Comparative Anthropology of Ancient Greece

  Detienne, Marcel. 2009. Comparative Anthropology of Ancient Greece. Hellenic Studies Series 17. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Chapter 1. Doing Comparative Anthropology in the Field of Politics [*]

There is a long history behind the Greeks and us. Clearly, the Greeks are not a tribe or even an ethnic group like others. At the heart of what historians complacently call “the history of the West,” the Greeks represent a real stake, in the sense of what may be either won or lost in an enterprise.

I am happy that André Breton has reminded us that in the past, in both the ancient and the modern world, the Greeks and Romans “have always been our occupiers” and will continue to be in the future. It is important to realize that, among the ancient societies, it was the Greeks—not the Egyptians or the Sumerians—who spoke and wrote the most, with words and categories that we ourselves have never ceased to use, often without even thinking about it. One of the most blindingly obvious examples, alongside that of “mythology,” is, both in the ancient and now in the modern world, in the domain of what is known as “politics.”

It is widely believed in the United States of Europe and of America that democracy fell from the skies once and for all, to land in Greece and even in one particular city there, Pericles’ Athens. Since the eighteenth century, the interpretation of other, more revolutionary beginnings has repeatedly proceeded by way of dialogue with that city. In the memories of Europeans, inaugurations of democracy hold an important place. The Italians like to look back to the communal movement of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; the English, the first to dare to behead a king, are happy to contemplate their House of Commons, while the French, with good reason, set a high value on the radical break constituted by 1789. All these national traditions are respected, if not respectable. They belong to the Europe that is in the making; and the historians of its various nations have certainly not failed to show that they {85|86} deserve respect, even as they carefully avoid comparisons which, as they see it, are not necessary, given the differences in chronology. Besides, comparisons might offend national memories over which, above all in Europe, the writers of History naturally take it upon themselves to mount vigilant guard.

Multiple Beginnings

As a result, more often than not, historians of politics, closely followed by political theorists, limit comparisons between ancient and modern democracies to value judgments, the most popular of which leads one to wonder whether the Athenians did really experience democracy. For it is Athens, preferably the Athens of Thucydides, that seems, over two centuries, to have become the sole example worthy to enter into dialogue with the “real” democracies that have colonized both sides of the Atlantic, God be praised! As everyone knows or can easily find out, in the space of two centuries, between the eleventh and the thirteenth, the beginnings of the communal movement in Italy mobilized dozens of towns; and in ancient Greece, there were several hundreds of small human communities experimenting over more than three hundred years with a would-be egalitarian form of politics. In Tuscany and Venetia, even the smallest communes engaged in an adventure that involved making choices that would carry them into a history of their own. And likewise, from the eighth century BCE on (just yesterday!), each of those tiny cities in Sicily or along the shores of the Black Sea set about inventing their own ways of deliberating and deciding on “common affairs.” The little town of Draco and then of Solon—I mean that village, Athens, of modest beginnings—represented but one type of city among dozens of others, all enjoying the same freedom of creating their own completely new practices of communal living.

Even without waiting for the discoveries of other observers of human beings—who tend today to be very anxious not to be accused of ethnographic harassment—it seems fair enough to note that such “places for politics” have been invented many times over in societies widely separated from one another by both time and space. The Ochollo people of the Gamo mountains, who have been living in southern Ethiopia since the nineteenth century, do not, so far, appear to have consulted the communal archives of Siena or Arezzo; nor did the fifteenth-century Cossacks of Zaporizhia necessarily discover from the Iliad, let alone from the site of Megara Hyblaea in Sicily, the principle of an agora and a circular community assembly—a principle that dates from, at the very least, the eighth century BCE. As for the French members of the Constituent Assembly of 1789, although they were relatively well informed about the English system that had been in place for several centuries, they seem to have had to, and to have wished to, invent everything themselves from scratch, on the more or less tabula rasa left by what would soon be called the ancien régime. From historians who are liberated enough not to bother about the constraints imposed by the order that governs them, anthropologists have learned that certain cultures in both Africa and the Slavic world have, both in the past and in contemporary times, set in place forms of “democracy” in assemblies convened to debate the group’s “common affairs.” It is time to recognize that there has been no more an Ochollo miracle than there was a Greek or a Cossack one.

