BMCR 1998.03.09

98.3.09, News and Society in the Greek Polis

, News and Society in the Greek Polis. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Pp. x, 206. $45.00(hb);$16.95(pb).

Untilled fields are hard to find; once found, they are hard to plow. Lewis has done both, and has brought forth a harvest worthy of her toil. Her basic question is fresh and intriguing: what is the function of news in Greek society? Thence spring derivative questions concerning the relationship of news to information and dissemination, to affirmation and propaganda, to an individual’s status and role in the community, to a government’s control over its citizens, and to the maintenance of cultural values. These are eminently worth discussing, and have application to the modern world as well as the ancient.

The introduction succinctly defines these questions, together with terms, limits and goals, and gives a fairly good idea of the themes and organization of the book. The focus of the first chapter is the private life of a Greek (read Athenian) citizen. Lewis successfully argues for a reciprocal relationship between societal role and information. On the one hand, an individual’s reputation is defined by news, on the other, the credibility of any piece of news depends heavily on the reputation and class of its bearer. Lewis is at her best in the discussion of the hierarchical distinctions in clientele—and hence transmitted information—in various types of shops (perfume-sellers, shoe-makers, barber-shops and the like). Her comments on the limited ability of metics, women and slaves to gain access to high-level information are thought-provoking, and probably accurate, but really ought to be founded on firmer evidence than provided.

The second chapter is primarily devoted to opportunities of individuals to acquire information for themselves through travel. Her underlying interest here is whether class and wealth were deciding factors in determining the extent of a person’s knowledge of the world beyond the native polis. Her conclusions are sensible enough: travel was easier for the rich, and foreign contacts more common, but the lower classes were not excluded from this activity, since trade, military service, and religious devotion might draw them beyond their borders.

Next, official communications are treated. Lewis draws attention to ulterior motives for official dissemination of information, and demonstrates that official channels did not transmit information merely out of a desire to inform. Domestic announcements were made to effect a decision through publication, or to affirm information which had already filtered into the community. Announcements might not be made when morale would suffer. International announcements were meant to prompt reactions and hence actions. Often they resembled propaganda rather than news. In either case, heralds served as a vehicle for the state to attempt to control news.

As the fourth chapter demonstrates, the control was at best partial. Information, much of it false, flowed into a polis through many channels. Lewis sketches general criteria for evaluating news: identity (both personal and civic, with notes on xenia and proxenia), social class, and motive of the informant, and the proximity of the informant to the information (e.g., autopsy as compared to overheard rumor). Age might be added to the list: white hairs lent a degree of authority to a speaker. 1 A brief discussion of the evaluation process closes the chapter.

The fifth chapter addresses the issue of news in the Athenian assembly. Here, Lewis argues, information was not transmitted, but affirmed, interpreted, and manipulated. And here a problem, which has plagued the text in varying degrees from the beginning, grows from a minor irritant to a real concern.

In constructing theories on the dissemination and function of information, Lewis inevitably comments on its foundations: information-gathering and intelligence. Since her own ambition looks to social interaction rather than the mechanics of information-gathering, she relies on a construct of the ancient world built by Starr and Adcock: that the Greeks neglected intelligence and bumbled their way through diplomacy and wars. This construct does her a disservice, since it is demonstrably wrong. Most of her consequent errors do not materially detract from her contributions, 2 but in considering decision-making in the political arena, she has failed to take into account data which call into question her conclusion that orators knew no more than their listeners. Her assumptions are twofold: (1) that the Greeks had no institutional conduits for information, and hence that office-holders would not have sources unavailable to ordinary citizens, and (2) private connections afforded little information.

The first assumption can be disproven as a universal rule. 3 It can be defended with respect to Athens, if one discounts military structures of a tactical nature (e.g., arrangements to keep an eye on borders by use of peripoloi, watch towers and signals), but there were procedures and customs which channeled the wayward streams of information. There were regulations for receiving presbeis, both returning citizens and representatives of foreign states. Likewise, there were official means of seeking information such as the regular appointment of episkopoi by the boule, or ad hoc inspectors (kataskopoi), such as Cleon, who was commissioned to investigate the situation at Sphacteria in 425. Reports might be heard—and questioned—in the ekklesia after debriefing in the boule. Moreover, presbeis were frequently recruited from the very men who were wont to address the ekklesia, and, while their official communication might be limited and controlled, surely it is probable that they learned much unofficially, if not from their hosts and friends in other states, at least from their own observations.

Private initiative was all important in the intelligence practice of fifth and fourth century Athens. Lewis did well to quote Xenophon (Memorabilia 3.6.11, on p. 103) on the importance of information to a statesman, but interprets its content in defiance of the Greek: οὐκοῦν, ἔφη, καὶ περὶ τούτων, ὅταν μηκέτι εἰκάζωμεν, ἀλλ’ ἤδη εἰδῶμεν, τότε συμβουλεύσομεν must somehow be construed as meaning not that a statesman must know what he is talking about, but that a statesman must seem to know what he is talking about. She did well to note the same author’s Hipparchicus (4.7-8, on p. 175, n. 10), but interpreted monitions about the potential inaccuracy in and delay of spies’ reports to mean that spies were of little value, rather than wonder why on earth we find Xenophon advising an (Athenian) hipparch to recruit an extensive spy network! Passages in the Cyropaideia should make it obvious that at least one Greek saw personal attention to intelligence as intrinsic to success as a leader. 4

And surely, even if the speeches in Thucydides were to be pure fiction, we must see in Nicias a manifestation of Xenophon’s theory. Nicias fielded a network of agents-in-place in Syracuse from at least 415 (and probably far earlier than that) to his death in 413. 5 These spies were attached to him as an individual (probably based on personal ties established though his proxenia) not as a strategos, for their service did not extend to his colleagues. Likewise, he privately engaged manteis. 6 To be sure, although Nicias was adept at procuring intelligence, he was rather mediocre at evaluating it, and often dismal when it came to exploiting it. The point is, he was in a position to impart information to his colleagues and to the ekklesia when he chose to do so, and if we are to believe Thucydides, his information was considered even when his advice was rejected.

