Preferred Citation: Mikalson, Jon D. Religion in Hellenistic Athens. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.

The Age of Lycourgos

Such are the ways that Lycourgos in this speech details and applies his belief that “the concern of the gods watches over all human activities, but especially over piety toward parents, toward the dead, and toward the gods themselves.” Lycourgos expresses his thoughts on other religious topics also, in particular on oracles, on the religious services called liturgies, and on oaths.

In Against Leocrates Lycourgos cites, each time without a hint of skepticism, four Delphic oracles: one historical, one possibly historical, and two literary. Each oracle promotes, successfully, a political or moral purpose. In ca. 361 Callistratos of Aphidna (APF 8157), a prominent statesman and orator, was condemned to death by the Athenian people. He fled the city and eventually went to Delphi to inquire about his return. Delphic Apollo told him that if he returned to Athens he would find justice (literally, “he would find the laws”), and so he returned and took refuge at the altar of the Twelve Gods in the Agora. Nonetheless he was put to death by the Athenians. The point is, Lycourgos claims, that justice for criminals is punishment, and the god rightly returned the criminal to his victims. “It would be terrible (δεινὸν),” he says, “if the same messages should be given to the pious and to criminals” (93).

In the seventh century B.C. the Lacedaimonians, fighting the Messenians, sent to Delphi and were told that they should take an Athenian leader and they would then win the war. They therefore fetched the general Tyrtaeus from Athens and with his help defeated the Messenians. The Lacedaimonians also learned from the poetry of Tyrtaeus the moral system upon which they based their education of the young (105–9). In even more remote, legendary times the Peloponnesians were besieging Athens and learned from Delphi that they would capture the city if they did not kill its king Codros. Codros learned of the oracle and, by a ruse, induced the invaders to kill him. The Peloponnesians, when they realized what they had done, withdrew, and Codros by his sacrifice saved the city (83–89). Similarly, in the reign of Erechtheus Athens was about to face an invasion by Eumolpos, his Eleusinians, and the Thracians. Erechtheus learned from Delphi that the Athenians would be victorious if, before the invasion, he sacrificed his daughter. Lycourgos read out fifty-five lines from Euripides’ Erechtheus, in which Praxithea, Erechtheus’ wife, for intensely patriotic reasons, expresses her approval of the sacrifice. Erechtheus’ daughter was sacrificed, or sacrificed herself, and Athens was again saved, because of Delphic Apollo and the patriotism of her leaders and citizens (98–101).

In fourth-century Athens the wealthiest citizens were subject to appointment, by an archon, to a liturgy, a service that might involve paying the expenses for a chorus at the City Dionysia or other state festival (chorēgia) or for a team of athletes in competition at the Great Panathenaia (gymnasiarchia).[3] Defendants in criminal trials often listed the liturgies they had performed, hoping thereby to win favor with the jury. Lycourgos, no doubt anticipating one line of Leocrates’ defense, expressed his annoyance at such persons, because they undertook these liturgies on behalf of their own families but then expected public rewards. The liturgist himself, Lycourgos claimed, was awarded a crown for his service but was in no way benefiting others. Public gratitude should go to those who supported a trireme or helped build the city walls or provided in other ways for public safety from their private funds. Here one could see the virtue (ἀρετήν) of the givers, but in liturgies one sees only the prosperity of those who have spent the money (139–40).

Finally, the oath is, according to Lycourgos, what holds the democracy together. The government consists of three things—the archon, the juryman, and the private citizen; each of these gives a pledge under oath, and for good reason. Many men, after deceiving others, escape detection and receive no punishment, either then or perhaps for their whole life. But the gods know who has committed perjury and they will punish him. If, perchance, the individual should escape, his family falls into great misfortunes (79). Those who remain true to their oaths have the goodwill (εὔνοιαν) of the gods with them as a help (βοηθόν) (82).

We have some record of each of the three oaths Lycourgos cites, that of the archon, the juryman, and the private citizen, and each, fortunately, comes from a roughly contemporary source. From the Constitution of the Athenians (55.5) we learn that archons-select went to the Agora, made sacrifices on a specially designated stone near the Stoa Basileios, and then mounted this stone and swore that they “would govern justly and according to the laws; that they would not take gifts because of their office; and that if they should take anything, they would set up a golden statue.” [4] The archons-select then had to repeat this oath on the Acropolis.

