Rural Greece Under the Democracy

by Victor Davis Hanson

Times Literary Supplement

Rural Greece Under the Democracy by Nicholas F. Jones
Pennsylvania, 2004. xii + 330

A version of this review appears in the June 25, 2004 issue of the Times Literary Supplement.

A fellow graduate student in 1979 once warned me that it seemed silly to have something as mundane as “agriculture” in the title of a doctoral dissertation connected with a field as elevated as Ancient Greek history. Intrigued by this rather odd observation, I almost immediately discovered that, indeed, at that time there was not a single book in English with a title having anything to do with ancient Greek agriculture—at least not since the appearance sixty years prior of W.E. Heitland’s 1921 fascinating Agricola. A Study of Agriculture and Rustic Life in the Graeco-Roman World From the Point of View of Labor.

That neglect is hardly the case now. Since 1980 dozens of books in classics have appeared on ancient Greek rural life, agricultural productivity, the sociology of peasants, farmers, and rustics, and the technology and science of grain, olive, and vine production. Perhaps it was the wide-open nature of an ignored field that spawned the recent spate of interest—especially in a discipline like classical studies in which texts are finite and spectacular new archaeological finds now increasingly rare. The novel archaeological surveys of the Greek countryside—inaugurated and promoted by William MacDonald, Michael Jameson, Anthony Snodgrass, Robin Osborne, and others—helped as well. From published examinations of the chôra of ancient Messenia, the Argolid, Boeotia, and many of the Aegean Islands rural carrying capacity, demography, and ecology began to receive the attention and resources once reserved to temple construction, fifth-century Athenian inscriptions, and red-figure vase painting. Comparative anthropology, the widespread use of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, which allowed complete and almost instantaneous word retrieval of heretofore rare Greek vocabulary, and the interest of comparative agriculturalists and sociologists perhaps also explained this renaissance in rural studies.

There was also something to the voguish idea of “otherness” in the 1990s made popular by literary theory and the new social history. Perhaps rural folks—in the manner of slaves, women, foreigners, and the poor—had not received ample attention from philologically-rooted old foggies who had privileged the rich culture of the elite citizen male over the less prominent people in the shadows of polis life. But mostly the belated attention to the countryside was simply based on long-overdue common sense: if around 80-90% of the ancient Greek population were either rural dwellers, or at least directly engaged in the production of food, then to grasp the essence of the classical city-state it was logical to learn who they were and what they actually did.

In any case, Nicholas Jones’s welcome new study of rural life in classical Athens draws heavily on such prior scholarship to advance what he says is a mostly new thesis, “the distinctiveness of rural Athens”. By that rather vague phrase, Jones means the “detection and analysis of the marginalized Other or, more abstractly put, alterity.” And he elaborates further: “Differences of status or order, class, gender, occupation, and so on may all give rise to the perception of Otherness by the dominant center, but not until very recently has the study of alterity approached what I will argue was still another major divide (and one all the more consequential because it will have sundered the citizen body)— that between town and country.” Accordingly, our ancient Greek rustics have neither been given proper attention nor appreciated on their own merits—a striking lapse by scholars inasmuch as most Athenians lived in the countryside and Hellenic culture, religion, politics, and sociology are unfathomable without knowledge of just that fact.

Most of Jones’ literary evidence about rural folk is not new, but rather a collation of prior scholars’ citations from less-well known Greek authors—the fourth-century orators, the natural histories of Theophrastus, fragments from the comic poets, and later compilers of the Roman era writing in Greek. But to that corpus of now often sifted through quotations, Jones to his credit adds a number of neglected contemporary Attic inscriptions—critical documents on stone dealing with honorific decrees, sacred calendars, inventories, and sacrificial rites—to emphasize how much Athenian life was shaped by rural people and how little we have heretofore noticed.

In a nutshell, Jones attempts to confirm that the majority of Athenian citizens lived out in the countryside and participated in the civic life of rural satellite communities rather than traveling much to Athens itself. For example, the most popular Athenian religious festival, the Dionysia—consisting of animal sacrifices, processions, announcements, dramatic productions, games, judgments and awards—not only originated as a rural fertility celebration, but remained so in most demes, despite our present sense that by the fifth century it was mostly an urban showcase for the genius of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

Whereas most of Greek society elsewhere is usually characterized as conservative, by the fifth-century Athens had developed into such a large urban community that its emerging dominant culture was beginning to seem antithetical both to its rural roots and the contemporary alternate world of Attic farmers, the now near mythical geôrgoi of Athenian comedy. The latter’s values grew increasingly at odds with the new sophistication and urbanity inside the walls. Indeed, the agrarian way of life was often romanticized by conservatives (“The farmers do all the work, no one else” we learn in Aristophanes’ Peace), and thus used in a reactionary way by those who actually knew very little of Attica to critique the current direction of imperial Athens.

The utopian philosophers—a Hippodamos, Plato, or Aristotle—embraced the idealism of traditional life, and saw its morality now at odds with urban reality. But as rarified thinkers, they were also not quite sure how the citizenry could retain agrarian virtue as a counterweight to urban softness without giving up the often valuable sophistication of the city and risking a return to rustic boorishness. Sometimes, as Jones emphasizes, their solutions were quite simplistic, perhaps even nonsensical—each citizen should have both a rural and urban residence; cultural activities should be concentrated in a single urban center; and special servile classes should take over the drudgery of farm work to allow the landowner the ease and time to lend his own pragmatism, one rooted to the soil, to the often adrift urban politics of the city.

