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?

Love letters from Ancient Greece

Oftentimes success is linked to mere unexpected factors, sometimes these happen to be quite trivial circumstances far away from your remotest aims and plans. This is most certainly the case of “Love Letters of Great Men and Women: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day”, a volume edited by C. H. Charles Ph. D. and published in London in 1924, which features love epistles by Madame Recamier, Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin (a.k.a. George Sand), Marie Bashkirtseff, Benjamin Constant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alfred de Musset, William Congreve, Horace Walpole, Multatuli, Lord Nelson’s Lady Hamilton, dandy Beau Brummell, Guy de Maupassant, Stendhal, Camille Desmoulins, Madame de Stael, Esther Vanhomrigh, Duke of Choiseul. This rather vast and various harvest has been just recently exhumed and presented to the attention of the greater – and rather consumerism-oriented – public who is literally devouring this new paperback edition. I leave to my readers’ personal judgment as whether it really matters or not that it was “Carrie Bradshaw” (and her “Mr. Big”) to arouse this unforeseen interest: I do favour any endeavour, whichever is its source, intended to awake attention towards good writings.

On the other hand I presume that what the greater public is most likely not entirely aware of is that the writing and publication for entertainment purposes of real/fictitious letters of famed characters was already highly popular – almost a fashionable genre – in I and II century A.D.; and consequently involving brilliant authors like Lucian (Lucianus) of Samosata (Λουκιανός ο Σαμοσατεύς) a renowned orator, one of the earliest novelist ever and a true master in fictional narrative, Aristaenetus a very famous epistolographer and Alciphron (Αλκίφρων), a sophist and unparalleled fiction letter writer. Of this latter in particular we have circa 120 letters clustered by senders/addressees and namely gathering imaginary correspondence between fishermen, peasants, courtesans and parasites. All the letters have the IV century b.C. Athens (and its outskirts and countryside) as scenario, are written in pure Attic dialect, and portray various situations with sometimes ironic, mocking or funny tones, as well as a few times also shade some sorrowful, moving and passionate tenor – often the fiction involves real characters of that age.

When it comes to the theme of love, Alciphron presents us with marvellous examples of Attic prose and expression of feelings, which nowadays we may without much hesitation call romantic, in particular the fictitious correspondence between Menander (Μένανδρος), the most famous playwright of 4th century B.C. (originator of the New Comedy) and his lover Glycera. The preamble is that Menander was invited by Ptolemy Soter (or Lagus) King of Egypt, founder of the library and school of Alexandria – together with his rival play writer Philemon – where endless success and great riches were promised to both of them, but:


“By the Eleusinian goddesses and their mysteries, by which I have often sworn with you only, dear Glycera, I swear that, in making this avowal in writing, I have neither desire to praise myself nor to divide from you.

What happiness could I benefit from staying apart from you? In what could I take more contentment than in your love? Thanks to your tenderness and good character, even true old age shall seem youth to me. Let us be both young and then old together, and, by the gods, when time comes let us be together in death, without even realising that we are leaving this world; may jealousy never be buried with either of us into the grave, may never one survivor enjoy any other’s love. May it never be my misfortune to see you die before me; for then, what delight would be left for me?

I am presently staying in Piraeus due to my ill-health… and the reasons which have persuaded me to write to you, while you are staying in the city for the sacred festival of Demeter, the Haloa, are the following: I have received a letter from Ptolemy, King of Egypt, in which he beseeches me, promising me right regally all the good things of the world, and invites me to visit him, together with Philemon, to whom also, they say, a letter has been sent. In fact, Philemon has sent it on to me: it is to the same effect as mine, but not so ceremonious or splendid in the promises it holds out, since it is not written to Menander. Let him think about and contemplate what he wishes to do; but I will not wait for his opinion, for you, my Glycera, are my guidance, my Areopagus, my Heliaea, by Athena, you have ever been, and shall ever be my all.

So I am sending you the King’s letter; but, in order to prevent you from going through the reading of both my letter and his, I wish you also to know what reply I have determined to formulate to it. By the twelve great gods, I could not even consider sailing to Egypt, a realm so far remote from us; but, not even if Egypt was as close as Aegina. I could not even then dream of leaving my kingdom of your love, and the wandering alone in the middle of the busy inhabitants of Egypt, in a crowded desert, as it would seem to me without my Glycera. I prefer your hugs, which are sweeter and less dangerous than the special treatment of all the kings and satraps. Loss of freedom is loss of safety; flattery is shameful: the favours of Fortune are not to be trusted.

I swear it by Dionysus and his ivy-wreaths, with which I would rather be crowned, in the presence of my Glycera seated in the theatre, than with all the diadems of Ptolemy.

Shall I leave Glycera and move to Egypt? And to what purpose? To obtain gold and silver and other riches? And with whom am I to share my pleasure in it? With Glycera away from me separated by such a wide and dangerous sea? Won’t all this be plain poverty to me without her? And should I hear that she has entrusted her love to someone else, will not all these possessions be to me no more than dust and ashes? And, when I die, shall I not carry away with me my grief to the grave, and leave all my treasures a prey to those who are ever waiting to grab hold of them?

Is it so great an honour to live with Ptolemy and his satraps and others with like idle names, whose familiarity is not to be trusted, and whose enmity is perilous? If Glycera is irritated with me, I embrace her in my arms and snatch a kiss; if she is still angry, I press her further, and, if she is still resentful or rancorous, I shed tears; then she can no longer resist my grief, but beseeches me in her turn; because she has neither soldiers, nor lancer, nor guards, but I am all in all to her.

So let Philemon go to Egypt and have the benefit of the joy that is promised to me, because Philemon has no Glycera; perhaps he is not even worthy of such a blessing. And do you, my dear Glycera, I implore you, without delay after the Haloan celebrations, get on your mule and run to me, because I have never known a festival that seemed to last longer, or one more inopportune. Demeter: I beseech your favours!”

Thus starting from the real plead of the Egyptian King and Mecenate Ptolemy, confirmed by (Caius Plinius Secundus) Pliny the Elder, who reported it in his Naturalis Historia:

magnum et Menandro in comico socco testimonium regum Aegypti et Macedoniae contigit classe et per legatos petito, maius ex ipso, regiae fortunae praelata litterarum conscientia”.

[A strong testimony, too, was given to the merit of Menander, the famous comic poet, by the kings of Egypt and Macedonia, in sending to him a fleet and an embassy; though, what was still more honourable to him, he preferred enjoying the converse of his literary pursuits to the favour of kings].

and just like any modern fiction writer – by the way it is worth to reveal that Pliny does not mention anything about the invitation to Egypt extended also to Philemon, which is probably a fiction escamotage smartly used by the author to have him as an anti-hero… – Alciphron imagines and composes this correspondence between the two lovers that, apparently, no distance, prospect success or promised riches can tear apart because they decide together about their nest and consequent future.

Such an interesting key to read the correlation between love and distances as well as the changing of perspectives under different moods, very much resembling the love letters exchanged between Lord Byron and Teresa Guiccioli, namely soon after they fell in love:

“This Venice, without flowers, without trees, without perfumes, without birds, that I never liked before, with her depressing gondolas instead of my horse-carriage now seems to me the dwelling of life and lights, like heaven on earth”. Teresa

and before him departing for Greece:

“In that word, marvellous in every language, but above them all in yours – Amor mio – there lies my entire existence, now and from now onward. I feel I exist here and I am afraid here I shall exist in the future – to which purpose you will decide: my destiny depends upon you… think about me sometimes when the mountains and the Ocean will try to separate us, but I know they will never succeed, unless you want them to.” Byron