Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Reflections on Athens' Moral Panic

So, these being facts of Athens' moral panic, what are we to make of it?  How widespread was the panic?  How many people were victims of it?  Who did the panic target?  How credible is Andocides' account?  Why was it so effective in curbing the panic?  And what were the lasting repercussions?

How widespread was the panic?
Once again, in assessing how widespread the panic was, we remember to keep straight three separate crimes that the Athenians conflated.  The first was the mutilation of the herms, an indisputably real and, by the standards of Ancient Greece, very serious crime that could only have been committed by a well-planned conspiracy.  A hunt for the suspects was perfectly reasonable; the problem was not so much looking for suspects as letting suspicions run out of hand.  The second was the profanation of the Mysteries, which may very well have happened, but if so had probably been going on for quite some time without any harm done.  Catching the profaners of the Mysteries may or may not have been appropriate, but had nothing to do with the immediate crisis and was part of a broader crackdown on unrelated matters.  The third was a supposed plot to overthrow the democracy that existed only in people's overheated imaginations and was pure moral panic in the worst sense.

As in all moral panics, there were skeptics, meaning, in this case, not skeptics that the mutilation of the herms took place, but perhaps skepticism about the other crimes, and definitely about whether the informants were reliable.  Plutarch quotes a contemporary comic poet mocking the informants as a pack of liars.  He also says that Diocleides claimed to have recognized the conspirators' faces by the moonlight, even though the crime took place during the new moon and adds, "Sensible men were troubled thereat, but even this did not soften the people's feeling towards the slanderous stories."  It makes a good story about how far the gullible rubes were carried away, but it seems unlikely. Andocides does, indeed, report that Diocleides claimed to have recognized the conspirators by the light of the full moon, but he does not say that it was actually a new moon.  And, for what it is worth, the historian Diodorus Siculus, writing over 150 years earlier, says that Diocleides was immediately  discredited as a liar for this error.  Most likely, then, the moon story is a later invention which Plutarch used to mock the gullible rubes.*

We do not really know the full extent of the panic among gullible rubes.  What we can say for certain is that it was not limited to gullible rubes, but reached the highest level of Athenian society. Andocides reports that when Diocleides told his story to the Council and denounced two members of the Council then present, Peisander called for suspending the usual ban on the torture of citizens and the rest of the Council "broke into shouts of approval."  Clearly, then, panic had gripped the Council no less than the general public.

How many people were victims of the panic?

Andocides says that Athenians "stood in such fear of one another that you ceased going abroad even into the Agora, because you each expected arrest" and that
Athens reached such a state that the lowering of the flag, by the Herald, when summonig a meeting of the Council, was quite as much a signal for the citizens to hurry from the Agora, each in terror of arrest, as it was for the Council to proceed to the Council-chamber.
Getting to specifics, Andocides appears to report one man executed for profaning the mysteries, an  undetermined number, more than one and less than eighteen (he later implies about equal numbers killed and fled), executed for mutilating the herms, probably two hostages killed when the men they stood surety for defected, and  Diocleides executed for giving false testimony.  (Total executed, somewhere between six and 21, probably around thirteen).  He also reports forty men arrested and an undetermined but probably similar number who fled the country for their lives.  My first (rather shameful) thought is that it does not seem like all that extensive a reign of terror by modern standards.  On the other hand, it may not be the full scope of what was going on.  Diocleides claimed to have seen about 300 conspirators, although he named only 42 of them.  There was serious talk of torturing the suspects to make them reveal the names of their accomplices.  The whole city was under arms.  Andocides also speaks of allowing 300 citizens to perish if he did not reveal the names of the conspirators.  But this did not necessarily mean that all 300 had been arrested, only that so many might be arrested.

Clearly the reaction extended beyond real or imagined vandals of the herms to a general crackdown on irreligion.  At a minimum, the accused profaners of the Mysteries were victims of this general crackdown.  Andocides does not mention any others, but the net may have extended beyond the victims he mentions.  At least, Aristophanes' play The Birds, performed about six months after these events, mentions Diagoras of Melos being in exile, possibly for mocking the Mysteries, and a one talent price on his head, as well as a talent reward on the heads of long-dead tyrants.  Diagoras was a notorious atheist; the price on his head was presumably part of the general crackdown on irreligion. Perhaps he was among the unnamed persons denounced by the slave Lydus for mocking the mysteries.  Or there may have been a broader crackdown.  Or, some people suggest, Diagoras may have gone into exile earlier because he was a Melian, either because the Athenians feared the people they had wronged and drove him out, or because he chose exile, not wanting to live among the people who had destroyed his city and killed or enslaved his kin.  The price on the head of dead tyrants presumably refers to panic over imaginary plots to overthrow the democracy.  But ultimately we do not have anything concrete beyond Andocides.

