Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.09.16

Alessandro Iannucci, La Parola e l'Azione: I Frammenti Simposiali di Crizia.   Bologna:  Edizioni Nautilus, 2002.  Pp. xvi, 226.  ISBN 88-86909-45-4.  €22.00.  

Reviewed by Peter Wilson, University of Sydney (
Word count: 2409 words

The time to stop forgetting Critias has, apparently, arrived. It is as though the Athenian decision to forget -- or rather, 'not to remember evils' (μὴ μνησικακεῖν Xen. Hell. 2.4.43) -- had recently been revoked, for after long neglect this is the third monograph since 1997 devoted entirely to Critias. (Neither of the first two appears to have been reviewed in this journal.) In 1997, Monica Centanni's Atene Assoluta: Crizia dalla Tragedia alla Storia appeared, a work that restored Critias to his place of central significance in the 'tragic history' of later fifth-century Athens, with valuable treatments of the 'traces' of Critias in contemporary sources, an overview of his wide-ranging literary output, with special emphasis on the dramatic material and the possible response to it in contemporary comedy. Two years later, Umberto Bultrighini's substantial book appeared: 'Maledetta democrazia': studi su Crizia, a work that orients itself around the historiographical and political significance of the fact that Critias presents us with a model, from the very heart of Periclean Athens, of a systematic and coherent negation of democracy, a comprehensive ideological response worked out at all levels -- social, political and cultural. Bultrighini also stresses the centrality of philolakonianism, political and cultural, to Critias' thought and practice -- a subject also well explored by Iannucci (hereafter I.) -- and offers a full reassessment of some of the central issues of Critian studies, the question of the nature of his relationship with Alcibiades and his 'atheism' among them.

Bultrighini also gives us the first real attempt to come to grips with the perplexing and marginalised status of Critias in the historiographical tradition -- how to recognise the workings and deal with the effects of the extraordinary damnatio memoriae that overwhelmed him from (or perhaps before) the moment he died. This took its origins not only in the 'official' decision 'not to remember evils', but from a group of powerful and compromised members of the Athenian élite. The scope and persistence of this damnatio are extraordinary: for Aristotle, Critias was the exemplar of the famous man whose good actions had to be actively recalled in public rhetoric if you wanted to praise him, 'since not many people know about them' (Rhetoric 1416b26). Distaste for his politics also probably lies behind his modern neglect, but that suggests a remarkable distortion of historiographical principle, all the more remarkable when it affects works explicitly taking as their subject opponents of or alternatives to Athenian democracy. Two recent and rightly influential books on these subjects scarcely register the existence of Critias, who is surely a or the prime example of an actively engaged 'critic' of Athenian democracy, and whose fragmentary works reveal a coherent ideological position and the will to translate it into practice.1

Critias has also been edited out of Athenian literary and cultural history, where he ought to occupy a significant position. His work shows a generic diversity astounding for the time, ranging over tragedy, sympotic elegy, hexameter, comparative constitutions in verse and prose (long before the Peripatetics got going), public speeches, philosophical works (including one 'On the nature of eros or on the virtues' that should be recognised as an antecedent to Plato's Symposium), 'lectures' (Ὁμιλίαι) and more. I.'s work deals exclusively with the sympotic fragments, and it is especially welcome for placing these in a much wider context, or set of contexts, than is usual. I. makes a broad and entirely convincing argument about Critias' systematic shaping and use of an ideal of the symposium, based on Spartan ethics and politics, as an active forum for cultural and political resistance and reform in Athens. The poetry is thus not read for its purely literary interest, as the early precursor to an 'Alexandrian' aesthetic (or a degeneration from Classicism) but as active ideological interventions in their specific historical moment. Political elegy was alive and well in late-fifth-century Athens, in certain quarters at least. As I. notes in his preface (p. xi), one legacy of the ideological condemnation of Critias has been to regard his elegy as 'decadent' and emptily 'playful' by comparison with its vital, engaged Archaic predecessor -- a position I. renders no longer tenable.

