Athenian orators, politicians and demagogues


Ancient Athens public scene – during and even after its Pentecontaetia – was quite accustomed to display, beside those citizens in charge of specific institutional assignments and public servants who were performing minor duties to maintain the regular functioning of the polis bureaucratic machine, also highly powerful men who, in force of their rhetorical skills and perspicacious inclination were able to steer de facto the assembly in order to pursue their political, and often also personal, needs. These rhetors however, in spite of their undeniable actual influence, could not formally be held liable for their political conduct: as they could not be truly considered as belonging – and consequently acting – within a proper administrative body. Thus their behaviour in other fields than political and under distinct circumstances was continuously under screening as their political opponents were constantly seeking for occasions to take them to court with accusations of corruption and/or high treason to the democratic foundation of the polis.

One interesting instance is given by Demosthenes’ own defence against a bribing accusal, where the orator outlines his own ideas about duties and rights of a rhetor:

But for what is he responsible? For discerning the trend of events at the outset, for forecasting results, for warning others. That I have always done. Further, he ought to reduce to a minimum those delays and hesitations, those fits of ignorance and quarrelsomeness, which are the natural and inevitable failings of all free states, and on the other hand to promote unanimity and friendliness, and whatever impels a man to do his duty. All that also I have made my business: and herein no man can find any delinquency on my part.

Nonetheless it is perfectly clear how even in those days the greatest interests – both measured in terms of power and economics – that amply overcame the administration of the state. It is remarkably modern the widely recognised presence of full-time politicians, whose resources (mental and financial) were put at the service of the cause – although it is/was worth wondering which and whose cause… As Aeschines, his legendary rival, drily deplores Demosthenes’ attitude:

And you blame me if I come before the people, not constantly, but only at intervals. And you imagine that your bearers fail to detect you in thus making a demand which is no outgrowth of democracy, but borrowed from another form of government. For in oligarchies it is not he who wishes, but he who is in authority, that addresses the people; whereas in democracies he speaks who chooses, and whenever it seems to him good. And the fact that a man speaks only at intervals marks him as a man who takes part in politics because of the call of the hour, and for the common good; whereas to leave no day without its speech, is the mark of a man who is making a trade of it, and talking for pay.

Thus it was widely acknowledged – and to a certain extent accepted – that professional politicians, being them elected strategos or authoritative rhetors, benefited of their institutional roles and political prerogatives. Nonetheless what was considered ignominious and therefore harshly persecuted was the favouring of personal pursuits preferred to the welfare of the state, causing any possible impairment of the polis. Something quite bluntly stated by Hypereides when accusing Demosthenes of corruption:

For just I said in the Assembly, you members of the jury willingly give to the generals and speakers great scope for profit-making: it is not the laws which allow it, but your mildness and generosity. There is just one proviso you are worried about: what they take must be in and not against your interests. Now Demosthenes and Demades have each pocketed more than sixty talents from the actual decrees and proxenies – to say nothing of the King’s money and what came from Alexander…

These scandals, accusal and the following trials were particularly intriguing and captivated the attention of laymen and average people who were always looking for news and gossip. The truth is that since after Pericles death, a low profile Athenian political class took over: demagogues without any political background, personal dignity and scruples. A plain-spoken dialogue sets a briskly effective example of how despised in Athens in 424 b.C. were immoral party-leaders. Like Cleon that Aristophanes masks on stage as a Paphlagonian chesty and ruffian slave defeated in winning his master’s consideration by an untalented sausage seller: a mere simpleton strongly supported by all the other servants that unanimously detest Paphlagon.

Servant: Oh! the fool! Your tripe! Do you see these tiers of people? [pointing at the audience]

Sausage-Seller: Yes.

Servant: You shall be master to them all, governor of the market, of the harbours, of the Pnyx; you shall trample the Senate under foot, be able to cashier the generals, load them with fetters, throw them into gaol, and you will fornicate in the Prytaneum.

Sausage-Seller: What! I?

Servant: You, without a doubt. But you do not yet see all the glory awaiting you. Stand on your basket and look at all the islands that surround Athens.

Sausage-Seller: I see them. What then?

Servant: Look at the storehouses and the shipping.

Sausage-Seller: Yes, I am looking.

Servant: Exists there a mortal more blest than you? Furthermore, turn your right eye towards Caria and your left toward Carthage!

Sausage-Seller: Then it’s a blessing to be cock-eyed!

Servant: No, but you are the one who is going to trade away all this. According to the oracle you must become the greatest of men.

Sausage-Seller: Just tell me how a sausage-seller can become a great man.

Servant: That is precisely why you will be great, because you are a sad rascal without shame, no better than a common market rogue.

Sausage-Seller: I do not hold myself worthy of wielding power.

Servant: Oh! by the gods! Why do you not hold yourself worthy? Have you then such a good opinion of yourself? Come, are you of honest parentage?

Sausage-Seller: By the gods! No! of very bad indeed.

