BMCR 2006.01.12

Free Speech in Classical Antiquity. Mnemosyne, Suppl. 254

, , Free speech in classical antiquity. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2004. 1 online resource (xii, 450 pages).. ISBN 1429408413. €120.00.

The volume contains the papers of the second “Penn-Leiden Colloquium on Ancient Values” held at University of Pennsylvania in 2002: the timeliness of the topic — as underlined by M. Ostwald in the Preface (IX) and by the editors in the General Introduction recalling some recent judicial proceedings concerning the “freedom of speech” — is self-evident. From the beginnings of the modern concept of democracy “freedom of speech” has been recognized as one of the inalienable individual rights. Hence it is of great importance to study the nature, the extent and the practice of ancient “free speech” in order to see the differences and the continuities between ancient and modern freedom of speech. This is the underlying — sometimes explicit — purpose of almost all the contributions of the volume; although they are arranged in chronological order, D.M. Carter’s essay (“Citizen Attribute, Negative Right: A Conceptual Difference Between Ancient and Modern Ideas of Freedom of Speech”, pp. 197-220) should actually -occupy the first place in the discussion since it is repeatedly cited by other contributors in establishing the boundaries of ancient concept of “free speech”.

In spite of the fact that “free speech” is expressed in Greek by two terms, isêgoria and parrhêsia, the editors have focused the inquiry on the second, for its neutrality and for its wider use as a social, political and ethical concept. Notwithstanding, in many essays concerning the institutional role of “free speech” ( McInerney, Raaflaub, H. Roisman, Carter, Wallace, Balot, J. Roisman) parrhêsia is compared and contrasted with isêgoria. Beyond the Greek domain the search spreads to the concept and practice of libertas in the Roman world from Republic to Empire.

To return to chronological order, J. McInerney (“Nereids, Colonies and the Origin of Isêgoria“, pp. 21-40), tries to prove that the birthplace of isêgoria — as well as isonomia — was the Greek colonial world, reviving an old theory long ago dismissed by E. Lepore, D. Asheri, and others.1 The argument is based on the city-planning of the western colonies, using a geometrical division of spaces, and a (supposedly) egalitarian distribution of klêroi, shaping a “democratic” structure “unfettered by inherited patterns of aristocratic authority” (p. 26). Also invoked are the traces of colonial references in the epics of Homer and Hesiod: the long catalogue of Nereids in Hesiod’s Theogony, whose names recall “maritime or travel associations” as well as “the world of public assemblies” is taken to show that the “marriage” between equality and public discourse was for the first time conceived in the colonies. Unfortunately in Hesiod’s catalogue no Nereid bears a name suggesting isêgoria; therefore it is safer to conclude with Raaflaub (referring to McInerney’s essay) that tracing isêgoria to a colonial context, “is possible but, lacking the evidence, we cannot prove it” (p. 45, n.12).

K.A. Raaflaub (“Aristocracy and Freedom of Speech in the Graeco-Roman World”, pp. 41-61), a well-known authority on eleutheria, wonders why aristocratic ideology never worried about conceptualizing an alternative to democratic parrhêsia, which turned into one of the decisive elements of citizen political identity. The answer is found in a difference between democratic and oligarchic notions of eleutheria. From an oligarchic perspective, in which eleutheria and equality are embedded in the privileges of a defined social class, equality of speech counts more than liberty: isêgoria probably arose as an aristocratic concept when, under (Pisistratid or other) tyranny, equality of speech was jeopardized by the state. Inherited by democracy, but purged of the social limitation of class, side by side with the extension of eleutheria to all free citizens, it turned into a concept of freedom of speech based not primarily on equality but on the recognition that everyone had a right “to say everything”, and a new noun was coined to express the new concept of freedom of speech as a right, parrhêsia. Unlike Carter (see below), Raaflaub is inclined to see parrhêsia as “closest” to our notion of a right thanks to the “particularly high valuation” (n.19, p.49) it enjoys in democratic ideology. Dislike of parrhêsia in aristocratic ideology is illustrated by the criticism of Ps.-Xenophon and Isocrates, by its absence in the panoply of Spartan ethical and political values, and finally — but controversially (see Chrissanthos below) — by its limitations in Roman practice, where it is “tied to dignitas and auctoritas“.

