Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Poetry and the Tyrants.
Casey Dué, edition of January 31, 2003
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I would like to suggest that this kind of regulation of poetry by the Athenian democracy is reminiscent of the control over poetry once asserted by the Peisistratid tyranny. Gregory Nagy, in his 1990 book Pindar’s Homer , has shown how the possession of poetry was a primary sign of the tyrant’s wealth, power, and prestige.3
A striking passage that he cites is Herodotus 5.90.2:
Plot on a Map
Kleomenes had taken possession of these oracular utterances, taking them from the acropolis of the Athenians. Previously, the Peisistratidae had possession of them, but, when they were driven out of Athens, they left them in the temple. It was there that Kleomenes found them and took them. (translation by G. Nagy)
Nagy demonstrates with this passage that the oracular poetry was literally private property possessed by the tyrants of Athens.4 Nagy connects the negative image in Herodotus of the Peisistratids as hoarders of poetry with the positive image that the Peisistratids tried to convey of themselves as owners but at the same time sharers of poetry through public performance. In the pseudo-Platonic dialogue Hipparchus we see such a positive portrayal of Hipparchus in connection with the introduction of epic performances at the Panathenaia, the conveying of the poet Anacreon to Athens from Teos, Hipparchus’ patronage of Simonides of Keos, and the display of poetry on Herm statues which Hipparchus had set up in the countryside.5 But as Nagy writes on this passage: “as long as private interests control the public medium, there is the ever-present danger of a premeditated selective control over the content of poetry, leading to stealthy distortions or perversions of the poetic truth.”
It is interesting that the control of poetry by tyrants threatens a perversion of truth, while regulation of dramatic texts by the dēmos serves to protect the texts from insertions or alterations and even performance by others. There is no guarantee of course that the Athenian state copies of these texts were not already quite corrupted. We know very little about the publication and circulation of books within the lifetime and in the century after the deaths of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, but it must have been sporadic and completely unregulated. We have no idea on what exemplar the Athenian state texts were to be based in the Lycurgan law. I think we can see that the dēmos in its attempt to protect the texts assumes the role that the tyrant once played in its selective control of poetry.
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G. Nagy in a chapter entitled “Epic, Praise, and the Posession of Poetry” (Pindar’s Homer [Baltimore, 1990]), p. 158.Note 4
The possession of poetry by the Peisistratids is very much related to establishment of the Homeric texts although this is not my focus today. See G. Nagy, Pindar’s Homer 174: “This possession of Musaeus by the Peisistratidae is parallel to their possession of Homer: there is a report that Onomakritos, along with three others, was commissioned in the reign of Peisistratos to supervise the ‘arranging’ of the Homeric poems, which were before the scattered about (diethēkan houtôsi sporadēn ousas to prin, Anecdota Graeca 1.6 ed. Cramer).” See also Cicero De oratore 3.137. For a parallel myth concerning the reassembly of the Homeric poems by Lycurgus, lawgiver of Sparta, see Plutarch Life of Lycurgus 4.4.Note 5
Read about the evidence
Plato (Plat. Hipparch.).
The pseudo-Platonic dialogue
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