Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Antiphon 1.
Michael Gagarin, edition of March 27, 2003
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In Antiphon 1 the speaker’s case depends almost entirely on the story he tells, for he introduces no direct evidence to support the story. He does say that he asked to have the household slaves interrogated but his half-brother refused. If interrogated (he claims), they would have confirmed that on a previous occasion the stepmother was caught trying to give his father a lethal drug and that her only defense at that time was to claim that she intended the drug as a love potion. He also refers to his father’s (alleged) deathbed words, affirming the stepmother’s guilt and imploring the speaker (then still a boy) to bring the wicked murderer to justice. But these arguments, together with a few other emotionally charged accusations, amount to very little, so that the case really rests on the speaker’s account of the planning and carrying out of the crime (sections 14-20). The story begins—and picking the right starting point is crucial—by introducing the victim’s good friend, Philoneus, who had a pallake—a combination of mistress and servant—whom he was intending to hire out as a prostitute, clearly a change for the worse in her situation. The stepmother made friends with this servant, telling her that she too was being wrongly treated by her husband but that she knew how both of them could regain the love of their husband or master. But she needed her help to carry out the plan she had devised. The servant readily agreed to help and they made their plans.
Some time later, we are told, Philoneus, a businessman who lived in Piraeus, the port city of Athens, invited his friend, the speaker’s father, to stay with him there before embarking on a trip the next day. He could help Philoneus celebrate the sacrificial rites of Zeus Ctesius (Zeus the god of private property), and they could have dinner afterwards. Philoneus’ mistress helped him carry out the sacrifice and then served the two men dinner. After dinner, while the men were pouring libations of wine to the god and uttering prayers for a safe journey, the servant slipped a drug the stepmother had given her into the men’s drinking cups, hoping to regain Philoneus’ affections. And thinking she was being clever, she put an extra dose in Philoneus’ cup. After pouring the libations the men took up their cups and drank the poison. Philoneus died on the spot, and his friend became sick and died twenty days later. The servant was tortured and executed immediately (as a slave she would have no rights after clearly causing the death of her master). But the stepmother, the story concludes, the one who was responsible for the whole crime, still awaits her punishment. The story will only reach its proper end, the speaker makes clear, when the jury sees to it that the woman is punished and justice is done.
Scholars have generally been unimpressed by this narrative, which is not only not confirmed by any external evidence but must also be in part a product of the speaker’s imagination, since he must have made up most of the details, particularly in the scene where (he alleges) his stepmother plans the murder and enlists the servant’s help. The latter may have given a general account of her involvement in the crime before being put to death, and the story of the final sacrifice and dinner could perhaps be reconstructed with reasonable accuracy. But the speaker could not have known the words and thoughts of the two women when they met alone, and does not cite any source for this information. He simply relates what happened, like the all-knowing narrator of a work of fiction. This has led some scholars to conclude that this speech is just that—a work of fiction perhaps written as a practice exercise in imitation of a speech of Antiphon. This view draws support from the fact that at one point (section 17) the stepmother is called a “Clytemnestra”—an allusion to the familiar myth in which this woman killed her husband Agamemnon when he returned home after fighting in the Trojan War. The implication is that the speaker is playing the role of Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, who was widely praised for avenging his father’s death by killing Clytemnestra. Other scholars have speculated that the original speech must have contained some evidence that later dropped out of the text between the time it was composed and the time of our earliest surviving manuscripts.
These scholars fail to appreciate the difficulty of the speaker’s situation and the importance of stories like this in an age when good evidence by modern standards was often unavailable. For instance, the deaths occurred several years earlier, when the speaker, whose duty it was to bring his father’s killer to justice, was still a minor and thus not old enough to prosecute. The time lag would have made it even more difficult to discover things like who supplied the drug to the stepmother (if indeed she provided it and not the servant herself). Moreover, there can be a fine line between a love potion and a poison, and not only could no one prove which kind of drug this was, but it may, in fact, have had either effect depending on the dose given. In addition, it was not easy to provide the stepmother with a motive for the murder without ascribing to the husband some sort of conduct (such as keeping a common prostitute in the same house as his wife) that would lower the jury’s opinion of him and increase sympathy for his wife. Of course, the defendant (the stepmother’s son) faced the equally difficult task of presenting the husband’s mistreatment of his wife in a way that aroused the jury’s sympathy for her, without providing her with too good a motive for murder. The speaker solves this problem by omitting any account of the man’s treatment of his wife and beginning his story only at the point where she speaks (vaguely) of her fear of losing his love. His entire focus is on her effort to enlist the servant’s help in carrying out her plot. We thus understand that she has sufficient motivation to kill him, but we hear nothing of any misconduct of his.
As with all stories, the effectiveness of the this one would have depended on the intended audience, who in this case were all men over 30. Even jurors who did not think the woman meant to kill her husband might judge that any wife who surreptitiously gave her husband a love potion was putting his life in danger and thus deserved to die, and was also secretly plotting to gain control over him, which was equally reprehensible. And in a culture where men were assumed to be the dominant parties in marriages, it would be relatively easy to convict such a woman even if she murdered his spouse with good reason. So Antiphon’s story might well have won the case, whatever its deficiencies, if the other side could not come up with an effective story of their own.
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