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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 and the Tyrants ·

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

Read about the evidence
Herodotus (Hdt.).

A striking passage that he cites is Herodotus 5.90.2:

Read about the evidence
Herodotus (Hdt.).

[Hdt. 5.90.2] ἐκτήσατο δὲ Κλεομένης ἐκ τῆς Ἀθηναίων ἀκροπόλιος τοὺς χρησμούς, τοὺς ἔκτηντο μὲν πρότερον οἱ Πεισιστρατίδαι, ἐξελαυνόμενοι δὲ ἔλιπον ἐν τῷ ἱρῷ, καταλειφθέντας δὲ Κλεομένης ἀνέλαβε.

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Athens.

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)

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Cicero (Cic. de Orat.).
Plutarch (Plut. Lyc.).
Plato (Plat. Hipparch.).
 
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Sparta.
Athens.
Teos.
Keos.

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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Notes

Note 3  

G. Nagy in a chapter entitled “Epic, Praise, and the Posession of Poetry” (Pindar’s Homer [Baltimore, 1990]), p. 158.

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Note 4  

Read about the evidence
Cicero (Cic. de Orat.).
Plutarch (Plut. Lyc.).
 
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Sparta.

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.

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Note 5  

Read about the evidence
Plato (Plat. Hipparch.).

The pseudo-Platonic dialogue Hipparchus 228-229: πολίτῃ μὲν ἐμῷ τε καὶ σῷ, Πεισιστράτου δὲ ὑεῖ τοῦ ἐκ Φιλαϊδῶν, Ἱππάρχῳ, ὃς τῶν Πεισιστράτου παίδων ἦν πρεσβύτατος καὶ σοφώτατος, ὃς ἄλλα τε πολλὰ καὶ καλὰ ἔργα σοφίας ἀπεδείξατο, καὶ τὰ Ὁμήρου ἔπη πρῶτος ἐκόμισεν εἰς τὴν γῆν ταυτηνί, καὶ ἠνάγκασε τοὺς ῥαψῳδοὺς Παναθηναίοις ἐξ ὑπολήψεως ἐφεξῆς αὐτὰ διιέναι, ὥσπερ νῦν ἔτι οἵδε ποιοῦσιν, καὶ ἐπ᾽ Ἀνακρέοντα τὸν Τήιον πεντηκόντορον στείλας ἐκόμισεν εἰς τὴν πόλιν, Σιμωνίδην δὲ τὸν Κεῖον ἀεὶ περὶ αὑτὸν εἶχεν, μεγάλοις μισθοῖς καὶ δώροις πείθων· ταῦτα δ᾽ ἐποίει βουλόμενος παιδεύειν τοὺς πολίτας, ἵν᾽ ὡς βελτίστων ὄντων αὐτῶν ἄρχοι, οὐκ οἰόμενος δεῖν οὐδενὶ σοφίας φθονεῖν, ἅτε ὢν καλός τε κἀγαθός. ἐπειδὴ δὲ αὐτῷ οἱ περὶ τὸ ἄστυ τῶν πολιτῶν πεπαιδευμένοι ἦσαν καὶ ἐθαύμαζον αὐτὸν ἐπὶ σοφίᾳ, ἐπιβουλεύων αὖ τοὺς ἐν τοῖς ἀγροῖς παιδεῦσαι ἔστησεν αὐτοῖς Ἑρμᾶς κατὰ τὰς ὁδοὺς ἐν μέσῳ τοῦ ἄστεος καὶ τῶν δήμων ἑκάστων, κἄπειτα τῆς σοφίας τῆς αὑτοῦ, ἥν τ᾽ ἔμαθεν καὶ ἣν αὐτὸς ἐξηῦρεν, ἐκλεξάμενος ἡγεῖτο σοφώτατα εἶναι, ταῦτα αὐτὸς ἐντείνας εἰς ἐλεγεῖον αὑτοῦ ποιήματα καὶ ἐπιδείγματα τῆς σοφίας ἐπέγραψεν, ἵνα πρῶτον μὲν τὰ ἐν Δελφοῖς γράμματα τὰ σοφὰ ταῦτα μὴ θαυμάζοιεν οἱ πολῖται αὐτοῦ, τό τε γνῶθι σαυτόν καὶ τὸ μηδὲν ἄγαν καὶ τἆλλα τὰ τοιαῦτα, ἀλλὰ τὰ Ἱππάρχου ῥήματα μᾶλλον σοφὰ ἡγοῖντο, ἔπειτα παριόντες ἄνω καὶ κάτω καὶ ἀναγιγνώσκοντες καὶ γεῦμα λαμβάνοντες αὐτοῦ τῆς σοφίας φοιτῷεν ἐκ τῶν ἀγρῶν καὶ ἐπὶ τὰ λοιπὰ παιδευθησόμενοι. ἐστὸν δὲ δύο τὠπιγράμματε· ἐν μὲν τοῖς ἐπ᾽ ἀριστερὰ τοῦ Ἑρμοῦ ἑκάστου ἐπιγέγραπται λέγων Ἑρμῆς ὅτι ἐν μέσῳ τοῦ ἄστεος καὶ τοῦ δήμου ἕστηκεν, ἐν δὲ τοῖς ἐπὶ δεξιά

