The term and the concept democracy prove to be not as easy to define as one might think. The word in itself implies some contradictions that undermine the very foundations of the form of government it describes, such as equality, freedom, tolerance, etc. The occurrences of the term and its derivates in Aristophanes seem to confirm this, thus proving the poet’s deep understanding of the political problematic mechanisms at work in 5th-century democratic Athens. By playing with the ambiguities of the terminology centered on δηµοκρατία, not only does Aristophanes denounce the flaws of democracy in general, and Athenian democracy in particular, but he also anticipates, in a way, the basic points of the ‘debate-to-be’ on the constitutions in which Plato and Aristotle, among others, will engage from the second half of the 5th century on.
καὶ τοὺς δήµους ἐν ταῖς πόλεσιν δείξας ὡς δηµοκρατοῦνται (Ar., Ach. 642)
[…] having shown you to what kind of democracy peoples of the allied states are subjected.1
There might not be a more effective line for a wake-up call, to the contemporary audience, about the true nature of democracy, a supposedly just and tolerant political system, than Ach. 642, which the chorus delivers in the parabasis of this play, on behalf of the poet.
By subtly choosing, and playing with, words that are self-evident in principle, but in reality leave themselves open to ambiguity, i.e., δηµοκρατία/δηµοκρατέοµαι,2 Aristophanes calls Athens’ current politics into question and counts this action of his among the many beneficial services that, through his poetic activity, he has been providing to the community (ll. 634-654).3 In truth, the context both of the play and of the parabasis sharpens the opacity of the term, which has been selected ad hoc as a catchword to convey the poet’s criticism and denunciation of the people’s incapacity to see through the mechanisms of their state’s policy, i.e., what it is really about.4
Far from being merely consistent with the conventions of the literary genre, the sardonic tone informing the usage of the term δηµοκρατέοµαι in Ach. 642 might underline an in nuce-semantic contradiction that, debatable though it might be, might account both for the occurrences of the word δηµοκρατία itself and its derivates in the Aristophanic corpus, and for the specific message that the poet intends to communicate.5 By using a paradoxically-controversial word, Aristophanes might intend to shed some light on the controversial nature of a political system that is supposed to champion freedom, tolerance, and equality but, instead ends up embodying a quasi-oppressive form of government, the opposite of what a democracy should be, at least according to the general, common sense of the word.
The present work aims at further clarifying Aristophanes’ critical usage of the vocabulary centering on the key-word δηµοκρατία, to better understand what kind of democracy is the one to which the poet calls the audience’s attention, and thus what democracy per se is for the poet himself. Through a closer examination of the occurrences of that vocabulary in Aristophanes’ extant comedies, I intend to identify the specific targets of the poet’s criticism of democracy, and accordingly to analyze in more depth his witty exploitation of the meanings and the ambiguities of that specific vocabulary, such an exploitation that has so far been pointed out only with the case of δηµοκρατέοµαι occurring in Ach. 642.
To this end, a preliminary excursus on the term δηµοκρατία itself seems to me to be essential, as it would contribute to singling out and examining the related contentious points that Aristophanes sarcastically exploited.
I.1 What’s in a Name? Δηµοκρατία: A ‘Puzzling’ Word?
As is unanimously recognized, translation is far more than a one-to-one transposition of words from one language to another. It is rather a medium of reception6 and a form of interpretation of the thought which is behind the word, the purpose being to render that thought in the target language as closely as possible to its expression in the source language, in an attempt to bridge the gap between two different cultural contexts.
The gap, from which the difficulty of translation stems, has led anyone dealing with a foreign language and culture to coin conventional expressions, such as ‘literal’, ‘free’, and ‘close/faithful’ translation, to pin down the relationship to the source.7 Similarly, the well-known idiom ‘lost in translation’ is a ‘speaking’ idiom, as it clearly indicates the failure to translate words in a way that conveys their full or true/original meaning.
The cultural gap can additionally be historical, as it certainly is in our case. The risk of modernizing and bringing up to date words that belong to past languages and cultures occurs frequently and it is perhaps inevitable, as those words have current connotations from which it is difficult to separate the original ones, above all when we use, as a translation, the closest corresponding words. Such is the case, indeed, with demokratia, whose common translation is almost a transliteration, i.e., democracy.8 The resemblance between the signifiers of the Greek and the English word lays a trap,9 as it provides the illusion of a plain correspondence in terms of signified as well.
Besides the cultural and historical gap, polysemy often poses a further challenge, as it multiplies, so to say, the difficulty of conveying the exact, full meaning of the original word. Such is the case, once again, with demokratia,10 whose polysemy cannot be adequately encapsulated in its English counterpart, democracy. This clearly betrays the delusional nature of the correspondence between their signifieds, and, in consequence, accounts potentially for our misinterpretation.
In order to grasp the true meaning of a word, turning to its etymology is an obvious step and a standard practice; yet, it does not help very much as far as δηµοκρατία is concerned. Δηµοκρατία is clearly a compound word, consisting of the combination of δῆµος and κράτος.11 What makes this clear compound a difficult word ‘to grasp’ is the varied meanings of the first component on the one hand, and the ambiguous, polemical, and quasi-negative meaning of the second one on the other hand.
Δῆµος, commonly translated as ‘people’, originally displays a wide-ranging meaning, from the one referring to inhabited places, i.e., ‘land’/’country’, to the one referring to the inhabitants, i.e., ‘population’/’people’/community’. Moving from here to the political sphere, the meanings further multiply as δῆµος denotes:12
- the people as antagonist of the aristocrats: demos and aristoi become the subsets into which the citizens were divided;
- the people as the entire set of citizens of a democratic polis;
- the democracy qua political regime […];
- the democratic party;
- the assembly of the people.
At first sight, such a schematic list stimulates some relief, as it causes one to think that, at least politically speaking, the meaning is one and completely clear: it all gestures towards a specific form of government, namely, democracy (!). But this in turn leads us back to square one. Indeed, a closer look at the list reveals some partially tautological and partially contradictory meanings, without providing any defined one. For instance, demos as people antagonistic to the aristocrats (a) might be the same as demos indicating the ‘democracy party’ (d): if one transcends the social class connotation, saying that ‘demos and aristoi become the subsets into which the citizens were divided’ in fact implies the presence of two political orientations/parties; therefore the (a)- and (d)- meanings seem tautological. On the other hand, the (a)- meaning of demos as people antagonistic to the aristocrats, and thus being one of ‘the subsets into which the citizens were divided’, is in contradiction with the (b)- meaning of demos ‘… as the entire set of citizens of a democratic polis.’ Is it a subset or is it the entire set? And then there is the contradiction between the (b)- and (e)- meanings, as the latter confines demos to a unit of government, i.e., ‘the assembly of the people’, which suggests the well-known ecclesia, the principal popular organ of 5th-century Athenian democracy.
Apart from taking into account the historical, rapid evolution of institutions and of political vocabulary in particular in the 5th century
Who (i.e., ‘which δῆµος’) held κράτος? What kind of power did κράτος indicate? And how come the two ‘things’ (δῆµος and κράτος) began to designate an exact political form of government referred to as δηµοκρατία?
As hinted at above, the second component of the term δηµοκρατία, i.e., κράτος, contributes to its polysemic nature by also adding a mark of contradiction, which makes the polysemic δηµοκρατία ‘una parola polemica, di lotta, di rottura.’14 Κράτος literally means ‘strength, might’, ‘force’, ‘power’, ‘control’; more precisely, it denotes ‘predominance’,15 but one that could be achieved either legally or by violence and force.16 Likewise, the related verb κρατέω suggests a rule and/or control marked, in a way, by the use of force, as it mainly means ‘to get the upper hand over, to prevail᾽, even, by extension, ‘to usurp’.17 It is the underlying implication of a component of violence and force that gives κράτος an ambiguous shade of meaning and, in consequence, adds a contradictory feature to the term δηµοκρατία, as it would suggest a government by the people (whatever ‘people’, for now, demos stand for) that might be based on, or be characterized by, violence, force, and (to expand the implications in the extreme) oppression/lack of freedom and intolerance/lack of equality, in striking contrast with what the term democracy has been traditionally evoking.18
And this is not all.
