The exiled tyrant Pisistratus, planning his return to Athens in the early sixth century bc, hired an unusually tall woman named Phye to ride beside him in his chariot. She was to pretend to be the manifestation of the goddess Athena, the patron of Athens. Herodotus gives her height as some four cubits – around 5’11", more than a foot taller than the average woman at the time – and notes that not only was she dressed in full armour but was ‘instructed of the bearing in which she might best beseem her part’ (according to Macaulay’s inimitable translation). As Pisistratus and Phye trundled through the fields of Attica, the Athenians fell over themselves to pay their respects. Herodotus notes that Pisistratus was immediately returned to power.
Why would the Athenians, famed for their cleverness, have been taken in by something so silly? Some historians write the whole problem off: perhaps Herodotus, famously prone to shaggy dog stories, got the details wrong. Others have argued that to understand why Pisistratus’ deception worked, you have to bear in mind that it happened in pre-democratic times. Maybe Athenians were peculiarly gullible in those days, or had lived under tyranny for so long that, even if they secretly suspected they were being duped, they didn’t have much choice but to do Pisistratus’ bidding. The problem for anyone making this case is that very close parallels to the Pisistratus incident can be found in democratic Athens. A major cult memorialised the healing god Asclepius’ arrival in Athens in 420 BC in the chariot of a human companion, Telemachus. Similarly, reliefs from the sanctuary of Artemis in Brauron, a small Athenian outpost about twenty miles east of the Acropolis, show worshippers paying their respects to the goddess. Like Phye, Artemis is at least a foot taller than her worshippers, and stands upright, politely observing them while holding various ritual objects. There are also cases of divine appearances, or epiphanies, at times of crisis. In 490 BC, Pheidippides – the long-distance messenger best known for his supposed run from Marathon to Athens – was reported to have encountered the god Pan on a mountain while bearing a message to Sparta. Pan, annoyed that the Athenians weren’t paying him enough attention, asked Pheidippides to remind them of his support. They responded by building a sanctuary to him on the Acropolis, which seems to have been a satisfactory outcome for everyone; Herodotus reports that the Athenians’ victory in the battle of Marathon was owed in part to the intervention of a grateful Pan.
What about the idea that the Athenians understood meetings with their gods as symbolic encounters: that the worshippers at Brauron felt some sort of numinous presence which they represented as a living, breathing Artemis, or that Pheidippides’ vision of Pan was something more like a hallucination brought on by exhaustion? The difficulty here is with the attempt to harmonise the testimonies of the Athenians with what we now know (or assume) to be possible in the real world. Few of us, in the modern secular West, consider divine epiphanies possible. Even those who do believe, say, in the incarnation of Christ, or that the Abrahamic God or Allah appeared to certain human beings in the distant past, tend to refer to epiphanies as the experience of a divine presence rather than as literal physical appearances (with the possible exception of the Eucharist). Pilgrims at Lourdes may believe the Virgin Mary physically appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, but not many would expect the same thing to happen to them during a visit – unlike, perhaps, the pilgrims at Brauron. If one of us was approached by what appeared to be a god, chances are that we would want to carry out a few reality checks, so we tend to imagine the Athenians would have too. But perhaps we should consider more closely what the world would have to be like such that episodes of this sort didn’t appear silly or insipidly metaphorical. Is there some way of understanding Athenian culture that makes these events not merely understandable but reasonable?
Athens was unique among Greek states of its time in that from the sixth century BC onwards, the polis (the city state) was governed by the demos (its people). As the traditional account goes, citizenship was extended to those who were male, free and born in Attica. For women, slaves or immigrants, the chances of participating in decision-making were low. But decision-making was largely a public affair: the ecclesia (assembly) of Athenian citizens, a body of more than five thousand men, discussed and voted publicly on all sorts of matters, from military strategy to the financial details of major festivals. The legal system was run along similar lines. All citizens participated, and nobody was a professional or a specialist – all judicial and religious appointments were allocated on a short-term basis.