Throughout his argument Jones touches on some of the key social and economic controversies of the last twenty years of Hellenic rural studies. He rightly reaffirms the view that rural Greeks often resided on their farms, or at least in clusters of small homesteads, rather than commuting from nucleated centers to distant plots. This is an important distinction if one believes in a uniquely rural culture as the basis of the city-state. Agrarians probably owned average-size plots, lived on them, and acquired a slave or two to help with the intensive regimen of homestead agriculture. Thus classical Greeks were not exploited peasants, but could be better characterized as a chauvinistic and proud middle class that defined many of the original military, political, and economic thinking of the polis—even as the urbanization of the fifth century continued to alter the demography and landscape of the Athenian state.

M ost rural Athenians, according to Jones, looked to their deme village rather than Athens per se to participate in civic life, suggesting that many urbanites may have known very little about their rural counterparts until the great evacuations of the Peloponnesian War between 431 and 425. Then for the first time hostile Spartans in the Attic countryside forced agrarians into the midst of city folks—a jarring development often reflected in contemporary Athenian wartime comedies.

What Jones has written is sensible, well-grounded in both literary and epigraphical evidence, and cognizant of a now vast secondary literature. Yet there are problems, both structural and thematic, with his presentation that will unfortunately deny the book both the readership and influence it might otherwise deserve.

At the most basic, Rural Athens Under the Democracy is often haphazardly organized. Some chapters end with formal conclusions; but others abruptly cease in medias res. There is really no formal summation, but rather a final brief chapter called “Paradigms” that ends suddenly by discussing the trend of glorification of the country by denigrating the town.

At times the prose is impenetrable, often as an unfortunate result of attempting to tap into the style and jargon of contemporary theory. Consider the last sentence of the book that leaves us not invigorated, but exhausted—wanting less, not more, promised ancillary studies still to come: “So, in this case only implicitly, the rural is subject to a latently negative appraisal but rehabilitated by juxtaposing with it an even less acceptable sole alternative option.” And that final expression is unfortunately typical throughout the book, rather than aberrant: “Perhaps, let me suggest, not so much because of the usual invisibility of such marginal groups (because these extramural Athenians are not invisible) as owing to the very citizen status of rural demespeople—a fact which has at once caused to be falsely bestowed upon them characteristics actually appropriate only to urbanites and, at the same time, exempted them from special consideration on the basis of gender, order, or ethnicity.”

Often Jones conflates Athens with Greece, per se. Thus we get subsections on Hesiod’s very early Boeotian world on Mt. Helicon or the town planning of Hippodamos of Milletos without enough careful warning about the degree to which such Panhellenic evidence reflects, is tangential to, or is at odds with, the peculiar situation of classical Athens. Indeed, since Athenian singularity is the entire point of the book, the problem and theme of Athenian exceptionalism should be discussed repeatedly.

The result of that omission is that the reader does not quite appreciate the implications of Jones’ own findings. After all, Athens was the most powerful, most democratic, and most culturally influential of all the some 1,500-2,000 city-states of classical Greece. For two hundred years classical scholars have argued over why this was so. Was that exceptionalism a result of the historical fluke of great leaders like Cleisthenes, Themistocles, and Pericles, an artifact from the amazing defense of Greece at Salamis, testament to the extremely large rural Attic hinterland (about 1,000 square miles), the cargo of incremental radicalization of the democracy throughout the fifth century that made it on the eve of the Peloponnesian War the most inclusive of any polis in the Greek world, the dividend of the rich silver mines in southern Attica, or a reflection of a vast overseas empire that encompassed well over 150 tribute-paying states?

So we need to know the degree to which Jones’ conclusions that Athens was a society in turmoil, not quite able to reconcile its urban future with its rural past, made it not only unique, but great—or, on the other hand, was unstable and headed for an inevitable late fourth-century breakdown. Or was its country/city paradox simply representative of almost all the other Hellenic fifth-century states, which after all remained mostly agricultural in nature?

If what little we know about this vast shadow population in Attica was constructed by elite urbanites and thus seen now by us only through the prism of a sophisticated and sometimes patronizing literature, can Jones at least speculate on the ramifications of his own theories and what they entail for our present understanding of both Greece and its most magnificent representation in fifth-century Athens? When we speak of “rural Athens, ” are we talking about a high culture’s alternating romance and hostility to rural Athens as evidenced in literature, or—as I believe—a concrete and unique economic, cultural, and political foundation of private property, consensual government, a sense of open markets, and rugged individualism forged by thousands of country folks.

Many of these larger implications strangely seem to be of little interest to Jones. Consequently we are left with a radical, though aborted, thesis that much of the standard things we associate with an Athens of theater and marble is somehow not the whole story. Quite simply, I wish Jones had taught us how beneath the veneer of the Parthenon, Sophocles, and the intellectual life of the symposium was the real hardwood of now invisible farmers and ordinary rural folk who in one way or another made possible “the glory that was Greece.”

Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University and the author of the Other Greeks. The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (The Free Press 1995; 2nd ed. California 1999).

 All copyrights reserved by Victor Davis Hanson

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