The book is organised into five chapters -- the first an introduction to Critias, followed by four different approaches to the world of his sympotic politics, arranged as detailed readings of the major fragments. The introduction begins with the Critias of Plato's Timaeus and the vexed issue of his identity. I. pulls away from the attempt to answer what is hardly a matter open to objective resolution and concentrates instead on the way in which that Critias' Atlantic logos establishes a powerful contrast between Athens and Atlantis as antithetical model politeiai, projecting onto the distant past the stasis which tore apart the late-fifth-century city: on the one hand, the ideal of a well-ordered political and economic system based on the land; on the other, a corrupt city devoted to naval power. What is important in the genealogy of this story, as I. notes, is its origins in the mouth of Solon: the Critias of the Timaeus heard it from his grandfather, Critias, who in his turn had it recounted directly by Solon. What this lacks in chronological clarity it gains by attaching the authority of Solon to the account transmitted by the family of Critias and so hints at the way that Solon was perhaps reinvented in oligarchic circles in the later fifth century for the propaganda of the patrios politeia, before his career change in the fourth century which saw him become a founding father of democracy. I. sees in Plato's 'use' of Critias, here and elsewhere in the dialogues no sense of embarrassment or compromise but rather a figure whose ethical and political thinking was entirely in sympathy with his own, as also with the Socratic project of renewing the ethical and institutional bases of civic life. Had Critias been inimical to Socrates he is unlikely to have appeared in this role in the dialogues, and we are probably to point the finger at Xenophon in exile as the creator of the cliché of Critias the evil genius among the Thirty (Mem. 1.2.12), as part of his programme to lay the responsibility for Socrates' prosecution at the door of his two 'degenerate' students, Critias and Alcibiades.

Chapter 2 -- 'Elegia e lotta politica' -- is a reworked version of I.'s 1998 article in AION (fil.-lett.) of the same title. It proceeds by a close reading of the two 'Alcibiades' fragments sensitive to the generic expectations of elegy and leads I. to see the relationship between these two men -- one of the core topics of traditional historical analysis -- as much more complex than the usual image of rivalrous aristocratic friendship. And he detects a lot more at work beneath the surface of the extraordinary fr. 4 D.-K. than encomiastic homage with a playful literary touch at the end about the difficulty of accommodating Alcibiades' name in an elegy: νῦν δ' ἐν ἰαμβείωι κείσεται οὐκ ἀμέτρως. I. makes a compelling case for reading the piece as a parodic sympotic epinikion, probably in response to the Olympic chariot-victory of 416, and specifically to Euripides' epinikion for it -- but one with a deadly iambic sting in the tail. Alcibiades' 'reclining position' in this symposium (κείσεται) will be that of a dead man. The other Alcibiades fragment (5 D.-K.) inevitably generates detailed discussion of chronology and shifting interpersonal relations, with its claim that 'It was I who spoke for the proposal ... which led you back from exile.' I. argues that Critias' sponsorship of the return of Alcibiades from exile in summer of 411 (as he would argue) reflects an attempt to rehabilitate his own reputation in the eyes of the demos, by supporting their favourite, after his participation in the rule of the 400. The proposal of Critias to put the corpse of Phrynichus on trial for treason fits in the same context. I. makes the attractive suggestion that the best occasion for such a 'reminder' of the favour done Alcibiades is Critias' own exile, in 408. The need to assert the authenticity of his authorship of the original gnome through the striking sphragis of line 3 takes on special significance in light of the probable appropriation of that action by the kothornos Theramenes. The last line reminds anyone who cares to listen that, if they go to check in the Metroon, they will find his name on the decree. The active forgetting of Critias began very early indeed.

Such sensitivity to the ideological context of Critias' elegiac work throws much new light on some rather slender remains. The ascription of the maxim μηδὲν ἄγαν to the Lacedaemonian wise man Chilon (fr. 7 D.-K.) becomes a parti pris against the dominant cultic and moral basis of the mid-fifth-century democratic city, with its stress on the 'eastern axis' of Apollonian cult, to Delos and Ionia, rather than Delphi. The 'inventions elegy' (fr. 2 D.-K.), usually seen as an account, of Sophistic inspiration and proto-Alexandrian style, of the contributions of various peoples to human civilisation -- Sicilian kottabos and carriages, Thessalian armchairs, Attic pottery and so on -- becomes a pungent, ironic critique of the mercantilist social and economic practice and ideology of the thalasso-democracy, the most radical expression of which is the 'Periclean' claim that 'the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbour, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar as those of his own' (Thucydides 2.38.2)

Chapter 3 is centred on the longest elegiac fragment (6 D.-K.), on the drinking habits of the Spartans, Lydians and others. And again, I.'s restoration of the piece to its political and historical context is very compelling. The institutions of the 'official' enemy, Sparta, serve as an almost obsessive point of reference for Critias and his hetaireia. Spartan moderation in drinking stands as a metaphor (p. 84 -- would metonym be a better word?) for political moderation, by polar contrast with the 'excessive' sympotic practices of Lydian origin, widely diffused in Athens. This translation of Spartan drinking habits to Athens is seen as a core element in the wider transference of Spartan political and cultural institutions.

