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By gods, tongues, and dogs: the use of oaths in Aristophanic comedy.

The gods appear in nearly every passage of Aristophanic dialogue; it is hard to imagine more than five minutes passing in the comic theatre before hearing the name of an Olympian deity. This remarkable density is perhaps less telling than it might seem, for the vast majority of such references occur in oaths. Formally, an oath calls on one or more gods to witness (using the particles ne or ma) an assertion, a denial, or a promise. Less formally, simple oaths with ne or ma add colour and emphasis to colloquial language, somewhat like `swear words' in English, and it is this usage which predominates in Aristophanes; to give just one example, the most popular oath `by Zeus' occurs over 250 times in the eleven comedies. So common are these `oaths' that they hardly seem worthy of the name; at most, they might seem to offer no more than insight into colloquial language at the profane level.(1) Numerous instances, however, take issue with the institution of the oath itself and acquire considerable importance due to the integral role the oath played in Greek religion,(2) especially given the state of that religion precisely during the period of Aristophanes' career, when traditional values were assaulted from numerous directions,(3) and the forces of orthodoxy lashed back with a vengeance.(4)

The oath is crucial for two reasons: its ubiquity, and its ultimate dependence on belief in the gods for its efficacy. As for the first, Lykourgos' claim that it is the oath which unites the democracy (Leokrates 79) is echoed by Walter Burkert: `In the institution of the oath, religion, morality and the very organization of society appear indissolubly linked together.'(5) Virtually all official relationships in public and private life were sealed with oaths.(6) Of equal importance is the interest of the gods in oaths, which bound them to ensure the veracity of the pledge, to whose moral substance they were otherwise indifferent. As Mikalson states, `There is no evidence that lying, cheating, accepting bribes, intentionally voting unjustly in a law case, and similar "wrongs" were thought in themselves to be of concern to the gods. But the Athenians loaded these wrongs, together with a host of others, with religious content when they made them the object of promissory oaths.'(7) So directly were the gods involved that they alone were responsible for punishing perjury (epiorkia); there was no law against it nor any such criminal trial on record.(8) Various other factors undoubtedly played a role in the maintenance of oaths; the public nature of the process, and one's personal sense of honour, honesty or shame, but these were subsidiary to the divine judgement represented by the gods invoked in the oath.(9) The mechanism was provided by the curse that was explicit or implicit in any solemn oath;(10) the avenging gods might be the very ones mentioned in the oath, the theoi horkioi, or, more generally, the Erinyes (Hesiod, Works and Days 803) who are naturally associated with curses, or else Zeus Horkios, whose prominence again underlines the seriousness of the oath.(11)

This complete trust in the gods regarding such important matters is astonishing. Despite Lykourgos' assertion (took. 79) that `no perjurer could escape the gods' notice or flee their punishment', the absence of the Erinyes et al. must have been keenly felt by many a cheated party. Of course there were rational excuses; true believers bided their time, awaiting justice better late than never: surely the perjurer's descendants would pay, as Lykourgos goes on to say, and as the Pythia asserts at Herodotos 6.86.(12) Given the continued validity of the oath into Hellenistic and Roman times, this faith seems to have persevered despite the haphazard nature of divine retribution.(13)

Yet sceptics had ample room to manaeuvre, from early on.(14) The gods themselves, official defenders of the oath, played fast and loose when it suited them. Hera merely use: ambiguous language to manipulate the oath to her benefit (Il. 15.41), but baby Hermes brazenly swears outright to Apollo that he never stole his cows, and a second time even more vehemently before Zeus himself (Hymn to Hermes 274 ff.; 378 ff.), eliciting only amusement both times.(15) Hermes is also credited with granting Odysseus' grandfather Autolykos excellence in 'thievery and the oath' (Od. 19.395 ff.). Even Zeus took lovers' oaths with a pinch of salt (Schol. to Plato Symp. 183b = Hesiod fray. 124 Merkelbach-West = Apollod. 2.[5].1.3). Small wonder that, according to Cyrus, the Greeks had gained a reputation for oath-breaking in the market place (Herod. 1.153), while Lysander is reputed to have claimed one ought `to cheat boys with dice and men with oaths' (Diod. Sik. 9.9.1).

Aristophanes occupies a sort of middle ground between the type of sources characterized by Mikalson(16) as literary/intellectual (e.g., philosophers and tragedians) and those he deems more representative of popular belief (Xenophon, orators, inscriptions). Not surprisingly then, the use of oaths in his comedy runs the gamut from sacred to profane, with the accent, statistically at least, on profanity.

