Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.10.02

Peter Wilson, The Athenian Institution of the Khoregia: The Chorus, The City and the Stage .   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2000.  Pp. 435.  ISBN 0-521-55070-X.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Josiah Ober, Princeton University
Word count: 2868 words

This is a big, ambitious, carefully researched, and boldly argued work of social and cultural history; it should be read by anyone who cares about Athenian social life, democratic institutions, and civic ideology -- as well as by all those interested in drama and "choral culture" generally. My only initial complaint is that the title does not give the reader an adequate sense of the book's riches; it would be a great pity if this book's readership were limited to scholars with a specialized interest in the mechanics of theatrical production.

Wilson's admirable goal is to break free of the formalism of Aristotle's Poetics, to understand the chorus in its widest social context. He portrays the choral performance not just as an event in a festival, but as the site and product of a complex set of practices (political, financial, religious, and educational; as well as dramatic, choreographic, and musical), with a central role to play in the life of the Athenian polis. Wilson is especially concerned with how choruses are financed and with the relationship between khoros and khoregos, i.e. with the khoregia as a liturgy (here the influence of Paul Veyne is clear). He argues that dramatic liturgies were typically undertaken voluntarily, by extraordinarily wealthy Athenians who operated within a "fanatically competitive" festival environment (286), and who sought to use choral sponsorship as a means to gain (or assert) their own cultural power. This power (derived from reciprocity: the demos is indebted for the "gift" of a chorus) acts as a counterbalance to the political power of the Athenian demos. Choral culture is thus revealed as a locus of continued aristocratic prestige and even moral authority, capable of transgressively (108) contesting the values of the dominant democratic regime. I would tend to place the emphasis differently at times, for example by focusing more upon how the institutional encouragement of fierce competition among wealthy men hinders the formation of a unified elite capable of seriously contesting the demos' ultimate political authority. But Wilson's book undeniably represents a major advance in our understanding of the dynamics (material and symbolic) of mass-elite relations in democratic Athens.

The handsomely-produced book is divided into three main parts: I. The Institution, II. The khoregia in action: Social performance and symbolic practice, and III. Beyond Classical Athens. It concludes with several appendices on technical matters, a large bibliography, and useful indexes. Notes are at the end. The book is well illustrated with crisp black-and-white illustrations. It is expensive, but the buyer gets a lot for her $85.00.

Part I may be read as the relevant sections of Pickard-Cambridge's several volumes redone in light of new work on theater and on Athenian social history. Wilson's should become the standard account of how theatrical and choral performances generally were funded, how specialists and amateur performers (poets, auletai, trainers, khoreutai etc.) were chosen and brought together, and how choruses were trained. Although the City Dionysia takes pride of place throughout, Wilson considers a wide range of Attic festivals in which choral performance was featured.

Part II will be the most interesting for social historians. Here Wilson explores the institution of the khoregia in the round, and with special reference to the tension between aristocratic and democratic values and practices, tension that he feels was played out in every aspect of choral culture. Elaborating upon J.-P. Vernant's celebrated thesis of the "tragic individual" as manifesting mythic/epic characteristics, yet caught within the structures of the polis, Wilson suggests that the khoregos' role as benefactor participates in a pre-democratic and inegalitarian style of conduct. The khoregia performs this aristocratic role within the democratic city, resulting in tension between the social goals of the khoregos and the collective good sought by the democratic community. Wilson seeks to complicate the "democratic interpretation" of the liturgical system, arguing that it should not be read merely as contributing to social stability (e.g. 113, 120). I am not sure that there is actually a contradiction between cultural tension and a relatively stable socio-political system; one might think of the analogy of a suspension bridge, which would immediately collapse if its mechanical tensions were ever "resolved." I return to this theme below. Part II concludes with a very useful and detailed discussion of vase-paintings, monuments, and inscriptions relevant to the khoregia. The reader is struck anew by how rich the material record is for the phyle-based dithyrambic choral competitions, relative to that for dramatic genres not similarly linked to the demographic structure of the Cleisthenic democracy. Wilson works hard to find non-literary evidence for drama, but it is remarkably slight (with the partial exception of some inscriptions from Attic demes and the well known south-Italian vases).

Part III looks at the Hellenistic and Roman-era khoregia in Attica as well as at evidence for the funding of choral competitions outside Attica. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the end of Athenian democracy coincided with significant changes in the practices governing the funding of choruses. The extra-Attic evidence suggests that the Athenian khoregic system was indeed influential outside Athens, but Wilson is surely right to warn against the Athenocentric tendency (typical of some earlier scholarship) of assuming that Athens must be the origin of all khoregic (and similar) institutions in the Greek world.

On the whole, I found this book to be first-rate. It is long, detailed, and sometimes polemical. It is erudite, demonstrating a fine command of a remarkably wide range of classical learning: from drama, to rhetoric, to historiography; from iconography, to epigraphy, to architecture. It is theoretically sophisticated, and the theory is deeply integrated in the narrative rather than tacked on as an ornament. In brief, it will amply repay the time that a close reading demands: it is a book one steps away from feeling both smarter and better informed -- and that is rare. There are, howevever, some points at which Wilson's picture of Athenian socio-political life remains open to challenge.