Despite these idiosyncrasies, mention of Athenian ‘democracy’ conjures up images of the ballot box and of the exercise of free decision-making by private individuals all equal in the eyes of the state. One problem here, in treating Athenian democracy as an early counterpart to Western liberal democracies, is what to make of the abject position of women and slaves? True, plenty of Western liberal democracies have, from the beginning, featured obvious systemic injustices along racial, class and gender lines – and problems with disenfranchisement or low levels of democratic participation are still common among marginalised groups. The difference between modern democracies and the Athenian polis, as Greg Anderson points out in The Realness of Things Past, is that nobody in Athens seems ever to have made the argument that it was ‘undemocratic’ to exclude women and slaves from participating in the city’s business.
This is just one way in which the apparent familiarity of Athens can be misleading. In fact we carve up and organise the world very differently from the classical Greeks. It would seem strange to us if debates in the House of Commons were prefaced by public sacrifice or if the Speaker were to reschedule a vote because he’d spotted an ominous-looking snail on the way to work. Modern Western secular assumptions about the relations between gods, human beings, animals and the Earth, or between men and women, or abstract and concrete entities, simply don’t apply to democratic Athens. This is the case Anderson wishes to make. To understand the Athenians properly, we must recognise that it isn’t just that they perceived the world differently, but that the world itself was different. What’s needed, he believes, is an ‘ontological turn’ in how we write histories of Athens.
In essence, Anderson argues that many of the basic principles we rely on when talking about what exists in the world (ontology) and how we know things about the world (epistemology) become meaningless when applied to non-Western and pre-modern cultures. Things we take for granted that don’t apply in these contexts would include the oppositions public/private, nature/culture and sacred/secular, or the idea that the material world is objective, or that the primary way to understand human beings is as distinct individual entities rather than as transient parts of bigger entities such as ‘the family’, ‘the inhabitants of Athens’ or ‘the people’. That we tend to see such categories as ‘natural’ features of the world and not as our own constructs is, according to much of the anthropological and postcolonial literature that Anderson engages with, inherently bound up with the development of colonial modernity in the West. On these grounds, histories of pre-modern cultures that make use of modern Western ontologies fail to capture something essential about the world as it was: shackled to our own ways of understanding, we can, Anderson says, only ever write what amounts to a shadowy prehistory of ourselves.
Instead, he argues, we should see democratic Athens as a ‘cosmic ecology of gods, land and people’. Accordingly, he draws on archaeological evidence, inscriptions and mainstream texts – including the court speeches of Lysias, Demosthenes and Lycurgus, the histories of Xenophon and Thucydides, and plays and poems by Euripides, Aristophanes and Pindar – in order to re-examine a number of facets of life in democratic Athens, including the daily activities of men and women, buying and selling, participation in legal cases, and a selection of major festivals and rituals. He throws out much of our familiar vocabulary – terms like ‘the economy’ or ‘government’ – and in doing so is able to draw some quite unexpected new links.
Let’s grant that one day in 420 BC, when Asclepius is said to have arrived in Athens, some real event of that description did actually take place. Let’s agree too that the best way to understand this event is to use the concepts that the Athenians themselves used. We might even agree that the literal reality of what happened (whether or not a divine being really was physically present) is much less interesting, as an object of study, than the stories told about the event and the significance it carried for fifth-century Athenians and those who came later. Western histories such as Anderson’s have for some decades been sensitive to the notion that when they study non-modern and non-Western cultures they should take care not to impose erroneous categories on them. But Anderson goes further: he is emphatic that to gain meaningful knowledge of a different culture it isn’t enough merely to qualify our own ontology. Instead we must use the ontology of the people whose world we are studying. On his view, we can’t write worthwhile history if we start from the position that it simply isn’t possible that what really happened on that day in 420 BC is that an incarnate god rode into Athens on a man-made chariot. What’s more, even if we do accept that this did happen, but then go on to explain it in terms of symbolic power or different perceptions of the world (the Athenians saw a god, but there wasn’t really one there), we haven’t truly taken an ontological turn – we are, in fact, still writing culturally imperialist history.
