Herodotean Democracies

Citation with persistent identifier:

Schlosser, Joel Alden. “Herodotean Democracies.” CHS Research Bulletin 5, no. 1 (2016). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:SchlosserJ.Herodotean_Democracies.2016


1§1 To study the past, let alone antiquity, at a time when present challenges are both stupendously urgent and complex beyond understanding often feels quite dissonant. How can we possible turn our backs on what’s happening right now to think about ancient history? This feeling has been especially strong in 2016. After a summer of violence around the world and the absurdity of the American presidential contest, autumn was rude: American politics are no longer entertaining but profoundly disturbing (at least for many of us); Europe’s hospitality toward refugees has flagged and begun to turn; violence scars the world’s landscape ever more deeply; and the unseasonable weather continues. I could describe so much more in the contemporary moment that deserves attention. The predicament of humankind today is simply overwhelming.

1§2 Gripped and pulled under by the present, it’s easy to feel at a loss. I want to respond to this force by invoking and exploring the past in a Nietzschean vein – as critical history for the sake of the how we live now.[1] This will involve not tracing how we got to where we are but instead bringing a particular history to bear on a keyword and set of background assumptions in the contemporary moment. Doing so, I hope to disrupt some of the settled wisdom about this particular feature – namely, democracy and that it’s the best possible political regime – while also showing the usefulness of philology, history, and imagination for thinking about politics when the present seems most complicated and unique. In brief, I want to suggest that democracy is much more than a set of political institutions – say, “free and fair elections” or constitutional checks and balances – and that examining one account of various democracies can refocus us on the foundational political principle of democratic life – equality – such that we can begin to imagine a variety of political regimes where equality could flourish.

1§3 I turn to Herodotus’ Histories to develop this argument. In the course of chronicling the wars between the Greeks and the Persians, the Histories appear to offer the first definition of democracy. But this first definition of democracy has a strange inconsistency: the initial description does not actually use the word for democracy, dêmokratia; only later in the book does the narrator then redescribe the earlier passage in terms of dêmokratia.  Once we apply a little philological scrutiny to the word in question, we recognize that democracy is not a singular phenomenon but a plural one. Rather than indicating one particular kind of regime, dêmokratia can take multiple forms. What unites these forms is equality, which appears in terms such as isonomia, equality of laws, isêgoria, or equality of speech, and isokratia, or equality of power. Beneath democracy lies equality yet equality does not support only one style of democracy.

1§4 What does this mystery about democracy mean? In the second half of my essay, I propose two ways of approaching this question: first, by considering the context of the writing and circulation of the Histories in the ancient Mediterranean; second, by imagining how to translate this mystery to politics today.

1§5 The context of the writing and circulation of the Histories was one of an insurgent Athenian empire empowered by its successes against the Persians. The centrality of Athens to the global political story of the second half of the fifth century BCE as well as Athens’ importance in Herodotus’ narrative of the wars that ended in its first half have led many scholars to argue that Herodotus meant to address the Athenians of his day. This is a sensible approach, yet it unduly constrains the political possibilities of Herodotus’ context. Once we recognize democracy’s mystery, we can open up the political teachings of the Histories to include a broader variety of regimes, what I call Herodotus’ ecologies of freedom: various systems of environment, culture, and political institutions built on equality and supporting the freedom of their participants. The pan-Hellenic colony of Thurii where Herodotus probably ended his life offers an alternative framework for considering the political meaning of the Histories beyond a warning (or an encomium) to Athens.

1§6 Translating the mystery of democracy to politics today involves our political imagination. The Histories challenge us to envision ecologies of freedom unconstrained by the assumption that democracy comes in only one particular form. There are varieties of democracy; moreover, there are various ways of realizing the promise of political equality. Herodotus calls attention to deliberation and counsel as key political practices for sustaining a free regime under any conditions. I connect Herodotus to the Participatory Budgeting process of Port Alegre, Brazil to illustrate how ecologies of freedom can be actualized to expand our notions of democracy and re-install equality as the foundation of free political regimes.


