrios politeia) or the “ancestral laws” (patrioi nomoi). If we consider that dêmokratia, together with eleutheria and autonomia, was the usual word employed until the Late Hellenistic period to refer to the local autonomy that Greek cities still enjoyed, including those under the hegemony of the Hellenistic kingdoms, we must admit that major changes apparently occurred in this respect at the beginning of the Roman Imperial period. The authoritarian nature of the regime of the Principate, which was very suspicious of any political movement implying support by the people, might have contributed to this. In seeking to limit the people’s influence in political life, local aristocracies were acting in accordance with the requirements of Roman hegemony, as is made clear, for instance, by the dedication offered to emperor Claudius by the elite of Lycia, in Southwestern Asia Minor, to thank him for his support in their struggle with the local democratic factions and for his help in “recovering their ancestral laws (patrioi nomoi)” and in “transferring the government (politeia) from the thoughtless multitude (plêthos) to the councillors who were selected from among the best (aristoi)”. Dêmokratia started to be seen as a potentially subversive word in the Roman Imperial period and, for that reason, Greek cities, as well as Greek political thinkers, culled this term from their vocabulary and restricted its use to very specific contexts, namely references to the past and fictional rhetorical exercises. This practice contributed to making democracy seem unrealistic at that time.
Conclusion — Greek Democracy under Roman Rule: Filling Again the ‘Empty Shell’?
5§1 In this paper, I argued generally that the issue of Greek democracy in the Roman Imperial period should be addressed without any preconceived ideological view and, in particular, that the dêmos, even if it was not as influential as in fourth-century Athens, still played a significant role in the political life of many Greek cities at that time. The practice of democracy, however, underwent major changes. A comparison of Athenian democracy in the Classical period, as described by Aristotle in his Constitution of the Athenians, with what can be inferred about civic life in Greek cities of Asia Minor in the Imperial period from epigraphic evidence suggests that two core principles on which Classical democracy relied—namely the equality between citizens (isonomia) and the people’s sovereignty—disintegrated over time; the former because of the rise of elites, the latter because of the hegemony of Rome.
5§2 Is it, therefore, still correct to speak of democracy with regard to the political regime of the Greek cities in the Imperial period? The absence of the word dêmokratia in the political discourse in the Imperial period should not be seen as proof of the disappearance of any form of democratic experience in political practice. As I have suggested, local aristocrats and political orators would refrain from using the word dêmokratia to describe civic life in Greek cities at that time for ideological reasons. Furthermore, democracy in Antiquity should not be reduced to the Athenian case, which, as in many other practices, was unusual. As is true today, there was a whole range of possibilities for democracy to be implemented and experienced, from the fifth-century Athenian radical democracy to the moderate democracy of Hellenistic and Imperial times. Greek political thinkers were aware of the expandable meaning of democracy. In the treatise entitled On monarchy, democracy, and oligarchy already mentioned above, for instance, the adjective akratos (that is “uncontrolled”) was used to qualify the Athenian democracy of the Classical era. On the other hand, Aristotle himself in his Politics was even ready to call democracy a regime in which access to offices would depend to some extent on property-qualifications. One must then admit that there were various forms of democracy (Aristotle uses the word eidos/eidê to refer to these various sorts of democracy), some of them even conflicting with the basic requirements according to the Athenian standard set forth by the same Aristotle in another place.
5§3 In fact, Greek cities under Roman rule might well have looked like small ‘oligarchic republics’, a term which may sound like an oxymoron. These cities were not strict oligarchies, since civic life still to some extent implied the participation of the people in the governance of the community and since the dêmos was, in the end, always regarded as the organ able to express the will of the whole political community, and for that reason it seems appropriate to consider these cities as ‘republics’ in the Latin sense of the term. On the other hand, a relatively small number of citizens, replicating aristocratic values and behaviour, were allowed to access offices and to have power in these cities. We have mentioned above the common use in inscriptions of the word politeia to describe the political regime in the Greek cities at that time. Politeia can of course have a neutral meaning and can refer to any kind of government or political community. But I would rather suggest that this word was in this context euphemistic, since the largest share of power was now in the hands of the local elite. It is notable that the government in Greek cities under Roman rule largely fits the regime Aristotle promoted in his Politics—the very one he called by the term politeia; that is, a constitution where only the best citizens, who had to meet certain property-qualifications, would be able to make the key decisions.