Anderson gives an impression of just how unfamiliar different ontologies can be by taking a tour of disparate instances from various times and places, including Ming China, early modern England and precolonial Bali. Some ontologies don’t feature individual beings, only plural or ‘corporate’ selves; some propose a relationship between the heavens and human beings; some assume that people of different social ranks are by nature different types of creature. Some are more radical altogether. A standard modern Western metaphysics will usually claim that there is a single, objective material reality which animals and humans occupy but which is ‘out there’, independent of human or animal minds. Accounts may vary as to what we can know about the world, and how we know it, but it is generally agreed that even if a woman and a leopard perceive the world very differently they at least inhabit the same reality. By contrast, the Vaupés people of Colombia posit that while all beings – women, leopards, spirits – share an internal perspective and way of seeing and understanding, different beings inhabit completely different material realities, none of which, according to Anderson, ‘is in the end any more definitively true or real than the other’.
For Anderson, such examples show the difficulty of establishing any culturally universal ontological claims, and, therefore, the lack of any universal standard by which to judge one ontology against another. Anderson can’t resist the temptation to invoke quantum physics in support of this position. He emphasises the importance of the Copenhagen interpretation – in short, the claim that a system’s physical properties are indeterminate until they are measured – without giving any account of the problems or controversies this notion has generated over the last ninety years. Instead, there is a rather fanciful passage on the possibility of a ‘quantum social science’. It’s here that the book is at its weakest.
Nevertheless, Anderson’s central claim is persuasive: ‘Far from portending a history where “anything goes”, an ontological turn would require historians to abide by very precise truth standards, albeit those of the particular worlds they are studying, not those of our own Western modernity.’ In the context of democratic Athens, this means that we must, for example, take at face value stories of the gods’ active involvement in military matters. Xenophon, writing an account of the restoration of democracy after a period of rule by a group of repressive tyrants, argues that his unit’s success in battle against the tyrants’ forces was a direct result of intervention by the gods. While this is usually read as a piece of standard lip service – a kind of platitudinous and semi-metaphorical ‘the gods were on our side’ – we can instead read it as a serious claim that the re-establishment of democracy was of sincere importance to the gods, and that they were willing to go into battle physically to defend it. Indeed, the decision-making and legal activities of democratic Athens almost always included rituals to seek the support and counsel not only of Athena but of a huge array of minor deities besides. Without their continuing endorsement, and the efforts of those who worshipped them, democratic Athens could not function.
Similarly, we must think again about the binary distinction, found in much discussion of the Athenian polis, between ta hiera and ta hosia, usually translated as ‘the sacred’ and ‘the secular’. Such a distinction no longer makes sense once we take seriously the participation of the gods in apparently ‘secular’ decision-making processes. Instead the terms must be understood as ‘things that belong to the gods (or are properly of their domain)’ and ‘things that belong to human beings (but are none the less approved by the gods)’. Thus ritual objects may be hiera, and voting pebbles hosia, but the use of either in the assembly or in a trial is hosion: a human activity that is pleasing to the gods. None of this should imply that the Greeks didn’t distinguish between gods and humans. Of course they did, though porously – hence demigods such as Hercules. Instead, the gods suffused, maintained and underpinned everything. The poem known as Kiln, preserved among the fragments of Hesiod though probably originating in fifth-century Athens, calls on Athena to be involved at every stage of the production of a pot: she is implored to hold her hand over the kiln to ensure that the fire burns well, to guarantee the success of the baking process and to supervise the pot’s sale in the marketplace. Without Athena’s support, the anonymous poet claims, other supernatural forces may threaten the potter’s livelihood.
We must also reconsider the territorial element of the polis. The Athenians were very proud of their land, Attica, in ways that can seem highly nationalist to us. For example, Lycurgus, a notoriously severe orator, brings a charge against his fellow citizen Leocrates for deserting the city in a time of crisis; much of his speech focuses on the legendary bravery and resilience of Athenians, over and above any other Greek people. But unlike modern nationalists, the ancient Athenians attributed active and anthropomorphised agency to their land in the sustenance of the people. For the Athenians, Attica was not the passive ground on which their city and society were built, but their motherland in the truest sense. Of all ancient Greek peoples, the Athenians were the only ones who claimed autochthony; while in modern usage this term is often simply a synonym for indigenousness, in the case of the Athenians it has a stronger meaning, referring to a belief in their ancestors’ literal birth from the land. Many of the myths about their earliest kings deal with this theme.
