Before Athens: Early Popular Government in Phoenicia and Greek City-States

  • Stephen Stockwell


Most accounts of the origins of democracy assume that the idea and its institutions sprung into life, fully formed, in Athens, after the reforms of Cleisthenes, at the end of the sixth century bc (Dunn, 1992). This chapter explores the political and cultural environment in eastern Mediterranean cities immediately before the Athenian reforms. It responds to concerns expressed by Simon Hornblower: ‘The Phoenicians… had something comparable to the self-regulating city-state or polis [and there is] the possibility of Phoenician origins for some of the Greek political arrangements we most admire. Scientific study in this area has, however, hardly begun’ (Hornblower, 1992: 2). While some previous work in this area has been less than conclusive (Bernal, 2001 [1990]), the present chapter seeks to test the available evidence about the deeper origins of democratic ideas and institutions. It examines whether Phoenician cities had their own form of democratic government before Athens, and whether Phoenician trade into the Greek sphere of influence contributed to the intellectual milieu that gave rise to the Athenian model, particularly via earlier city-states identified by Eric Robinson as ‘first democracies’ (Robinson, 1997).


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© Stephen Stockwell 2011

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  • Stephen Stockwell

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