2§1 The mystery of dêmokratia in Herodotus appears in Books III and VI of the Histories. The first and most famous description of democracy, but one that lacks the word, comes with Otanes’ speech in the Constitutional Debate of Book III. Here are the key passages from Book III:

Five days later, when the excitement had died down, the conspirators met to discuss the situation in detail. At the meeting certain speeches were made – some of the Greeks refuse to believe that they were actually made at all; nevertheless they were. The first speaker was Otanes, and his theme was to recommend the establishment in Persia of popular government [es meson Persêsisi katatheina ta prêgmata]. (3.80.1)[2]

Contrast this with the rule of the people [plêthos de archon]: first, it has the finest of all names to describe it – equality under law [isonomiên]; and, secondly, the people in power do none of the things that monarchs do. Under a government of the people a magistrate is appointed by lot and is held responsible for his conduct in office, and all questions are put up for open debate. For these reasons I propose that we do away with monarchy, and raise the people to power [to plêthos aexein]; for the state and the people are synonymous terms [en gar tôi pollôi eni ta panta]. (3.80.3)

2§2 In the first passage, the narrator of the Histories describes Otanes’ theme as putting the affairs of the Persians into public, literally “to the middle” (es meson). The second passage, which is the end of Otanes’ speech, elaborates this general description without using its specific vocabulary. Otanes describes the rule of the people with two different words, both meaning the greater number or the majority: plêthos and polloi. Otanes organizes these general concepts beneath the “finest of all names,” isonomia.[3] Beneath these general concepts are three specific political institutions: appointment of a magistrate by lot [palôi men archas archei]; procedures of accountability [hupeuthunon de archên echei]; and mandating that all questions be put up for open debate [bouleumata de panta es ton koinon anapherei].

2§3 Dêmokratia does not appear either in the narrator’s introduction to Otanes’ speech nor in the speech itself; the subsequent speeches of Megabyzos and Darius also do not mention dêmokratia. Instead, they echo Otanes’ chosen vocabulary of plêthos while adding more disparaging terms for the many. Advocating oligarchic rule, Megabyzos calls the many an “unwieldy rabble” – homilous achrêios, 81.1 – and wishes this evil only on the enemies of the Persians (81.3). Defending the Persian tradition of monarchy, Darius argues that the dêmos is powerless to prevent popular divisions self-seeking leaders will exploit, winning the admiration of the demos and taking power for themselves (82.4).

2§4 The puzzle about dêmokratia in Herodotus’ Histories appears when the narrator refers again to Otanes’ speech in Book VI. The Persian general Mardonios is sent by Darius to subdue the Ionians.

When in the course of his voyage along the Asiatic coast he reached Ionia, he did something which will come as a great marvel to those Greeks who cannot believe that Otanes declared to the seven conspirators that Persia should have a democratic government [hôs chreon einê dêmokrateesthai]: he suppressed the tyrants in all the Ionian states and set up democratic institutions in their place [dêmokratias katista es tas polias]. (6.43)

2§5 Twice the narrator uses dêmokratia here: once to describe Otanes’ speech and once again to name what institutions Mardonios set up in place of the tyrannies he vanquished. Here’s the puzzle: Why does the narrator so emphatically re-describe Otanes’ speech as declaring that Persia should have a dêmokratia when the speech itself contains no such reference?