Lewis is absolutely right when she concludes that manipulation and interpretation were paramount in the ekklesia—the outcome of the debate between Nicias and Alcibiades is testimony enough to that! But if the much-maligned Xenophon was smart enough to realize that knowledge was power, so too were the statesmen of his day.

In her final chapter, Lewis turns from oral communication to written, and muses on the symbolic value attached to writing in general, and letters and inscriptions in particular. She maintains (153), with some justice, that “the polis never adapted itself totally to writing and publication, because the ideology of writing was at odds with its conception of public life.”

The conclusion effectively draws together the themes of the book: cultural interest in news, oral nature of its transmission, mistrust of secrecy and technology, and the affirmation of civic identity established by the relationship between news, the individual and the polis. A paragraph on divine news is included—a welcome realization of that facet of Greek life, which would be more welcome still in a longer treatment.

Perusal of the bibliography rewards the reader with the essentials, and with items tangential to her work which are bound to provoke interest and stir curiosity. Mention of more specific studies would be welcome, to allow the reader to compare Lewis’ theories with more traditional forms of historical analysis (e.g., H. Montgomery’s The Way to Chaeronea. Foreign Policy, Decision-Making and Political Influence in Demosthenes’ Speeches. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget, 1983, would play well against her characterization of the influence of Demosthenes and his ilk). There are a few gaps in specialized scholarship pertaining to aspects of problems which Lewis has discussed (e.g., J. Balcer’s “The Athenian Episkopos and the Achaemenid ‘King’s Eye”, AJP XCVIII (1977) 252-263, which would have been a corrective to her treatment of Athenian institutional channels). A few selections from the wealth of modern scholarship on the relationship of information to society and political authority would also be welcome. There is a single combined index of terms and names which is adequate to its task, and occasionally delightful in its eccentricity (e.g., “Ears, pierced, 38”).

Whatever the flaws in her forays into the mechanics of information-gathering, Lewis has much of interest and value to say about about the impact of information flow on how the Greeks thought and interacted. And her observations on their experience are of no little relevance to our own.

1. E.g., Lysias XXIII ( in Pancleonem) 5, Isoc. VI ( Archidamus) 4.

2. E.g., her statement (p. 77) that “secrecy, in the sense of concealing numbers, equipment or battle plans, was hardly ever important in warfare” can be challenged in the case of almost every major polis, but does not invalidate her point that deception was a problem in intelligence analysis. A small sampling of a single facet of secrecy (concealing numbers and movements), includes: Athenians e.g., Alcibiades (Xen. Hell. 1.1.15), Iphicrates (Polyaenus 3.9.8, 3.9.19), Phocion (Plut. Phoc. 15.1 ff.), and Thrasylus (Polyaenus 1.47.1); Corinthians e.g., Thuc. 4.8; Lacedaemonians e.g., Agesilaus (Xen. Ages. 6.6), Alcotas (Xen. Hell. 5.4.56), Chalcideus (Thuc. 8.14.1), Mindarus (Thuc. 8.99.1); Macedonians e.g., Arrian Anab. 2.9.1, 6.6.4, Q. Curt. 3.10.3; Syracusans e.g., Dionysius (Polyaenus 5.2.12, Leo Byz. 7.1), cf. Hermocrates (Thuc. 6.72.5); Thebans e.g., Neocles (Paus. 9.1.6), cf. Epaminondas (Xen. Hell. 7.5.8), and the decree concerning the Athenian exiles under arms (Xen. Hell. 2.4.2, Dinarchus in Demosth. 25, Plut. Pelop. 6.4); and Thracians e.g., Seuthes (Xen. Anab. 7.3.36).

3. For the first assumption, one has to look no farther than the first page of her introduction, where she relates an example of the arrival of news in Sparta in the early fourth century, and comments: ” they [the Spartans] had no permanent system of intelligence gathering, and nor did any other polis, relying instead on the actions of chance partisans like Herodas to bring them the information that they needed. The contradiction between the perceived importance of news, and the lack of institutions to gather it, is one of the roots of this survey.” It can be argued that there were permanent institutions in Sparta which had among their functions information-gathering, whatever one thinks of the krypteia. These included the hippeis (and perhaps more specifically the hippagretai and agathoergoi) and the pythioi; one might also note the Spartan practice of attaching manteis to kings on campaign. It can even be demonstrated that some Greek states had prototypical intelligence organizations (e.g., the system comprised of the Anaktes, Gerginoi and Promalanges in Cyprian Salamis in the very late fifth and early fourth centuries).

4. E.g., Xen. Cyr. 1.6.43 ff.; cf. 6.1.31-44, 6.2.1 ff., 6.3.11-20.

5. Thuc. 7.48.2, 73.3; Plut. Nicias 18.6, 21.3. See also Gomme 4.425-426 on Thuc. 7.48.2.

6. Plut. Nicias 4.2, 5, 23 (Hiero and Stilbides); cf. Philochorus FGrHist 328 F135, Schol. vet. in Aristoph. Pax 1031).