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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 & the Dēmos ·

Plot on a Map
Athens.
Salamis.
Athens.

I see state regulation of poetry as one of many points of contact with the Peisistratid tyranny in which the dēmos itself becomes a kind of “tyrant.” The Tholos, for example, which housed the Prytaneis—those groups of 50 representatives from each of the ten tribes who held the “prytany” or presidency of the Council of 500 in rotation and were fed in the Tholos at public expense—was built on the spot where a building which is thought to have been the home of the Peisistratids once stood.6 Like many of the archaic tyrants, the Peisistratids undertook a public works program in which work was done on the Acropolis, the temple of Dionysus was built, the colossal temple of Olympian Zeus was laid out, and in which the Agora began to take on a more monumental form.7 The comparison with the fifth-century democratic building program is clear.

Of course a more obvious point of contact between the dēmos and the Peisistratids for my purposes is in the origins of tragedy itself. It is likely that one of the first acts of the new democracy was the organization of the City Dionysia as a tragic festival (though proto-tragic choruses of some kind were performed under the Peisistratids).8 At this critical time (that is ca 500 BC) comes the first stone theater of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis. The organization of the great Athenian dramatic festival at the birth of the democracy is an assertion of power by way of the control of poetry, not unlike the reorganization of the Panathenaia by the Peisistratids.

Plot on a Map
Athens.
Chaeronea.

More than a century and a half later after the battle of Chaeronea Athens was once again in a position in which it needed to assert control. Lycurgus, a prominent statesman with either enormous personal influence or else acting in some official capacity undertook at this time a building program. Among other projects the docks and harbors and various things in connection with the navy were increased and improved, and the theater of Dionysus was rebuilt. Lycurgus was also at this time in charge of festivals and processions, and in this context presumably he proposed the law concerning the dramatists. I stress the navy and the theater in conjunction as the means by which Athens, under the direction of Lycurgus, attempted to rebuild and reassert the authority of the polis after Chaeronea. Just as for the tyrants of archaic Greece, the possession and control of poetry and its performance was a crucial (though ultimately unsuccessful) demonstration of wealth, power, and prestige for the Athenian dēmos in the years following 338.

Read about the evidence
Herodotus (Hdt.).

To conclude I would like to return to the parallels I raised in the beginning between citations of laws and poetry by orators as evidence in the law courts. Aeschines and other proponents of democracy name written laws to which all citizens are bound, that is isonomia, as the cornerstone of any democratic government. The Persian Otanes points out in Herodotus 3.82 that tyranny and oligarchy have the power to cast aside law, disregard it or distort it ( τῇ ἔξεστι ἀνευθύνῳ ποιέειν τὰ βούλεται νόμαιά τε κινέει πάτρια ). In a democracy, laws are the common property of all citizens:

διοικοῦνται δ᾽ αἱ μὲν τυραννίδες καὶ ὀλιγαρχίαι τοῖς τρόποις τῶν ἐφεστηκότων, αἱ δὲ πόλεις αἱ δημοκρατούμεναι τοῖς νόμοις τοῖς κειμένοις ὑμῖν δὲ τοῖς τὴν ἴσην καὶ ἔννομον πολιτείαν ἔχουσι τοὺς παρὰ τοὺς νόμους λέγοντας βεβιωκότας· ἐντεῦθεν γὰρ ἰσχύσετε, ὅταν εὐνομῆσθε

Read about the evidence
Aeschines (Aeschin. 1).

Autocracies and oligarchies are administered according to the tempers of their lords, but democratic states according to established laws. And be assured, fellow citizens, that in a democracy it is the laws that guard the person of the citizen and the constitution of the state… but you, who have a government based upon equality and law, must guard against those whose words violate the laws or whose lives have defied them; for then only will you be strong, when you cherish the laws ( εὐνομῆσθε )… (Aeschines Against Timarchus 4-5)

I would point out to the student of the Athenian democracy that poetry, like the laws, had power, and for that reason it had to be regulated—that is protected and guarded against those who would violate it.

But I also think that if we focus too closely on the importance of the state copies for the establishment of the text we are missing the point somewhat. The law (in the only source in which we have it) does not specify from what exemplar the state copies are to be made. We will probably never know if the law did in fact specify such a thing. What we do know of the law is that the texts were to be placed in the Metroon, and statues of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were to be placed in the theater. This suggests two things: 1) that the law had an honorific purpose, and not necessarily textual one. And 2) that the poetry of these three great tragedians was being symbolically elevated to the status of law in the civic discourse, as we so often find in the law courts and public speeches in the fourth century.

[For another study of the use of Homeric and other poetry in the Athenian public arena, see also Andrew Ford, “Reading Homer from the Rostrum: Poems and Laws in Aeschines” Against Timarchus’ (in Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy, ed. Simon Goldhill and Robin Osborne, 1999; as well as S. Perlman, “Quotations from Poetry in Attic Orators of the Fourth Century BCE” [American Journal of Philology 85 (1964): 155-172]). Ford adduces many of the same key passages that I have examined here, but his argument differs from mine. Whereas Ford stresses the individual motives of public speakers in seeking to display their education and sophistication in their citations of Homeric and other poetry for their ad hoc legal or political argumentation, I argue for the inherent traditional authority of such poetic traditions, from the archaic period onward, in civic discourse.— CD]

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Notes

Note 6  

Plot on a Map
Athens.
Salamis.
Athens.

T. Leslie Shear, Jr., “Tyrants and Buildings in Archaic Athens.” Athens Comes of Age from Solon to Salamis . Princeton, 1978, p.4. J. M. Camp, The Athenian Agora: Excavations in the Heart of Classical Athens (London, 1986), pp. 39-40.

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Note 7  

Shear, Jr., pp. 8-11 and Camp, pp. 39-40.

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Note 8  

P. Cartledge, “‘Deep Plays’: theatre as process in Greek civic life.’ The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. ed. P. E. Easterling. Cambridge, 1997. See also Vernant in J-P. Vernant and P. Vidal-Naquet, Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece. trans. Janet Lloyd. New York, 1990.

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