2§6 The general scholarly response to this question has been to ignore or deny it. Ehrenberg describes the Histories as using the two expressions dêmokratia and isonomia “indiscriminately.”[4] Asheri punts, arguing that while “not a synonym,” isonomia “corresponds . . . to democracy.”[5] I want to suggest, on the contrary, that the narrator’s recasting of Otanes’ speech introduces a subtle yet important discrimination among various forms or qualities of democracy in the text.[6]

2§7 Dêmokratia and its cognates appear just four times in the Histories.[7] The word is used first in the context of the Ionians, once when the narrator employs it to describe Cleisthenes’ reforms in Athens, and twice, as we have seen, to discuss the Persians and the Ionians at the same time. In Book IV, when the Ionians deliberate about the Scythians’ offer to destroy the bridge linking Asia to Europe and thus trap the Persians and free themselves from Persian rule, the Ionian leader, Histiaeus of Miletus introduces the idea of democracy.

Miltiades the Athenian, who was tyrant of the Chersonese on the Hellespont and in command of its contingent, expressed the opinion that they should take the Scythians’ advice, and so liberate Ionia; he was opposed, however, by Histiaeus of Miletus, who pointed out that each one of them owed his position as tyrant to Darius, and, in the event of Darius’ fall, he himself would be unable to maintain his power at Miletus, nor would any of the rest of them. Each state would be sure to turn against tyranny, and choose democracy. The meeting had begun by supporting Miltiades; but no sooner had Histiaeus put forward this view than everyone present changed his mind and it was unanimously adopted. (4.137)

2§8 In its first appearance in the Histories, dêmokratia comes framed by a contrast similar to Otanes’ speech: it is preferable to tyranny; it is also desired by the people – here “by each polis” (hekastê tôn poliôn) – but not by tyrants who wish to maintain their power. Yet paradoxically, these democracies are the potential projects of tyrants, a logic that echoes Otanes’ proposal in the Constitutional Debate.

2§9 The affinities between dêmokratia for the Persians and dêmokratia for the Ionians are highlighted by the use of another common term: isonomia. After the first mention of isonomia in Otanes’ speech, it appears twice more in the context of Ionian tyrants: Maeandrius, the man appointed by the tyrant of Samos, Polykrates, to superintend the territory during his absence; and Aristagoras, the deputy ruler of Miletus who helps incite the Ionian revolt against the Persians. In both instances, isonomia is introduced much as it was proposed by Otanes. And similarly to what happened in the Constitutional Debate, isonomia does not take root: Maeandrius drops his proposal after a townsperson demands an accounting of the money under his control (3.142); Aristagoras departs, leaving generals in charge, and soon the Ionians have tyrants installed once again (5.37).

2§10 Reading Otanes’ speech and the narrator’s redescription of it as well as the episodes of Miltiades, Maeandrius, and Aristagoras illuminates an association of dêmokratia and isonomia: both are anti-tyrannical; both are also descriptions of the political order meant to take the tyranny’s place. Taken together these passages suggest a theory of isonomic democracy: a democracy that is instituted in place of tyrants; one that calls itself the political realization of equality under law. Yet these examples also suggest that isonomic democracy names political regime that seems much more easily talked about than actually practiced. None of these regimes lasts.


3§1 This is not the only story of dêmokratia in the Histories. The Athenian regime following Cleisthenes’ reforms is also described as a dêmokratia. Like the possible democracies in Persia and Ionia, this democracy is instituted. However, the context here suggests an important difference in the kind of democracy and thus an implicit distinction between isonomic democracy and other varieties of democratic regimes.

Such is the story of the Trial of the Suitors, and this was the way in which the Alcmaeonidae came to be talked of throughout Greece. The issue of the marriage was that Cleisthenes (named after his grandfather, Cleisthenes of Sicyon) who reorganized the Athenian tribes and instituted the democracy in Athens [tên dêmokratiên Athênaioisi katastêsas]. (6.131)

