Enjoyed ‘Line of Duty’? Try Euripides’ tragedies.


Adrian Dunbar (Supt Ted Hastings) and Craig Parkinson (DI Matthew Cottan). Photo: BBC.

SPOILER AND CONTENT ALERT: if you haven’t yet seen all of BBC 2’s Line of Duty (Series 3), or read/seen Euripides’ Hippolytus this post contains some spoilers! As such, it also contains passing references to sexual abuse/violence.

Last week’s feature-length finale of Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty was the most gripping and immersive episode of television drama we’ve seen in my household since, well, the previous week’s episode.  A number of TV police dramas are addressing the painfully topical subject of police criminality, corruption, collusion, smear tactics, cover-ups and incompetence in the UK at the moment: BBC 1’s Undercover and ITV 1’s Marcella and Scott and Bailey also acknowledge and explore these subjects within the inevitable limitations of a prime-time entertainment slot.

One of the many striking things about the final Line of Duty was the length and intensity of two central interview scenes: they took up 54 minutes of a 90-minute episode.   The first scene had DS Steve Arnott (an anti-police corruption officer in unit AC-12) being presented with the accusation and supporting evidence that he murdered former DI Lindsay Denton.  It was then put to Arnott that he was ‘the Caddy’ – a corrupt detective who could call on a network of other officers to do the bidding of organized criminals and the murky forces of the establishment anxious to cover up past collusion and crime, including a child abuse ring involving a politician and a senior copper.  We all knew Steve was innocent of these charges.  And yet, his colleague and nemesis DI Matthew ‘Dot’ Cottan had done a masterful job at planting evidence against him and covering his own tracks.  We watched with mounting horror as a sweating and indignant Steve had each of his alibis and explanations rebutted by forensic and circumstantial evidence.   The exchanges got more and more heated and rancorous.  Arnott hadn’t exactly played things by the book in a previous operation against Denton, and Cottan was able to use this to influence the mindset of the rest of the AC-12 team.  By the end of the interview, it looked like Steve was going to cop for everything in a terrible miscarriage of justice.  But we still hoped that Supt. Hastings and DS Fleming would pick up on Steve’s few good points in reply.  Was he likely to have shot Denton at close range in his own service vehicle?  And why were the supposedly incriminating contents of an envelope not covered in blood and DNA when the inside of the envelope was?

As I was watching all of this, it struck me that the dramatic dynamics were not dissimilar to scenes of debate, quarreling and interrogation which take place in Greek tragedy. These scenes  follow certain conventions:  one character will make a speech of 50 lines or more and then another will attempt to rebut them in a speech of matching length; such a so-called agon of long speeches will then morph into quick-fire exchanges of single lines (stichomythia) or pairs of lines (distichs).  There is no rigid pattern to all this and every surviving tragedy does things differently.  But the tension, irony and sheer excitement which these scenes of verbal confrontation must have created for ancient Greek audiences are easily lost on us as we read – they can look dry and artificial on the page.  It takes good acting and directing in an actual modern production (or else a very vivid mind’s eye and ear) to recreate their edge-of-seat combination of vehement emotion, forensic argument and tit-for-tat rhetorical sparring.

One such scene which has ‘the Line of Duty factor’ in spades comes in Euripides’ Hippolytus.  After a long absence, Theseus returns to his palace in Troezen to discover that his wife Phaedra has just hung herself.  As he grieves over her body he reads a suicide note in which she has falsely accused her step-son (and Theseus’ biological son) Hippolytus of raping her.

The truth – of which Theseus is totally unaware – is that the goddess Aphrodite had made Phaedra sick with desire for her step-son. The queen had reluctantly confided in her nurse about the cause of her sickness. The nurse then took it upon herself to act as a go-between. But when the nurse revealed Phaedra’s love for him to Hippolytus he was appalled, rejecting the overture and railing against all womankind.  It is far from clear whether he will keep his oath to stay quiet or tell Theseus on his return. This prompts Phaedra to write the note and kill herself so that she can preserve her own and her children’s reputation.


