Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones in the BBC History Magazine, June 2005

The Athenians invented radical democracy in 508 BC, in which all decisions about the running of the state were taken by the vote of citizen males over 18 meeting in Assembly once every eight days. Athens was also at the forefront of the 5thC BC intellectual revolution which made man the measure of all things and demanded that the world be explained in humanly intelligible terms, without reference to gods.

What role, then, remained for the ancient gods in the running of the state's affairs? In particular, how could rationalising Athenians debating issues in Assembly have the slightest interest in prophetic oracles uttered by an ignorant peasant woman in the shrine of Apollo at Delphi? This is the question that Hugh Bowden takes on in his clear, straightforward and blessedly jargon-free analysis of the workings of the Delphic oracle and its relationship with Athens.

His answer is unambiguous. Athenians took it for granted, he argues, that the security of the state depended on the good will of the gods. Democratic Athens, which was said to have had far more religious festivals than any contemporary city, went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that they were punctiliously carried out at every level since that was the only way to guarantee that harvests would not fail and the city could be successfully defended from attack - the two crucial indices of survival in the ancient world where farming and fighting were man's primary occupations. Bowden concludes 'The Athenian democracy was above all a system for establishing and enforcing the will of the gods'.

That 'above all' is, I think, a little excessive. It is not as if Athenian democracy was founded with the prime purpose of doing something about lapses in religious observance. It might also be objected that none of the 28 recorded Athenian consultations of Delphi that took place from the early sixth-century to c. 300 BC made the Assembly change its mind. But that is to miss the point. The oracle was consulted and obeyed on problems which only the gods could solve: the onset of plague, observations of portents or prodigies, the establishment of cults in new colonies, the right way to worship, and when the situation was desperate (e.g. the Persian attack on Athens in 479 BC, though Bowden argues that the famous 'wooden wall' oracle was fictional but accepted by Herodotus to heighten the drama of the story).

So Bowden is right to insist that religion was central to the Athenian democracy. The Assembly knew what was in its power to solve and what had to be left to the gods. It was no insult to the authority of Olympus or the democracy to make that distinction.

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