3§2 Here Cleisthenes’ reorganization of the Athenian tribes is juxtaposed with the institution of democracy. Indeed, the same verb applies both to the tribes and to the democracy: both are set up. But there’s a crucial difference in the setting up. At this point in the narrative of the Histories, we have already read the story of Cleisthenes’ involvement with the Athenian democracy: when Cleisthenes found himself competing with other potential leaders for power, he “took the people into his party” (ho Kleisthenês on dêmon prosetairizetai, 5.66). The verb here is in the middle voice, suggesting an activity between interdependent parties. Put a bit awkwardly and more literally: Cleisthenes takes on for himself the people as friends or associates. Then, the narrative continues, Cleisthenes created the ten tribes and gave them new names. The project of setting up the democracy intimately involved these political and institutional moments of reciprocity and collaboration.[8]

3§3 According to the language of the Histories, this democracy is not isonomic. That is, isonomia is only used in Otanes’ speech and the efforts of Miltiades and Aristagoras. Instead, the Athenian democracy following Cleisthenes’ reforms has its own corresponding language of equality: equal voice (isêgoria) and equal power (isokratia). The differences among these iso- compounds suggests important distinctions among Herodotean democracies.

3§4 After the Athenians are freed from their tyrants, the narrator explains its strength in terms of isêgoria:

Thus Athens went from strength to strength, and proved, if proof were needed, how noble a thing equality before the law [isêgoriê] is, not in one respect only, but in all: for while they were oppressed under tyrants, they had no better success in war than any of their neighbors, yet, once the yoke was flung off, they proved the finest fighters in the world. This clearly shows that, so long as they were held down by authority, they deliberately shirked their duty in the field, as slaves shirk working for their masters; but when freedom was won, then every man amongst them was interested in his own cause. (5.78)

3§5 This sole use of isêgoria in the entire Histories seems worthy of pause, but few scholars have examined it.[9] The logic of isêgoria appears different in important respects from that of isonomia. The emphasis is not on something institutionalized but rather a broader political culture: isêgoria creates the conditions where everyone strives for what is best, with the assumed reward being theirs; yet while each pursues his own cause, this leads to the strength of the whole. Isêgoria makes possible collective self-actualization.

3§6 The invocation of isêgoria at this particular moment also seems odd. There is no obvious logical connection between free speech and the defeat of the Boeotians and Chalcidians.[10] Yet the narrator notes that the proof of isêgoria’s strength comes in all respects – the military victories only give one piece of evidence. The context of this assertion shows another, broader set of reasons, namely, the Athenian people’s ability to gather and respond to urgent matters. After Cleisthenes has enlisted the people, he retires from the city on his own accord. Cleomenes, the Spartan king intent on restoring the tyranny, marches into the city. Banishing 700 Athenian households specified by Isagoras (the would-be tyrant of Athens), Cleomenes seeks to dissolve the council and place powers in the 300 partisans of Isagoras.

The Council resisted, and refused to obey his orders, whereupon he, together with Isagoras and his party, occupied the Acropolis. This united the rest of Athens against them; they were blockaded in the Acropolis for two days, but on the day after, a truce was made, and all of them who were Lacedaemonians were allowed to leave the country. . . . He [Cleomenes] and his Spartans were flung out. The rest were put in prison by the Athenians and executed . . . (5.72)

3§7 This event amounts to a re-installing of the democracy but without a specific leader standing behind it. Just as the passage praising isêgoria notes how the Athenians were previously in servitude, the story of their flinging out Cleomenes and his Spartans contrasts with the inability of the Athenians to respond coherently against previous tyrants such as Peisistratus, who triple-duped them to gain his power (1.59 – 1.64). Isêgoria means equality to participate in public life; its strength lies in the collective activity it unleashes.

3§8 Athens also earns another distinctive name for its equality: isokratia. Freed from the tyrants, Athens demonstrates its strength with immediate conquests of the Boeotians and the Chalcidians. The Spartans begin to wish to restore the Athenian tyranny lest the Athenians come to match their own strength and influence. The Spartans summon their allies and Sokleas, a Corinthian, speaks against the restoration.