5§4 Whatever the appropriate word for the political regime in Greek cities under Roman rule might be, democracy cannot be encapsulated in a single word. What I am advocating here is a ‘political sociology’ of Greek cities under Roman rule—in line with Arjan Zuiderhoek’s excellent article entitled so—in order to determine what the respective influence of the elite and of the people on civic life was and to examine the tension between them. The dêmos remained the core institution of the Greek city even at a time when the local elite had become the most powerful protagonists in the political life of the cities and the council (boulê) had monopolized the public offices. Furthermore, in spite of their overwhelming power and wealth, the local elite themselves continued to promote and to respect the civic value of commitment to the common good of the community. In this regard, the end of the Greek city should not be sought in the Late Hellenistic period or in Early Roman times, as is often done in scholarship, but rather in the fifth or sixth century CE when local communities in the Early Byzantine Empire stopped relying on the political body of the citizens, as they had been doing for centuries, and began to negotiate a new form of collective partnership based on belonging to a community of believers in God. That community, however, also implied a kind of civic participation, as is made clear through the episcopal elections in which the people played an important role. It had also been named an ekklêsia as early as the time of the apostle Paul, which illustrates the ambitions of the first Christians to become themselves a political community or politeuma (as Paul says in his Letter to Philippians 3.20) and eventually to replace the ordinary secular institutions of the cities. Because of the ability of the people to demonstrate their strength, even if they were not legally allowed to take part in the government, Anthony Kaldellis provocatively argued that the Byzantine monarchy could also be regarded as a kind of ‘republic’, since the crowd in Medieval Constantinople was able to put pressure on the imperial power through spontaneous gatherings and outcries. Unlike the situation in Greek cities under Roman Imperial rule, it would probably be an exaggeration to assume that this was another example of the long-range survival of Greek democracy, from Classical Athens up to eleventh-century Byzantium. But this suggests that there could be civic participation without formal democracy. In any case, democracy should not be seen as a phenomenon restricted to the Classical and Hellenistic periods alone, and the Roman Imperial period should therefore be part of any discussion of the history of Greek democracy.
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* This short ‘Vorarbeit’ is part of a broader ongoing project on Greek political culture under Roman provincial administration which aims at examining various aspects of the political relationship between Greek cities and Roman power. Earlier drafts were presented at the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies at Princeton University, at Columbia University and at the University of Virginia. I would like to thank the convenors and the attendees of the CHS 2016 Spring Research Symposium, as well as Peter Brown, Angelos Chaniotis, Paulin Ismard, Nino Luraghi, John Ma, Elizabeth Meyer, Nikolaos Papazarkadas, Michael Peachin, Brent Shaw, and Anthony Woodman, for their valuable remarks and suggestions.
 De Ste. Croix 1981:313.
 Touloumakos 1967; Ferrary 1987–1989.
 Livy 34.51.5-6.
 Syll3. 646.
 Pausanias 7.16.9.
 Dmitriev 2005.
 Fröhlich 2002; Hamon 2007.
 Wörrle 2004.
 Chaniotis 2010.
 Brélaz 2009.
 De Ste. Croix 1981:527.
 De Ste. Croix 1981:518-537.
 De Ste. Croix 1981:300: “I have now to describe the gradual extinction of Greek democracy, a subject often ignored or misrepresented in the books which becomes fully intelligible only when explained in terms of a class analysis.”
 Ricl and Malay 2012 (AE 2012, 1478–1479).
 Fernoux 2011; Brélaz 2013b.
 See, for instance, the so-called “linen-workers” who, according to Dio Chrysostom Second Tarsic Discourse (34) 21–23, were regarded as a marginalized group in Tarsus and were not allowed to act like the other citizens. In the same way, we are told of a group of ekklêsiastai found in a pair of cities in Pisidia and Pamphylia who were distinguished from the ordinary politai (IGR III 409, 800-801). This may suggest that full citizens who were able to take part in the assembly were set apart from other ‘passive’ citizens.
 Kunnert 2012.
 IAph2007 11.16 (Aphrodisias, mid-1st cent. CE).
 IGR IV 145 (Cyzicus, 37 CE).
 Dio Chrysostom Euboean Discourse (7) 24–26. See Ma 2000.
 Kuhn 2012.
 SEG LI 1813 (Termessos, mid-3rd cent. CE).
 One may also note such as the end of the systematic financial accountability of the officials before the people as well as the disappearance of popular courts in most cities. See Hamon 2009.
 Plutarch Life of Publicola 10.7.
 Pausanias 1.3.3.
 [Plutarch] On monarchy, democracy, and oligarchy 826C–827C.
 Dio Chrysostom Third Discourse on Kingship (3) 47; Aelius Artistides Roman Oration (26) 36–38.
 I. Knidos 51 (late 1st cent. BCE). See Carlsson 2010; Grieb 2008. For a similar use of the word dêmokratia applied to the libertas a city was enjoying under Roman rule, see I. Stratonikeia 14 (late 2nd cent. CE).
 SEG LI 1832; AE 2007, 1512a (Stadiasmos Patarensis; 43 CE).
 [Plutarch] On monarchy, democracy, and oligarchy 826E. Compare dêmokratia adoulôtos in Inschriften von Pergamon 413 (46 BCE).
 Aristotle Politics 4.4.24 (1291b).
 Aristotle Politics 4.9.2-5 (1294a–b).
 Zuiderhoek 2008. See also Salmeri 2011.
 An illustration of this can be seen through the depiction of the personification of the Dêmos on the coins minted by Greek cities at the time: see Martin 2013.
 Brélaz 2013a; Heller 2013.
 Miller 2015; Park 2015.
 Kaldellis 2015.