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The Point of a Politeia: Changing Conceptions of Regimen and Regime from 450 to 350 BCE

  • Author(s): McLeod, Derin Bennet
  • Advisor(s): Ferrari, G.R.F. (John)
  • et al.


The Point of a Politeia: Changing Conceptions of Regimen and Regime from 450 to 350 BCE


Derin Bennet McLeod

Doctor of Philosophy in Classics

University of California, Berkeley

Professor G.R.F. (John) Ferrari, Chair

This dissertation provides a conceptual history of politeia from its origins in the second half of the fifth century BCE down through the middle of the fourth century BCE. In the period under consideration, politeia shows a wide range of meanings. It can describe the function or condition of a politēs (‘citizenship’) or his activities (‘daily life of a citizen’) but also the ‘government or administration’ of a city or the ‘constitution’ or ‘form of government’ of a city. In order to explain this pattern of usage, building on the methodological insights Reinhart Koselleck, Quentin Skinner, and R.G. Collingwood as discussed in the introduction, I explain why and to what ends people began and continued to talk about politeia.

In chapter one, I suggest that people first began talking about politeia in the context of descriptions of the supposedly unusual features of the Spartan way of life, which they said were part of the Spartan politeia. Building on tropes of sympotic literature that discussed sympotic practices as a mode of ethical orientation, they sought to intervene in ubiquitous debates about the merits of nomos as opposed to physis. Politeia, and more particularly Lacedaimoniōn Politeia—the “title” for such works—provided a third banner in such debates and a way of responding to the individualist concern with control and independence associated with praise of physis. They did so by pointing out the importance of things outside a person’s control, especially his breeding and education, in forming that person and making him and all those like him best and strongest in the way those praising physis claimed to want to be.

In chapter two, I argue that precisely such controversies lie behind Herodotus’ unexpected use of the term politeia in his stories of the seers Teisamenos and Hegesistratus (Hdt. 9.33-37). The stories, read alongside other passages in the History, reflect Herodotus’ skepticism about both the unmitigated drive for control and independence associated with physis and the notion that a person could only be shaped by an extended, arduous process outside his control. Furthermore, details in the story of Teisamenos direct our attention to the similarity between the promises of the Lacedaimoniōn Politeiai and the position of the dual Spartan kings, each of whom would be superlative. I argue that the Spartan kings help us see a problem with the promises of the Lacedaimoniōn Politeiai: for one person to be the best or the strongest he must be better than others. I finally argue that the Constitutional Debate (Hdt. 3.80-82), though decidedly not conceived as being about politeiai, suggests the importance of having a ruling entity that is at once both unified and plural.

In chapter three, I consider how politeia as a heading for descriptions of all the features of Spartan life came also to center more particularly on who ruled in a city. I suggest that in the Old Oligarch we can see a plausible explanation: when the question at the heart of the Lacedaimoniōn Politeiai—how did these people become so powerful—was asked about the people of Athens, the answer couldn’t be in virtue of their breeding or education because aristocratic audiences assumed that the Athenian dēmos lacked any sort of breeding or education. The answer therefore had to be that they were powerful just in virtue of their position in the city; from that position they could shape all the elements of civic life at issue in the Lacedaimoniōn Politeiai but would not be shaped by them. By contrast, the funeral oration that Thucydides puts in Pericles’ mouth (Th. 2.35-46) encourages the people of Athens to focus on their power but to conceive their power not in terms of ruling or setting the terms of civic life but rather in realizing their interests. It further tries to help them see those interests not just as material advantage but as realized by becoming better versions of themselves through conscious love for the city and its empire rather than unconscious subjection to civic norms as in the Lacedaimoniōn Politeiai. In the remainder of the history, and especially in book eight, Thucydides suggests that by 411 the Periclean vision had been supplanted by the promise of one group ruling over others to its own advantage. This matches what we can see of thinking about politeia in oratory from around 411.

In chapter four, I argue that Aristophanes’ Acharnians, Knights, and Wasps take up the appeal of ruling for members of a group such as the Athenian dēmos and humorously exploitation of the tension between the appeal of the dēmos as a group ruling and of the members of the dēmos severally doing so. While only the dēmos as a collective could rule, these plays stage fantasies of each member of the dēmos himself ruling, either by identifying with the corporate person of the dēmos or, more preposterously, by imagining himself taking on that role in his own person.

In chapter five, I explore the continuation into the fourth century of the focus on the ruling group in talking about politeia. I first argue that fourth-century Attic oratory continues the pattern, identified in book eight of Thucydides and in late fifth-century oratory, of talking about politeia as the power of ruling, the fact of a particular group wielding that power, or the group of individuals wielding that power. I also argue that this focus makes sense in the context of the orators’ concern, described especially by Josh Ober, to create an ideology that levels on the political field the imbalance between speakers and jurymen or members of the assembly on the social field. I also demonstrate that there is a similar pattern of use in treaties from the first half of the fourth century and suggest that the importance of treating the contracting parties as much like natural people as possible explains the tendency to talk of politeia as just the group in charge of a city. I finally discuss the use of politeia to describe the honorary status conferred on foreigners, which, while it falls outside the dissertation’s main narrative of political reflection and activity would be prominent down through the Hellenistic and Roman times.

Finally, in chapter six, I take up Plato’s response, in his Republic (Politeia) to these earlier traditions. I argue that the motivating challenges of the Republic—above all Thrasymachus’ statements about civic structure and how people should behave within that structure as well as their restatement in Glaucon’s challenge—represent for the reader the danger of the focus on the ruling group and its connection to the selfish individualism of those who praised physis as a guide for action. I further suggest that the response to these challenges—the politeia described in the central books—is best understood as elaborating or repurposing elements of thinking about politeia already in the air. The focus on the musical education of the guards helps us further see the importance of forces working on people unawares. And the description of the creation and civic situation of the philosopher-rulers amounts to a recommitment to the importance of who rules but with an entirely new sense of what should make someone a ruler and of what the activity of ruling properly consists. I finally argue Isocrates’ later epideictic speeches explicitly argue against Plato’s new vision of rulers and for something like the popular conception of politeia.

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