 “Upon my word, gentlemen,” he exclaimed, “this is like turning the universe upside-down. Earth and sky will soon be changing places – men will be living in the sea and fish on land, now that you Spartans are proposing to abolish popular government [isokratias kataluontes] and restore despotism in the cities. Believe me, there is nothing wickeder or bloodier in the world than tyranny.” (5.92)

3§9 Sokleas proceeds to describe the horrors of the tyranny in Corinth, illustrating his claim against it. Much like isonomia and isêgoria, isokratia is set off in contrast to tyranny. Yet these are not identical terms.[11] The narrative context suggests a distinction: isokratia involves not the individual’s pursuit of his own cause that redounds to the good of the whole but instead the equal power of each individual that leads to collective strength. The Spartans’ abolition of isokratia would turn the world upside-down because this would involve destroying their own principle of political organization and success.[12]

3§10 What does isokratia actually involve? Sokleas’ story offers a negative illustration. Periander, one of the tyrants Sokleas describes, learned his bloody ways from Thrasybulus, the tyrant of Miletus. Periander sent a representative to Thrasybulus to ask his opinion on how best and most safely to govern his city. Inviting the envoy to walk with him from the city to a field where wheat was growing, Thrasybulus conversed with him, asking questions about why he had come while cutting off all the tallest ears of wheat he could see, and throwing them away, until the finest and best-grown part of the crop was ruined. The representative returned to Periander with this story of apparent madness, but Periander grasped its meaning immediately: Thrasybulus had recommended murdering all the people in the city who stood above the rest; Periander took the advice and “from that time forward there was no crime against the Corinthians he did not commit” (5.92).

3§11 Isokratia, we might infer from this story, involves planting a field where no wheat grows taller than the rest. Before genetically-modified crops this might seem impossible, but here the analogy breaks down: specific educational regimes can create such conditions, as the Spartans demonstrate; the customs and culture (or nomoi), in other words, can produce equality and prevent a Periander from ever arising.[13]

3§12 The likening of Athens to Sparta by Sokleas suggests a broader point applicable to isonomia, isêgoria and isokratia. These are general terms and not particular to Athens’ style of democracy. Persians, Ionians, Athenians, and Spartans can all have some variety of one of the three, although each has its specific emphasis. Isonomia names a principle of political equality; isêgoria invokes the need for deliberation and the effectiveness of equal voice in promoting individual efforts for the common weal; the equal power involved in isokratia prevents the rise of tyrants while promoting strength of collective action.


4§1 The distinctions among different forms of equality and their applicability not just to democracies but to other non-tyrannical regimes changes the meaning of Herodotean politics. In the first place, Herodotus’ use of isêgoria and isokratia and not isonomia to describe Athens could be taken as a veiled critique of the emptiness of the rhetoric of isonomia (and even its institutions) in the Athens of his day.[14] This critique may connect with Herodotus’ revision of the founding legend of the tyrannicides: as the song of Harmodius associates the tyrant-slaying with making Athens isonomous so Herodotus believes these acts only exacerbate Athens’ suffering under the tyrants (5.55 and 6.123). Herodotus may also have intended to include Pericles and the Athenian empire in his criticisms, as the Histories associate isonomia with leaders using the term in potentially manipulative ways and with imperialism as antithetical to the popular movements that support freedom.

4§2 There is a broader significance to this reading of Herodotean democracies. Given that the Histories show the possibility of equality in many different regimes, Herodotus implies a distinction between democratic and non-democratic equality.[15] The Spartans enjoy a kind of isokratia while being governed with a quasi-oligarchical government. The first (and only other) use of this term comes during the descriptions of the various peoples of Scythia. Describing the Issedones, the narrator writes:

In other respects the Issedones appear to have a sound sense of justice and among them men and women have equal authority [isokratees de homoiôs hai gunaikes toisi andrasi]. (4.37).

