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Pausanias Politicus: Reflections on Theseus, Themistocles, and Athenian Democracy in Book 1 of the Periegesis

Patrick Paul Hogan

            Recent studies of the political life of Greek poleis in imperial period have tempered the long dominant scholarly view (e.g. Jones 1940; Gleason 2006) of a bouleutic elite in complete control of urban affairs.  Pleket (1998), for example, has shown how aristocrats maintained power by co-opting novi homines into their ranks and managing the still potent ekklesia, and Zuiderhoek (2008) has emphasized the continuing power of the demos in an atmosphere of elite factionalism and the persistence of popular politics even in the face of growing oligarchization.  The writings of Greek authors of 1st and 2nd c. A.D., especially those of sophists like Dio Chrysostom and Aelius Aristides, show a markedly paternalistic attitude towards the common people, coupled with a suspicion of both their capriciousness and of aristocratic peers who try to use the rabble as an expedient political ally.  This trend can also be seen in Book 1 of the Periegesis of Pausanias, for despite the author’s focus on λόγοι and θεωρήματα he makes sparse but meaningful comments on Classical Athenian history that reflect contemporary upper-class attitudes.  In particular, Pausanias portrays Themistocles and Theseus as exemplars of aristocratic statesmen whose careers and lives ended poorly despite their great achievements, and he attributes their travails to the jealousy of their peers and especially to the shifting passions of the unruly masses.

            Naturally, Pausanias notes reminders of the life and deeds of Theseus, the Attic hero par excellance, throughout his description of Athens and the Attic countryside, and he duly covers the major myths associated with him.  He takes special note of those achievements of Theseus that contributed to the evolution of the Athenian state: e.g. the synoecism of Attica (1.22.3), the establishment of the Delphinium court after the hero’s suppression of the Pallantids (1.28.10), and his defense of Attica against the Amazons (1.2.1; 15.2; 41.7; 42.2), Minos (1.1.2; 24.1), and the Persians at Marathon (1.15.3).  But Pausanias denigrates the popular myth about Theseus that he was the founder of Athenian democracy (1.3.1; contra Chamoux 1996: 62-63): instead, he gives evidence for the persistence of the monarchy after Theseus’ death, and in fact posits him as a victim of the caprice of the Athenian demos, whom Menestheus wins over with flattery (1.17.5-6).  Pausanias portrays Menestheus, the hero of the demos, as a conniving rival of Theseus who wins the throne only through foreign intervention (namely the Dioscuri during their capture of Aphidna) and demagoguery; in this he takes to an extreme the displacement of the Homeric leader of the Athenians by the local hero Theseus and his children that occurred during the late archaic and Classical periods (Kolb 2007).  Theseus ends his life ignominiously on Scyros, where Pausanias describes him as honored by the populace but assassinated by a jealous fellow king.  Later Cimon retrieved his bones and returned them to Athens for proper burial in the Theseion (1.17.6).

            The same pattern appears in Pausanias’ treatment of Themistocles.  Again, Pausanias notes the achievements of the statesman, both in terms of the landscape – elevating the Piraeus as a harbor (1.1.2) and creating the Long Walls (1.2.2) – and in terms of historical events – his proper interpretation of the oracle of the “wooden wall” (1.18.2) and his victory at Salamis (1.36.1; 37.1).  Again, the Athenian people treated their benefactor badly but repented after his death and allowed Themistocles’ kin to bring back his remains for burial in his homeland (1.26.4).  In his portrayal of Themistocles Pausanias deliberately glosses over the circumstances of his ostracism, exile, and death abroad, in particular obscuring the identity of the “king” who made him governor of Magnesia.  Despite Pausanias’ praise for the Athenian people, who alone of the Greeks raised an altar to Mercy (1.17.1), the attitudes of the elite class he belongs to bubbles forth in his reading of Classical Athenian history.

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Writing Imperial Politics in Greek

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