An Eclectic Bibliography of the World History of Democracy

by Steve Muhlberger, Associate Professor of History, Nipissing University.

Ancient Democracy in the Mediterranean

There are a vast number of books and articles on Greek democracy and Roman republican politics. This is a selection of interesting books and articles, most of them relatively recent, with an emphasis on discussions of the issue of participation and the actual working of democratic and republican institutions.

Scholarship in this area is very active, so I would be interested in hearing about either old classics or newer works that I have missed. Please write me.

Please visit the World History of Democracy site.


Arnheim, M.T.W. Aristocracy in Greek Society. London: Thames and Hudson, 1977.

A systematic look at Greek political thought and practice built upon the premise that some people are by birth innately better than others. Arnheim argues that even the most democratic Greeks seldom got very far from this attitude, that many states were aristocratic throughout their history, and that aristocrats were important even in Athens throughout its history. The most valuable discussion is on the aristocratic states that were dominant in the post-monarchical age. His comments on "Ruling Groups of a Fixed Size" (pp. 55-56) may help to understand the Indian republics.

Farrar, Cynthia. The Origins of Democratic Thinking. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

The thesis of this book is that Plato and Aristotle were not the first political philosophers. Farrar argues at length that Protagoras, Thucydides, and Democritus were all democratic thinkers, whose major works were grew out of the democratic experience and whose goal was to justify democratic politics and a theory of knowledge appropriate to a democracy.

Hansen, Mogens Herman. The Athenian Assembly in the Age of Demosthenes. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Hansen is the most thorough investigator of the Athenian ekklesia (assembly) in the past two centuries. Investigating mainly the late 4th c. assembly, for which we are best informed, Hansen has come to a number of conclusions different from the usual.

These include: The assembly in that period was not sovereign; the assembly was well-attended; voting was done by a show of hands under most circumstances, with no effort to count; there were political parties in the sense of small groups of leaders who worked together, but no organized large groups of followers; leaders who were rhetores instead of strategoi were either rich or became rich; if they lost the favor of the people they would likely be prosecuted for bribery.

Hansen's study of Swiss Landesgemeinde has informed his reconstruction of voting (no counting possible), political parties of followers (impossible), and debate (possible in Glarus with 5-8000 attendees, but not in Appenzell ausser Rhoden with 10-12000; thus possible in Athens).

If we ask how Athens could afford pay for court and assembly attendence, we should ask even more how it could afford to fight all the time: war was far more expensive than democracy.

Larsen, J.A.O. "The Judgement of Antiquity on Democracy ." Classical Philology 49 (1954): 1-14.

Larsen's Presidential Address to the American Philological Association, December 1952. This is an excellent summing up of opinions and attitudes in antiquity connected with democratic practice.

P. 1: "...Greece first experimented extensively with [democracy] and, what is even more important, developed a theory of democracy based on a faith in the essential efficacy and justness of human judgement probably never surpassed...Much of the story, however, has been obscured by the aristocratic or upper-class point of view of most of our informants. In fact, our best information is derived less from direct discussions of democracy than from incidental remarks and asides and from the analysis of the implications of statements made."

Larsen, J.A.O. "The Origin and Significance of the Counting of Votes." Classical Philology 44 (1949): 164-181.

Not up to Larsen's usual high standards. He does not commit himself on either the origin or significance of the counting of votes in any unambiguous manner. Still, worth a look for those considering problem of orgins.

Larsen, J.A.O. "Representation and Democracy in Hellenistic Federalism." Classical Philology 40 (1945): 65-97.

A rather technical but excellent paper which shows that during the second century B.C., Hellenistic federations normally had representative assemblies, though there were some with primary assemblies. The idea of a representative assembly, with some attempt to achieve representation by population, was considered normal by commentators of the time.

Were such federations democratic? They often said so. But in the econd century B.C. (and later) the word democratic had changed its meaning to mean almost any non-monarchical state. A state that was not subject to a monarch, that was free and independent, was considered to be democratic.

Larsen, J.A.O. Representative Government in Greek and Roman History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966.

The evidence for the use of representative institutions by the Greeks and Romans is actually quite extensive; the concentration of the sources on the primary assembly has disguised this. The book seeks to fill the gap.

L. blames the failure of representative government both on the reliance on strong-men and the problems of communication. He thinks the experiment with representative government was perhaps almost a miracle.

Manville, Philip Brook. The Origins of Citizenship in Ancient Athens. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Manville believes that the creation of the category of citizenship has been taken too much for granted in scholarship. Therefore he re-examines the constitutional history of Athens from pre-Drakonian times to about 500 B.C., to trace the development of citizenship in a polis, that is, a community which provides justice and which morally improves its members (as in Aristotle). The study is informed by insights taken from political anthropology, which throw light on matters such as the evolution of private property and the different methods by which community membership is defined.

There are a number of interesting aspects to this book. M. has some African case studies showing how private property becomes more strictly defined, and rights over land more straightforward, when population increase and specialized use of the land makes clearer definition a necessity. Also, Manville is big on the firming up of the definition of being an Athenian, of dividing "insiders" and "outsiders" clearly.

Finally, his work is thought-provoking in the way it shows old cooperative corporations becoming obstructive aristocratic power-bases, which need to be defanged before a new and more inclusive form of citizenship can be developed and institutionalized.

Myres, J.L. The Political Ideas of the Greeks. 1927. Reprint. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1970.

A series of lectures. Most interesting is Lecture II: The Greek Notion of Society (29-68), which discusses many interesting aspects of the origin of the city-state.