4§3 We know very little else about the Issedones other than their position in northern climes not regarded by many as conducive to free government. This may be an isokratia within a kingship.[16]

4§4 My reading of Herodotean democracies thus suggests that good government is possible anywhere – insofar as we assume good government involves “the most beautiful of names,” isonomia or its sister concepts isêgoria and isokratia. These forms of equality may be realized through democratic regimes, but also through oligarchies and perhaps even kingships. These concepts share an anti-tyrannical orientation yet they differ in their practical, cultural, and institutional implications. Equality (iso– ) helps to prevent tyranny yet can be realized in a variety of ways.

4§5 This “anywhere” is an important Herodotean insight, but it’s also not unqualified. Unlike the Hippocratic writers of his era, Herodotus does not defend a unidirectional relationship where climate determines political regime. The variety of democracies reflects a variety of customs, cultures, and laws – nomoi – where these arise. As Thomas puts it, “democracy is a nomos.” How this nomos is inflected by environment, both human and non-human, serves as the subject of much of the Histories.[17] Yet the contrast between the successful Athenian and the failed Ionian revolutions does suggest that setting up – to borrow the term to describe Cleisthenes’ deed – a regime based on equality requires particular circumstances. The Ionians may want freedom yet they cannot organize themselves to grasp it (4.142). Their geographic position also places them in the middle of the Mediterranean crossfire.

4§6 The success of the Athenians points to an underlying political logic across the Histories.

4§7 Recall that the narrator praises Athens’ isêgoria not for its intrinsic value but rather for the freedom it won. Freedom, eleutheria, is the chief political virtue for Herodotus; practices of equality, like isêgoria, we might add, are its instruments. It may be that while the Histories present a critical evaluation of the Athens of its day, this critique also acknowledges Athens’ fortunate position: the Athenians have sufficiently united to affirm and sustain their freedom whereas the Persians could not sustain the unity that brought them freedom in the first place.[18] It cannot be coincidental that the praise of Athens’ isêgoria and isokratia occurs just as the democratic revolution has taken place.

4§8 Moreover, despite possessing isokratia, the Issedones and the Spartans both lack isêgoria – this further sets the Athenians apart. The Spartans also serve their nomoi as a dêspotes, a master, unlike the Athenians. The Athenians adopt new nomoi in the form of Kleisthenes’ reorganization. Unlike any other community in the Histories, we encounter multiple iterations of nomoi with the Athenians: Solon’s reforms, the beneficial tyranny of Peisistratus, the harsher tyrants subsequently, and the democratic moment when Kleisthenes and the people unite.

4§9 On the other hand (and to return to the possible critique of Athens contained within the treatment of the tyrannicides and implicit criticism of isonomia), we might speculate that what took Herodotus to Thurii was the opportunity to construct a polity that improved on Athens. Thurii could have developed beyond a mere commitment to equality of law to create and sustain robust practices of equal participation (isêgoriê) and equal influence (isokratia). The lack of a Periclean leader and the attention to an architecture that would support continuous practices of political equality further suggest this. The Histories show us again and again just how integral equality is to individual and communal flourishing.


5§1 How can these reflections on Herodotean democracies speak to the present? Here a more imaginative undertaking begins. Let me put the question differently: How can we translate the historical particularities – not to mention peculiarities – across space and time? Political theorists for generations have argued about the possibility and productivity of doing so. Yet it happens nonetheless and isonomia has entered, albeit softly, the vocabulary of contemporary political theorizing.[19]

5§2 Some scholars have already begun to connect isonomia to the concept of the public sphere in modern politics.[20] Building on Josiah Ober’s explanation of how the Athenian dêmos sustained “the capacity to do things,” John Lombardini suggests that the “diffusion of power” effected by isonomia can disrupt the traditional insistence on a democratic constitution that limits and orders the powers of the dêmos. Isonomia instead emphasizes the political achievement of equality under the law as a public achievement; sustaining this depends on continuing to protect equality through participation in public life.

