Kleisthenes, Participation, and the Dithyrambic Contests of Late Archaic and Classical Athens

Pritchard, David M. (2004) Kleisthenes, Participation, and the Dithyrambic Contests of Late Archaic and Classical Athens.

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Title Kleisthenes, Participation, and the Dithyrambic Contests of Late Archaic and Classical Athens
Abstract/Summary Ancient literary evidence and demography confirms that the demands and opportunity cost of dithyrambic participation impeded non-elite Athenian boys and men from joining a chorus of their tribe. They suggest too that chorus sponsors, driven as they were by their love of victory and honour, recruited a majority or, in most instances, all of their choristers from those best able to sing and dance a dithyramb: the upper class. Participation, then, in the dithyrambic contests was a predominantly or, more often than not, an exclusively elite pursuit. Therefore, in contrast to the Council of Five Hundred and the tribally organized military corps, which did ‘mix up’ significant numbers of Athenians, reaching down to and including the non-elite hoplites, the dithyrambic competitions were not a significant mechanism for bringing individual wealthy and poor citizens together, nor were they one of the chief means by which ties of solidarity between fellow tribesmen and connections between citizens living in different parts of the country were created. Dithyrambic participation in late archaic and classical Athens was not a ‘clear analogy’ to service as a bouleutēs or hoplitēs. While we may no longer say that these choral competitions were introduced by Kleisthenes as part of his effort to ‘mix up’ as many Athenians as possible, alternate and – I would argue – adequate explanation for their introduction can be found in the other significant ways they undergirded his tribal and political reforms. Firstly, these new musical competitions would have helped to cohere the Athenian elite and to placate any elite opposition to the Kleisthenic programme. As is often noted, a significant community problem of sixth-century Athens was the excessive rivalry between individual aristocrats and their supporters, which had already led to the Peisistratid tyranny (Ath. Pol. 15.2-3; Hdt. 1.61-62) and, in 508/7, was quickly leading to the establishment of a narrowly based oligarchy (Ath. Pol. 20.3; Hdt. 6.72.2). Dithyrambic participation helped moderate this intra-elite stasis by fostering bonds between upper class boys and men cutting across factions and regions and by schooling them in how to work together for tribal and civic, as opposed to partisan, ends. Moreover, since Greek aristocrats had long used choral training to educate their youngsters and prized agōnes as a means to prove aretē and to build up symbolic capital, wealthy Athenians no doubt welcomed these new competitions. This expansion of agonistic opportunities for the city’s elite may even have been a deliberate attempt by Kleisthenes to secure their support for a reform package placing marked restrictions on their political power as a class. Secondly, the goings-on at festivals were used by the ancient Greeks to articulate and legitimate civic ideology and social structure. Thus, the introduction of new tribally organized contests into the Great Dionysia would have been an effective way to broadcast to, and solemnize for, all Athenians the new tribal organization of the city. Finally, while I take issue with some of his views, Peter Wilson establishes beautifully, in his chapter for Sport and Festival in the Ancient Greek World, that the cities of archaic and classical Greece knowingly and deliberately performed dithyrambs in order to harness the divine power of Dionysos to ward off stasis and to bring about civic cohesion and solidarity. Late sixth-century Athens did indeed stand in need of such magico-religious assistance. That these religious advantages would have been appreciated by Kleisthenes is suggested by the piety and sophistication he displayed when he had the Delphic oracle choose the ten ‘national’ demi-gods to be the figureheads of the city’s new tribes (Ath. Pol. 21.6). In conclusion, the new tribally organized dithyrambic contests, hoplite army and Council of Five Hundred did ‘mix up’ citizens, but brought together different social classes of the citizen-body. Dithyrambic choruses did not duplicate the thorough mixing of elite and non-elite Athenians achieved by the other two institutions, but combined elite boys and men from different regions of Attike and traditional political factions, and encouraged them to accept the new political arrangements of Kleisthenes and to work cooperatively within them. As part of a significant festival of Dionysos, these choral competitions helped to legitimise the new tribal organization and ensure divine protection from future civil strife. Importantly, they were not the only element of the Kleisthenic reforms with such particular purposes. The military changes of the late sixth century ensured the Athenians had, for the first time, a city-based and formidable army, which they needed to meet the very real external threats to their new constitution (Hdt. 5.74-78). And the Council of Five Hundred gave the dēmos the permanent institutional presence they required if they were to exercise the political power Kleisthenes had promised them. To make these three institutions analogous, then, risks obscuring such differences of purpose and effaces the different ways they ‘mixed up’ the citizens of late archaic and classical Athens.
Date 2004-07-01
Author Pritchard, David M.
Open Access Status Other
References D. M. Pritchard 2004, ‘Kleisthenes, Participation, and the Dithyrambic Contests of Late Archaic and Classical Athens’, Phoenix 58, 208-28.

Document type: Preprint
Collection: UQ Cultural History Project
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Created: Wed, 25 Jun 2014, 17:56:06 EST by Dr David Pritchard on behalf of School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry