The union of choirs

Choral practice in Athens was much more than a dramatic process: it was a civic and collective experience, a sort of democratic representation of plurality. V. Azoulay and P. Ismard see in it the deep identity of a society which overcomes its divisions.

Athens, 403 BCE

The long Peloponnesian War, which since 431 B.C. è, opposed Athens and Sparta, with their respective allies, ends on April 22, 404 before n. è, when Athens, besieged, capitulated: the Long Walls which surrounded the city and protected Piraeus were destroyed, and the opponents of the democratic regime, including Critias, returned to the city. Under the watchful eye of the Lacedaemonians, with the appointment of five ephors appointed within the Athenian oligarchic circles, democracy was overthrown: at the end of summer 404, a commission of thirty Athenians was established, responsible for governing the city throughout by restoring the nomoi patriot“the laws of the fathers”.

Initially, the Thirty appear united: “brought together by frequenting banquets, they even sought to create an ideal community, transposing the principles of Spartan organization to Athens” (p. 64). The violence they exercise is rather well accepted, because it primarily targets the most radical democrats – Vincent Azoulay and Paulin Ismard speak of “joyful purification” (p. 63). But quickly, summary executions multiplied, the Thirty attacked those they considered to have supported democracy, including wealthy citizens, and against the metics. The civic body was reduced to 3,000 men, registered on a register, each of which could be arbitrarily deleted at any time. The others, almost ten times more numerous, are deprived of their citizenship and therefore of their rights, disarmed and dispersed across the territory of Attica.

One of the Thirty, Theramenes, opposed this strict limitation of the civic body and, with him, dissensions arose within the oligarchic choir, so harmonious in appearance. Brought before the Council for treason, he was sentenced to death and executed. The Thirty now govern by terror, as evidenced in the spring of 403 by the gratuitous but yet skillfully staged massacre of 300 Eleusinians, men of fighting age, previously Athenian citizens (Eleusis being part of the city’s territory), but who had not been registered on the list of Three Thousand.

However, a few days later, the oligarchs suffered a crushing defeat at Mounychia, a hill in Piraeus that the democratic exiles led by Thrasybulus had just taken; Critias is killed there. The Three Thousand deposed the Thirty and entrusted power to a commission of ten men who, however, continued the policy of fear led by their predecessors. It was not until several weeks later that peace negotiations finally opened between “those of the city” and “those of Piraeus”. In October 403, Thrasybulus and the victorious democrats went in procession to the Acropolis to sacrifice to Athena; the strategists then convene the People’s Assembly on the hill of the Pnyx, a highly symbolic place for democracy since it is there that the assembled people sit, sovereign, from the middle of the Ve century B.C. e. The Athenians commit themselves to reconciliation: they vote an oath by which they undertake to “not recall the misfortunes” of the civil war – this oath of amnesty is at the heart of the work by Nicole Loraux published in 1997, The Divided City. Oblivion in the memory of Athens.

It is on this year of civil war that Vincent Azoulay and Paulin Ismard return today, inviting us to take a new look not only at this episode – hitherto read as a moment of bipartition, of fracture of the city, between democrats on one side, and oligarchs on the other – but also, more broadly, on the society of the time: in fact, “to write a choral history of Athens, (…) is to reconstruct a plurality of collectives , without starting from preconstituted and already organized aggregates, and even less by presupposing in advance the existence of a single whole – the “Athenian society” – clearly hierarchical into distinct groups” (p. 36).

The city in chorus

As the two historians point out, “chorality is (…) deeply rooted in the lives of citizens, in particular thanks to the practice of the dithyramb – a unique choral formation, consisting of singing and dancing in a circle” (p. 20). These dithyrambic choirs compete in competitions during the numerous festivals organized by the city, such as the Thargelies or the Dionysia. During the latter, which were also the occasion for dramatic competitions, tragic choruses and comic choruses also performed. If metics can participate in the Lenaean choirs, in honor of Dionysus, most choirs are only open to citizens or future citizens. For the Great Dionysia alone, at least 1,165 citizens were choreuts each year – a little less during the Peloponnesian War, since the number of comedies represented was then reduced – or 3.88% of the civic body. Choral practice thus constitutes an intense civic and collective experience. Young people from good families were also prepared for it by their education and by the practice of banqueting. Thus, the Athenian choreuts were most often young people from aristocratic, or at least well-off, backgrounds whom the choregos most certainly recruited first from his entourage, among young people whose qualities he knew. The choreute appears elsewhere, in Aristophanes (Frogs727-729) as in Plato (Laws, II654a 9-b 1 for example), as the paragon of the good citizen.