Red-figured Apulian vase for mixing wine and water, c.340-320BC. Beneath an assembly of the gods, an old retainer looks on as a Fury and a bull terrify Hippolytus’ team of horses. Photo: British Museum.

So, when Hippolytus enters the action to be confronted by his step-mother’s dead body and his angry, grieving father, the audience knows that Hippolytus has been framed by the lying suicide note.  The terrifyingly ironic disjunction between how things look to Theseus and the truth of what has gone on must have really smacked the audience in the guts.  Even before Hippolytus has entered and pleaded his innocence, Theseus rushes to judge and punish him:

Theseus: O City! Hippolytus dared to touch my marriage bed by force, showing no honour to the revered eye of Zeus. Well, father Poseidon, you once promised me three curses; with one of these make an end of my son, and may he not escape this day if the curses you gave me are real.

Chorus: Lord, by the gods, take this back and undo this prayer: for you will recognize later that you are wrong. Listen to me!

Euripides has engineered a wonderful mixture of dread and suspense in his audience here.  The untried nature of the curses leave open the possibility that this one against his own son might not work. (Although spectators also have reason think it will work: for a big spoiler see my asterisked note at the end of this post).  And the chorus of women suggest that Theseus might yet be able to reverse it.  But they themselves can’t explain why Theseus is making a terrible mistake: they have previously sworn an oath of silence to Phaedra.  And at this point he isn’t listening to them properly anyway.

As Theseus denounces his baffled son in a long speech, it becomes clear that the heinous nature of the alleged crime and its consequences are not the only causes of Theseus’ extreme anger.  As a particularly pious young worshipper of Artemis who espouses an ascetic and ‘pure’  lifestyle free of sexual contact, Hippolytus has apparently proved himself to have been profoundly dishonest and hypocritical: ‘flee from men such as these’, shouts Theseus, ‘for they chase you down with their pious words, while they devise shameful deeds.’  Now, as with Steve Arnott’s approach to anti-corruption policing, Hippolytus’ brand of piety is not without its flaws.  But there’s some agonizing emotional realism at work here.  Like Steve’s colleagues in AC-12, Theseus is upset by the thought that he has been utterly duped and betrayed by someone he was close to – someone he thought he knew well.

Hippolytus now gets to make his long defence in reply.  Will he be able to convince the enraged Theseus of the truth? Ironically, his piety makes this a harder task: he doesn’t reveal Phaedra’s love for him or call the Nurse as a witness because he’s sworn an oath not to. Instead, he resorts to a form of forensic argument which serves Steve Arnott quite well – the Greek rhetoricians and lawcourt orators called it eikos: ‘argument from probability’ or ‘likelihood’.  Hippolytus says that even if Theseus doubts his devotion to chastity, he must consider the improbability that he committed this crime. Why would he pursue Phaedra when there were more beautiful women he could have gone for? Did he somehow expect to take over Theseus’ house by marrying Phaedra as its heiress? That would be a mad thing to think. Was it because he wanted to usurp Theseus’ rule? Well, nobody sane or sensible wants that kind of power!

For all the similarities of tension and forensic back-and-forth, notice too that a difference between Line of Duty and Hippolytus is emerging here.  Steve Arnott’s eikos arguments successfully cast a measure of doubt on Cottan’s version of events and Hastings and Fleming are given other reasons to question that account as the interview progresses.  But Hippolytus’ appeal to probabilities just comes across as mildly insulting to Theseus and his dead wife.  It makes things worse. And although he swears an oath by the gods that he never touched Phaedra, Theseus remains implacably convinced that the dead body and the note are all the evidence he needs. Blind to the fact that he is relying so heavily on the written word to convict his son, he says this: ‘it is the deed that proclaims you a bad man, it needs no words’.   Hippolytus must go into exile immediately.   In a heated, furious rapid-fire exchange between them, Hippolytus makes the important point that his father is circumventing due process and the gathering of further evidence:

Will you not first review the evidence of oaths, of pledges of good faith or of prophets’ utterances – but simply cast me from the land without trial?

When this has no effect, Hippolytus comes close to breaking his oath of secrecy. But he takes the view that such impiety would be pointless: ‘there is no hope that I could convince the man I have to convince’.

I’ll leave you to read, watch or recall the rest of Euripides’ tragedy for yourselves.  And I’ll end by stressing this: despite certain instructive similarities in the dynamics of the interrogation scene in Line of Duty and Hippolytus‘ debate scene, some big generic and cultural differences remain.  Line of Duty has its tragic elements – a fair share of moral ambiguity for example, and the sense that some of its characters are being groomed and controlled by higher powers.  But Euripides offers a much bleaker, complex and absolute image of human fallibility and frailty than even the great Jed Mercurio can muster.  I’m not saying Line of Duty isn’t very good. It is – I’ll be watching series 4. But Euripides will make you think and have you gripped too, surprise endings and all.


(*) It’s important to know that at the point when Theseus enters to discover Phaedra’s body and the incriminating note, the audience already has information that Hippolytus will die. The goddess Aphrodite tells us right at the start of the play that Theseus will find out about the the incestuous desire she has inflicted upon his wife and that he will kills his son as a result of his own father’s divinely-gifted curses.  Aphrodite’s plan is to infect Phaedra with desire for Hippolytus so that he can be punished for his irreverence: the young man spurns sex and marriage and refuses to worship the goddess.  We hear too that Phaedra will die.  But we don’t hear exactly how the two deaths will come about, which will come first, or whether they will be causally related.  If you believe the information provided by Aphrodite short-circuits all the suspense and uncertainty,  think about all those historically-based dramas, films and novels where we know the outcome and yet find ourselves in suspense over how that ending will be achieved.  We can get so carried away by the action and our wish that disaster be averted that we even forget our foreknowledge.









‘Performance’ vs. ‘evidence’ in negotiations and debates: an ancient tension.


© AP Photo/ Geert Vanden Wijngaert

The banner image for this blog comes from a very famous fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael which has become known as ‘The School of Athens’it was painted between 1509 and 1511 as a part of Raphael’s commission to decorate the library rooms in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.   Here it is again (although I’ve shamefully cropped out all the magnificent Roman architecture above, below and to the side of the human figures):


The ‘School of Athens’ by Raphael.  For an excellent discussion which situates this fresco in its wider context, see this episode of In Our Time (BBC Radio 4)

On this are depicted a whole range of Greek ‘proto-scientists’ and philosophers, although scholars argue about exactly who is who in some cases.  (Islamic thinkers and Zoroaster are also depicted but the Greeks dominate).  In the centre of the picture you have Plato and Aristotle, the two most important and prolific philosophical writers from classical Greece and to the left, in green, we seem to have Socrates.  The picture depicts something that never could have happened in reality. You couldn’t really have Heraclitus, Socrates and Aristotle looking roughly the same age, hanging out together and arguing about philosophy because the dates and chronology just don’t work.  But by imagining all these thinkers in dialogue with each other Raphael distils and emphasizes the spirit of what is now known (albeit problematically) as ‘Renaissance humanism’. Humanists sought to create a citizenry who were eloquent in speech and writing.   They imagined that this would encourage engagement in civic life  and the persuasion of others towards virtuous actions and wise policy.  The primary texts to be used in such a project were the Greek poets, historians and philosophers.

Now, I think he humanists were right about the Greeks here. They did indeed realize that public, evidence-based reasoning and deliberation were key to problem-solving and our own collective and individual flourishing.  What the Greeks had to say about this was sophisticated and important.  For the most part, we moderns no longer appreciate the salience of this material for our current situation.

But, of course renaissance artists, thinkers and writers didn’t study the Greeks in a passive, unquestioning way or seek simply to imitate or reproduce their findings. For a start, there was a need to make pagan philosophy compatible with the goals and teachings of Christianity:  this fresco shouldn’t be taken too far out of its specific context as a counterpart and complement to another fresco in the same room  depicting theological disputation.   And in many cases renaissance thinkers criticized or went beyond the Greeks, especially in the area of natural science. The fresco displays and projects that spirit of active questioning of previous models too. For example, Plato is pointing upwards with his cosmic mind-blowing dialogue the Timaeus under his arm and his pupil Aristotle is pointing downwards with the more practical down-to-earth Nicomachean Ethics in his hand: and if you read Aristotle on rhetoric or tragedy, you’ll see how far the latter pupil disagreed with and tried to do something very different to his former master.