Places for Politics

Politics and Places for Politics: it is commonly believed not only that politics or Politics (with a capital P) one fine day fell from the heavens, landing in “classical” Athens in the miraculous and authenticated form of Democracy (with a capital D), but also that a divinely linear history has led us by the hand from the American Revolution, passing by way of the “French Revolution,” all the way to our own Western societies that are so blithely convinced that their mission is to convert all peoples to the true religion of democracy. {87|88}

I must emphasize that the comparative approach that I have chosen is the work of a group consisting of both historians and anthropologists; it must be experimental, and its aim is to be constructive: “comparabilities” have to be constructed in an experimental fashion.

It is, I think, indispensable to explain clearly what kinds of operations this type of comparative method involves, in order to show how progress, carefully thought through, can be made.

First of all, I tried to move on from the Greek city, leaving other enthusiastic scholars to determine the date of birth of “Politics,” not to mention find all the fashionable expressions in which the subject is decked in the smartest Houses of High Fashion in Munich, the Latin quarter of Paris, and Cambridge.

Next, it seemed to me healthy to wipe the slate clean and reject all ready-made definitions of “Politics.” Wipe the slate clean … but how clean? Leaving only the practices of assembly; in particular, practices observed in situations where such an institution is being initiated so that, with any luck, those practices take simple forms. What I am talking about are practices of assembly or, more precisely, practices associated with a will to gather together, a will to assemble. That is the first point. But assemble in order to do what? To discuss common affairs. That is the second point, but it is not an innocent one, for I have found it necessary to make a very specific choice. This is not a matter of gathering together for a fishing expedition or in order to barter feathers against claws. I realize how very porous and insecure the apparently firmest frontiers can turn out to be; but a definition such as “procedures involving words used to express an idea of that which is common” can perhaps delimit a provisional context for this “will to assemble together”—a context within which something like politics or even a “place for politics” may be constructed. As can be seen, this kind of comparative study is “experimental.”

I think that one advantage of this deliberate choice of the concept of “a will to assemble together in order to discuss common affairs” is that it provides an initial working category that is flexible yet not too fluid. This is not a general paradigm such as, for example, the civic “humanism” or vivere civile that John Pocock proposes, a setup with a prince as political agent, surrounded by his homegrown Florentine associates: the citizen, the orator, and the inspired legislator. That concept may, to be sure, serve as a way to penetrate the post-sixteenth-century Anglo-Saxon world, but it is as unexportable as the category of “empire.” The “will to assemble together” as described above is neither a category that is too local nor a notion that is too general, of the “catchall” type. {88|89}

As cooperation between ethnologists and historians progresses, the more questions become precise and the more differences proliferate, much to the benefit of the experiment. As can be seen, the important thing is to encourage reflection on the complexity of the structure of something that could be called “politics.”

The other advantage of the approach through study of “the will to assemble together” is that it allows one easily to acquire a perspective on a whole series of societies as diverse and as far-flung from one another as the Italian communes of the European Middle Ages; the Buddhist monasteries of Japan; the members of the French Constituent Assembly; the Cossacks who lived at the time of Macchiavelli’s Prince; the Ochollo people in today’s Ethiopia; the Circassians of the last century; the Senoufo of the Ivory Coast; the sleek, plump, secular canons of the medieval West; and the tiny cities of Magna Graecia and Sicily—in short, a whole score of cultures mobilized in the course of the first stage of a collaborative investigation: twenty societies studied not in general, but as microconfigurations analyzed by researchers working from within, many of them for as long as twenty years. {89|90}