Apart from not providing a clear definition of δηµοκρατία, the focus on the shade of force/violence implied in κράτος inevitably raises an obvious question: ‘prevalence/predominance (alias: using force to get control/the upper hand) over whom?’.
With the risk of finding ourselves entangled in a vicious cycle, a possible answer would lead us back to the term δῆµος, and, along with it, in particular to the moment at which it converged with the word κράτος. Although it seems that the compound is first attested in Herodotus (e.g., 6.43.1; 6.131.1),19 i.e., approximately in early mid-5th century
The description of the way in which the people express their sanction, and thus their ruling power, is what might have given birth to the compound δηµο-κρατία, by also suggesting one of the tenets of democracy as is commonly meant: the right for all people to vote. At lines 602-604, when Danaus is back to report the decision of the assembly, his daughters ask:
While connoting, by way of metonymy, the ‘means’ that the people used to express their power, i.e., the hand (χείρ), the verb κρατέω is meant to refer to the ‘sovereign power’, i.e., the supreme and ultimate power that the people held, which allowed them to decide about the matter presented in the assembly and to turn the decision into a law.24
It was the people’s unanimous decision, with full, absolute authority (δήµου … παντελῆ ψηφίσµατα: l. 601). All have participated, so it seems, in the voting process, which takes place by show of hands (χειροτονία):25 πανδηµίᾳ (‘unanimously/in full vote/with the whole population’: l. 607) is indeed the term which Danaus uses to confirm the unanimous vote,26 a δηµόπρακτος µία ψῆφος (‘unanimous vote/resolve made by the people’: ll. 942-943),27 which is not written on tablets or on sealed scrolls, but uttered ἐξ ἐλεθευροστόµου γλώσσης (ll. 948-949), from ‘a free mouth’, i.e., from the mouthpiece, Pelasgus, of the people’s free vote.28
Evidently, the vocabulary describing the overall process suggests, over and over, an unequivocal and positive meaning of the compound that is evoked in the first place, at l. 604, to connote the ‘sovereignty’ of the whole people (παντελής … /πανδηµία), and after which the political system is accordingly named δηµοκρατία.
And, there is even more. The twin foundations of that political system come into sight as well, whether explicitly or not: parrhesia, i.e., freedom of speech, of candidly expressing one’s own opinion, and thus freedom to vote; and isonomia, i.e., equality of political rights/equality before the law.29 All are free and have equal right to participate in the assembly, to speak, and to vote.30 And all are equal before the law, men and women, as implied by the chorus’ observation that the whole people of Argos did not vote on the side of the males, i.e., the Aegyptians, almost as if they took part in the vote,31 thus depriving the women’s plight of the equal respect with which it should be treated (A., Supp. 643-645).
This contextualized analysis of the meaning behind the periphrasis accountable for the formation of the term δηµοκρατία seems to refute the terminological and conceptual problematic of our starting point: there seems to be neither polysemy, nor ambiguity or contradiction. One can indeed infer that, close to the mid-5th century
An ideal democracy is, on the other hand, the one pictured by Pericles in a famous section of the Funeral Speech recorded by Thucydides, i.e., 2.37.1, a passage widely known as the Manifesto of Athenian democracy.32 Although it re-proposes the problem of the exact meaning of the first component of the term, i.e., δῆµος, the passage is generally understood as describing democracy in terms of the ‘rule of the many’ (ἐς πλείονας), i.e., of the majority rather than the whole people,33 a rule which is however beneficial both to all in the private sphere, as the law secures equal justice to all alike (πᾶσι τὸ ἴσον), and to everyone individually (ἓκαστος), as far as the public sphere is concerned.
With the ambiguous polysemy of the word δῆµος resurfacing, Pericles’ description of what δηµοκρατία was through the explanation of why Athens’ politeia was called that way makes explicit, perhaps unintentionally, the inconsistency between name and fact. This inconsistency does not appear in the picture portrayed by Pelasgus and Danaus in Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women, where name and reality coincide, as the whole people, not just the majority (i.e., Pericles’ πλείονες), holds ‘sovereign power’ and secures equal justice to all alike.34
And once again, there is even more. As we have seen, Pelasgus over and over emphasizes his powerlessness as a leader of the democratic Argos: it is the people, the whole people, who decide, in the very end, under his guidance. He is a true representative of the free mouth of the people (ll. 942-943), i.e., of free voters, who equally take part in the assembly and are capable of applying the law equally to all.
This is certainly not the case with Pericles, at least if we are to trust the words of Thucydides, the same Thucydides who recorded the statesman’s Funeral Speech. Indeed, in contrast with Pericles’ own Manifesto, as reported in Thucydides 2.37.1, the historian clearly asserts that Athens’ politeia was a democracy in name only (λόγῳ µὲν), ‘but, in fact (ἔργῳ δὲ), a government by the first citizen’ (ὑπό τοῦ πρώτου ἀνδρὸς ἀρχή), i.e., Pericles himself (Th. 2.65.9).35 Here again, the word δηµοκρατία refers to an inconsistency between name and fact.
If the mythological Pelasgus and Danaus might have voiced what δηµοκρατία meant in its very beginning,36 the historical Pericles seems to represent what the factual 5th-century Athenian democracy was, i.e., a government of a majority which might not really represent and defend the whole people,37 and, even worse, a government of the leader (‘the first man’) of a state which is democratic only in name.38 In both cases, the involvement of some sort of force, or, rather, coercion, in the management of power, whether on occasion or not, would not be altogether unexpected.39 In the end, the democratic Athens-turned-into-a-tyrannos toward the allied cities (e.g., Ar. Ach. 642; cf. Eq. 1111-1113)40 might be a large-scale metaphor either for a majority41 or for a democratic leader turned into a ruler who would impose his decision regardless the interests of the whole people, by thus compromising the legal force of freedom and equality of rights.
So, what’s in the name δηµοκρατία? No one, probably, might think how difficult would be to give the answer to such a simple question. The overview conducted above would suggest an answer: ‘a puzzle,’ namely, a puzzle that lies in a gap, the one between name and fact, abstract and concrete, ideal and reality.42 This gap, too, along with the polemical tone that one can detect in the usage of the word in some ancient sources, contributes to the ambiguous polysemy of the word’s components and to the concept’s contradictory features, which might ultimately be linked to the specific historical period and context. It might be that gap, with all it implies, that affected both Aristophanes’ usage of the word itself and its derivates, and his references to their factual, yet hidden, signified, by sarcastically exploiting the potentials of the terminological puzzle that δηµοκρατία proves to be.
II Δηµοκρατία and its Derivates. Aristophanes’ Usage: Passages and Comments
Perhaps surprisingly, if one considers how much Aristophanes likes to go on making caustic jokes about all that concerns the management of the polis, the puzzling word δηµοκρατία does not occur very frequently in his plays, nor do its derivates, such as δηµοκρατέοµαι and δηµοκρατικός. Δηµοκρατία is attested 3 times, namely in Ach. 618, Αv. 1570, and Pl. 949; δηµοκρατέοµαι 2 times, namely in Ach. 642 and Ec. 945; and δηµοκρατικός just 1 time, in Ra. 952.
There is, however, another relevant word that, although a derivate of δῆµος alone, is attested as a synonym of δηµοκρατικός, and as such it occurs in Aristophanes more frequently. It is the adjective δηµοτικός, whose meaning, according to Liddell-Scott-Jones’ Greek English Lexicon, ranges from the generic ‘of or for the people’ (s.v. δηµοτικός i.1) to the more specialized ‘on the popular or democratic side’ (ibid., ii.2) and ‘popular, democratic’ (explicitly said of ‘government’: ibid., ii.3), just like the Latin popularis. A further proof that δηµοτικός might be, and indeed was, used interchangeably with δηµοκρατικός is the fact that the
Ὦ δηµοκρατία, ταῦτα δῆτ᾽ ἀνασχετά;
Democracy, should we tolerate such talk?