Furthermore, note the many other angry faces, aggressive physical gestures and posturing on the fresco.

So, Raphael’s image  partially undermines its own optimism by hinting that the realities of deliberation, debate and enquiry are painful, fractious, antagonistic and difficult – that ideas and arguments can be excluded, sidelined or superseded and that consensus may not always be possible, absolute or even desirable. Raphael captures the point that public deliberation, debate and argument are never purely or only constituted by the logic of the speakers’ arguments themselves or the quality and relevance of the evidence which they deploy to prove and illustrate their points.  In addition to this, there is a performative dimension: how we use our voices and hand-gestures for emphasis, the way we turn our gaze, what we are wearing, whether we make our arguments more palatable and persuasive with rhetorical devices, jokes, anecdotes, metaphors, analogies, colourful language and props – whether we go personal and ad hominem with our rivals or opponents to leverage our audience’s support.


 ‘The Age of Pericles’, by Philipp Von Foltz (1853) (Maximilianeum, Munich).  Pericles is depicted delivering a speech on the speaker’s platform on the Pnyx, the meeting-place of the Athenian democratic assembly. This platform still exists. See this previous post.

We all know about this performative dimension. And we all love to complain that modern public political debates and campaigns just ‘political theatre’ and  ‘all style and no substance’, that ‘spin’, ‘punch-and-judy politics’ and  staying ‘on-message’ have displaced something more ‘proper’, ‘honest’ and ‘real’.  But I think that complaint is in itself really another piece of simplistic spin from interested parties which ‘we the public’ have internalized.  The truth is more complicated and difficult:  namely, that conflicting political positions and rival policies often offer up different interpretations of the same evidence or different bodies of evidence altogether.  And deliberation towards a decision is difficult, not just because it is hard to disentangle substance from spin or to spot a dodgy argument, but also because we often feel ill-equipped to evaluate and test the evidence presented to support the argument in the first place.  Where does the spin stop and the evidence begin?

The Greeks of the classical period worried about, and grappled with these questions too. On the one hand they recognized that there were better and worse ways of deliberating towards a decision and they were optimistic about the potential of good public reasoning. They developed an interest in the structure and nature of different forms of argumentation and demonstration and in some cases that interest is directly relatable to the importance of the political assembly and the lawcourt in classical, democratic Athens. In Athens all citizens took part in decision-making: they didn’t delegate decisions to politicians – instead the politicians gave advice to the people.  The Greeks also developed an understanding of the importance of what we would call ‘critical thinking’ on the part of individuals who might be members of political council or assembly or a mass jury.

On the other hand, these democratic arenas of mass decision-making were highly theatrical and rhetorical in character. Winning a case or persuading the assembly to vote for your policy clearly required orators to put on an entertaining and highly competent rhetorical performance.  In this context, where important decisions are derived from the massed citizenry assessing two or more opposed public speeches, we get a tension between two opposed requirements.  On one side, the high stakes and related checks and balances in the Athenian council, assembly and courts demanded intellectually virtuous but essentially quite  dull forms of proof and demonstration on the part of speakers and sober, considered internal deliberation on the part of the people, the dēmos.  On the other hand, we have the theatrical and competitive-performative dynamic of these deliberative venues whereby elite amateur advisers and litigants are pitted against one another before a largely non-elite crowd.  The pressure to put on the best act and the difficulty shared by all pre-modern societies of securing compelling or incontrovertible evidence meant that sound and sober reasoning would rarely be enough to win over the crowd.   (This ‘evidence vs. performance tension’, as I am calling it, is well-expressed by the various meanings of the Greek word agōn: gathering/assembly, contest for a prize, struggle, legal trial.)  I think this performance-evidence tension and the way it is deployed, grappled with, refined and reproduced classical Athenian texts drove Greek literature and thought to realize important new ideas and techniques.  This hasn’t been appreciated enough within classical scholarship.  And its purchase on controversies and problems in modern normative democratic political theory hasn’t yet been fully recognized either. (Normative = what democracy ought to be. This is often thought to be different to what it is ( = empirical ).