μνῆμα τόδ᾽ Ἱππάρχου· στεῖχε δίκαια φρονῶν

φησίν. ἔστι δὲ τῶν ποιημάτων καὶ ἄλλα ἐν ἄλλοις Ἑρμαῖς πολλὰ καὶ καλὰ ἐπιγεγραμμένα· ἔστι δὲ δὴ καὶ τοῦτο ἐπὶ τῇ Στειριακῇ ὁδῷ, ἐν λέγει

μνῆμα τόδ᾽ Ἱππάρχου· μὴ φίλον ἐξαπάτα.

ἐγὼ οὖν σὲ ἐμοὶ ὄντα φίλον οὐ δήπου τολμῴην ἂν ἐξαπατᾶν καὶ ἐκείνῳ τοιούτῳ ὄντι ἀπιστεῖν, οὗ καὶ ἀποθανόντος τρία ἔτη ἐτυραννεύθησαν Ἀθηναῖοι ὑπὸ τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ αὐτοῦ Ἱππίου, καὶ πάντων ἂν τῶν παλαιῶν ἤκουσας ὅτι ταῦτα μόνον τὰ ἔτη τυραννὶς ἐγένετο ἐν Ἀθήναις, τὸν δ᾽ ἄλλον χρόνον ἐγγύς τι ἔζων Ἀθηναῖοι ὥσπερ ἐπὶ Κρόνου βασιλεύοντος. λέγεται δὲ ὑπὸ τῶν χαριεστέρων ἀνθρώπων καὶ θάνατος αὐτοῦ γενέσθαι οὐ δι᾽ οἱ πολλοὶ ᾠήθησαν, διὰ τὴν τῆς ἀδελφῆς ἀτιμίαν τῆς κανηφορίας ἐπεὶ τοῦτό γε εὔηθες ἀλλὰ τὸν μὲν Ἁρμόδιον γεγονέναι παιδικὰ τοῦ Ἀριστογείτονος καὶ πεπαιδεῦσθαι ὑπ᾽ ἐκείνου, μέγα δ᾽ ἐφρόνει ἄρα καὶ Ἀριστογείτων ἐπὶ τῷ παιδεῦσαι ἄνθρωπον, καὶ ἀνταγωνιστὴν ἡγεῖτο εἶναι τὸν Ἵππαρχον. ἐν ἐκείνῳ δὲ τῷ χρόνῳ αὐτὸν τὸν Ἁρμόδιον τυγχάνειν ἐρῶντά τινος τῶν νέων τε καὶ καλῶν καὶ γενναίων τῶν τότε καὶ λέγουσι τοὔνομα αὐτοῦ, ἐγὼ δὲ οὐ μέμνημαι τὸν οὖν νεανίσκον τοῦτον τέως μὲν θαυμάζειν τόν τε Ἁρμόδιον καὶ τὸν Ἀριστογείτονα ὡς σοφούς, ἔπειτα συγγενόμενον τῷ Ἱππάρχῳ καταφρονῆσαι ἐκείνων, καὶ τοὺς περιαλγήσαντας ταύτῃ τῇ ἀτιμίᾳ οὕτως ἀποκτεῖναι τὸν Ἵππαρχον.

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