The Athenian Constitution by Aristotle
Filed under: Book Reviews,Infinite TBR,Reader of the Stack Goes Canonical — Ibis at 7:49 pm on Saturday, August 9, 2008

This book was sent to me as part of Penguin’s Blog a Classic programme.

From the back cover:
“Probably written by a student of Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution is both a history and an analysis of Athens’ political machinery between the seventh and fourth centuries BC, which stands as a model of democracy at a time when city-states operated under differing kinds of government. The writer recounts the major reforms of Solon, the rule of the tyrant Pisistratus and his sons, the emergence of the democracy in which power was shared by all free male citizens, and the leadership of Pericles and the demagogues who followed him. He goes on to examine the city’s administration in his own time — the council, the officials and judicial system. For its information on Athens’ development and how the democracy worked, The Athenian Constitution is an invaluable source of knowledge about this city-state.

P.J. Rhodes’s introduction discusses authorship and sources, and compares this work to those of Aristotle. This edition also includes notes, a chronology, a bibliography, indexes and maps.”

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia entry for Aristotle
the Wikipedia entry for The Athenian Constitution

My thoughts:
I just finished this book. It took quite a lot longer than I expected it too (probably because the notes were as long, if not longer than the original text). Rhodes did a fantastic job of analyzing, translating, and contexualizing the document.

This is what I wrote for Penguin:

I had to laugh when I received this as my selection. I’m currently in the midst of reading the entire works of Aristotle. I was kind of hoping for something completely outside of my normal fare, but I guess it’s a good thing that it was I who got this instead of someone who has no interest or background knowledge of classical Greece.

So anyway, the first thing is that this was not likely written by Aristotle himself, but rather by a student of his, perhaps as an assignment. The very good, very informative introduction by editor and translator P.J. Rhodes gives a great analysis of what led scholars to that conclusion. The intro also discusses the author’s sources, the interpolated Chapter 4, and the style of the original Greek.

Rhodes’ name doesn’t appear on the front cover but really I think it should because the book wouldn’t be half as interesting without his introduction, synopses, notes, and back matter (including sections on weights & measures, chronology, glossary, maps etc.).

He’s divided the original into sections according to periods in the history of Athens, giving each section an introduction summarizing the content and comparing it to what we know from other sources like Thucydides. Each chapter has a corresponding endnote which gives further details, evaluates the historical accuracy of the content, and, in a few instances, provides an illustration of something mentioned by the author.

I wouldn’t expect many people to run out to buy this book to read it for fun, but anyone who is reading this to gain knowledge about the history of Athens or political systems will be gratified with this edition of The Athenian Constitution. I have no way to evaluate the translation, but I expect even those who can read the original Greek would find in this Penguin a valuable resource.

Now that I’m actually finished, the only thing I really need to add is that it was very interesting to read both the historical evolution of the Athenian form of government as well as the mechanisms established to allot offices and juries. We call what we have a democracy, but compared to the democracy of ancient Athens (when they did have democracy), it doesn’t seem democratic at all (rather more like an oligarchy).

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