Lycourgos is concerned that the jurors bring a vote in accordance with their oath (εὔορκον ψῆφον, 128) and that they not, in violation of their oath, allow speakers to get off the topic (13). The oath to which he refers is recorded by Demosthenes:[5]

I will vote in accordance with the laws and decrees of the Demos of the Athenians and of the Boule of five hundred. And I will not vote to have a tyrant or an oligarchy. If someone attempts to destroy (the power) of the Demos of the Athenians or if he speaks or brings a vote contrary to this, I will not be persuaded. Nor will I vote for the cancellation of private debts or for the redistribution of the land or houses of Athenians. I will not bring back those who have been exiled or condemned to death. I will not myself banish, nor will I allow anyone else to banish, the residents here contrary to the established laws and decrees of the Demos of the Athenians and of the Boule. And I will not confirm in office a person in such a way that he holds one office when he is subject to audit for another, and these offices include the nine archons, the hieromnēmōn,[6] those who are chosen by lot with the nine archons on this day, a herald, an embassy, and delegates to the council of allies. Nor will I allow the same man to hold the same office twice or the same man to hold two offices in the same year. And I will not accept bribes because of my jury service, not I myself nor another for me nor in any other way with me knowing of it, not by a trick or by any contrivance. And I am not less than thirty years old. And I will listen to both the prosecutor and the defendant equally, and I will bring my vote on the basis of the issues being prosecuted. (Dem. 24.149–51)

The juror swore this oath by Zeus, Poseidon, and Demeter, and he cursed himself and his family to utter destruction if he transgressed any of these provisions. But he prayed that if he kept this oath, he might have “many good things.” It is this oath that Lycourgos asks the jurors to abide by.

Of the oath of private citizens Lycourgos says, “You have an oath which all the citizens swear when they are enrolled onto the register of demes and become ephebes, that you will not shame your holy weapons or leave your position in battle, that you will defend your fatherland and hand it down better than it is” (76). The full text of this oath, preserved on a fourth-century inscription from the deme Acharnai, is as follows:[7]

I will not bring shame upon these sacred weapons nor will I abandon my comrade-in-arms wherever I stand in the ranks. I will defend both the holy and profane things. I will not hand on the fatherland smaller than I received it, but larger and better, so far as it lies in my power with the assistance of all the other citizens. I will obey the officials who govern wisely and the laws, both those which are already established and those which are wisely established in the future. If anyone attempts to destroy them, I will not allow it, so far as it lies in my power with the assistance of all the other citizens. I will hold in honor the ancestral sanctuaries. The following gods are witnesses: Aglauros, Hestia, Enyo, Enyalios, Ares and Athena Areia, Zeus, Thallo, Auxo, Hegemone, Heracles, the territory of the fatherland, the wheat, barley, vines, olive trees, and fig trees.

These are the three oaths—of the archon, the juryman, and the private citizen—that, in Lycourgos’ view, “hold the democracy together” (79). The jurymen are to uphold theirs as they vote on Leocrates’ guilt. Lycourgos has read to them the ephebic oath and then details how Leocrates broke each of its provisions (76–78). As a traitor Leocrates’ crime is against his fellow citizens. As a perjurer it is against the gods.

It is also the Athenian ephebic oath upon which, according to Lycourgos, the Greek allies formed the oath that they swore before they joined battle with Xerxes’ Persians at Plataea in 479 B.C. Lycourgos had also this oath read to the jurors, the text of which survives on the very stone that preserves the ephebic oath:[8]

I will not make life more important than freedom, nor will I abandon my leaders whether they be alive or dead. I will bury all of our allies who die in the battle. And when we have defeated the barbarians, I will destroy no one of the cities that fought on Greece’s side, but I will exact a tenth from all those who chose the barbarians’ side. I will most certainly not rebuild any of the sanctuaries burned or razed by the barbarians, but I will leave them for our descendants as a memorial of the impiety of the barbarians.

Because the Greeks, including the ancestors of the jury, remained faithful to the terms of this oath, they had the goodwill of the gods as their helper (80–82).

And, finally, the ancestors of the jurymen had sworn, by the decree of Demophantos of 410 B.C., to kill any man betraying the fatherland by word, by deed, by hand, or by vote. This oath survives in Andocides’ speech on the Mysteries (1.96–98):[9]

Let the oath be this: “I will kill, [by word and deed and vote] and by my own hand, if I am able, whoever destroys the democracy at Athens and if anyone holds an office in the future after the democracy has been destroyed and if anyone attempts to set up or help set up a tyrant. And if someone else kills him, I shall consider him holy in the view of the gods and daimones since he has killed an enemy of the Athenians, and after selling the property of the dead man I will give half of it to the killer and will deprive him of nothing. And if someone dies killing or attempting to kill anyone of such men, I will treat well him and his children as I do Harmodios and Aristogeiton and their descendants. Whatever oaths have been sworn at Athens or in the army or elsewhere against the Demos of the Athenians, I do away with and dismiss.” Let all Athenians swear these things on the sacred victims before the Dionysia. And let them pray that for the one keeping his oath there be many and good things, but that if he violates this oath, he and his family may perish utterly.

In Lycourgos’ view the jurors have inherited this oath from their fathers, who gave it, like a hostage of the happiness of the commonwealth, to the gods. And, in the case of Leocrates, they must prove themselves no worse than their fathers (127).

The Age of Lycourgos

Preferred Citation: Mikalson, Jon D. Religion in Hellenistic Athens. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.