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Democracy: A Persian Invention?

Abstract : In Book 3 of Herodotus’ Histories, seven Persian noblemen discuss which form of government would best fit the empire. If we accept its dramatic date, 522 BCE, this scene offers the first example of a comparative definition of monarchy, oligarchy and democracy. It offers, even more strikingly, the very first description of the government of the many — a novel political order that will eventually be called a democracy. The power of the people, this quintessentially Hellenic thing, was then a Persian invention, an idea that occurred originally not to the masses of a polis, not to an Athenian demagogue, but to a relative of the Great King. In the course of the narrative, democracy will prove to be a unique form of government: the winning one. The Histories take up the challenge of recounting, and accounting for, a most improbable defeat, and for an even less foreseeable victory. The text does so not by preaching a morality of self-knowledge and self-control, but by exposing the realistic effects of different kinds of rule. Against the odds, democracy enhances and strengthens a small polis, Athens, making it grand and successful. Notwithstanding its immeasurable capabilities, the Persian monarchy fails. The turning point is the battle of Salamis, a prowess of the dêmos. A theatrical pause, in the narration of how the Great Kings came to prepare their campaigns against Greece, the debate offers a counterfactual explanation to historical events, in terms of political theory. This is, I will argue, the effect of the scene on the Histories.
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Submitted on : Friday, April 12, 2019 - 10:02:21 AM
Last modification on : Wednesday, August 7, 2019 - 12:14:40 PM

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Giulia Sissa. Democracy: A Persian Invention?. Mètis - Anthropologie des mondes grecs anciens, Daedalus/EHESS, 2012, N.S.10, pp.227-261. ⟨10.4000/books.editionsehess.2745⟩. ⟨halshs-02097532⟩



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