Still, the more formal aspects of the oath are recognized in the elaborate parody of Lysistrata 181-239, the most extended oath in Aristophanes.(17) As befits a conspiracy (xunomosia), Lysistrata suggests that the women swear together (xunomosamen, 182) an oath of allegiance to the cause. The facade of solemn protocol is observed: a prayer over the sacrificial victim (203 f.) is followed by the slaughter (205), then the terms of the oath are dictated by the leader and repeated by the followers (210ff.), culminating in a curse for failure to adhere to the conditions (235), and finally ratified with a god as witness (Zeus, 237), after which the sacrifice is consumed (238f). Behind the facade lurks the typical incongruity that gives rise to much Aristophanic humour: the `victim' is actually a jar whose `blood' is wine, in keeping with the nonviolent ideals of the plot and the predilections of the women. The formal conditions are appropriately ridiculous (`I will not raise my Persian slippers to the ceiling', 229f.), and the curse is anticlimactic (`If I should transgress, may the wine cup fill with water!', 235 f.). The parody includes a literary dimension as well: the women adapt their ceremony expressly from Aischylos' Seven Against Thebes (Lys. 188f.; cf. Aisch. Seven 42 ff.). With so much going on in the scene, it is not surprising that the oath seems to be played as an end in itself, without serious consequences. Although ostensibly the women swear `so that [the plan] be unbreakable' (182), the oath is not alluded to during the `mutiny' vignettes (706-80), when the women might,have been reminded of their solemn promises, but are instead brought back into line by means of an oracle from out of the blue; it is the oracle which, according to Lysistrata, it would be shameful to betray (779f.). Only Myrrhine seems to feel any sense of obligation, but this is apparently just another of her stalling tactics, since her misgivings about perjury are quickly stifled by her husband's command `Let it fall on my head. Don't worry about the oath' (914f.).

As already mentioned, most of the oaths in Aristophanes have little relation to this formal type, but are little more than expletives. Technically, the speaker does invoke the god(s), but the connection between these outbursts with the oath proper is often quite tenuous. Such expletives usually indicate only the speaker's emotional state, and in fact become almost glorified particles to express tone more than substance. Occasionally, the repetition and/or variation of a common formula may be amusing in itself, but it is difficult to sense an Olympian presence in exchanges like Wasps 297ff.:

Boy: No, by Zeus, I want figs, Daddy, they're sweeter. Chor: No figs, by Zeus, even if you hang yourself. Boy: Then, by Zeus, I won't guide you any further. or Knights 338: Paph: You won't let me go first? SS: No, by Zeus. Paph: Yes, by Zeus. SS: No, by Poseidon.

The `sacred' oath can become mere profanity, apparently not out of place in the rudest assertions involving sex (Lys. 990; Thesm. 206; Ekkl. 942) or scatology (Thesm. 569; Ekkl. 373, 832). This is of course familiar to us, who have long since become accustomed to hearing the Lord's name taken in vain, but it is worth pointing out that blasphemy is not the issue here. There was certainly no such taboo against the utterance of the `holy name' as adds the spice to `swear words' in English. Neither blasphemy nor malevolence are conspicuous in the majority of Aristophanic examples, which serve mostly to strengthen assertions or denials. Their abundance shows less disrespect for the gods than for the oath form itself, the force of which is watered down to the level of an exclamation point.(18) Not that Aristophanes' characters are wholly indifferent to their use of these expletives: Pheidippides' oath 'by Poseidon the Horse God' grates on the ears of Strepsiades, who begs him to swear by some other god (Cl. 83ff.). Gender also plays a role, as it did in real life: Euripides' relative, in drag, self-consciously switches to swearing by female goddesses (Thesm. 225, 254,517,519), even if he occasionally slips back into more familiar speech patterns (269, 748).(19) A similar routine is played out more explicitly by the women of Ekklesiazousai, who hope to impersonate male citizens at the assembly, but have considerable trouble suppressing their oaths to Aphrodite and the twin goddesses (155ff., 189f.; see Lys. 435ff. for a variety of women's oaths).

More interesting from a moral standpoint are those instances which call into question the efficacy of the oath as a guarantor of truth. Mikalson has examined the passages in tragedy which raise the question of perjury, with interesting results.(20) Eteokles in Euripides' Phoinissai and Jason in the Medea are both censured for this offence, and both are punished: 'The causal connection between the impiety and suffering is seldom made explicit, . . . but almost without exception an individual impious by the standards of contemporary popular religion suffers.'(21) Both Aischylos' Apollo (Eum. 621) and Sophokles' Orestes (El. 47 f.) recommend perjury, although in neither instance does it come to pass;(22) in Mikalson's view this does not weaken the force of oaths but rather redounds to the detriment of both characters.(23) In the case of actual perjury, `the guard in Sophokles' Antigone is tragedy's one character who swears a false oath and gets off unscathed.'(24) His oath is admittedly of no great moment (on returning to Kreon with Antigone, he recalls that he had sworn never to come back: Ant. 394), but Mikalson's interpretation bears directly on our discussion: `The casual taking and breaking of the oath contribute to the ethopoiia and make the guard resemble, in this regard, a comic character. A nameless, minor, lowly character can get away with this' (my italics).(25) He cites as evidence the `delightful false oath of Silenus in E. Cycl. 262-269'.(26) This may well be true in a tragic context -- the guard is clearly cut from a different cloth than the other heroic characters in Antigone. But does it hold true for comedy?