E. Casey ( “Binding Speeches: Giving Voice to Deadly Thoughts in Greek Epitaphs”, pp. 63-90) and Hanna M. Roisman (“Women’s Free Speech in Greek Tragedy”, pp. 91-114) deal with the issue in two very peculiar contexts: the dialogue between the dead who speak from the sêma and the living who give them voice through the written epitaph, and the freedom of speech of some female figures in Greek tragedy. Casey gives an anthropological explanation of the supposed freedom of speech of the dead, granted also to people who were excluded in life on grounds of age or sex from openly expressing their views: in fact it is a question of mutual exchange through which the living give voice to the dead in order to reassure them of survival in their memory and to allow them to say what the living want to hear from the dead.

Against the common opinion that female parrhêsia is represented in Attic drama as “disruptive and subversive of social stability” (McClure), through the analysis of some figures typical of tragic outspokenness — the chorus of virgins in the “Seven Against Thebes”, Cassandra of the “Agamemnon”, Antigone, the two Electras of Sophocles and Euripides — Hanna Roisman produces a significant and intriguing revision of the perception of female free speech in tragedy. She emphasizes the approval of open opposition to tyrannical power on behalf of moderation or of family rights and rituals (the chorus of virgins and Antigone), Sophocles’ equivocal representation of Electra’s stubbornness in planning revenge, and the manifest disapproval of the parrhêsia of Euripides’ Electra arising from an excessive desire for vengeance, in contrast to Cassandra’s free speech, tied to her mythic role, which is doomed to remain unheard. Roisman wonders if female free speech was in Athens an issue for discussion and concludes that it was approved only in exceptional situations, such as opposition to tyranny and within the cultual and familial sphere, while normally silence and staying indoors were approved. A comparison with the parallels in Comedy would help to suggest -more credible answers.

“Antagonism between the spoken and the written word” (p. 176) is the subject of a subtle intertextual analysis of Thucydides’ Histories by Emily Greenwood (“Making Words Count: Freedom of Speech and Narrative in Thucydides”, pp. 175-195). The existence of a rivalry between an official (or state) version of historical facts, obviously biased, and the more truthful, one given by an individual writer, is testified to also in our days by S. Rushdie and M. Kundera. That Thucydides’ Histories are intended to be polemical against the irrationality of logoi spoken in the assemblies is undoubtedly true. But, for lack (or from our ignorance) of any official version, it is difficult to prove that Thucydides conceived his own historical narrative as a liberated one, alternative to and silencing other (official) versions of the facts. Pericles can, indeed, be recognized as one of his historiographical models; nevertheless, this is so not so much for his silencing any public opposition as for his rational rhetoric and his capability of resisting popular orgê on behalf of gnomê. It is doubtful that Thucydides is indiscriminately defending written words against the spoken words of democracy, though certainly he is making an appeal for a more reflective and rational decision-making (see Diodotus’ discourse in III, 42-48). Moreover one could rightly wonder why neither parrhêsia nor isêgoria appears in his Histories.

The two essays in chapters VI and VII — S. Halliwell (“Aischrology, Shame, and Comedy”, pp. 115-144), and A.H. Sommerstein (“Harassing the Satirist: The Alleged Attempts to Prosecute Aristophanes”, pp. 145-174) — deserve joint consideration, not only for the common issue they deal with parrhêsia in Old Comedy, but also and particularly because they contrast with each other in both method and facts. Halliwell addresses a particularly risky aspect of parrhêsia, i.e. aischrologia, not excluding loidoria and assaults on political adversaries. Making good use of the evidence offered by rhetoric (Aristotle) and philosophy (Plato and Theophrastus’ Characters), as well as by orators (Demosthenes, Aeschines and others), Halliwell skillfully emphasizes how, even though the “commitment to extensive parrhêsia” as a fundamental value of democracy is not brought into question, a widespread anxiety — even in non-elitist sources — “regarding the ramifications of such frankness” and its possible excesses could come out. Aischrology or excessive use of parrhêsia (see particularly the case of kakologos in Thphr., Char. 28) is normally understood as language belonging to the comic register. In fact, Halliwell is convinced — and he is certainly not alone in this opinion — that Old Comedy was the only form of public discourse that enjoyed “an implicitly recognized legal immunity” (p. 135) from common laws about kakegoria. But this exceptional position, a function of Dionysiac performance, was balanced by the social and political ineffectiveness of personal slander against politicians, who could not retaliate against the offender. (Halliwell does not accept the tradition regarding a conflict between Cleon and Aristophanes, along with other attempts at censuring comedy.) Comic assaults locate themselves outside the normal controls of the democratic system in an ideological area Halliwell calls “both pre- and subdemocratic” (p. 140).

