The present study by Charlotte Schubert is intended to offer a comprehensive account of isonomia as a political concept from the 6th c. BC to the Imperial era. After an informative introduction, which includes a discussion on the terminology, the author considers the limited evidence from the archaic period, focusing on Solonean Athens and the few writings of presocratic philosophers on the subject. Chapter 2 focuses on concepts of isonomia in Ionia, while Chapter 3 returns to Athens and discusses the period from the Peisistratids to the reforms of Kleisthenes. Chapter 4 discusses concepts of isonomia in Magna Graecia, while Chapter 5 deals with the connections between isonomia and democratic political thought in Athens and other cities, touching upon the question whether isonomia was ultimately a utopian ideal. The final chapter offers a brief, but important discussion on later antiquity and philosophical concepts of isonomia in the Roman world. The volume closes with two Appendices on Alkmaion and the metaphorical employment of isonomia in early medical literature.
Schubert focuses upon the abstract idea of isonomía (or isonomíē) as a political concept of general order (p. 4: allgemeine Ordnungsvorstellung), and engages only circumstantially with an exploration of real-life legal inequalities among the citizens of ancient democracies. She recognizes an evolutionary process whereby isonomia in the archaic and early classical period was understood as a process building community and order, but not necessarily democratic equality, while in the classical period it evolved into a constitutional and administrative feature of democratic government. Schubert analyzes thoroughly her sources, builds the arguments with clarity and precision, provides an extensive review of sources which could be indicative for the political thinking of the archaic period that might be interpreted as a precursor to concepts of isonomia, and I found myself broadly agreeing with her conclusions in most instances. For example, I very much agree with her view on Robinson’s early democracies in the Greek World. Schubert views early constitutional forms with features which are typically considered to be characteristic of a democratic constitution, such as the accountability of civil servants, as proto-democracies at best, if at all. This is methodologically significant; rather than seeing democracies everywhere, every time some principle typically associated with a democratic constitution can be traced, Schubert rightly places emphasis on the ingenuity of the Kleisthenic reforms of mixing the old and the new, and anchoring the new Phylai into the cultic system of Athenian religion. This she considers to be the primary reason why Kleisthenes succeeded where the Ionians and the Greeks of Southern Italy had failed. Overall, Schubert offers sober and insightful accounts of archaic cities where some form of isonomia, actual or aspirational, can be traced, such as the koinon of the Ionian Greeks or some cities in Magna Graecia, even when the actual evidence is limited.
The distinction, attributed to Thucydides, between two concepts of isonomia, an “arithmetic” one (in Schubert’s terminology), where everyone is equal before the law (p. 192 katà tòn íson[sic]); the actual wording of Thucydides is slightly different: 3.37: métesti ... pâsi tò íson), and a “geometric” one, where equality before the law is defined by merit (3.37, ap' aretēs), is important for the build-up of the arguments in much of the study. In keeping with modern trends on the reforms of Solon, she perceives Solonian legislation as a first attempt to emphasize a community-oriented policy for the benefit of the entire polis. Schubert understands that Solon had a “geometric” concept of isonomia, and in the fight against tyranny, he perceived the idea of an equal share for all, regardless of their person, to be a mistake, because he was convinced that good order arises from mesotes and everyone having the appropriate share in the state, while “arithmentic” isomoiria and tyranny were the two extremes that work equally to the detriment of the entirety of the polis. Further down, when discussing concepts of “geometric” isonomia in Plato Schubert clearly outlines the philosopher’s view that the cause of the 'disease' in democracies lies in the “arithmetic” concept of isonomy, while “geometric” isonomy, on the other hand, would prevent the excesses of unbridled freedom.
Schubert is primarily interested in isonomia as a political concept and guiding principle, rather than a practical constitutional mechanism in the day-to-day affairs of ancient democracies, and this is consequential because it means that almost half of this volume is based upon 4 passages of Herodotos, while the entire monograph is built upon no more than 13 passages from the entire classical literature (4 in Herodotos, 2 in Thucydides, 1 in Alcmaion, 3 in Plato, 2 in Isocrates and 1 in Chrysippos; a small section of the book concerning later antiquity takes into account more sources). Inevitably, as a result, some discussions in this volume are built upon rather scant evidence. A good example can be found in p. 134–135, where Schubert builds an entire edifice about the structures of pre-Cleisthenic Athens upon a simple line of a funeral inscription inviting everyone, citizens and strangers from elsewhere alike to mourn for a soldier fallen at the prime of youth (IG i3 1194 bis). Schubert understands astós in the inscription as a citizen man from the ásty, the central city of Athens, and xénos as a foreigner from some other part of the still not unified Attica. In my opinion she is reading too much into this: the contrast between astós and xénos in the epigram does not necessarily imply that only men of the city-center (ásty) were considered citizens; the term astós applied to all citizens of the polis of Athens for centuries, and we cannot be sure that this was not the case before the time of Kleisthenes too. Moreover, the expression xénos ál(l)othen is rather generic, with no specific or technical reference to the political structures of pre-Kleisthenic Athens (e.g. Lys. 19.26; Euseb. Eccl. Th. 184.108.40.206; Hsch. s.v. /épēlys), and could mean a foreigner from anywhere on earth.
Further to this point, the author devotes an entire chapter and two appendices to consider a single reference in Alkmaion, which is clearly a metaphor from politics and in a medical setting a precursor of the theory of the Four Humors. This is an exciting finding in its own right, as it provides proof that the Theory of the Four Humors was not a construct of Hippocratic (Coan) medicine, from the east side of the Greek world, as it has been widely assumed, but has firm roots in Magna Graecia, and it suggests that the origins of this dominant model in ancient science are not only to be found in Empedoclean thought, but more intriguingly in the political processes of the Greek cities of southern Italy. Nonetheless, it seems somewhat indulgent to devote so much space to a single fragmentary passage, while at the same time at least 20 significant references to concepts and expressions of equality before the law in the Attic orators have been left out of the picture.
It is not my intention to be critical of the hard choices which the author had to make in the construction of a project as complex and demanding as this, but merely to point out where her priorities lie. After all, the inevitably speculative nature of some discussions does not mean that Schubert is wrong, or that these discussions are any less thoughtful and enticing. On occasion one might disagree, as for example in p. 124, where the Aristophanic Kleisthenes is presented as a political figure deliberately associated with the founder of the Athenian democracy, while it seems that the only thing the Aristophanic Kleisthenes had ever done wrong was not to have facial hair, and this made him the butt of comedic jokes implying effeminacy.
Minor quibbles aside, Schubert has written an insightful, thought-provoking study, which will be of great value to scholars interested in Greek political thought, law, democracy, political history and philosophy, and will be an integral part of any discussion on concepts of equality before the law for years to come.