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Exhibiting Democracy


Exhibiting Democracy: Material Culture from Ancient Athens and the Democratic Ideal

2,500 Years: Blockbuster Exhibition - The Context

Museum Heritage Debates

Democracy Celebrated and Debated

Two Exhibitions:

The Art Blockbuster: The Greek Miracle.

Archaeology and Text: An Exhibition Celebrating the 2500th Anniversary of Democracy


Exhibiting Democracy: Critical Conclusions


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2,500 Years: The Background

The background to the celebration of the reforms of Kleisthenes in Athens is complex and there is an enormous wealth of material as well as a mixture of disciplinary expertise needed to unpick any one of the main areas outlined here. This summary aims to provide the context for a fuller understanding of the two exhibitions celebrating the birth of democracy and the reaction to them.

I have highlighted two main areas of importance. The first is the use of ancient texts and documentary evidence and the second, closely linked to the first, is academic readings of that documentary evidence in the disciplines of history and art in the few decades prior to 1992. Some key scholars and texts are mentioned along with questions for further research.

Ancient Texts, Authors and Documentary Evidence

There is a wide range of documentary evidence for Athenian democracy and its practice in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. One of the best overviews of the range of material is the opening chapter, ‘The Sources and their Limitations', in J. K. Davies' Democracy and Classical Greece (Davies, 1978:13-20). The best known evidence is contained in the narrative histories of the period, such as Herodotus' Histories, Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War (in which Pericles' Funeral Oration is key to an understanding of both Athenian democracy and its reception) and Xenophon's Hellenika. Later histories by Diodorus of Sicily and Plutarch, whose biographies constitute a different historical genre, are also useful.

Drama and poetry from classical Athens and elsewhere in Greece can reflect and in some cases question the ideological assumptions and practices of the Athenians. Speech writing (for example Demosthenes in the fourth century BCE) and pamphleteering give more evidence about judicial practice and democratic institutions of Athens. The fifth century BCE discussion of the consitution and social practices of the Athenians by the ‘Old Oligarch' or pseudo-Xenophon (so-called because it reflects a very reactionary view of the democracy of Athens and is wrongly ascribed to Xenophon), could be classed as an example of a political pamphlet.

The possible authorship of Aristotle for The Constitution of Athens (fourth century BCE) points to philosophy as another form of textual evidence for Athenian democracy. Aristotle's Politics and some of the writings of Plato, particularly those relating to the death of Socrates, are useful here. There are problems with interpretation with all these texts as, on the whole, they reflect a hostile view of Athenian democracy and have their own ideological agendas.

Interestingly, Davies begins with a consideration of ‘non-verbal' sources, such as public buildings, coins, houses and artefacts, which reveal ‘a rich and creative civilization' (Davies, 1978:13). He moves on to consider inscriptions, administrative records and decrees found on mainly on stone and some lead and bronze tablets. This range of sources and an awareness of their limitations is rudimentary knowledge for the study of ancient history. The World of Athens. An Introduction to classical Athenian culture (prepared for the Joint Association of Classical Teachers) draws on the range of sources that Davies uses: narrative history, biography, speech writing, pamphlets, inscriptions and some use of ‘non-verbal' material culture as well as poetry and dramatic texts.

The theme based approach drawing on a wide range of sources, textual and visual, that is found in The World of Athens is reflected in The Birth of Democracy exhibition catalogue and its online counterpart. [1] The use of primary sources in the interpretation of Athenian democracy and society in The Birth of Democracy exhibition is typical of this kind of historical approach, while The Greek Miracle exhibition's emphasis on art objects reflects a traditional art historical image of classical Athens.

Modern Readings of Athenian History and Art

A full historiography of modern readings of Athenian democracy within ancient (and modern) history would be lengthy and require probing analysis by, preferably, a combination of experts in ancient history, modern history and politics. Even a background 'summary' could go back to the work of Edward Gibbon in the late eighteenth century and William Mitford and George Grote in the nineteenth century. A key text for considering the reception of Athenian democracy in contemporary society is M. I. Finley's Democracy. Ancient and Modern, which was first published in 1973 and then revised and republished in 1985. Finley points out that the Greeks ‘discovered not only democracy but politics', or at least an understanding of politics that the western world can identify with today (Finley, 1973: 23).

Political systems, such as the judiciary, rather than democracy itself as such have been the basis for much writing on Athens. Martin Ostwald's From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law: Law, Society and Politics in Fifth-Century Athens (1986) and Raphael Sealey's The Athenian Republic: Democracy or the Rule of Law? (1987) both focused on the judiciary and legal system of Athens.

A similar focus on law and freedom, albeit presented very differently and for a wider audience was I. F. Stone's The Trial of Socrates (1994). Robert A. Dahl's Democracy and Its Critics was published in 1989. Publications that considered democracy in fourth century Athens as well as the fifth century from just before the anniversary included Josiah Ober's Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology and the Power of the People in 1989 and Mogens Herman Hansen's The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principle and Ideology in 1991.

Democracy Celebrated' considers publications in the run up to the ‘birth of democracy' celebrations of the early 1990s. The relationship between the history of scholarship and the construction of public exhibitions and displays shows there have been changes in forms of historical analyses of Athens and democracy. Sometimes the emphasis is mainly on Periclean Athens. Sometimes there are shifts to fourth-century Athens. There has been an increase in studies considering the reception of Athenian democracy in the modern world.

Added to these are questions about the way readings of wider Athenian society have affected views of Athenian democracy between 1970 and 2005 as well as questions about the impact of modern concerns in the framing of research questions and in the design of exhibitions. Changes in analyses of Athenian society and culture include more emphasis on the construction of gender and the position of women. There has been increased emphasis on the position of women, citizens and non-citizens, and this has influenced how we read Athenian democracy. Historians have shown a greater awareness of the non-citizen body of Athens, in particular the slaves and immigrants of Athens and Attica, in their assessments of Athenian democracy and society. Readings of sexuality have also played a part.

