In what looks like a twisted parody of journalistic ‘balance’, The Daily Mail is currently juxtaposing its attacks on new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn with a serialization of Lord Ashcroft’s unofficial ‘biography’ of our Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron. To say that the ‘biography’ is unflattering in its allegations and supposed revelations is putting it mildly. Most luridly, the newspapers and social media are humming with Ashcroft’s allegation that, as a student at Oxford, David Cameron was involved in a ‘bizarre university dining club ritual involving a dead pig’s head’ (to quote the Guardian’s merciful circumlocution). Downing street sources deny this claim and point out that Cameron was not even a member of the Piers Gaveston Club (under whose auspices the ‘initiation’ was supposed to have taken place).
Attempting to discredit a rival or enemy in public eye by associating him with secretive elite young men’s clubs and their ‘debauched’ goings-on is a familiar strategy to anyone who studies the law-court speeches of classical democratic Athens. But there’s one speech which seems both particularly apposite in many respects and instructively different in others.
Demosthenes wrote the oration Against Conon for a wealthy client called Ariston. Ariston brings a charge of assault and battery (aikeia) against a chap called Conon. Ariston tells the jury that he was taking an evening stroll with a friend in the Athenian Agora when Conon’s drunken son Ctesias walked past and yelled something incomprehensible at him. (Ariston tells us he’d already had a run-in with Conon’s young sons when on military service: they would get drunk at breakfast, hurl abuse at Ariston and his messmates and urinate on their slaves. The unit commanders had to intervene twice to prevent a full-on punch-up). Then, Ctesias came back with a whole crowd of men he’d been drinking with, including his dad. They proceeded to throw Ariston to the ground and beat him to a pulp. The speaker tells us that this assault was accompanied by a torrent of shocking verbal abuse. Conon himself even imitated the shrieks of a victorious fighting cock, flapping his elbows like wings. Ariston was left fighting for his life and an attending doctor even gives evidence to this effect.
As part of his strategy to discredit the very different story being told to the jury by the defendant, and to stress the worthlessness of his sworn oaths and testimony, Demosthenes has Ariston raise the subject of Conon’s youthful exploits (54.39, trans. Victor Bers):
‘I hear, gentlemen of the jury, that a certain Bacchius, who was executed by your court, and Aristocrates, the man with the bad eyes, and others of this sort, and Conon, the man here, were friends as young men and had the nickname ‘Triballoi’. These men would regularly gather offerings to Hecate and also pigs’ testicles, the ones used for purification when there is going to be a public meeting, and dine on them every time they got together, and they swore oaths and perjured themselves as casually as can be.’
This is strictly a reversal of the Ashcroft allegation: dead pig’s bits get eaten by Conon rather than the other way around. Furthermore, the ‘debauchery’ here is not some made-up secular initiation ritual – even if such rituals are really part of its activities, the Piers Gaveston Society only dates back to the 1970s, and they are to do with daring to transgress in general or sexual terms rather than being specifically religious or anti-religious in character. Rather, Conon and his associates are said to have stolen the food that was offered to the goddess Hecate at the end of each month as a means of preventing bad luck. This was not just a shocking insult to traditional religious beliefs, it was also a startlingly dangerous thing to do. Your average Athenian knew that it was a bad idea to offend the dark ‘chthonic’ powers of Hecate. As for eating the pigs’ testicles, I quote here – with some explanatory glosses and edits of my own – from Chris Carey’s and Bob Reid’s excellent commentary on this passage (Demosthenes: Selected Private Speeches, Cambridge 1985, p. 101):
‘[M]eetings of the political assembly and theatrical performances were preceded by a ritual purification. […] A pig was sacrificed and the blood sprinkled around the periphery of the enclosure. Pigs were regularly used in ritual purification. According to a scholiast [later commentator] on Aeschines’ speech 1.23 the dead pigs were thrown into the sea; the sea was by tradition a purifying element, and objects used in purification were disposed of in this way from earliest times. […] It is thus difficult to see how Conon’s ‘Triballoi’ club could acquire the genitals; but we are not given time to assess the plausibility of the statement. Since the object used in purification receives any impurity, it was an act of bravado to feast on it, and a deliberate affront to common decency to choose the testicles.’
So, there you go. Demosthenes writes a lurid allegation for his client to the effect that Conon spent his youth engaged in hubristic, offensive and irreligious anti-rituals. But the details don’t all stand up to scrutiny.
It’s a fair bet, though, that many of the jury believed this stuff. In classical Athens, there really were secretive societies of young men from well-to-do families getting drunk and engaging in activities of a politically and religious dubious nature: google ‘the profanation of the mysteries’ and ‘the mutilation of the Herms’ for more. In the bit of the speech I’ve just quoted, Ariston says that the young Conon was in a club called the ‘Triballoi’. This name was taken from a Thracian tribe whom Athenians believed to be extremely uncivilized and violent. It was also used as a term for idlers and wastrels.
Earlier in the speech, it is clear that Ariston is trying to deny Conon’s counter-claim that he himself was a member of a similar male-only aristocratic drinking-cum-dining club along with Conon’s own sons. The way Ariston tells it, Conon will argue that the alleged assault is just part-and-parcel of the youthful high jinks which take place among members of the ‘ithyphalloi club’ – or, as my colleague Stephen Halliwell translates it in his book Greek Laughter, ‘The Erect Phalluses Club’. Ariston is clear that he has never been in this club before describing his opponents’ own involvement in its activities (54.17):
‘You see, these are the men who initiate each other with the ithyphallos (erect phallus) and do things of the sort that decent people are very embarrassed even to mention, let alone do.’
In Greek Laughter, Halliwell writes well about how this trial must have tested the jury’s attitudes as one side pulled them in the direction of dismissing Ariston’s prosecution in a flurry of laughter and concessions to the excesses of young men, while the prosecution re-framed those excesses as dangerously anti-social, impious and tragic in their consequences. We don’t know what the outcome of the trial was.
So, there are many differences and many similarities between these aspects of Demosthenes’ speech and Ashcroft’s allegation. One common sociological explanation for the persistence of elite all-male drinking-cum-dining clubs across the ages and different cultures is that their transgressive rituals and secret-sharing forge special bonds of loyalty and mutual indebtedness – everyone has something on everybody else in the group. But Demosthenes’ tactics and the ongoing negative press which attaches to the Bullingdon Club and the Gaveston Soc. suggests that the current generation of students who aspire to stand for political office should steer well clear of these sorts of association.