‘Rich kids’ and dead pigs: Demosthenes started such slanders

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.

Labour leadership candidates: a message from Pericles!

A short one this month as I am battling to finish a talk for an exciting conference on Greek and Roman oratory rhetoric hosted by the University of Cyprus next week.

As a member of the Labour Party for some years and as a supporter of the party since my teens, I am at a loss for words about the current leadership contest and the still-developing fiasco over the vetting of voters.  However, assuming that the current contest is not halted and that we do actually get a new leader in September, whoever emerges as victorious would do well to heed this observation from a speech of Thucydides’ Pericles:

ὅ τε γὰρ γνοὺς καὶ μὴ σαφῶς διδάξας ἐν ἴσῳ καὶ εἰ μὴ ἐνεθυμήθη

‘Anyone who has an intelligent policy but cannot explain it clearly is in the same position as one who did not have the idea in the first place .’

I have altered the translation from the original to a gender neutral one for obvious reasons!_83648787_labour




Cameron’s ‘swarms’ and dehumanizing ancient Greek rhetoric

A woman in the new ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais.Photograph: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images (from The Guardian)

The BBC has just reported that David Cameron has been criticized by the Refugee Council for using “irresponsible” and “dehumanizing” language. Speaking on the Calais crisis in an ITV interview, he spoke of “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain”. The Refugee Council added: ‘”This sort of rhetoric is extremely inflammatory and comes at a time when the Government should be focused on working with its European counterparts to respond calmly and compassionately to this dreadful humanitarian crisis.” The Leader of the Labour Party (Harriet Harman) echoed this: “He should remember he’s talking about people and not insects.”

I’m with the Refugee Council and Harriet on this one. But ‘dehumanizing’ rhetoric is one of the oldest political-oratorical tricks in the book. Aristophanes makes fun of it in his play Lysistrata when he has a chorus of Old Men re-direct (I think it’s implied) anti-Persian rhetoric from the days of Salamis and Plataea towards the small chorus of old women who have come to defend the female occupation of the Acropolis: ‘Well here’s a surprise! A swarm of women reinforcements outside the walls as well!’ The women reply: ‘What are you frightened for? Are there that many of us?’ and they then point out that there are, of course, thousands of other women elsewhere in Greece. The Greek word for ‘swarm’ here is esmos. It is usually used of bees, wasps, and birds but its literal application sometimes extends to ‘things’ as well as animals: ‘streams’ or ‘piles’ of milk, honey or even diseases.

In Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women, the 50 daughters of Danaus (who are asylum-seekers and refugees themselves, in a way) describe the 50 Egyptian cousins who are pursuing them for an enforced marriage as a ‘man-filled hubristic swarm (esmos)’. Later on, their father reverses this rhetoric to describe his daughters as an ‘esmos (flock) of doves preyed upon by hawks in dread of hawks of the same feathered tribe— kindred, yet foes, who would defile their race.’ Of course, there’s a more benign or innocent side to an esmos which is ripe for rhetorical and literary exploittation – birds who do no harm or, as Aristophanes’ feathered chorus points out, can be positive boon for pest control, and bees with their pollination and honey. We’d be done for without our birds and bees.

But democratic political rhetoric likes to harness the negative, threatening image of the animal world: wild, bestial, uncivilized, without speech or reason. Demosthenes, Dinarchus and Aeschines were early adopters of this approach. In their politically-motivated trial speeches against each other they call each other ‘ape’ , ‘fox’ or just ‘this beast here’.

Like the comic poets, the orators sometimes also ‘de-humanize’ the objects of their attacks with the word katharma. A katharma was the off-scouring of purification rituals: it absorbed pollution and was discarded or buried. Calling someone a katharma was perhaps like saying ‘scum’ or ‘piece of rubbish’, although with an added implication of being religiously impure and tainted.

When the orators used this language against their opponents, the opponent usually had the chance to give as good as they had got in their own speeches, even if they sometimes had to wait for a later political-legal tussle to do so. In our modern culture, de-humanizing rhetoric usually enters the public realm when the people it is applied to have no equivalent access to that realm or indeed, any right of reply at all.

Paul Adams’ video at the end of the BBC page  here is one of several recent BBC films where the people in the camp at Calais get to talk about their situation and experiences in their own words.  A longer more in-depth film for BBC’s Newsnight interviews several camp members and is available here for 28 days.

Obama’s Charleston eulogy and Athenian funeral orations

I have just been looking at transcripts and videos of two of Barack Obama’s ‘funeral orations’ – one delivered at a vigil for those affected by the shooting of twenty primary-school children and six of their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut in December 2012, the other a very recent eulogy delivered at a service for Senator Reverend Clementa Pinckney who, along with eight others, was murdered in a white-supremacist terrorist attack at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (EAMEC) in Charleston, South Carolina, earlier this month.

In both of these speeches, Obama speaks to the pain and grief of the victims’ families and friends. He offers testimony to the courage, character and achievements of those who were attacked. He lists their names of the dead in a manner which underlines both the loss of real individuals and the scale of the slaughter. One can’t speak for those directly affected, but from my vantage point, Obama always seems to say what is appropriate and necessary, and to speak from the heart. There is likely to be a special memorial service for those who have just been killed in Sousse – if you were asked to give a speech at such an occasion, what would you say? It is very hard to get it right.

Both the Sandy Hook and Charleston speeches also make searing political points: the need for gun control; the need for action on the ongoing scourges of racism and white-supremacist terrorism; the need to eradicate race-related social injustice in American society. The Charleston speech achieves all this through invocations of history and a re-orientation of rhetorical language. Obama interweaved themes of Christian ‘grace’ and forgiveness with an invocation of the proud history of the EAMEC and that of many other ‘black churches’ in the struggles to end slavery and oppression and to promote civil rights and social justice for African Americans.   He placed the EAMEC massacre in the context of a long, shameful history of racist atrocities against black people across the centuries. Finally, while Obama did not explicitly label the alleged gunman as a terrorist, his phrasing clearly authorized that label as legitimate. This was significant given commentators’ concern that the media and politicians consistently avoid the term ‘terrorism’ to describe cases like the Charleston massacre.

So, ‘funeral orations’ can use the rawness and injustice of innocent deaths to demand social, political or military change. It would be interesting to see a full translated transcript of Hamid Karzai’s speech at a memorial service in March 2011 for those recently killed by NATO air attacks in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Among the dead were nine children whom NATO conceded it had killed in error.   Angry and upset, and in the presence of the relatives of the dead and injured, Karzai appeared to demand that NATO stop its military activities on Afghan soil altogether. His aides had to subsequently ‘clarify’ that Karzai was simply asking that NATO work much harder to avoid civilian deaths.

