BMCR 2000.01.10

The Litigious Athenian

, The Litigious Athenian. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. 317. $39.95.

Were the Athenians ‘trialophiles’, as Aristophanes might say ( Wasps 88), and was this beloved obsession of the average citizen preyed upon by a cadre of debauched sykophants abusing an key element of the Athenian constitution? Generally, sykophancy has been viewed as an “inevitable disease” that plagued a society “where the chances of perverting justice were so numerous because of the character of the courts” (Lofberg 1917, 10). Some version of this perspective has held sway until recently when Robin Osborne argued that there was no such thing as a bona fide sykophant, at least of the negative sort that abused the legal system for monetary gain, but that the use of “sykophantic allegations were an important democratic mechanism of social regulation” compelling the wealthy to be good citizens (Osborne 1990, 99). David Harvey (in the same volume as Osborne) counterargues that sykophancy did take human form and prefers to see sykophancy not as a ‘Good Thing’ but as abuse of the legal system (Harvey 1990, 116). Amidst these swings of the pendulum (7), Matthew Christ (C.) now argues for a wider perspective on sykophancy and litigation in the context of Athenian attitudes “toward the proper conduct of public and private life within the democracy” (4). Although C. ends up closest to Osborne’s position, he broadens the discussion by integrating the debate on sykophancy with ideological analysis of Athenian society and democracy (following Ober) and effectively does more “justice to the complexity of the ancient situation” (7).

Chapter 1: Litigation in Democratic Athens (14-47): C. opens with an overview of the Athenian political and legal systems. Although non-specialist readers and undergraduates may find the summary too brief, they can follow C.’s many references to M. H. Hansen [1991] and his more detailed and lucid presentation. With the legal structure sketched, C. considers the litigants and their social background (wealthy) as well as the consequent stakes (money, power, reputation). Likewise, he surveys the sociology of the jurors. This latter half of the chapter effectively sets the stage for the analysis of sykophancy that follows.

Chapter 2: The Invention of Sykophancy: Idea and Ideology (48-71): C. reviews the discussion of “sukophant-” roots. Drawing on Harvey 1990 (see Harvey’s list of passages 119-121), C. shows these words attached to a person who is not simply morally and ethically corrupt but “anti-Athenian” (50) and a “hated and polluted outsider” (53). C. embodies these labels with illustrations from Aristophanes (53-56) and from Demosthenes 25, Against Aristogeiton 1 (56-59). This is powerful labelling, but C. argues, much as Osborne 1990, that it was used not as if there were flesh and blood sykophants, which impression arises from “an overly literal interpretation of metaphorical language in the ancient sources” (64). Rather the sykophant was a phantasmic social vampire (my term) used as a scapegoat for the supposed failings of the Athenian democracy. And whether the label and criticism was developed by people like the Old Oligarch, the Athenians “appropriated it as a part of their civic ideology” (68). All very interesting, but to see whether this ideology accords with the preserved particulars we must read on.

Chapter 3: Litigation and Class Conflict (72-117): To examine the interaction of this ideology of sykophancy and the reality of Athenian life, C. turn to the events of 404. Here, with the rampant prosecution (massacre) of so-called sykophants, C. sees a rupture of the generally less violent coexistence of ‘masses’ and ‘elite’. (C. assumes the model and language of Ober 1989 in general.) Class conflict, or rather rich-poor conflict, arises, C. argues, because the wealthy, to maintain their position, are forced to conceal their wealth and/or circumvent the political and legal system that threatens their wealth (see C. 1990 on antidosis). The role of the sykophant, as the wealthy see it, is to blackmail the wealthy with threatened or real litigation, not so that the wealthy be fiscally active citizens but so that the sykophant can enrich himself. C. surveys the elite viewpoint through: (1) works written by these elite, i.e., treatises from the Old Oligarch, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, and Isokrates (78-90); (2a) works written by so-called elite logographers for elite litigants to be delivered to a popular audience (90-104); and (2b) work written by elite comic playwrights for a popular audience, i.e., Aristophanes (104-116). Through this summary of ancient sources C. focuses on how these texts illustrate and manage the tension that he sees between the elite and the masses.

Chapter 4: Public Suits and Volunteer Prosecutors (118-159): If sykophants existed they should be found bringing public prosecutions under the ho boulomenos clause ascribed to Solon and called in AthPol 9.1 (cf. Plut. Sol. 18.5) not merely a demotikon element but one of the three demotikotata in the Solonian and Classical legal system. C., however, reviews the possibilities and concludes that the Athenians would not and did not use or misuse public suits for other citizens or for themselves (118-143). The suits that were brought were for the public good, in truth. But suspicion was unavoidably aroused by the label ho boulomenos and it forced volunteer prosecutors to defend themselves against the cynical assumption of dishonest motives (143-159). Sykophancy, then, is not a real thing; it is a rumor, or bogeyman, a catalyst that facilitates the interaction between the volunteer prosecuters, the elite, and the jurors, the masses, in the effort to maintain justice and their socio-political world.