Wilson is understandably attached to choral culture, and especially to tragedy. But this attachment may occasionally result in misplaced emphasis. Wilson suggests (49, 93, 111-113) that festival (and especially tragic) liturgies were more aristocratic, more culturally prestigious, than military liturgies. Perhaps. But among liturgies, the trierarchy was without question socially and politically the most important: most costly, and of greatest moment in Athenian society. This is clear enough from the laws governing appointment of trierarchs, the automatic exemption trierarchs were given from performing dramatic liturgies, and it is frankly asserted in comments by Athenian litigants (e.g. Demosthenes 20.26, Lycurgus 1.139-40 with Wilson p. 269). Wilson is right to claim that drama mattered a lot (noting the splendor with which the Greater Dionysia was celebrated, even when the city was in desperate straits); but the navy mattered more: pace Plutarch (Moralia 348-49 with Wilson 95), the total public and private expenditure of classical Athens on military preparedness dwarfed its expenditure on choral culture. And, at least at the City Dionysia, dithyramb, with its powerful association with the democratic tribal system, trumped drama: 1000 citizens participated in dithyrambic choruses (of boys and men) and if we believe Demosthenes (21.156 with Wilson 93-95) each these 20 phyletic choruses cost its khoregos more than sponsorship of a sequence of tragedies. The phyle victorious in a dithyrambic contest was awarded a tripod -- dramatic victors received no durable prize. The evidence for dithyrambic victory monuments (erected by, but not to, the khoregos) is overwhelmingly greater than that for monuments celebrating dramatic victories: the democratic city encouraged display by (or on behalf of) its constituent parts, while discouraging similar display by individuals. The careful reader can figure this all out for herself, given the evidence that Wilson presents in text, notes, and appendices. But the more casual reader might be led to think that because trierarchies were sometimes taken on by syndicates (rather than individuals), and because tragedy is a "serious, senior" genre, that serving as khoregos for tragedy was the premier form of liturgical service.

Wilson is very concerned with effects of social hierarchy. He is certainly right to point out that it is significant that in classical Athens (unlike some other poleis), choral culture was overwhelmingly male: the evidence for female choruses at Athens is exiguous at best. Athenian choral culture also put priority on citizens: only citizens could serve in choruses or as khoregoi for the City Dionysia. Wilson wants to show that metics were systematically disrespected by their placement in Athenian festival culture. He cites, for example, the fact that selected metics wore "distinctive crimson tunics" (25; i.e. purple khitons: 27) in the Dionysian procession, and claims that this "special dress" (inter alia) served to place them "in a markedly inferior status-position" (26). Maybe, but Wilson notes elsewhere (86) that when in the Oresteia the Erinyes don scarlet tunics, this marks a "symbolic change of attitude and status;" surely not in this case a "markedly inferior" status, but rather one associated with "the regal and costly colour and material of purple" (94). If we accept Wilson's principle that "'you are what you carry/wear in the pompe" (98), what prevents us from guessing that the selected metics were presented as wealthy, honored guests in Attica, who have (like the transformed Erinyes) a distinctive and vital role to play in the community? Albeit the metic's role was not identical to that of the citizen, surely it is too simple to read the social symbolism of festival processions as a straight-forward rank-ordering of superior and inferior statuses. Metics did serve on choruses and as khoregoi at the Lenaia. Wilson argues, however, that this entire festival was of inferior status. Yet Aristophanes (Acharnians 504-8 with Wilson 28) famously noted that he could be more frank at the Lenaia, where it was "just us" Athenians and "there are no xenoi." So metics are in some sense "us." And one might contend that at the Lenaia there was less need to distinguish citizens from metics, that when Athenians were "among themselves" citizens could accept metics as cultural equals. Perhaps it was when xenoi were present, and the empire was being featured, that the distinctions in status between "true Athenians" and all others had to be emphasized. Is the "international" City Dionysia a more meaningful representation of Athenian society than the "local" Lenaia? I don't know, but I do think the question is worth asking; and reducing social history to rank-ordered status hierarchies makes posing this sort of question that much harder, by suggesting that the answer must be obvious.

