Hallowed Stewards: Solon and the Sacred Treasurers of Ancient Athens by William S. Bubelis
This book examines Athenian fiscal administration through the lens of sacred treasurers in the archaic and classical periods. Bubelis argues that treasurers played an essential, though rather accidental, role in the developing institutional landscape of Athens from Solon to the fourth century, and through careful examination of their evolving responsibilities he pieces together changes in the management of cult finances that shaped the Athenian state. These changes were inherently conservative: fiscal innovations occurred not through design, but as a result of competition within the elite for offices exclusively reserved for them. Holding office brought prestige and allowed the elite to use communal resources to further their own standing and electoral prospects whilst the revenues of the polis were increasing. This, in turn, led to the development of new structures for the administration of sacred property, but also fostered electoral patronage and institutional change.
In chapters 1–3 the focus is primarily on archaic Athens. Here Bubelis argues that Solonian laws shaped institutional practices over the long term. Prima facie this makes sense, but the devil is in the detail. So, the Solonian law that restricted service as tamias to the pentakosiomedimnoi also established klerosis ek prokriton as the selection procedure and, as such, served as a model for reforms of the archonship in 487/6 (chapter 1). Other laws—the ghost-like remnants of which are, according to Bubelis, preserved in the sacrificial calendar of 399—laid out duties for officials that were centered on their responsibilities to [End Page 156] the polis (chapter 2). The incentives of power were such that officials controlled resources greater than their personal finances through their service, making such office-holding attractive to the elite and competitive, and, over time, it prompted institutional change (chapter 3). A recurring problem in these chapters is the limited evidence. Bubelis does his best to reconcile disparate sources but ultimately—without a more robust theoretical framework to hold the chronologically fragmentary pieces of evidence he discusses—many of the suggestions can only be speculative. To be fair, Bubelis is aware of this problem, but this join-the-dots approach makes this part of the book rather old-fashioned, an exercise in piecing together "intriguing clues." Frequently, Bubelis has to couch his argument in phrases like "it is likely that," "it is reasonable to think that," or "we cannot be sure that." That is, despite the valiant effort to build a coherent picture, the evidence is not strong.
Bubelis is on a surer footing in the second part of the book, where he outlines the duties of treasurers (chapter 4) and the development of sacred property administration into the classical period (chapters 5–7). Here Bubelis argues that there were differences between categories of sacred property used for various purposes and administered by different officials. Only tamiai, by virtue of their exclusive status, were in control of hiera wealth (immobile property, off-limits outside cult practice), whereas other sacred officials managed the day-to-day finances, with the authority to designate demosia (public) property as hosia and therefore to make funds available for lending or leasing. The tribes were the main locus of these "fiscal innovation[s]" in the immediate pre- and post-Kleisthenic period, but these developments occurred piecemeal and primarily as a result of intra-elite competition.
This is a not a book for the undergraduate syllabus but squarely targeted at a specialized audience with technical knowledge. Even so, a firmer editorial hand should have been taken with the dense text that makes the argument, in places, difficult to follow. The claims made here are rather grand: that this is a reappraisal of the Athenian public economy and the institutional history of Athens (17–18). It is not a radical one for sure: Solon remains a central, almost domineering, figure—a "catalyst" for future institutional change—the elite are motivated by competition with one another, religious innovation is conservative and traditional by impulse. These conclusions are not necessarily wrong, but they are hardly surprising. The book does, however, shine a light on a relatively neglected part of Athenian constitutional history and makes a strong case for a greater understanding of the role of sacred property and its administration in the classical period. For that, Bubelis has provided a great service.