Book Review: Democracy's Beginning: The Athenian Story


by Thomas N. Mitchell

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. Pp. xvi, 352. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $40.00. ISBN: 0300215037

Athens and the Origins of Democracy

Prof. Mitchell (Trinity, Dublin) reexamines the rise and history of “the democracy” at Athens.

Mitchell begins with a look at the nature of the Greek poleis and how its evolution fostered the growth of “democracy” in the sense of participation in government by the body of adult male citizens. He then concentrates on the origins of the democracy at Athens, and how the building of a fleet not only led to its triumphs in the Persian Wars, but also to the broadest based democracy in the Greek world. Of course the democracy and the fleet also led to imperialist expansion, which financed the “Golden Age”, largely through by the city’s subject-allies. The rise of empire, of course, led to the rivalry with Sparta, which in turn led to the disastrous Peloponnesian War, with the city brought low and democracy replaced by a reactionary oligarchy by the end of the Fifth Century. But Mitchell doesn’t stop there. He explores the revival of democracy during the early Fourth Century BC.

While much of this is well trodden ground, Mitchell often offers substantial and valuable food for thought. He discusses the limitations and abuses of "the democracy" at Athens, not just imperialism, but also intolerance.  And he argues that the rise of Athenian imperialism was at least in part the result of fear, initially of the Persians, later of the Spartans, and still later, fear of appearing weak, a fear that has caused many other great powers to make great blunders. He also points out that in addition to opening the way to the outstanding Athenian achievements in the arts and learning, the rise of the democracy sparked progress in many other aspects of life, such as the economy, military practice, technology, and more.

While perhaps at times rather too rosy about Athenian democracy, and the life of the poleis in general, this is a good read for anyone interested in the roots of democracy or the Golden Age.

Note: Democracy’s Beginning, is also available as an e-Book, ISBN 978-0-3002-1735-3.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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