Aeschylus Transposed: This Restless House

Around this time last year I was asked by the award-winning playwright, director and screenwriter Zinnie Harris to write a programme note for the Edinburgh International Festival revival of the acclaimed ORESTEIA: THIS RESTLESS HOUSE. The trilogy was written by Zinnie and directed by Dominic Hill, artistic director of the Citizens Theatre.  (The trilogy was originally a Citizens Theatre production in 2016, and the revival was again the Citizens production in association with the National Theatre of Scotland).

 At the time I wrote this note, I had chatted to Zinnie and read the published script. But I hadn’t seen the the trilogy as performed in its first run at the Citizens in Glasgow or even seen any rehearsals for the revival.  It was an interesting experience to only first see the production during the Edinburgh run, and after this note had been published in a programme which everyone around me was reading!  The note doesn’t really do justice to the vitality, inventiveness and tonal variety of Hill’s production and the incredible work of the cast, musicians and crew, But I hope to put that right in some future writing on this amazing reimagining of Aeschylus’ revenge drama.  For a pdf of the original programme note reproduced below, but with more high quality pictures see here.

You do not  need to know anything about The Oresteia to understand and enjoy Zinnie Harris’ stunning reinvention of Aeschylus’ blood-soaked trilogy.   (‘Enjoy’ is the right word: Aristotle writes of the ‘pleasure which comes from pity and fear’ when we experience the work of a good tragedian). But by sketching just a few of the many points of connection and contrast between The Oresteia and This Restless House, we can gain a deeper appreciation of the latter’s extraordinary richness and originality.

Even a brief ‘compare and contrast’ exercise such as this must first confront the nuanced and complex relationship which Harris’ modern trilogy forges with its ancient model.  On the one hand, she departs from the trajectory, tone and focus of The Oresteia in a number of important respects.  Such fundamental changes in plot, structure, characterization and setting give This Restless House its contemporary sensibility.  They make it boldly innovative, dramatically gripping and deeply affecting too.  On the other hand, to concentrate solely on these ‘grand departures’ from The Oresteia would be a gross simplification of the way in which Harris actually works her magic.  For at another level, This Restless House constantly returns to Aeschylus’ original text via a wealth of creative echoes, transpositions and reframings.

This is even true of Harris’ final play, Electra and Her Shadow, where the setting of a modern psychiatric hospital and the focus on Electra take us a good distance away from its Aeschylean counterpart, The Kindly Ones. We may not be in ancient Delphi or Athens any more, and there is no chorus of Furies baying for Orestes’ blood;  but Clytemnestra’s ghost will still appear, and her killer will still experience the terror of being the prey of hunters who may never relent.  There is also a trial scene, though Harris’ deft rearrangements of its personnel and outcome hint at the moral inadequacy and gender bias of Athena’s casting vote in Aeschylus’ play. More important, the modern version of the trial facilitates a heart-breaking sequence wherein victims, perpetrators and perpetrators-turned-victims are able to meet again.  It is a poignant scene of partly restored intimacy and improved understanding between members of a family who now seem all too ordinary and familiar.

This is very different to the ending of The Kindly Ones: here, the family’s terrible suffering is left to one side as the trial becomes a foundational, celebratory moment, both for the Athenian democratic state and the institution of the rule of law. In 462 BC, only four years before The Oresteia was performed in Athens, a politician named Ephialtes had managed to strip the age-old Areopagus council of its aristocratic character and influence, thereby removing the last barrier to the establishment of a genuinely radical democracy for the city – albeit a ‘radical democracy’ that had no place for women and saw nothing wrong with slavery. However, the Areopagus council retained its traditional role as a court dealing with homicide cases and religious crimes. In The Kindly Ones this is the purely juridical institution which Athena invents in order to hear Orestes’ case.  Aeschylus’ staging of a historic shift from ‘do-it-yourself’ retaliatory justice to a jury system also entails that the fearsome Furies be welcomed into Athena’s city.  These ancient, once-reviled enemies of the Olympian gods will now be venerated as friendly deities;  and although they will no longer have the power to terrorize murderers, they are to remain potent symbols of the importance of familial and civic harmony.

Harris rightly avoids such grand political symbolism in Electra and Her Shadow.  For all its recent capacity for delivering surprises and disquiet, democracy is not a new and risky venture for a modern audience.  And we no longer expect that either democracy or the rule of law will put an end to reprisal killings or family murders.  In any case, Harris is more interested in what drives people to kill another human being and the very different ways in which they deal with what they have done.  To this end, she reconfigures the significance of the Furies’ transformation.  Always terrified by unnamed and unseen ‘things out there’, Clytemnestra and Electra are told that it is better to ‘invite them in, give them tea’: ‘They are only scary if you run from them. If you ask them in they sit down like friends. There is nothing to fear.’

This Restless House raises the question of whether such unseen terrors are external forces of punishment or internal projections of guilt and insanity.  There are visible hauntings too. Aeschylus only conjures up a vivid image of the young Iphigenia in a choral account of her horrific sacrifice at hands of her father, Agamemnon.  But in Harris’ Agamemnon Returns, the Chorus’s greatly expanded and more dramatized version is the cue for Iphigenia’s ghost to appear on stage.  Clytemnestra interprets this apparition as a demand for retribution against her returning husband.  But is Iphigenia’s wraith really ‘out there’? By contrast, Aeschylus leaves us in little doubt that the dreams, omens and oracles which have commanded Agamemnon and Orestes to slaughter their own kin are manifestations of real divine plans and powers.

One could write a whole book about the way in which Harris places Clytemnestra and Electra at the centre of her trilogy.  We only see Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra making statements for public consumption: even when she pleads with her son not to kill her, a Chorus of female servants looks on.  And in his first play, she reveals that her husband was doomed even before he set foot back in Argos.  By contrast, Harris allows Clytemnestra and Agamemnon to be reunited in private. It soon becomes clear that the king’s death is no foregone conclusion.   Harris offers a compassionate, raw and plausibly complex portrait of a woman who is profoundly damaged by loss and is struggling to understand what she feels about the terrible thing that her husband has done.

But again, these departures from Aeschylus’ approach are modulated with material which takes us back to specific details in the ancient text.  Thus Harris re-stages Aeschylus’ famous scene where the Queen asks Agamemnon to celebrate his triumphant return by walking into the palace on a large, expensive and delicate purple cloth. Agamemnon initially refuses to trample on such finery: ‘this cloth is for gods’.  But in both plays, Clytemnestra persuades him: ‘we want to honour you like a god’.  In Aeschylus, however, the meaning and purpose of the scene remains mysterious. Is it a demonstration of Clytemnestra’s powers of persuasion? Is it a sign of the king’s vanity and hubris?  In Agamemnon Returns, Harris cleverly reframes the scene so that it also becomes a crucial test of Agamemnon’s sincerity.

Harris’s Agamemnon is also a more complex and sympathetic figure. In Aeschylus we hear much about the king but see little of him in person: he is on stage only for one eighth of the trilogy’s first play.  And when he does finally arrive home, he barely acknowledges Clytemnestra’s account of the mental anguish which she endured in his absence.   Harris’s Agamemnon is more needy and solicitous towards his wife: ‘everything will be on your terms, we will go as slow as you like’.    And where the Aeschylean king never openly speaks of Iphigenia’s slaughter, the modern Agamemnon is granted the opportunity to show us that he is genuinely tortured with grief and remorse.   At the same time, however, Harris returns to Aeschylus’ subtle hints that perhaps he did still have a choice.  As the modern Clytemnestra puts it: ‘that’s the difference between us. I would have gone against the gods.’