This line is delivered by Lamachus in response to Dicaeopolis’ complaints against the self-serving nature of his appointment as a general (ll. 598-617). In Aristophanes’ eyes, Lamachus represents the corrupt, war-mongering party of the demagogue Cleon. Here and elsewhere in Aristophanes, Lamachus in fact symbolizes the soldier who pretends to be a hero while he fights just for the pay rather than for his homeland (Ach. 597).45 He is a µισθαρχίδης (‘Lord of the high pay’: l. 597) and a place-hunter (cf. Ach. 595), eager for offices of state only to make money off of the current mismanagement of the polis, and yet pretending to just ‘do his job’, i.e., to serve the state in his capacity as a general, with the Athenian people’ interests at heart.46 Indeed, before Dicaeopolis’ protest, which also extends to others like Lamachus, he twice points out that his (and those others’) appointment has taken place through election by the people: Ἐχειροτόνησαν γάρ µε, ‘They elected me by show of hands’ (Ach. 598a, cf. l. 606),47 i.e., to use Sommerstein’s revealing translation, ‘I was democratically elected’.48 The irony of this statement is immediately disclosed by Dicaeopolis as he replies: ‘Sure, true, by three cuckoos!’ (Ach. 598b).
Significantly, the µισθός-issue, on which Dicaeopolis’ protest focuses, ultimately implies a criticism of the very foundation of democracy: the people’s sovereignty that expresses itself and materializes through the people’s free and equal vote by show of hands. By way of irony, within a short sequence of lines and through the usage of a few, relevant catchwords, Aristophanes addresses both the incapacity of the people to use their power well and make good choices, which is an implicit indictment of the equality of rights (isonomia), and the factual tininess of the people that vote, i.e., the assembled people,49 whose vote imposes the decision over a silent, i.e., absent, majority. This takes us back to the ambiguity of the word δηµοκρατία in both of its components: a bunch of people only,50 and not the whole people (δῆµος), has appointed Lamachus and his fellows. Likewise, a bunch of people only has decided to continue the war and not even allowed a talk about peace, as Dicaeopolis has proven, at the beginning of the play, on the occasion of his participation in the assembly (Ach. 26-27, 56-173),51 where he tried in vain to take the floor. Indeed, he has often been silenced (e.g., ll. 59, 64, 123), which is in striking contrast with the other foundation of democracy: parrhesia/isegoria, i.e., freedom of speech.
I am tempted to say that ‘this kind of democracy’ is what Aristophanes is denouncing through the ironic exclamation of Lamachus, i.e., a democracy that relies on unrepresentative decisions taken by a usually ill-attended assembly that pretends to safeguard the equal right to representation by extending access to office to more and more social strata, yet denies the freedom and equal right to speak, while simultaneously dictating rules. Lamachus, one of those who benefits from this kind of democracy, thus has to endure the complaints of those like Dicaeopolis who speaks the truth (e.g., Ach. 109-122; 496-556). Had the current democracy been one that would rely on a truly representative assembly, which would be capable of using its κρατοῦσα χείρ to make good choices and would really grant an equal right to speak (and, therefore, an equal right to weigh in on the polis’ concerns), such complaints would not even occur.
Addressing the ‘barbarian’ god Triballos, these are the almost very first words that Poseidon pronounces as soon as he and his fellows, Heracles and Triballos, have arrived at Nephelococcygia, the birds’ polis that Peisetairos has newly established and led. Poseidon, Heracles, and Triballos are the gods’ elected delegates who should initiate peace talks with Peisetairos. Poseidon’s view is that of an old aristocrat, as one could expect in the case of the very brother of the supreme ruler (Zeus). His remark on democracy expresses his disgust with that essential and founding component of democracy itself, which is the people’s ruling hand, i.e., the people’ s equal right to choose by vote whoever they decide to appoint to an office or whatever they decide to decree in administrating the polis. Like in Ach. 618, here, too, the people’s ruling power by show of hands, and all it involves, is what the ironic exclamation ‘ Ὦ δηµοκρατία’ calls into question by pointing out its flaws, such as the inability to elect suitable persons, the limitations of the isonomia – either because it also allows anyone to be elected, or because it might be turned into an imposition when something might not fit all – and the partial respect of the parrhesia. Blaming Triballos, Poseidon implicitly criticizes the gods’ choice (a metaphor for the people’s choice), the equal right to representation, with the related extension to anyone of the possibility to access a office (given that Triballos would be a delegate representative of the ‘foreign/barbarian’ gods), and the equal right to speak, as surely, we may think, Poseidon would like to prevent Triballos from participating, and thus freely speaking, in the peace initiatives.52
I’ll make it sure that this mighty god of yours gets punished this very day, for he, being just only one person, evidently tries to subvert/democracy, as he has not obtained the consent/of the people’s council and of the assembly.
By these words, the informer (συκοφάντης)53 leaves the stage in complete frustration, after an altercation with the slave Carion and the Good Man, who are the main characters of one of the episodes that follow the central scene of the play, i.e., the healing of the god of wealth, Ploutos, from blindness. As is typical in Aristophanes’ comedy, the second of part of the play mostly consists of a sequence of visits to the ‘comic hero’54 by persons that would either try to take advantage of the comic hero’s plan or complain about it. The informer belongs to the latter category: he demands that the god of wealth be made blind again (ll. 856-859), complaining that, as soon as he got his sight back, while he has made all honest people rich, he has ruined some other people, the informer included (ll. 864-867).
In this passage, the reference to democracy does not take the form of an ironic exclamation, as it does in Ach. 618 and Av. 1570. Yet the remark does include a reference to the people’s vote, i.e., to the tool by which the people make decisions, the tool that is at the foundation itself of democracy.55 And, like in the two other occurrences, it is still an ironic reference, as the informer’s remark indeed provides a further evidence of the limitations of the demos’ ability to use well its κρατοῦσα χείρ, and thus to make good choices. Prior to the changes brought about by the god of wealth, for the people the status of the informer was perfectly fine, which implies, at least in Aristophanes’ eyes, that democracy supports and allows such a category of dishonest persons as the informers to make inroads into the polis’ management. And, once again, δήµου κρατοῦσα χείρ proves not to represent the view and the interest of the whole people, as it should – at least in principle.
καὶ τοὺς δήµους ἐν ταῖς πόλεσιν δείξας ὡς δηµοκρατοῦνται
[…] having shown you to what kind of democracy peoples of the allied states are subjected.
As hinted at above, the ambiguity of the word is probably more evident here than elsewhere. Certainly, the wordplay that Aristophanes exploits in a masterly manner conveys a clear criticism of democratic Athens as far as foreign policy, too, is concerned.56 The full import of this criticism is to be grasped within the larger context of one of Aristophanes’ earlier production, i.e., the Babylonians play (426
As hinted at above, one is tempted to think that ‘this kind of Athens’ democracy’ in foreign policy, i.e., the tyrannical-kind, is a projection of the domineering-connotation of the demos’ power (δήµου κράτος) that characterizes δηµοκρατία in domestic policy where demos, as seen so far, is hardly ever the whole people, for in reality it is an ill-attended assembly that appropriates the whole force of the polis.
By playing with the ambiguities of the word, and making the ambiguities fit for each context, it seems that Aristophanes almost sets an equation of domestic democracy with foreign democracy that centers on what is contrary, by principle, to democracy, i.e., some sort of coercion/abuse of power (κράτος) of a part (δῆµος, in its puzzling meaning), over all the others, whether they are the rest of Athens’ demos or the people allied (and thus submitted!) to Athens’ demos. Such an equation can indeed be supported by the personal experience at which Aristophanes/Dicaeopolis hinted in the first part of the play Acharnians: the experience of censorship. In Ach. 378-382 and 496-508, the poet refers to the prosecution that Cleon initiated against him for ‘slandering the city in the presence of foreigners’ (ll. 502-503).61 Cleon’s was clearly an attack against the freedom of speech and an attempt to exert control on the public image of Athens by imposing censorship on what could have been detrimental to that image and to the stability of the institutions.62 Once again, everything gestures toward a tyrannical democracy both in the domestic and in the foreign policy.
It is right to do the things in accordance to the laws, if it is true that we are in a democracy.