Certainly some passages suggest that it does. Minor characters are given considerable leeway to deny the truth or affirm the false on oath: a woman in Lysistrata (752) can swear by Zeus she is pregnant, even after Lysistrata has removed the helmet from underneath her robe; later in the same play (990) a Spartan swears by Zeus he doesn't have an erection, despite blatant evidence to the contrary. At Thesmophoriazousai 742 a woman swears by Artemis that the wineskin taken hostage is indeed her baby that she carried to full term. All three cases involve minor, indeed, anonymous characters who elicit laughs from the obvious discrepancy between word and deed. The oath heightens this discrepancy and bears little on the question of morality, except perhaps as further evidence that oaths could be taken very lightly in purely colloquial situations.

The Sausage Seller of the Knights presents a special case. To the Paphlagonian's charge `I admit I steal, but you don't', he replies: `I do too, by Hermes of the Market, and I commit perjury right before their eyes' (295-8). To swear (by Hermes no less) that one is a perjurer presents an amusing logical dilemma (can we really believe him?), but at least here the Sausage Seller seems to be telling the truth, since he later boasts of his ability to steal meat by hiding it in his rump and then swearing `by the gods' he doesn't have it (423 ff.). An observant rhetor then predicts: `This boy will surely rule the people!' (426). Taken at face value, these passages indicate extreme cynicism: skill in theft and perjury become a prerequisite for a successful political career (the point is reiterated at Kn. 1239). Of course Aristophanes typically shows a healthy disrespect for those in power, but in the Knights cynicism is the very crux of the plot, even to the point of absurdity: the biggest villain always runs the state, so the only way to replace Kleon is to find someone worse than he is, but Kleon is so bad anybody would be an improvement; hence worse is better, and the aristocratic Knights find themselves backing the guttersnipe Sausage Seller. The initial conceit provides the impetus for the barrage of invective that makes this play one of a kind, while the logical contradictions are blissfully ignored in the magical finale, where the Sausage Seller, no less than old Demos, is transformed into a positive force. Thus the endorsement of perjury ultimately appears as an aberration, and the play does in fact endorse conventional morality.

In the Frogs (305 ff.) Dionysos demands that Xanthias swear three times by Zeus that the monster Empousa has really gone away. The extra precaution is perhaps justified, given that Xanthias has just sworn three times that he has heard and seen her (285, 288, 295) -- but of course he was merely teasing his cowardly master. Xanthias too could be considered a 'low' figure, though hardly minor. We must also take into account that the dramatic accent in those earlier assertions is on stage action: Dionysos must be jumping about in response to Xanthias' claims that the bogey is now behind, now in front. When, with his repeated demand, Dionysos draws more attention to the oath per se, Xanthias is able to swear honestly that she's not there. On balance then the scene reinforces rather than undermines the power of the oath, though not very emphatically. More puzzling is an earlier oath of Dionysos, who, to impress Herakles, fantasizes about his service to Kleisthenes in the navy, when `we sank twelve or thirteen ships'. `You did?' asks the dubious Herakles. `Yes, by Apollo' replies Dionysos. `And then I woke up' is the punchline delivered (probably) by Xanthias (Frogs 49 ff.).

How significant is the god,'s perjury here? Not very, it seems. No one in the play pays it the least attention, and the whole context is absurd in any case: what is Dionysos doing in the marines? Even granting Dover's point that `the comic Dionysos is treated in isolation from the multifarious legends, cults and functions . . . the comic Dionysos is a collection of functions shaped by comedy itself',(27) it appears that Dionysos has here temporarily fallen out of his persona as god,(28) and speaks as a sort of braggart soldier, for whom exaggeration and loose oaths were (and still are) stock in trade. These passages thus offer no decisive evidence on the gravity of perjury, any more than we can take seriously the assertion that all the members of the Athenian audience are perjurers (and father-beaters as well: Frogs 274 ff.).

It is significant that the most interesting passages reflecting on oaths in Aristophanes centre on the poet's two most important targets, Euripides and Sokrates, both of whom represent for him the forces of moral decline and the advance of atheistic ideas. In these passages, with varying degrees of seriousness, Aristophanes apparently assumes a more censorious stance with respect to oaths.

`My tongue did swear, my heart (or `mind', phren) remains unsworn,' cries out Hipploytos to Phaidra, thereby threatening to break his oath of silence and reveal to Theseus her shameful proposition (Eur. Hipp. 612). This verse has been called `antiquity's most famous line on oaths'.(29) Four later references attest to its notoriety, three of which come from Aristophanes In the Thesmophoriazousai Euripides' relative refuses to infiltrate the women's festival unless Euripides swears that he will rescue him if he gets into trouble:

Eur: Then I swear by the Ether, dwelling place of Zeus. Rel: Why not rather by the dwelling place of Hippocrates? Eur: Then I swear by all the gods together. Rel: Just remember this, that your heart swore, and not your tongue -- that's not the oath I meant. (Thesm. 272ff.)

