Watchdogs of the People: Demagogues and Popular Culture in Ancient Greece

Matthew Simonton

  Simonton, Matthew. "Watchdogs of the People: Demagogues and Popular Culture in Ancient Greece." CHS Research Bulletin 8 (2020).


I spent a wonderful (all things considered) Spring semester 2020 at the Center for Hellenic Studies, where I worked primarily on my second book project, Watchdogs of the People: Demagogues, Populism, and Popular Culture in Ancient Greece, but also related projects. My book, which will be the first history of the phenomenon of demagoguery (or the “(mis)leading of the people”) across Greek antiquity, aims both to explain the emergence of demagogic politicians within the context of the Greek democratic polis and to use the demagogue’s appeals as a window, however distorted, onto non-elite attitudes and values among the Greek male citizenry. During my time at CHS I was able to conduct extensive research into multiple areas of the study: the creation by comic poets and historians in the fifth century BCE of a “discursive template” surrounding demagoguery and its effects on later historiography; the actual style of the rhetoric, down to gesture and provocative turn of phrase, employed by speakers labeled “demagogues” by the ancient sources; the “culture of the Greek common people” as extricated from genres such as Old Comedy, paroemiography, and oneiromancy; and a comparison of Greek demagoguery with the popularis style of the Late Roman Republic. The results of this research promise to benefit the field of Classics and the humanities in general on several fronts: in providing an account of the earliest emergence of democratic popular leadership; in setting an analysis of ancient Greek demagoguery in dialogue with studies in Political Science and Sociology on contemporary populist movements; and in expanding our knowledge of the values and attitudes of non-elite actors in history.

Thanks to my wonderful time spent at the Center for Hellenic Studies in the Spring semester of 2020 (during what were of course tumultuous times), I was able to advance my current research projects substantially. The central project, for which I was awarded my fellowship, is a monograph devoted to a political and cultural history of the phenomenon of “demagoguery” in the ancient Greek world. While most scholars, and even perhaps the general public, are aware that the term “demagogue” emerged in ancient Greece and picked out a particular style of political leadership, most studies do not investigate demagoguery beyond its most (in)famous period, late-fifth-century Athens (Finley 1962; Connor 1971; Mann 2007; cf. Scholz 2011). Since, however, wherever there is a people (dêmos) that requires leading (agôgos), a demagogue (dêmagôgos) is likely to emerge, the phenomenon is not restricted to the Classical Athenian democracy but can be found throughout the Classical Greek world and beyond. We read of numerous demagogues in the poleis of Greece from Classical down to Imperial times. My study will be the first to provide a general account of demagoguery and to explain both the emergence of demagogues and the logic underlying their bombastic style. The scope of the inquiry is all poleis of the ancient Greek world governed by nominally democratic regimes, from ca. 500 BCE to ca. 100 CE. I frame the analysis not only as a narrative political history but as a comparative exercise in both 1) the study of populism, ancient and modern, research concerning which has (understandably) blossomed lately (e.g. Mueller 2016; Ron and Nadesan 2020), and 2) the study of popular culture in antiquity, since much of the demagogue’s appeal lay precisely in tapping into supposedly “popular,” non-elite notions and values (Forsdyke 2012; Grig 2016).

The research I conducted while at CHS helped immensely with this and other projects. Any study of ancient demagoguery must begin with the very influential depictions of the archetypal demagogue Cleon of Athens, both in Old Comic poets (Aristophanes, Eupolis, Plato Comicus, et al.) and in historiography (Thucydides). These authors collectively forged a kind of discursive template of the demagogue, based on Cleon, that would be drawn upon by all subsequent authors interested in demagoguery, from all genres (see Lafargue 2013). A major part of my research while at CHS was to trace the influence of this template on later authors, such as the Middle Comic poets (chiefly Eubulus and Timocles) and post-Thucydidean historians including Xenophon, Theopompus, Timaeus, Polybius, and Posidonius. The issue of the reception of the template raises crucial and very difficult historiographical questions: to what extent do the actions of politicians labeled “demagogues” belong to a coherent and recognizable style? Do “demagogic” actions and policies point to a shared underlying substance or outlook (an ideology)? Are politicians labeled “demagogues” consistently, or does the label simply get attached to figures to whom the tradition is hostile? And, perhaps most trickily, did “demagogues” really perform the actions ascribed to them, or did the “discursive template” devised in Classical Athens come to distort the picture by serving as a kind of vade mecum for later authors? My tentative conclusion is that while the influence of the template was strong, it had purchase among later authors because the populist politicians of their own time continued to act in ways that were recognizably “demagogic.” In other words, if the language concerning demagogues employed by post-Classical authors was traditional and Classicizing, as in so many other areas of literature, this is to some degree because the basic political situation of the average Greek polis had not substantially changed. Thus my study stands to make a contribution to the burgeoning literature on the nature of Hellenistic-era and later democracies (Grieb 2010; Mann and Scholz 2011; Börm and Luraghi 2018). In studying the depiction of demagogues in Old Comedy, I was able to work further on a research article in progress on Cleon’s use of oracles, and I added several improvements to a historical commentary in progress on Aristophanes’ Knights. My research on Hellenistic historiography contributed to a paper I delivered in February (before the Coronavirus hit) at the University of Zurich in a conference on “Populism in Greek Antiquity and Today” and to an article in progress on Hellenistic demagoguery.