Comparing Beginnings

Start with simple forms, observe the practices of beginnings, work on microconfigurations, for they are easier to compare, as “comparables,” than complex or semicomplex states stiffly hemmed in by their macroconfigurations. To be sure, beginnings take multiple forms and are widely diverse. They come about sometimes in a virtually empty space, on a tabula rasa or a leveled foundation flush with the ground; sometimes in highly sophisticated contexts. The birth pangs of what we might call a “place for politics” are never the same from one society to another. The first Cossacks, self-proclaimed free men, had only the steppe with its icy silence. For all those Lilliputian cities traced out in the sand of Magna Graecia, there was, to begin with, virgin land that at first sight seemed unoccupied. For the revolutionary Pisans of the 1080 Marine Commune, there were, on the contrary, already the town, its nobles, the imperial authorities and, closer to home, the Church authorities. Facing the members of the French Constituent Assembly, as they tried to convert their semicircle into a full circle, there was what would soon be called the ancien régime, the king and a hierarchical society of orders and privileges to fall upon and dismantle with hammer blows.

Let us keep an eye on those members of the Constituent Assembly, those mutants of 1789, for that was a fascinating beginning that is easy to observe. From the springboard of its formidable “will to assemble together” in order to discuss the affairs of one and all (the expression was certainly spot on), it proceeded passionately to invent a series of assembly practices and to dream up a new kind of space for permanent deliberations between “the nation’s representatives,” each of whom, in principle, held an equal right to speak on everything that concerned the welfare of the people—the people who were soon to be consecrated as sovereign. Along with a multitude of new practices, there emerged ideas expressed by a number of different voices on the subject of a new kind of place for politics that recognized no precedents. The virtue of such beginnings is that they reveal how configurations take shape and what elements combine to produce the idea of a community, ways of organizing a kind of group-sovereignty, of structuring a public space and exploring a type of citizenship. {90|91}

Possible Comparabilities

Far-flung comparison constitutes an intellectual game that affords one the pleasure of collaborative, unhurried experimentation. To provide you with a glimpse of what it involves, let me convey a bird’s eye view of some of the factors that it has proved possible to compare within the vast domain of “who wishes to speak?” (the title that we chose for our comparative inquiry, because it seemed to echo the formulaic demand of a herald opening an assembly in a Greek city).

The simplest way to do this is to put together a collection of notions that seem to operate as good litmus tests in the field of “the will to assemble together” for clearly defined purposes. Let us focus on three such notions: the notion of “public matters” or common affairs; the notion of “citizenship” (in quotation marks); and finally the pair constituted by “sameness-equality.”

Public Matters

If one selects for special study the theme of the concrete ways of assembling together, one has a chance to observe how the representation of communal affairs may be affected by the practices that stem from a local will to assemble together. A will: let us pause to consider what this implies. Sometimes people flock together; sometimes they are assembled. A king or a chieftain can order people to assemble. They flock together when something unexpected happens, when there is an accident, when something surprises the passers-by. They are told to keep moving, there is nothing to see. But the will to assemble together for precise purposes is always the work of a minority, an active minority. What motivates such a minority? Without necessarily expecting a satisfactory explanation, let us rephrase that question in terms of certain types of people who carry more influence than others.

I chose the formula of a herald of antiquity not because it is Greek (for no one could accuse me of Hellenomania), but because it introduces a “will” without which this particular kind of politics—one kind among many others—oriented toward the debate of public affairs, could neither be instituted nor expand and develop. To have a place reserved for the discussion of affairs that are common to individuals who are naturally different and spontaneously unequal may seem a strange idea. “The will to assemble together” appears to impose itself progressively through the adoption of practices and a kind of setting that reveal to the group something like the beginnings of sovereignty, {91|92} sovereignty for the group over itself. For the people engaged in this work—work that is quite taxing—to discuss affairs said to concern all, to speak of what is felt and recognized to be most essential to the group, involves their finding new representations, which they do by all adopting particular practices and making use of convergent symbolisms.