Chapter 5: Private Quarrels and Public Disputes: Quarrelsomeness and Community Ideals (160-192): Between an ass’ shadow and a slap in the face C. situates a well-illustrated survey of litigants appealing to social prejudices and norms to win their cases. Case by case he illuminates the social parameters of the selected passages and the rhetoric employed to tie the cases to these powerful bonds. Justice is, in practical terms, what the community decides is best for the community (191).

Chapter 6: Beyond the Letter of the Law (193-224): Having examined the social tensions surrounding sykophancy, C. takes us, as it were, to Sokrates’ phrontisterion, where informed (i.e., wealthy/elite) pupils, future litigants, mastered the techne of manipulating the laws.

C. sees tensions between the literate / manipulative and illiterate / naive which parallel the tensions between the elite and the masses. After examining a number of texts in this way, he concludes that “Athenian juries were inclined to view legal sophistication and subtle argumentation based on written authority with considerable suspicion” (223). Some of the examples, however, that lead to this conclusion can lead elsewhere. For example, when the cuckolded Euphiletos (Lys. 1) nears the end of his defense with a plea not to be “entrapped by Athens’s laws (1.49)” (C.205), Euphiletos is not contrasting himself, a simple, honest (illiterate) man, with a suspicious, literate prosecutor nor with suspicious written laws. Rather, Euphiletos has based his entire case on a careful reading of Athenian law on adultery as opposed to a misapplication of Athenian homicide law. This misapplication by the prosecution is what Euphiletos is mocking in the phrase ” ὑπὸ τῶν νόμων ἐνεδρεύεσθαι“; he contrasts this misuse of the homicide law with his closing appeal to his own observance of Athenian law that condemns adulterers ( τοῖς παρὰ τοὺς νόμους τὰς ἀλλοτρίας καταισχύνουσι γυναῖκας, Lys. 1.49); and he demands punishment in accordance with the letter of the law ( τοῖς τῆς πόλεως νόμοις ἐπειθόμην, Lys. 1.50) — precisely what Euphiletos has in fact done. Likewise, when C. uses Aiskhines’ legal arguments against Demosthenes on the crown as evidence that the jurors were suspicious of “sykophantic legalities” (208), is it not rather that the jurors decided that the legal arguments were just an excuse to attack Demosthenes’ political career? In effect they condemned Aiskhines not because he paid such close attention to legal details but because he was abusing those very details — he was being a sykophant. Likewise, the pathetic plea of the overeager, duped youth in Hypereides 3 does not suggest “that his opponent made devious use of his literacy by reading the contract aloud while the speaker listened in a state of distraction” (222). Rather the young prosecutor brings to bear a barrage of legal comparanda on the contract when in truth he does not have a legal leg on which to stand. This is the result of many hours and days spent studying the written laws, not, however, as a sykophant, but as a good Athenian who seeks to live by the spirit and letter of the law. Thus, again, the attack of the prosecutor is not against the written laws but against the people who abuse them, with the prosecutor using the written laws in accordance with their true intent to prove his case. As Lykourgos said (1.4), the system of laws is the first defender and preserver of the democracy and the well-being of the polis.

Conclusion (225-227): C. closes, “It should be clear by this point that to speak of Athenians categorically as ‘litigious’ or to decry Athenian ‘litigiousnesss’ is to overlook a complex web of social meanings and tensions within the Athenian discussion of legal excess and abuse” (227). Criticisms aside, C. has done much to put the multitude of details and particulars of the preserved courtroom speeches back into that complex web. (Interested readers should check their libraries for the recent or imminent arrival of Steven Johnstone’s Disputes and Democracy: The Consequences of Litigation in Ancient Athens [Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999].)


Hansen, Mogens H. 1991. The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (Oxford: Blackwell)

Harvey, David. 1990. “The sykophant and sykophancy: vexatious redefinition”, in P. Cartledge, P. Millett, and S. Todd, eds., Nomos: Essays in Athenian Law, Politics, and Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 103-121.

Lofberg, John O. 1917. Sycophancy in Athens (Menasha, WI: Collegiate Press) [Diss., University of Chicago 1914].

Ober, Josiah. 1989. Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Osborne, Robin. 1990. “Vexatious litigation in classical Athens: sykophancy and the sykophant,” in P. Cartledge, P. Millett, and S. Todd, eds., Nomos: Essays in Athenian Law, Politics, and Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 83-102.

Todd, S. C. 1993. The Shape of Athenian Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press).