Wednesday, May 31, 2017


Lucia Cecchet, Poverty in Athenian Public Discourse: From the Eve of the Peloponnesian War to the Rise of Macedonia. Historia-Einzelschriften, 239. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2015. Pp. 283. ISBN 9783515111607. €59.00.

Reviewed by Alex Gottesman, Temple University (

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If it is clear that we "will always have the poor," it is less clear who or what the poor are. For instance, the idea of the poor as people in particular need of charity is a discovery of the Church. The idea of some poor as actually undeserving of charity is an invention of the Industrial Revolution. What about classical Athens? Greek sources mention the poor quite frequently, suggesting that they at least had some idea about who the poor were. Aristotle took democracy's defining feature to be rule by the poor (Pol. III. 8). If you could have a city where the rich formed the majority, he suggested, it would still be an oligarchy. It is incidental to democracy that the poor tend to be in the majority. For elite writers like Aristotle, at least, writing for elite audiences, the demos was the poor. Would most members of the demos have agreed that they were the poor? It is the goal of Cecchet's book to explore the "public discourse" of poverty and to situate it in its proper historical context, in the "prevailing systems of social relations, behaviours, legal norms and collective perceptions" (20-21). Cecchet is mainly interested in poverty as a concept rather than in poverty as economic fact. In this revised version of her PhD thesis, she argues that a discourse around poverty existed in Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries that can be traced in texts of oratory, tragedy and comedy.

But the first chapter is devoted to the most famous beggar of Greek literature: Odysseus. Cecchet argues that not only did Odysseus provide a stylized model for later literary depictions of beggary, but he also shows how beggars were seen more broadly. A key passage is Melanthios' abuse of Odysseus at 17.219-32. She suggests that the image is "associated with idleness, criminality and moral degradation" (55). The key takeaway, for Cecchet, is that the figure of Odysseus shows that "poverty is not conceived and described as a condition given by birth, but as a state that can be brought about by one's own actions" (66). The suitors' abuse of the beggar is based on the shared understanding that one is responsible for where one lands in the social hierarchy.

The second chapter examines the representation of beggars on stage, specifically in the plays of Euripides and Aristophanes. Euripides' habit of bringing beggars on stage was something that his contemporaries found remarkable, at least judging by the treatment it gets at the hands of Aristophanes. And yet other tragedians also depicted characters as beggars to elicit pity (like Xerxes in Aeschylus' Persians or Oedipus in Oedipus at Colonus). Aristophanes was especially responding to in Euripides, according to Cecchet, because of the "complex argumentative and rhetorical strategies" (69) that Euripides used beggarly garb to convey. For instance, in the fragmentary Telephus, Euripides employs a complex warp of associations, depicting Telephus both as a victim of Greek aggression and as a perpetrator. In the play the Mysian king disguised himself as a beggar and claimed to be a Greek veteran in order to get an audience in Agamemnon's palace in Argos. His beggarly disguise (which is apparently superfluous to the demands of the plot, as Cecchet rightly notes) allows Euripides to evoke the experience of ordinary war veterans. He employed beggars similarly elsewhere. Thus, "[t]his crippled and rag-wearing hero [Philoctetes] embodies the frustrated ideal of veterans betrayed by their comrades and commanders, of those who cannot reintegrate in the community, of the disillusioned who nourish hostility for their own country" (75). In other words, Aristophanes criticized Euripides' beggars because of their topicality.

To make this case, Cecchet needs to show that the years of the Peloponnesian War during which Euripides staged his "beggar plays" were ones of increasing poverty, or rather, of an increasing awareness and discussion about poverty that connected it to the failures of Athens' imperialist policies. The theme of the beggar extends from plays dating probably to the 430s and 420s (Telephus, Philoctetes and Bellerophon) to the Helen of 412. This is a long time during which, if Cecchet is right, there was a great deal of discontent about the war effort. And, what is most surprising, that discontent would have come not from the upper classes (the normal suspects) but from the lower ones. Or rather, it is unclear from Cecchet's book whose attitude we should consider to be reflected in the plays since she has argued that they reflect ideas that broad audiences would have endorsed.