Because of Euripides’ overstated reputation for ‘social realism’, it is often forgotten that Aeschylus gives some brief but beautifully-drawn roles to the ordinary folk who work for the royal house of Argos.  The trilogy starts with a servant sitting on the palace roof.  This ‘Watchman’ is on the lookout for the beacon fire which will signal victory in the Greeks’ decade-long campaign to defeat Troy and return Helen to her husband.  He begins to complain about the discomforts of his nightly vigil. He mutters darkly about ‘the misfortune’ of a house being badly ‘managed’; he is under orders from a woman whose heart ‘plans like a man’s’.  But then, all of a sudden, he spots the yearned-for flames in the distance.  He shouts down to Clytemnestra’s bedchamber.  If this really is the signal for Agamemnon’s victory and homecoming, he’ll be overjoyed to clasp his beloved master’s hand.  ‘As for the rest’, he continues, ‘I keep silent: a great ox is treading on my tongue – but the house itself, if it got a voice, would speak very plainly.  I talk willingly to those who know, and for those who do not know, I choose to forget’.  With these deeply unsettling words, and after only forty lines of verse, The Watchman’s one and only appearance is over.

The Watchman also appears in Harris’s first play Agamemnon Returns, but he has become a much more significant and substantial character than his Aeschylean model.  Indeed, where The Oresteia ultimately gives pride of place to its aristocrats and gods, Harris invents a number of ‘rude mechanicals’ who help to propel This Restless House away from the Aeschylean template and into some fresh and exciting territory.  At the opening of The Bough Breaks, for example, we meet the ‘Butcher’.  This palace retainer has earned the trust of Agamemnon’s daughter Electra; on the night of her father’s death, he put the little girl to bed and washed the blood from the flagstones.   Or so she has been told.  When Electra’s brother Orestes returns to avenge his father’s death, he questions that version of events.    Why did their mother need a butcher when her victims were already dead?  The true character and conduct of an apparently ancillary figure becomes an issue of central importance in Orestes’ campaign to loosen his sister’s current attachments.  You should also keep a close eye on Harris’s Chorus of infirm old down-and-outs.  They are repulsive outcasts (like Aeschylus’ Furies) and seemingly impotent (like the Elders of Agamemnon); so why have they been put in charge of that sacred and expensive purple cloth?

I could write much more about the ways in which This Restless House simultaneously takes us away from, and brings us back towards, its main source text.  But, of course, its freshness, vitality and power are constituted by much more than these dynamics of departure and return.  With respect to literary resonances beyond Aeschylus, I have already hinted at its Shakespearean elements: festivities which mask a darker purpose; maddening hauntings from the dead; the perspective of servants and retainers.  The buzzing flies which are taken as signs of guilt and pollution by some, whilst being dismissed with the swat of hand by others, put me in mind of Sartre’s Les Mouches, itself an existentialist response to ‘the Electra plays’ of the Greeks.  And the central confrontations between Agamemnon and his Queen sent me back to Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, a disturbing ‘prequel’ to Aeschylus’ trilogy, in which we see the seeds of Harris’s psychological realism.

All of the above contributes to one’s sense that This Restless House is a ‘modern classic’.  We haven’t seen anything like this before, and it could not have been written by anyone else.  Yet, like all great tragedy, Harris’s distinctive vision is formed through a clever and creative dialogue with established texts, traditions and tropes of the genre.

© Jon Hesk

Jon Hesk is Senior Lecturer in Greek and Classical Studies at the University of St Andrews

For more on his work with contemporary theatre practitioners and educators see this post.


‘Troy: Fall of a City’: why we should give it a chance (part 1)

Troy: Fall of a City. Photograph: Graham Bartholomew/BBC/Wild Mercury Productions

I watch very few television programmes about ancient Greek and Roman history, literature and culture:  when your day job is teaching and researching classics, these shows can be a bit of a ‘busman’s holiday’:  I either know the material already, or (more often)  I’ve become so specialized and limited in my expertise that huge swathes of ancient culture and history have become ‘news just in’.  It’s not great to feel that you ought start taking notes at 9pm on a Friday night! Then there’s one’s insecurities to manage.  If my week’s teaching has been a bit flat or difficult (Homeric dialect, anyone?), the last thing I want to see is Beard, Hughes, Hall, Cartledge or Scott doing a  great job of making the ancient world irresistibly fascinating and accessible.  Finally, there’s the ‘i’ word: we academics are now required by the government to make our research and expertise ‘impactful’ upon wider society and culture, and each department is regularly evaluated on how well it is going about this.  That makes it even less relaxing to watch other people popularizing your subject to massive audiences with skill and verve.

But with film and television drama, it’s a different matter. Troy (Wolfgang Petersen’s quasi-Iliad for the big screen); Atlantis (BBC1’s now-defunct Greek mythology mash-up); Plebs (ITV 2’s Up Pompeii! for post-Millennials): I have sought them out and enjoyed them all.  And I have not been very worried about real or alleged liberties taken in terms of historical ‘accuracy’ or ‘faithfulness to the original’.  After all, most ancient myths exist in several different versions.  In the case of Greek epic and drama, ancient authors themselves often changed existing elements of a story or made new stuff up in their re-tellings.  Whoever Homer was  –  or ‘whatever’ if you think the Iliad and Odyssey were almost entirely shaped by centuries of oral song tradition rather than one master poet  – it’s clear that both epics contain elements which were invented or adapted to suit these particular versions of two specific slices of a much longer story.  So, I rather like the idea that film and television are enriching and adding to an existing store of many different ‘takes’ and emphases.

Of course, some changes from familiar ancient material can seem a step too far. When Petersen didn’t have any gods appearing in Troy –  Julie Christie’s Thetis was an exception  – a lot of film critics and classicists got very unhappy.  (The film is hated by many people I know, and it does have flaws,  but I’m rather fond of it as a creditable attempt to make sense of Homeric-heroic ‘values’ such as kleos (fame and reputation after death) and timē (honour, status) for a mainstream audience.)

JTodd Armstrong in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), directed by Don Chaffey. © Columbia Pictures Corporation

But what exactly are we unhappy about when film and TV make such changes?  Petersen’s Greeks and Trojans still worship the gods and worry about what they are up to, just as in Homer.  And the Iliad’s many divine quarrels and political manoeuverings on Olympus wouldn’t have been best served by the sort of ‘dry ice and wafty white robes’ nonsense which we find in Clash of the Titans (1981).  In any case, ‘departures’ from ‘the original’ don’t always make the story less engaging or worthwhile.  The most iconic scene of the  Jason and the Argonauts (1963) comes when Jason and his men find themselves fighting an army of stop-motion skeletons. In Apollonius’ epic The Argonautica these ‘sown men’ aren’t skeletons and Jason makes them fight amongst themselves until they destroy each other.  If director Don Chaffey and effects animator Ray Harryhausen had stuck more closely to what’s in the ancient sources, that film would be much the poorer for it.

Perhaps we are worried that children and adults who are unfamiliar with Greek myths as preserved in Greco-Roman literature will end up with a false impression of what is (and what isn’t) in Homer, Pindar, Greek tragedy and the rest.  Even worse, we think that they will say ‘I’ve seen Troy so I don’t need to know about the Iliad’.  Well, that’s a risk with any decision to bring great stories and literature to the screen.  But just as HBO’s Game of Thrones  seems to have led more people to read the books on which it is based, and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings created even bigger sales for Tolkein’s novels, some half-good telly or cinema ‘based on Homer’ has a good chance of sending its fans towards the actual epics themselves. The Iliad and Odyssey are well worth reading in a good translation, not least because they are highly vivid, dramatic and cinematic – and yet they ‘visualize’ thought, feeling, atmosphere and action in ways which neither big nor small screen finds it easy to capture with the same intensity.

