BMCR 2007.03.14

The Rhetoric of Conspiracy in Ancient Athens

, The Rhetoric of Conspiracy in Ancient Athens. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. xiv, 199. $49.95.

Table of Contents

Joseph Roisman’s Rhetoric of Conspiracy in Ancient Athens owes its genesis to his recently published book on the Athenian rhetoric of manhood.1 What better proof of the fear of conspiracy in Athens, if one cannot study masculinity without encountering a multitude of references to plots, schemes, and conspiracies? R. mines the corpus of Attic orators for evidence of a widespread conspiratorial mindset and examines how such a worldview contributed to the maintenance of the Athenian democracy, concluding that “it was thanks to the belief in plots and the plot detectors that faith in the validity of basic values and the existing system could be reaffirmed” (p. 160). In contrast to Eli Sagan, who attributes a degree of paranoia to the Athenians, R. posits that the rhetoric of conspiracy filled a need to explain “why bad things happen to good people” (in the now classic formulation of Dieter Groh).2 He thus joins the current critical mode of conspiracy thinking that moves well beyond Hofstadter’s so-called paranoid style, beginning with the social-psychological contributions in Graumann and Moscovici, the popular culture studies of Fenster, Knight, and Melley, and the philosophical examinations of Pigden, Keeley, Clarke, and Basham.3 A global audience of scholars is eager to understand how conspiracy theory generates social forms, and R. is the first to bring ancient Athens to the table. His approach also situates him among those Greek historians who suggest that competition among the elite and the use of the courts to pursue personal grievances promoted and reinforced democratic values.4 Accusations of sykophancy, bribery, hubris—and now conspiracy—that appear in the corpus of Attic orators served as a form of social control.

The design of the book is elegant and straightforward. After a brief introduction, seven chapters progress from private to public speeches. The first three chapters deal with the rhetoric of conspiracy employed in cases of homicide, inheritance, and cases in which litigants attempt to entrap their opponent. R. then moves to the rhetoric of conspiracy in the public sphere. The next two chapters are devoted to charges of conspiracy in speeches that deal with the internal politics of Athens, especially in the wake of the rule of the Thirty tyrants, and in speeches that call into question the legality of new political measures (Demosthenes 23 and 24). The last two chapters take up the rhetoric of conspiracy as it is employed in instances of foreign and international policy, with particular attention to the Peace of Philocrates and the Fourth Sacred War.

Conspiracy is typically considered an act that is criminal, planned and carried out by more than one individual, to accomplish some political goal, such as the overthrow of a legally established government, the rigging of an election, or the illegal removal of a leader from office. For the Athenians, R. suggests, the semantic range was much broader, so as to include even acts that were not necessarily criminal and were carried out by only one person (pp. 2-3). As a result, plots to murder an individual, to cheat another of his inheritance, or to drag an enemy into court under false charges fall under the category of conspiracy and help explain Athenian anxiety over the stability of the democracy and the loyalty of its citizens. From the frequency of such accusations, R. infers that the Athenians had “an a priori readiness to believe in the pervasiveness of conspiracies in human affairs” (p. 6), which litigants exploited as they sought to persuade the jury to vote in their favor. R. is also particularly interested in determining the plausibility of conspiracies described by litigants, since then we can better understand what prompted a litigant to turn to the rhetoric of conspiracy, when the topos was useful, and how the litigant could activate or apply it (p. 2). He is especially good at showing the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments that the individual litigants advance.

Adapted by both prosecutors and defendants, the rhetoric of conspiracy is deployed always to strengthen the litigant’s case and to discredit his opponent. In homicide cases, it helps the jury understand events that were “unexpected, random, and unjust” (p. 18). For the son in Antiphon 1, the stepmother is the secret hand that explains the sudden death of his father (pp. 12-3). In the prosecution of Euphiletus, Eratosthenes can only be presented as the victim if it can show that Euphiletus plotted against the alleged adulterer because of some ulterior motive (pp. 16-17). In disputes over inheritance, the rhetoric of conspiracy can be seen to compensate for a weak argument (p. 35) and level the playing field (p. 22), to call into question the character and motives of an opponent (p. 43), and to explain how the dispute arose (p. 28). When a litigant claims entrapment, conspiracy serves to remind jurors of the opponent’s attempt to divert them from their obligation to justice (p. 64). Although Demosthenes attributes hostile motives to Thrasylochus for challenging him to an antidosis, R. suggests that the temporal proximity of the antidosis and the suits against the guardians may have been purely coincidental. Thrasylochus may have intended to withdraw the suits after the exchange not because he was in collusion with them, but because he was reluctant to become embroiled in a long and complicated dispute, of which he had no personal knowledge. The legal exigencies of the individual court cases also explain why Thrasylochus’s role in the antidosis is highlighted in Demosthenes 28 while Meidias’s involvement receives greater attention in Demosthenes 21 (pp. 46-7).

Turning to politics and the public sphere, R. argues from Thucydides and Aristophanes that Cleon was the first to popularize the rhetoric of conspiracy (p. 67). The primary sources, however, tend to present Cleon as the inventor of every bad political habit. Without more information on Athenian leaders before Pericles, it is difficult to assess the accuracy of such claims. On the other hand, one cannot help but wonder whether the murder of Ephialtes might have been a catalyst for the fear that Cleon is said to have voiced. Next follows a discussion of Athenian politics in the aftermath of the Thirty. Focusing primarily on Lysias 13 and 30, R. persuasively shows how accusations of conspiracy allowed the Athenians to blame the Thirty for the surrender and to imagine the demos as the innocent victim. In addition, he suggests that the oligarchs did not begin their plans to overthrow the democracy until after the Athenian surrender (pp. 78-82). This suggestion is attractive, but it does not adequately account for the arrest of Athenian leaders prior to the surrender. If democrats were arrested because they were conspiring against the peace, as R. proposes, what did their conspiracy entail and how were they going to stop the surrender? It is more plausible that they were jailed on trumped up charges by those in favor of the peace, who wanted to remove all opposition before the fateful meeting of the assembly. Perhaps supporters of surrender had not yet developed plans to overthrow the democracy, but it is hard to explain their actions before the peace unless they were conspiratorial. But this is a minor quibble, since clearly the events of the surrender and civil war were conflated and telescoped in Lysias for the reasons that R. argues.