5§3 Connecting isonomia to a free and equal public sphere does begin to translate one form of equality from the ancient world to the present, yet this does not come to terms with the implicit critique of isonomia in the Histories nor the contrasts with isêgoria and isokratia. Isonomia may be a mere name, a way of covering up real inequalities of voice and influence. As students of American politics know, when a president calls for a “national conversation” about a given issue, this amounts to refusing to take action. Punting an issue into the public sphere often has very little effect.

5§4 Let me suggest an alternative translation to envision what Herodotean democracies might mean today.

5§5 Participatory budgeting was created in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, by the Workers Party following the end of the military dictatorship and the party’s victory in municipal elections in 1988.[21] The structure is complex but the essence involves three layers:

  • Assemblies open to all residents in the neighborhoods of the 16 regions in the city where citizens debate and vote on budget priorities and also elect representatives to the next level.
  • Regional Budget Forums open to all citizens as observers but where these elected representatives consider investment priorities developed in neighborhood assemblies and draw up priorities for their regions.
  • The Municipal Budget Council, also open to all citizens as observers, to which two councilors are elected by each regional forum which decides the distribution of investment funds across the city. After the mayor has accepted the budget, the Municipal Budget Council also debates and decides the distributive rules governing the following year’s participatory budget.

5§6 By distributing, graduating, and making the power and authority of participants effective, participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre strikes me as a superlative translation of isokratia and isêgoria. In terms of isokratia, it creates and sustains conditions of equal power – not just equality in name, under the law, but equality in practice. It also balances a radical democratic openness with practices of consultation and direct authority and accountability. Similar to the organization of Athenian tribes and deme-level institutions, this model shows how local and trans-local organizations can support equality while also producing effective outcomes.

5§7 Participatory budgeting also provides an effective translation of isêgoria. Isokratia puts emphasis on power; isêgoria directs our attention to how people participate as individuals to support collective life. The participatory aspect of participatory budgeting enlists individuals as experts on their own needs and desires and puts them into a process where they are motivated to pursue desirable collective outcomes.

5§8 If isonomia can function as a slogan for equality that hides actual inequality, the translation of isêgoria and isokratia in the participatory budgeting model provides a path for realizing the promise of equality. Yet as the pluralism of Herodotean democracies should remind us, this is only one particular way. Indeed, participatory budgeting exists in different forms around the world.[22] Citizen juries, citizen assemblies, and citizen councils also provide similar practices, each with its variation on the participatory emphasis of isêgoria or the powerful emphasis of isokratia.

5§9 Herodotean democracies, however, do also show areas where participatory budgeting could go forward. Otanes’ institutions of isonomia offer some points of resistance: Although some participatory budgeting processes use lotteries to allocate delegates, most rely on elections, which diminishes the breadth of democratic participation; accountability mechanisms could also be strengthened to ensure that the ultimate decision-makers bear responsibility for their actions; participatory budgeting, moreover, needs to be combined with broader democratic reforms that ensure equality in all meaningful political deliberations, not just those affecting the budget.[23]

5§10 Students of ancient political thought tend to focus on democracy as the cynosure of political thinking but in the action of the Histories we see much more emphasis on the practices, cultures, and institutions associated with isonomia, isêgoria, and isokratia. This suggests both a complicated critique of the Athens of Herodotus’ day as well as much more openness about forms of equality than scholars have recognized. Considering the politics within and without the Histories leads us to appreciate democratic innovations like the participatory budgeting of Porto Alegre. Such innovations are part of the tradition of political equality; they show one way of actualizing the promises of equality contained with those beautiful words: isonomia, isêgoria, isokratia. Herodotus’ Histories call our attention to equality as a problem and a challenge: as a slogan like isonomia, equality can be a way to ignore real inequalities or obstacles to the realization of the rule of the people; yet it nonetheless appears imperative to the realization of this very rule. We would do well to worry less about leadership and institutions and more about power and participation. As Nietzsche puts it: “Only he who constructs the future has a right to judge the past.”[24] Let us build.