BBC 1’s latest Saturday-night drama is called Troy: Fall of a City.  It opening captions tell us that it is ‘based on Homer and the Greek myths’.  The first episode went out last weekend and reactions have been mixed, to say the least.  It’s neither easy nor fair to judge something after just one episode.  But I thought it was very enjoyable – best watched with a glass of wine or two, perhaps.  In my next post, I’ll offer some some first thoughts and observations on it from a classicist’s perspective.  There will be **SPOILERS**.

If you are interested in classical story-telling and you are in or near St Andrews on Saturday 3rd March come to see TV and Radio’s Bettany Hughes give a free public lecture on the subject. Details of the time and venue of her talk and the ‘Advocating Classical Education’ project are  here

How some Athenian-style democracy might save our future.

UK voters are still deeply divided over the Brexit referendum and its aftermath; as are the US electorate with respect to the 2016 Presidential race and Trump’s presidency. In both countries, millions of people have felt frustrated and disillusioned with the usual workings of democratic politics. The outcomes of these two votes have led many to question whether ‘the people’ can be trusted with such important decisions. In a recent survey, only 25% of Brits and Americans who were born in the 1980s agreed that it is ‘essential’ to live in a democracy!

Weariness with democracy is nothing new but I agree with Edith Hall’s recent post on the importance of resisting it.  It is very worrying that political historians and theorists are starting to talk as if democracy’s stealthy demise is inevitable.  We should perhaps remember Winston Churchill’s (borrowed) observation that ‘democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’. Oligarchies, dictatorships and ‘managed’ forms of so-called democracy destroy the rule of law, freedom of expression and the dignity of their people. By definition, they deny their citizens a proper say in how they are governed. We ought, then, to ask how we can make democracy work better for people, rather than flirting with the possibility of non-democratic systems or pseudo-democracies captured by ‘elites’ or ‘strong men’.

It’s the taking part that counts

Many voters in 2016 complained that politicians and successive governments had been ignoring them for years. People felt powerless, and were understandably receptive to the idea that they had been ‘left behind’ by an ‘elite’. But what might a time-travelling classical Athenian say? Probably that these disaffected voters really are powerless. Unlike our system today, Athenian democracy actually was a government by the people (dēmos). They did not rely, as we do, on an elite group of politicians and officials to do the work of governing on their behalf.

The 500-strong Athenian Council (Boulē) was a key element in this more empowered and participatory system. It met almost daily and was responsible for the ordinary running of the city’s affairs. But it was also divided up into ten groups of 50 Councillors. We shall return to the question of how these representatives were chosen below. What is important to note here is that each of these smaller groups took turns to maintain a twenty-four hour presence at the heart of the city. As such, they were ready to take immediate decisions in the event of emergencies or on the arrival of important news. The Council also prepared the agenda of business for Athens’ very large people’s assembly (the Ecclēsia), where Councillors presided over the conduct of debates and voting.

Whatever the Ecclēsia decided by a majority vote became the sovereign will of the people. That decision was then passed back to the Council for implementation. A surviving assembly decree of 325/4 BC reveals that this aspect of the Councillors’ job was both complex and crucial. The decree authorises the creation of a new Athenian naval station overseas. And it calls on the Council to coordinate with twelve different officers and committees to make this happen. Councillors had final responsibility for ensuring that the ships, equipment and men needed were delivered and dispatched in a timely and efficient manner.

The Pnyx was where the Athenian assembly met. This picture details archaeological remains of the speaker’s plaftorm (Bema) of Pnyx III (a rebuild around 345-335 BC). The Bema was carved right out of the bedrock. View from the northwest.

This may sound like the sort of work which could only be done by career politicians or professional administrators. And Athenian Councillors were indeed paid for their trouble; they could also be officially honoured by the Ecclēsia for doing good work. But, remarkably, a new Boulē was appointed every year via the random selection of male citizens over the age of thirty. Most of these citizens would have been ordinary farmers, craftsmen or businessmen. And they could only serve on the Council for a maximum of two years in their entire lives. This means that, in any given year, thousands of older citizens were able to draw on their previous valuable experience of governing on the Council when considering proposals put to the big sovereign assembly.

What if an adult citizen never got to sit on the Council or was not yet old enough to do so? Well, he could still attend the Ecclēsia – the big sovereign assembly mentioned above. At least 6000 citizens had to turn up for this assembly to go ahead, and, in the fourth century, it met 40 times a year. Of course, wealthy ‘elite’ politicians such as Pericles and Demosthenes influenced such meetings with their proposals and speeches. But less articulate and powerful Athenians were still crucial actors in the process because of their vote and the noise they could make throughout the debates. An Athenian who attended only a few of these meetings each year was still likely to be feeling a lot more included and ‘empowered’ than most UK or US citizens do.

Past and Present

Modern democracies have much greater populations of eligible voters than classical Athens did: tens of millions rather than tens of thousands. Despite this, some political thinkers have recently proposed that we can and should replace our elected parliaments with paid legislative bodies which would be appointed through randomised selection of ordinary citizens – either on a voluntary basis, by compulsory service, or a mixture of the two. Others argue that it just would not be practical for us to copy the highly intensive and inclusive Athenian system of participation. Alongside the problem of getting so many people involved, modern law-making and government seem too complex and time-consuming given the competing demands of work and family life in the 21st century.  Perhaps we really do need professional politicians, administrators and experts to do it all for us.

On the other hand, several recent and encouraging experiments suggest that we could mix some Athenian-style democracy into our ‘representative’ systems. For example, ‘citizen juries’ have been promoted and run in both the USA and Germany, where a panel of local residents is randomly selected to hear evidence from experts and advocates about a particular issue (e.g. business proposals which might help the local economy and yet adversely affect the environment). These juries then deliberate and agree certain recommendations, which can either be implemented straight away or else used by elected politicians to guide their final decision-making. Citizen juries encourage well-informed deliberations and decisions. They can reflect the voice of a whole community rather than particular factions or interests. And they give some direct power, governmental experience and responsibility back to ordinary voters. This is all very much in line with classical Athenian principles.

The problem of homophily

Another problem with our modern democratic culture is that everyone is in a bubble of sorts, or ‘homophily’ (i.e. ‘love of the same’) – as sociologists prefer to call it. People tend to seek similarities in their friends, marriages, workplaces and neighbourhoods. We may consequently live and work in an environment where we rarely discuss current affairs with people who either disagree with us, or whose lives, backgrounds and cultures are very different to our own. And so, we may not hear about certain views and experiences which could change or deepen our current view of a political question.

We may also miss out on crucial knowledge and evidence which are not available within our bubble because of the way social media operates. Networks like Facebook and Twitter, for example, lock users into personalised loops, each with its own feed of news and political inclinations. Thus, algorithms filter sources of information and topics to reflect the clicks, ‘likes’ and shares of our friendship group. Unless our friends have very divergent views and life experiences, everyone starts to see the same material and to post similar reactions. This, in turn, creates an ‘echo chamber’ in which the information you already know and the opinions you already agree with get repeated and amplified. Alternative views and new information which might challenge your opinions disappear from view; echo chambers also make it more likely that ‘fake news’ will be believed and shared.  The extent to which hostile actors have so far managed to subvert democracy by feeding these echo chambers with false and divisive information is hard to gauge, but there’s little doubt that they are trying.

