Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Legal Narratives (esp. Panegyrics), continued

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Law-Giving Narratives as Greek-Inspired Literature . . . .

The historical narratives of both Herodotus and Thucydides contain narratives explaining the origins of Athenian laws of three notable lawgivers in both myth and history: Theseus, Solon and Cleisthenes. (Russell Gmirkin appears to say that both historians address the latter two lawgivers but I wonder if what was meant was that all three are covered in both works combined.)

So to continue from the previous post with Theseus, the historian Thucydides includes a discussion of the same figure in his ongoing portrayal of the vicissitudes of Athenian constitutional history:

Under Cecrops and the first kings, down to the reign of Theseus, Attica had always consisted of a number of independent townships, each with its own town-hall and magistrates. Except in times of danger the king at Athens was not consulted; in ordinary seasons they carried on their government and settled their affairs without his interference; sometimes even they waged war against him, as in the case of the Eleusinians with Eumolpus against Erechtheus. [2] In Theseus, however, they had a king of equal intelligence and power; and one of the chief features in his organization of the country was to abolish the council chambers and magistrates of the petty cities, and to merge them in the single council-chamber and town-hall of the present capital. Individuals might still enjoy their private property just as before, but they were henceforth compelled to have only one political center, viz. Athens; which thus counted all the inhabitants of Attica among her citizens, so that when Theseus died he left a great state behind him.

Indeed, from him dates the Synoecia, or Feast of Union; which is paid for by the state, and which the Athenians still keep in honor of the goddess. [3] Before this the city consisted of the present citadel and the district beneath it looking rather towards the south. . . . .

The Athenians thus long lived scattered over Attica in independent townships. Even after the centralization of Theseus, old habit still prevailed; and from the early times down to the present war most Athenians still lived in the country with their families and households, and were consequently not at all inclined to move now, especially as they had only just restored their establishments after the Median invasion. . . . (Thucydides, Book 2, 15-16)

We see further summary accounts of the accomplishments of the lawgivers Solon and Cleisthenes in Herodotus:


and after these were subdued and subject to Croesus in addition to the Lydians, all the sages from Hellas who were living at that time, coming in different ways, came to Sardis, which was at the height of its property; and among them came Solon the Athenian, who, after making laws for the Athenians at their request, went abroad for ten years, sailing forth to see the world, he said. This he did so as not to be compelled to repeal any of the laws he had made, [2] since the Athenians themselves could not do that, for they were bound by solemn oaths to abide for ten years by whatever laws Solon should make.


Athens, which had been great before, now grew even greater when her tyrants had been removed. The two principal holders of power were Cleisthenes an Alcmaeonid, who was reputed to have bribed the Pythian priestess, and Isagoras son of Tisandrus, a man of a notable house but his lineage I cannot say. His kinsfolk, at any rate, sacrifice to Zeus of Caria. [2] These men with their factions fell to contending for power, Cleisthenes was getting the worst of it in this dispute and took the commons into his party. Presently he divided the Athenians into ten tribes instead of four as formerly. He called none after the names of the sons of Ion—Geleon, Aegicores, Argades, and Hoples—but invented for them names taken from other heroes, all native to the country except Aias. Him he added despite the fact that he was a stranger because he was a neighbor and an ally.

These historical narratives do little more than point to a general historical interest in lawgivers and their innovations, but what I find of more interest is the function of the panegyric as an expression of interest in legal and constitutional questions and origins, and the genre through which most illiterate Athenians would have heard of narratives of their origins and praises for their way of life. Notice especially Thucydides’ reconstruction of Pericles’ speech:


Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.

[2] The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty.

[3] But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.

The laws are a source of pride, a national boast. One is, of course, reminded of the similar boast of the biblical laws:

Deuteronomy 4:8

And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?

On the panegyric Gmirkin explains:

The Athenian constitution and laws appeared prominently as subject matter in Athenian panegyrics, a form of elevated speech that celebrated the history of Ath­ens, usually presented in the form of a funeral oration by a prominent politician at the yearly festival that honored fallen Athenian soldiers.6 Standard elements in such speeches often included an account of the mythical origins of Athens, an idealized patriotic survey of its military history and its courage at war on behalf of Greek freedoms7 and a description of its superior constitution, laws and way of life.8 The discussion of the Athenian constitution and laws might appear in connection either with the mythical or legendary past9 or the historical present.10 (p. 221)

Although Gmirkin points to Isocrates’ Panathenaicus 129 here, 

[129] And he [Theseus] did this, not after he had grown old and had taken his pleasure in the good things at hand, but in the prime of his manhood, it is said, he gave over the state to the people to govern, while he himself risked his life without ceasing for the benefit of Athens and of the rest of the Hellenes.

a more comprehensive illustration of the point is found earlier in Isagoras, in his poem on Helen, 10:

[28] Having embarked with them for Crete, he [Theseus] subdued this monster, half-man and half-bull, which possessed strength commensurate with its composite origin, and having rescued the children, he restored them to their parents, and thus freed the city from an obligation so savage, so terrible, and so ineluctable.

[29] But I am at a loss how to deal with what remains to be said; for, now that I have taken up the deeds of Theseus and begun to speak of them, I hesitate to stop midway and leave unmentioned the lawlessness of . . . robbers . . . whom he fought and vanquished and thereby delivered the Greeks from many great calamities.