Myres believes that the polis in its classic form only existed in certain areas where heterogenous groups of immigrants merged with aboriginal populations in such a way that the polis (orginally the political/military society of the stronghold) was consciously a federation of formerly separate local societies, which still retained self-government at some level but had pledged a higher loyalty to the new political society. Elsewhere in Greece their survived loose tribal federations (federations of local and distinct societies) or the domination of the conquered natives by the tribal identity of the conquered.

Attica of course is the most successful of the federal/political societies, and the one where the political identity and the freeing of the individual most eroded the claims of intermediary hereditary bodies (tribes, clans, etc.). Compares this situation to Rome, where the res privata dominated by the clan constituted a large part of social life, while in Greece the opposite of political life was idiocy: pointless, aimless, selfish individualism. Sees Plato's Republic as both a reaction to and the extension of this breaking down of traditional ties.

North, John. "Democratic Politics in Republican Rome." Past & Present 126 (1990): 3-21.

North argues that there was a place in Roman politics for the interests of the voters, i.e., in situations where there was division within the elite. North hestitates to call this the "democratic element" in Roman politics because the elite's powers were so entrenched, in the assemblies as in every other sphere of life. North does believe that the Gelzer "frozen waste" theory of the assemblies, that voting in them reflected only the manipulation of clients by aristocrats, has been eroded, or shown to be only the ideal of the elite, who would have liked to arrange all important matters among themselves. But in fact they did not -- at least not until the victors of the civil wars abolished politics.

North, John. "Politics and Aristocracy in the Roman Republic." Classical Philology 85 (1990): 277-287.

A more detailed attack on the older idea that clan politics determined everything and that votes in the assemblies meant little in the Middle and Late Republic. North argues that there was a real element of democraccy in the Roman Republic, though the aristocratic element was very strong, much stronger than in Athens. But the voters (whoever they may have been) had the role of arbiters in elite competition. When the competition ceased, so did interest in the voters.

Good bibliography on modern scholarship on democratic elements in Roman life.

There is a reply to North by W.V. Harris in the same volume: "On Defining the Political Culture of the Roman Republic: Some Comments on Rosenstein, Williamson, and North," pp. 288-294. He is not impressed by North, and thinks to refute him as a setter-up of straw men. Harris compares the RR to pre-Reform Bill Britain.

This is followed by a rebuttal of Harris by North pp. 297-298: At times Roman politicians were and had to be acutely aware of popular reactions to them.

Sinclair, R.K. Democracy and Participation in Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

A good systematic survey of participation in Athens, based on a great deal of ancient evidence and modern scholarship.

Various investigations have found that there was indeed a great deal of participation in the Athenian situation; in fact the rules on rotation of office required a great deal of participation.

Most of the criticisms leveled against the Demos of Athens could be leveled at any government: narrow self-interest, the role of sycophancy, the exploitation of slaves and women.

Staveley, E.S. Greek and Roman Voting and Elections. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972.

This book-length study shows how very systematic both the Athenians and the Romans were in running their elections. This discussion will be a revelation to many readers.

Ste. Croix, G.E.M. de. The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Although a Marxist, Ste. Croix takes Greek democracy as an important (though unique) institution, the only one in the ancient world that protected some of the unpropertied from the unlimited depredations of the propertied. He has some valuable pages (300-326) on the destruction of Greek democracy in Hellenistic and Roman times.

Despite its very orthodox Marxist argument -- aimed specifically at demonstrating the usefulness of Marxist analysis -- this is a valuable study of many aspects of ancient society.

Stockton, David. The Classical Athenian Democracy. Corrected ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

A detailed but concise look at the development of the institutions of democratic Athens, their workings, and the attitudes of supporters and foes.

Stockton is favorably inclined to Athenian democracy, even though it tolerated slavery and enfranchised only 2/5 of the male population, comparable to the UK after the Second Reform Act of 1867, which enfranchised somewhat less than that proportion, p. 18. He sees the Athenian democracy as representative of its members and achieving what they wanted it to achieve, a government that would look out for the citizens' interests and keep them from being ripped off. The experience of the regime of the Thirty confirmed the vast majority of citizens in their preference for democracy. S. considers it the great achievement of the Athenian democracy that the amnesty promised to the supporters of the Thirty held very well.

Williamson, Callie. "The Roman Aristocracy and Positive Law." Classical Philology 85 (1990): 266-276.

Roman assemblies in the Middle and Late Republic took a real interest in the details of at least the more important laws, and the actual provisions were argued out in public. Concludes that magistrates had to be aware of the wishes of the urban plebs, and had to be good at drafting laws. See also the North article published in the same volume, noted above.

Wilson, Ronald C. Ancient Republicanism. Its Struggle For Liberty Against Corruption. American University Studies, Series X Political Science, no. 20. ed. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.

This is a good short discussion of the major traits of ancient republicanism as seen in Athens, Sparta, and Rome. Chapter I, pp. 1-5 is a nice short introduction to ancient republican values. The worst shortcoming of the book is Wilson's loose use of the term "modernization" without explanation, and his assumption that commercial expansion required war and imperialism.

Wood, Ellen Meiksins. Peasant-citizen and Slave: the foundations of Athenian democracy. Corrected pbk. ed. London; New York: Verso, 1989.

Wood argues that the greatest success of Athenian democracy was that it uniquely included of the people of the countryside in the political process, instead of subjecting them to cityfolk. Also there is a very valuable survey of modern criticisms of Athenian democracy.


Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.