Who did the panic target?

Typically moral panics target particular groups who are perceived as threats.  Often, the groups are ethnic minorities or marginalized groups, i.e., they kick down. But moral panics can be directed at the powerful as well.  Victorian panics over forced prostitution often told lurid tales of innocent girls kidnapped and sold to rich lechers.  McCarthyism targeted State Department employees, Hollywood bigwigs, and high-ranking members of the Truman Administration, though it ran into trouble when it took on the Army.  And so forth.  So clearly moral panic can punch up as well as kick down.  It would be fascinating to compare these two types of moral panic, but I am not offhand aware of any such works and do not have the time or inclination to hunt for them.  The question here is this particular moral panic in Athens.

There were apparently rumors blaming the Corinthians because Syracuse was a Corinthian colony. Did this lead to anti-Corinthian sentiment, attacks on Corinthian metics or visitors, anti-Corinthian riots, etc?  The best we can say is that if there was any such anti-Corinthian outburst, no classical source mentions it.  Obviously absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, it can be hard to prove a negative and so forth.  Maybe classical historians thought that any lawless attacks on mere metics and sailors was not worth mentioning.  One possible piece of evidence against such an outburst may be found (once again) in The Birds.  The heroes of that story transform themselves into birds and fly off to Cloud Cuckooland to form their own utopia, free of the various obnoxious categories of people back on earth.  Naturally when obnoxious people hear about Cloud Cuckooland, they show up and try to corrupt it, but our heroes beat them up and send them packing.  Particularly obnoxious categories include bad poets, oracle-mongers, pretentious intellectuals, bureaucrats, news casters, undutiful sons, and informers.  The informer is accused of issuing summonses in far-flung parts of Athens' empire forcing the inhabitants to come all the way to Athens to defend unmeritorious lawsuits while the informers seizes their property in their absence.  But (perhaps surprisingly) Aristophanes says nothing about informers at home.  As for the pretentious intellectual, are heroes tell him that they are sweeping away "quacks and imposters," rather as the Spartans drive away strangers.  This would seem an odd comment if Athens had recently had an outbreak of xenophobia, against Corinthians or foreigners in general.

But regardless of whether this moral panic showed any tendency to kick down, it most emphatically punched up.  Slaves, metics, and women were denouncing some of Athens' most prominent participants.  Diocleides' denunciation targeted some of Athens' most prominent citizens and threatened to target others as well.  As we have seen, he denounced 42 people, two of whom were members of the Council.  Others denounced included Andocides and his father.  We know that Andocides was from an aristocratic family because he is mentioned as a candidate for archon-basileus, or king-archon. The king-archon was a priest in charge of the Mysteries and various other religious ceremonies, as well as the trial of religious crimes and murder.  Although, like other Athenians officials, chosen by lot for a single one-year term, he was required to be a descendant of the old royal family.  So Andocides' family was descended from the old royalty.  Besides himself and his father, Andocides gives the names of eight others denounced by Diocleides, all of whom were relatives.  They include Nicias' brother.  So, of the 42 people denounced by Diocleides, two were members of the Council, ten were from one of the city's most aristocratic families, and one was the commanding general's brother.  The others are unknown, but presumably many of them were prominent as well.

How credible is Andocides account?

Andocides is our main source on the mutilation of the herms and ensuing panic.  How reliable is he? Thucydides was certainly skeptical, and classical historians have echoed his skepticism.  Plutarch likewise appears skeptical and quotes comic poets of the day who shared his skepticism.  Diodorus Siculus says that "not a man was able to discover a single clue to the deed."  And the men Andocides accused apparently denied the charge, even after an amnesty was in place.  On the other hand, we have Andocides' speech, also given with an amnesty in place, years after the event, and purported backed by credible witnesses.  The Athenians of the time believed Andocides enough to inscribe the names of the men he denounced and confiscate their property.  Modern historians are divided, some finding his account convincing, while other have considered it remarkably convenient that most of the men he denounced were already either dead or in exile, and that the four others he named were all at large and poised for flight.  Ultimately, our best answer can only be, Andocides gave the best account either we or his contemporaries had.  Compare it to skeptical historians and decide for yourself.

Why was Andocides' account so successful in curbing the panic?

Thucydides may be doubtful of Andocides' account, but he has no doubt about the results.  The panic stopped.  Why?  One reason may simply be that moral panics are transient and invariably burn themselves out.  Another possible reason may be that up until then the informants had been two slaves, a metic, a woman, and a scoundrel.**  Andocides was the first really reputable source.  But  modern historians have given another reason why his story might have carried weight.