Euripides' first response, a quote from his Melanippe the Wise (fr. 487N), draws only scorn from the relative, since Ether is not a generally recognized divinity -- a fact to bear in mind for later. But even after a more orthodox and all-inclusive oath, he still feels obliged to make certain that Euripides really means what he said, and invokes Hippolytos' distinction. Aristophanes can evidently count on the audience recognizing a paraphrase of it some seventeen years after the production in 428. Six years later, Aristophanes' interest in the infamous line continues with two references in the Frogs: among Dionysos' favourite phrases from Euripides he lists `the ether, cubicle of Zeus, or foot of time, or that my heart unwillingly swore by sacrifice, my tongue swore falsely, separate from my heart' (100f.). This time the paraphrase is even more extreme; clearly any statement about oaths using the heart/tongue antithesis was sufficient to remind the audience of a dramatic situation now over twenty years in the past. In the current passage, nothing is implied about the statement other than that Dionysos is crazy about such outrageous Euripideanisms, but it is certainly curious that the phrase about ether crops up again in the context. In the Thesm. swearing by the ether was evidence of Euripides' religious unorthodoxy. Frogs 100f. seems neutral (`foot of time' may be daring, but hardly impious, although Herakles dismisses such expressions as kobala, `nasty', 104). Later however both key phrases are recalled in contexts that lend them greater weight: when Euripides is called upon to offer an opening prayer to `his own gods' (891), he begins: `Ether, my nourishment, and tongue-twisting ...' (892), thus linking either on the one hand to unconventional religious views and on the other to the insubstantial and unstable powers of tongue, master of slippery rhetoric, and, of course, false oaths. But the real punchline comes when Dionysos is on the verge of announcing his final decision:

Eur: Remember the gods by whom you swore you'd take me home: choose your friends. Dio: My tongue did swear, but Aeschylus I'll choose. (1469ff.)

The parody does not stop there. When Euripides accuses him of a `most shameful deed', Dionysos replies with a tag line adapted from the Aiolos: `What's shameful, if the audience [theomenois; originally: chromenois, the doers: fr. 19 N] think it's not?' (1474f.) -- another hit at subjective morality. Finally, as Euripides cries, `Cruel one, will you leave me for dead?', the god counters: `Who knows if life is death, / and breath a lunch, and sleep a blanket?', again attacking Euripides' alleged radical scepticism (further reinforced by being paired, at least implicitly, with Sokrates at 1491ff.). Having lost, Euripides is hoist with his own petard: no appeal for justice holds up against the Umwertung aller Werte (`the reassessment of all values') he himself has taught Dionysos (and presumably the Athenian public).

This is a simplistic and distorted picture of Euripides to be sure, and as usual it is hard to determine just how serious Aristophanes meant it to be. Modern scholars have rushed to Euripides' defence. H. Avery claims `that Hipp. 612 was famous in fifth-century Athens, not because it represented the moral laxity of which Euripides was sometimes accused, but rather because it represented a significant aspect of the play and was recognized as such'.(30) That `significant aspect' was the `contrast between inner truth and outer appearance'.(31) No one would dispute the importance of that theme for the play, but the argument concerning the notoriety of Hipp. 612 is wholly unconvincing. To assert that `it was famous for literary rather than moral reasons'(32) is a modern judgement that reverses the scale of values in the ancient world: literary works were, from the Frogs through Plato and beyond, evaluated precisely for their moral content. The line is scandalous because it tempts the audience to question the validity of the external oath to fix inner truth; for some, as a harsh reminder of the gulf between empty and meaningful oaths, for others, as a facile means to exploit that gulf.

More common is the cry of `foul'. In this view Aristophanes has maliciously taken the line out of context; Euripides had no intention of undermining the sanctity of oaths, since Hippolytos does in fact keep his oath, as he explicitly and piously declares to Phaidra at 656ff. Unfortunately she believes only the earlier threat, but this is her tragic error, not Hippolytos'; the oath remains unscathed during his confrontation with Theseus, even at the cost of his own exile and death.

This observation dates already from antiquity: the scholiast to Hipp. 612 criticizes Aristophanes for taking the line `too generally' (katholikoteron). The consensus opinion is best summed up by Mikalson: `It is ironic and most unfair that this line spoken by a character proven, in all of tragedy, most loyal to oaths in the most trying and tragic circumstances, should have laid Euripides open to ancient and modern charges of impiety, promoting perjury, and hostility to traditional religion.'(33)

How would Euripides have defended himself? In fact, we know -- if we can trust the evidence of Aristotle (Rhet. 1416a 28 ff.), the last of the four passages to commemorate Hipp. 612. It seems Euripides, in the course of a lawsuit, was accused by a certain Hygiainon of being impious (asebes) `since he encouraged perjury with the line: "My heart did swear, my mind remained unsworn."' Aristotle then reports that Euripides `said the man was doing him an injustice by bringing judgements from the Dionysiac festival into civil court. For he said he had already given account of those words there, and would do so again, if the man wished to prosecute.' Magisterially, Euripides lets the text speak for itself, while disassociating art from life.

