Oct 11, 2017
Do you remember in the 90s when there was this huge “thug life” thing going on? Shady types getting money doing shady things. Andocides, the 5th century BCE rhetor, would have fit fell into that world. Even though he may have been acquainted with Socrates, he was more interested in roving with his friends of rabble-rousers. He was born to wealth and lived as what one editor called “a hot-headed young man-about-town with more money than sense” (321).
His carefree life came to a hard stop after a significant act of vandalism. Andocides was accused of multition of the Herms right before an Athenian expedition against Sicily--exactly not the time that you want to get the gods mad at you. Everyone was shocked. The act was seditious and blasphemous. Athens could forgive some offences, but not parodying the most intimate religious beliefs on the eve of war. The act was seen as an affront against democracy from exactly the kind of rich snobs who would want to consolidate power. Numbers of the stone images of Hermes were mutated across Athens in one night. Just as quickly, informers sprang up to place the blame. Forty two members of the riotous party were named. Andocides was one of the accused.
But when they threw Andocides into prison, he did what all those 90s gangsters warned about--he turned snitch. He revealed the names of everyone who was involved, and, although he was an accomplice, he was still exiled from Athens and had his citizenship stripped from him. It turned out worse for the four men that he snitched on--they were all put to death.
But if you’re a young man of wealth, a little thing like state-defying vandalism and sending four people to their deaths doesn’t get you down. He traveled the city states of Greece, making friends with powerful people. Powerful and shady, but powerful. Andocides came back to Athens during the oligarchy and it didn’t go well--he narrowly missed being sentenced to death and was imprisoned. Later, he was set free, or maybe he escaped. The historical record is hazy on that detail.
So you can see the kind of life that he lived. And it reflects in his greatest speeches. On His Return was written as an attempt to get back into the city’s good graces. The reasons for his exile was fresh in their minds, and he openly admits his guilt. He claims to be a changed man: “my behavior today,” he says “is much more in keeping with my character than my behavior then” (26). He had been foolish and he had been unlucky--dreadfully unlucky. “No one came near suffering the sorrows which I suffered” (9). However, he points out, he is rich. That wealth can bring in a lot of corn to prevent famine. It also buys a lot of naval support. And he is willing to use his wealth to help Athens. “I have been reckless of both life and goods when called up” in an effort ”to render this city such a service as would sipose you to let me at last resume my rights as your fellow” (10).
Unfortunately, Andocides’ bad luck continued. Before he even began his speech, people were muttering against him. It might not help that he smugly referred to his accusors as “either the most stupid of mankind or the worst of public enemies” (1) and preemptively said that he would forgive the people all the wrongs he suffered (27). He still comes across as a rich snot weasling his way back.
Andocides did finally get back to Athens under a general amnesty after yet another political overthrow. For 3 years, everything was coming up Andocides. He held important roles in political cultural life. His influence was growing and everyone was forgetting his youthful indescretions.
And then enemies old and new began to circle. Callias II, along with some others, created a legal case against him, arguing that the amnesty shouldn’t have applied to Andocides and that he should be kept out of the assembly and, oh yeah, how about put to death for rebellion? While he again had to confront the ghosts of his past,Andocides had some advantages this time.
For one thing, time had passed. People had moved on and forgotten much of the outrage they felt in the several political upheavals they had been suffering since then. Also, Andocides had become a productive member of society, totally supporting the city in many facets. It seems that Andocides had also learned to temper his rhetoric. “On the Mysteries” was a plea for his life, but it’s also a thrilling piece of legal rhetoric. He refutes claims that he was involved in other acts of blasphemy and sedition and recalls his very minor role in the destruction of the herms. He also changes tactic from deigning to absolve Athens of the wrongs they had done him to emphasizing Athen’s positive qualities. “The whole of Greece,” he says “thinks that you have shown the greatest generosity and wisdom in devoting yourselves, not to revenge, but to the preservation of your city and the reuniting of its citizens...do not change your ways” (140). He calls on his family heritage “Our house is the oldest in Athens,” he says, “and has always been the first to open its doors to those in need” (147). He even makes the people of Athens his family: “It is you who must act as my father and my brothers and my children. It is with you that I seek refuge. It is to you that I turn with my entreaties and my prayers. You must plead with yourselves for my life, and save it” (149). Wow--you see what he did there? He recruited the jury to be his advocates. It’s powerful stuff and it went a lot better than “On the Return”--maybe time and circumstances have changed, but I think Andocides also became a more savvy speaker. “On the Mysteries” is a whole lot less cocky and more compelling than on the return. The verdict was in his favor and after that no one dragged up Andocides’ youthful thug life.
If you have a favorite ancient rhetorician gangster, why not tell us about it at firstname.lastname@example.org ? I love hearing from listeners, even if they’re snitching on ancient Greek thinkers.