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The Lives of Lycurgus: Self-Commemoration in Fourth-Century Athens

Mitchell H. Parks

Knox College

Despite his self-effacing pose in his only surviving speech (Against Leocrates), Lycurgus of Butadae was keen to further his own legacy and employed multiple strategies of self-commemoration. In this paper, I interpret one of his lost speeches, Lyc. fr.1, as a work of literary autobiography on the model of Isocrates’ Antidosis.

According to Harpocration, Lyc. fr.1 was titled ἀπολογισμὸς ὧν πεπολίτευται, “a record of how he has served the state.” Only a handful of words—those of lexicographical interest—survive. It seems to be the speech to which the Lives of the Ten Orators refers when it says ([Plut] 842f) that the dying Lycurgus asked to be brought to render the accounts of his service to the state (εὐθύνας δοῦναι τῶν πεπολιτευμένων, cf. 852d). No one dares to oppose him except for his rival Menesaechmus; Lycurgus is vindicated and leaves to die in peace.

Combined with the unusual terminology and irregular procedure (Conomis), the dramatic nature of the scenario makes it easier, in my view, to see this speech as fictive, an autobiography dressed up as a defense speech. Literary praise of his own career would have been intolerable to an Athenian democratic audience without being cast in the form of a legal defense (Most, Spatharas). Lycurgus had good precedents for writing autobiography in this mode, such as Antiphon’s defense (Thuc. 8.68.2) and Demosthenes’ On the Crown. Lambert suggests that Lyc. fr.1 is Lycurgus’s version of the latter, but I believe that its line of descent originates from the first-person fiction of Plato’s Apology. This text had inspired the Antidosis (see, e.g., Ober), which in turn provided a model that Lycurgus may have followed in Lyc. fr.1: Isocrates faces a made-up charge (Isoc. 15.30) in a fictional trial (15.8); he aims to leave a memorial of himself (15.7); and, as usual for Isocrates, he stresses the weakness of his old age (15.9), a weakness taken to its extreme by Lycurgus’s deathbed scenario.

Additionally, we can clarify the purpose of Lyc. fr.1 by comparison with two other texts produced by Lycurgus: Against Leocrates and the inscribed record (ἀναγραφή) he erected in front of his palaestra ([Plut] 843f). This latter, which Oliver suggests amounted to Lycurgus’s res gestae, may have formed a complementary pair with Lyc. fr.1: one a physical monument, the other a literary text; one a straightforward list of achievements, the other a dramatized narrative that could quote that list just as Isocrates excerpts his own writings (15.10). Regarding Against Leocrates, that speech may also form a pair with Lyc. fr.1: by disseminating two orations, one showing him as a disinterested prosecutor and the other a defense speech in which his own deeds and values are at the fore, Lycurgus, again following an Isocratean strategy, could produce a more rounded picture of himself. That Lycurgus would advertise his own legacy in such a multimodal fashion is plausible, given, as Hanink has demonstrated, the ways in which Lycurgus transformed tragedy into the Athenian cultural product par excellence.

Nevertheless, Lycurgus did not succeed in leaving an immutable autobiographical account: others were eager to redefine his career for their own purposes, from Demosthenes (Ep. 3), Hypereides (fr.31), and Philiscus (Olympiodorus on Pl. Gorg. 515c) to the restored democracy, which in 307/6 BCE awarded Lycurgus posthumous honors, including a statue (for the ramifications of which see Gauthier) and a lengthy inscription, preserved in two versions ([Plut] 851f–852e and IG II2 457 + 3207: see Lambert). The competition among all these texts, as with the multiple Socratic Apologies, has produced a refracted and illusory image of this pivotal figure, rather than the clear-cut account he might have preferred. By contemplating the strategies of these texts, however, we can arrive at a better understanding of fourth-century literature, in terms of both the motivations behind the dissemination of individual speeches and the processes that shaped an author’s corpus as a whole.

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Public Life in Classical Athens

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