A place for politics or a place of equality in the making may seem pretty unremarkable. Let us pick out a few groups at random: secular canons were expected to discuss common affairs together three times a week. They elaborated a fair system of remuneration to compensate for the considerable inequalities between them. But the universitas, the name for “whatever was common” to these secular clergy, was strengthened by the choice of a central meeting place such as the bell-tower or a particular hall that could be used by the citizens and townsfolk. The universitas of the canons included a coffer for the storage of archives and a seal that conferred a measure of authority. The Cossacks, whether from Zaporozhye or from the area of the Don, certainly did not meet two or three times a week, but they observed a far stricter equality that initially covered every domain of activity: warfare, hunting, fishing, and the cultivation of the land. The “community” (tovaristvo, in Ukrainian) was present here. It existed not only when all the Cossacks formed a circle several ranks deep in the main square, but also when the mace of the military leader, the seal of the judges, and the great silver inkwell of the secretary were deposited at the center of the assembly. To represent and symbolize “that which is common,” the earliest Greek cities had the idea, not of money or a sacrificial altar, but of a public hearth in the guise of Hestia, a common hearth corresponding to the Romans’ Vesta. This embodied the idea of a united city in the place where the magistrates in charge of common affairs congregated every day. In medieval Japan, the meetings of Buddhist monks took a different form. The assembly was preceded by an oath of union and harmony. Each man present was in duty bound to tell the whole community all that concerned “each and every one of them,” and an assembly that regarded itself as unanimous considered that its decisions and judgments were passed with the gods as witnesses.

Citizenships in the Making

A second notion that may also prove to be of practical use is that of “citizenship”—an excellent litmus test in the field of political potentials. For example, all you need to do is determine what are the qualities that are desirable or required for anyone who insists on assembling to speak exclu- {92|93} sively of common affairs. Within the circle where the question “Who wishes to speak?” is asked, who are these first orators? What must they be? What must they have? How do they claim to be qualified? For example, the “equal rights” of citizens decreed by the French Revolution had no meaning outside the philosophical context of the eighteenth century. But what was the concrete meaning of “the right to equality” when the Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed and published, against the background of the dissolution of a regime of orders with hierarchical privileges? The appearance of twenty million citizens overnight did not mean that there arose from the earth active citizens, committed at every national level to participation in public affairs. In 1789, to possess a theoretical right to equality it was enough to have been “born in France,” but for the militants of primary or sectional assemblies, everything still remained to be organized. Now let us consider the groups of Greeks, two hundred or five hundred strong, such as those who, in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, were to establish themselves on the seashores somewhere between Sicily and the Black Sea. Their potential “citizenship” began with the tracing of a circle, called an agora (or assembly), or possibly with a drawing of lots for plots of land, either before their departure or aboard the ship itself. Each man, with his own set of weapons, seems already to have possessed an equal right to take part in debates and in sacrifices of foodstuffs made by the group as a whole. To participate and take part with an equal share in anything that belonged to whatever was “in common” or concerned the city (polis) constituted the pulsing heart of this early type of citizenship centered on a fixed space reserved for assemblies, public debates, battles of words concerning the common affairs of an as yet barely established group. It is within these new places of equality and possibly “of politics” that we can best observe the elements that combine to produce “citizenship” centered on “common affairs.” It was not enough to be a local and to live on one’s own plot of land. An individual also had to be part of the circle formed by the deliberative assembly and to take a hand in the dispensing of justice within another circle or a circle within a circle. How did “citizens” wish to act as a group, and to what extent was it possible for them to do so? The nations of the past and their successive experiments in this domain are very useful for distinguishing different types of citizenship and the criteria that make it possible to distinguish “citizens” from foreigners passing through or in residence among them, and to establish a scale of gradations between those whose arrival could be accepted and those who could, to varying degrees, be integrated and “naturalized.” For instance, should they or should they not be allowed access to public offices, to the highest posts as magistrates {93|94} or to other functions essential to the city or group? It has been noticed that, sooner or later, the assembly—the universitas or Community—would come to expect active citizens to manifest certain qualities before it ruled that they clearly did possess specific capabilities of a kind to guide the respublica or its equivalent in a decisive fashion.