Sommerstein’s point of view is exactly the opposite: he does not accept either the socalled “carnival theory” or the semi-official immunity of comedy — a “modern construction” without any support in contemporary evidence (p. 154). The starting point of his analysis of the attempts to curb comic assaults against politicians is, on the contrary, the very texts dismissed by Halliwell, mainly the allusions in Aristophanes’ comedies to the “querelle” between the poet and Cleon, as strengthened by external evidence (Plato’s “Apology”, Aeschines, Lysias etc.). His conclusion is that the Athenian politicians did not make fools of themselves by reacting to the slanders of comic poets; the freedom of speech they enjoyed was certainly not above the law, but the proved inefficacity of any attempt to put restraints on comic language testifies to a kind of “general cultural understanding” (p.167) of public opinion in favor of comic parrhêsia. Who is right? It comes down to a question of taste and of personal methodological preferences, given that the body of evidence — denied or accepted — is the same and the arguments are well constructed in both cases. He who likes the historical (traditional) explanation, which rests on sources critically evaluated, would prefer Sommerstein’s interpretation, while he who needs instead a general socio-anthropological approach, would prefer Halliwell’s.

D.M. Carter (see above) tries to mark the boundaries between the modern concept of “free speech” as a negative right, i.e. freedom from censorship, and the Greek pair of nouns indicating the same concept, isêgoria and parrhêsia. But the two words are not equivalent in meaning or use, for isêgoria, like both isonomia and eleutheria, points to the foundations of the democratic system, and in this sense it can be equated to a positive right, whereas parrhêsia has more to do more with privileges of citizenship than with its rights. In fact it expresses not so much freedom from censorship as “the confidence in giving one’s own opinion” (p. 214), a typical by-product of democracy. This capability, however, unlike isêgoria, can be regulated by law or by ideological criticism. Above all, the restriction of free speech in the representations of tyranny in tragedy and elsewhere – -the most doubtful part of Carter’s argumentation — is not to be viewed as an act of injustice or as a restriction positively enacted by the tyrant but as a result of the fear of exercising free speech in front of the tyrant. Probably Carter is correct in criticizing the loose use of the concept of “right” concerning the Greek practices of freedom, but one ought to remember also the warnings of M.I. Finley (“The Freedom of the Citizen in the Greek World”, “Talanta”, VII, 1975, p. 8) that “modern discussions of the subject of Greek freedom are too narrowly, too obsessively, concerned with political rights and with the negative freedoms”.

The three following writers — R. W. Wallace (“The Power to Speak — and not to Listen — in Ancient Athens”, pp. 221-32), R. K. Balot ( “Free Speech, Courage, and Democratic Deliberation”, pp. 233-59), and J. Roisman ( “Speaker-Audience Interaction in Athens: A Power Struggle”, pp. 261-78) — deal with the relation between rhetores and demos, focusing on the thorubos as the typical reaction of the demos in order to show its disapproval of -discourses from the bema.

According to Wallace, thorubos cannot be thought either as a restriction of free speech or as an encroachment on the rights of isêgoria and parrhêsia, but as the informal extension of these very principles to the audience — never passive in public contexts — that was thus able to express its right not to listen an undesired discourse; the obligation to listen silently was in fact perceived by democratic ideology as a feature of a tyrannical or repressive regime. But that does not entail a popular tyranny in Athens; the unceasing criticism of democracy and its political representatives by Aristophanes, Critias and Socrates, not to mention others, and Demosthenes’ rebukes to the demos, prove that there were no limits to dissent from popular opinion. Only after the 404 and the experience of oligarchy can one notice a certain intolerance against any proposal of constitutional modification (as is the case with Isocrates’ “Areopagiticus”) and an acute sensitivity to the threat of political subversion. This explains the condemnation of Socrates.

