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.