One might ask, were things really that bad? The excursus into economic history in Chapter Three therefore aims to answer this question: "Was widespread poverty a real problem from 404 to the 330s"? It answers confidently, No. Without denying that the Athenian economy must have gone through some stressful decades in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War and the rise and fall of the Second Athenian League, Cecchet insists that "Fourth-century Athens offered citizens many possibilities to escape destitution" (138). The argument here is that the poor could look to many possible sources of income, such as distributions from increasingly effective fiscal policies, and employment in the thriving Athenian labor market. Though public building was not on the scale of the 5th century, Cecchet infers from the relatively low price of businesses in mortgage inscriptions that opportunities for employment must nonetheless have been abundant. Information about rising wages seems to go hand-in-hand with a rather rosy picture of the Athenian economy (although our ignorance about prices does not permit us to know if higher wages were due to a good overall economy and not simply to inflation and/or currency devaluation).

The reason for this economic history excursus in what is otherwise a work of literary analysis is that Cecchet wants to abstract the discussion of poverty in 4th century texts from economic realities. Poverty, for Cecchet, is an ideological and rhetorical construct more than a reality. Therefore, she finds echoes of discourse about poverty already in the prosecutions of generals in the 5th century for embezzlement of public funds. The accusation that a politician's wealth is due to shady dealing occurs frequently in oratory and comedy. Characterizations of poverty and wealth are primarily moral categories; they "evoked notions of injustice and misconduct" (162). Thus Lysias can describe as penetes people who paid the eisphora. When he says that someone is "poor" he is presenting him as a victim of injustice, not necessarily as someone of a certain property or income classification. The discourse of poverty could be similarly used to adumbrate foreign policy ideas. When Xenophon argues in the Poroi that there were better ways than war to address the city's poverty, he should not be taken to address an economic problem but rather to comment on the common notion that an aggressive foreign policy is the key to domestic flourishing. Isocrates in On the Peace and Areopagiticus is similarly trying to influence the discussion. His comments about impoverishment and roving bands of mercenaries should not be taken at face value. Cecchet reads Aristophanes' Wealth as offering a critique of how politicians abuse the concept of poverty to gain what they want. Aristophanes wants to warn "the audience against the improper use of the arguments based on poverty" (173). The play's fundamental utopian contradiction—whether only the just should be rich, or everyone should be equal—in this reading is not a flaw in the play but an intentionally discordant note meant to invite critical reflection on how nebulous the concepts of poverty and wealth ultimately are.

Chapter Five examines the concept of poverty more broadly, arguing that the sources make a distinction between "active poverty" and "inactive wealth". The former is praiseworthy. It ties in with the ideology of the peasant hoplite while the latter relates to the arrogant rich man who uses his position to lord it over his betters. It seems unlikely that the Solonian "law against idleness" was ever enforceable; nonetheless the fact that Athenians believed it existed reveals their attitude that a person was responsible for earning his livelihood, and that the way in which he did so reflects his character. Cecchet also traces how speakers like Lysias and Demosthenes use the rhetoric of poverty and wealth to draw sharp characterizations and evoke powerful emotions. The concept turns out to be remarkably flexible. Some orators speak as if the Athenians were biased against the poor (e.g. Dem. 57. 45). Others seek to enflame the passions of the jurors against the arrogant wealthy (e.g. Dem. 21. 96), while others in turn might criticize them for precisely that kind of arrogance (i.e. Din. 1. 34-7). And even someone like Apollodorus the son of Pasion could portray himself as a pauperized victim of injustice, even if he really was among the wealthiest men in Athens (Dem. 45. 73-4).

This book shows how various and multifaceted the rhetoric and ideology of poverty was. It was far from the more homogeneous and monolithic concept it would later become. As far as I am aware, this is the first book to treat the topic of the Athenian concept of poverty at length. Its collection and discussion of relevant texts from multiple genres is praiseworthy. It will thus be the essential launching pad for anyone interested in further studying the topic. One question that further studies should tackle more carefully is this: Whose concepts of poverty, wealth, and work do we have? Cecchet argues that the public nature of our texts should assure us that we have the raw material of an ideology to which a wide swath of Athenians would have subscribed. As she notes, "these ideals could never have successfully been promoted—and the very fact that they reappear so often in public discourse shows that they were—if, on the other end of the communication channel, the audience was unwilling to share these values" (35-6). From this perspective, it requires some special pleading to show that even texts that we know or can be fairly certain were not performed in any form like what we have, such as Demosthenes' Against Meidias and Isocrates' epideictic works, can still be thought to reflect broader ideas. We need a better model (or a model, for that matter) of the economic possibilities Athenians enjoyed before we can clearly see the outlines of their ideology and how it influenced their decisions, individually and collectively, and also how it responded to changing circumstances.1 Such a model should complement nicely the approach that Cecchet has taken in the book.


1.   In that vein, see P. Acton, Poiesis: Manufacturing in Classical Athens (Oxford, 2014).

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