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Insults and status negotiation in the Athenian agora

Deborah Kamen

University of Washington

The agora in Classical Athens was a site that brought together people of all socioeconomic and legal statuses, where distinctions between citizen, metic, and slave were blurred (Vlassopoulos 2007) and individuals contested over status (Millett 1998). In this paper, I argue that one important way in which status negotiation took place was through insults of various kinds. Drawing on distinctions that have been made between ‘playful’ and ‘consequential’ laughter (Halliwell 2008), as well as between ‘benign’ and ‘malign’ insults (Conley 2010), I show that insults could be employed in the marketplace both to reinforce status groupings and to demote the status of others. I do so by looking at representative examples of insults of differing levels of offensiveness and consequence, progressing from least to most damaging.

First, I explore the references we find in Attic comedy to mocking banter between marketplace vendors (e.g. Ar. Frogs 857-59; Hesk 2007: 135-41). Insults of this sort appear to have been a relatively light-hearted way for (low-status) vendors simultaneously to bond with one another and to compete over customers. Next, I examine the sexual graffiti that have been found in the agora (Lang 1976; see also Williams 2014), which include insulting words like katapugôn, misêtos, pugaios, lakkoprôktos, katapugaina, and laikastria. We might compare these graffiti, which were likely amusing to (most of) their readers, to sexual graffiti found elsewhere in the ancient world, which were used not only to establish a status hierarchy among men but also to align sexually ‘normative’ individuals against non-normative others (Levin-Richardson 2011).

Other attested insults in the agora were more malicious, in that they had the intention of truly damaging the status (whether social or legal or both) of their targets. We might think, for example, of Demosthenes’ description of his opponent Aristogeiton making his way through the marketplace “like a snake or a scorpion with sting erect, darting here and there,” on the lookout for someone on whom he could inflict defamation (blasphêmian) (Dem. 25.52)—that is, his aim was to tarnish publicly the reputation of others. Finally, I turn to the ostraka found in the agora and the Kerameikos that explicitly denigrate candidates for ostracism (Brenne 1994). One such ostrakon reads “Megakles, son of Hippokrates, moichos” (SEG 46:78) and another “Themistokles, son of Neokles, katapugôn” (SEG 46:80). In this context, such insults had the potential to be tremendously harmful, since they could contribute to the removal of a fellow citizen from the civic body.

Ultimately, this paper demonstrates that insults in the agora, which ranged from playful mockery to destructive abuse, played a key role in the contestation over status that characterized Athenian society.

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Public Life in Classical Athens

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