Through this sarcastic retort, the old hag replies to the young man’s complaint about the new equalitarian law that demands he have intercourse with an ugly old woman before he can have it with his young girlfriend (Ec. 938-940). What the old hag believes to be her democratic right – as they all are equal before the law, old and young, ugly and pretty (cf. ll. 617-631)63 – is an imposition, an abuse of power, a kind of violence to freedom, for the young man. Not accidentally, he has exclaimed: ὀυ γὰρ ἀνασχετὸν τοῦτο γ᾽ ἐλευθέρῳ (‘this is intolerable for a free-born man’, l. 941). This inevitably recalls Lamachus’ ironic exclamation in Ach. 618,64 just as the old hag’s retort recalls Dicaeopolis’ reply. In both cases – like, also, in Av. 1570 – the limitations of isonomia are called into question.
That isonomy, i.e., one of the foundations of democracy, is at stake in the passage under discussion is also testified to by the fact that the two characters, i.e., the old hag and the young man, are here engaging in a duet which echoes, and parodies, the ‘Harmodium skolia’, i.e., the songs performed at banquets that exalted the tyrant’s murder and the subsequent ‘making Ἀθήνας ἰσονόµους (cf. 893-896
By playing, once again, on the ambiguities of the compound verb, the poet criticizes the imbalance of power that, probably inevitably but certainly contradictorily, characterizes democracy. This imbalance of power, in the very end, is a matter of force/coercion (κράτος), as ‘the ill-assembled people’ tends to prevail over the individual freedom.67
[Eur.] ἔπειτ᾽ ἀπὸ τῶν πρώτων ἐπῶν οὐδὲν παρῆκ᾽ ἂν ἀργόν,
ἀλλ᾽ ἔλεγεν ἡ γυνή τέ µοι χὠ δοῦλος οὐδὲν ἧττον,
χὠ δεσπότης χἠ παρθένος χἠ γραῦς ἄν.
[Aesch.] εἶτα δῆτα
οὐκ ἀποθανεῖν σε ταῦτ᾽ ἐχρῆν τολµῶντα;
[Eur.] µὰ τὸν Ἀπόλλω:
δηµοκρατικὸν γὰρ αὔτ᾽ ἔδρων.
[Eur.] Then, from the very first lines I would not leave anyone idle;
the woman speaks, and the slave just as much,
and so the master, the maiden, and the old lady.
[Aesch.] And for such audacity, should not you deserve the death penalty?
[Eur.] No, by Apollo, it was a democratic action.
In the first scenes of the contest between Aeschylus and Euripides, in which they engage to decide who is to be ‘resurrected’ to save the polis with his plays, Euripides rebukes his opponent for his tendency to open his plays with characters sitting onstage in prolonged silence (Ra. 907-923), letting them talk almost halfway through the play, and, what is more, with speeches full of overelaborate phrases and indecipherable words (Ra. 924-929). In contrast with this, Euripides claims the merit both of having ‘put on a diet’ Aeschylus’ poetry, which was bloated with bombastic words, and of having the very first character walking on the stage immediately talk and explain the play’s origin (Ra. 936-947a). Continuing to emphasize the ‘talkative’ feature of Euripides’ drama in contrast with Aeschylus’ prolonged silence, Aristophanes sarcastically credits Euripides for having made tragedy more inclusive, or to say it better, more representative, as all have an equal right to speak.
The mockery is a subtle one, as usual: Aristophanes never missed the chance to tease the tragic playwright about a specific orientation of his poetics, namely his tendency to make ‘lower-class’ personages worthy of playing a role – even a major role – on stage, thus granting them the same rights as the traditional ‘dignitaries’, i.e., the heroes of mythology, whose status is, in turn, diminished.68 The remark on the inclusiveness of Euripides’ tragedy thus seems to be in line with Aristophanes’ typical criticism of that poet, and, as such, might be considered as the umpteenth jab at his expense. But what is striking is the specific political connotation that informs Aristophanes’ typical criticism of Euripides on this occasion only, and, furthermore, with an hapax legomenon: out of the extant Aristophanic comedies, Ra. 952 is, in fact, the only place where δηµοκρατικός occurs.
To grant anyone the right to speak, i.e., equality of all in freedom of speech, is parrhesia/isegoria and, in a way, isonomia as well; it is, in other words, – to paraphrase Euripides’ response – ‘democracy in action’.69 Considering that, in some of the passages analyzed so far, equality of representation – with all it involves – is one of democracy’s elements that Aristophanes targets through his ironic usage of the key term δηµοκρατία and its derivates, I would say that in Ra. 952 the poet seizes the opportunity to convey his poetic and political criticism at once, by tagging the conduct of his ‘favorite’ object of poetic criticism, Euripides, with a catchword that evokes his own polemic against democracy.
If things are so, one would almost inevitably wonder why Aristophanes here, and only here, exploits one of Euripides’ poetic features70 that he has usually satirized to snipe at democracy as well. An answer might be found in the subsequent reply by the character Dionysus: ‘Let it go, my friend, / this is not the best time for you to talk about it (sc. being δηµοκρατικός)’ (Ra. 953-954). These words hint at Euripides’ departure from democratic Athens for the kingdom Macedonia, which happened shortly before his death and which would call into question his democratic orientation.71 Dionysus’ mocking insinuation that Euripides is not a true democrat himself might add to the overall sarcasm, as it contributes to Aristophanes’ criticism of the tragic playwright: not only does Euripides uphold, on stage, the principles of democracy of which, as seen, Aristophanes was not really fond; he also does not firmly stand for them, as he pretends to.
As it has been pointed out above, this specific derivate of one of the two components of the term here under discussion, i.e., of δῆµος alone, seems to be perceived and used as synonym for δηµοκρατικός in the contexts in which it occurs.72 Indeed, it has been observed that δηµοτικός defines the radical democrats, in particular in the first years of the Peloponnesian war.73 This particular meaning seems actually to be supported by most of the occurrences of δηµοτικός in Aristophanes, which, in turn, are in line with the poet’s criticism of specific features of democracy, such as isonomy and its coercive outcomes, and more generally the oxymoronically domineering δήµου κρατοῦσα χείρ.
All the occurrences certainly suggest an ironic use of the term; and out of the four occurrences, one conveys a more pronounced socio-economic connotation than the others. This is the case with the first occurrence, i.e., Nu. 205:
[Strepsiades] … τουτὶ δὲ τί;
[Strepsiades] τοῦτ᾽ οὖν τί ἐστι χρήσιµον;
[Student] γῆν ἀναµετρεῖσθαι
[Strepsiades] πότερα τὴν κληρουχικήν;
[Student] οὔκ, ἀλλὰ τῆν σύµπασαν.
[Strepsiades] ἀστεῖον λέγεις,
τό γάρ σόφισµα δηµοτικόν καὶ χρήσιµον.
[Strepsiades] … And what is this?
[Strepsiades] What is useful for?
[Student] For measuring earth.
[Strepsiades] Do you mean the allotments?
[Student] No, but the whole earth.
[Strepsiades] What a cultured idea! A really democratic and useful invention! (Nu. 201b-205)
In his witty replies to the student’s explanation of what geometry is, Strepsiades connotes it not only by using some keywords by which Aristophanes sarcastically refers to the Sophists, such as σόφισµα,74 but he also unexpectedly, I would say, uses a term that adds a political nuance and produces a quite clearly ironic effect. The stimulus for such a terminological choice might have been given by the ‘inclusiveness’ (σύµπασαν: l. 204) of the measurement which geometry, the new invention, allows, such an inclusiveness that is in contrast with Athens’ norm to confiscate lands on territories outside Attica (which the Athenian state would appropriate),75 and allocate them to a number of Athenian citizens, usually to the poorest. Strepsiades – so it seems – thinks that geometry is a kind of magical device for distributing all the land in the world to any Athenian citizen; it would be a democratic invention in that it would give all citizens equal right to any land and would enable the poorest to acquire a socio-economical independent status equivalent to the other classes’.76 Through Strepsiades’ ironic connotation of the Sophists’ invention as δηµοτικόν, Aristophanes might thus mean to target the extreme, radical outcome of the democratic isonomy.