Those Who Are All the Same and Equal

A third point of entry or notion on which reflection proves rewarding is “sameness-equality.” One hypothesis is that “a will to assemble together in order to deliberate on common affairs” presupposes that everyone recognizes all the others in this circle to be the same and somehow equal. The first analogy that springs to mind does not create a sameness great enough to envisage the possibility of “a common interest.” Rousseau thought that the citizenship of the ancients was inspired by a common sensitivity born of the familiarity and compassion that existed among members of a very small community. He thought that, in those times, a General Will sprang up and flowed spontaneously. But the existence of similar sentiments and opinions is surely not the only conceivable basis for a community. The Cossacks shared a common desire to be “free men” in the midst of princes and serfs, and all called one another “brothers.” Their common father was a leader whom they chose for themselves every year at the assembly of all the “brothers” who, through the practices of equality that they observed, were all “the same” and “equal.” At the start, the Cossacks were all “free men,” just as the participants in the first commune of eleventh-century Pisa were, for the most part, “free” seamen who all shared the same struggle at sea. In other groups, all the members were Buddhist monks or secular canons.

In some societies, that sameness and equality was proclaimed explicitly, once a certain level of “the will to assemble” was reached. For example, in ancient Greece, in the tiny cities of the archaic period, each man held equal rights and shared equally in the privileges of “citizenship.” Such sameness presupposes that the distinctive features that, at a different level, distinguished men of different social status and with varying links of kinship would be set aside. Mutual recognition of forms of sameness may contribute to the creation of the idea of a community or city; and practices of equality, for their part, have a constituent force. First there is an arithmetical equality in the distribution of land, of booty, or of food, all of which is allocated in equal portions by the drawing of lots. Geometric equality soon follows, in a variety of formulations. Equality is something that needs to be made explicit, {94|95} discussed in public, and, in the usual way of things, fought for at every stage and at every assembly level.

Consuls, assemblies, and councils continued to be features characteristic of the history of communal practices. (It is perhaps worth noting, in passing, that many such communes are still awaiting a historian.) One primary aspect of this world of communes is the role played by notaries and jurists. Dispensing justice and declaring the rights of citizens are activities that go hand in hand with the work of notaries who consign the debates to written records, thereby formulating practices many of which are without precedent. Another feature that played an important role in the creation of communal assemblies was the taking of an oath, an oath of solidarity and loyalty to the collective decisions that committed the community to action. In some cases such an oath would be individual, in others collective. It indicated that the will to assemble counted for more than mere traditional gatherings. What forms of citizenship do we find developing in the emerging “city-republics”? What was the basis of the sameness of those who agreed to decide together on affairs that affected the communitas as a whole? An assembly, which might be called a “parliament,” in many cases seems to have consisted of a populus, in other words all those capable of bearing arms on both land and sea, who {95|96} must have possessed sufficient means to pay for arms and, in some cases, a horse. Here and there, we find instances of a populus that splits away from the milites who fight on horseback while the rest continue to do so on foot. Councils restricted to between three and five hundred members set about preparing the agenda and discussing the major issues before submitting them to a general assembly that might be composed of between five and six thousand members. Some modes of election involved the drawing of lots, others did not. There were rules relating to majority votes, the definition of a quorum, and the roles of experts and social leaders. All such procedures varied from one commune to another and produced types of politics that inevitably varied from one place to another.

Another Example of Very Concrete Practices: The House of Commons and the Members of the French Constituent Assembly

The scene changes. In France, the theater of representation is the Constituent Assembly; in England, the House of Commons. There is also a temporal disparity here. When the French Revolution of 1789 began, English political customs had long been developing. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the London Parliament had been extremely active. The French Constituent Assembly inaugurated a new space for speech. The sovereignty of the People required a new public space: there were disputes over the advantages of a circle and those of a semicircle. In 1792, new practices were introduced, at the instigation of both Marseilles and Paris. It was no longer just a matter of every individual’s right to assemble; now every citizen was claiming the right “to make the law speak.” It was time to move beyond the restricted circle of the Assembly and representatives. Room had to be made for the missionaries of patriotism whose feet were beginning to furrow the roads of Provence. The people exercised their sovereignty as they marched. Practices that developed as they marched together produced citizens convinced that assemblies at a primary level should be open to all those of “French nationality,” provided, of course, they carried a section card. Spokesmen arose to voice the passions that expressed the “moral needs” of the sovereign people. The cold assembly legislators were invited to manifest due sensitivity. They must be receptive to the emotions of the people. On a spontaneous impulse, there would be declarations of the sacred nature of this “surge of emergent peoples’ power.” New assembly practices such as these clearly called for a change of scene. In {96|97} Marseilles, where people knew how to interpret the force of this deliberative movement, a central committee took on the task of producing a “general consensus.” It would be interesting to know how the Soviets proceeded at the time of the early Bolsheviks and comrade Lenin. However, the inquiry pursued by the historians and ethnologists since 1992 has unfortunately not provided us with any such documentation.

