BMCR 2022.02.18

Athènes 403: une histoire chorale

, , Athènes 403: une histoire chorale. Au fil de l'histoire. Paris: Flammarion, 2020. Pp. 454. ISBN 9782081334724 €25,00.

In Athènes 403: une histoire chorale Azoulay and Ismard have produced a superb study of the critical period defined by the brief ascendancy and rapid fall of the Thirty in the aftermath of Athens’ defeat in 403 BC. The lens through which they view this period is the city as chorus, which they call a “métaphore absolue”. This is more than a mere turn of phrase; chorality was a mode of experience that helped the Athenians to orient themselves in their world. Thus, Critias and the 30 are a choregos and a chorus. Thus, the Men of the City and the Men of the Piraeus are eventually reconciled like two demi-choruses uniting after their separate entrances. There is also a more fundamental level of chorality: the city shifts between (a fictive) harmonious uniformity and the discordant polyvocality of various political actors (Thrasyboulos, Theramenes and a host of others), in the same way that the chorus serves as a (notionally homogenous) collective even as individual voices make themselves heard. Azoulay and Ismard use this fluidity to illuminate the perplexing social relations of post-war Athens. The civic community becomes a useful fiction, to which actors can appeal, especially if, as collaborators, they can slip behind the mask of anonymity: I stayed in the city, one could claim, but it was to protect my property. Even more telling is the way that moderates from both camps, men such as Kephisophon and Agyrrhios banded together behind this fiction of the civic community to reestablish order but also exclude those elements of the population, servile, metic, and the free poor, which had briefly formed an alliance with the democrats. The fiction of the united civic community concealed restrictions and exclusivity.

Despite the allure of this totalizing reading, it is the small episodes rather than the controlling metaphor that make this book such a pleasure to read. For example, the authors are keenly attuned to the impact of exile on many key members of the Thirty. Brutalized by their exposure to regimes far more violent than Athens they brought that brutality home with them. “C’est tout ce riche tissu social, tramé par des liens d’obligation réciproques, auquel l’exilé est brutalement arraché” (51), they note, a sentiment that Polynices in Euripides’ Phoinissai would have surely understood. Azoulay and Ismard are justified in referring to the men who took power in 404 as “un choeur d’exilés” but the metaphor seems less germane than the question of how these men came to see their community “comme un repère d’ennemis à éliminer.”

Here and elsewhere the metaphor of chorality is foregrounded when it is actually the close examination of figures and episodes that sheds more light on Athenian political culture. In the chapter on Socrates, for example, Azoulay and Ismard identify a chorus of the non-aligned, or as they call it, “un choeur de citoyens activement engagés dans le désengagement.” (149-150) But what the chapter reveals more significantly is the fluidity of neutrality, a role that allows complicity with the Thirty (in the case of Aristarchus) to hide behind a mask of quietude. Xenophon and Plato’s emphasis on the lawful Socrates, in this context, rewrites his neutrality as a principled resistance. The unifying theme here is neutrality, not chorality, and the erotic potential of neutrality looks suspiciously like little more than an opportunity to work in another chorus reference: “… il n’est sans doute pas exagéré de parler d’un veritable choeur gravitant autour du philosophe, dont celui-ci aurait été le chorège munificent.” (167)

Similarly, the chapter on Lysimache, priestess of Athena Polias and Myrrhine, priestess of Athena Nike, offers a striking portrait of the aristocratic priestess who served for over sixty years, as well as her colleague, the first woman elected from all Athenian women to serve as head of a civic cult. Their impact was enormous. Their presence lightly recast as characters in Aristophanes only confirms this, yet characterizing these women as a chorus perhaps risks saying too much and too little. Contrasting the relative powerlessness of women with the “pious fiction” of the charismatic Lysimache/Lysistrata, Azoulay and Ismard claim, “la mise en scène de cette choralité féminine invite à prendre au sérieux les solidarités, voire les formes de sororité, qui se tissaient entre femmes dans un cadre rituel.” (180) Exactly how? The question is not meant dismissively, but to suggest that if “choralité féminine” is not just a descriptive label equivalent to, say, “the French Women’s Football Team” then its exact meaning deserves to be teased out. For example, the authors understandably connect Lysimache’s ritual acts with the Erechtheion (174-176) as part of a discussion of autochthony. But this very building was decorated with a sculpted chorus of six Karyatids on the south side, facing the Parthenon. This is left unexplored, a curious omission.

As the book unfolds and brings a broader range of characters into focus the metaphor of chorality increasingly appears to be more a trope of the authors’ prose than a genuine feature of Athenian culture. A chapter on the misthôtos Eutheros, a character in Xenophon’s Memorabilia prompts the question, “… dans quelle mesure ce personage est-il le porte-parole d’un choeur, celui des hommes libres non propriétaires et travaillant de façon temporaire sur les terres de citoyens athéniens?” (201) In fact the question is a distraction. What is important is not whether or not paid workers are in any meaningful sense a chorus. What is significant is that, despite the prejudice against paid work as a kind of servitude, “tout indique que les hommes libres travaillant au service d’autres hommes libres étaient en réalité fort nombreux.” (204) Similarly, the authors ask whether there existed a chorus of misthôtoi in 404/403, but their analysis is far more illuminating when they use the concept of precarity to identify a contradiction in classical Athens: Eutheros as a paid worker may toil alongside dependent laborers and enslaved persons, but he identifies himself by his status as a free man.