The orators of the classical Athenian democracy wrote and delivered powerful funeral orations too. At a special, annual ceremony held during periods of war – and Athens was at war an awful lot – the Athenians brought home the cremated bones of those who had died in battle for interment at a public burial site in the Ceramaecus. Thucydides describes how these remains were laid out in ten tribal coffins plus an extra one for those whose bodies had not been recovered. The burial ceremony was followed by a funeral speech delivered by ‘a man chosen by the polis’ (Thuc. 2.34.6). Plato’s Menexenus and Demosthenes’ defence speech On the Crown offer evidence that the choice of speaker was sometimes hotly debated in the democracy’s Council.  Demosthenes makes much of the fact that it was he, and not his rival Aeschines, who was chosen to eulogize the conscripts who died at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC. The most famous of these speeches is the one delivered by Pericles in honour of those who died fighting for Athens in 431/30 BC, the first year of the Peloponnesian War. We only have Thucydides’ ‘version’ of this speech and, when compared to other examples by Lysias, Demosthenes and Hyperides, it is suspiciously unusual – for example it doesn’t draw upon Athenian mythology in the way that all the others do. Then again, there are questions of authenticity attaching to all of the speeches and the one with the best claim to be what was actually said (Hyperides’) is also very distinctive in its extended and fulsome praise of the general Leosthenes, who died leading the Athenian insurgency against Macedon at the siege of Lamia in 323 BC. (On this speech and aspects of the funeral orations which make each one distinctively different from the others, see this article of mine).

However, this ‘naming and praising’ of one of the dead is exceptional for the surviving sample of this genre: these orations do not otherwise name the ordinary soldiers and commanders who have died in the previous year. There are no biographies, ‘citations’ or vignettes of their individual heroic actions either.  Indeed, details and specifics of the relevant campaign are usually dealt with briefly. (Demosthenes’ funeral speech is rather different: nearly half the speech is focused on Chaeronea and the character and exploits of its Athenian casualties, although still in very general terms).  The dead are simply referred to as ‘these man lying here’ and they receive praise for their goodness and courage regardless of whether their deaths were part of a victorious campaign or an unsuccessful battle. The emphasis of these speeches is rather on Athens’ past mythological and historical exploits in war: the Athenians of Theseus’ time defeated the Amazons and fought to recover the Argive dead from Thebes; the men of Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis ensured Greece’s freedom from Persian rule; the Athenians and foreign allies who fought to restore democracy in the civil war of 404/3 (and so on). Out of 81 sections of (roughly) equal length, Lysias’ funeral speech for those who died in the war to assist the Corinthians (c.390 BC) devotes 62 of them to past Athenian campaigns.

The idea here, as Lysias puts it in his speech, is to ‘bring up the living to know the achievements of the dead’ (2.4) – in other words these funeral speeches are a means of re-telling, and adding to, a sort of ‘official history’ and ‘collective memory’ which will maintain each new generation of Athenians’ sense of their city’s importance and identity. But they also have a function of acculturating citizens to the notion that fighting and dying for the city is the ultimate accolade . As Lysias says of the conscripts who are his eulogy’s primary object: ‘they had been schooled in the bravery of their ancestors, and as adults they preserved the glory of their ancestors and displayed their own merits’ (2.70). The Athenian orations often stress that these fallen warriors have achieved a form of ‘immortality’.

This propagandistic aspect of the Athenian funeral orations is rather disturbing: it reminds us of Wilfred Owen’s ‘old lie’ or fundamentalist brainwashing . But from the perspective of a need to maintain and renew discipline and fighting spirit in a conscripted citizen-army of a fifth- or fourth-century Greek city state, sometimes in the face of what we would call ‘existential threats’, it makes good sense. The speeches of the Thucydidean Pericles and (to a lesser extent) those of Demosthenes and Hyperides also hold up Athens’ democratic constitution and way of life as things worth dying for.

Of course, this all seems rather different to the modern speeches with which I started: the former dealt with the deaths of unarmed, defenceless civilians rather than ‘combatants’. A closer fit might be the annual orations and ceremonies which remember the dead and wounded soldiers of past and more recent conflicts which take place in many countries across the globe. But there is an aspect to the recent acts of terrorism against worshippers at EAMEC and tourists in Sousse which sets up an interesting resonance with Demosthenes’ funeral speech (60.25-6). One of Demosthenes’ points in his speech is that the very nature of democracy promotes courage in the face of danger to life and limb. He argues that oligarchies and autocracies may create fear in their citizens but they do not instil a sense of shame. Thus citizens can bribe or curry favour with the regime to avoid military service and incur scant reproach because of the secrecy and information-control which such regimes enforce. But in a democracy like Athens, the existence of freedom of speech means that shameful conduct will be publically exposed:

‘Through fear of such condemnation, all these men, as was to be expected, for shame at the thought of subsequent reproaches, manfully faced the threat arising from our foes and chose a noble death in preference to life and disgrace.’

Now, we can’t tolerate, and shouldn’t have to show courage in, a situation where a visit to a church or a beach feels like risking death in battle. And, despite the statistical improbability of being caught up in an attack in most parts of the world, we shouldn’t dream of reproaching people for acting on their fear in the wake of the massacres in Charleston and Sousse. But Demosthenes’ rhetoric here is highly suggestive for what each citizen of a democracy needs to think about when their society comes under attacks designed to instil terror and division. If we completely yield to our fears of attack and banish all self-reproach and shame about the changes in attitude or behaviour which such a yielding entails, we will have lost those reservoirs of courage and risk-taking which are actually required to keep our societies free, rights-respecting and open enough to warrant the label ‘democracy’.

Tunisian citizens ran towards a heavily-armed terrorist in order to protect their European guests.  The people of Charleston have come together and have not been deterred. These are powerful emblems of courage and resistance which today’s democratic orators would do well to commemorate.

Elections: how the Greeks and Romans did them and why lots can be better than votes.

Today is the day that those of us who are registered and eligible to vote in the UK get to stick a cross next to a name.  (I am tempted to encourage you to so by invoking the ghosts of Cleisthenes, the protesters of Peterloo,  Emmeline Pankhurst and Martin Luther King –  to name but a few).    The outcome is far from certain and the likely need for parties to compromise with each other in order to form a workable government means that a few manifesto pledges will doubtless be broken.  In that spirit, I am going to break a promise which I made in my last post.  I had said that this post would be about Greek rhetorical attacks on the audience.

I made a pledge, I did not stick to it , and for that I am sorry.   But I can assure you that I remain fully committed to implementing my original plan in the long term and when the conditions are right for the country.

Because it’s May 7th, 2015, I’m going to talk about Greek and Roman elections instead.  If I’m honest – and we’ve already established that I may not be – the only ancient voting system I know about off the top of my head is the Athenian one.  But this morning, I reminded myself how voting worked in other Greek states and in Rome.   At Rome the system was VERY complicated and even for Greece, it’s hard to generalize.  Even to talk about ‘voting’ in isolation is to underplay the importance of ‘sortition’ (also known as ‘allotment’) to the Greek and Roman electoral-governmental landscape.   So, rather than spend hours simplifying and thereby misrepresenting things in my own words, I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing the fine Oxford Classical Dictionary entries of Peter Rhodes (for Greece) and Jeremy James Paterson (for Rome). They are at the end of this post and are provided for those who might find some detail useful.