Bursting the Bubble

Bubbles and echo chambers are making our own democratic societies more divided than is healthy. The more that we only hear the side we agree with, the more convinced we become of our own rightness (and the other side’s wrongness). Compromise, consensus and mutual persuasion become impossible.

From one perspective, classical Athenian democracy was itself an exclusive bubble.  If you were a child, woman, slave or resident foreigner of non-Athenian parentage, then you could not participate in any of its decision-making bodies. Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata jokingly hints that the Athenians might make better decisions about the war with Sparta if only they listened to the perspective and advice of their mothers, wives and sisters.

But the Athenian system was at least designed to prevent division and ‘echo chamber’ effects among the male citizens who were eligible to participate.  For example, each of the ten groups of 50 which made up the Boulē represented a different Athenian tribe. And the membership of each tribe was deliberately designed to contain communities from the three different regions of Athens’ territory: inland, coast and city. So the Council forced citizens to meet, mingle and ‘do’ democracy with strangers who lived miles away from them. Even if you did know some men in your own group of 50, you were unlikely to know many of the other 450. Thus citizens of different ages, walks of life and regions were compelled to share diverse expertise and information and to work together to solve problems. The Boulē was the ultimate anti-bubble.

From echo chambers to debating chambers

But the larger Ecclēsia too was good for making sure that the dēmos got to hear opposing arguments and shared new information. Ordinary citizens had time to reflect on what they were hearing, to change their minds or suggest improvements. Inscriptions make clear that it was not just the well-off and well-known politicians who got up to move important amendments to key proposals. Indeed the system encouraged and allowed the mass of ordinary citizens to alter or reject what was put before them.  Thucydides even records one occasion where the Ecclēsia voted to kill the entire male population of the rebellious city of Mytilene, but then had a second meeting at which it narrowly changed its mind the next day.

As student councils or debating clubs can tell us, face-to-face discussion is often more reasonable and useful than what you can achieve online. Debating together in an officially recognised body also reminds us of our common goals, over and above what divides us. But we cannot stop the rise of all the news, political activity and opinion-forming which takes place online; in other words, we should embrace and learn to utilise online tools effectively to filter out the bubbles and encourage a meaningful dialogue between diverse groups. In the last interview of his Presidency, Barack Obama even expressed the hope that ‘we can create a virtual public square that feels better for people’. He argued that it is by public consensus, rather than deep division that democracies solve political problems. Maybe it is time for us all to create a massive online Ecclēsia.

This is a very slightly adapted version of an article published in Issue 74 of Omnibus Magazine (September 2017).  This magazine is published by the UK Classical Association and aimed at secondary schools. Thanks to the editor Kathryn Tempest for making me aware of ‘homophily’ as a sociological category.

Sadly, though, far too few British children are educated about the ancient Greeks and Romans at secondary level.  If you agree that more secondary school pupils should have the chance to learn about Greek and Roman culture and politics as a means of informing their future lives and responsibilities as democratic citizens, then please get involved in the new UK-wide ACE project (Advocating Classical Education). 

For more on Athenian democracy as a positive model for improving the sharing of information, expertise and promoting the dignity, interests and goals of all, see the following:

J. Ober (2008) Democracy and Knowledge. Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (Princeton University Press).

D. Van Reybrouck (2013) Against Elections. The Case for Democracy. (Bodley Head)

Community theatre: the example of classical Athens

The Athenians valued the performance of drama, as a mass art form and communal experience.  They invested heavily in it too. This post is about how these facts about Greek theatre can inspire young performers to think about, and argue for, the real value of what they love doing.

Three members of cast experiment with masks in the opening chorus. Photograph: Ralph Anderson

The youth theatre group I’m working with are passionate about acting and performing.  And although I need to work on conveying this in front of the project’s Handycam, I am equally passionate about researching and teaching Greek drama. But I have no prior experience of how to make this expertise meaningful within a context of community-based theatre education and practice.  So the project is as much about what Stephen and the group can teach me as it is about what I can bring to them.

I learned my first important and surprising lesson in my initial meeting with the group back in September 2016.  (This was before we had even fully decided on the project’s goals).  The group’s manager and teacher, Stephen Jones, knows a good deal about Greek theatre, having studied it (among other things) at university.  But the group itself only knew a few bits and pieces. So, I had come prepared to give them an overview of the context and conventions of Greek drama and I’d also got some answers to questions which they’d sent to me in advance:  why did the Greeks not have female actors and chorus-members? How was gender depicted on stage?  How were masks used? How did gods appear? Why was violence generally kept off stage in Greek tragedy?

These were all good questions and I did my best to answer them.  But it was during the initial overview that things took a surprising turn. I was explaining that Greek drama was central to the Athenian religious festival calendar; that it was a mass art form watched and enjoyed by thousands of citizens; that the Athenians put huge amounts of resource and organizational effort into putting on these plays; that great prestige and honour attached to those wealthy citizens who funded a winning chorus; that the choruses were trained-up ‘amateur’ citizens and that many audience members had experience of being in the plays themselves; that theatre was clearly integral to the culture and values of the Athenian citizen-state (the polis).  I paused for breath and fumbled with my laptop to find some suitable images.  Stephen jumped in and asked the group what they thought about everything I’d said so far. How did it compare with their experience and understanding of what theatre is now?

Stephen Jones of Byre Youth Theatre in discussion with members of the cast. Photograph: Ralph Anderson

The group had many diverse and differing opinions but they were all vehemently agreed that theatre just isn’t valued by their own society in the way that it was for the ancient Athenians.  They didn’t see modern theatre as a mass art form and they were largely sceptical about my counter-argument that popular drama is still valued as a cultural and communal experience (thanks to cinema, television and online streaming services). For all that films and TV series can say something important and complex about our society, politics and values, they said, the fragmentation of audiences and the sheer quantity and variability of content meant that they weren’t anything like the communal experience of an Athenian dramatic festival.  And they argued that this communal experience had value in and of itself.

This wasn’t just a detached, purely intellectual or academic debate for the group. Their view that live theatre is not a popular art form and is not properly valued was a matter of deep regret and intense personal feeling for them.  The sociology of Athenian drama had offered them a means of discussing how marginalized and undervalued they felt as young people with a real commitment to drama.  It wasn’t that they were idealizing classical Athens and its tragedies and comedies, either. They knew about its use of slavery and its exclusions and restrictions on women and foreigners.  Their point was that this society produced great theatre through a commitment and appreciation which was both deeply held and genuinely ‘community-wide’.  The fact that the Athenians were prepared to spend so much time and money on communal religious festivals and theatrical art highlighted the comparatively diminished status of the performing arts and ‘community theatre’ in the UK today.

Before that meeting, I had a rather prosaic reason for giving the title of ‘Ancient drama in the community’ to my overarching project.  If the mission was to bring my department’s research and expertise in Greek and Roman drama out of the academy and into the wider world, this title seemed like a simple and effective description of that goal.  What I now realize is that the socio-political centrality and cultural embeddedness of Greek drama – aspects of which are key to my own and colleagues’ research – are themselves important and salient items of evidence to bring into public debates about the social role and value of live theatre.  The city of Athens and the surrounding demes of Attica developed a form of ‘community theatre’ which genuinely brought the mass of citizens – the dēmos – together to participate in it.  This didn’t just produce all those great plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes.  It forged a strong sense of communality and community by focusing citizens’ minds on shared values, tastes, priorities and commitments.