This interpretation proves to be very plausible, as it might more clearly be applied to two other cases out of the four occurrences of δηµοτικός, i.e., Ec. 411 and 631.77
In Ec. 411, the term occurs in the superlative form (δηµοτικωτάτους) to connote the speech given by an ordinary, and very poor, man who took the floor in the assembly summoned by Praxagora to discuss the question of how to save the city (ll. 395-396):78
And he delivered a very democratic speech: /“You see I myself am in need of salvation / […] yet, I’ll tell you/ how to save the city and its people. /If the clothiers provide free cloaks to those who need one, /when winter begins, /none of us would get pleurisy. / And those who do not have a bed, or blankets /should be allowed to go to sleep, after taking a bath, / to the fur shop./ And if someone slams his door to them, / […] let him be punished with a fine of three fur.79 (Ec. 411-421)
Evidently, δηµοτικός here suggests absolute equality of rights among the citizens who should all be given an equal right to enjoy the basic means for living a decent life. The radicalism of the democratic isonomia advocated by that man is ironically emphasized through the adjective’s superlative form. What is more, the reference to a punishment for those who would not comply with this very democratic idea targets the coercive outcome of such an absolute equality, which is, as we have seen, one of the intrinsic contradictions of democracy that Aristophanes points out, so intrinsic that – I am tempted to say – it surfaces even when democracy is referred to through a word that does not explicitly suggest any force/violence/domineering-issue, which is, on the contrary, implied in the component κράτος.80
Similarly, in Ec. 631 δηµοτικός is used to connote another democratic idea that implies a radical form of isonomy, as it would grant the ugly and the handsome equal rights to sleep with pretty women. This is a part of Praxagora’s political plan (ll. 588-594), which advocates a radical egalitarianism, where everyone is to have an equal share in everything and live on that; there will no longer be either rich or poor (l. 591); pretty girls and ugly girls will have equal rights to be with a man, i.e., they will have a equal share of men, for anyone who wants a pretty girl has to sleep with one of the ugly girls first (ll. 613-618); and the same applies to men, as women cannot sleep with the handsome ones before having satisfied the ugly ones (ll. 626-629). This is a δηµοτική γ᾽ γνώµη, as Praxagora exclaims (l. 631). And this is the same extreme form of isonomy that the young man will have to accept in the name of democracy, as already seen in Ec. 944-945, where the specific, technical verb denoting the presence of a democratic government, i.e., δηµοκρατέοµαι, occurs.81
The occurrence of δηµοτικός in Av. 1584 suggests a different target of Aristophanes’ criticism of democracy than isonomia and its coercive outcomes, a target that is, however, in line with the poet’s overall remarks on democracy itself, as it leverages the domineering/totalitarian implication that the word κράτος of the synonymous δηµοκρατικός expresses.
The divine delegation constituted by Poseidon, Heracles and Triballos has just arrived. Poseidon attempts to officially address Peisetairos to initiate diplomatic peace talks, when Heracles, ‘blinded’ by the food that Peisetairos is preparing,82 abruptly asks: ‘What is this you are roasting?’ (Av. 1583a). To this Peisetairos answers:
Ὄρνιθές τινες / ἐπανιστάµενοι τοῖς δηµοτικοῖσιν ὀρνέοις / ἔδοξαν ἀδικεῖν
Some birds that have been found guilty of rebelling against the birds’ democratic government. (Av. 1583b-1585)
Almost unanimously,83 scholars tend to read this passage as one conveying a recurrent topos of Aristophanes’ comedies, i.e., the Athenians’ inveterate fear of an ‘oligarchic and tyrannical conspiracy’ (Th. 6.60. 1; cf. with 6.53.3),84 such a fear that particularly invested Athenian demos in the wake of the religious scandals of 415.85 But, it might be possible that the ironic use of δηµοτικός hits farther, if one considers both the peculiar political connotation that characterizes the word, and the real nature of the new state that Peisetairos has established.86
As far as the word’s peculiar political connotation is concerned, let us remember that, as pointed out above, δηµοτικός described not simply democracy, but, indeed, radical democracy, a democracy that fully accepts, and includes, differences of opinion, classes, and races, etc., along with dissent and antagonisms. Yet the meat that Peisetairos is roasting belongs to dissenting birds (!).
As far as the real nature of Peisetairos’ new establishment is concerned, it rather recalls that of Athens in the days of Pericles: a democracy in name only, but, in fact, a government by the first citizen (Th. 2.65.9),87 who ultimately is hailed as τύραννος (Av. 1708).88
III By Way of Conclusion
The terminological analysis conducted above may suggest some answers to the pivotal, underlying questions of the present work, i.e., ‘What kind of democracy is the one which Aristophanes addresses in his comedies?’ and ‘What does democracy mean for Aristophanes?’
The results gesture toward the poet’s awareness of the gap between name and fact, ideal and reality, or – to say it in a different, yet corresponding, way – between Pelasgus’ δήµου κρατοῦσα χείρ and the contemporary democracy of Cleon and other demagogues. Understanding the ambiguities of both components of the catchword δηµοκρατία, and realizing the ambiguous semantic and political relationship between the words πλῆθος and δῆµος as well, words that are both involved in the ancients’ definition of, and references to, democracy,89 Aristophanes creates witty remarks within playful contexts, in order to disclose the actual hidden signified of the word and its derivates, and thus to reveal the downside of a form of government that is supposedly advantageous to all.
As we have seen, playing with the ambiguous term demos, the poet calls into question the representational issue, as demos often turns out to be a bunch of people, or people of a certain social class, whose κρατοῦσα χείρ might not be beneficial to all. To Aristophanes’ eyes, this is well proven both by the appointment to offices, through the show of hands, of unsuitable, even dishonest, persons, and by the potentially undesirable outcomes of the democratic isonomy, which he pointed out by way of reductio ad absurdum. The limitations of equality and freedom to speak and to vote, the access of offices for all, and the equality before the laws, i.e., all the basic tenets of democracy, are thus sarcastically criticized. Furthermore, playing with the ambiguities of the terms κράτος / κρατέω, the poet emphasizes the coercive, if not oxymoronically totalitarian, nature of a government which is supposed to champion freedom, tolerance, and equality. In the end, in fact, unrepresentative decisions of ill-attended assemblies become an imposition over all, given that they become law; and, in democracy, all are equal before the law. Who ever dissents, whether outside (foreign policy) or at home (domestic policy), is to be punished. This is almost totalitarianism; this is Cleon’s democracy, as both the case of Athens’ allied states (Ach. 642) and the case of Aristophanes-Dicaeopolis (Ach. 378-382; 496-508) have dearly proven.90
Through the ambiguities of the term δῆµος and its problematic relationship with πλῆθος, by calling into question the issue of the number of those who participate in the political and administrative management of the polis, Aristophanes seems both to indirectly ‘reopen’ the discussion on the constitutions which the historian Herodotus reports as held by three Persian dignitaries,91 and to be ahead of the times, standing as a precursor of the political thought of Plato and Aristotle.92 The same can be said in part with reference to the coercive/almost totalitarian nature of the δήµου/πλήθους κράτος, as both Herodotus’ and Plato’s discussion points out this issue as well.93
Whether Aristophanes criticizes Athenian democracy, through his witty exploitation of the ambiguities of the term and its derivates, to express a specific, more conservative, political stand is debatable. Certainly, this criticism, too, is in line with the pedagogical purpose that invests all his plays: to make the people aware of the real implications of current politics and the cultural trends that pretend to be democratic, i.e., to be beneficial for the whole people, but, in reality, are merely self-serving.94
Significantly, at the one time in which Aristophanes means to indicate someone as a person who really had the people’s interest at hearth, i.e., what we would define as a really democratic person, the poet uses a very peculiar and rare word, i.e.: φιλόδηµος, which literally means ‘friendly to the people / very fond of the people’. It happens at Nu. 1187 where, speaking of laws, Pheidippides evokes Solon, the codifier of the Athenian laws in 6th century
Unless indicated differently in a footnote, all translations into English from any language other than English are my own. Italics are mine. For more details about the translation I provided above, see below, pp. 338-355.