Such scruples in the matter of literary criticism as were demonstrated by Euripides here and his scholiast at 612 are admirable but exceptional. Taking lines out of context or ascribing a character's sentiments to its author were common practice in the ancient world, and are not dead yet.(34) Presumably Euripides was aware of this. Still, he chose to provoke his audience with a highly quotable sententia that is memorable in a way that Hippolytos' later reassurances are not. Phaidra is only the first to fall into the trap. As with Herakles' manifesto (Her. Main. 1340ff.), Euripides fires a shot across the bow of traditional religion, only to retreat immediately thereafter. But such a shot cannot be recalled. The public reaction may have dismayed Euripides, but it is reasonable to assume that some reaction was anticipated.

That is not to justify accusing Euripides of impiety, as Hygiainon and, more dubiously, Kleon are said to have done.(35) As events would prove, that was a serious charge. Aristophanes may well have provided ammunition for those who would attack Euripides on religious grounds, but it is hard to accuse him of malicious intent. None of the humour in his references to Hipp. 612 is particularly vitriolic, and even his most serious accusation, that Euripides persuaded men not to believe in the gods (Thesm. 450ff.) is essentially a joke: the result is that the garland seller's business has dropped off drastically. As with the charge of Euripides' misogyny, Aristophanes simply takes the most outrageous stance possible in the controversies Euripides provoked; exaggeration is the stuff of comedy and satire. But with Euripides at least, a sense of humour is almost always evident.

That statement would be harder to prove with respect to Sokrates, who is in many ways a counterpart to Euripides in the plays of Aristophanes. There was even a comic tradition that Euripides was aided and abetted in his free-thinking assaults on morality by Sokrates himself. In the lost version of the Clouds (fr. 392 K-A), it is claimed that Sokrates composed those `babbling clever tragedies' for Euripides, and the charge was made by other comedians as well.(36) Both are loosely presumed to be sophists, but more importantly, both are associated with introducing new divinities, or accused of being outright atheists by Aristophanes.

Significantly, in the Clouds, this issue surfaces in the context of oaths, almost immediately after Sokrates is introduced on stage. Strepsiades is anxious to learn the `non-paying' argument from Sokrates (Clouds 246 ff.):

Str: Whatever fee you charge, I swear by the gods I'll pay you. Sok: What gods will you swear by? First off, the gods have no currency with us. Str: How do you swear, then? Maybe with iron coins like in Byzantium?(37) Sok: You want to know exactly what this divine business really is? Str: Yes, by Zeus, if it's possible.(38)

After Strepsiades' `initiation', Sokrates delivers the promised theology lesson (Cl. 365 ff.):

Sok: These [Clouds] are the only goddesses. The rest is trash. Str: But Olympian Zeus, come on, by Ge, he's not a god? Sok: What Zeus? Don't talk nonsense. There's no Zeus either.

How shocking were statements like this? The gullible Strepsiades is merely puzzled, not outraged; after being bombarded by `rational' arguments, he seems perfectly willing to abandon his old beliefs in favour of meteorological abstractions: `That slipped right by me, that Zeus doesn't exist, and Vortex (Dings) now rules instead' (380f.). One of the rational arguments used to shake Strepsiades' belief in Zeus concerns perjury. Strepsiades asks where the thunderbolt comes from, `since this is obviously what Zeus hurls against perjurers' (397). Sokrates derides this old-fashioned notion: `If he really blasts perjurers, why hasn't he burned Simon or Kleonomos or Theoros -- they're certainly perjurers. Instead he hits his own temple, and Sounion, the Akropolis, and great oaks. What's he thinking of? I'm sure oaks don't commit perjury' (399f.). Strepsiades can only agree.(39)

The new pantheon includes not only Clouds but other insubstantial divinities,(40) and these do serve for oaths: Sokrates swears `by Breath, by Chaos, by Air' that he's never seen a sorrier pupil than Strepsiades (627ff.).(41) For all his faults, Strepsiades has in fact absorbed some of the new doctrine: he too swears `by Air' at 667, and adds `by Fog' at 814. This last begins an important passage that links the themes of oaths and atheism. Pheidippides resists his father's suggestion to join Sokrates' school:

Pheid: You're not in your right mind, by Olympian Zeus! Str: Ha, listen to him `Olympian Zeus'! What stupidity! To believe in Zeus, at your age! Pheid: What's this? Str: You just swore by Zeus. Pheid: So I did. Str: See what a great thing learning is? There is no Zeus, my boy. Pheid: Who is there? Str: Vortex is king, he kicked Zeus out. (Cl. 817-19; 825-8)

If Zeus no longer rules, then previous oaths are invalid: recall Burkert's statement (above, n. 8) that `only fear of the gods provides a guarantee that oaths will be kept'. Realizing this, Strepsiades has a key to the solution of his original problem: to escape from debt, even though all his creditors have lately sworn to ruin him (1136). His first creditor naturally refers to the oath Strepsiades swore to the gods about repayment. To no avail -- that was before Pheidippides learned the `incontrovertible argument':

Cr: And will you deny this on oath before the gods wherever I demand? Str: What gods? Cr: Zeus, Hermes, Poseidon. Str: By Zeus, I'd give a day's pay just to swear like that. Cr: You should only drop dead for such shamelessness! ...