As a Classicist, I am acutely aware of the dangers of idealizing Athenian democracy or the Roman Republic.  It is an oft-repeated point that the Athenians did not allow citizen women, slaves or resident non-Athenians (‘metics’) to vote on policy or in elections for their ‘generals’ (i.e politicians like Pericles).  Nor did it let them contribute to its ‘democratic’ public deliberative bodies.  In the case of Rome, recent research which shows how ‘democratic’ were its voting assemblies, at least in certain periods. But this has to be balanced with lots of evidence that expressions of popular will were still constrained by an essentially oligarchic and aristocratic system.

On the other hand, I find it hard not to get a bit idealistic about the extent to which the Athenians relied on ‘lots’ (sortition) rather than vote-based elections when it came to populating their Council (Boule).  This 500-strong body was responsible for the day-to-day running of the city’s affairs and met every day outside holidays and ‘days of ill omen’.   It was a paid job to be a member of the Council.  However, the world expert on this material, Peter Rhodes, argues that the considerable  time commitment resulted in a disproportionate number of richer citizens actually serving.  A new Council was appointed by lot every year and the eligibility of those whose names came up was audited by the outgoing Councillors.

The ‘sortition’ process for the Council was regulated so that the city’s different demes and tribes were always equally and fairly represented.  But it was not fully democratic even within Athens’ own restricted definition of  ‘rule by the people’ (demokratia). It seems that until the second half of the fourth century, the city’s poorest property class (the ‘thetes’) were not eligible, even though they had voting rights in the bigger popular assembly whose business was steered by the Council.  And membership was restricted in other ways too: you had to be 30 or over; you  could not serve if you had been convicted of certain crimes; by the fourth-century you couldn’t do more than two years on the Council in a lifetime.

The question of whether this ‘sortition’ system was a strength or weakness of the Athenian democracy will always be debated, not least because it is hard to decide the criteria for such a state’s ‘success’  in the first place.  (Do we measure a democracy’s success by its performance and longevity relative to non-democratic systems or do we just think about the happiness and flourishing of its citizens?).   Sortition certainly didn’t prevent Athens from making some terrible mistakes or from suffering two brief oligarchic coups.   But it is fairly clear that ‘lots’ did wonders for fostering political expertise and commitment beyond the confines of a narrow elite. It prevented an ancient version of  the modern ‘democratic deficit’ and ‘alienation from politics’ from taking hold.

How practical would such a system be in the very different context of modern states with their much higher enfranchised populations  and all the economic, social and political complexities of 21st century national and international reality?  Obviously, it would be hard.  But our system of jury service shows that ‘sortition’ can be quite successful on lots of different measures.  At the risk of sounding like an old Trot, perhaps the next government could do worse than feed all our names into a computer and get it to select some ‘people’s committees’.  Each of these could be required to deliberate on a different key policy  problem (‘climate change’ springs immediately to mind). They could take soundings from experts and make policy recommendations to government and/or our elected parliament.    It sounds hopelessly idealistic, and recent small-scale experiments with these sorts of participatory, deliberative-democratic bodies have yet to have much impact on real policy-making beyond very local situations.  But over time, and as ‘membership experience’ of these committees expanded, they might deepen our understanding of a host of relevant dilemmas and issues, not to mention the priorities and experiences of citizens whom we would not normally meet.  Who knows, they might even help the politicians to do a better job of running our country and of confronting the more long-term, global problems – problems which barely got a look-in during the last six weeks of campaigning and debate.


The below is taken from The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3 rev. ed.). Edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (Oxford University Press, Print Publication Date: 2005. Print ISBN-13: 9780198606413. Published online: 2005. Current Online Version: 2005 eISBN: 9780199567386.)

elections and voting

Greek  (by Peter Rhodes).  In the Greek states voting was used in councils, assemblies, and lawcourts; appointments were made by election or by allotment (see sortition) or sometimes by a combination of the two. In Athens and elsewhere psēphisma (from psēphos, ‘voting-stone’) became the standard word for a decree of the council (boulē) or assembly (ekklēsia), and cheirotonia (‘raising hands’) was used for elections; but in Athens voting was normally by show of hands (not precisely counted) in the council and assembly both for decrees and for elections, but by ballot in the lawcourts. Ballots seem first to have been used on occasions when a count was necessary to ensure that a quorum was achieved, but by the end of the 5th cent. bc it had been realized that voting by ballot could be secret voting. In Sparta voting by acclamation survived to the Classical period for elections and for decrees of the assembly. In the Hellenistic and Roman periods some decrees of some states report numbers of votes cast for and against.

Bibliography: J. A. O. Larsen, Classical Philology 1949, 164–81; M. Piérart, Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique 1974, 125ff.; P. J. Rhodes, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies (1981), 125–32. P. J. Rhodes


Roman (by Jeremy James Paterson)  At Rome adult male citizens had the right to vote to elect the annual magistrates, to make laws, to declare war and peace, and, until the development of the public courts in the late republic, to try citizens on serious charges. But the remarkable feature of the Roman system was that matters were never decided by a simple majority. Votes were always cast in assigned groups, so that a majority of individual votes decided the vote of each group, and a majority of groups decided the vote of the assembly as a whole. The three groupings of the curiae (curia (1)), centuries (centuria), and tribes (tribus) made up the different types of comitia.

In the two important comitia the overall procedures for voting were similar. Cicero (Pro Flacco 15) noted that Romans considered matters and voted standing up, whereas the Greeks sat down. The vote was preceded by a contio, a public meeting, to present the issues or the candidates involved. The presiding magistrate dissolved this by the command to the citizens to disperse (discedere) into the areas roped off for each group. From their enclosures the groups of citizens proceeded, when called, across raised gangways (pontes), erected at the site of the assembly. Originally each voter was asked orally for his vote by one of the officials (rogatores), who put a mark (punctum) against the appropriate name or decision on his official tablet. From 139 to 107 bc a series of four laws introduced the secret ballot. Now the voter was handed a small boxwood tablet covered in wax on which he recorded his vote with a stylus. In most cases a single letter was sufficient: in legislation, V for assent (uti rogas) and A for dissent (antiquo); in judicial cases L for acquittal (libero) and C for condemnation (condemno); in elections the voter was expected to write the names for himself (M. Porcius Cato (2) is supposed to have rejected many votes clearly written in the same hand, Plutarch Cato Minor 46). The completed tablet was then dropped into a tall wickerwork voting-urn (cista) under the control of guardians (custodes), who forwarded it to the tellers (diribitores). The process of casting the vote is illustrated on a coin of P. Licinius Nerva of the late 2nd cent. bc. In the comitia centuriata people voted successively, class by class, and the results were announced as they went along. In the comitia tributa successive voting was used in legislative and judicial assemblies, but simultaneous voting probably in elections. This may explain why legislative assemblies regularly took place in a variety of places, some quite restricted, such as the forum Romanum, Capitol, and Circus Flaminius (see circus), while the large spaces of the Campus Martius were needed for elections. It was here that Caesar planned a huge building, the Julian Enclosures (Saepta Iulia), to house the electoral process. The project was continued by the triumvir M. Aemilius Lepidus (3) and completed in 26 bc under Augustus by M. Vipsanius Agrippa, who was also responsible for beginning a connected building to house the tellers (the Diribitorium).

