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The Lycurgan Ephebeia as Social Performance

Richard Persky

The Athenian ephebeia was a multi-faceted institution, serving a variety of functions. Vidal-Naquet famously drew attention to its role as initiation ritual (Vidal-Naquet, 1981). More recent studies have emphasized its practical value as military training (Trundle,  and a source of lasting social ties among classes of ephebes (Ober, 2008). I intend to further broaden our understanding of the ephebeia by drawing attention to its performative aspect (taking inspiration from Goldhill & Osborne, 1999. While new Athenian citizens were relatively isolated for a significant portion of their two years as ephebes, their experience was also punctuated by public performances in front of the gathered demos, which symbolized their growing ability to participate in citizen life.

As described in the Ath. Pol., participation in the ephebeia was bookended by public spectacles starring incoming and “graduating” ephebes. Each newly-enrolled class of ephebes went along a processional route around the Acropolis, displaying their commitment to Athenian tradition and civic virtue by paying their respects at shrines associated with exemplary Athenians of legend (Steinbock, 2011). At the end of their two years of training, outgoing classes of ephebes displayed their readiness to take up the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a performance of military drill in the Theater of Dionysus. In between, ephebes also participated prominently in several festivals, including the Eleusinian Mysteries, in which they escorted the procession of mystai and so potentially represented Athens’ confidence in its future before a pan-Hellenic audience.

As I shall show, these and other occasions allowed the ephebes to perform their newly-acquired social roles as citizens and soldiers of Athens – thereby demonstrating their readiness for their new lives – and allowed the established citizens to see the new generation taking on its responsibilities. The regular recurrence of ephebic performance, and the fact that the range of ephebic activities each year included events separately emphasizing first-year and second-year ephebes, would furthermore have reinforced a sense of continuity. I refer here not only to the year-to-year cycles of the ephebeia and the festival calendar, but also the renewal of the citizen body and perhaps also real or imagined continuity between the Lycurgan ephebeia and possible prior forms of the institution.

Session/Panel Title

Paideia and Polis: The Ephebate and Citizen Training

Session/Paper Number

43.1

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