By great Zeus and all the gods, you won't get away with this! Str: `Gods' -- how wonderfully amusing; swearing by Zeus is a joke to those in the know. Cr: You'll pay the penalty for this some day for sure. (1232-6; 1239-42)

Strepsiades is stupid enough to swear by Zeus even as he ridicules such oaths (1234f.), but his blatant blasphemy (here the word is justified) is indeed punished as the creditor predicted. The Clouds cast down the evil doer `so that he learns to fear the gods' (1460f.). Religion, and the oath, are vindicated in this comedy turned morality play.

The use of oaths in the Clouds points up an important facet of the dangers inherent in `atheism' in fifth-century Athens. It is not necessarily a question of what one believes, but how one acts. As a matter of personal belief, atheism is discussed quite casually by two slaves (usually identified with the generals Nikias and Demosthenes) in the prologue of the Knights:

N: It's best for us both here now to fall before the statue of some god. D: What statue? Do you really believe in gods? N: Of course I do. D: On what evidence? N: `Cause I'm such a god-damned wretch -- Isn't that logical?(42) (Kn. 30-4)

His partner agrees, but, in the scattershot style of Aristophanes' early prologues, the subject is dropped and the conversation takes a new turn immediately. Yet in both substance and tone, `Demosthenes' questions are surely remarkable. The bluntness of what we might consider a highly incriminating question is offset by a casual attitude that suggests nothing untoward about such an inquiry. If anything, with the word `really' (eteon), `Demosthenes' even seems mildly surprised that `Nikias' would believe in gods. His reaction seems to imply that enlightened atheism is just as reasonable a stance.

This seems very puzzling, given the considerable (though often dubious) evidence of free-thinking, and the suppression thereof, in this period.(43) But we must be aware how quickly belief shaded over into practice, and nowhere more quickly than in the case of oaths. The gods validated the oath, and the oath bound society together, from the archon's sacred office to the man lending money to someone from the neighbourhood (Strepsiades is the first creditor's demotes, Cl. 1219). A practical application of atheism to the practice of oaths would destroy the basis of trust on which public and private business depended.

The connection between Sokrates' new ideas and the use of oaths was not made by Aristophanes alone. Oaths are conflated with the charge of introducing new gods (kaina daimonia in the indictment recorded by Diogenes Laertius 2.40) in Josephus' remark that Sokrates was condemned not for any terrible crime, but because he swore new oaths (kainous horkous omnuein) and claimed some spirit (daimonion) gave him signs (Apion 2.162). This may reflect a tradition that goes back at least as far as Xenophon's Apology; there (24), after censuring the prosecution for suborning witnesses to give false testimony under oath, Sokrates protests again his innocence of the charges: `I have never been seen sacrificing to any new gods (kainois daimosin), nor swearing by, nor calling by name other gods except Zeus and Hera and the gods associated with them.(44)

In this context, one thinks immediately -- apart from Clouds 627 -- of Sokrates' famous oath, `by the dog'. If this represented impiety, Sokrates was bold indeed to use it before the jurors in the defence written for him by Plato (Apol. 22a). The scholiast to that passage offers the more accepted interpretation, that it is a euphemism, `a "Rhadamanthian" oath, one by goose, or dog, or plane tree or ram or some other such thing. Kratinos in his Cheirons says "for them the greatest oath/of all was dog, then goose. They never mentioned gods" [Krat. fr. 249 K-A]. Such also were the oaths of Sokrates.'(45)

`By the dog' seems harmless enough, and in fact first appears at Aristophanes' Wasps 83 spoken with no particular emphasis by a household slave. At Birds 520 f., however, we hear that in the old days, `no human swore by god, but all swore by birds -- even now Lampon swears by the goose, whenever he's up to some trick'. Perhaps, as a euphemism, such an oath was felt to be non-binding, and therefore safely deceptive. It is curious too that this type of oath, besides being identified with the proverbially just Rhadamanthos, was also tentatively termed `Euripidean',(46) hardly an endorsement for piety. Another tack might be indicated by Gorgias 482b5, where Sokrates swears `by the dog, the Egyptian god'. Dodds considers this oath a `playful allusion' to Anubis which does not 'appear to have any deep religious significance',(47) and this seems plausible enough, though such a jest might strike others as indiscreet. Xenophon appears to have been more circumspect: his Sokrates never swears `by the dog', but frequently enough by Zeus and occasionally by Hera, in accordance with his claim at Apol. 24.(48)

None of this circumstantial `evidence seriously calls into question Sokrates' honesty or integrity,(49) but it might suffice to suggest that Sokrates' unorthodox swearing was liable to be misconstrued, and that this misunderstanding might have played a role in his subsequent indictment. Behind the absurd `By Breath, by Chaos, by Air' (Cl. 627) lurks potential trouble; Aristophanes' treatment of Sokrates and swearing foreshadows yet another weapon quite likely used against the philosopher a generation later.