How to Compare and Why

In this collaborative comparative approach it is not, nor will it ever be, a matter of juxtaposing a dash of Japan that in some inexplicable way sums up the whole of Japan, a flavor of the Circassians to represent the entire mass of the Caucasus, all in one go, and—just to add a touch of color—two or three Italian communes, in order to justify writing, in the conclusion to a volume of the “comparative studies” ilk, “This is how people assembled together in Italy and invented politics, while in Japan …” That would be to travel far and wide as dupes, only to resume the society game played by Hellenists, for whom nothing is more exciting than discovering whether our Athenians {97|98} really experienced “Democracy,” real democracy, or (a more refined variant of the same theme) whether it was Solon or Cleisthenes who should be forever honored for having invented politics (le politique in French: why a singular noun? Most peculiar …).

The eye of a comparatist discerns practices associated with the act of assembling that might very well not have been adopted or that might have engendered other kinds of equality. Не or she also discerns practices that may die out: alongside tentative advances and lightning manifestations, some achievements that have won acceptance, possibly over several centuries, seem to have been made possible only thanks to the evanescence of other experiments, now forgotten, never mentioned, gone forever. History, the kind taught in schools and universities, offers us the fascinating study of our Greeks, who belong to us (or is it the other way around?), without ever considering more modern peoples and aspects of their lives. Anthropology, meanwhile, wakes up comparative every morning, free to flit from culture to culture, gathering its honey wherever the will to assemble has sprouted and bloomed. With its taste for dissonance, anthropology invites us to focus on societies that present contrasts that may seem either excessive or mysterious, depending on the view of the observer who comes upon them. Unchecked by barriers in space or time, anthropology collects them all, separates them out, and goes on to discover others, elsewhere. But why? (For that question resurfaces like an uncheckable weed as soon as scholarship becomes concerned about this discipline and its future). In the first place, because setting a number of experiments in perspective usually reveals areas of intelligibility the value and tonality of which are recognized by both historians of politics [7] and even philosophers, in their own domains of study; second, because a collection of beginnings, observed in the concrete process of their evolution, may make it possible to analyze, as if under a microscope, the components of neighboring configurations, each of which, with its own particular differential features, may help an attentive comparatist to spot the deviation from the norm that distinguishes, among a whole series of possibilities, the particular formula of a microconfiguration of politics. {98|}


[ back ] *. Originally published in Arion 13.3 (Winter 2006) 67-85.

[ back ] 1. I have already argued and worked to this end in Detienne 2000b:105–127; and in “Des pratiques d’assemblée aux formes du politique” (2003b:13–30), and “Retour sur comparer et arrêt sur comparables” (2003b:415–418).

[ back ] 2. See the works of Iaroslav Lebedynsky, cited in Lebedynsky 2003.

[ back ] 3. In this comparative branch of study, Marc Abélès has played an important role: first, with his book Le lieu du politique (Abélès 1983), then with his “Revenir chez les Ochollo” (Abélès 2003).

[ back ] 4. Detienne 2003b, an inquiry that I initiated in 1992, in Marseilles, where I encountered the first difficulties (417–418) and concluded in its “colloquial” phase in Paris, at the Fondation des Sciences politiques (in 2000).

[ back ] 5. See Delumeau 2003, Rosetti 2003, and Redon 2003.

[ back ] 6. See Guilhaumou 2003, Wahnich 2003, and Brasart 2003.

[ back ] 7. See Rosanvallon 2003.