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Poetry and the Dēmos: State Regulation of a Civic Possession 

Casey Dué, edition of January 31, 2003

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· Poetry in the Courtroom ·

Read about the evidence
Plutarch (Plut. Mor.).

The pervasive civic importance of poetry in Athenian democracy during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE has been obvious since ancient times. The figure Demades in Plutarch calls the “theoric fund” , which paid for the entrance fee into dramatic festivals for all citizens, the “glue of the democracy” ( ὡς ἔλεγε Δημάδης, κόλλαν ὀνομάζων τὰ θεωρικὰ τῆς δημοκρατίας ) (Plut. Platonic Questions 1011b). In Aeschines’s oration Against Timarchus, Aeschines asks his jury to apply wisdom from the poetry of Euripides in their judgment of the case before them:

Σκέψασθε δέ, Ἀθηναῖοι, τὰς γνῶμας ἃς ἀποφαίνεται ποιητής. Ἤδη δὲ πολλῶν πραγμάτων φησὶ γεγενῆσθαι κριτής, ὥσπερ νῦν ὑμεῖς δικασταί, καὶ τὰς κρίσεις οὐκ ἐκ τῶν μαρτυριῶν, ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ τῶν ἐπιτηδευμάτων καὶ τῶν ὁμιλιῶν φησι ποιεῖσθαι... οὐκ ὤκνησεν ἀποφήνασθαι τοιοῦτον εἶναι οἷσπερ ἥδεται ξυνών. Οὐκοῦν δίκαιον καὶ περὶ Τιμάρχου τοῖς αὐτοῖς ὑμᾶς Εὐριπίδῃ χρήσασθαι λογισμοῖς.

Read about the evidence
Aeschines (Aeschin. 1).

Consider, O Athenians, the sentiments that the poet expresses. He says that in the past he has been the arbiter of many disputes, just as you jurors are now, and he says that he makes his decisions not based on the testimony of witnesses, but on the habits and company of the defendant… he did not shrink from claiming that a man’s character is none other than that of those with whom he likes to associate. Therefore it is right for you also to use the same logic as Euripides in the case of Timarchus. (Aeschines, Against Timarchus 153)

In fact throughout his prosecution Aeschines provides carefully selected citations of Homer and the tragedians to support his claim that Timarchus has led the kind of life which, according to Athenian law, precludes him from speaking in the democratic assembly. Moreover, whenever Aeschines cites poetry, he uses the same wording as when he cites a law or an affidavit: he calls on the grammateus to read out specific passages, and then he comments upon them. Compare the following two passages:

Ἀναγνώσεται οὖν ὑμῖν τούτους τοὺς νόμους γραμματεύς , ἵν᾽ εἰδῆτε ὅτι νομοθέτης ἡγήσατο τὸν καλῶς τραφέντα παῖδα ἄνδρα γενόμενον χρήσιμον ἔσεσθαι τῇ πόλει· ὅταν δ᾽ φύσις τοῦ ἀνθρώπου εὐθὺς πονηρὰν ἀρχὴν λάβῃ τῆς παιδείας, ἐκ τῶν κακῶς τεθραμμένων παίδων παραπλησίους ἡγήσατο πολίτας ἔσεσθαι Τιμάρχῳ τουτῳί. Λέγε αὐτοῖς τοὺς νόμους τούτους.

Read about the evidence
Aeschines (Aeschin. 1).

The grammateus therefore will read out ( ἀναγνώσεται ) the laws for you, so that you may know that the lawgiver believed that the child who was brought up well would be a good citizen. But whenever human nature receives a depraved beginning to its education straightaway from childhood, he believed that the citizens that resulted from such badly brought up children would be like this man Timarchus. Read ( λέγε ) for them these laws. ( Against Timarchus 11)

Ἵνα δὲ καὶ διὰ τοῦ μέτρου τὰς γνώμας ἀκούσητε τοῦ ποιητοῦ, ἀναγνώσεται ὑμῖν γραμματεὺς τὰ ἔπη τὰ περὶ τούτων Ὅμηρος πεποίηκε. Λέγε πρῶτον τὰ περὶ τῆς Ἕκτορος τιμωρίας.

