BMCR 2006.01.52

Politics and the Athenians. Essays on Athenian History and Historiography

, Politics and the Athenians : essays on Athenian history and historiography. Campbellvile, ON: E. Kent, 2005. 302 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0888666500 $55.00.

For the past forty years or so, Frank Frost has been one of the most penetrating researchers into the social and political structure of archaic Athens. He is best known for his work on Themistocles — his commentary on Plutarch’s Life of Themistocles is a model of its genre — but his lesser known work on the role of religious cults in archaic Athens is of equal importance. His work has always been marked by a careful evaluation of the sources and an awareness of the contemporary context: Themistocles, for instance, cannot be treated as a radical reformer, as Aristotle imagined, for though radical politicians fitted the context of the fourth century with which Aristotle was familiar, they are anachronisms in the late sixth and early fifth centuries. Twenty-four of Professor Frost’s papers appear here with a flattering preface by Erich S. Gruen. My review cannot comment on all of them, but I hope I convey the flavor of those that are most important.

‘Solon and Salamis, Peisitratos and Nisaia’ deals with two events in the struggle between Athens and Megara in the early part of the sixth-century BCE, Solon’s capture of Salamis and Peisistratos’ capture of Nisaia. The takeover of Salamis was the exploit that no doubt led to Solon’s appointment as archon in 594 BCE, and Aristotle and Herodotos both assert that the kudos that Peisistratos won by capturing Nisaia laid the groundwork for his first tyranny. Plutarch is the source for Solon’s story and Aineias the Tactician for Peisistratos’, and they have curious similarities: both involve women participating in religious festivals, and in both Athenian youths ambush Megarians. The traditions have become entangled and Frost explains plausibly how that came about, and in the process shows how knowledge of the past was transmitted in a society where oral history was passed on from one generation to the next in the form of anecdotes.

‘Plutarch and Theseus’ is a study of Plutarch’s sources for his Life of Theseus, which Plutarch wrote in his old age with particular care. What is remarkable about his research is the number of times that he cites the Attidographers: several times he cites two antiquarians, Pherecydes and Herodorus whom he cites nowhere else in his entire corpus. He has attempted to draw together the various traditions and to rationalize them. His attempt failed, but Frost points out that no other extant writer from antiquity ever tried to make sensible history out of the mass of fables that surrounded legendary figures such as Theseus. The real Theseus, that is, the historical Theseus (if there was one) Frost believes, belonged to the Geometric period, and it is there that we should continue to look for him.

There follows a clutch of three papers on Peisistratus and the Peisistratid period. ‘Toward a History of Peisistratid Athens’ first appeared in a Festschrift for Chester Starr in 1985 and it is a survey of the evidence for Athens under the tyranny which still remains useful. The old certainties about the Peisistratid period have faded, but in their place we have a great deal of new archaeological evidence. This was a period when we find buildings for public use beginning to be built in Athens. It was also the time when Athenian potters wrested the export markets in the western Mediterranean from the Corinthians, and also a period when the artists who painted the vases for which Athens was famous could acquire wealth and status; it was only later, it seems, that the status of the artisan declined. Dedications on the Acropolis, gravestones not only in Athens but in the countryside and other inscriptions provide evidence for the social structure. Taken all together, it is hardly enough to write a coherent account, and yet Frost is optimistic.

‘The “Ominous” Birth of Peisistratos’ is a brilliant but not entirely convincing explication of the omen of Herodotus 1.59, that told how the cauldron of Hippokrates, Peisistratos’ father, boiled over while he was sacrificing at Olympia, even though there was no fire beneath it, and the Spartan Chilon, who witnessed the phenomenon, advised Hippokrates to have no son. Hippokrates ignored the advice. Frost points to the story of Theseus’ birth as a parallel: Aegeus was told by the Delphic oracle to avoid sex until he returned home, but he detoured to Troizen on the way and slept with Aithra. The tale of Hippokrates’ marvellous cauldron is part of an effort to connect Peisistratos with the hero Theseus. Frost ends with a note describing how he replicated Hippokrates’ boiling cauldron by putting some chunks of meat and bones in a stew pot with cold water and then inserting a very hot sledgehammer head. The pot rapidly came to the boil, foamed over and then subsided. If Frost had worked as a barista at Starbucks, he might have observed a similar phenomenon when he made a cappuccino. Unfortunately Herodotus says nothing about a red-hot sledgehammer. But this is a very nice paper.

‘Peisistratos, the Cults, and the Unification of Attica’ carries on from a suggestion by the late Mary White ( Phoenix 9 [1955], pp. 16-17) about the connection between the Peisistratid cult practices and the unification of Attica. The paper begins with the contrast between Attica and Boiotia: the latter was an example of disunity, whereas in Attica there was none of the resentment against Athens for her power and greed that we find in Boiotia. Or at least no tradition of it has come down to us, in part, no doubt, because the synoikismos of Attica happened very early, and because historical tradition in Attica was firmly in the grip of the asty of Athens. Frost sees a consistent pattern of using cult to promote both unity, and Peisistratos himself, as one who ruled with divine approval, and in accordance with Athenian ancestral tradition. But the same policy did not save Peisistratos’ son, Hippias. By his time, popular opinion in Greece had turned against tyrants. Periander, not Theseus, had become the paradigm of the tyrant.