For details, see below, pp. 348-363. For a comprehensive and recent work on Aristophanes’ subtle and witty usage of what become catchwords of his poetics, see R. Lauriola, Aristofane serio-comico. Paideia e geloion (Pisa: Edizioni
As is well-known, one of the targets of Aristophanes’ criticism is the Athenian people’s gullibility, which is vividly pointed out through expressions picturing Athenian demos as ‘blind’ (see, e.g., Knights 803-804; Wasps 695, Peace 632-635, on which Lauriola, Aristofane, pp. 46-48 with nn. 32, 34), and as ‘staring with open mouth’ before anyone who would pretend to speak or act for its benefit. On this last image of the gullible demos, conveyed through the verbs χάσκω, χασκάζω, χασµάω, see J. Taillardat, Les images d’ Aristophane. Etudes de langue et de style (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1965, 2nd ed.), pp. 264-267. For a comprehensive analysis of Aristophanes’ poetics with a focus on his pedagogical aims toward Athenian demos, see Lauriola, Aristofane.
This, in itself, would turn the poet into an unconscious forerunner of the ‘debate-to-be’ on the constitutions, the debate that mostly developed starting from the second half of the 5th century
The English word ‘democracy’ comes ultimately from the Greek word, through the Middle French démocratie, which in turn comes from the Medieval Latin democratia. The signifiers’ similarity is to be found in the words for democracy that either belong to romance languages or stem from Indo-European languages: e.g., democracia (in Spanish and Portuguese), democrazia (in Italian), democraţie (in Romanian), demokratie (in German), demokraci (in Albanian), etc.
Regarding this, see, e.g., E. H. Carr, What is History (London: Penguin Books, 1987, 2nd. ed.), pp. 24-25, who points out ‘the trap’ into which historians tend to fall when, by using words like, for instance, plebs and polis in the original, they think they could avoid the problem of translation/interpretation; in reality – as Carr emphasizes – by doing so, they cheat themselves not ‘any more than they would become better Greek or Roman historians if they delivered their lectures in a clamys or in a toga’ (p. 25). Similarly, L. Canfora, ‘Sul pensiero politico Greco’, in Ronconi-Bornmann-Casertano-Canfora-Lana-Bretone-Rotondi-Clemente-Della Corte (eds.), Gli Antichi e Noi (Foggia: Atlantica, 1983), pp. 65-67: as an example, this scholar uses the word polis.
The list is from P. Lévêque, ‘The *Da-Root: Repartion and Democracy,’ in P. Lévêque and P. Vidal-Naquet, Cleisthenes the Athenian (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press 1996 [translated from the French, and edited by D. A. Curtis), p. 129. See also R. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2010), Vol. 1, p. 325; also below, pp. 344-347, esp. with nn. 26, 33, 41.
Lévêque/Vidal-Naquet, Cleisthenes, p. 18; Musti, Demokratía, pp. 28-29; I shall return to this with some more details.
See D. Welsh, ‘The chorus of Aristophanes’ Babylonians,’ Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 24 (1983), p. 139. For a summary of the scholarly discussion on the ambiguity of the term demokratia as dependent on the meanings of kratos, see D. P. Orsi, ‘Lessico politico,’ Quaderni di Storia, 11 (1980), pp. 277-280. With reference to this ambiguous, contradictory involvement of force and violence characterizing the form of power called demokratia, it might be interesting to note the subtitle that Canfora has chosen for his commentary on Pseudo-Xenophon’s Athenaion Politeia, i.e., ‘La democrazia come violenza’: L. Canfora, Anonimo Ateniese. La democrazia come violenza (Palermo: Sellerio Editore, 1982). I shall say more about this issue, with a focus both on the origin of the compound and on the occurrences of the term demokratia and derivates in Aristophanes: see below, pp. 342-357.
Regarding this, see in particular C. Meier, ‘Drei Bemerkungen zur Vorund Frühgeschichte des Begriffe Demokratie’, in E. Bonjour and M. Sieber (eds.), Discordia Concors: Festschrift für E. Bonjour (Basel, Stuttgart: Helbing & Lichtenhahn, 1968), pp. 3-29; Id., Entstehung des Begriffs ‘Demokratie’ (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1970), esp. pp. 40-47, where this scholar also discusses the meaning of the terms κράτος/κρατέω in comparison with ἀρχή/ἄρχω (esp. pp. 43-46).
That kratos is an attribute of an autocratic power is a notion which, in the ancient Greek culture, traces back to Hesiod’s mention of the personified Kratos (Power) and Bie (Force, Strength) as the attendants of king Zeus: indeed ‘they have no separate house nor a place apart from Zeus, they neither sit nor go anywhere save where the god lead them; but they always are stationed by deep-thundering Zeus’ (Th. 385-388). And, Zeus’ power is also referred to often as kratos: see, e.g., Theogony 663. The violent, oppressive connotation of Zeus’ kratos, in particular, is also a well-known notion symbolizing a tyrannical power in the 5th century
In 6.131.1, Herodotus states that Cleisthenes established δηµοκρατία in Athens (cf. Arist., Ath. 29.3); some historians, however, believe that Herodotus here used the term anachronistically (see, e.g., K. A. Raaflaub, ‘The Breakthrough of Demokratia in Mid-Fifth-century Athens,’ in K. A. Raaflaub, J. Ober, and R. W. Wallace (eds.), Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece [Berkeley-Los Angeles: University of California, 2007], p. 145). In Herodotus’ time, in fact, the democratic government was called ἰσονοµία (lit., ‘equality of political rights,’: Hdt. 3.80.6: see below, pp. 345-346 with n. 33): Raaflaub’, The Breakthough’, p. 112. On Cleisthenes and Athenian Democracy, see Saxonhouse in this volume (above, esp., pp. 192-193, 198-200).
About the date of this play and its discussion with reference to the origin of the word demokratia, see V. Ehrenberg, ‘Origins of Democracy,’ Historia, 1 (1950), pp. 517-524; Raaflaub, ‘The Breakthrough’, p. 108, 112-113. See, also, below, pp. 344-345.
Λαοί is the term Pelasgus uses to indicate his land’s people, those he will summon for the assembly. The term was indeed used to indicate ‘people assembled’, esp. in the Ecclesia, in the 5th century
My translation is based on the interpretations and related comments both of Ehrenberg, ‘Origins’, pp. 522-523, and of H. F. Johansen and E. W. Whittle, Aeschylus. The Suppliants (Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel-Nordisk Forlag, 1980) vol. 2, p. 490.
Cf. with Aeschylus, Suppliant Women 600-601 (on which Johansen and Whittle, Aeschylus, vol. 1, pp. 487-488): referring to the people’s vote and decision, Danaus speaks of ‘decrees carrying full authority’, which have been passed. See also ll. 608-610.
As Johansen and Witthle (Aeschylus, vol. 2, pp. 490-491) point out, the literal translation of the key lines 603-604, i.e., ‘Tell us […] the purport of the decision taken by a multiplicity of voters’, would assume the existence of a minority who voted differently; but it is a false assumption immediately rectified by Danaus who talks of πανδηµίᾳ. The unanimity is further confirmed by the peculiarity of the expression from which the compound democracy stems, i.e., δήµου κρατοῦσα χείρ: through a detailed philological analysis of the expression, Johansen and Witthle demonstrate that it cannot imply the existence of a δήµου ἠττοµένη χείρ, i.e., a minority. ‘The phrase δήµου κρατοῦσα χείρ […] contains no connotation of majority versus minority, but designates the people as carrying out its sovereign function of voting’ (p. 491).
By these words, talking to Aegyptus’ herald, Pelasgus insists that the decree has the authority of the whole people of Argos, for it has been passed ‘by the unanimous resolve of the people of the State’. On this passage, see also Johansen and Witthle, Aeschylus, vol. 3, pp. 248; 249.
Pelasgus here emphasizes the freedom of vote characterizing his democratic state, in contrast with the monarchic status of the Aegyptians: see Johansen and Witthle, Aeschylus, vol. 3, p. 252.