Balot and Roisman don’t share Wallace’s positive view of thorubos. Although free speech as expressed through a frank confrontation of conflicting opinions is the recognized condition of rational and thoughtful deliberation, they think of thorubos as a serious hindrance that the rhetores had to get over in order to enhance their credibility as counsellors useful to the commonwealth. This is the reason why, according to Balot, the rhetor, conscious of both the danger of being confronted by public dissent and of the risk of failure in legal procedures, tends to extol his own virtue of courage, transferring a military model of behaviour to a civic ambiance. But free speech, as Balot underlines, involves not only the orator’s individual courage but also civic courage, for instance in the reversed perspective exhibited in the official glorifications of the city, as in the epitaphia of Demosthenes and Pericles. Roisman, for his part, emphasizes the strategies implemented by rhetores (relying mainly on Demosthenes’ evidence) so as to overcome the power gap between demos, the real holder of authority in decision making, and public speakers, endowed indeed with the power of speech but always at risk given the demos’ consciousness of its own superiority in power and morality.

The papers by M.van Raalte (“Socratic PARRHESIA and its Afterlife in Plato’s Laws”, pp. 279-312) and of J. J. Mulhern (“PARRHESIA” in Aristotle”, pp. 313-339) are concerned with philosophical considerations of parrhêsia. In a very attentive analysis of Plato’s use of parrhêsia in “Gorgias”, “Apology” and “Laws”, M. v. Raalte successfully demonstrates how Socratic parrhêsia stands out against both the Sophists’ conception and common opinion, and how it contrasts with the rhetoric of success and of pleasing the people displayed by Gorgias and Polus. Socrates’ choice of frank speaking is a commitment to search for the truth, “however unwelcome it may be to the audience” (p.309), dictated by a real knowledge of what is good or, as in the “Apology”, by obedience to the voice of a daimonion : it doesn’t matter if this compulsive utterance of what one thinks is the right point of view clashes with conformist morality and entails the risk of death. Callicles in “Gorgias” is a suitable opponent of Socrates for he shares with him frankness in discussion (even if not in front of the demos), a firm belief in his own ideas of absolute truth, and eunoia towards his conversation partner. The difference between the two rests on the ultimate judgment about the hedonistic view of Callicles, who cannot accept the banality of Socrates’ confutation, although, resorting to a myth at the end of the dialogue in order to support his choice of life, Socrates himself testifies to the failure of a dialectical and rational proof. As an appendix to the analysis of parrhêsia in “Gorgias” and “Apology”, van Raalte takes into account also its occurrence in the “Laws”, where ultimately parrhêsia appears as a concession granted by an authority endowed with a superior logos. To deem this kind of free speech as the “natural successor” of the Socratic parrhêsia of “Gorgias” and “Apology” would be rather misleading; in between there are both the criticisms of the indiscriminate parrhêsia of democracy as portrayed in the “Republic” and the renunciation of the guide of the divine voice, as van Raalte admits (p. 309).

Mulhern’s main purpose is to refute Foucault’s interpretation of Aristotelian parrhêsia as nothing but an ethical quality of the subject without any connection to politics. Through a categorial analysis (that is the employment of the categories of pôs, pros ti, paschein) of the rare occurrences of the noun in the Aristotelian corpus, Mulhern tries to prove that parrhêsia is a relational performance of individual ethos, conditioned by circumstances without any clear separation between ethika and politika. However, even if it were helpful to appeal to Wilson’s theory of character (see J. Q. Wilson, On Character, Washington 1995) in order to sustain the continuity between ethics and politics in Aristotle, one could cast some doubt on the utility of logical categories to illuminate such texts as Ath.Pol. 16,6 or Politics 1313b15-16.

The last part of the volume is concerned with the problems of free speech in the Roman world from the Republic to the Empire. In Latin, as is known, there is no special word corresponding to Greek parrhêsia, but this is only a formal difficulty for the concept is implied in the more general notion of a citizen’s libertas.