Nevertheless, as Vincent Azoulay and Paulin Ismard point out, “if the choir is of such importance in Athens, it is because it represents a truly democratic aesthetic” (p. 21), if only because “arranging its members in a circle or square, sometimes under the aegis of a corypheus, the choir first visually realizes the principle of equality between citizens” (p. 21), even if certain characters stand out, such as the chorège, the corypheus, or even the auletes. Furthermore, “in Athens, the choir was plural, egalitarian and competitive: the whole challenge was to prevent the emergence of an overly powerful choir which could represent, even for the duration of a ceremony, the entire city” (pp. 22-23). The authors also show, in a very interesting way, that “competitions between choirs were established in the aftermath of the bloody conflict which opposed the (aristocratic) factions of Cleisthenes and Isagoras at the end of the VIe century. From 508-507, the choral reorganization (…) can be interpreted as a way of preventing the return of civil war”: “the choral confrontation allows (…) both to represent and to overcome the experience of war civil, in short to sublimate the experience of division” (p. 27).

Vincent Azoulay and Paulin Ismard thus seize the choral metaphor to (re)think not only the year 403, in particular by “(outwitting) the political bipartisanship”, but also, more broadly, Athenian society. Indeed, this “absolute metaphor of Athenian thought” (p. 18) allows the two historians to take into consideration forms of provisional groupings, to highlight emotional communities, the relationships between the different choirs, while multiplying the scales of analysis. Thus not only do they set in motion, in a striking way, a society until then largely fixed in its statuses (citizen/woman/metic/slave) by historiography, but also, as they announce from the introduction, go beyond the aporias to which the notion of network, so widely used for two decades, leads, like that of association.

A living democratic polyphony

In order to restore the plurality of voices, of collectives, in other words “the framework of Athenian polyphony”, the two historians focused on ten characters (the ten chapters of the work), men and women. Thus they take us to meet “structuring figures” such as Critias, “untraceable leader” of the Thirty, Thrasybulus, who took the lead of the democrats, the moderate Archinos, Socrates, “voice of neutrality”, or even the metic Lysias, but also “tiny lives”: women, in the service of Athena, Lysimache and, with her, Myrrhine or Syéris, or within their family, such as the rich Hégèso, but also Eutheros, a poor worker ( today we would say “precarious”), Gèrys, a former slave who became a vegetable seller, or even Nicomachos, “scribe and administrator”, in other words, a bureaucrat. As they themselves explain, “the approach (consists) of an individual, playing the role of corypheus, to reconstitute the choirs which surround him and surround him” (p. 36). It is about “being attentive to the plurality of collectives in which it is part and which it helps to structure” (p. 37).

These lives, illustrious or tiny, are retraced with meticulousness: for this, the authors summon all the sources, literary, epigraphic, iconographic, archaeological, avoiding no difficulty, no questioning, and systematically highlighting their method, without that reading should never be made difficult, on the contrary. The use of anachronism, the parallels established with contemporary situations and facts, are explained and always fruitful. In doing so, they return to the facts, to the civil war – the stasis –, emphasizing that the chronology is in itself “a historical and historiographical problem” (p. 318), to show that not only does the episode of the Thirty cover not only half of the civil war, but also that the Athenian population was not affected in the same way and with the same violence. “Neither One, nor Two: at the end of the civil war, the city was neither cacophonous nor monophonic, but crossed by plural and sometimes dissonant harmonies” (p. 330).

This is how a crowd of characters, with various statuses and occupations, is set in motion, this is how a story that seemed fixed (not to say frozen) for a long time comes to life. We walk through this work as extraordinarily lively as it is coherent and structured as we would have walked through the alleys of Athens in 403 (plans, figures and chronological markers are also there to allow the reader to find their way), coming across some “great men”, but also many “people who are nothing”, men and women to whom Vincent Azoulay and Paulin Ismard give life and color.