The lot played a vital role in the electoral process. It was used to pick the tribe (designated as the principium) or the century (centuria praerogativa) which voted first and provided a lead for the other voters. The lot also determined the order of voting by the tribes or the order in which the votes were announced. This was important, because the first candidates to achieve a simple majority of the groups were declared elected up to the number of posts available, even though they might not have polled the largest number of votes, if all the votes of all the groups had been counted.

The significance for Roman politics of this elaborate and time-consuming voting process has often been played down by historians. However, the great lengths to which members of the élite went to win votes (see Commentariolum petitionis) is testimony to the fact that the voting assemblies represent a truly democratic element in republican Rome. (See democracy, non-Athenian.) In typical Roman fashion the voting procedures, in a modified form, remained under the Principate, even when the substantive decision-making had passed to the emperor and the senate.


Important details of the electoral procedures can be found from two inscriptions of the imperial period: the tabula Hebana and the Charter of Malaga (Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae 6089). See also L. R. Taylor, Roman Voting Assemblies (1966);Find This Resource

E. S. Staveley, Greek and Roman Voting and Elections (1972);Find This Resource

A. Yakobson, Journal of Roman Studies 1992.Find This Resource


Why Nigel Farage ‘attacked the audience’ (and why, in a way, he didn’t)

There has been a lot of talk about Nigel Farage’s ‘attack on the audience’ in last Thursday night’s  election debate on BBC television.  In the context of a discussion about immigration, the UKIP leader said that the studio audience shared the other party leaders’ ‘total lack of comprehension.’  Farage continued that it was ‘a remarkable audience …even by the left-wing standards of the BBC’, adding ‘this lot’s pretty left-wing.’  The debate moderator, David Dimbleby (for it was He), pointed out that the audience had been carefully chosen to represent of a balance of opinion across all the parties by an independent polling organization.  Farage archly echoed Dimbleby with  ‘very carefully selected’ and added ‘the real audience are sitting at home, actually’.  This provoked a collective noise from the studio audience: it sounded like a mixture of shock, derision and vocalized taking-of-offence.  I think it was a higher-pitched version of  the sort of crowd-based hubbub which the ancient Greeks called ‘thorubos’: a lovely onomatopoeic word which comes to life when you watch footage of massed crowds of male factory workers at strike meetings in the 1970s.

With democratic assemblies of thousands and with juries which could go into the hundreds, the presiding officials and orators of classical Athens were used to the inevitable interruptions of audience thorubos and sometimes seem to have encouraged it. But even Dimbleby’s experience doesn’t quite go back as far as the fourth century BC, so he quickly shushed everyone and asked that Nigel be allowed to have his say.

In the midst of all this, Ed Miliband chipped in: ‘it’s never a great idea to attack the audience, Nigel, in my opinion’.  Nicola Sturgeon also joked in terms which implied that Farage’s outburst was an own goal.  On Radio 4’s Broadcasting House , Norman Smith, the BBC’s assistant political editor, explained this notion further:

‘…what left so many seasoned politicians literally shaking their heads in disbelief was that in having a go at the Beeb…worse, having a go at the audience…Nigel Farage broke one of the cardinal rules of modern politics, namely: don’t moan about the messenger. At least not in public.  It’s bad politics. Very, very bad politics. It looks like self-pity, an excuse, a whinge.’

There are some superb classical Greek oratorical examples of ‘audience attack’ in political debates which help us to question the assumption that it’s always bad strategy to attack one’s audience.  I promise to get to these in my next post.  For now, let’s stick with Nigel.  As someone who is often thinking about rhetorical representations of  ‘audience’  in ancient texts, I can’t help thinking that Norman Smith’s analysis underestimates Farage’s rhetorical and political savvy.

Nigel was very isolated in that debate hall on Thursday night – remember that it was him versus four ‘progressive’ left-of-centre parties with no Clegg or Cameron in between.  Because of my own political views,  I was perfectly happy  to see the UKIP leader left out on a limb.  But what he was thinking about was how this looked and sounded to millions of voters at home.  UKIP claims to represent the views of many ‘ordinary’ people –  Hillary Clinton now calls them ‘everyday people’ –  who have been ignored by the ‘politically-correct metropolitan elites’ (etc.).  The UKIP narrative is that its values and policies run counter to the dominant political and media culture and yet are actually very popular.  Of course, that narrative only gets close to reality in a few parts of the country and UKIP’s performance in opinion polls suggests that it has got a lot of work to do in the popularity stakes.

However, the narrative is still a clever one, because it is rhetorically constitutive or constructive whilst appearing to be merely descriptive.   ‘What the hell are you talking about, Jon ?’ , you are now shouting, I’m sure.   Well, the UKIP narrative is all about creating more support  by openly acknowledging that mainstream public discourse has placed a big question mark over the moral and democratic-political acceptability of voting for this sort of party.  In response to that big question, the narrative licenses new support for UKIP through its appeals to relative authenticity (‘actually’, ‘really’)  and the reassuring authority provided by the claim that UKIP policies are latently very popular. The narrative says: ‘it’s okay and right  to have these views because they are actually shared by many. Come out of hiding and join the millions of real people who agree with us’.

But the persuasiveness of this narrative starts to unravel if potential voters watch a debate in which the UKIP leader is rarely clapped or cheered and where his four rivals – all of whom have managed to come across as less stuffy and ‘elite’ than Farage himself –  find it easy to speak with unanimity against his pronouncements.  What those voters were starting to see at home on Thursday night was a very unpopular populist politician.  Where was the evidence of grassroots support from ‘real’ people?

This is why Nigel suddenly declared that the studio audience weren’t  a real audience (or the real audience) at all.  Accusations of BBC bias aside, he implicitly questioned whether this very tiny fraction of the electorate could ever, with any real confidence, be felt to represent the real balance of opinion in the country.  His tactic suggested that plenty of  television viewers at home were openly or secretly agreeing with him and, by virtue of their relative numbers, they were more important than ‘this lot’ in the studio.   In a strong sense, then, Farage wasn’t  ‘attacking the audience’ at all.  He was saying that it was a pseudo-audience.   He was simply, but very cleverly, attempting to persuade the debate’s main and most important audience that  his in-studio unpopularity was a mirage created by an inauthentic media event.

