The Shifting Sycophant: Changing Implications of a Label in Athenian Democracy
Mason, Susan 1954-
The traditional consensus among classicists holds that the word "sycophant" in Attic Greek refers to identifiable persons displaying a specific pattern of behaviour that is detrimental to the Athenian democracy. In particular, sycophants are individuals who initiate or threaten malicious or frivolous prosecutions for financial gain. Some recent re-assessments have suggested that the term is more nuanced, but such assessments still interpret the term as reflecting real or perceived problems inherent in the Athenian jury-courts. A comparison of the use of the term in the plays of Aristophanes with that in the speeches of fourth-century orators suggests that "sycophant" is solely a term of invective and does not refer to an identifiable type of individual. Moreover, this comparison reveals that, rather than being a static term, the implications inherent in the label change over time. When "sycophant" is coined in the later fifth century it is used against supporters of the radical democracy in order to support a change to a much more limited democracy or to oligarchy. A later generation of fourth-century orators employs the same label as a more general term of abuse against personal enemies or political opponents of any political stripe. Secondary meanings associated with the term allow its continued use as a rhetorical tool in a different political context with a different intent, but these continuities in its meaning have masked the change in its purpose. A clearer understanding of the label of "sycophant" lays the foundation for a more nuanced understanding of Athenian democratic discourse and of the transformation of that discourse in the course of the fourth century BCE.
DegreeMaster of Arts (M.A.)
ProgramClassic Medieval and Renaissance Studies
CommitteeHibbert, Neil; Yuzwa, Zachary; Foley, Christopher; Liu, Yin
Copyright DateJune 2018
sycophant, Athenian democracy, Aristophanes, Greek orators, Lysias, Demosthenes, Athenian history