Why should this fascinate an old Washington muckraker like you?
Because it’s a black eye for all I believe in, for democracy and free speech. Anyone who starts out to study the problem of free speech in depth – as I did after ill health forced me to give up my Weekly – is irresistibly drawn back to ancient Athens, where it all began.
The mob was fifteen thousand strong, and soon, the New York State Militia arrived. This onslaught only galvanized the crowd more—but they turned away from attempting to force entry
A Ballad Sent to King Richard
Sometime this world was so steadfast and stable,
That man’s word was held obligation;
And now it is so false and deceivable,
That word and work, as in conclusion,
Be nothing one; for turned up so down
Is all this world, through meed and willfulness,
That all is lost for lack of steadfastness.
What makes this world to be so variable,
But lust that folk have in dissension?
For now-a-days a man is held unable
But if he can, by some collusion,
Do his neighbour wrong or oppression.
What causeth this but wilful wretchedness,
That all is lost for lack of steadfastness?
Truth is put down, reason is holden fable;
Virtue hath now no domination;
Pity exil’d, no wight is merciable;
Through covetise is blent discretion;
The worlde hath made permutation
From right to wrong, from truth to fickleness,
That all is lost for lack of steadfastness.
O Prince! desire to be honourable;
Cherish thy folk, and hate extortion;
Suffer nothing that may be reprovable
To thine estate, done in thy region;
Show forth the sword of castigation;
Dread God, do law, love thorough worthiness,
And wed thy folk again to steadfastness.
Critical response to the play has traditionally been mixed. In 1629, Ben Jonson lamented the audiences’ enthusiastic responses to the play:
No doubt some mouldy tale,
Like Pericles; and stale
As the Shrieve’s crusts, and nasty as his fish—
Scraps out of every dish
Throwne forth, and rak’t into the common tub (Ben Jonson, Ode (to Himself))
“‘Here lies a wretched corpse, of wretched soul bereft.
Seek not my name. A plague consume you wicked caitiffs left!
Here lie I, Timon, who alive all living men did hate:
Pass by and curse they fill, but pass and stay not here thy gait.”
Alcibiades (Act 5, Scene 4)
Negotiations with the Athenian oligarchs
Alcibiades seemed to assume that the “radical democracy” would never agree to his recall to Athens. Therefore, he exchanged messages with the Athenian leaders at Samos and suggested that if they could install an oligarchy friendly to him he would return to Athens and bring with him Persian money and possibly the Persian fleet of 147 triremes. Alcibiades set about winning over the most influential military officers, and achieved his goal by offering them a threefold plan: the Athenian constitution was to be changed, the recall of Alcibiades was to be voted, and Alcibiades was to win over Tissaphernes and the King of Persia to the Athenian side. Most of the officers in the Athenian fleet accepted the plan and welcomed the prospect of a narrower constitution, which would allow them a greater share in determining policy. According to Thucydides, only one of the Athenian Generals at Samos, Phrynichus, opposed the plan and argued that Alcibiades cared no more for the proposed oligarchy than for the traditional democracy. The involvement in the plot of another General, Thrasybulus, remains unclear.[e]
These officers of the Athenian fleet formed a group of conspirators, but were met with opposition from the majority of the soldiers and sailors; these were eventually calmed down “by the advantageous prospect of the pay from the king”. The members of the group assembled and prepared to send Pisander, one of their number, on an embassy to Athens to treat for the restoration of Alcibiades and the abolition of democracy in the city, and thus to make Tissaphernes the friend of the Athenians.
Phrynichus, fearing that Alcibiades if restored would avenge himself upon him for his opposition, sent a secret letter to the Spartan Admiral, Astyochus, to tell him that Alcibiades was ruining their cause by making Tissaphernes the friend of the Athenians, and containing an express revelation of the rest of the intrigue. Astyochus went up to Alcibiades and Tissaphernes at Magnesia and communicated to them Phrynichus’s letter. Alcibiades responded in kind, sending to the authorities at Samos a letter against Phrynichus, stating what he had done, and requiring that he should be put to death. Phrynichus in desperation wrote again to Astyochus, offering him a chance to destroy the Athenian fleet at Samos. This also Astyochus revealed to Alcibiades who informed the officers at Samos that they had been betrayed by Phrynichus. Alcibiades however gained no credit, because Phrynichus had anticipated Alcibiades’s letter and, before the accusations could arrive, told the army that he had received information of an enemy plan to attack the camp and that they should fortify Samos as quickly as possible.