It feels ironic that Nigel, of all people, ended up deploying an essentially postmodernist  rhetorical gambit with very identifiable roots in late twentieth-century French thought.

A final thought.  I don’t for one moment believe that Miliband and Sturgeon really thought that Farage’s attack on the studio audience was a bad strategy born from political gaucheness.  They surely knew that he was attempting something much more sophisticated.  But by calling it out as a laughably bad move and labelling it as ‘an attack on the audience’, they constructed an effective counter-narrative to Nigel’s.  And Dimbleby actually helped them along.  In that counter-narrative, the studio audience was a genuine ‘part-for-whole’ (or ‘synecdoche’ for all you fans of ancient rhetorical devices).  It was a real and fair miniature sample of the wider electorate.  That counter-narrative seems to have won the day and, in this case, it was probably the truer one.  But the whole business should cause us to pause and think about the ways in which our views might be swayed by possible manipulations or exclusionary constructions  of ‘audiences’ and ‘mini-publics’ in, and by, the media and its participating politicians.

Jeremy Clarkson: what would they have done with him in Classical Athens?

Jeremy Clarkson has just been sacked from his job as a presenter on the BBC’s Top Gear.  (This is a hugely popular programme about cars with a vast national and global audience.  As an export and saleable format, it makes a lot of money for the BBC, not to mention its well-paid presenters).  For the uninitiated, Clarkson had been suspended by the corporation while it investigated an incident which occurred at a North Yorkshire hotel earlier this month. Clarkson and his Top Gear  colleagues were staying at the hotel after a day of filming.  The investigation has now found that Clarkson lost his temper on arriving at the hotel to discover that hot food was no longer being served.  Apparently, he wanted steak and chips.  He blamed one of the show’s producers Oisin Tymon for not arranging a meal. He loudly harangued Tymon for many minutes using derogatory and abusive language and threatened to have him sacked. Clarkson also punched Tymon in the face.  Clarkson himself reported the so-called ‘fracas’ to senior BBC executives.  If you don’t live in the UK or follow Clarkson’s antics, you also need to know that he was on a final warning from his employers due to previous on-camera comments using racist language or ethnic or national stereotyping.  Both he and his show have polarized audience reaction between fans who are prepared to sign petitions demanding that Clarkson be re-instated and those of us who cannot abide the man.

Anyway, the important question which no one is asking about this Clarkson business is: ‘what would have happened to Clarkson in classical Athens?’


Jeremy Clarkson (Photo: Rex Features)

It’s a hard one to answer straightforwardly on account of the fact that democratic Athens did not have flagship television programmes about motoring, but I do think that Clarkson’s behaviour (both admitted and alleged) is ‘good to think with’ for anyone interested in comparing the ancient and modern rhetorics around the excesses of famous and successful men.

The incident which immediately springs to mind as a comparison is as follows. At the Athenian theatrical festival of the Great Dionysia in 348 BC, the prominent politician and orator Demosthenes was punched in the face by a chap called Meidias.  It’s not 100% certain that Meidias actually stood trial for this, but Demosthenes certainly started proceedings against him and wrote a lengthy prosecution speech which survives to this day.DemosthenesDemosthenes, marble statue, detail of a Roman copy of a Greek original of c. 280 bce; in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Now, there are obvious differences between Demosthenes and Mr Tymon.  First, Demosthenes was a wealthy, famous and powerful politician operating at the centre of Athenian democratic politics and international  diplomacy.  Mr Tymon was an unheard-of BBC employee until he had his lip split by Mr Clarkson.  Secondly, Demosthenes was not a junior co-worker of Meidias’.  Rather, they were both prominent and very wealthy political operators who had held various public offices. Demosthenes claims that the two men had already found themselves at loggerheads over (for example) Demosthenes’ public liability for taxation based on Demosthenes’ private assets (and Medias’ alleged invasion of Demosthenes’ house in connection with it) and in public debates about military policy abroad.  There are some ground to suppose that Demosthenes is exaggerating or even fabricating aspects of this back story.  However, it does look like Meidias was about ten years older than Demosthenes and that age difference may be important.

The way Demosthenes tells it – and we don’t have Meidias’ side of the story – the long-running antipathy between himself and Meidias came to a head when Demosthenes became a chorus-producer of a men’s dithyrambic chorus at the Dionysia festival of 348.  ‘Ooh!’ perhaps you cry, excitedly, before adding:  ‘Demosthenes was a producer when he got punched and so was Oisin Tymon! Uncanny!’  Well, yes, but it’s really not the same thing, I’m afraid.  Being a ‘chorus-producer’ (chorēgos) in the theatrical festivals at Athens meant that you were very rich and periodically required (but often volunteered) to organize and fund the training, costuming and maintenance of a dithyrambic, tragic or comic chorus.  It involved considerable financial outlay, especially if you wanted to make sure you got the best training staff, facilities and costumes with a view to actually winning.  A dithyrambic chorus was fifty-strong, so when Demosthenes tells us in his speech that he provided his chorus with special robes and gold crowns, he’s telling us that he put a lot of Wonga into the production.  But if the chorus you had funded won its category of contest, it boosted your public profile and standing enormously. We know that winning chorus-producers of Dithyramb received tripods as prizes and these were set up on permanent monuments to remind everyone of the victory.  A young Pericles was the chorus-producer for the tetralogy which included Aeschylus’ Persians in 472 BC and we know how successful he became.  (For more on all of  this, and much more besides, see the wonderful work of Peter Wilson).

Demosthenes claims that Meidias was out to sabotage Demosthenes’ efforts with the chorus from the start. He tried to destroy the gold crowns when they were still in the goldsmith’s shop, he bribed the chorus trainer to do a bad job  (and the piper had to step in to prevent disaster), he intimidated the judges of the contest…the list goes on.  On the day of the performance itself, it seems that the sight of Demosthenes strutting around the auditorium in his fine, official, chorus-producer’s robes was too much for Meidias and he punched him in full view of thousands of spectators.

Perhaps, in reality, Meidias and  Demosthenes bumped into each other in a crowded aisle and Demosthenes said something rude to provoke his rival. But Demosthenes’ speech cleverly constructs a very different reality.  For a start, Demosthenes makes quite a fuss of the fact that, although it would have been excusable to hit Meidias back, and he was certainly capable of doing so, he showed self-restraint out of respect for law, order and democratic processes of dispute-settlement instead.   And  in order to prevent the impression that this was just an intra-elite spat of little wider public interest, Demosthenes paints Meidias’ assault on him as a symptom of Meidias’ more fundamental, ongoing and politically-charged hubris.  Because of his wealth, power and high status, Meidias believes himself to be above the law.  Both this and other acts of violence and self-assertion against fellow-citizens are signs of his contempt for ordinary people and their dignity.  Demosthenes oscillates between representing himself as just an ordinary member of ‘the people’ and conceding his elite status in order to explain why he is able to, and must, stand up to the bully Meidias when others dared not do so.

