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The market insult and the ideology of labor in Classical Athens

Deborah Kamen

University of Washington

At least as of the mid-fourth century BCE, it was forbidden in Athens to insult citizens for selling things in the agora. Our source for this prohibition is Demosthenes’ Against Euboulides (345 BCE), in which the speaker Euxitheus appeals his deme’s decision to remove him from the citizen rolls. He says that his opponent, the current demarch, “denigrated (dieballen) us…contrary to the laws that order that anyone who reproaches (oneidizonta) any male or female citizen for work (ergasian) in the agora is liable to the penalties for ill-speaking (kakêgoria)” (Dem. 57.30). In this paper, I explore this peculiar restriction on free speech, what I call the “market insult.”

First, I investigate how the market insult compares to other prohibited language. Scholars generally think this law (or laws) was instituted in the middle of the fourth century (cf. Dem. 57.31), designed to supplement an earlier law against aporrhêta (forbidden words)—namely, calling someone a murderer, a father-beater, or a mother-beater, or alleging that he had thrown away his shield in battle (Lys. 10.6, 8, 9). I argue, however, that the market insult was different in many respects from these forbidden words (cf. MacDowell 1978: 128; Todd 2007: 634; Guieu-Coppolani 2014: 136-37). First of all, the market insult is described with the language of diabolê (denigration), oneidos (reproach) and kakêgoria (ill-speaking), but not as an aporrhêton. In addition, unlike aporrhêta, which apparently needed to be false in order to be prosecutable (and therefore constituted slander), the market insult was actionable regardless of whether it was true or false (Hillgruber 1988: 7n19; Wallace 1994: 116). Finally, it was very different in kind from aporrhêta, since laboring in the market was (of course) not a crime, let alone a crime on the level of murder, parent abuse, or desertion.

I next address the question of why a new law was passed forbidding the market insult, especially given that this kind of slight was relatively unproblematic in the fifth century (see, e.g., Aristophanes’ jokes about Euripides’ mother being a vegetable seller: Ach. 478; Th. 387, 456; Ra. 840). I contend that the law’s primary aim was to prevent citizens’ legal status from being challenged simply on the basis of their (low) social status. Such a measure became necessary in the mid-fourth century for a couple of interrelated reasons. For one, this was a time when prejudices against outsiders in Athens were particularly strong (Cooper 2003), and strict measures were being taken to disenfranchise possible usurpers to the citizenship (Dem. 57, Is. 12; Lape 2010: 186-239). Secondly, although many citizens had to work for a living, the ideology that labor and commerce were appropriate only for slaves and metics, not for citizens, was pervasive (e.g. Arist. Pol. 1277b1-6; Brock 1994; Kamen 2013). As a result, accusations of “working”—and, by association, servility or foreignness—came to be leveled as way of not only tarring citizens’ reputations (Ober 1989: 270-79; Kamen 2009), but even disenfranchising them.

I conclude that banning the market insult served a different purpose than banning slanderous speech, in that it protected the citizen status specifically of the poorest Athenians. It was, moreover, a way to uphold the notion that all citizens were equal under the democracy—even if in practice they were not.

Session/Panel Title

Insult, Satire, and Invective

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