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Another Sense of Demos: Kleisthenes and the Greek Division of the Polis

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This article discusses the third Greek sense of the term demos. As well as meaning either the people as a whole, or a group within them, the term also meant the deme, a location. The relation between politics, democracy and location is examined through examining models for the division of land within the Greek polis. The main focus is on Kleisthenes' reforms of Athens. Contrary to much of the literature, it downplays the rigid territorial aspects and emphasizes the reforms' arithmetic, rather than geometric, nature. It then moves to a briefer discussion of Plato's Laws and Aristotle's Politics. The suggestion is made that for Plato, as for Kleisthenes, the model for mathematical politics is actually arithmetic, not geometry. However, for Aristotle, although the emphasis is much more on the people than the land, it is, paradoxically, geometry that is more important than arithmetic, because of the role of relation and balance. The word demos therefore relates to people and the land they inhabit. In modern terms these are the attributes of population and territory, yet we should be cautious about thinking modern notions back into classical Greek thought. So although the understanding of demos as deme, village or commune is not the principal sense of the term, it is worth keeping it in mind when considering ancient democracy, as well as in a broader sense when noting the role of location in determining the polis.

Keywords: Aristotle; Plato

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2003-03-01

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