‘We welcome spirits to the light!’ Greek Drama in the Community.

We welcome spirits to the light!

We welcome spirits wrong or right.

We dig down deep inside the earth

And drag up something to judge its worth.

We chant and shout and screech and scream.

But we do not appear as we first may seem.

Where do you think these lines of choral chanting come from? A Penguin translation of Aeschylus or Euripides, perhaps? Or one of the many versions and reworkings of Greek tragedy which have been produced by various celebrated poets and playwrights of the 20th and 21st century?

Well, you’d be forgiven for either of these guesses.  But they’re actually taken from the very start of an original play being written and devised by members of the Byre Youth Theatre Adult Collaborative Performance Group.

Since last summer, I have been working with this group of performers, which currently comprises four young people aged 17 and above. They all live locally in North-East Fife; some are studying for formal qualifications in theatre and performance in nearby schools or colleges.  The group meets every Thursday evening in the school term.  It’s managed and taught by theatre practitioner Stephen Jones of Byre Youth Theatre Ltd, a non-profit organization providing exciting opportunities and training in drama and song to children and young people. The organization has close links to the recently re-opened Byre Theatre in St Andrews.

This collaboration between Byre Youth Theatre and the School of Classics has now developed into a special project called ‘Greek Drama in the Community.  Working with the Byre Youth Theatre towards a devised performance’.  Designed by Stephen Jones, myself and my colleague Dr Ralph Anderson, it is funded by the University of St Andrews’ Knowledge Exchange and Impact Fund.  Its main aim is to explore how the content, context and conventions of ancient Greek tragedy might be used to inform and inspire the group’s work.  And we hope that our experiences and documented findings will prove useful for anyone contemplating similar ventures.

But this isn’t a project about ‘putting on a Greek play’ or the slavish and systematic application of ancient Greek theatrical practice.  Instead, we’re using Greek tragedy as a focus for discussion and thought, as a stimulus for the group’s own creative endeavours and as fresh resource for their development as performers.  So yes, I’ve talked to them about masks and the role of the Chorus in Greek drama.  And both Stephen and his choreograper have helped the group to incorporate some use of masks and a powerful choral presence into their devised play.  But such ancient conventions are only to be used if they genuinely serve the performers’ own vision and decision-making for the original play which they are devising.

‘Orestes Pursued by the Furies’ (John Singer Sargent, 1921)

On the other hand, Stephen and I have wanted to show the performers that Greek drama can improve their understanding of theatre’s history and its social, political and cultural potential for the ‘here and now’.  And we discovered that my own academic expertise in Greek tragedy could be tapped by the group as a creative resource.  For example, their devised play does contain several elements and themes which are recognizably Aeschylean, and which we discussed: those opening chants draw on the ‘necromantic’ choral hymn of Persians and the ‘chthonic’ powers invoked through song in The Oresteia.  And the play’s moral dimensions have certainly gained more texture and complexity after discussions with the group about Euripides’ Medea and Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus. This is the great thing about Greek tragedy: whatever you’re trying to say or create, it’s good to think with.

So, we’re not too worried about how far the final product conforms to academic definitions of Greek tragedy in aesthetic and formal terms.  The most important thing is for the group to use the ancient material as an intellectual and creative tool, and have fun doing so, in order to produce a performance which speaks to a contemporary audience and which is genuinely theirs.

That choral chant really makes for impressive reading, doesn’t it? But this is as nothing compared to the amazing experience I had when I saw it performed for the first time in a rehearsal last Thursday. Two group members acted it out for me in their role as Fury-like banshees.   As their chants and movements build in intensity and coordination, they summon up the spirit of a deceased politician.  He must stand trial for alleged crimes committed while he was still alive.

The trial takes place in a realm which is intermediate between that of the living and the dead; something akin to the Tibetan Buddhist state known as ‘Bardo’.  The case against the politician is developed through the testimony of three characters: his wife, a colleague and a political opponent. The allegations are serious: in a post-apocalyptic world experiencing severe shortages of water, the politician has caused even more suffering for his community. But is he really to blame? Can he defend himself successfully? And what will happen to his spirit if the Banshees convict him?

Even I don’t know the answer to all these questions: the play itself is still being shaped and I don’t get to be at all the rehearsals.  But I can’t wait to find out what happens in the end!

Alliteration alert!

‘Coalition of chaos’.

‘Strong and stable leadership’.

These two phrases are key slogans or ‘soundbites’ in the Conservatives’ 2017 general election campaign.  They deploy ‘alliteration’, a rhetorical ‘figure of sound’ which Cicero loved to use (although he also disapproved of an excessive reliance on it).  Alliteration is implicitly recognized for its rhetorical power as far back as the 5th century BCE Greek sophist Gorgias.  An ancient Greek word for it is paroemion, although this label seems not to have been coined until the 1500s.  Alliteratio as an actual rhetorical term also seems to derive from the rhetorical handbooks of the early modern period.  [On both these points I confess to limited research and am happy to be corrected].

Alliteration gets defined in different ways these days. Some restrict it to the frequent repetition of initial consonants in close proximity to each other.  Others define it more broadly as ‘repetition in the initial sounds of words that can produce echoes of phonetic similarity throughout a text’ (Fahnestock 2011).  I quite like this one from the Silva Rhetoricae website: ‘Repetition of the same letter or sound within nearby words. Most often, repeated initial consonants’.

Historians and psychologists of political rhetoric talk a lot about the way in which 20th and 21st century communications have fundamentally changed the nature of political persuasion and communication by comparison with the days of Gorgias, Aristotle and Cicero. But alliteration is one device which is particularly suited to the era of ‘soundbites’ and Twitter.  It seems to be more popular than ever with politicians and spin doctors.

In a book by a very experienced political speechwriter called Winning Minds. Secrets From the Language of Leadership, we get some sense of why ‘alliterative pairs’ like ‘Strong and Stable Leadership’ or ‘Coalition of Chaos’ and are so effective: ‘they reinforce a sense of balance’ (Lancaster 2015).  Balanced and ordered phrasing, argues Lancaster, is something which audiences warm to at a neurological level, regardless of whether it maps on to anything meaningful or true.   But alliterative phrases also create powerful impressions and associations.  Jeanne Fahnestock offers examples of ‘alliterative triplets’ where ‘the repeated opening consonant helps the rhetor produce the impression of a coherent set’.  She cites Lyndon Johnson: ‘So I want to talk to you today about three places where we begin to build the Great Society—in our cities, in our countryside, and in our classrooms’.  In the case of ‘coalition of chaos’, it is pretty obvious what ‘coherent set’ of associations the Prime Minister is aiming to produce.

Another reason why slogans and soundbites so often deploy alliteration is that they are much more memorable than those which do not.  Alliteration has been proven to work very well in aiding memory and the recall of information in educational contexts.   When it comes to political messaging, then, short alliterative phrases can be the best way to get the electorate to both understand and remember what you stand for, not to mention how you want them to think about your opponents.

Soundbites and sloganeering are often decried as symptomatic of an era in which political debate and democratic discourse have become debased and hollowed out.  The leader of the Labour Party is  explicitly rejecting ‘the stuff of soundbites’ in this campaign. This is part of his own rhetorical claim to authenticity and to stand for a new kind of politics.  But there are real risks to this strategy given the nature of modern media communications and the power of the most memorable and quotable slogans to set the terms of an electoral agenda – and to do so in favour of the party that comes up with them.