Studying demagoguery requires, of course, analyzing political rhetoric, and another of my goals while at CHS was to take deep dives into extant symbouleutic and dicastic oratory. This included not only speeches of the Attic Orators but also briefer quotations in Old Comedy and Aristotle’s Rhetoric and representations in historiography. We have notices from ancient critics such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus concerning turns of phrase or entire speeches considered low or “vulgar” (phortikos). My purpose in examining this material was to see whether common patterns emerge—whether politicians known to be “demagogic” spoke in similar ways. We do see a shared “rough” style: I cite, for example, the blunt statement by the speaker of Demosthenes’s seventh oration, probably the anti-Macedonian politician Hegesippus of Sunium: “if you’ve got your brains between your temples and not trampled underfoot” (7.45, already considered too “vulgar” to be Demosthenes by Libanius). The violence and “corporeal” nature of the metaphor find parallels elsewhere, in speakers who engage in folksy rhetoric calculated to appeal to the “average” man. This part of my research contributed to an article I have submitted for a special issue of Ramus journal concerning rhetorical representations of the Athenian “people” (dêmos) in symbouleutic oratory. Conjointly with studying symbouleutic rhetoric I am also compiling a historical database of every attested demagogue in ancient Greece, which I hope will reveal patterns over time and will allow easy comparison across numerous categories (e.g. how the politician is described by the author; the substance of their policy; any distinctive actions or gestures on their part).

As stated in my introduction, one aspect of demagoguery that especially intrigues me is the extent to which populist discourse affords us a window onto “popular culture” in Greek antiquity. In their “vulgar” words and deeds, supposedly infra dignitatem considering their important leadership role, demagogues may have been appealing to the everyday values and concerns of sub-elite Greeks. Of course, since these people have not left behind much at all in terms of the literary record, locating their supposed “culture,” if indeed it exists, is a difficult enterprise. In searching for elements of such a culture I surveyed several texts of various genres, including Theophrastus’ Characters, Zenobius’ pareomiographical writings, and Artemidorus’ Oneirocritica. From these texts one can attempt to extricate snapshots of everyday life in the ancient Greek world. Now that I have read and taken notes on this material I can begin the process of comparing the concerns that emerge from these texts with the content of “demagogic” rhetoric.

Finally, my time at the Center afforded me the opportunity to delve into material that I usually lack the time to engage with, namely studies of politics in Late Republican Rome. These are exciting times in the study of the Late Republic, with several scholars evincing an interest in the populist aspects of Roman public oratory (see recently Rosillo López 2017; van der Blom, Gray, and Steel 2018; Rosenblitt 2019). After reading into as much of this material as I could, I attended a virtual conference in May, organized by Liv Mariah Yarrow and Carlos Noreña, on “The Late Republic: Populism(s), Power Structures, and Interpretative Frameworks.” I made several professional connections after the event that hold out the possibility of collaborative, comparative scholarship going forward. While the city of Rome differed in crucial ways from the average Greek polis, the societies greatly influenced each other over the course of the Hellenistic period, to the extent that the “discursive template” discussed above may feature also in Roman historiography, since authors like Sallust drew heavily (but creatively) on Thucydides. I welcome the opportunity to incorporate Roman examples into my study as points of comparison, whereas in my first book considerations of time and specialization prevented me from comparing ancient Greek oligarchies with the Roman Republic. My time at the Center helped me to make up for this deficit by granting me free time and excellent resources.

Select Bibliography

Börm, H., and N. Luraghi, eds. 2018. The Polis in the Hellenistic World. Stuttgart.

Connor, W. R. 1992 [1971]. The New Politicians of Fifth-Century Athens. Indianapolis.

Finley, M. I. 1962. “Athenian Demagogues.” Past & Present 21:3-24.

Forsdyke, S. 2012. Slaves Tell Tales: And Other Episodes in the Politics of Popular Culture in Ancient Greece. Princeton.

Grieb, V. 2010. Hellenistische Demokratie: Politische Organisation und Struktur in freien Griechischen Poleis nach Alexander dem Grossen. Stuttgart.

Grig, L., ed. 2016. Popular Culture in the Ancient Greek World. Cambridge.

Lafargue, Ph. 2013. Cléon: le Guerrier d’Athéna. Bordeaux.

Mann, Chr. 2007. Die Demagogen und das Volk: zur politischen Kommunikation im Athen des 5. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. Berlin.

Mann, Chr., and P. Scholz, eds. 2011. ‘Demokratie’ im Hellenismus: von der Herrschaft des Volkes zur Herrschaft der Honoratioren? Mainz.

Mueller , J.-W. 2016. What is Populism? Philadelphia.

Ron, A., and M. Nadesan, eds. 2020. Mapping Populism: Approaches and Methods. New York.

Rosenblitt, J. A. 2019. Rome after Sulla. London and New York.

Rosillo López, C. 2017. Public Opinion and Politics in the Late Roman Republic. Cambridge.

Scholz, P. 2011. “‘Demokratie in hellenistischer Zeit’ im Licht der literarischen Überlieferung.” In Mann and Scholz 2011:28-55.

van der Blom, H., Chr. Gray, and C. Steel, eds. 2018. Institutions and Ideology in Republican Rome: Speech, Audience and Decision. Cambridge.

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