‘Faith, Authority and History in Early Attica’ follows a parallel theme: the importance of cults in archaic Attica, and of the great families that provided the hereditary officials who preserved the memories of the past, ‘or at least that part of the past that involved the origins of the family and its earliest history’. The so-called ‘Alkmeonid archives’ which have haunted Herodotean source criticism must have been memories of this sort, and the officials who remembered them must have been hieromnemones who were in the business of transmitting the oral traditions of the family cults. Perhaps the most powerful family in seventh-century Athens was the Eteoboutadai, hereditary priests of Athena Polias, and rivals of the Alkmeonids, and the account of Kylon’s failed coup that we find in Herodotus and Thucydides is really an aitiological tale explaining how Athena punished the Alkmeonids with an hereditary curse. The curse carefully remembered the other great families, particularly the Eteoboutadai, and it remained a useful weapon against the Alkmeonids. This paper is a brilliant evocation of what society and political power was like as Attica emerged from the Dark Ages. ‘Politics in Early Attica’ returns to the same theme: drawing a picture of archaic society dominated by an elite for whom honor and self-esteem was all-important, both in private life and in the political arena. Why did Harmodius and Aristogeiton assassinate Hipparchus? Thucydides missed the point of the story, Frost argues. Hipparchus had insulted the family of the Gephyraioi by ejecting Harmodius’ sister as a kanephoros in a sacred procession and the murder of Hipparchus was the only way that the insult could be avenged. An insult to family honor, not a passion for liberty, motivated the tyrannicides.

Up to and even after the reforms of Cleisthenes, the Athenian aristocrats continued to think of themselves as tribal patriarchs, seeking honor and repute. But in the aftermath of the Persian Wars, the pillars of society shifted. The new element that altered the economic and social structure was the fleet. It gave employment to shipwrights, chandlers, rope-makers, and merchants. Bureaucrats were needed to administer the affairs of the Delian League, particularly after the treasury was moved to Athens. The new politicians in Athens, whom W. R. Connor made the subject of a book a quarter century ago, were responding to a change in society. This is the subject of ‘Tribal Politics and the Civic State’ — the decline of the great families as centers of political power. Their status was ‘simply diluted away’ in the first decade of the empire. However the reforms of Cleisthenes did make a difference to the Athenian army, as Frost makes clear in ‘The Athenian Military before Cleisthenes.’ Before Attica was organized into demes which served as registers for military service, it was the phratries that kept the muster rolls, and even under Peisistratus, there was no pan-Athenian army. After Cleisthenes, there was, or at least, a governmental structure in place that made one possible. When Datis and Artaphrenes landed at Marathon in 490 B.C., their guide was Hippias, who had been absent from Athens for twenty crucial years and probably failed to realize how much Athenian society had changed in that period. Peisistratid supporters might have joined him had he arrived in Attica two decades earlier. But in 490, Athens had a pan-Athenian army, and the old Peisistratid supporters were fighting in it, charging the Persians in the hoplite battle line.

Three papers deal with Themistocles. ‘Thucydides I. 137.2’ is an attempt to look at a notorious crux with a mariner’s eye. Thucydides reports that the ship taking the exiled Themistocles to Ephesus was driven by a storm dangerously close to an Athenian squadron that was besieging Naxos. This will not fit our chronology of the Pentakontaetia, and so the text has been emended to read ‘Thasos’ instead of ‘Naxos’. Plutarch, who quotes Thuc. 1.137.2, gives some aid and comfort to the emenders, for one good Plutarch manuscript does, in fact, read ‘Thasos’. Frost looks at the admiralty charts and asks if a ship caught in an unseasonal southerly gale on its way to Ephesus could have made it to the lee of Thasos, and replies that Naxos was a much better place to find shelter. The chronology remains a problem, but it is better to wreck a chronological scheme than a ship. ‘Themistocles and Mnesiphilus’ examines the relationship between Themistocles and Mnesiphilus of Phrearroi in the light of the great cache of ostraca found in the Kerameikos, several of which bear Mnesiphilus’ name. One joins an ostracon with Megacles’ name, which gives us a date — 487-486 B.C. So the shadowy Mnesiphilus who appears as a wise advisor for Themistocles in Herodotus was important enough to be considered for ostracism in 487! But most important of the three Themistocles papers is ‘Themistocles’ Place in Athenian Politics’, which tries to fit Themistocles’ early career into the context of archaic Athenian politics. Frost, incidentally, accepts Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ date for Themistocles’ archonship, but he argues that the archonship was of no great political importance then and was often held by young politicians as the first step in their careers.

The last paper in his volume is ‘Pericles, Thucydides, son of Melesias, and Athenian Politics before the War’. H. T. Wade-Gery made Thucydides, the son of Melesias, the subject (and the title) of a paper which created the standard view of Athenian politics after the mid-point of the fifth century B.C. Frost modifies that view and does it well.

This is a valuable book. It not only brings together a group of papers important for the study of Athenian history, but it also allows us to appreciate the achievement of an important American historian of ancient Greece. Let us hope for more in the future.