Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
Casey Dué, edition of January 31, 2003
(Section 1 of 5)
This article argues that poetry—the Homeric epics and the works of the tragedians—enjoyed an importance to the democratic government of Athens equal to that of the city’s laws. Like laws, poetry was powerful. Like the law, too, poetry was regulated and, at times, manipulated according to the political needs of the city and its rulers.
(Section 2 of 5)
Read about the evidence
Plutarch (Plut. Mor.).
The pervasive civic importance of poetry in Athenian democracy during the
Σκέψασθε δέ, ὦ Ἀθηναῖοι, τὰς γνῶμας ἃς ἀποφαίνεται ὁ 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.
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 ὁ γραμματεύς, ἵν᾽ εἰδῆτε ὅτι ὁ νομοθέτης ἡγήσατο τὸν καλῶς τραφέντα παῖδα ἄνδρα γενόμενον χρήσιμον ἔσεσθαι τῇ πόλει· ὅταν δ᾽ ἡ 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.
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)
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.
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 Sophocles’ Antigone on the concept of unwritten laws.2 Aeschines cites Homer in conjunction with tragedy throughout his orations, as do other orators.
— Notes for section 2 —
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.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…
“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).
— End of notes for section 2 —
(Section 3 of 5)
Read about the evidence
Plutarch (Plut. Mor.).
But the formula by which Aeschines calls upon the grammateus to read aloud a segment of poetry raises for me many questions. What text does the grammateus read when he is called upon to do so? Is it one provided by Aeschines? What kind of state texts, if any, existed for Homer and the tragedians? I would like to explore the question of state regulation of dramatic texts in the context of the definition of poetry that I have given above—that is the common intellectual and moral property of the dēmos. To what extent, and more importantly, why did the Athenian democracy regulate that possession? Plutarch’s Lives of the Ten Orators (Plut. Mor. 841F) mentions a Lycurgan law that called for official state copies of the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides to be placed in the Metroon:
Read about the evidence
Plutarch (Plut. Mor.).
[Next he proposed] that bronze statues of the poets Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides be set up, and that written copies of their tragedies be guarded in the public treasury and that the grammateus of the polis read them out publicly (παραναγινώσκειν) to the actors. (Plutarch Lives of the Ten Orators 841F)
It is generally believed that this was done to protect the texts from actors’ or other kinds of interpolation which was corrupting the textual tradition of the plays and likewise their subsequent performance, and the verb παραναγινώσκειν has another meaning that may be relevant here, which is “to collate” or “to compare”. That the texts would need to be protected from insertions is an interesting one to which I will return.
For the moment I am interested in the word φυλάττειν (“to guard” or “to protect”) which Plutarch tells us was the purpose of the law. This word has a military connotation which is intriguing, but it also turns the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides into a ktēma (a “possession”) of the sort Thucydides hoped his history would be (Thuc. 1.22). This is a possession that the Athenian dēmos wants to keep and store away in the Metroon in its function as a treasury, in order to regulate and control how that possession is used. The Metroon is also of course the Athenian archive, a place where laws are kept. The grammateus in fact, that same figure who as we have seen reads out the laws and affidavits and citations of poetry to the jury, according to the law of Lycurgus will read out the plays to the actors so that they can learn their parts. It is not clear whether the actors were even allowed to make copies for themselves (and again the meaning of the verb παραναγινώσκειν comes in to play here).
(Section 4 of 5)
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.
— Notes for section 4 —
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
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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 ἃ 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 ὁ Ἑρμῆς ὅτι ἐν μέσῳ τοῦ ἄστεος καὶ τοῦ δήμου ἕστηκεν, ἐν δὲ τοῖς ἐπὶ δεξιά—
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 ὁ θάνατος αὐτοῦ γενέσθαι οὐ δι᾽ ἃ 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 ὁ 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.
— End of notes for section 4 —
(Section 5 of 5)
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
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
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 ἢ λέγοντας ἢ βεβιωκότας· ἐντεῦθεν γὰρ ἰσχύσετε, ὅταν εὐνομῆσθε…
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
[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]
— Notes for section 5 —
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.Note 7
Shear, Jr., pp. 8-11 and Camp, pp. 39-40.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.
— End of notes for section 5 —