Jeanne Fahnestock Rhetorical style: the Uses of Language in Persuasion (Oxford and New York 2011)

Simon Lancaster Winning Minds. Secrets from the Language of Leadership  (New York 2015)


Socrates’ Conscience and Executive Order 13769

The extraordinary actions of the nascent Trump presidency are provoking some striking acts of conscience.  Sally Yates was sacked from her job as Acting Attorney General by President Trump because she would not permit the Justice Department to defend Executive Order 13769 in court.  In a letter to her staff, she wrote that she wasn’t convinced that a defence of the executive order was consistent with the department’s ‘solemn obligation always to seek justice and stand for what is right’.  Nor was she convinced that the executive order was lawful.   And just yesterday, the Speaker of the UK House of Commons, John Bercow, took the highly unusual and controversial step of very firmly stating his opposition to the idea of President Trump making an address to Parliament during his prospective State Visit. He presented his rejection of Trump as a matter of political-constitutional conscience: ‘I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and to sexism and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons.’  House of Commons Speakers aren’t supposed to pass political comment or take a position in this way.

In the Classical Athenian democracy there were also moments when individual citizens took a conscientious stand in defence of the rule of law.  The classic example was when eight generals commanding the Athenian navy at the sea-battle of Arginousae (406 BCE) stood accused of failing to recover their own dead and dying sailors from the water.  The philosopher Socrates happened to be ‘chairman’ of the assembly on the crucial day of the debate about how the generals should be tried.  A citizen only got to be chairman for one or two days in an entire lifetime (if at all). Chairmen rotated from within each of ten tribal groups of fifty ‘presiding officers’ (prytaneis) who were picked by lot each year. Each group of ‘presiding officers’ took turns in maintaining the city’s permanent government and acted as an executive committee to the Council and Assembly.

From admittedly partial accounts of this momentous day in Plato and Xenophon, we learn that a politician named Callixenus proposed that the assembly itself should vote right now on the guilt or innocence of all the generals at one fell swoop.  On the previous day, the assembly had heard the generals’ brief defence that bad weather had prevented recovery of the sailors.  Riding a tide of popular grief and anger against the generals, Callixenus argued that it was now time to decide their collective fate with one vote and without further debate.  If found guilty, they would all be put to death.  A chap called Euryptolemus and several others opposed the motion on the grounds that it was illegal to conduct a trial in this way: the generals should each be tried separately via due process.  But they withdrew this objection after another politician proposed that the same penalty applied to the generals also be applied to them. Xenophon tells us that many in the assembly crowd shouted that ‘it was insufferable that the people (dēmos) should not be allowed to do whatever it wanted’ (Hellenica 1.7.12).   The ‘presiding officers’ were also intimidated into withdrawing their initial refusal to put Callixenus’ proposal to a vote.  Only Socrates himself held out, declaring that he would ‘do nothing that was contrary to the law’ (1.7.15).

Despite more impressive manouverings from Euryptolemus, Callixenus’ original motion was finally carried by the assembly.  Six generals were found guilty and executed. Xenophon tell us that the Athenians soon came to regret this decision, and charges were brought against Callixenus and his fellow travellers. These men escaped Athens before they could be brought to trial.

If Plato is to be believed, when the philosopher himself was later put on trial on charges of impiety and corrupting young men, he reminded the citizen-jury of his principled stand on that day (Apology 32b):

At that time I was the only one of the presiding officers who opposed doing anything contrary to the laws, and although the orators were ready to impeach and arrest me, and though you urged them with shouts to do so, I thought I must run the risk to the end with law and justice on my side, rather than join with you when your wishes were unjust, through fear of imprisonment or death.

Of course, the reader is meant to infer here that Socrates’ own trial and execution were another example of the Athenian democracy acting on ‘unjust wishes’.

Not long after the execution of the generals, the Athenians brought in measures to ensure that no assembly decree could override laws which were designed to have general and/or permanent validity. This wasn’t just about preventing a repeat of the Arginousae affair.  Even before that, in 411 BCE, the oligarchy of the Four Hundred was briefly set up when a meeting of the democratic assembly was duped into voting itself out of existence!

What can we learn from all of this?  Well, when I first thought up this post, I thought I was going to end on the importance of listening to one’s conscience and doing the right thing. But this is very easy to say and much harder to act upon when one’s own job, freedom or life are at stake.  Socrates’ stand didn’t even save the generals from an illegal trial and execution.  Perhaps the real value of such historical acts of conscience is to remind us that the ‘popular will’ or a majoritarian decision are not necessarily aligned with justice and the rule of law.  A democratic mandate to do x does not automatically make x fair, legal or just.  And the very fact that individual consciences can so easily be sidelined or even quelled through intimidation reminds us how important it is to have institutional safeguards against the possibility of democratically-sanctioned illegality and injustice.






Trumpist hyperbole and its classical-rhetorical critique

Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.

When Donald Trump said this in his Inaugural Address last Friday, I was okay with the point about inner-city poverty.  The tombstones comparison was just about within the bounds of rhetorical-artistic licence too.  But ‘an education system flush with cash’? Really?  Documented cuts to public education funding in many US States make that hard to swallow.  And for all the evidence that the US public education system is under-performing in certain respects, it’s completely false and bizarre to claim that it deprives its students of ‘all knowledge.’  Imagine all those high school graduates going around literally knowing nothing at all!

With these two claims, the Greek and Roman rhetorical device of hyperbole immediately sprang to my mind.   This is often translated as ‘exaggeration’, and that’s a fairly useful rendering of the technical rhetorical term.  But the common Greek meanings of ‘excess’ or ‘extravagance’ also help us here.  (The verb ὑπερβάλλω [huperballō], of which hyperbole is a cognate noun, often means to overshoot a mark). 

And it turns out that Trump is very familiar with the term.  In his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, he says this:

The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.

nintchdbpict000295827558Lots of journalists and bloggers have linked this passage to Trump’s whole approach to political rhetoric and campaigning.  But as the philosopher

Despite its inherent deceptiveness, Trump is right to recognize the great rhetorical power of hyperbole to influence the psyche. Ancient Greek and Roman orators used both mild and quite extreme examples of rhetorical exaggeration a lot, although it was clearly wise to be sparing with the hyperbolai in any one speech.  Cicero was a master of the device.  Here he is on Mark Antony’s greed  (Philippics 2.67):

What Charybdis is so greedy? Charybdis, do I say? If there ever was a Charybdis, she was only one cicero_-_musei_capitolinianimal. No: the Ocean, heaven help us, could hardly have swallowed up so many things, so widely scattered, in such distant places, and so quickly!

Charybdis was a huge, terrifying ship-guzzling whirlpool of a sea monster but it becomes insignificant when compared to Antony’s oceanic voraciousness. It’s very entertaining stuff.

Ancient writers on rhetoric betray a good deal of ambivalence about such hyperbolic tactics.   In his treatise On Rhetoric, Aristotle discusses hyperbole only in the context of metaphors and similes (3.11).  One might say of a man with a black eye that ‘you would have thought he was a basket of mulberries.’  The purpleness of the black eye makes the comparison to mulberries apposite.  But the great exaggeration of moving from one bruised eye to ‘he was a basket of mulberries’ is obvious.  Interestingly, Aristotle feels that the use of hyperbole is ‘adolescent’ (meirakiōdeis: or perhaps ‘puerile’).  This is because hyperbolai convey a certain ‘vehemence’ and they are mostly spoken by people who are angry. (Aristotle cites an example from a speech by Homer’s Achilles).  Aristotle thinks it is inappropriate for an older man to use hyperbole. 

