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What was Stasis? Ancient Usage and Modern Constructs

Scott Arcenas

Stanford University

Stasis was an important category of analysis for the ancient Greeks (e.g. Gehrke, Loraux, Kalimtzis, Gray). Textual and epigraphic sources designate a relatively small number of conflicts as staseis explicitly (e.g. Alc. 130, Thuc. 3.82-85, Arist. Pol. 5.1302b25-33). They also document a larger number that may or may not qualify as staseis, depending on how broadly one interprets the term (e.g. Hdt. 9.5, Dem. 15.14-15, SEG 57.576). In this paper, I develop a criterial framework to determine which of these ambiguous cases do qualify. This is an important contribution to the literature, because the ambiguous cases substantially outnumber the unambiguous ones. Accordingly, the question of which to recognize as staseis has considerable implications for our understanding of the concept as a whole.

In the first section of the paper, I survey the ways in which existing scholarship handles ambiguous cases. Most historians choose which cases to in- or, conversely, exclude arbitrarily (e.g. Lintott, van Wees). Others conflate stasis with etic concepts, such as internal war (e.g. Gehrke) or civil war (e.g. Fisher), and recognize conflicts as staseis insofar as they conform to the criteria associated with these concepts. None address the question of what criteria the Greeks themselves used to distinguish stasis from other types of conflict, such as prodosia (i.e. the betrayal of a polis to invading forces; e.g. Thuc. 4.103-4) or apolitical feuding (e.g. Dem. 54).

In the second section, I assemble a corpus of ca. 200 archaic, classical, and early Hellenistic conflicts that one or more ancient sources explicitly describe as staseis. I then identify four criteria that distinguish these from other types of conflict: first, stasis occurs within a political community; second, members of the community dominate all parties to the conflict; third, one or more of these parties seeks to control the community politically; fourth, the conflict threatens to—but does not necessarily—erupt in violence.

In the third section, I apply these criteria to a selection of ambiguous cases. I then compare the results to a selection of conflicts that existing scholarship recognizes as staseis. The selections differ in three significant respects: i) whereas the literature tends to consider only staseis that occurred in poleis (e.g. Berger, Hansen and Nielsen; but see Gehrke), my criteria recognize staseis that occurred in political communities that range from poleis to the Persian Empire (e.g. Hdt. ­7.2.1-2); ii) whereas the literature tends to consider only staseis that involved violence (e.g. Fisher, van Wees; but see Lintott), my criteria recognize staseis that remained non-violent (e.g. ­Thuc. 4.84.2); iii) whereas the literature considers foreign-initiated regime changes to be staseis (e.g. Gehrke, pp. 255-7, on the decarchies installed by Lysander), my criteria recognize only conflicts in which members of the relevant political community dominated all parties to the conflict.

All three differences have substantial implications. Consider the third, for example. Application of my criteria to the corpus of ca. 400 conflicts recognized as staseis by Gehrke, Berger, and/or Hansen and Nielsen would eliminate several dozen cases in which foreign allies played a leading role. In so doing, it would substantially undermine Gehrke’s influential thesis that foreign interventions were a fundamental element of stasis (Gehrke, esp. 268-308; cf. Hansen; but see Gray, esp. 197-204).

On the basis of the preceding discussion, I take stasis to be an exclusively endogenous breakdown in the harmonious equilibrium that maintains successful political communities. As such, it differs in several crucial respects from the etic concepts, such as internal war and revolution, with which it is regularly conflated. And this recognition presents scholars of intra-community violence in ancient Greece with a dilemma. Insofar as we wish to consider the emic category of stasis, we need to shift our objects of analysis to match. Insofar as we want to retain our objects of analysis, we need to recognize that they are not staseis and, accordingly, employ appropriate etic categories.  

Session/Panel Title

Stasis and Reconciliation in Ancient Greece: New Approaches

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