The land, as the sustainer of crops, and provider of wood and stone (the material fabric of the city itself), was seen not as an inert resource to be exploited but as an active participant in the governance of the polis, with its own deities and rights. As with the rest of the physical world, the land was divided into those places that were hiera and those that were hosia: temple sanctuaries, known as temene (cut-off areas), were hiera, whereas the rest of the land was hosion; those seeking sanctuary after committing a crime could be removed or brought to court from hosion land, but not from within temene, where their fate was in the remit of the gods.
Such reconfigurations also have a profound impact on the way we think about personhood and social structure in ancient Athens. While traditional accounts of democracy speak of women’s exclusion from the political sphere, in the sources women are regularly referred to as politai or citizens. If, as Anderson urges (following Lin Foxhall), we give up the private/public distinction and instead view the domestic sphere as fundamentally part of the polis, women’s primarily domestic and religious roles in the life of the polis fit comfortably within the scope of democratic participation. Families are themselves a kind of person, in which husbands outside the house and wives inside the house both carry out essential and complementary democratic duties, ensuring the vitality of the household and of the city as a whole. This model makes some sense of the increased ability of single or widowed women to conduct more polis business outside the household, such as paying their own taxes. We should, of course, be wary of seeing these arrangements as an anticipation of 1950s-style housewifery or as a protofeminist recognition of the importance of domestic or emotional labour: both analogies would misrepresent the relationship between Athenian women’s personhood and men’s.
Indeed, Anderson’s most exciting rereading is about the relations between men and women. He makes a lengthy reinterpretation of a court speech written by Lysias on behalf of a man named Euphiletus, as part of his (successful) defence against the charge of murder – brought after he summarily executed his wife’s lover. Traditionally, readings of this passage focus on the need for harsh punishment of adulterers to preserve the sanctity of the home, or on anxiety over the legitimacy of children in a society that had very strict rules about citizenship. Anderson, by contrast, reads the events through the lens of democracy writ large: if households are not private spaces separate from the public business of the state but the building blocks of Athenian society, Euphiletus isn’t simply avenging a private wrong but taking on the mantle of the people as a whole in policing the health and security of that society.
In the post-Enlightenment secular world it is normal to think of people as monadic individuals separate from institutions – what Anderson somewhat cumbersomely calls ‘natural psycho-physical individuals’. Nevertheless, many modern legal systems attribute personhood to companies, even if in a restricted, abstract sense. We have also become familiar, especially in recent years, with the invocation of ‘public opinion’, or the ‘will of the people’, as the knowable expression of a homogenous viewpoint, or even, in a figurative sense, the viewpoint of a corporate self. It is this type of personhood, taken further, that is conveyed by the term ‘democratic’ Athens. The rule of the demos, carried out through short-term representatives and offices, combined the sense of corporate selfhood with that of large-scale non-hierarchical democratic government. Thus, as Anderson sees it, when we read in the surviving minutes of Athenian ecclesia meetings that ‘the demos decided’ such and such, we should interpret this as a statement of corporate personhood. It expresses the ontological continuity of the demos above and beyond its exchangeable and perishable human parts.
To see this more clearly, take the science fiction cliché of a merged global consciousness. If human beings in a hundred years’ time, say, were to become a single consciousness spread across many bodies, with the distinction between individual beings far less meaningful, would their metaphysics incline them to read the events of 2020 in a different light? Would they take statements such as ‘this House believes’ to indicate an ontological unity of Parliament, a corporate self not separable into monadic individuals, like the one they themselves have become? To a single, merged mind, any political model other than democracy would, presumably, be unfathomable. When they wrote about us, would they even understand what it means to be a monadic conscious individual? Even if future philosophers had ontological models that made no use of the concept of individuality, future historians would still be making a mistake in transplanting such an ontology onto us. They might be able to write some account of what ‘really’ happened, according to their contemporary ontology, but they wouldn’t, without attempting to understand the concept of individual consciousness, be able to capture anything that remotely resembles the texture of our lived experience. This, in essence, is Anderson’s complaint about current studies of democratic Athens: many of them end up as a paean to contemporary democracy, a sort of prehistory of our own democratic ideals and commitments with an Athenised veneer. Anderson’s stark reminder of the ontological unfamiliarity of the premodern world should encourage us not just to be more careful in our assumptions about democracy in the past but perhaps also about democracy in the present.