The answer may lie in ancient Greek hetairiai, or "clubs."  These "clubs" were semi-secret associations of like-minded individuals who promised to support each other in politics and in the law-courts.  One might think of them as very, very embryonic political parties.  In classical politics, one generally hears of "parties" used to mean vague factions or tendencies, but not organized structures like modern political parties.  The hetairiai had organized structure, but no rank-and-file members. Perhaps a closer analogy might be a political caucus -- a group of like-minded politicians who meet in private and strategize together.  These clubs might be democratic or aristocratic in their ideology, but members were invariably from Athens' political class.

And they were apparently small, typically no more than 25 members.  This was no doubt partly to maintain cohesion, but also because besides caucusing, they met for entertainment in members' homes.  Even the richest Greek houses were not large enough to accommodate any more.  Some of them apparently mocked the Mysteries in these household meetings.  The slaves and women of the household presumably knew what was going on but (until the panic), thought it prudent to keep quiet. Although these clubs were formally secret, presumably members of Athens' high society could see who visited whose house regularly and had a pretty good idea who belonged to which club.

This may have been the secret to how Andocides' testimony carried conviction.  Consider what Andocides says his cousin Charmides told him:
Your friends and associates outside the family have all been subjected to the charges which are now to prove our own undoing: and half of them have been put to death,—while the other half have admitted their guilt by going into exile.
This may mean that, while the names denounced by Teucrus might seem random to your average Athenians (including comic poets), were recognized by Charmides as members of Andocides' "club," and that this, along with the undamaged statue in front of his house, led Charmides to suspect his cousin had inside knowledge.  The others joined in the plea.  Apparently all of Andocides' relatives recognized his association with the men Teucrus had denounced.  If this is so, then Andocides' denunciation would have had meaning to Athens' political class that would not be apparent to the general public -- or, apparently to Thucydides, who had been in exile for several years and was presumably not up on the latest news and gossip.  It would point to one particular club as responsible for the outrage and thus clearly set the bounds of the conspiracy.  And if Andocides denouncing his club reassured Athens' political class, perhaps they had some way of conveying this reassurance to the broader public.

What were the lasting repercussions?

No classical source says so outright, but I am inclined to think that the moral panic surrounding the destruction of the herms played a crucial role in turning much of Athens' upper classes against the democracy.  Aristotle pairs off democratic and aristocratic leaders in Athens, with a marked preference for conservative politicians such as Thucydides (not the historian, but possibly a relative), Nicias, and the controversial Theramenes.  Aristotle complains that since Pericles died the popular leaders (demagogues) have been a bunch of rabble-rousing scoundrels like Cleon, Cleophon, and Callicrates.***  But he neglects to mention a definite decline in aristocratic leaders after Nicias.  For 90 plus years, from the re-institution of the democracy under Cleisthenes up through the time of Nicias, Athens' conservative politicians were loyal to the democracy, although they might wish more brakes on it than the city's more populist politicians.  But after Nicias, Aristotle is not able to name any conservative politicians who were loyal to the democracy.  The best he can come up with is Theramenes who (as we shall see) participated in its overthrow.

And a whole lot of the names on Andocides' list turn up later on among the people who turned against the democracy.  Admittedly, we cannot be sure they are the same people.  The Greeks properly speaking had three names.  They were called, in full A, son of B of the X clan.  Athens was an exception, regarding hereditary (often aristocratic) clans as incompatible with democracy, it denied clans official recognition (although they continued to exist informally) and replaced them with  demes (townships).  Thus an Athenian would be known in full as A, son of B of the Y deme.  (As in
Alcibiades, son of Cleinias, of the deme Scambonidae).  But in normal usage, the Greeks were simply referred to by their given names.  Thus it can be hard to tell if the men listed by Andocides are the same ones who later overthrew the democracy, or simply had the same names.  But, since names were often recycled in the same family, it seems most likely that they were at least relatives.

Thus I can only assume that being targets of a moral panic; denounced on the words of slaves, metics, women and scoundrels; arrested on false charges; and threatened with torture and death; or at least seeing these things happen to relatives, was enough to turn many of Athens' leading citizens against the democracy.  Fearing a non-existent plot to overthrow the democracy, the people of Athens may have set their city up for exactly that.

*My opinion, just for what it is worth, is that it seems unlikely that anyone would have committed such a crime on the darkest night of the lunar month, when they would have to navigate by starlight. Then again, they might want to avoid the full moon for fear someone else might be out.  And it is true that the Thebans sneaked into a strange city on a moonless night at the beginning of the war, presumably to avoid detection.  (It did not go well for them).
**Given that by Diocleides' own account, his first reaction to learning of the conspiracy was to blackmail the conspirators and demand to be let in, even at the height of the panic he must have been seen as disreputable.
***He omits the outstanding democratic statesman Thrasybulus, but more on that later.

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