As we have seen, Aristophanes' characters most often swear, as it were, unconsciously, as a sort of colloquial reflex that we may well believe reflects the common usage of the street, without necessarily implying that oaths per se have fallen into decrepitude. At other times, they blithely perjure themselves without noticeable effect -- a more sensitive situation -- but these are usually minor characters whose lack of consequence and humorous context hinder us from drawing any serious conclusions. Occasionally, as with the Sausage Seller and Dionysos, individual circumstances can be brought to bear in such a way as to render the act of perjury relatively innocuous. With Euripides and Sokrates however, the oath acquires much more weight, and through these characters' use of the oath we are given some insight into the moral/religious crisis of Athenian society in the last quarter of the fifth century: belief in the gods and in one's fellow man was at stake in the validity of the oath. The closer this subject came to the thematic centre of the play, the less Aristophanes was inclined to treat it lightly: hence the Euripidean loophole of Hipp. 612 seems less noxious (though perhaps more pervasive) than the atheistic or innovative use of oaths in the Clouds, whose ultra-serious finale shows Aristophanes to be, for the moment, as staunch a defender of traditional piety as any stern tragedian. Whether or not we are to take this as Aristophanes' definitive stance (he did swear solemnly by Dionysos that the Clouds was the best comedy ever: Wasps 1046), is ultimately impossible to say; conservative views have certainly been ascribed to the poet, but the ending of the Clouds is unique in its harshness. On balance, it seems that he was more inclined to be indulgent towards those who abused societal norms than towards those who would fundamentally discredit them. For all the indignities suffered by the gods in plays like the Birds, their existence and their awareness of human affairs is never in doubt. Given Aristophanes' consistent vision of a unified citizen body, and the essential role the oath played in holding that body together, and the essential role the gods played in maintaining the validity of the oath, his support of social and religious convention in this regard is hardly surprising. That conclusion may be less enlightening than the path leading up to it, a path that, as with so much in Aristophanes, led beyond the plays to touch upon some of the most important ideas and individuals at a crucial stage of Athenian history.


(1.) However, it is important to note that even a casual use may be occasionally pressed for its literal meaning: when at Clouds 817ff. Pheidippides exclaims `You're crazy, by Olympian Zeus!', Strepsiades expressly recognizes the phrase as an oath (825), and assumes that it implies belief in the god named (819).

(2.) J. Mikalson remarks that `in oath-taking an individual most often faced the choice between pious and impious action, deciding between what was pious and what might bring social or financial gain. For this reason the maintenance of oaths, at the popular level, was often treated as the key element of personal piety' (Honor Thy Gods, Chapel Hill, 1991, p. 80). The basic source book on oaths is still R. Hirzel's Der Eid (Leipzig, 1902, repr. Arno Press, 1979), which is much more detailed than J. Plescia's The Oath and Perjury in Ancient Greece (Tallahassee, 1970). See also R.J. Bonner and G. Smith, The Administration of Justice from Homer to Aristotle (Chicago, 1938), vol.2, pp. 145-91, K. J. Dover, Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle (Oxford, 1974), pp. 248-51, W. Burkert, Greek Religion (Harvard, 1985), pp.250-4, and Mikalson's previous book, Athenuan Popular Religion (Chapel Hill, 1983), pp. 31-8.

(3.) The locus classicus is Thuk. 2.52f: `Overwhelmed by the disaster, the people did not know what would happen to them and took little account of secular and sacred things alike (2.52.3). . . Neither fear of the gods nor human law restrained them; they judged it all the same whether to act piously or not, seeing that everyone was dying in equal measure (2.53.4).' (ALI translations are my own.) J. Mikalson, `Religion and the Plague in Athens, 431-423 B.C.', GRBS Monograph 10, (1984), 217-25 examines the evidence for religious activity during the plague years and finds Thukydides' pessimism extreme, though he does not doubt that the effects of the plague were profound.

(4.) Sokrates is of course the outstanding victim of this backlash; the charge of impiety, whatever lay behind it, must have had emotional appeal. Recall too the public outrage over the blasphemies of 415 (the mutilation of the herms and profanation of the Eleusinian Mysteries), to which may possibly be added a number of more dubious incidents involving charges of asebeia (impiety) and the suppression of intellectual freedom. See further below, p. 146.

(5.) Op. cit. (n. 2), p. 250.

(6.) Oaths were the basis of international treaties (Mikalson, Athenian Popular Religion, p. 34). Within the polls, Lykourgos (Leokrates 79) mentions the oaths of the archons, jurors, and private citizens, and earlier (77) invoked the ephebic oath taken by all young men on entering military service. In the fifth century all citizens swore loyalty tO the restored democracy in 411 and again in 403 (Hirzel, op. cit., p. 31; Bonner and Smith, op. cit., p. 150). Business contracts were based on oaths: Burkert, op. cit., p.253, N. Rauh, The Sacred Bonds of Commerce, (Gieben, 1994). On the question of oaths taken by witnesses in court, see below, n.9.

(7.) Athenian Popular Religion,p. 31.