Demosthenes’ overriding point is that men like Meidias must be brought to book, not because of one isolated act of violence against another wealthy man, but because that act forms part of a pattern of behaviour which betokens a dangerous, hubristic attitude towards the rest of society.  In the face of Meidias’ individual strength, that  bringing-to-book has to be job of society as a whole. As Demosthenes puts it:

‘All this [the story of Meidias and his supporters], is frightening to each one of the rest of you, living individually as best you can. That’s why you should unite: individually each of you is weaker than they are, either in friends or in resources or in something else; but united you’ll be stronger than each of them and you’ll put a stop to their hubris. […] If a man is so powerful that he can prevent each of us from getting justice from him, now, since he is in our grasp, he must be punished jointly by all for all, as a common enemy of the state.’

Demosthenes’ further point is that Meidias and his ilk are ultimately anti-democratic in their attitude and thus need to be made an example of.

Now one might ask whether the HSBC bank and its tax-avoiding clients or the CEOs and shareholders of tax-avoiding multinational companies who exploit their low-paid workers are not a more appropriate focus for this sort of public forensic outrage than the likes of Jeremy Clarkson.  But Demosthenes’ speech – for all its self-aggrandizing motives –  makes a very compelling case for seeing Clarkson’s physical and verbal abuse as more than just  a clear breach of ‘good practice at work’.  Demosthenes reminds us that Clarkson’s outburst was more than just the sign of a quick temper or a certain boorishness.   Rather, it also showed contemptuous disregard for the fundamental dignity of the person whom it targeted. That dignity is rooted in, and should be guaranteed by, the principles and rights of democratic citizenship and equality under the law.  Demosthenes reminds us that it is very dangerous politically  to condone or turn a blind eye to Clarksonian nonsense.  So, Demosthenes would doubtless approve of the BBC’s decision to sack Clarkson for his ‘unprovoked physical attack’.  But I think he would also be puzzled by the way in which the incident has very much been debated as a question of ‘what is acceptable behaviour in the workplace’ or ‘what celebrity talent can get away with’.  He would think that what Clarkson did was (or could be easily represented as) the mark of someone who believed he was superior to most other people and that this was a sure sign of a certain undemocratic and pro-oligarchic sensibility.  Not to mention that unprovoked assault is against the law.  Athens was such a punch-uppy sort of place that Demosthenes wasn’t sure that he could get Meidias convicted for serious assault, so he seems to have brought the charge under the auspices of a law against ‘criminal activity at a festival’.  Will Clarkson be charged now? I can hear Demosthenes’ ghost rehearsing his prosecution speech already.





Jonathan Wolff, the Sophists and ‘Impact’

I always enjoy Professor Jonathan Wolff’s ‘Marginal Comment’ column in the ‘Education’ section of The Guardian.  He talks a lot of sense about the trials and tribulations of being an academic or a student in UK Higher Education.  A piece he did a few weeks back  particularly caught my eye because it was entitled ‘Sophists’ return? We’re not quite back to Athens’ pseudo-tutors for hire’.  A little confusingly, the online version of this has a different title: ‘Has higher education recreated the conditions that led to Sophistry’s rise?’

Wolff’s argument is a little hard to pin down.  On the one hand he concedes that ‘many sophists were decent thinkers’ and seems to understand that Plato’s image of them as pseudo-philosophers should not be taken at face value.  (On this, see one of my old posts).  On the other hand, he builds an argument to the effect that university academics are in danger of becoming the modern-day equivalents of the Sophists of fifth-century Athens and that they will similarly ‘fall’.  Wolff points out that current usage of the term ‘Sophist’ is entirely negative and he is not wanting to rehabilitate the label.

(Contrast the writings of American anti-foundationalist intellectual and literary critic Stanley Fish, who revels in the label ‘sophist’, despite the fact that the term is used by his many academic critics to characterize his ideas as sinister, specious, lacking in ethical foundations and logical rigor.  I always get worried about the fact that, on the one hand, I admire so many thinkers who have gone on record as anti-Fishians and yet, on the other, I rather like Fish’s book There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and it’s a Good Thing too.   I have the same experience with the work of Judith Butler …).

Anyway, why are we academics in danger of becoming Sophists?  Wolff argues that what did for the Sophists’ reputation was their popularity with politically ambitious rich young men who paid them handsomely in return for rhetorical training.  Wolff cites Protagoras’ claim to be able to make the weaker argument defeat the stronger.  And although academics have always been paid for their services and competed for students, Wolff thinks that the recent introduction of significant fees for university education in the UK offers a parallel.  The fact that Athenian young men spread positive and negative gossip about the quality of their sophistic teachers is compared to ‘rapid opinion sharing in the form of the National Student Survey (NSS), repeated every year and widely publicized’.  The fact that the Sophists were clearly competing with each other for audiences and pupils is compared to ‘desperate competition between universities’.  Wolff also thinks that the ambitious young men who created a demand for ‘Sophistry’ had an ‘instrumental approach to learning’: they ‘had no interest in philosophy or logic for its own sake’. He then asks whether today’s university students are enrolling in degrees for the love of knowledge and to learn the skills and content which we academics judge they ought to know.  At the moment, it’s all okay, he thinks,  but he then adds this warning:

‘ I don’t want to alarm anyone, but do watch out for students who want you to teach them how to make a weak case look strong. Heightened enthusiasm for presentational skills could be an early warning sign.’

This is all good fun.  But of course, academics have always helped students to get good at evidence-based reasoning, making coherent, clearly-structured arguments (written or oral), weighing two sides or interpretations of an issue, being confident, assertive and effective communicators (and so on).  And even if we didn’t do so with their future lives and careers as an explicit focus, we surely knew that most of them weren’t going to be translating Sophocles for a living in ten years’ time.  And as for ‘making the weak case look strong’, well we don’t really know for sure what Protagoras meant by this.  Again, one thing which academics have always done is helped each other and their students to see the weak points in their essays, theses, monographs and articles.  I don’t think we should be embarrassed about the age-old practice of reading students’ and colleagues’ work or listening to their arguments with a view to improvement.  And I certainly don’t prioritize style and delivery over substance when it comes to my students’ presentations.  Furthermore, if my students want to know how to present their work more clearly, loudly, logically and confidently, all power to them. I don’t want them to be the colleagues of the future whom everyone else wishes would speak louder, make more sense or be less excruciatingly apologetic.

