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Jan Bernhard Meister: 'Adel' und gesellschaftliche Differenzierung im archaischen und frühklassischen Griechenland (= Historia. Einzelschriften; Bd. 263), Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2020, 443 S., 5 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-3-515-12715-8, EUR 80,00
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Rezension von:
Mait Kõiv
University of Tartu
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Mait Kõiv: Rezension von: Jan Bernhard Meister: 'Adel' und gesellschaftliche Differenzierung im archaischen und frühklassischen Griechenland, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2020, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 7/8 [15.07.2023], URL:

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Jan Bernhard Meister: 'Adel' und gesellschaftliche Differenzierung im archaischen und frühklassischen Griechenland

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Jan Meister confronts the traditional, and still widely followed, concept which assumes that a firmly established aristocracy - 'Adel' as a closed hereditary stratum - dominated the Greek word during the Archaic period (8th-6th centuries BCE), that the contemporary polis formation questioned its power which was finally broken in the Classical period (5th-4th centuries BCE). Meister proceeds from the definition of 'Adel' elaborated mainly according to the Early Modern period - as a stable upper stratum, based on birth not personal achievement, and giving the members a symbolic capital enabling to preserve the high status for generations - and shows how this concept was during the 19th and 20th centuries, mainly in the German historiography, applied to the history of ancient Greece. Meister himself, to the contrary, points out the high social mobility of early Greek society and the consequent instability of the elite (Oberschicht). He describes the elite depicted in the epics of Homer and Hesiod (dated by him to the early 7th century BCE) as a class of wealthy farmers (Vollbauer), exemplified by the Homeric heroes and by the poet Hesiod. He sees the possession of an adequate amount of land and of a yoke of oxen as the requirements for belonging to this elite, distinct from the much bigger lower class of hirelings and small peasants deprived of these means. Meister suggests that the relative coherency of this internally competitive elite deteriorated during the Archaic period, when changing conditions, including the emergence of cities, enabled many families to rise clearly above the previous 'rustic' status, to display a luxurious consumption and way of life, while the growing difference between city and countryside added a new dimension to the Greek social realities. He discusses profoundly the competitive attitude - agonal spirit - of the elite, conditioned by the insecure position requiring a constant proof of superiority, and points out that the availability of alternative fields of competition (military or athletic skills, good counsel, dancing etc.) as shown by Homer always left the opponents the possibility to question the worth of the achievement. During the Archaic period, however, a growingly institutionalisation of competition increased the possibilities for a stabilisation of elite status. This was promoted, on the one hand, by the processing polis formation which made the political offices in the home polis an attractive goal, and on the other hand by the athletic contests in the Pan-Hellenic festivals producing an institutionalised stage for competition at the 'international' level. In both these ways a set of clear criteria for evaluating the achievement, the worth and the consequent prestige of the competitors was created. This, however, was not enough for producing a veritable 'Adel' during the Archaic period.

Something approaching the formation of an 'Adel' could, according to Meister, be observed only in the Classical period. He explores this in the case study of Athens, which forms almost the second half of the book. Meister begins with questioning the concept of a closed eupatrid aristocracy ruling Athens before the legislation of Solon, pointing out that as Solon's poetry or laws were never quoted as evidence, the lawgiver hardly dealt with such a status, and suggests that the concept is a myth created in the anti-democratic circles during the Classical period. Highly sceptical towards the evidence of the Aristotelean Athenaion Politiea, and relying mainly on Solon's poetry, he denies any revolutionary intention by the lawgiver, describing the legislation not as an abolishment but an institutional confirmation of the status differences. The following tyranny of Peisistratos is viewed as a continuation of the policy of Solon. Nor is any revolutionary intention conceded for Kleisthenes, who is described as a conservative attempting to preserve the Solonian institutions confirmed during the period of tyranny, which Kleisthenes defended against his younger anti-tyrannical opponent Isagoras. The tribal reform of Kleisthenes, however, is seen as having a decisive, though unintentional, impact on the subsequent development. Integrating the Attic periphery with the Athenian centre, it caused the increase of the role of the previously almost completely passive demos, which created new conditions for elite competition. Demos became the 'third instance' appreciating or disapproving the achievements of the elite leaders (the role which previously had belonged to elite contestants themselves), which required an elaboration of the strategies of influence building. This was the context in which the concept of aristocracy arose. A part of the elite, opposed to the influence of demos which continued to increase with the concentration of the people in the city during the Peloponnesian War, and connected to the late 5th century anti-democratic revolutions, presented itself as a coherent group with the ancient rights to rule, and invented the concept of the aristokratia (the power of the best) as the allegedly traditional order.

What Meister presents is undoubtedly high-quality research. It contributes valuably to the discussion of a number of particular questions (the character and reason of elite competition, the emergence of the tradition of the eupatrid power monopoly etc.), and thought-provoking argument can improve our understanding of the general line of social and political development in Archaic and Early Classical Greece. Meister strongly supports the recent trend of viewing the Greek elite as a volatile status based on personal performance, not an established aristocracy with inherited rights for ruling. [1] His concept of elite developing through competition in the framework of polis, thereby promoting the polis formation rather than being opposed to it, is almost certainly to be agreed with. It is, however, notable that when convincingly showing the role of polis in elite competition, Meister constantly plays down the role of the sub-elite strata, even when their significance is suggested by the sources. Discussing the situation in the Solonian Athens he does not accept that the demos politically engaged by Solon according to his verses included the poor people, although the verses (fr. 4.23-25; 36.8-22 West) suggest this. [2] He is equally careful to exclude the poor from the demos or plethos (the mass of people) or the 'Athenias', who supported Kleisthenes according to Herodotos (5.66, 69, 72) and Athenaion Politeia (20.2-3). Instead, he described the supporters of the lawgiver as a wealthy elite. The rise of the Athenian demos into significance after the Kleisthenes' tribal reform appears thus as accidental, almost a mistake, hardly predictable according to the previous conditions. Such a view does hardly account with the wide spread of democracies in Classical Greece, which would surely require a broader explanation than the unwished result of an Athenian reform. Meister ignores the implications of Hesiod's statement that potter competes with potter, craftsman with craftsman and beggar with beggar (Hes. Op. 24-25), which suggests that an agonal spirit pervades the whole society. This would hardly fit the idea of the entirely passive and submissive sub-elite strata. The precarious position of the Greek elites could be perhaps better explained if accepting that throughout the Archaic period even relatively poor people could participate in public life, were included among the politically active demos, and functioned as the 'third instance' before which the elite had to compete for justifying their higher status. The part played by the sub-elite commoners might have been an important factor precluding the establishment of a veritable 'Adel'. Taking this into account could have further strengthened the argument of Meister.


[1] E.g. Alain Duplouy: Le prestige des élites: Recherches sur les modes de reconnaissance sociale en Grèce entre les Xe et Ve siècle avant J.-C., Paris 2006; N. Fisher / H. van Wees (Eds.): 'Aristocracy' in Antiquity: Redefining Greek and Roman Elites, Swansea 2015.

[2] Note Marie-Joséphine Werlings: Le dèmos avant la démocratie: Mots, concepts, réalités historiques, Paris 2010, 223-266.

Mait Kõiv