Much of chapter 4 is devoted to a lexical study of the terms εὐφροσύνη and φιλοφροσύνη, with the proposal that they are used to mark ethical and ideological distinctions in the fifth-century sympotic context. Here (and only here) the discussion might have been more tightly focussed, but the eventual conclusion is valuable: Critias and his 'circle' (including the comparably polygeneric Ion) were drawn to use φιλοφροσύνη as a programmatic term expressing the ideal emotion of the restrained, Dorian syssition as opposed to the 'orientalised' and corrupt symposium.

Chapter 5 tackles the puzzling hexametric fragment (1 D.-K.) on 'sweet Anacreon'. Once thought to be part of a kind of early 'literary history' of poets, by this point in I.'s study we are much better predisposed to see it too as a form of sympotic engagement. I.'s reading is unconventional in that it interprets this representation of 'sweet, grief-free' Anacreon in a pleasure-seeking sympotic fantasia, with female choruses dancing all night and kottabos constantly played, as negative and parodic, as a caricature of the kind of decadent Athenian symposium against which he is raising the standard of the restrained Dorian alternative, and at which, well into the later fifth century, the poetry of Anacreon was enjoyed, particularly (he argues) by the avant-guard of the younger generation.

At this point a certain dichotomising drive may have taken over. I.'s close reading of the language and tone of the poem does have a great deal to commend it. The hyperbolic periphrastic description of kottabos, for instance -- 'the scale-pan, daughter of bronze, sits on the top of the high peaks of the kottabos, to receive the raindrops of Bromios' -- is very well suited to I.'s view that this is Critias again operating in the mode of 'abuse through the fiction of praise' (cf. p. 151). And in fact such an interpretation provides an excellent explanation of the metre, the hexameter: here we would have an example of the elusive 'genre' of parôidia whose invention was ascribed to Hegemon of Thasos.

However, some problems remain. There is the fact that Anacreon was very probably a 'family friend' and that Critias seems unlikely to have devoted such parodic venom to him given his own ideological commitment to philoi. But more difficult is I.'s interpretation of line 4 of this fragment, where Anacreon is described as αὐλῶν ἀντίπαλον, φιλοβάρβιτον, 'opponent of auloi, friend of the barbitos'. I. believes that this alignment of Anacreon with a stringed instrument, the barbitos, as opposed to the reed-blown aulos, does not correspond to the familiar opposition between string and reed that we find in the period, an opposition in which the 'new wave' of poet-composers of the last third of the century align themselves with the aulos, the instrument that lay at the heart of their technical innovations, as opposed to the lyre and the older style of 'aristocratic' music played on it. I. very properly recognises the full particularity of the barbitos among stringed instruments, not eliding it, as others have, with a generic 'lyre' but seeing the importance of the fact that it is the sympotic stringed instrument par excellence. However, on I.'s reading the aulos must be understood as the icon of Spartan military life and pedagogy, as well as the instrument of elegy itself (p. 148). In other words, its dominant contemporary association with the 'new wave', with all its connotations of demotic ideology and aesthetics, must here be suppressed or overcome. If I. is right, we have here an absolutely fascinating insight into an attempt by Critias to 'reclaim' for the old guard the instrument whose players have been aptly dubbed 'the unsung heroes of the New Music'.2

I.'s exploration, through the lens of Critias' elegiac fragments, of the competing models of the sympotikos bios actively at work in Athens in the last decades of the fifth century is a very important contribution to the recent 'remembering' of Critias. There remains much more to be done -- and undone -- to understand this intriguing and troubling figure and the power of forgetting that his history exposes.3 Let us hope that what seems to be thus far something of a monopoly of Italian scholarship is taken up elsewhere.4


1.   I think of J. Ober, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule, Princeton University Press 1998, and R. Brock and S. Hodkinson (eds.), Alternatives to Athens: varieties of political organization and community in ancient Greece, Oxford University Press 2000.
2.   E. Csapo, 'The Politics of the New Music', pp. 207-48 in Music and the Muses: the Culture of Mousike in the Classical Athenian City, ed. P. Murray and P. Wilson, Oxford University Press 2004, at p. 211. See this important study for a full discussion of the demotic ideology and aesthetics of the New Music.
3.   A major contribution in this is the work of Nicole Loraux, who has brilliantly sketched the significance of what she argues was a politically constitutive act of forgetting in Athenian history in 403: The Divided City: on memory and Forgetting in Ancient Athens, New York 2002.
4.   This will be assisted by the recent inclusion of Critias in the Penguin translation of The Greek Sophists by J. Dillon and T. Gergel, London 2003. I would also indicate my own contribution, produced before all three of these books were available to me: 'The Sound of Cultural Conflict: Critias and the Culture of Mousike in Athens', pp. 181-206 in The Cultures within Ancient Greek Culture: Contact, Conflict, Collaboration, ed. C. Dougherty and L. Kurke, Cambridge University Press 2003.

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