When Azoulay and Ismard turn their attention to the Athenian family we are offered the ‘choeur domestique’ (217). Their reading draws on Xenophon’s analogizing the well-run household to a harmonious chorus (Mem. 8.3), which is correct as far as it goes, but in Xenophon the analogy goes further (and it is only an analogy, not a controlling metaphor). Xenophon proceeds to a second, much longer comparison: imagine an army in the field, or on the march, or a trireme going into battle. Four times Xenophon attributes success to the corporate group acting ἐν τάξει. What is important is that the household be well-ordered. It is never more than like a chorus. Yet, once again, if we leave aside the choral motif and follow the analysis of family dynamics in the immediate post-war period, the results are exciting. They identify a renewed interest in asserting an ideal image of the oikos. “La famille étroite se présente comme un rempart harmonieux, presque immuable, contre les déchirures du monde.” (224) This is an image of the family and its members replicated in the memorials to the dead. In an especially neat exposition they juxtapose the tangled skeins of the family of Dikaiogenes (Isaios 5) and the remarkable funerary stele of Hegeso, finding confirmation of a clear spatial partition within the family, in which the female control of the domestic domain is (ideally) absolute.

A turning point during the restoration was the proposal of Thrasyboulos to enfranchise all who had supported the democracy, which was opposed by Archinos. Chapter 3 offers a penetrating overview of Archinos’ career, reinterpreting the reconciliation of the democrats and oligarchs as a trompe-l’oeil concealing the emergence of a violent and coercive “moderation” that silenced opposition and quickly became a new orthodoxy. Behind this façade was a conservative consensus that reaffirmed the conventional order of Athenian society. Returning to this theme in ch. 8 Azoulay and Ismard turn their attention to a certain Gerys, a former slave of Thrasyboulos who was among those awarded metic status for their participation in the democratic resistance. The reconstruction of Gerys’ career entails a certain degree of speculation but it is seductive; it appeals to our desire for a subaltern history. Positioning Gerys, who was a vegetable seller, as part of a chorus of artisans and shopkeepers, may seem a little tendentious, but as a thought exercise it must be admitted that it contributes to a fascinating way of picturing Athenian society. More speculative is the attempt to identify Gerys as one of the Thracians from the Piraeus who figure in the ranks of Thrasyboulos’ men, a notion which would be attractive if it could be proven.

A volume on chorality would scarcely merit the name without a section on choruses, and in ch. 9 Azoulay and Ismard discuss the two choruses of Aristophanes’ Frogs. In fact, however, the true focus of their attention is Nicomachus, abused by Hades and the object of a virulent denunciation in Lysias 30. Why? According to the authors, because he was the coryphaeus of a chorus of civil servants whom the community would rather have kept hidden. Seldom has bureaucracy received such sympathetic treatment. Once more, it is the gap between appearance and actuality that they so perceptively illuminate: “le recours aux esclaves permettait de masquer l’écart inéluctable entre l’État et la société, l’administration nécessaire de la vie publique et l’idéal démocratique.” (260)

So much of the established narratives of the Thirty and the restoration depend on Lysias that the authors devote a lengthy chapter to this man of many guises. Their reconstruction of his life remains tentative (although their discussion of his relationships is worth reading if only for the description of him as “un orateur au profil berlusconien.” (268) For them Lysias is not a disadvantaged metic who briefly enjoyed full citizenship only to be stripped of this status, as the usual story goes, but a citizen of Thourioi for over thirty years who, at Athens, moved in the highest circles. Though there were moments when his juridical status prevented him from full civic participation he would still have seen himself as an active member of the Athenian community. Their revisionist reading becomes more pronounced as Azoulay and Ismard explore the Lysias-as-outsider narrative. In the antisemitic work of Friedrich Ferckel, for example, Lysias was likened to Jews who solely pursued personal interest and who therefore had no concern regarding the political regime under which they lived. Anxious to absolve Lysias of these calumnies they dig deeper into different scenarios that might explain Lysias’ and his brother’s moving repeatedly between Magna Graecia and Athens, emphasizing the uncertainties of any reconstruction of his career, even their own. Their Lysias cannot be contained within a single sphere of activity, but is by turns an artisan, a sophist and a logographer. They repeatedly deploy the choral motif to describe clusters of family and friends, but many of these Lysianic “choruses” look like “networks” or “groups” by any other name. Yet, as distracting as this may be, it must be said that this is the most nuanced reading of Lysias yet produced. Although the Thirty deformed everything they touched, most especially the narrative of the democracy’s suspension and resurrection, Azoulay and Ismard have done an excellent job of identifying the fault lines along which this disaster played out. Even richer is their final chapter, in which they use notions of harmony and musical intervals to explore the idea of the city as a composition. With their emphasis on fluidity and impermanence, they find confirmation of the choral model in Aristotle, who employed the metaphor to explain the proper functioning of the civic community. The city is here imagined not as a unity so much as an arrangement of multiple, interlacing choirs.

This is an original study with a distinctive voice and a compelling thesis. May it soon be translated into English and read widely.