The Trierarchy, Financial Syndication, and Impersonal Intermediation
In 358/7, the otherwise obscure Athenian politician, Periandros, successfully proposed a law that fundamentally reformed the trierarchy. His law syndicated the financing of the liturgy in a manner similar to the eisphora collection that had been established in 378 BCE (Philochorus F. Gr. Hist. 328 F41; MacDowell 1986: 438). The law prescribed creating financing syndicates drawn from an established group of the 1200 wealthiest Athenians. Trierarchs would be able to collect money from a sub-division of these symmorists, known as synteleis, specifically assigned to support their trierarchy (Dem 47.21). Several contemporary witnesses to Periandros’ law believed that it singularly depreciated elite philotimia (e.g Is. 7.38; Dem 21.154). Demosthenes even asserts that the Periandrian system encourages trierarchs to defraud both the polis and their affiliated synteleis (Dem. 21.155).
Demosthenes specifically claims that trierarchs, like the corrupt Meidias, abuse their advantageous position as intermediaries between the contributors and a sub-contractor hired by the trierarch to perform the service, a practice known as misthosis. This is not just a smear directed specifically at Meidias. Demosthenes habitually rails against forms of impersonal intermediation and, more generally, government regulation of the liturgical system (cf. Dem 14 and Dem. 20 passim). It is therefore no surprise that Demosthenes radiates from a specific accusation against Meidias to a general critique of the Periandrian system (Dem. 21.155).
That general critique has been generally endorsed by modern scholars (eg. Davies 1981: 24, Gabrielsen 1994: 209). I will demonstrate Demosthenes distorts the trierarch’s ability to accumulate infinitely superior private knowledge but more importantly ignores the shared interests between the synteleis and the lead financing trierarch. The costs of discharging a trierarchy did fluctuate (e.g. Lys. 19.29, 42; 21.12; 32.26; [Dem.] 50 passim, [Dem.] 51.5-6, Is. 6.60), but those serving as trierarchs and/or serving as synteleis, by and large, did not (Davies 1971: xvii-xxx; Gabrielsen 1994: 66-7). Based upon their accumulated practical knowledge and robust networks for sharing it, synteleis did not suffer from a significant information disadvantage relative to the trierarch (Ober 2008:118-159).
Additionally, the financial interests of the trierarch and his synteleis are aligned. The costs of trierarchy could and did vary -- significantly. Therefore, both the trierarch and each individual syntelēs is exposed to the same financial risk. Both parties would find contracting out the liturgy at a set price an attractive hedge against the open-ended risks of the trierarch actually performing the liturgy. A contributor therefore would be strongly inclined to pay a fixed sum that includes a “risk premium,” rather than be exposed to the prospect a financing a particularly inept or unlucky trierarch (Lignon 1998).
Since the trierarch functions as a financial intermediary and as a risk manager for his synteleis, he is providing valuable financial services (Mora 2015). The trierarch always is ultimately responsible for discharging the duty regardless of the sub-contractor’s reliability ([Dem.] 51.8-9). The trierarch thus remains uniquely exposed to other forms of risk, such as prosecution for lipotaxia ([Dem.] 51.8). Charging a “risk premium” for this exposure as well as for the effort the trierarch exerts to identify and contract a suitable third party is not fraud but a legitimate “fee for service.”
Trierarchs like Meidias are not “doing nothing and paying nothing.” They are actively managing risk. Their philotimia may be suspect and utilizing misthosis problematic, but the shared financial interests of both the trierarchs and their synteleis encouraged the former to seek a sub-contractor and the latter to endorse the practice, which may explain why misthosis, though generally decried, persisted as long as the trierarchy.
Public Life in Classical Athens