The passage has often been considered as the ideal picture of Pericles’ democracy, due to Thycidides’ idealizing portrayal of the statesman: see, e.g., Ehrenberg, ‘Origins’, p. 537; L. Canfora, La Democrazia. Storia di una ideologia (Bari: Editori Laterza, 2004), pp. 7-34 (contra, see M. H. Hansen, ‘Thucydides’ Description of Democracy (2.37.1) and the
On the majority-issue, see below, esp. pp. 346-347 with n. 41. It should be noted that the issue surfaces, in a way, already in Herodotus’ well-known logos tripolitιkos (3.80-82), as he talked of πλῆθος ἂρχον (‘the rule of the multitude’), to which he carries the name ἰσονοµίη (‘equality’) rather than demokratia (3.80.6): see above, n. 19, and Saxonhouse’s discussion in this volume (above, esp. pp. 192-193). I shall return to this issue later.
On the difficulties and uneasiness of Pericles’ definition of democracy, see recently L. Mitchell, ‘Greek Political Thought in Ancient History,’ Polis, 33 (2016), pp. 59-60 with n.28. See, also, below, nn. 38, 41.
On this passage, see, e.g., Ehrenberg, ‘Origins’, p. 537; M. Vegetti, Chi comanda nella città (Roma: Carocci Editore, 2017), pp. 30-31; also below, n. 38. In the 420s, the contradiction between the claim of democracy and the authoritarian status of the leader, which Thucydides’ passage seems to betray, is interestingly proposed on the stage in Euripides’ Suppliant Women (esp. ll. 396-584), through the agon between the herald from Thebes and Theseus, the king of a democratic Athens, who seems to resemble Pericles, the first citizen of his democratic Athens (see, e.g., N. J. Davie, ‘Theseus, the king in fifth century Athens’, Greece and Rome, 2 , pp. 25-34; S. Mills, Theseus, Tragedy and the Athenian Empire [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997], pp. 97-104). On E. Supp. 396-584, see, also, C. Collard, Euripides. Supplices (Groningen: Bouma’s Boekhuis b.v. Publishers, 1975), pp. 207-212, esp. 211-212; I. C. Storey, Euripides. Suppliant Women (London: Duckworth, 2008), pp. 41-42; 47-50.
This is an issue that, as we shall see, Aristophanes will single out in his witty remarks pertaining to the current democracy. And it is an issue that plays a major role in particular in Aristotle’s debate on the constitutions, where the philosopher makes it a matter of social class, in that the multitude (whether it is called πλῆθος or δῆµος) is identified with the prevailing mass of the poor: Pol. 1317b (esp. 40-41), cf. with Pol. 1290a 30-40. On Aristotle’s discussion of democracy, see M. Chambers, ‘Aristotle’s Forms of Democracy,’ Transaction of the American Philological Association, 92 (1961), pp. 20-36; M. Venturi Ferriolo, ‘Democrazia: il nome, la cosa, il concetto,’ Quaderni di Storia, 7 (1978), pp. 67-96; Canfora, Gli Antichi, pp. 72-73; Vegetti, Chi comanda, pp. 23-24; 34-35. Similar consideration about the social connotation of the multitude that would define a democratic state are in Plato (esp., R. 557a): see Vegetti, Chi comanda, pp. 23-24.
As Mitchell (‘Greek Political’, p. 60) notes, in Th. 2.65.9, we are told that ‘Pericles’ democracy was not democracy at all, but rule by the first man […]. As a consequence, the regime Pericles endorses in the Funeral Oration is one which he can rule’. See, also, below, n. 41.
Regarding the majority-issue in Pericles’ definition of democracy in Th. 2.37.1, and the related issue about who rules, Mitchell (‘Greek Political’, pp. 59-60 with nn. 22, 28) observes that Pericles, in the end, does not make a clear statement about the sovereignty of the people, but is deliberately ambiguous. In relation to this Mitchell points out the meritocratic tone of the passage when Pericles refers to the attaining of high office, as the emphasis on the merit (ἀρετή) would imply – in Mitchell’s opinion – that ‘it is the people who attain high office on the basis of their excellence, who rule (not either the few or the majority).’
The uneasiness that we might thus feel when it comes to defining this puzzling word democracy is well testified to, in my opinion, by the fact that Canfora, Gli antichi, p. 73, even talks of being before an ‘aporia’.
I have above selected the occurrences of this adjective where, on the basis of the context, it clearly works as a synonym of δηµοκρατικός, i.e., where it is used with a political, rather than a generic, connotation.
On this polemical portrayal of Lamachus, see Lauriola, Aristofane, pp. 193-196; 219-222; also R. Lauriola, ‘Athena and the Paphlagonian in Aristophanes’ Knights. Re-considering Equites 1090-5; 1172-81,’ Mnemosyne, 59.1 (2006), pp. 90-92.
About Aristophanes’ criticism of the µισθός, as a demagogic tool introduced to maneuver Athenian demos, see Lauriola, Aristofane, pp. 45-47 with n. 29; 162 with n. 12; 168 with n. 28.
I am referring to the revised edition and translation of the comedy which this scholar published in 2002 in the Penguins Classics Series (A. H. Sommerstein, Aristophanes. Lysistrata and Other Plays [London: Penguin Books, 2002], p. 36), whereas in the well-known multivolume series published by Aris & Phillips, he more literally translated ‘I was elected’ (A. H. Sommerstein, The Comedies of Aristophanes. Vol. 1. Acharnians [Warminster: Aris & Phillips
See, e.g, Ach. 19-25 where Dicaeopolis complains about how participation in the assembly is not taken seriously: the Pnyx, is ‘deserted’ at the time in which the assembly is supposed to start, all prefer to chat in the agora, and then the few who go to the assembly are late!
Likely, it is the same ‘bunch of good-for-nothing-people’ that the poet holds responsible for the war and its protraction, such a group that – as Aristophanes specifies with emphasis – does not represent all the Athenian people, i.e., the entire polis (Ach. 515-519; cf. with l. 503).
Several scholars have noted some similarities of this passage with Ach. 618: see, e.g, G. Zanetto, Aristofane. Gli Uccelli (Mialno: Mondadori, 1987), p. 308; N. Dunbar, Aristophanes. Birds (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 717 (cf. with S. D. Olson, Aristophanes. Acharnians [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002], p. 233). It might be possible that, through the complaint about the election of Triballos, the poet meant to criticize the controversial election of Laispodias as general (cf. l. 1569, on which Olson, Aristophanes, p. 233; G. Mastromarco – P. Totaro, Commedie di Aristofane. Vol. 2 [Torino: Classici
As is well known, the συκοφάντης (‘slanderer, informer’), a pawn in the hands of the corrupt democratic leaders, such as Cleon, is one of the typical targets of Aristophanes’ satire: see, e.g, Ach. 519-523, 818-828, 839-841, 904-951. On this figure, see also Pellegrino in this volume (below, pp. 405-422).
It is true that in Wealth the slave Carion, rather than the protagonist/‘comic hero’ Chremylus, is the one who has to deal with the typical parade of visitors. But, here Carion has as much of the action as his master, who, indeed, will deal with a second parade of visitors (cf. ll. 959-1096).
The lack of consent about which the informer complains is expressed as ‘failing to persuade’ the people, and thus to win their consent through the vote, which, in turn, is perceived as something that endangers democracy itself. See, e.g., A. H. Sommerstein, Aristophanes. The Birds and Other Plays (London: Penguins Books, 2003), p. 302, who translates: ‘He is self-evidently guilty of attempting in an autocratic manner to subvert democracy, as is shown by the fact that he has failed to seek consent of the People’s Council or of the assembly’.
The passage could be interpreted differently as the verb might refer to poor/bad democratic self-government in the allied states rather than to the corrupt Athenian democratic administration of them (see, e.g., Sommerstein, The Comedies, p. 189). The interpretation I provided above is the one on which scholars, including myself, mostly agree: see, e.g., W. J. M. Starkie, The Acharnians of Aristophanes (London: Macmillan, 1909), p. 137; Olson, Aristophanes, p. 239; O. Imperio, Parabasi di Aristofane (Bari: Adriatica Editrice, 2004), pp. 131-132.