Likewise, Wilson notes that only a "blue-blooded" girl from a "great house" was eligible for the position of kanephoros in the Dionysian and Panathenaic pompai; the honor was "fought for and available only among a small number of aristocratic Athenian families" (26). Wilson's endnote (n. 66), however, reveals the meagerness of the evidence for aristocratic exclusivity: a scholion to Aristophanes mentions that kanephoroi were eugeneis parthenoi. Let us assume for the sake of the argument that the scholiast knew whereof he wrote; it is still not the case that eugeneia was a juridical status in classical Athens: depending on who was speaking and in what circumstances, any Athenian citizen could be considered "well born." Confusion about the difference between eugeneia as a performed and as a juridical status recurs in the discussion of the Panathenaic arrhephoroi, who wove Athena's peplos. Wilson assumes these girls "came from the most distinguished families of Attike." (42) He notes that four candidates for arrhephoroi were elected by the demos; from these two were chosen by the Archon. "Yet since the sources emphasize the aristocratic status of the girls' families, chosen 'for their high birth,' this election ... grants the demos an extremely circumscribed say as to who is to hold office." (42-43) The circumscription that Wilson suggests was "granted" by the election (i.e. by Athenian law?) would, of course, only be a genuinely relevant restriction of the demos' capacity to choose if 'high birth' were juridically defined. Because it was not, the demos could honor anyone it chose. Given the current state of our evidence, it is therefore wrong to assert that "the exclusivity of access to the service" helps to demonstrate "the degree to which the Athenian democracy was not averse to maintaining the rich and well born in the position of the symbolic representatives of the community." (43)

A related question arises over the social status of khoreutai: Were choral dancers selected from the ranks of the elite, and thus similar in status to the khoregos or did ordinary citizens dance as well? At one point, Wilson suggests that "khoreutai were in general drawn from a not dissimilar social and economic background as khoregoi" (75); the thought is that choral training formed part of traditional aristocratic education, and particularly suited the needs of "better off families:" the chorus becomes a way of educating elite youth, and so the choral performance can be read as a "transgressive" display of aristocratic privilege within the democratic city. But then we hear of difficulties in recruitment: the khoregos launched his recruitment drive backed up by state-granted quasi-magisterial powers to "impose certain fines or levy distraint by force." (83). And what of the comments by the Old Oligarch (1.13) and Demosthenes (18.265), both of whom draw a sharp distinction between elite khoregoi and demotic khoreutai? Wilson analyzes these latter passages in the context of "khoregic patronage," (126-29) where he points out that khoreutai were paid for their service. Here he dwells on the potentially non-democratic implications of the fact that "a substantial percentage of the citizen body was thus effectively under the pay of private individuals in this way for several months each year" (128, emphasis in the original), concluding "khoreutai were in general likely to be of lower economic standing than their khoregos." (128) Either one of these arguments (i.e. "not dissimilar" or "lower") is potentially interesting (although neither is demographically demonstrable), but I don't think that Wilson can have it both ways: either choruses were "in general" manned by aristocrats (and thus formed part of an exclusivist aristocratic culture) or by ordinary men who appreciated the pay (and thus potentially implicated in a system of private patronage).

Finally, the issue of "fanatical" competition and its association with aristocratic culture. Wilson (19, 145ff., 189-90) follows Nicole Loraux in reading the tendency to stasis as a recurrent motif of Greek, and especially Athenian culture, and in associating rivalries among citizens and among sectors of the populace (e.g. phylai) with the searing violence of civil conflict. While competition is clearly integral to Greek (and, imprimis, Athenian) culture, I worry that over-emphasis on competition may elide the pervasiveness of cooperative practices among the residents of the polis and the sense of the festival as a "fusion of collective and individual contributions." (51) Unquestionably, khoregoi and phylai competed, and gloried in victories. But was the victory actually won in a "zero-sum game"? If we stand back a bit, and seek to imagine the overall impression upon viewers of the dithyrambic choruses at the City Dionysia, would the competitive element have overwhelmed the sense ordinary Athenian viewers gained of the "whole polis" -- represented by 100 men from each of the ten phyles -- all singing, all dancing in honor of the god (no doubt) but also of the city, their common possession? Aristotle supposed that a good polis should be eusynoptos: its populace, like its territory, should be capable of being taken in at a glance. That was notoriously not the case at Athens. But at the festival, the polis did become in a sense visible and its members intervisible. And in this sense, surely, competition was only one part of the experience. We might think analogously about the regiments of the Athenian army, also organized by phylai. No doubt there were rivalries among them, and among the strategoi who commanded them. But when the regiments marched and fought, they sought a common end. Competition indeed always threatened to become harmful (cf. Wilson's good discussion of "positive" and "negative" philotimia: 187-94). Emphasizing the danger posed by a competitive spirit that has become unmoored from any sense of the common good provides the substance of Demosthenes' harsh portrait of Meidias (speech 21 with Wilson 156-67, 174-78). But Demosthenes' speech has an optimistic side: the demos had been unanimous in expressing its displeasure at Meidias after the festival; a guilty verdict, an assertion of the collective will of the polis, will, he claims, restore the city to a proper balance. Moreover, the competition/cooperation dynamic need not be played out merely in terms of "cooperative" democrats seeking to restrain the ambitions of "agonistic" aristocrats; after all, isotes and homoiotes were aristocratic values too, celebrated (along with agonistic values) in the symposium: it is just a question of who one supposed was worthy of equal consideration as a rival or as a companion in seeking a common goal.

As my enthusiastic comments in the first part of this review should make clear, none of the concerns raised above detracts from this book's value, as a distinguished work of scholarship on a wide range of Athenian institutions and as a provocative thesis about the social and ideological tensions produced by wealth and elite ambition within a democratic polity.

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