Some (but not all) of my future blog posts will talk more about this!

 This post is taken from the introduction to a public lecture called ‘Deliberation, decision-making and evidence in Classical Greece’, which I delivered on 2nd February at Trevelyan College, University of Durham.  The lecture was part of a series of public lectures on the theme of ‘evidence’ delivered by Fellows of the Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Durham.  Here is an abstract of the lecture and here is an audio recording of the whole thing. (The lecture starts a few minutes into the recording).


Paris, Cleocritus and the Chorus

The day after the massacre of 129 people in France I was at a conference in Edinburgh called ‘Ancient Greek History and Contemporary Social Science’.  I was due to give a response to four papers about ‘associations and innovation’.  One of the papers was written by two academics based in Paris: Vincent Azoulay and Paulin Ismard.  Vincent was there in person while Paulin listened in from afar and graciously responded to our questions via Skype.  It was a great paper and Vincent prefaced it with some moving words in his native tongue which acknowledged the terrible events that had unfolded in his city the night before. He also spoke of the historical ties of friendship which exist between France and Scotland.

The paper’s ambition and intellectual panache reminded me of the pioneering ‘Paris School’ tradition of applying anthropology and sociology to ancient Greek culture and history.  It feels appropriate that two founding figures in that tradition were so active in their opposition to oppression and fascist violence.   Jean-Pierre Vernant (1914-2007)  had been a senior member of the French Resistance in World War II.   Pierre Vidal-Naquet (1930-2006) campaigned against the use of torture by the French Army during the Algerian War. He also supported peace efforts in the Middle East and wrote extensively about the dangers of genocide denial in history-writing.

Vincent and Paulin’s paper argued that the very particular and special phenomenon of ‘the chorus’ in the classical Greek city and its conceptualization in ancient authors  might provide a fruitful interpretive category for observing the various groups to which it was possible to belong in Athenian civic society.  One of their key passages of evidence was a famous episode at the end of the Athenian civil war (stasis) between the pro-democracy forces under Thrasybulus and the brutal Spartan-backed regime of The Thirty Tyrants and their supporters.  After a battle between the two sides at the Hill of Mounichia, there is an exchange of the dead bodies under truce.   Xenophon’s Hellenica  narrates how men from each side started to mingle and speak to each other during the truce.  Then, a man called Cleocritus, a herald with a beautiful voice, called for silence and spoke:

“Fellow citizens, why do you drive us out of the city? Why do you wish to kill us? For we never did you any harm, but we have shared with you in the most solemn rites and sacrifices and the most splendid festivals, we have been companions in the choruses (καὶ συγχορευταὶ) and schoolmates and comrades in arms, and we have braved many dangers with you both by land and by sea in defence of the common safety and freedom of us both. In the name of the gods of our fathers and mothers, in the name of our ties of kinship and marriage and comradeship—for all these many of us share with one another—, cease, out of shame before gods and men, to sin against your fatherland, and do not obey those most accursed Thirty, who for the sake of their private gain have killed in eight months more Athenians, almost, than all the Peloponnesians in ten years of war.”  (Xenophon Hellenica 2.4.20-22)

Given what had happened in Paris just a few hours earlier, and given that most of the attackers were French citizens,  I couldn’t help but be moved by Cleocritus’ opening questions.  But it also struck me that much of the rest of Cleocritus’ speech just wouldn’t make any sense or have any credibility in relation to the current context of Jihadist ‘radicalization’ among young European nationals.  Athenian citizens who ended up fighting each other had indeed participated together in tragic, comic or dithyrambic choruses. They shared religious rites, festive meals and processions.  They even fought a common foreign enemy together as conscripts in previous years. But even with those engines of cohesion and shared experience behind them, they were still prepared to fight each other in the name of competing visions of society and statehood once the war with Sparta started to go wrong.  Given the absence of comparable engines of cohesion, common experience, equality and shared opportunity in our own modern European towns and cities, it becomes less surprising (although no less appalling)  that some young men have been persuaded to kill their own fellow citizens and then themselves.



‘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.