In his Education of the Orator, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian sounds a little Trumpish when he describes hyperbole as ‘appropriate exaggeration of the truth’ (decens veri superiectio, 8.6.68).  But if you look at this next  passage, it’s much less clear that he would classify many of Donald’s recent uses of the device as ‘appropriate’ (8.6.73-4):

A certain sense of proportion is necessary. Though every hyperbole surpasses belief, it must not be beyond all reason; there is no surer route to cacozelia (bad taste, affectation).  I feel it distasteful to report the many faults arising from this trope, especially as they are by no means unfamiliar or obscure. It is enough to remind the reader that hyperbole is a liar, but does not lie to deceive. We must therefore consider all the more carefully how far it is appropriate to exaggerate a thing which is not believed. The attempt very often raises a laugh. If that is what was aimed at, it comes to be called wit; if not, folly.

Appropriate hyperbole announces its own lie and (as with the Cicero passage above) it can be used knowingly to humorous effect.  But if we exaggerate excessively and without trying to be funny, we end up looking like an idiot.  It’s certainly not appropriate to make out that an extreme hyperbole does in fact represent the truth.

Quintilian goes on to observe that hyperbole is popular in ordinary non-rhetorical speech too. He snobbishly singles out ‘uneducated’ and ‘country people’. He points out that ‘everybody has a natural desire to exaggerate or to minimize things, and no one is satisfied with the truth. It is pardoned, however, because we do not vouch for what we say.’

This perhaps helps us to identify what has happened in modern political-rhetorical discourse. The hyperbolic but inconsequential  banter and ‘bullshit’ which we go in for in ordinary conversation has found its way into the very serious and consequential realm of politics. ‘Telling it like it is’ is actually ‘telling it like it is not’.





Fight ‘Post Truth’ with the Ancient Greeks

1GR-12-E1-B Das Zeitalter des Perikles / Foltz Perikles, athen. Politiker, um 500 v. Chr. - 429 v.Chr. - 'Das Zeitalter des Perikles'. - (Versammlung der bedeutendsten Kuenstler, Dichter und Philosophen der Zeit). Druck, spaetere Kolorierung, nach dem Gemaelde, 1852 ff., von Philipp von Foltz (1805-1877). E: The Age of Pericles / Foltz Pericles, Athen. politician, c.500BC Chr. - 429 BC. - 'The Age of Pericles'. - (Meeting of the most important artists, poets and philosophers of the time). Print, later colouring, after the painting, 1853, by Philipp von Foltz (1805-1877). F: L'epoque de Pericles / Foltz Pericles, homme politique athenien, vers 500 av. J.-C. - 429 av. J.-C. - 'Das Zeitalter des Perikles' (L'epoque de Pericles). - (Rassemblement des artistes, poetes et philosophes les plus connus de l'epoque). Impr., coloriee post., d'ap. le tableau, 1852, de Philipp von Foltz (1805-1877).

‘“If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.”

You may have seen this quotation on your social media feed along with a still photograph of a younger Mr Trump (seemingly in interview mode) several times since it first emerged in October. It is attributed to ‘Donald Trump, People Magazine 1998’. But it’s now been checked out and it turns out that it’s a complete fabrication.

I must confess that I took this bit of ‘fake news’ to be 100% genuine – an ironic situation, given that the quote is itself about lies and gullibility. I feel a bit daft for not sussing it out.
Of course, an explanatory narrative for the success of such deception and fakery has emerged over the last couple months: market-driven algorithms behind my newsfeed ‘filter bubble’ interacted with my membership of an ‘echo chamber’ which in turn triggered my ‘confirmation bias’ concerning Mr Trump’s views and character. Furthermore, there are newly-emergent commercial and political drivers for the production of ‘fake news’. So, there is more of it about than ever before and some of it is quite sophisticated. Indeed, ‘fake news’ is alleged to be just one aspect of our arrival in an entirely new era of so-called ‘post-truth’ politics: misinformation, false promises and full-on lies, the triumph of ‘feelings’ over facts, the dismissal of scientific evidence and expertise (and so on).

But I think this declaration of an apocalyptic post-truth ‘era’ is premature and actually risks the fatalistic ushering-in of a state of affairs which has not yet really come to pass at all. If we elevate certain ‘post-truth’ tendencies and tactics to the status of an all-pervasive epistemological regime just because they proved particularly persuasive and viral in 2016, there is a danger that we will just throw up our hands in an act of final surrender.

Instead, we could take some inspiration from the orators and writers who inhabited (and often critiqued) the culture and discourse of classical Athenian democracy. But I am not saying this because I think Athens’ democracy was a paragon of political health and virtue (it wasn’t) or because it offers a close parallel to the modern western democracies of late capitalism (it doesn’t). I am saying it because these orators and writers knew how much of a threat deception and pandering to an excess of emotion could be to good decision-making in a polity. Lies, false promising and appeals to prejudice and anger were certainly a big feature Athenian political culture, but none of its orators and associated commentators think that these problems don’t matter or accept them as inevitable.

Here’s Demosthenes, for example: ‘In a political system based on speeches, how can it be safely administered if the speeches are not true?’ This observation is part of a forensic attack on a political rival (Aeschines) whom he accuses of becoming a bribed agent of Philip of Macedon. He goes into some detail about how lies and misinformation can completely undermine the integrity of Athens’ two-tier participatory deliberative system. If the citizen-council (boule) puts forward provisional proposals for debate and final decision in the citizen assembly which are premised on the false information and advice of a bribed ambassador, the implication is clear: Athens is having its decisions manipulated by a foreign tyrant. Even if Demosthenes is himself lying about Aeschines here, he neatly articulates the way in which deception can completely reverse the likely gains of careful and considered democratic deliberation.


And then there’s Aristotle, whose treatise on rhetoric acknowledges the role of emotion in the making and accepting of persuasive arguments, but only in conjunction with the operations of syllogistic reasoning.  For Aristotle, rhetoric isn’t just about manipulating the crowd: the Aristotelian rhetorician considers both sides of an argument  and learns to spot and expose fallacious reasoning.  Aristotle believes that the truer and more just argument will win the day if it is framed and delivered appropriately.  He also stresses the importance of real knowledge and expertise in the field of political deliberation.

Or take Thucydides’ account of an assembly speech by an obscure orator called Diodotus. (We’ve heard of a lot about how the politician Cleon was or wasn’t like Donald Trump over the past few months and rather less about Diodotus’ narrow win over Cleon on the question of how to deal with the rebellious city of Mytilene). In this speech, Diodotus argues that the Athenian people have colluded with their most powerful political advisers in creating a climate where orators are afraid to give unpopular but good advice for fear of being suspected of bribery or to speak with genuine frankness in the assembly. He also rails against the danger of a democracy taking decisions ‘in haste and anger’ and asks the Athenian citizenry to think about their own responsibility as deliberators and voters:

‘If the man who persuades and the man who follows were damaged equally, you would judge more sensibly but as things are, there are times when in anger after a failure you punish the man who persuaded you for his misjudgement, rather than your own mistake for which you were collectively responsible.’

It is time for all of us to take more responsibility for our judgements. We need to get off our newsfeeds and timelines and take more time to understand the complexity of an issue, to sift the facts from the lies.  And we need to be less hasty and angry in our judgments. Somehow, we need to interact more directly with those whom we disagree and with those whose lives are a world away from our own.

