An interview with Matthew Simonton, author of Classical Greek Oligarchy: a Political History

Matt, thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your book, Classical Greek Oligarchy: a Political History, which has a wide frame of reference. You not only cite a very wide range of ancient authors and sources, you also bring in modern political theorists and examples from modern political situations to support your analysis. But then you seem to have studied several different disciplines at university; not just classics and ancient history but modern politics and political theory, and theatre too. Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you made these choices? Do you think perhaps the American university system gives more freedom to cross boundaries between academic disciplines than a British university would normally do?

I’ve always been interested in the “big picture” concerning politics and society. As an undergraduate, despite being a Classics major, I think it’s fair to say I was obsessed with political philosophy and political theory, and read them every chance I got.

This included contemporary political philosophers like John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas, but also works in critical theory and sociology: Marx, Weber, the Frankfurt school–things like that. I came to graduate school to work with Josiah Ober, who had just been hired at Stanford. I thought I was getting the Josiah Ober of Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (1989), his most famous book, when in fact this was the Josiah Ober who would shortly write Democracy and Knowledge (2008), which combined the history of Athenian democracy with contemporary social science approaches like game theory and collective action theory. (Of course they’re both the same Josh, and he can do it all, but I was not aware of how different this would be from my previous interests.) But it was wonderful, and in fact I’m very grateful that I was exposed to more formal methods. As for the question about whether the U.S. system encourages that kind of interdisciplinarity, I think it probably depends on the institution–Stanford Classics is definitely a program like that, and I was greatly helped by an interdisciplinary fellowship that was established while I was there. More recently I’ve been fortunate enough to work in an interdisciplinary program at Arizona State University.

At what stage did you begin to see the need to focus on the subject of this book, oligarchy in Greece in the classical period? You say it had been neglected by earlier scholars in favour of tyranny and democracy. Were there any particular reasons for that? What caught your interest – was it simply the gap in knowledge of the subject?

Oligarchy has been a relatively understudied topic, but a lot of the work that has been done about it is very good, as I explain in my answer to the next question. I think probably scholars, and in particular modern scholars, have been interested primarily in ancient democracy, for obvious reasons. Tyranny is also intriguing, for the same reasons that we have a morbid curiosity about biographies of eccentric (but also brutal) dictators. My impression is that oligarchy was considered less interesting due to several factors: for one, it seemed so obviously to be the default way of doing things. The Roman historian Ronald Syme famously said that in all times and places, no matter what the formal structure of the constitution might be, “an oligarchy lurks behind the façade.”  So there was a kind of assumption that oligarchy is “natural,” even though I don’t think it is, and especially not Classical Greek oligarchies, to which the term originally applied. It’s also a matter of evidence or lack thereof, in that we don’t know nearly as much about oligarchies as we know about the Athenian democracy or whatever it is we want to call the constitution of Sparta. But the tide was already turning when I came to my project. Scholarly opinion was changing concerning the number of democracies in the Classical world. Some had thought–and some certainly still believe–that Athens was the only democracy in the ancient world, or the only genuine democracy, anyway. But the work of historians like Eric Robinson has shown that democracy was a decently common form of constitution, even in the Classical period, and that it was becoming more common over time. In light of this, I wondered how oligarchies managed to survive in the face of the democratic alternative. Also I can’t deny having a grim fascination with authoritarian regimes, past and present.

You refer in various places to reappraisal, and explain that the patchy state of evidence about oligarchies gives room for extremely divergent reconstitutions and interpretations. Does your reinterpretation build on the work of others, or offer a more radical reinterpretation? Was your reappraisal based on newly discovered material, i.e. new evidence, or on new lines of thinking? Or some of each?

My work definitely builds on the work of others, without which it wouldn’t have been possible. The Greek historian Martin Ostwald worked on the topic of oligarchy late in his career and published a slim volume on it in 2000. If he had completed a full book, I’m sure I would have picked a different dissertation topic, since his work was always authoritative. I also benefited tremendously during the early parts of my research from the Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis, edited by M. H. Hansen and T. H. Nielsen, which appeared in 2004. It’s a one-stop-shop for everything we know about the population size, coinage, archaeological record, and–importantly for me–constitutional history of the individual Greek city-states. So the early months of my research were just reading through this 1400-pp. work for evidence. At the same time, I hope I’m doing something new (and convincing), both methodologically and conceptually. I believe that bringing modern conceptual frameworks from political science to bear on the ancient evidence can help greatly to clarify it–but of course the theories are only as good as their compatibility with the evidence. My basic starting point, using the Inventory and additional research, was to collect ancient testimony about the actions of oligarchic regimes: how are they represented by historians like Thucydides and Xenophon, or by inscriptions (both those issued by oligarchic regimes and those, much more common, published by democracies)? Then I wondered: why are these oligarchs doing what they’re doing? How, if at all, might their actions be understood as helping to keep them in power? And finally, can theories about authoritarian governance illuminate these actions further?

You have drawn on a wide range of material, some of it apparently only discovered quite recently – inscriptions, for example. How did you develop your skill-set for this work? Where do the inscriptions originate, and what new evidence do they offer?