In his analysis of Demosthenes 23 and 24, R. shows how the speakers’ claims of conspiracy are tendentious and how readily Athenians could assume that a malicious agenda prompted a politician to propose a decree or law (p. 117). One could also note how the speakers needed to distance their objections to individual measures from the assemblies and boards of nomothetai that approved them. As with accusations of bribery, charges of conspiracy provided the speaker with cover when he criticized a policy that received popular support.5 The fault was not with the people, but the malicious political leaders. Particularly noteworthy are R.’s observations that Demosthenes relied on the rhetoric of conspiracy more in forensic than deliberative speeches (p. 130) and particularly after 346 (p. 126). Clearly, the failure to stop Philip’s ascendancy forced the Athenians to search for an explanation, and conspiracy filled the void just as it had done after the Thirty.

From the rhetoric of conspiracy, R. draws conclusions about a conspiratorial mindset in ancient Athens. Amply attested across the board, the rhetoric of conspiracy was produced and consumed by both mass and elite, and it suggests an Athenian anxiety about conspiracy. With a suspicious world view, the conspiracy “spoiler” had the ability to police Athenian society; in this sense, the rhetoric of conspiracy served to remind fellow Athenians that their behavior was always under scrutiny and their attempts at conspiracy were detectable. Finally, R. collates the similarities between ancient and modern conspiracy theory: both design for themselves a perfect logic born of fantastic tales that explain hidden agendas. Both are born of a state of crisis in which scapegoats are blamed for the misfortunes of others. The major difference, according to R., is that modern conspiracy theory will lay blame on nameless, impersonal groups, whereas in ancient Athens, “the notion of a single conspirator, a semantic oxymoron, posed no difficulties for the Athenians” (p. 158).

This oxymoron, however, points to an objection that threatens to undermine R.’s project, for a conspiracy always demands at least three participants: at least two conspire against at least one other person. Instead of a “semantic oxymoron,” we may be looking at a misapplication of the term “conspirator.” Furthermore, because conspiracy is always already embedded in some form of narrative and is therefore difficult to disentangle from the rhetoric in which it is preserved, how is the rhetoric of conspiracy different from any other rhetorical ploy in the Athenian legal speeches? Isn’t the conspirator just another litigant with a case to win? Isn’t conspiracy merely a quick and easy way for the prosecutor to discredit his opponent or for the defendant to explain why someone has brought him to court when he is innocent of any wrongdoing? To what degree has R. instead outlined a rhetoric of victimhood (p. 117), or confirmed the practice of helping one’s friends and hurting one’s enemies? Since the rhetoric of conspiracy was more prevalent in the forensic than deliberative speeches of Demosthenes, one cannot help but wonder how much it was derived from a mindset or to what degree it was a product of forensic persuasion.

R. argues that conspiracy theory fulfilled a positive function in the maintenance of the Athenian democracy; however, it could just as easily be deployed against the democracy, as the arrests of the “sykophants” by the Thirty show. If conspiracy is a divisive mechanism that pits perpetrators against victim(s), then it is difficult to see how it contributes to a democratic system that places a premium on unity. And yet, as Pigden reminds us, to believe that conspiracy theory is necessarily superstitious is itself superstitious; sometimes there is a positive warrant for belief.6 In the end, the problem with conspiracy theory is that it can be both warranted and unwarranted, ethical and unethical, constructive and destructive, thus making it both intractable and irresistible to a scholar as learned, complex, and subtle as R.


1. Roisman, J. 2005. The Rhetoric of Manhood: Masculinity in the Attic Orators. Berkeley.

2. Sagan, E. 1991. The Honey and the Hemlock: Democracy and Paranoia in Ancient Athens and Modern America. Princeton. Groh, D. 1987. “The Temptation of Conspiracy Theory, or: Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Part I: Preliminary Draft of a Theory of Conspiracy Theories.” In Changing Conceptions of Conspiracy, ed. C.F. Graumann and S. Moscovici, 1-13. New York.

3. Hofstadter, R. 1967. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. New York. Fenster, M. 1999. Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. Minneapolis. Knight, P. 2000. Conspiracy Culture: From the Kennedy Assassination to The X-Files. London. Melley, T. 2000. Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America. Ithaca. Pigden, C. 1995. “Popper Revisited, or What is Wrong with Conspiracy Theories?” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 25: 3-34. Keeley, B. L. 1999. “Of Conspiracy Theories,” Journal of Philosophy 96: 109-26. Clarke, S. 2002. “Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorizing,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 32: 131-50. Basham, L. 2003. “Malevolent Global Conspiracy,” Journal of Social Philosophy 34: 93-103.

4. See for example, Ober, J. 1989. Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People. Princeton. Cohen, D. 1995. Law, Violence, and the Community in Classical Athens. Cambridge. Christ, M. R. 1998. The Litigious Athenian. Baltimore. Johnstone, S. 1999. Disputes and Democracy: The Consequences of Litigation in Ancient Athens. Austin.

5. Todd, S. C. 1990. “The Use and Abuse of the Attic Orators.” Greece and Rome 37: 174.

6. Pigden (above n. 3) 25.