But we also need to take deception, false claims and corruption on the part of our politicians more seriously. In a political system based on speeches, how can it be safely administered if the speeches are not true?

Xenophon’s Socrates on businessmen as leaders.

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during their third and final debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. on October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

It’s Halloween tonight and the final days of the US presidential race offer me the opportunity to blog about an appropriately scary subject.  I have been thinking more about the papers delivered at our recent conference on the theme of ‘Leaders and Leadership’ in various ancient Greek authors. And I’ve been wondering about how ancient writing on Leadership might illuminate the Trump vs. Clinton nightmare.

One theme which both campaign teams have exploited is that of relevant previous experience. Trump attempts to make a virtue of the fact that he is a businessman rather than a career politician.  Sometimes, this is a means of burnishing his credentials as an ‘outsider’ untainted by the alleged corruption and remoteness which constitutes an entrenched self-serving intergenerational political elite in Washington.  At other times, Trump references his experience as a property dealer (etc.) and as a ‘guru’ of entrepreneurship as a sign that he will be much better than his opponent at protecting and promoting American interests during negotiations and deals with other countries, power blocs and transnational bodies.  Clinton’s response is to underline her long experience in grassroots and national politics, her spells as a First Lady, as a senator and as Secretary of State. She contrasts her complex policy work and hours of careful diplomacy with Trump’s inexperience, his apparent ignorance and his over-simplistic ideas.  She also cites evidence that he is not quite the successful or honest businessman that he claims to be.

Now, for me, Trump himself offers terrible exemplary evidence for those who would argue that our elected leaders should ideally have spent some decent time working in the so-called ‘real world’ (as opposed to going straight from school or college into jobs as political staffers or government officials before eventually running for office themselves).  As I’ve said before, I hope he doesn’t win.  But it is clear that a good part of Trump’s appeal to many voters lies precisely in the fact that he can claim relevant experience as a leader of a big corporation and yet has never held political office.

With many commentators making (often too simplistic or unhelpful) comparisons between Trump and various Greek or Roman so-called ‘demagogues’ who hailed from ‘new money’ elites, one could be excused for assuming that classical Greek thinkers were 100% sceptical about businessmen going into politics.  But their views were actually varied and complex.

Fifth-century democratic Athens often elected its political-cum-military leaders (the ‘generals’, strategoi) who came from ‘old money’ landed aristocratic families (e.g. Pericles). When the ‘new money’ types like Cleon or Hyperbolus whose families had made fortunes from commerce and manufacturing moved into politics and gained considerable mass support, comic playwrights like Aristophanes and Eupolis depicted them as low-life tradesmen peddling self-serving lies.  Thucydides blames them for practically everything that went wrong for Athens after Pericles’ death.  In these and other writers, a clear connection is being made between a politician’s entrepreneurial, ‘arriviste’ background and his alleged venality and vulgarity. And yet, it’s pretty clear that these so-called ‘new politicians’ ruffled the feathers of the birth elite and their surrogates precisely because they were so effective in the eyes of the Athenian people.   They were very likely no more corrupt, inexperienced or incompetent than their blue-blooded counterparts.  And I doubt that many of them were as bad at it as Trump would be.

And not every Greek writer or intellectual was disapproving or sceptical about the idea of businessmen becoming political and military leaders.    In a long and fascinating segment of his written ‘memoirs’ about the philosopher Socrates (the Memorabilia), Xenophon recalls some conversations which Socrates supposedly had with various interlocutors on the subject of military and political leadership.   In one of them, a certain Nicomachides complains that the Athenians have elected a businessman called Antisthenes to a generalship rather than himself (3.4.1):

“Isn’t it like the Athenians? … they haven’t chosen me after all the hard work I have done, since I was called up, in the command of company or regiment, though I have been so often wounded in action” (and here he uncovered and showed his scars); “yet they have chosen Antisthenes, who has never served as a hoplite nor distinguished himself in the cavalry and understands nothing but money-making.”

Socrates points out that Antisthenes has often also been a choregos  (financier and impresario of dramatic and dithyrambic choruses in festival contests).  Antisthenes’ choruses have always won the contest the because he is philonikos (eager for victory). Surely this is a good trait for a general?   Nicomachides doubts the cogency of any analogy between the handling of a chorus and of an army.  Socrates clarifies as follows  (3.4.4):

“But, you see,” said Socrates, “though Antisthenes knows nothing about music or chorus training, he showed himself capable of finding the best experts in these.”  

“In the army too, then,” said Nicomachides, “he will find other to command for him, and others to do the fighting. Do you mean to say, Socrates, that the man who succeeds with a chorus will also succeed with an army?”

“I mean that, whatever a man is a leader of (prostateuei), if he knows what he wants and can get it he will be a good leader (agathos prostates), whether he is leader of a chorus, an estate, a city or an army.”


The Death of Socrates (French: La Mort de Socrate). Painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1787.

The point here is surely a persuasive one: good leadership in any field partly consists in the ability to find, deploy and manage specialists and experts so that the relevant goal is successfully achieved.  The leader herself doesn’t necessarily have to possess all the relevant knowledge but does need to be good at sourcing and deploying the expertise of others.

Nicomachides is appalled at this thought: “I should never have thought to hear you say that a good business manager/estate manager (oikonomos) would make a good general.”   Socrates then goes on to show how certain key skills are transferable between the two: making one’s subordinates willingly obedient; selecting the right men for different jobs; creating incentives and punishments; cultivating good will and useful allies; dealing with enemies.  These are all themes which crop up elsewhere in Xenophon’s writing on rulership, military command and estate management.*   Finally, in the matter of military leadership on the battlefield itself, Socrates claims that the businessman is eminently suited to this because he has a good understanding of the the effects of profit and loss (3.4.11):

[He] will be eager to seek and furnish all aids to victory, careful to consider and avoid what leads to defeat, prompt to engage the enemy if he sees he is strong enough to win, and, above all, will avoid an engagement when he is not ready.

Socrates then warns his interlocutor: “Don’t look down on businessmen, Nicomachides”.  For Socrates, the management of private concerns differs only in point of number from that of public affairs: “In other respects they are much alike, and particularly in this, that neither can be carried on without men, and the men employed in private and public transactions are the same”.

Now, we would rightly want to quibble with several of Socrates’ assumptions and claims here. His attitude is very much part-and-parcel of Xenophon’s own wider agenda as a wealthy ex-mercenary commander and estate owner who spent some time estranged and exiled from Athens because of the company he kept.  And we wouldn’t want to say that Socrates’ leadership tips are easily or equally relevant to the role of commander-in-chief and president in the massive late capitalist representative democracy that is the USA with all its particular internal problems and worldwide obligations.  But it is fascinating to see how Xenophon’s writing entertains some very familiar debates about what kinds of knowledge, life experience and expertise make for a good leader.  And it is instructive that an ancient philosopher who is so often characterized as unworldly and impractical in his theorizations about ideal polis leadership was also regarded as a source of wisdom on the more mundane question of good generalship in the troubled  ‘real world’ of late fifth-century Athens.  This Socrates sees a connection between the ability to run an estate or business as money-making concern and the ability to run an army or a city-state.

*Here I have learned a lot from Dr Roger Brock’s paper at our conference and a forthcoming chapter by Dr Fiona Hobden on Xenophon’s Oeconomicus which she has kindly shown me