Read about the evidence
Aeschines (Aeschin. 1).

In order that you may hear the sentiments of the poet in verse, the grammateus will read out ( ἀναγνώσεται ) for you the epic verses, which Homer has composed concerning these things. Read ( λέγε ) first the verses about the revenge against Hector. ( Against Timarchus 147)

Aeschines’ use of Homer and Euripides as evidence in a court case shows the student of the Athenian dēmos a great deal about the important role that poetry played in the democracy. Like written laws that guaranteed constitutional rights for all citizens, the poetry of Homer and tragedy was the common intellectual and moral property of the dēmos, and a standard by which behavior could be assessed. The law court with its jury of citizens was a place in which the behavior of individuals was constantly being evaluated in relation to the values of the polis as a whole.

Read about the evidence
Plutarch (Plut. Sol.).
Herodotus (Hdt.).
Aristotle (Aristot. Rh.).
Aristotle (Aristot. Rh.).
 
Plot on a Map
Syracuse.
Athens.
Salamis.
Salamis.
Salamis.

It is essential for any student of the Athenian dēmos to understand the authority of poetry in the civic discourse of Athens. The authority of poetry, moreover, is not restricted to tragedy (as we have seen) nor to disputes in the courts. Carolyn Higbie has shown the way in which Homer and the Iliadic “past” could be cited as authoritative evidence in all sorts of disputes, including Athenian claims to the island of Salamis and an incident that Herodotus relates in which the Athenians and Spartans make their claims to command of the Greek navy and army against the Persians before Gelon of Syracuse.1 Higbie points out that in Aristotle’s Rhetoric the philosopher cites poets from the past as one of two types of witnesses, the ancient and the recent ( οἱ μὲν παλαιοὶ οἱ δὲ πρόσφατοι ), and he notes the ancient as the more secure. He does this within in a passage in which he himself cites SophoclesAntigone on the concept of unwritten laws.2 Aeschines cites Homer in conjunction with tragedy throughout his orations, as do other orators.

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Notes

Note 1  

Read about the evidence
Plutarch (Plut. Sol.).
Herodotus (Hdt.).
 
Plot on a Map
Athens.
Salamis.
Salamis.

C. Higbie, “The Bones of a Hero, The Ashes of a Politician: Athens, Salamis, and the Usable Past.” Classical Antiquity 16 (1997): 279-308. Athenian claims to Salamis based on Homer’s Iliad: Aristotle, Plutarch Solon 10.2-3, Strabo, Diogenes Laertius. Command of the Greek army and navy against the Persians: Herodotus 7.159-161.

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Note 2  

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Rh.).

Aristot. Rh. 1375a-b: καὶ περὶ μὲν τῶν νόμων οὕτως διωρίσθω· περὶ δὲ μαρτύρων, μάρτυρές εἰσιν διττοί, οἱ μὲν παλαιοὶ οἱ δὲ πρόσφατοι, καὶ τούτων οἱ μὲν μετέχοντες τοῦ κινδύνου οἱ δ᾽ ἐκτός. λέγω δὲ παλαιοὺς μὲν τούς τε ποιητὰς καὶ ὅσων ἄλλων γνωρίμων εἰσὶν κρίσεις φανεραί, οἷον Ἀθηναῖοι Ὁμήρῳ μάρτυρι ἐχρήσαντο περὶ Σαλαμῖνος

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Rh.).
 
Plot on a Map
Salamis.

“Witnesses are of two kinds, ancient and recent; of the latter some share the risk of the trial, others are outside it. By ancient I mean the poets and men of repute whose judgements are known to all; for instance, the Athenians, in the matter of Salamis, appealed to Homer as a witness” (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1375b).

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