Servant: Spoilt child of fortune, everything fits together to ensure your greatness.

Sausage-Seller: But I have not had the least education. I can only read, and that very badly.

Servant: That is what may stand in your way, almost knowing how to read. A demagogue must be neither an educated nor an honest man; he has to be an ignoramus and a rogue. But do not, do not let go this gift, which the oracle promises.

Sausage-Seller: But what does the oracle say?

Servant: Faith, it is put together in very fine enigmatical style, as elegant as it is clear: “When the eagle-tanner with the hooked claws shall seize a stupid dragon, a blood-sucker, it will be an end to the hot Paphlagonian pickled garlic. The god grants great glory to the sausage-sellers unless they prefer to sell their wares.”

Sausage-Seller: In what way does this concern me? Please instruct my ignorance.

Servant: The eagle-tanner is the Paphlagonian.

Sausage-Seller: What do the hooked claws mean?

Servant: It means to say, that he robs and pillages us with his claw-like hands.

Sausage-Seller: And the dragon?

Servant: That is quite clear. The dragon is long and so also is the sausage; the sausage like the dragon is a drinker of blood. Therefore the oracle says, that the dragon will triumph over the eagle-tanner, if he does not let himself be cajoled with words.

Sausage-Seller: The oracles of the gods flatter me! Faith! I do not at all understand how I can be capable of governing the people.

Servant: Nothing simpler. Continue your trade. Mix and knead together all the state business as you do for your sausages. To win the people, always cook them some savoury that pleases them. Besides, you possess all the attributes of a demagogue; a screeching, horrible voice, a perverse, cross-grained nature and the language of the market-place. In you all is united which is needful for governing. The oracles are in your favour, even including that of Delphi. Come, take a chaplet, offer a libation to the god of Stupidity and take care to fight vigorously.

Aristophanes most certainly depicts a harsh and unequivocal characterisation of lowly origins, scarce culture and base merchandiser attitude rabble-rousers. This deep rooted detestation against any demagog unquestionably created an insurmountable barrier between public life and private life. More and more citizens, disgusted by the behaviours, greed and hypocrisy of rich merchants transformed overnight into politicians, meekly left all those decisional occasions go astray and thus letting the polis become an easy prey of those few avid talentless ignorants disguised as political leaders: something that undoubtedly compromised what best was of Western civilisation at the time…. Does any bell ring?

The death of Philip II: a cold case


The death of Philip II of Macedonia is permeated by particularly mystifying circumstances and most likely was only partly influenced by previous events occurred a few years before and more likely due to political and dynastical motives. According to the tradition a Macedon nobleman Pausania (one of Philip’s bodyguards) had profoundly offended a young man who, in consequence to the humiliation had taken his own life. In vengeance one of his friends, Attalus, was behind a serious degrading offence against Pausania. When Pausania demanded justice to Philip II, being the king related to Attalus he did not executed any punishment and limited his intervention by trying to sooth Pausania’s rage with significant gifts. Unfortunately Philip did not realise the vindictive temperament of his safeguard as in 336 b.C. during his daughter’s wedding Pausania murdered his king. Diodorus reports in fact:

“Pausanias, nevertheless, nursed his wrath implacably, and yearned to avenge himself, not only on the one who had done him wrong, but also on the one who failed to avenge him. In this design he was encouraged especially by the sophist Hermocrates. He was his pupil, and when he asked in the course of his instruction how one might become most famous, the sophist replied that it would be by killing the one who had accomplished most, for just as long as he was remembered, so long his slayer would be remembered also.

Pausanias connected this saying with his private resentment, and admitting no delay in his plans because of his grievance he determined to act under cover of the festival in the following manner.

He posted horses at the gates of the city and came to the entrance of the theatre carrying a Celtic dagger under his cloak. When Philip directed his attending friends to precede him into the theatre, while the guards kept their distance, he saw that the king was left alone, rushed at him, pierced him through his ribs, and stretched him out dead; then ran for the gates and the horses which he had prepared for his flight”.

In truth the preliminary accident seems to have happened years before the king’s homicide, thus apparently Pausanias had lingered quite a while before pursuing his reprisal; coincidentally – is it truly a coincidence?  As it seems that the murder occurred in a crucial moment for Alexander to take over and become then The Great. By the by, there is no trace of a sophist named Hermocrates, unless this character coincides with an effective syntactician of that age. Actually, in spite of Diodorus’ reticence, Justin in his Epitome of Pompeius Trogus, makes a specific reference to a conspiracy in murder involving Philip’s first wife Olympias and their son Alexander who shared their worries after Philip’s new marriage with Cleopatra and  thus perpetrated remarkable atrocities:

“It is even believed that he was instigated to the act by Olympias, Alexander’s mother, and that Alexander himself was not ignorant that his father was to be killed; as Olympias had felt no less resentment at her divorce, and the preferment of Cleopatra to herself, than Pausanias had felt at the insults which he had received. As for Alexander, it is said that he feared his brother by his step-mother as a rival for the throne; and hence it happened that he had previously quarrelled at a banquet, first with Attalus, and afterwards with his father himself, insomuch that Philip pursued him even with his drawn sword, and was hardly prevented from killing him by the entreaties of his friends. Alexander had in consequence retired with his mother into Epirus, to take refuge with his uncle, and from thence to the king of the Illyrians, and was with difficulty reconciled to his father when he recalled him, and not easily induced by the prayers of his relations to return. Olympias, too, was instigating her brother, the king of Epirus, to go to war with Philip, and would have prevailed upon him to do so, had not Philip, by giving him his daughter in marriage, disarmed him as a son-in-law. With these provocations to resentment, both of them are thought to have encouraged Pausanias, when complaining of his insults being left unpunished, to so atrocious a deed. Olympias, it is certain, had horses prepared for the escape of the assassin; and, when she heard that the king was dead, hastening to the funeral under the appearance of respect, she put a crown of gold, the same night that she arrived, on the head of Pausanias, as he was hanging on a cross; an act which no one but she would have dared to do, as long as the son of Philip was alive. A few days after, she burnt the body of the assassin, when it had been taken down, upon the remains of her husband, and made him a tomb in the same place; she also provided that yearly sacrifices should be performed to his manes, possessing the people with a superstitious notion for the purpose. Next she forced Cleopatra, for whose sake she had been divorced from Philip, to hang herself, having first killed her daughter in her lap, and enjoyed the sight of her suffering this vengeance, to which she had hastened by procuring the death of her husband. Last of all she consecrated the sword, with which the king had been killed, to Apollo, under the name of Myrtale, which was Olympias’s own name when a child. And all these things were done so publicly, that she seems to have been afraid lest it should not be evident enough that the deed was promoted by her”.

Even Plutarch, albeit in a more telegraphic style, corroborates this theory:

“The assassin was Pausanias, who was angry because Philip had refused to give him justice for some injury done to him by Attalus.  But it was Philip’s wife who was the instigator. Olympias took this enraged young man and made him the instrument of her revenge against her husband. Once Philip was out of the way, Olympias tortured her hated young rival, Cleopatra, to death. So, at the age of only twenty, Alexander became king of Macedonia.”

In addition Alexander, to throw into disarray any potential accuser, distinctly directed towards the Persians the suspicions of having arranged the plot; as can be read in a letter reported by Arrian from Alexander to the Persian king Darius that:

“My father was killed by conspirators whom you instigated as you have yourself boasted to all in your letters”

As narrated by Plutarchus, Philip’s assassination was interpreted by the Athenians as a good omen as they felt freed from the threat hovering over their territories, but, as history has subsequently taught this was the very sad beginning of the irreparable end of classic Greece.

“Demosthenes had secret intelligence of the death of Philip, and laying hold of this opportunity to prepossess the people with courage and better hopes for the future, he came into the assembly with a cheerful countenance, pretending to have had a dream that presaged some great good fortune for Athens; and, not long after, arrived the messengers who brought the news of Philip’s death. No sooner had the people received it, but immediately they offered sacrifice to the gods, and decreed that Pausanias should be presented with a crown”.

Yet not only the suspect murderers seem to deserve attention and hideous comments from the historians, as Plutarch deplores also the conduct of Demosthenes under this specific circumstance:

“Demosthenes appeared publicly in a rich dress, with a chaplet on his head, though it were but the seventh day since the death of his daughter, as is said by Aeschines, who upbraids him upon this account, and rails at him as one void of natural affection towards his children. Whereas, indeed, he rather betrays himself to be of a poor, low spirit, and effeminate mind, if he really means to make wailings and lamentation the only signs of a gentle and affectionate nature, and to condemn those who bear such accidents with more temper and less passion. For my own part, I cannot say that the behaviour of the Athenians on this occasion was wise or honourable, to crown themselves with garlands and to sacrifice to the gods for the death of a prince who, in the midst of his success and victories, when they were a conquered people, had used them with so much clemency and humanity.”

It is hardly conceivable – and even otiose – what would have occurred to the destiny of Greece, Asia and Europe if Philip had not been assassinated. Yet his personality and greatness seemed coupled with more wisdom and moderation than his son Alexander, and perhaps, perhaps the history and geography of Greek poleis would have been quite different. Again Diodorus:

“Such was the end of Philip, who had made himself the greatest of the kings in Europe in his time, and because of the extent of his kingdom had made himself a throned companion of the twelve gods. He had ruled twenty-four years. He is known to fame as one who with but the slenderest resources to support his claim to a throne won for himself the greatest empire in the Greek world, while the growth of his position was not due so much to his prowess in arms as to his adroitness and cordiality in diplomacy.

Philip himself is said to have been prouder of his grasp of strategy and his diplomatic successes than of his valour in actual battle. Every member of his army shared in the successes which were won in the field but he alone got credit for victories won through negotiation”.