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Free Speech

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Free Speech. The right to say what you want without fear of arrest or prosecution by the government. Is there any aspect more fundamental to democracy? Ok, voting, but shut up, I’m trying to make a point here. We regard freedom of speech as essential to a free state. The denial of free speech is seen as a move to dictatorship, oppression, and slavery. It’s a big deal. The ancient Athenians thought free speech was a big deal too. Just like how you can’t say “fire” in a crowded theater, the Athenians also had limitations on freedom of speech. In a way these laws—what I like to call anti-asshole initiatives—highlight the importance of freedom of speech in the society. It seems most societies grapple with the lines, and so I can think of no better way to look at this than making it a straight up competition between freedom and limitation of speech.

Socrates was more or less killed for saying the wrong thing. His trial sets one limit on free speech. Technically, Socrates was indicted on two charges; denigrating the city gods (impiety) and introducing new gods (corrupting the youth). Both highlight one area where speech was more regulated, namely, religion. Unlike modernity, Athens was not a secular state. Religion and politics were intricately intertwined, with rituals and temple buildings being functions of the government. The gods were real, intervened in human affairs, and didn’t take kindly to being mocked.

Hence, the health of the state was at least partially believed to be dependent on the favor of the gods. When Socrates was put on trial, Athens had just lost the Peloponnesian War to the Spartans. They lost a great deal of pride in themselves, their democracy, and were understandingly worried about their future. Their navy, the source of Athenian power, was utterly destroyed at the Battle of Aegospotami. Things were bleak. Then along came Socrates, praising Sparta, and tempting the fate of Athens by pissing off the gods. In such a context, it is perhaps easier to see why free speech didn’t extend to religious matters. That said, it’s still a restriction, point for the limits.

Before anyone decides the Athenians were a bunch of superstitious backwards nutters, keep in mind we tend to have similar debates. When the Phelps family of Westboro Baptist Church fame started picketing the funerals of deceased soldiers, a similar issue came up. How far do we go to defend First Amendment rights? The issue went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Snyder v. Phelps that public speech on public sidewalks could not be restricted. Perhaps this was such a big deal because it also touched on something almost universal among cultures—the prohibition against speaking ill of the dead.

Athens was little different with regard to the dead. In Athenian thinking, not speaking ill of the dead was one of those fundamental things in life. Plutarch cites Solon as the lawmaker forbidding this act:

“Praise is given also to that law of Solon which forbids speaking ill of the dead. For it is piety to regard the deceased as sacred, justice to spare the absent, and good policy to rob hatred of its perpetuity. He also forbade speaking ill of the living in temples, court-of‑law, public offices, and at festivals; the transgressor must pay three drachmas to the person injured, and two more into the public treasury” (21.1).

There’s a problem though. During the 3rd century BC, Athens and other states had a tendency to attribute various laws to past leaders or mytho-historical figures. The idea is clear enough; the older a law or custom and the more famous its supposed founder, the more weight and credence it appears to have. We tend to do the same thing with our Founding Fathers. It doesn’t always represent truth though. In this case, Solon is one of the legendary figures in Athenian history, and the extent to which he created Athenian democracy, or wrote a law prohibiting bad-mouthing the dead probably cannot be known with any great certainty or accuracy.

Adding to the skepticism are clear cases of Athenians speaking ill of the dead, seemingly with impunity. Aristophanes seems to do it regularly. In the Frogs, performed in 405 BC, the plot follows the god Dionysus in trying to bring the recently deceased Euripides (died in 406 BC) from Hades. Likewise, in Peace (performed 421 BC) Kleon is ruthlessly mocked, despite having died in battle merely months before. Peace won 2nd place at the City Dionysia that year. Either the law didn’t actually exist, it was unenforced by the time of Aristophanes, or the penalty was never updated—and five drachmas for someone like Aristophanes wouldn’t have even counted as a rounding error. So we’ve got a law that doesn’t work, even if it existed (and it probably didn’t). Point for free speech.

Next are several restrictions governing “aporreta (ἀπόρρητα)”, literally things forbidden to be said. Essentially these were slander laws. Interestingly though, these laws seemed to forbid pretty specific accusations rather than general practices—such as calling someone a murderer, a father-beater, a mother-beater, and a shield-thrower. Yeah, that last one is going to need some explanation.

The Athenians, like pretty much all the Greeks, fought in phalanx formations. These were tightly packed shield and spear walls, basically the ancient equivalent of a tank. Ideally, the shields would overlap, and your shield was used to protect the guy next to you, rather than yourself. Everyone see where this is going? Dropping your shield was thus both an act of cowardice and basically treason. It meant you were betraying your friends and countrymen, leaving your fellow soldier exposed, and fleeing from the enemy.

Of course, Aristophanes pushes the limits even on slander. In Birds (287-289), he almost accuses Kleonymos of being a shield-thrower, but changes it to “crest”. Like the sarcastic little bastard he was, Aristophanes was basically told not to push the red button, totally pushes the button using a stick, and then justifies it by saying it wasn’t him, it was the stick that pushed the button.  To be fair, he’s making fun of politicians—some things never change (cough, Jon Stewart, cough). He followed the literal letter of the law, but damn sure not its spirit. Lysias also cites the law in Against Theomnestus—this gives a little more weight to the historicity of it. Point for the limitations.

