In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Barber,” written around 1946, a liberal college professor in the South attempts to defend his political principles to his much more conservative barber. At one point, the professor, named Rayber, says about his barber’s preferred candidate, “A good many people consider Hawkson a demagogue.” To this the whooping barber replies, “That’s what Hawk said! Ain’t that a shot! ‘Folks,’ he says, ‘them Mother Hubbards says I’m a demagogue.’ Then he rears back and says sort of softlike, ‘Am I a demagogue, you people?’ And they yells, ‘Naw, Hawk, you ain’t no demagogue!’ And he comes forward shouting, ‘Oh yeah I am, I’m the best damn demagogue in this state!’ And you should hear them people roar!”
The roaring crowd; the shameless grandstanding––also the racist subtext of the mid-century South: these elements of “demagoguery” remain all too familiar to us today, 75 years later. Many college professors now have likely faced situations similar to that of O’Connor’s Rayber. In this they are perhaps not far off from the experience of Athenian intellectuals of the fifth century BCE, people like Thucydides and Aristophanes. It was during their lifetime, and from developments they knew well, that the term “demagogue” first emerged and came to have a decidedly negative coloring. While previous politicians in the Athenian democracy may have expressed themselves similarly, it is from the period of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) that we have the clearest evidence for a forceful political style that found favor among mass audiences while shocking more bien pensant observers. Although the Greek word dêmagôgos simply means “leader of the people,” with no negative connotations, critics of the democracy came to agree that anyone who managed to climb the greasy pole of politics in Athens had to be an unsavory individual. As the playwright Aristophanes has a character say in his comedy The Knights of 424 BCE, “Political leadership [dêmagôgia] is no longer performed by an educated man or one upright in his habits, but is a matter for a disgusting idiot.” It was not long before this dim view of the demagogue was adopted beyond Athens, and it remains our primary understanding of “demagogue” and “demagoguery” today.
Yet despite our apparent ability to know demagoguery when we see it, both in antiquity and now, the phenomenon has not received the scholarly attention, nor been afforded the importance, that it deserves. Studies of ancient demagogues typically begin and end in fifth-century Athens, bookended by the ascendance of the blustery politician Cleon in 425 and Athens’ defeat at the hands of Sparta in 404. Yet not only were there many more “demagogic” politicians during the fourth century BCE, but we begin to find them everywhere in the Greek world, and not just during the Classical period––the essayist Plutarch, writing roughly five and a half centuries after Cleon’s death, takes it for granted that Greek politicians of his own day might still engage in demagoguery, even in the age of the Roman empire. Furthermore, scholars have rarely attempted to understand demagoguery as a historical, rather than an ethical, phenomenon. We might ask: was there a common understanding of what it meant to be a “demagogue” in ancient Greece? Under what circumstances did such figures tend to arise? What was their social basis of support? What relationship did they have to the Greek cities’ (variably) democratic institutions? And what might their popularity tell us about the values and attitudes of non-elite Greeks, whose thoughts, largely unwritten, are otherwise lost to us?
These and others are questions I aim to answer in my current project, a political and cultural history of Greek demagoguery from roughly 500 BCE to 120 CE. In analyzing ancient demagoguery, I have benefited in my research from two modern theoretical paradigms: the study of “populism” currently flourishing within Political Science (for fairly obvious reasons), and historiographical treatments of “popular culture.” These approaches aid, respectively, in understanding 1) what distinguishes “demagoguery” or “populism” from competing styles within democratic politicking and 2) on what cultural plane “demagogic” politicians connected with mass audiences––since what looks like mere “pandering” to critical observers often encompasses a whole set of tropes, ideas, and gestures that resonate strongly with non-elite audiences.
I am very grateful for the time and support afforded me by the Center for Hellenic Studies in pursuing this project. While here I am focused on three areas in particular: the Greek historiographical tradition of talking about “demagogues,” particularly as found in post-Xenophontic authors like Theopompus, Timaeus, Polybius, and Posidonius; the influence of Old Comedy on wider cultural notions of what constituted a demagogue; and the connections between demagogic language and “folk wisdom,” insofar as the latter can be found in fable-writing and paroemiography.
Matthew Simonton received his PhD in Classics from Stanford University. Since 2013 he has been Assistant Professor of Ancient History at Arizona State University. His first book, Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History (Princeton 2017), received the Anglo-Hellenic League’s Runciman Award. He has published on Classical Greek political institutions, revolution and civil war in antiquity, and processes of history-writing and collective memory. His next book will be a study of ancient Greek demagoguery from the Classical to Imperial periods.