Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Litigiousness & Sycophancy.
Matthew R. Christ, edition of March 26, 2003
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A preliminary question relevant to our subject is: “Were Athenians litigious?” This question is a loaded one, however, as the application of the label “litigious” is highly subjective. Legal anthropologists have observed that the modern discussion of “litigiousness” in the United States is highly politicized and reflects often unstated assumptions about the proper role of litigation in society. Ancient assessments of “litigiousness” in Athens likewise depended on the perspective of the evaluator. While ancient critics of Athens were ready to label Athenians as a group “overly fond of lawsuits,” Athenians tended to view litigation and adjudication as positive features of democracy. If Athenians were comfortable with litigation as a feature of civic life and Athenian courts had plenty of cases to keep them busy throughout the year, Athenians were well aware that abuse was possible. Their discussion of abuse provides a window not only on Athenian attitudes toward litigation but more generally on Athenian values.
The most colorful feature of the Athenian discussion of legal excess and abuse is the allegation that an individual is a “sycophant” (sukophantai ). While this term of invective is freely applied, “sycophancy” tends to connote malicious and devious legal behavior for personal advantage, including monetary profit. A “sycophant” brings false charges; blackmails individuals with the threat of litigation; and generally subverts democratic legal process for his own ends. We do not know the origins of this word, and Athenians may not have either. Literally, sycophant seems to mean “fig-revealer.” While the word may have had sexual associations (“fig” was slang for “genitals”), it was not as far as we can tell a “dirty” word: it appears in courtroom rhetoric, which avoided the obscenities voiced regularly on the comic stage and presumably in everyday life. In any event, “sycophant” was a powerful word, with a wide range of negative connotations. No Athenian would advertise himself as a “sycophant”; this was a label hostilely imposed on rivals and enemies. It was up to one’s audience to decide whether or not the label was appropriate.
Just how intrigued Athenians were by the idea of the “sycophant” can be inferred from how often the comic poet Aristophanes brought sycophants on stage as figures of ridicule and universal disdain. In his Acharnians
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