I’m not a trained epigrapher, and so I’ve benefited a lot from the work of others in this area–including Profs. P. J. Rhodes and Robin Osborne, also up for the Runciman this year! Epigraphy can be an intimidating field to the non-specialist, but I think it’s the responsibility of ancient historians to do their best to keep up with it, through resources like the Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum and the Bulletin épigraphique. Plus, I personally find it thrilling to work with a newly published inscription: Herodotus has been commented on for several millennia now, but a recently discovered inscription offers an opportunity to say something truly new (which also, of course, might be truly wrong). The inscriptions I use in the book come from both oligarchies themselves and from democracies. Sometimes a single city-state, which went through constitutional alternation between democracy and oligarchy, provides examples of both. The island of Thasos, in the northern Aegean, is particularly rich when it comes to inscriptions of both types. There’s a famous set of laws from an oligarchic regime at Thasos promising rewards to people who inform on anti-oligarchic plots. So there’s a concrete example of an oligarchy attempting to protect itself through legal institutions. Then there is a decree issued by a democratic regime on Thasos, likely after the oligarchy just mentioned fell, which at one point calls for the houses of democratic leaders, which apparently had been torn down by the oligarchs, to be rebuilt. From there I’m able to bring the episode into a broader discussion about conspicuous acts of destruction under oligarchies.

Would you say the task of the ancient historian contrasts with that of a historian dealing with a period closer to our own times? For example, the source material is relatively sparse, and the difficulty of thinking yourself into the mindset of the people of that time must be greater. You have used recent social science research on authoritarianism to inform your approach, and chosen to to view Greek oligarchy as ‘a species of authoritarianism’. Why is that? How do modern ways of looking at politics provide a key to new understanding of the ancients? Is there a risk that you will read too much across from modern theories and situations?

There is definitely always a risk that you’re being anachronistic when introducing modern theories. And I acknowledge that there are major differences between then and now–in particular, the governments which the Greeks called “democracies,” demokratiai, likely look unacceptably restrictive, chauvinist, and belligerent to most people now, to say nothing about slavery. At the same time, I think there’s a core phenomenon that can be compared across time: the attempt by a small group of elites to hold power in the face of a more politically egalitarian alternative. The sorts of issues that come up in a situation like that–how to weaken the opposition; how to trust one another–are common in history. That’s why I think we can label Greek oligarchy a kind of authoritarianism. Some people might point out that ancient democracies were authoritarian, too, in that they denied political power to, among others, female citizens and slaves. I think that’s right, but I also think that democracies did not have to worry about resistance from those groups to the degree that oligarchies had to worry about politically excluded poor men (the demos). That’s where historical context and specificity are important. As for the risk of anachronism, while there is no ancient Greek equivalent for some of the concepts I talk about in the book–“collective action problem”; “clientelism”–the relevant behavior is certainly on display, and can, I think, be explained using the concepts.

Your book addresses a number of highly topical subjects: the control of public space, the manipulation of information, and patron-client relationships, to name but a few, which are techniques used in an oligarchy to keep subjects disorganised and powerless. What parallels can you see with modern regimes, both those that are considered democracies and those that verge on being oligarchic? What is the closest thing to a Greek oligarchy in the modern world?  

My working assumption is that most governments would like to use those kinds of techniques if they thought they could get away with it. So the book is not at all meant to be a matter of “rah-rah, we’re a democracy and these unfortunate people aren’t”–our own government can and sometimes does use these techniques, and so if the book has any practical utility, maybe it could be for people to recognize them and organize against them. When I lived in the Bay Area during graduate school, for example, the subway system, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), shut down cell phone service in order to prevent people from coordinating a protest in San Francisco. This was in the aftermath of the killing of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer. That was outrageous, but at least there was an uproar about it, thanks to reporting. Other countries obviously have worse records on freedom of the press and of assembly. I’m not sure what would be the closest equivalent to a Greek-style oligarchy today; during the Cold War a lot of the South and Central American countries were basically run by parties of wealthy landowners, and working class movements were ruthlessly suppressed. Oligarchy today is more de facto than de jure: lawmakers listening primarily to moneyed interest groups, “dark money” groups supporting pro-elite causes in local politics, things like that.

Oligarchy in the period you write about could be something fairly different from what readers today might think of. We use the term for the quite small number of super-rich Russians, for example. In your analysis, a ruling class of oligarchs could be quite numerous in a Greek city-state, everyone with personal wealth above a certain level. That sounds to us something like government by all higher-rate taxpayers. Do you see any problem with our making the term oligarchy cover such a wide variety of situations? Is that liable to cause confusion?

It could lead to some confusion, yes, but it’s also worth bearing in mind that when we talk about ancient Greek oligarchs, we’re talking about leisured elite citizen men, and so that narrows them down to a tightly closed few right off the bat. When you think about the population of a city-state including citizen women and children, resident foreigners, and enslaved people, then the ruling oligarchs actually become a pretty small and unrepresentative subset of the total number of inhabitants. But it’s true that being an oligarch in ancient Greece was, in many cases, a political and legal category, one that applied to whoever met the relevant wealth criterion, and so more formal than the way we use the word today. I’m interested in the book in the people who actively ruled within oligarchic constitutions, not just extremely rich people, which ancient democracies of course had as well.

Last year on the Runciman short list we had Paul Cartledge’s ‘Democracy’, this year Simonton’s ‘Oligarchy’. Is this a sign of the times?

It’s like Plato’s cycle of constitutions in the Republic, but in reverse! Let’s hope ‘Tyranny’ isn’t extremely relevant next year. I will say for my own part that my next project is on demagoguery, which is experiencing a resurgence right now, to say the least.

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