These assessments have probably been influenced by wider cultural and curriculum changes, such as the increase (and decrease?) of women and gender studies as well as ‘minority' studies, such as black history or queer theory. Such questions would also require some contextualisation of campus politics, for example the so-called ‘culture wars' of the 1980s and 90s, and changes in the curriculum in the last three decades. These more broad general changes have affected the study of classics and ancient history and its impact on public awareness.

Similarly important changes have taken place in Scholarship on Greek Art. Andrew Stewart's assessment of the ‘histories' of Greek Sculpture in his Greek Sculpture: An Exploration is a useful place to start. Stewart presents an interesting overview that begins with Johann Joachim Wincklelmann in the eighteenth century and finishes with the different schools of thought in the late twentieth century, including the formalist school, the contextual approach, the German school and structuralist schools (Stewart 1990:29-32) Key thinkers from the mid-twentieth century include Bernard Ashmole, Gisela Richter, Rhys Carpenter and Brunhilde Ridgway as well as more general and (arguably) more influential art historians who have written on Greek art, such as Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Gombrich. Work on Greek art that eschews the formalism of many of these earlier writers and centres it within culture and politics includes J. J. Pollitt's Art and Experience in Classical Greece (1972). A great many text books of Greek art have been published between 1970 and 2005 for the ‘general' reader or students beginning to study Greek art. Authors include John Boardman, R. M. Cook, Martin Robertson, Susan Woodford and, in the late 1990s, Robin Osborne and Nigel Spivey. Very recently Amanda Donohue's Greek Sculpture and the Problem of Description has tackled the historical interpretation of early Greek statuary, while Jeremy Tanner has considered the historical traditions and biases of readings of Greek art (Donohue 2005, and Tanner 2006). Some discussion of changes in the study of Greek art between 1970 and 2005 has been included in the sections on ‘The Greek Miracle' and the ‘Exhibiting Democracy: Critical Conclusions'.

The study of material evidence from ancient Greece by necessity falls into the disciplines of archaeology and art history, as well as Classics, which creates more questions. This creates ambiguities such as when does art become archaeology and vice versa? How the overlap between art and archaeology has been addressed shapes the conclusions and influence how we interpret art works/artefacts as historical evidence. Also important are developments in Greek art is read in the context of its geographical context and function, and the increased importance of the role of art and material culture in social and religious rituals.

A very general and large question is has the visual world of Athens become more important in scholarly and popular readings of ancient Athens between 1970 and 2005? And (how) can this be measured? Have the exhibitions considered in this research and popular publications that draw on images made an impact on how ancient Athens and democracy is perceived in the contemporary western world? These are wide ranging questions that cannot be answered conclusively, but they are indicative of ways in which exhibitions mediate between scholarship and wider public awareness.


Bennett, T. 1995. The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. London: Routledge.

Brenson, M. 1988. ‘Human Figures Enshrined by the Early Greeks', New York Times, February 14, [last accessed 16/05/2008].

Buitron-Oliver, D. and J. McK. Camp II. 1993. ‘Introduction to the Exhibition', in Ober and Hedrick.

Diana Buitron-Oliver et al. 1992. Exhibition Catalogue: The Greek Miracle: Classical Sculpture from the Dawn of Democracy, the Fifth Century B.C, Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.

Cartledge, P.1990. ‘Cross Currents of Democracy', History Today, 40/2:7-9.

Davies, J. K. 1978. Democracy and Classical Greece. London: Fontana.

Donohue, A. A. 2005. Greek Sculpture and the Problem of Description. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Duncan, C. 1995. Civilizing Rituals. Inside Public Art Museums. London: Routledge.

Finley, M. I. 1973. Democracy. Ancient and Modern. London: Chatto & Windus.

Fukuyama, F. 1989. ‘The End of History?', The National Interest, Summer:13-18.

The World of Athens. An Introduction to classical Athenian culture. 2008. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd edn.

Kimmelman, M. 2002. ‘J. Carter Brown, 67, is dead: Transformed Museum World', The New York Times, June 19. [last accessed 01/07/2008].

Morris, I and K. Raaflaub (eds), 1997(1998). Democracy 2500? Questions and Challenges. Archaeological Institute of America. Colloquia and Conference Papers 2:1-9.

‘Obituary: J Carter Brown', 2002. Telegraph, 26 June, [last accessed 01/07/2008].

Ober, J. and C. W. Hedrick (eds). 1993. The Birth of Democracy. An Exhibition Celebrating the 2,500 th Anniversary of Democracy. Washington DC: American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Pollitt, J. J. 1972. Art and Experience in Classical Greece. Cambridge.

Stewart, A. 1990. Greek Sculpture. An Exploration. Volume 1: Text. London: Yale University Press,

Sweeney, J., T. Curry and Y.Tzedakis (eds), 1988. The Human Figure in Early Greek Art. Athens and Washington DC: Greek Ministry of Culture and National Gallery of Art.

Tanner, J. 2006. The Invention of Art History in Ancient Greece. Religion, Society and Artistic Rationalisation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tzedakis, Y. 1988. ‘Introduction' in Sweeney, Curry and Tzedakis (eds) 1988.



[1] Buitron-Oliver and McK. Camp II (1993), and on the Excavations in the Agora website,;id=Contents [last accessed 11/06/2008].

[2] The phrases are taken from two significant books on museums published in the mid 1990s: Bennett 1995 and Duncan 1995.

[3] 'Obituary: J Carter Brown', 2002.

[4] ibid.