Despite these events, Pisander and the other envoys of the conspirators arrived at Athens and made a speech before the people. Pisander won the argument, putting Alcibiades and his promises at the center. The Ecclesia deposed Phrynichus and elected Pisander and ten other envoys to negotiate with Tissaphernes and Alcibiades.
At this point, Alcibiades’s scheme encountered a great obstacle. Tissaphernes would not make an agreement on any terms, wanting to follow his policy of neutrality. As Kagan points out, Tissaphernes was a prudent leader and had recognized the advantages of wearing each side out without direct Persian involvement. Alcibiades realized this and, by presenting the Athenians with stiffer and stiffer demands on Tissaphernes’s behalf, attempted to convince them that he had persuaded Tissaphernes to support them, but that they had not conceded enough to him. Although the envoys were angered at the audacity of the Persian demands, they nevertheless departed with the impression that Alcibiades could have brought about an agreement among the powers if he had chosen to do so. This fiasco at the court of Tissaphernes, however, put an end to the negotiations between the conspirators and Alcibiades. The group was convinced that Alcibiades could not deliver his side of the bargain without demanding exorbitantly high concessions of them and they accordingly abandoned their plans to restore him to Athens.
The oligarchs plotted two coups: one at Athens, and one at Samos, where the Athenian navy was based.
The coup at Athens went forward as planned, and “[o]n the fourteenth day of the Attic month of Thargelion, June 9, 411, … the [conspirators] seized the reality of power.” The city came under the control of the oligarchic government of the Four Hundred. According to W. G. Forest:
[N]o one knows how many men took a positive part in promoting it (my guess would be nearer fifty than four hundred), mainly because I do not wish to limit responsibility to those who had official recognition under the new regime.
Unlike in Athens, the plotters in Samos were thwarted by Samian democratic and pro-democratic leaders in the Athenian fleet. The men of the fleet, upon learning of the coup at home, deposed their generals and elected new ones in their place. They announced that the city had revolted from them, not they from the city. The new leaders of the fleet arranged the recall of Alcibiades to Samos, and declared their intention to carry on the war against Sparta.
Charles Darwin represented a widespread preference for a biological interpretation of such statements when he commented on the above lines thus:
The Grecian poet, Theognis … saw how important selection, if carefully applied, would be for the improvement of mankind. He saw likewise that wealth often checks the proper action of sexual selection.
Poems by Theognis of Megara Greek poet
Rash, angry words, and spoken out of season,
When passion has usurp’d the throne of reason,
Have ruin’d many. Passion is unjust,
And for an idle, transitory gust
Of gratified revenge, dooms us to pay
With long repentence at a later day.
An Avenger for the State
by: Theognis of Megara (6th century B.C.)
translated by J. Banks
Our state is pregnant; shortly to produce
A rude avenger of prolong’d abuse.
The commons hitherto seem sober-minded,
But their superiors are corrupt and blinded.
The rule of noble spirits, brave and high,
Never endanger’d peace and harmony.
The supercilious, arrogant pretence
Of feeble minds; weakness and insolence;
Justice and truth and law wrested aside
By crafty shifts of avarice and pride;
These are our ruins, Kurnus!–never dream
(Tranquil and undisturb’d as it may seem)
Of future peace or safety to the state;
Bloodshed and strife will follow soon or late.
Never imagine that a ruin’d land
Will trust her destiny to your command,
To be remodell’d by a single hand.
The Swiss Hot bed of Anarchist Democracy and Cynical Bankers.
The irony of reading Plutarch
1 thought on “Greek, Roman and Shakespearean Tragedy, First as Tragedy now as Farce.”