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Meidias Tyrannos: Meidias’ Tyrannical Attributes in Dem. 21

T. George Hendren

The venom with which Demosthenes lambasts Meidias suits both the circumstance of their private quarrel as well as the contemporary Athenian political climate. This paper will reevaluate Demonsthenes’ vitriol in his Against Meidias to show that the characterization of his opponent plays off Athenian fears specific to tyrannical individuals. With the political machinations of Philip II and Mausolos as background, I argue that Demosthenes spins his chief criticisms of Meidias into tyrannical attributes, an effective means of securing conviction in a fourth century Athenian courtroom. Meidias’ various qualities substantiate this reading: like a tyrant, he fuels his hybris with extravagant wealth (secured at public expense), he treats other citizens as slaves, and he even keeps a bodyguard of henchmen to protect his own person in the fashion of seventh and sixth century Greek tyrants. Demosthenes’ charge of hybris has occupied scholarship on Dem. 21 for some time (Ruschenbusch 1965; MacDowell 1976; Cairns 1996); likewise, Demosthenes' and the Athenians' responses to tyranny (Cawkwell 1963: 203; Leopold 1981; Rosivach 1988; McGlew 1993). Drawing on this foundation (hybris forms the basis for Meidias’ supposed tyranny), I will demonstrate Demosthenes’ debt to the language of tyranny.

The image of a corrupt and abusive tyrant upon which Demosthenes forms his caricature of Meidias finds ample evidence in Greek literature. Meidias’ hubris empowered by extreme wealth (Dem. 21: passim; Arist. Rhet. 1390ab32–1391a19; Lysias 24.16) was an archetypal attribute of the Greek tyrant (Gyges: Arch. fr. 19.17–20 W; Croesus: Hdt. 1.30; and Polycrates: Pl. Meno 90a; McGlew 1993: 26), as was the treatment of fellow citizens as slaves (Dem. 21.180; Arist. Pol. 1295b19–22), and the practice of maintaining a bodyguard within the city (Dem. 21.139; Plat. Rep. 566b; Hdt. 1.59; Ath. Pol. 15.45). Demosthenes further includes historical examples, in light of which Meidias is meant to seem tyrannical (Alkibiades: Dem. 21.143–47; Harmodios and Aristogeiton: Dem. 21.169–70). Finally, Demosthenes aligns himself with the law, which, written by the people, guarantees protections for the people (Dem. 21.187–88, 223–25), and positions Meidias against this coalition of politai and nomoi (Dem. 21.187–88). He even postulates that men such as Meidias might gain control of the state (Dem. 21.209–11). Demosthenes’ rhetorical strategy, then, becomes a re-characterization of Meidias as a scheming tyrant, foiled by the Athenian democracy, a tactic Aeschines alleged Demosthenes had used elsewhere (Aes. 2.10; cf. Aes. 3.89).

This imagery has been ascribed to latent Athenian fears of democratic overthrow (Dem. 13.14; Ar. Wasps 488–507; MacDowell 1990: 37). I contend, however, that the use of tyrannical characteristics was an effective means of character assassination, appropriate to the contemporary political climate, and that it did not merely feed baseless assumptions about the fragility of the democracy. Mausolos threatened Athenian interests in the Aegean and Near East (Dem. 15.3), Philip II was an ever-present threat in the north, the urbanization of Thessaly resulted in a number of archaic style tyrannies (e.g. Pherai), while Syracuse (Dionysos I) and later Sikyon (Euphron) were both taken over by tyrants.

Demosthenes’ treatment of Meidias not only vilifies the defendant, but also rewrites the threat he poses to each individual Athenian in terms of a hypothetical tyrannical overthrow. In order to secure a conviction, Demosthenes rallies the jury around democratic ideals through charged examples from Athenian history, and juxtaposes that rhetoric with language geared towards depicting Meidias as a would-be tyrant. By acknowledging this tactic in Demosthenes’ Against Meidias, we gain a more nuanced understanding of Athenian forensic strategy, as well as the concept of tyranny at Athens in the decades prior to Chaeronea.

Session/Panel Title

Forms of Argument in Dicanic and Epideictic Speech

Session/Paper Number

48.3

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