The bibliography pertaining to this feud, stemming from the performance of the Babylonians, is vast; for a good synthesis, see G. Mastromarco, Introduzione a Aristofane (Bari: Editori Laterza, 1996), pp. 45-48; also Olson, Aristophanes, pp. xxviii-xxx, xlvi; Lauriola, Aristofane, pp. 22-24, with further bibliography at p. 24, nn. 33-36.
On this passage see B. B. Rogers, The Knights of Aristophanes (London: G. Bell, 1910), pp. 156-157; G. Mastromarco, Commedie di Aristofane, Vol. 1 (Torino: Classici
Cf. with Th. 2.63.2. See, also, Isoc., 7.29; Arist., Pol. 1274a1. On Athens tyrannos and the relationship between democracy and imperialism, see D. Lanza, Il tiranno e il suo pubblico (Torino: Einaudi, 1977), pp. 236-239.
See above, n. 57. It should be noted that not all scholars believe that Cleon’s indictment against Aristophanes is historically true: see, e.g, M. Heath, Political Comedy in Aristophanes (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1987), pp. 17-18; R. M. Rosen, Old Comedy and the Iambographic Tradition (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), p. 3; contra, see the persuasive arguments supporting the historical truth of the event in G. Mastromarco, ‘Il commediografo e il demagogo’, in A. H. Sommerstein, S. Halliwell, J. Henderson, B. Zimmermann (eds.), Tragedy, Comedy, and the Polis (Bari: Levante, 1993), p. 344 with n. 6.
On these lines, see below, esp. pp. 360-361. More in general, about democracy and Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, see Sonnino in this volume (below, pp. 380-384).
See R. G. Ussher, Aristophanes. Ecclesiazusae (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973, p. 207); M. Vetta, Le donne all’assemblea (Milano: Arnaldo Mondadori Editore, 1989), p. 245.
See Vetta, Le donne, pp. 244-245; E. Fabbro, Carmina Convivalia Attica (Roma: Ist. Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali, 1995), pp. 142-144 and 148-150; A. Capra, Donne al Parlamento (Roma: Carocci Editore, 2010), p. 257. It should be remembered that ἰσονοµίη is, indeed, the term that Herodotus (3.80.6) used in his logos tripolitikos to name the democratic constitution: see above, n. 33; also below, esp. p. 364 with n. 91.
See, e.g, Ra. 840-847; 1063-1064. For a synthetic, yet comprehensive, overview of this typical topic of Aristophanes’ criticism against Euripides’ poetics, see Lauriola, Aristofane, pp. 117-126, 181-187.
See W. B. Stanford, Aristophanes. The Frogs (London-Melbourne-Toronto: Macmillan, 1968), p. 156; K. J. Dover, Aristophanes. Frogs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 183.
The other being Euripides’ subtlety of language, one which resembles the Sophists’ rhetoric: see, e.g., Ach. 396, 400-401 (on which Lauriola, Aristofane, pp. 181-184); Ra. 826-829, 954- 958, 1082. See Lauriola, Aristofane, pp. 126-132 for an overview pertaining to this characteristic of Euripides’ tragedy and Aristophanes’ related criticism.
Regarding this implied meaning of Dionysus’ reply, see Stanford, Aristophanes, p. 156; G. Paduano-A. Grilli, Aristofane. Le Rane (Milano:
See G. Guidorizzi, Aristofane. Le Nuvole (Milano: Arnaldo Mondadori Editore, 1996), p. 218; Vetta, Le donne, p. 186.
The most recent one of such settlements was that set up on Lesbos, in 427, after the suppression of Mytilene’s revolt (cf. Th., 3.50.2): see A. H. Sommerstein, The Comedies of Aristophanes. Vol. 3. Clouds (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1982), p. 171; F. Turato, Aristofane. Le Nuvole (Venezia: Marsilio, 1995), p. 197 n. 38.
It is, indeed, not by chance that some scholars recall either line when commenting on Nu. 205: see, e.g., W. J. M. Starkie, The Clouds of Aristophanes (London: Macmillan, 1911), p. 55; Guidorizzi, Aristofane, p. 218; Vetta, Le donne, p. 186.
The man is an unknown personage whose description as one whose cloak was so tired that he seemed not to wear any (cf. ll. 408-410) in itself is meant to imply a witty criticism of the extreme outcomes of the democratic parrhesia/isegoria, in that everyone is allowed to speak – even those who might not have the ability for such a thing. On these lines’ implied criticism, see Vetta, Le donne, P. 186.
The phrase indicates an amount which would correspond to the daily wage: see G. Paduano, Le donne al Parlamento (Milano:
With reference to some coercive outcomes of democracy, as it has been surfacing so far, it might be interesting to note how, according to Blepyrus’ report, the disguised Praxagora proposes her plan, which – as is known – consists of handing over the control of affairs to the women: by way of imposition, shouting louder than the opponents of her proposal, who constituted the minority (l. 434). Prevailing by shout (κατεῖχει τῇ βοῇ) implies disregarding the others’ words – something Dicaeopolis, too, experienced in the assembly (see above, p. 350); it is something that per se calls into question, once again, the foundations of democracy: parrhesia/isegoria and isonomia.
Aristophanes has often exploited one of the ‘least heroic’ traits of Heracles, i.e., his gluttony, which has its first attestation in Hes., fr. 263-265 M-W. Regarding this, see, e.g., G. K. Galinsky, The Herakles Theme. The Adaptations of the Hero in Literature from Homer to the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Blackwell, 1972), pp. 16-17; with reference to Aristophanes, see R. Lauriola, ‘Herakles Alexikakos and Herakles Opsophagos: Multiple Symbolism of an Aristophanic Image’, in G. Rata (ed.), Linguistic Studies of Human Language (Athens: ATINER, 2013), pp. 117-128.
An exception is, for instance, Dunbar (Aristophanes, pp. 719-720), who provides a completely ‘apolitical’ reading of the whole comedy: see, also, N. Dunbar, ‘Sophia in Aristophanes’ Birds’, Scripta Classica Israelica, 15 (1996), pp. 61-71.
This is testified to in particular by different references to the Athenians’ fear of a restoration of tyranny: see, e.g., Av. 1074-1075, 1143-1144, cf. with Ve. 417, 464-470, 488-507; Lys. 617-635. Regarding this, see, also, Mastormarco-Totaro, Commedie, p. 468 n. 58; E. Magnelli, ‘Sovversioni Aristofanee. Rileggendo il finale degli Uccelli’, in A. Camerotto (ed.), Diafonie. Esercizi sul Comico (Padova: S.A.R.G.O.N. Editrice e Libreria, 2007), p. 118 with n.39.
See, also, A. H. Sommerstein, The Comedies of Aristophanes. Vol. 6. Birds (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1987), p. 303.
As Magnelli (‘Sovversioni,’ pp. 117-118) pointed out the word τύραννος, which could be used lato sensu in 5th century-Athens, indeed keeps its real meaning in the context of Av. 1708 and, more generally, in the finale of the comedy.
See above, nn. 33, 65. On Herodotus’ passage, see Erhenberg, ‘Origins’, pp. 525-527; Lanza, Il tiranno, pp. 225-232; Vegetti, Chi comanda, pp. 21-26. On Herodotus’ conception of democracy, in general, see, also, J. A., Schlosser, ‘Herodotean Democracies,’
See above, e.g., p. 338 with n. 5, p. 347 with n. 37. For an overview of the related texts and discussion by Plato and Aristotle, see Vegetti, Chi comanda, esp., pp. 23-24, 34-38, 60-70.
As Dover (Clouds, p. 263) pointed out, ‘It was axiomatic with public speakers in the fifth and fourth centuries […] that Solon’s legislation was democratic.’ Regarding this, see, also, Sommerstein, Aristophanes. Lysistrata, p. 221 n. 132.
Indeed, Sommerstein (Aristophanes. Lysistrata, p. 118) translates: ‘… Solon was a good democratic …’ (p. 118); similarly, Turato, Aristofane, p. 163: ‘Solone, l’antico, ce l’aveva nel sangue la democrazia’, and in his comment on the adjective φιλόδηµος (p. 216 n. 172) he refers to Nu. 205 (δηµοτικός) and Ra. 952 (δηµοκρατικός). It should be noted that the word φιλόδηµος was very likely coined by Aristophanes. According to