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NIHIL NOVUM SUB SOLE

1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

Political corruption in Athens

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If something so insufferable plans on Spanish politics, it is corruption. Actually it seems inherent to the human condition and to the insatiable thirst for money. So there it is in all countries, depending on the intensity of the strength of democracy and the existence of appropriate controls. Nor is it unique to our time, but of all time

Of course, there was political corruption in Greece and Rome and it was legislated against it, without much success, of course. Even it does not leave to exist   in the “invented democracy “ of which  the Athenians were so proud.

Aulus Gellius in his Noctes Atticae in the book, XI, 9 offers us a famous example of political corruption awarded the great Demosthenes, the Athenian hard nationalist who opposed the advance of Philip, king of Macedonia, father of Alexander, with  his famous  and strong speeches, precisely called "the Philippics".

Note: this is the origin of the term "philippic" meaning "invective, acre censorship"

Demosthenes, who was always consistent in the defense of Athens against Macedonian, sometimes gave his work as a lawyer at the best payer. It therefore says Aulus Gellius in Attic Nights, XI, 9:

The story of the Milesian envoys and the orator Demosthenes, found in the works of Critolaus.

Critolaus  has written  that envoys came from Miletus to Athens on public business, perhaps for  the purpose of asking aid. Then they engaged such advocates as they chose, to speak for them, and the advocates, according to their instructions, addressed the people in behalf of the Milesians. Demosthenes vigorously opposed the demands of the Milesians, maintaining that the Milesians did not deserve aid, nor was it to the interest of the State to grant it. The matter was postponed to the next day. The envoys came to Demosthenes and begged him earnestly not to speak against them; he asked for money, and received the amount which he demanded. On the following day, when the case was taken up again, Demosthenes, with his neck and shoulders wrapped in thick wool, came forward before the people and said that he was suffering from quinsy and hence could not speak against the Milesians. Then one of the populace cried out that it was, not quinsy (συνάνγκη,  synanje)  , but “silverinsy”  (ἀργυράγκη argyranje)  from which Demosthenes was suffering. (The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius. With An English Translation. John C. Rolfe. Cambridge. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1927.)

Note: ἀργυράγκη comes from ἄργυρος, argyros. which means "silver", imitating the pun,   translator says “silverinsy”, referring to the silver or money received.

Historia de legatis Mileti ac Demosthene rhetore in libris Critolai reperta.

Critolaus scripsit legatos Mileto publicae rei causa venisse Athenas, fortasse an dixerit auxilii petendi gratia. Tum qui pro sese verba facerent, quos visum erat advocavisse, advocatos, uti erat mandatum, verba pro Milesiis ad populum fecisse, Demosthenen Milesiorum postulatis acriter respondisse, neque Milesios auxilio dignos neque ex republica id esse contendisse. Rem in posterum diem prolatam. Legatos ad Demosthenen venisse magnoque opere orasse, uti contra ne diceret; eum pecuniam petivisse et, quantam petiverat, abstulisse. Postridie cum res agi denuo coepta esset, Demosthenen lana multa collum cervicesque circumvolutum ad populum prodisse et dixisse se synanchen pati; eo contra Milesios loqui non quire. Tum e populo unum exclamasse non synanchen, quod Demosthenes pateretur, sed argyranchen esse.

Gellius  ends  the episode  with a paragraph that merely confirm and underline the shamelessness of the famous Demosthenes and the apparent acceptance of Athenian society.

Demosthenes himself too, as Critolaus also relates, did not afterwards conceal that matter, but actually made a boast of it. For when he had asked Aristodemus, the player, what sum he had received for acting, and Aristodemus 2 had replied, “a talent,” Demosthenes rejoined: “Why, I got more than that for holding my tongue.”

Ipse etiam Demosthenes, ut idem Critolaus refert, non id postea concelavit, quin gloriae quoque hoc sibi adsignavit. Nam cum interrogasset Aristodemum, actorem fabularum, quantum mercedis, uti ageret, accepisset, et Aristodemus "talentum" respondisset: "at ego plus" inquit "accepi, ut tacerem".

Plutarch tells the same story in "Life of Demosthenes, 25" referred not to the  ambassadors of Miletus, but to Harpalus, fugitive from Alexander ;  in this version he has been bribed with a golden cup and twenty talents.

Although virtually coincident, I also reproduce the narrative of Plutarch, Greek historian who lived between approximately 46 and 120 AD. His most famous work was "Parallel Lives". They compare the Greek orator Demosthenes with Roman Cicero and it is precisely in this life where he tells the story to which I refer:

Plutarch: Life of Demosthenes, 25:

Not long afterwards Harpalus came out of Asia to Athens. He had run away from Alexander, because he was conscious that his prodigality had led him into criminal practices, and because he was afraid of his master, who was now become harsh to his friends. But after he had taken refuge with the Athenian people and put himself in their hands with his ships and his treasures, the other orators at once fixed their longing eyes upon his wealth, came to his aid, and tried to persuade the Athenians to receive and save the suppliant. But Demosthenes, in the beginning, counselled them to drive Harpalus away, and to beware lest they plunge the city into war upon an unnecessary and unjust ground; a few days afterwards, however, while they were making an inventory of the treasure, Harpalus saw that Demosthenes was eyeing with pleasure a cup of barbarian make, with a keen appreciation of its fashion and of the ornamental work upon it. He therefore bade him poise it in his hand and see how heavy the gold was. And when Demosthenes was amazed at its weight and asked how much it would amount to, Harpalus smiled and said, ‘For you it will amount to twenty talents;’ and as soon as night was come he sent him the cup with the twenty talents. Now, Harpalus was skilful in detecting the character of a man who had a passion for gold, by means of the look that spread over his face and the glances of his eyes. For Demosthenes could not resist, but was overcome by the bribe, and now that he had, as it were, admitted a garrison into his house, promptly went over to the side of Harpalus. Next day, after swathing his neck carefully in woollen bandages, he went forth into the assembly; and when he was urged to rise and speak, he made signs that his voice was ruined. The wits, however, by way of raillery, declared that the orator had been seized overnight, not with an ordinary quinsy, but with a silver quinsy. (Translation by. Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1919. 7.)

In short, Gellius himself, in Attic Nights, XI, 10, gives a slightly different version: this time it is  C. Gracchus who attributes the anecdote  to the speaker Demades but  not to Demosthenes. But I will comment this text, which has an added interest to understand the issue of political corruption in antiquity,  in a new article.
 

   
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