[30] But, on the other hand, I perceive that I am being carried beyond the proper limits of my theme and I fear that some may think that I am more concerned with Theseus than with the subject which I originally chose. In this dilemma I prefer to omit the greater part of what might be said, out of regard for impatient hearers, and to give as concise an account as I can of the rest, that I may gratify both them and myself and not make a complete surrender to those whose habit it is out of jealousy to find fault with everything that is said.

[31] His courage Theseus displayed in these perilous exploits which he hazarded alone; his knowledge of war in the battles he fought in company with the whole city; his piety toward the gods in connexion with the supplications of Adrastus and the children of Heracles when, by defeating the Peloponnesians in battle, he saved the lives of the children, . . . ; and finally, he revealed his other virtues and his prudence, not only in the deeds already recited, but especially in the manner in which he governed our city.

[32] For he saw that those who seek to rule their fellow-citizens by force are themselves the slaves of others, and that those who keep the lives of their fellow-citizens in peril themselves live in extreme fear, and are forced to make war, on the one hand, with the help of citizens against invaders from abroad, and, on the other hand, with the help of auxiliaries against their fellow citizens;

[33] further, he saw them despoiling the temples of the gods, putting to death the best of their fellow-citizens, distrusting those nearest to them, living lives no more free from care than do men who in prison await their death; he saw that, although they are envied for their external blessings, yet in their own hearts they are more miserable than all other men—

[34] for what, pray, is more grievous than to live in constant fear lest some bystander kill you, dreading no less your own guards than those who plot against you? Theseus, then, despising all these and considering such men to be not rulers, but pests, of their states, demonstrated that it is easy to exercise the supreme power and at the same time to enjoy as good relations as those who live as citizens on terms of perfect equality.

[35] In the first place, the scattered settlements and villages of which the state was composed he united, and made Athens into a city-state so great that from then even to the present day it is the greatest state of Hellas:

and after this, when he had established a common fatherland and had set free the minds of his fellow-citizens, he instituted for them on equal terms that rivalry of theirs for distinction based on merit, confident that he would stand out as their superior in any case, whether they practised that privilege or neglected it, and he also knew that honors bestowed by high-minded men are sweeter than those that are awarded by slaves.

And he was so far from doing anything contrary to the will of the citizens [36] that he made the people masters of the government, and they on their part thought it best that he should rule alone, believing that his sole rule was more to be trusted and more equitable than their democracy.

For he did not, as the other rulers did habitually, impose the labors upon the citizens and himself alone enjoy the pleasures; but the dangers he made his own, and the benefits he bestowed upon the people in common.[37]

In consequence, Theseus passed his life beloved of his people and not the object of their plots, not preserving his sovereignty by means of alien military force, but protected, as by a bodyguard, by the goodwill of the citizens1, by virtue of his authority ruling as a king, but by his benefactions as a popular leader; for so equitably and so well did he administer the city that even to this day traces of his clemency may be seen remaining in our institutions.

Here, I think, we see a narrative theme comparable to the ones we find of Moses and Joshua. Men of great deeds and piety who leave superlative laws and constitutions in which the people take “national” pride.

Another frequent reference is constitutional history, a genre apparently introduced by Aristotle, and in this instance specifically to Aristotle’s Athenian Constitution, 42:


[2] In the list of reforms . . . .

There first occurred the organization of the original constitution after the settlement at Athens of Ion and his companions, for it was then that the people were first divided into the four Tribes and appointed the Tribal Kings.

The second constitution, and the first subsequent one that involved a constitutional point, was the reform that took place in the time of Theseus, which was a slight divergence from the royal constitution. After that one came the reform in the time of Draco, in which a code of laws was first published.

Third was the one that followed the civil disturbance in the time of Solon, from which democracy took its beginning.

Fourth was the tyranny in the time of Peisistratus.

Fifth the constitution of Cleisthenes, following the deposition of the tyrants, which was more democratic than the constitution of Solon.

Sixth the reform after the Persian War, under the superintendence of the Council of Areopagus.

Seventh followed the reform outlined by Aristeides but completed by Ephialtes when he put down the Areopagite Council, during which it came about because of the demagogues that the state made many mistakes, because of the empire of the sea. 

Eighth was the establishment of the Four Hundred,

and after that, ninth, democracy again.

Tenth was the tyranny of the Thirty and that of the Ten.

Eleventh was the constitution established after the return from Phyle and from Peiraeus, from which date the constitution has continued down to its present form, constantly taking on additions to the power of the multitude.

For the people has made itself master of everything, and administers everything by decrees and by jury courts in which the people is the ruling power, for even the cases tried by the Council have come to the people. And they seem to act rightly in doing this, for a few are more easily corrupted by gain and by influence than the many.

This is a summary, but it may be worth recalling that the Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) may well be interpreted as a history of constitutional changes with appropriate moral lessons being highlighted along the way.

As for the point such comparisons, recall the discussion at How Does One Date the Old Testament Writings?

But so far I have been testing Gmirkin’s argument in some of its detail but have held back from the main illustration he uses for comparison of legal narratives. Will address that one in the next post.

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Neil Godfrey

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