S. G. Chrissanthos (“Freedom of Speech and the Roman Republican Army”, pp. 341-67) explores the occasions for common citizens to make their voice heard in the city and in the army. He thus contrasts the general opinion — still mantained in this volume by Raaflaub and long ago by A. Momigliano —- according to which a search for free speech in Rome is not promising at all, tied as it is with the problem of the speaker’s status ( dignitas and auctoritas). Chrissanthos focuses on the contiones, “non-decision-making assemblies” (p. 345), summoned by a magistrate in order to inform or to discuss political issues. On those occasions private citizens could be invited to speak (but Raaflaub at p. 54 rightly reminds us that “usually” only officials and high-ranking personalities were invited to speak). In these semi-formal meetings citizens could become acquainted with the political agenda and the historical exempla the orators used to underpin their arguments. According to Chrissanthos this political experience, including the consciousness of their own rights, was transmitted through Roman soldiers and through some officials to the army, bearing important effects on the capability of the soldiers to oppose or contest commanders’ decisions in the conduct of a campaign, as Chrissanthos demostrates with many examples in the history of Republic. The contiones, officially or unofficially held in the camp, were the arena, more liberal than that of the city, of the free discussions or the protests of the soldiers, and could lead to mutiny, as in the case of Lucullus in Asia in 68 B.C., and could influence the course of the Roman politics. But the link between the mutiny of Lucullus’ army, weary of the long march, and the change in command to Pompeius through the Lex Manilia smells of argument with hindsight.

The myth of Orpheus in Vergil, Georg. 4, and in Ovid, Met. X, is the test case for V. Pagán (“Speaking before Superiors: Orpheus in Vergil and Ovid”, pp. 369-89) to outline the ambiguous relations between poets and power in the Augustan era. Through a subtle intertextual confrontation of the unspeaking Orpheus of Georg. IV,—substitute, according to Servius, for the poet Gallus, who fell into disfavour and suicide in 27 B.C. (though Pagán does not follow the Servian explanation iubente Augusto)—with Ovid’s Orpheus, who speaks with a highly elaborated discourse to the Underworld deities, she concludes that Ovid’s Orpheus can be viewed as a “supplement” to Vergil’s truncated myth, pleading openly for “what Vergil knew implicitly, that the poets owe everything to a higher power” ( Met. X, 32: omnia debemur vobis).

Mary R. McHugh (“Historiography and Freedom of Speech: The Case of Cremutius Cordus”, pp. 391-408) presents the narration of the prosecution of Cremutius Cordus (25 CE) in Tacitus’ Annals 4, 34-5 as a lesson delivered by the historian on how to write history under repressive regimes by resorting to the device of the “figured speech”. The digression of Annals 4, 32-3, preceding the trial’s account, lays down the conditions of writing history under the Principate and prepares the reader for the narration of Cremutius’ case. From the defense speech that Tacitus places in his mouth (an historian’s invention according to McHugh), it can be deduced that Cremutius’ fault in Tacitus’ opinion was not so much an infringement of the lex maiestatis as a failure in use of the “figured speech”.

The tension between libertas and licentia in Roman satire — introduced by a surprising analogy with a song of the “rappist” Eminem — is the issue for Susanna M. Braund (“Libertas or Licentia? Freedom and Criticism in Roman Satire”, pp. 409-428). Assuming that libertas is the positive concept whose negative opposite is licentia, Braund examines in Horace, Persius and Juvenal “the places where satire becomes metasatire” (p.413) and the authors negotiate the boundaries between legitimate freedom of speech in their opinion and offence. The path of the inquiry moves from the historical reflections in Horace’s Epistle to Augustus to the pragmatic examples in Persius, Sat. 1, and Juvenal, Sat. 1, to reach the conclusion that Roman satire aims to draw “attention to the tension between libertas and licentia not to resolve that tension, but to replay it, over and over” (p.426).

The volume is provided with three indices (Greek terms, index locorum and general index). Besides amplitude and variety of issues (though one regrets the absence of attention to Biblical and Christian parrhêsia), one of the striking features, appropriately enough, is the extreme freedom of perspectives allowed to contributors in treating the topic. Sluiter and Rosen have not only edited an outstanding collection of essays on freedom of speech but have supplied us with an uncommon example of scholarly parrhêsia.


1. E. Lepore, “Problemi dell’organizzazione della chora coloniale”, in M.I. Finley (ed.), Problèmes de la terre en Grèce ancienne, Paris 1973, pp. 15-47); D. Asheri, “Distribuzioni di terre nell’antica Grecia”, MAT, IV, 10, 1966.