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Schlosser, J. A. 2014. What Would Socrates Do? Self-examination, civic-engagement, and the politics of philosophy. Cambridge.

———. “Herodotean Materialism.” Unpublished manuscript.

———. “Nomos is King: Herodotus and the Politics of Freedom.” Unpublished manuscript.

de Sélincourt, A. 1996. Herodotus: The Histories, ed J. Marincola, revised edition. New York.

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———. 1964. “Isonomia Politike.” Isonomia: Studien zur Gleichheitsvorstellung im Griechischen Denken, ed. J. Mau, 1–36. Berlin.

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[1] As Nietzsche puts it in “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life”: “every man and every nation requires, in accordance with its goals, energies and needs, a certain kind of knowledge of the past, now in the form of monumental, now of antiquarian, now of critical history: but it does not require it as a host of pure thinkers who only look on at life, of knowledge-thirsty individuals whom knowledge alone will satisfy and to whom the accumulation of knowledge is itself the goal, but always and only for the ends of life and thus also under the domination and supreme direction of these ends” (Nietzsche 1997: 77).

[2] Sélincourt 1973 for the translation. Greek references to Hude 1990 [1908].

[3] Otanes uses the Ionic “isonomiê” but for ease of reference I will transliterate this as isonomia throughout.

[4] He uses “indiscriminately” twice and also refers to these two terms as “practically interchangeable”: Ehrenberg 1950:526 – 527 and 530. See also Robinson 1997: 48.

[5] Asheri 2007:474.

[6] Connor 1992 notices the puzzle but argues that “there are very few instances in the entire debate when demokratia could have been as appropriately used as the alternative expressions” (204). Connor does not, however, say much more than Vlastos 1953 and Vlastos 1964 about the difference.

[7] The two forms are nominal – dêmokratia – meaning “a democracy” and verbal – dêmokrateomai – meaning “to be democratic. Dêmos appears much more frequently – 55 times according to Powell 1938 – but this always indicates a specific group of people and not democracy in a general sense.

[8] My reading follows Ober 1993 here, although I don’t wish to take a side on the controversial question of when Athens actually became democratic by today’s metrics. Note Raaflaub’s response to Ober as well as Ober’s response to Raaflaub’s response in Morris and Raaflaub 1997.

[9] Nakategawa 1998 is the one exception. Saxonhouse 1996 has some discussion as does Henderson 1998.

[10] As Ostwald 1969:109n2 points out.

[11] Euben 1978 assimilates these concepts. Lombardini 2013 calls for parsing.

[12] Ostwald 1972.

[13] That Sokleas could liken the Athenians’ isokratia to the Spartans’ suggests that the innovations of Cleisthenes had a deeper effect on political culture than many intrepreters have recognized. These did not just create effective institutions for devolving power but rather transformed the dêmos into a political unit capable of sustaining equality.

[14] The argument here would run alongside the popular revisionist argument by Strasburger 1955 that Herodotus was not an apologist for Pericles.

[15] Pace Saxonhouse who argues that “crux of the ancient perspective of democracy” consists in “the sharing of power” as “the answer to the problem of identifying the best ruler in a community of equals ”(Saxonhouse 1996:49).

[16] If we follow Hartog 1988 that only kingships are possible in these climes.

[17] I discuss this further in Schlosser, “Herodotean Materialism.”

[18] For more on the differences between Greek and Persian freedom as well as the logic underlying freedom across the Histories, see Schlosser, “Nomos is King.”

[19] Wolin 1996.

[20] Arendt 1963: 30. Euben 1978, Lombardini 2013. Cf. Schlosser 2014 and Landauer 2016.

[21] Drawing on Smith 2009 and Pateman 2012.

[22] See maps and discussion in Sintomer et al. 2010.

[23] See further discussion in Danaher et al. 2007.

[24] Nietzsche 1997:94.