Conference: 'Onstage-Offstage: Self-Presentation by Body and Voice in Classical Athens,'

April 16, 1994

Yale University,
New Haven,

Reported by Victor Bers
Department of Classics
Box 208266
Yale University
New Haven,
CT 06520-8266,

[Except for the precis of Hall's lecture, for which Bers is responsible, the summaries that follow were provided by the speakers themselves.]

Victor Bers (Yale) opened the conference by referring to a number of texts that express the classical Greek notion that a man's inner nature must, perforce, be read from signs of his outside: posture, gait, voice, i.e. the style of his self-presentation. Our good luck is that the classical Athenian arenas which counted, where the 'real' man put himself forward in dealings with other men, are well enough documented for research into some fine details of performance in public and semi-public gatherings.

In his paper 'kosmios legein', Bers advanced a view of the professionally written dicanic speech as aiming to construct what was understood by the jurors as a synecdoche of the speaker's life in the polis, and hence his worth as a citizen. In particular, a litigant was eager to present himself by the manner of his speaking under stress as one possessing kosmiotes, a virtue both public and private. He concluded with a brief analysis of three stylistic features that may have helped the speaker impress the jury as kosmios.

Eva Stehle (Maryland): 'Men Speaking of Love in the Symposium'

Among the leisured patrons of gymnasia and symposia who were Socrates' interlocutors the state of being smitten by eros was publicly performed. Eros allowed the lover to display his social allegiances and inspired him to expend himself and his resources rather than hoarding them. Ideally, at Athens, the expenditure was directed at educating the beloved and accomplishing deeds of civic virtue. Plato found the idea of looking to eros for education and model behavior problematic, as the Lysis and Charmides show. If we read Plato's Symposium, not as a discussion of the nature of love relationships, but as a series of performances illustrating the tendency of eros performed in public to turn into pandering, then we can see the detachment of the lover that Socrates advocates as an essential corrective. In the last three speeches eros becomes gratification as the speaker becomes the seducer of the audience. Socrates' first theme of desire to give birth counters the slippage of eros toward gratification, and his second theme, the ascent to beauty, blocks the tendency of eros to create pairs withdrawn from public life and all activity.

Donald Lateiner (Ohio Wesleyan): 'Strategic Insult in Socratic Athens: Verbal and Nonverbal Ridicule and Vulnerability.'

Lateiner addressed status manipulation (one upsmanship and insult) in the agora, the apodyterion, and the alleyways of Socratic Athens. Compiling data from Plato's dialogues, Aristophanes' comedies, Lysias' and Demosthenes' dicastic monologues, he demonstrated techniques of personal self-maximization and creative degradation of other men. Verbal ridicule and assault and nonverbal indications of disdain lead to blushing, sweating, and furious departures --and sometimes worse, much worse.

Some party-pot scenes provide cautionary paradigms of violent consequences of verbal assault. Lysias 3, 4 and fr. 17 (Gernet- Bizos) and Demosthenes 21 and 54 describe lively scenes of brawling, punching, trauma, and post-traumatic humiliation (aikia and hybris) with consequent citizen-stress. Insult, vulnerability, honor & shame, especially violence as threat and reality, all aspects of societal policing, require further attention.

Alan Boegehold (Brown): 'How the Man in the Street Expressed Exactly What He Meant to Say.'

Boegehold observed that modern readers when reading ancient Greek tend not to envision the gestures that accompanied reading in Classical and Archaic Greece. We can learn what these gestures are from vase-paintings,from references in literature, and from the sort of body language we can see in Greek speakers today. Once we alert ourselves to the existence of this body language, we can see where ellipses in syntax are some times there because a writer assumed that any Greek reading and therefore performing the text would know what gesture to supply. The man on the street, we can suppose, would have expressed himself with the same gestures we see, infer, or intuit from the sources noted above.

Adele Scafuro (Brown): 'Taking Risks: An Athenian Drama'

A study of kindunos ('risk') terminology shows that such language most often attached to defendants rather than plaintiffs and prosecutors; the phrase ho kinduneoon is often equivalent to 'the defendant.' Athenians avoided the risk of going to court by manipulating court procedures and acting indirectly: they frequently enter into private arbitration after initiating a private suit; moreover, a summons was probably often regarded as an immediately negotiable act rather than as a performative utterance (see [Dem.] 34.14-15 and Aristoph. Clouds 1214ff). The indirectness of speech and conduct as due to a perception of serious legal risks may be illustrated by episodes from Athenian drama, such as Menander, Epitrepontes 853-77.

Barry Strauss (Cornell): 'Fatherhood, or a Private Drama in Athenian Public Life'

The Ath.Pol 28.5 (echoed by Plutarch and Aelius Aristides) states that Nicias and Thoukydides son of Melesias each behaved like a father toward the whole polis. Used as we are to imagining a separation of public and private in Athens, we might write this judgment off as an ill-informed, philosopher's gloss. Other evidence, however, suggests that images of oikos and polis were intertwined in classical Athenian discourse, and that practicing politicians indeed may have presented themselves as a kind of father of the people. Yet, as the case of Pericles suggests, a politician had to tread lightly, because too close an identification with the paternal image might lead to charges of tyranny.

Edith Hall (Reading): 'Lawcourt Dramas: The Power of Performance in Greek Forensic Oratory'

Hall spoke of the lawcourts as a dramatic action for which 'two people (usually) wrote the script instead of one.' Blaming Aristotle for the neglect of the performative aspects of the trial, and drawing on Alcidimas as well as the speeches themselves, she sought to demonstrate that the performance of Athenian legal speeches 'had an affinity with drama in terms of the relationship of the speaker with the audience, the construction and enactment of fictive identities even extending to the attention paid to appearance, use of the eyes, gait and demeanour, and the exploitation of the courtroom, witnesses, and other individuals.'

Victor Bers

Victor Bers is a Professor of Classics at Yale University.