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The Tyrant as Liberator: The Treasury of Brasidas and the Acanthians at Delphi

Matthew Sears

Plutarch mentions a now-lost treasury of Brasidas and the Acanthians at Delphi, filled with spoils taken from the Athenians (Mor. 400F, 401C; Lys. 1.1, 18.1; for the form and location of the treasury, see de La Coste-Messelière 1936; Pouilloux and Roux 1963; Roux 1984; Rups 1986; Bommelaer 1991; Partida 2000; Currie 2005; Scott 2014).  The present paper takes another look at this treasury as a truly remarkable structure, not only as a monument to the career of Brasidas – the famous Spartan general who during the Peloponnesian War liberated many cities in Thrace subject to Athens, including Acanthus – but also as a powerful political statement on the part of the Acanthians.  Given that no individual had been named on the dedication of a treasury since the Archaic tyrants, the Acanthians could be seen to have established Brasidas as their champion, in the mold of a tyrant, against the Athenians and their coercive democracy.

Scott (2014) suggests that the treasury of Brasidas and the Acanthians was deliberately provocative, as evinced by two key facts: the treasury was built in the late 420’s, after a forty-year period in which treasuries at Delphi were eschewed in favor of sculptural groups; and the treasury was probably situated to challenge the prominence of the treasury of the Athenians on the temple terrace.  This paper continues this line of analysis by considering the provocation inherent in the treasury’s dedication to a named individual.  Neer argues that the treasury form, which served to harness the ambitions of elite dedicants in order to glorify the whole polis, was a phenomenon particular to the polis.  Even Pindar’s metaphorical “treasury of praise” in his sixth Pythian ode, by which his epinician poem is compared to a treasury at Delphi, serves to communalize the honor granted to the poem’s dedicand (Neer 2001; see also Eckerman 2014). In the Classical period, Brasidas is unique in violating the strictly communal nature of the treasury, a singular honor that would have pleased Brasidas.  Several scholars have pointed out the performative nature of many of Brasidas’ actions as a commander, proposing that he meant to equate himself with venerated heroes in order to achieve heroic recognition himself (Currie 2005; Ferrario 2014).  In many ways, Brasidas’ greatest ambitions were realized: he was honored as a victorious athlete at Scione, which might have had religious overtones (Thuc. 4.120-121.1); and he was given a posthumous cult, among other honors, at Amphipolis (Thuc. 5.11.1).  The very public acquiescence or encouragement of the Acanthians to Brasidas’ lofty self-presentation, though, demands further comment. 

The Corinthian treasury at Delphi might illuminate some of the Acanthians’ reasons for making their dedication.  The Corinthian structure was initially built by and named for the seventh-century tyrant Cypselus, but once the Cypselid tyranny was abolished, the Corinthians rededicated the treasury in the name of their whole polis (Plut. Mor. 400E).  The Corinthian treasury thereafter served as an emblem of the triumph of the citizen body over the rule of one man in an important historical moment for Greece as tyrannies and aristocracies were replaced in many poleis in favor of greater egalitarianism.  Yet the Acanthians chose to employ precisely the opposite symbol.  They staked their fortunes on one man against external domination at the hands of Athens, the egalitarian polis par excellence.  Like the tyrants of the Archaic period who cast themselves as champions of the people against their elite oppressors, Brasidas was the champion of the Acanthian people against their Athenian oppressors.  By naming Brasidas on their treasury, the Acanthians in a way repudiated the very polis system that Athens had exploited in creating its empire.  The treasury is yet another way Brasidas’ career foreshadows themes of the Hellenistic period, when great individuals transcended the polis, just as the Archaic tyrants had done.  

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Architecture and Self-Definition

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