That brings us to the last piece for discussion, the Decree of Syrakosios. The decree is mentioned in a scholiast’s note (a Medieval commentator) on Aristophanes’ Birds. It supposedly bans satirizing someone by name, although the exact language is a little unclear. It either bans satirizing people by name, or satires that name people. Obviously this would be a major issue for comedians like Aristophanes. There is a matter of debate regarding what this law actually banned, what the punishments were, and whether the damn thing even existed. But no fear, because remember: Historian = Time Detective.

Aristophanes’ first comedy, Babylonians, went after Kleon very hard. It seems then Kleon sued him. We know this because like a typical sarcastic, satirical ass, Aristophanes decided to reference the lawsuit in his next play, Acharnians. The character Dikaiopolis breaks the fourth wall to address the lawsuit as if he were Aristophanes himself:

“And in my own case I know what Cleon did to me because of last year’s comedy. He hauled me before the Council, and slandered me, and tongue-lashed me with lies, and roared like the Cycloborus, and soaked me in abuse, so that I nearly died in a mephitic miasma of misadventure” (48-50).

It seems like it was a real thing, and a big deal for the comedian. So perhaps the decree has some historical teeth, and there were limits on comedians’ free speech after all?

Nah. Keep in mind all these scholiasts are Medieval people—they’re writing notes in the 8-10th centuries or later about events nearly 1000 years old. Doesn’t necessarily make them wrong, but you have to ask where they’re getting their information, before we start using them to get our information.

Secondly, while Kleon probably did sue Aristophanes, it wasn’t for personal slander. The charge was slandering the city in the presence of foreigners. The Babylonians was staged during the City Dionysia, with foreign diplomats from states allied to Athens in attendance. Dikaeopolis (probably representing the playwright) says that this won’t be a problem anymore because there are no foreigners present this time around. The Acharnians was staged during the Lenaia, with pretty much only Athenians in attendance. Once again, the comedian is exploiting a loophole, following the letter but not the spirit of law.

Finally, Aristophanes still wrote and put on plays. We don’t know what happened to this case, but in any event, Aristophanes didn’t stop. He didn’t even seem to hold back any more than usual, and you can read the rest of his plays to see just how harsh and critical he could be.

So that leaves us with a few possibilities: One, the Decree existed, and banned named comedy (in whichever sense). This probably isn’t the case since it’s clear this just didn’t happen. Grass is green, sky is blue, and Aristophanes makes fun of politicians by name. The evidence refutes this theory. Two, the Decree existed, but involved something else. Some scholars have proposed that the Syrakosios decree concerned a scandal with the hermai, others have said it is one and the same with the slander law. Neither alternative really add up though. Finally, the damned thing doesn’t really exist. It’s a mistake on the part of the scholiast; speculation that a law was preventing named comedy. My bet’s on the last one—point for freedom—but as the great philosophers of Monty Python once said, “You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals! You’re all different!”

(….I’m not).

On that note, I think it’s game, set, and match for Freedom of Speech. So the next time you enjoy a good mocking of our politicians, think of Aristophanes.

Further reading:

For those with academic library access, there’s a buttload (technical term) of discussion on free speech in Athens, the various laws supposedly limiting free speech, the comedian’s right to free speech, and the Decree of Syrakosios.

Look at me, giving a bibliography like I’m all professional and shit. . . .


Atkinson, J.E. “Curbing the Comedians: Cleon versus Aristophanes and Syrakosios’ Decree.” The Classical Quarterly, New Series Vol. 42.1 (1992): 56-64. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/639144&gt;

Halliwell, Stephen. “Ancient Interpretations of ὀνομαστὶ κωμῳδεῖν in Aristophanes.” The ClassicalQuarterly, New Series Vol. 34.1 (1984): 83-88. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/638337&gt;

Halliwell, Stephen. “Comic Satire and Freedom of Speech in Classical Athens”. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 111 (1991). pp. 48-70. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/631887&gt;

Hunter, Virginia. “Gossip and Politics of Reputation in Classical Athens.” Poenix Vol. 44.4 (Winter 1990): 299-325. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1088805&gt;

Koster, W.J.W. Scholia in Aristophanem: Scholia in Vespes; Pacem; Aves et Lysistratam. Bouma’s Boekhuis B.V. Groningen, The Netherlands. 1978.

Koster, W.J.W. Scholia in Aristophanem: In Acharnenses. Bouma’s Boekhuis B.V. Groningen, The Netherlands. 1975.

MacDowell, Douglas M. The Law in Classical Athens. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY. 1978. Pgs 126-129.

MacDowell, Douglas M. “Law-Making at Athens in the Fourth Century B.C.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 95 (1975). pp. 62-74. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/630870&gt;

Radin, Max. “Freedom of Speech in Ancient Athens.” The American Journal of Philology Vol. 48.3 (1927): 215-230. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/290126&gt;

Sommerstein, Alan H. “The Decree of Syrakosios.” The Classical Quarterly, New Series Vol. 36.1 (1986):101-108. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/638947&gt;

Sommerstein, Alan H. “Aristophanes and the Events of 411.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies Vol. 97 (1977): 112-126. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/631026&gt;

Sommerstein, Alan H. “Harassing the Satirist: The Alleged Attempts to Prosecute Aristophanes”. In Free Speech in Classical Antiquity (Edited by Sluiter, Ineke and Rosen, Ralph M.). Brill-Leiden. Boston. 2004. pp. 145-174.

Trevett, Jeremy. “Was There a Decree of Syrakosios?” The Classical Quarterly, New Series Vol. 50.2 (2000); pp. 598-600. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1558915&gt;

Wallace, Robert W. “Law, Attic Comedy, and the Regulation of Comic Speech”. In The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Law. Cambridge University Press. 2005.


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