No, the real worry for all academics is that they become perceived as ‘sophists’ in the same way that Socrates was.  We don’t think of Socrates as a ‘sophist’ because Plato and Xenophon did such a good job of depicting him as the scourge of the so-called ‘sophists’.  But several decades after Socrates was put to death, the orator and politician Aeschines could still remind the Athenians that they executed ‘the sophist Socrates’ for being the teacher of Critias. (Critias became a murderous oligarch – one of the ‘Thirty Tyrants’).  The UK government’s REF-led ‘Impact agenda’ means that we academics are now required to show that our research has caused significant changes in public policy, culture or the general public’s perception of our subject.  We are encouraged to find ‘user groups’ outside the academy for our research and to make sure our research can be shown to have influenced what they do and how they think in a measurable way.  The temptation here is to pretend that our work solves problems which it cannot or claim that we can help or provide understanding in areas where we can’t really.  I have myself very recently been in a situation where I had to resist the temptation to claim that my own thoughts on Euripides and extant plays of the ancient playwright himself were ‘applicable’ to modern morality or politics in a straightforward and simplistic manner.  I think I managed to avoid this pitfall and my audience were just happy to learn something fresh about the ancient world for its own sake.  But if I could show that my work on Greek rhetoric had changed the communications strategy of Vladimir Putin and his aides, I’d probably get a better Impact score.    Not likely to happen, but ‘Impact’ is making paid consultancy and simplistic ‘applications’ of our work more attractive as a proposition.

Demosthenes, the Daily Mail and Ed Miliband’s Dad

I started writing this post over six months ago.   ‘I’m just so busy’ is no excuse for a blogger, although it is a very ancient apologetic strategy.  In a letter to his brother Quintus, dated August 54 BC, Cicero opens like this:

‘When you receive a letter from me by the hand of an amaneuensis, understand that I have not an atom of leisure, and if from my own hand, that I have very little. And I believe that I have never been more pressed by cases and trials, and this too at a time of year most oppressive by reason of sultry heat.’ (Q. Fr. II.16)

I too have recently had to prosecute the occasional ‘Academic Misconduct’ case on hot days.  And I have been very busy with what modern institutional rhetoric dubs my ‘core mission’  – teaching, administration and research.  Unlike Cicero, however,  I don’t own an educated slave who can act as my amaneuensis.   I don’t even have a free research assistant with full access to holiday pay, citizenship rights and employment protections. (Mind you, I shudder to think what life would be like if St Andrews Classics didn’t have its much-appreciated support staff: thanks Carol, Irene, Margaret and Mary!).

Anyway, I am back now, so watch out.

Now that Andy Coulson has been found guilty and the behaviour of the UK national tabloids is back on the agenda, it seems a good time to finally finish and publish this post.   For non-British readers, I had better give a quick summary of why Ed Miliband fell out with the Daily Mail last Autumn.  His late father was a famous Marxist academic, Ralph Miliband, and the Mail printed an article in which it used Ralph’s political views and biography to intimate that Ed has a ‘Marxist dream’ for Britain which is similar to that of his father.  But it was the headline of the article and its flimsy basis which attracted Miliband’s public condemnation:  ‘The man who hated Britain: Red Ed’s pledge to bring back socialism is a homage to his Marxist father. So what did Miliband Snr really believe in? The answer should disturb everyone who loves this country’.

‘Red Ed’s Pledge’: this sounds good because it deploys what ancient rhetorical handbooks call ‘homoioteleuton’ – two or more endings with the same or similar sounds.

Ralph Miliband was a Jewish refugee who had fled the Nazis with his father and settled in Britain.  He served in the Royal Navy during the war.  Ed publically rebutted the allegation that Ralph hated Britain or that his own politics are the same as his father’s.  The Mail‘s basis for the first allegation was a 1940 diary entry in which the 16 year-old Ralph wrote this:  ‘The Englishman is a rabid nationalist. They are perhaps the most nationalist people in the world… When you hear the English talk of this war you sometimes almost want them to lose it to show them how things are.’  But the Mail didn’t print some crucial wider context for this remark, namely the high levels of Anti-Semitism which the young Ralph was experiencing on his arrival in England (see historian John Simkin’s blog for details, including some rather important, ironic material on the political sympathies of the great-grandfather of the current owner of the Daily Mail!).

What interests me about all this that the Mail‘s headline is very redolent of the sort of invective which fourth-century Athenian politicians used against each other in high-profile, politically-motivated court cases. (I have recently been writing about these in my own research).  So, for example, in his speech Against Ctesiphon,  Aeschines attacks his arch-political rival Demosthenes on the grounds that he possesses all the attributes of an ‘oligarch’ as opposed to a ‘democrat’ or ‘man of the people’ (Aeschines 3.169-70)Aeschines’ first piece of ‘evidence’ for this is that Demosthenes’ maternal grandfather had been impeached for betraying an Athenian colony to the enemy (171).   His Athenian father illicitly married a non-Greek, Scythian woman (171-2).   Aeschines continues as follows (Ag. Ctesiphon 172) :

“So then, from his grandfather he would naturally be the enemy of the people (you condemned his ancestors to death), while on his mother’s side he is a Scythian barbarian who speaks Greek. Hence his dishonesty too, is of foreign extraction. And in his daily life, what sort of man is he? He suddenly turned from trierarch [warship commander/financier] to speechwriter after squandering his inheritance in a ridiculous way. And after losing his credibility even in this trade by handing speeches over to the opposing side, he leapt onto the speaker’s platform.” (Trans. Carey 2000)

After this, we are told that Demosthenes’ political career is one in which treachery and bribes fund his extravagant lifestyle at the expense of the dēmos (173).   This is a ‘causal’ narrative in which Demosthenes’ alleged anti-democratic leanings are explicitly rooted in his grandfather’s treachery against Athens and his mother’s unAthenian and ‘barbarian’ identity.  It relies on a very embedded ancient Greek view that one inherits traits from one’s ancestors and that foreigners are morally and politically untrustworthy.

Demosthenes’ response characterizes this allegation as the sort of low abuse and coarse mudslinging which should be beneath the court’s dignity and the standards of proof required by procedure (On the Crown 122-4). He cleverly argues that he is forced to respond in kind, not because he wants to, but because he must set the record straight (123-8). Then we hear about how Aeschines’ father was a ‘slave who wore thick fetters and a wooden collar’.  And the very coarse tone and language which Aeschines used to impugn Demosthenes’ credentials as patriotic and loyal Athenian democrat are taken to be signs that is he and not Demosthenes whose origins are illegitimate and foreign. Indeed, Demosthenes uses humour to underline the vulgarity of Aeschines’ abusive performances:

‘And you (i.e. Aeschines) bawl out, using names both mentionable and unmentionable, a sort of ‘cart-language’ fitting for you and your kind, but not for me.’ (On the Crown 122)

The ‘cart-language’ here refers to the ritualized obscenity, invective and mockery which was performed in the processions of Athenian festivals in honour of Dionysus. [See my colleague Stephen Halliwell’s book Greek Laughter for more on this].  Demosthenes then launches a long section of amusing ad hominem narrative concerning Aeschines’ servile past occupations and treacherous career (125-59).

Scholars often talk of a rhetorical ‘double standard’ here: Demosthenes is using precisely the same racist and snobbish rhetoric as Aeschines does.  But I think this misses the point.  When one looks closely at the way in which Demosthenes frames his own attacks on Aeschines, it is clear that he goes out of his way to argue that they are a regrettable necessity and, unlike Aeschines’ slanders, are based on evidence.  He is doing his best to avoid the impression of hypocrisy.   I will talk more about this ‘performance/evidence’ distinction in ancient and modern discourse in later posts.

Of course, even the Daily Mail shies away from the levels of overt racism and xenophobia which were default settings in Athenian public culture. And I am not suggesting that Ed Miliband should resort to these sorts of attitudes when dealing with his foes in the Press!    But Demosthenes offers a good example of how one can give as good as one gets when dealing with nasty rhetorical attacks and yet do so with humour and a good claim to staying within appropriate standards of discourse.  Next time this happens (and there will be a next time),  Ed can say:-

a) I didn’t start this, they did, and I have to set the record straight here….

b) This sort of  ad hominem abuse is often a sign of desperation, lack of real evidence/argument or and weak reasoning. It’s also beneath the right standards of public debate and news gathering.

c) there is something inherently laughable about these loud – and you can be loud in writing as well as in oral performance – exaggerated and poorly- evidenced attacks. They’re fine coming from a comedian or a comic character, but not from  a serious national newspaper/party politician.  Ironically, Ed should probably employ a comedian to come up with some suitable anti-‘Daily-Mail-froths-at-mouth-at-imagined-Reds-under-beds’ jokes.

The abusive online ad feminam attacks which J.K. Rowling recently received for donating to the  ‘better together campaign’ in the lead-up to the Scottish Independence referendum on independence earlier this month show that the question of how to deal with outright abuse or slanderous innuendo is a live, rhetorical problem.  [And it’s only right to point our that pro-‘Yes’ campaigners have attracted nasty verbal and online abuse too].  One thing we shouldn’t do – and I’m glad to see that senior politicians on both sides of the referendum debate seem to get this – is condone or ignore such dreadful abuse.

MLK’s ‘I have a dream’ – Speech Events Part 1

Martin Luther King's speech was magnificent Today is the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s famous and brilliant  ‘I have a dream’ speech.  Dr King delivered this address at the Lincoln Memorial as part of the ‘March on Washington’.  The speech has been endlessly analyzed and discussed and it is rightly regarded as one the best examples of public oratory of the 20th century – it could well be the best example.  Although I wasn’t born until the year of King’s assassination, I have a vivid memory of hearing this speech for the first time when I was about eleven years old: a teacher played it to us at a school assembly on a battered reel-to-reel tape machine and I was blown away by it.

As Sam Leith reminds us in his recent book on oratory, Dr King’s speech is best understood as a ‘sermon’ in the tradition of black Southern Baptist preaching .  I hadn’t really appreciated until today the extent to which the speech is filled with allusions to, or citations of, other texts, songs and speeches. We get the Bible and other scripture of course, but we also get, inter alia,  the American constitution,  a traditional ‘Spiritual’, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, the US National Anthem and Shakespeare’s Richard III.  King also re-uses phrases and ideas which he and other activists had been honing in their orations and church sermons for over a decade. I also hadn’t realized that King had pre-prepared the speech but started to depart from his text and improvise.  The ‘I have a dream’ section is the most improvised bit.

Leith mentions an academic journal article on ‘I have a dream’ by Alexandra Alvarez (Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Mar., 1988), pp. 337-357).  I’ve just read this article with great interest and admiration.  What Alvarez does is show how the speech can only be fully understood as a ‘speech event’ in which King is engaged in an antiphonal dialogue – ‘call and response’ – with his audience. This format is typical of oral-traditional black Baptist sermonizing.  By transposing that dialogue form to a context of mass political protest in the heart of Washington, King and the crowd become ‘senders’ of the speech’s demand for equal rights.  The primary ‘addressee’ of this joint call is the US Congress.  Alvarez shows that King’s several repeated phrases (e,g.’Now is the time’  and ‘I have a dream’)  are actually formulae which both encourage the audience to vocalize their affirmation and  encapsulate the speech’s essential message when strung together.  Given that repetition of words or phrases are a well-known Greek and Roman rhetorical device and category of analysis (‘anaphora’) , one is tempted to see whether this dual function  can be ascribed to ancient examples as well.

Alvarez rejects any transcription or analysis of the speech in terms of sentences and paragraphs as a distortion of its performative, dialogic and poetic dynamics.  Here are a couple of excerpts of her transcription.  You need to know that the numbered ‘lines’ correspond to units of utterance which are followed by pauses and whose ends are marked by rises or drops in intonation.   Alvarez believes that falls in intonation are a particular signal to the crowd to respond if they wish.  The words in brackets are the responses of members of the crowd which are audible on tape (you’ll see that some follow a rise in intonation).  ‘A’  denotes a response in the form of applause; ** = falling intonation; *** = rising intonation.

Excerpt 1:

(1) I am happy to join with you today ***A

(2) in what will go down in history***

(3) as the greatest demonstration, for freedom, in the history of our nation** (Yes) A

(4) Five score years ago***

(5) a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today**

(6) signed the Emancipation Proclamation**

(7) This momentous decree came***

(8) as a great beacon of light to millions of Negro slaves** (Yes)

(9) who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice **

(10) It came as a joyous daybreak***

(11) to end the long night of their captivity.**


Excerpt 2:

(134) I have a  dream** (Well, Very well)

(135) that my four little children*** (Yes, Sir)

(136) will one day live in a Nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.** (My Lord)

(137) I have a dream today.***

(138) I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists*** (Yeah, Yeah)

(139) with its governor, having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification** (Yes, Yeah)

(140) one day right there in Alabama little black boys and little white boys will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers**

(141) I have a dream today.***

I have come across even more complex systems of notation on the part of sociolinguists and anthropologists in their attempt to reproduce and analyze various forms of oratory and verbal art in many different cultures (and the interaction of their audiences) which have been captured on tape. These serve to remind us that a transcript which merely records the words which have been uttered may well fail to convey the essential dynamics of the live occasion.  And it is rather sobering to turn to written speeches by Demosthenes or Cicero and realize that we can only guess at the nature of their live delivery and reception.  Not that we don’t get lots of clues about ideal and problematic forms of delivery in treatises and handbooks.  And  Greek and Roman orators have always been analyzed in terms of the ‘rhythm’ of their prose.  Beneath the most obvious grammatical structures (sentences, subordinate clauses etc.)  a Classicist with the right skills can point to likely pauses and cadences.   But without a time machine we are never going to be able to access an ancient speech in the way that Alvarez can for MLK’s masterpiece.