(8.) Cf. T. Thalheim, RE s.v. `Epiorkia', vol. 6, cot 191: `don einer gesetzlichen Strafe horen wir nirgends' (`we hear nowhere of a statutory penalty'), and Burkert, op. cit., p. 252: `the conviction exists that only fear of the gods provides a guarantee that oaths will be kept.' A separate issue is the matter of false witness (pseudomartyria or pseudomartyrion) which was an actionable offence only within the context of an ongoing trial. Aristotle claims (Polit. 1274b5) the procedure was instituted in Sicily by Charondas (6th c.?), but the evidence for Athens begins, as often, only with the orators in the late fifth and fourth centuries, and much remains unclear. While pseudomartyna is often translated as 'perjury', I can find no example where oaths are explicitly said to have been violated, and I suspect that oaths were not in fact involved. This interpretation depends on the vexed question whether Athenian witnesses had to take an oath before giving testimony in all cases, as they did in cases of homicide. See further J. H. Lipsius, Das Attische Recht und Rechtsverfahren (Leipzig, 1908), vol.2, pp. 777-83; G. Calhoun, CP 10 (1915), 1-7; Bonner and Smith, op. cit., pp. 190', 261-9; and Plescia, above n.2, pp. 88-90.

(9.) The author of the Rhetorica ad Alexandrum (17.1) expressly mentions `disgrace among men' es an inhibiting factor, but lays greater stress on divine vengeance -- all in the context of rhetorical strategy, to be sure, which says little about religious belief but much about what was publicly acceptable.

(10.) Cf. Antiphon 5.11, Demosthenes 23.68; Mikalson Athenian Popular Religion, p. 36.

(11.) Zeus Horkios is first attested in tragedy: Eur. Hipp. 1025, Soph. Phil. 1324, and the subject of an impressive statue described by Pausanias 5.24.9 ff., but Zeus is already associated with oaths in Homer, IL 3.279, 7.411, 19.260: Od. 19.303.

(12.) Cf. Hesiod, W&D 283ff; Mikalson, Athenian Popular Religion, p. 36. This is of course a particular application of the general notion of sons paying for the sins of the fathers, articulated by, among others, Solon 1.25-32. Alternatively, perjurers might themselves pay in the afterlife, as indicated by Frogs 145-50, but this belief seems less prevalent.

(13.) One passage in Aristophanes suggests the gods could use some help: Peisthetairos thinks the birds would be quicker to punish perjurers who swore falsely in their name (Birds 1608ff.).

(14.) Hirzel, op. cit., pp. 81ff., 208ff., and Plescia, op. cit., p. 87 make a plausible case for a decline in the trustworthiness of the oath during the fifth century. That there was a 'crisis of faith' in this period cannot be denied, even if the dimensions are disputable, and that the use of oaths reflected this crisis will be shown below. But belief in the gods and the practice of oaths certainly survived, and many of the staunchest endorsements of the oath, such as the oft-quoted passage from Lykourgos (took. 79), date from the fourth century and later. Moreover, Hirzel himself admits (p.22) that oaths were often treated lightly `schon in altester Zeit' (`already in earliest times'). It seems safe to say that the oath was used and abused at all stages of Greek history.

(15.) Hirzel, op. cit., pp 41ff. is right to draw a distinction between outright perjury and subtle sophistries that might literally be true (and so fulfil the obligations of the oath), but wholly misleading. Experts in the latter, such as Autolykos, would likely be admired for their cleverness rather than condemned.

(16.) Athenuan Popular Religion, pp. 7-12.

(17.) For detailed commentary, see J. Henderson, Lysistrata (Oxford, 1967), ad locc.

(18.) Hirzel, op. cit., pp. 84 f. discusses this `meaningless' use (esp. in the orators) as evidence for his thesis of chronological decline, which, as has already been mentioned above, is dubious, or at least difficult to prove; again, he notes that Homeric men and gods are already very quick to use oaths. The evidence from the orators is ambivalent: according to F. Blass, Die Attische Beredsambeit (Leipzig, 1893), vol. 3, pt. 1, p. 82, earlier orators almost never used colloquial oaths like ne Dia, but these became almost cliches in Demosthenes and his contemporaries. Yet Demosthenes' famous oath by the casualties of the Persian Wars (On the Crown 208), one of the triumphs of ancient rhetoric according to Blass, p. 177, drew eloquent praise from `Longinus' (On the Sublime 16) as an outstanding example of the omotikon schema, the 'oath figure'. Effective use of oaths in court cases was a recognized feature of oratorical technique: cf. Aristotle, Rhet. 1377a8 ff., Rhetorica ad Alexandrum 143 lb 7 ff.

(19.) Cf. E. Ziebarth, RE, s.v. 'Eid', vol. 5, coil. 2076f. (cf. note 8).

(20.) Honor Thy Gods, pp.82-6.

(21.) Id., p.82.

(22.) Apollo urges the jurors to consider their oath of less value than the will of Zeus; Athena on the contrary reiterates the importance of the oath (Eum. 708-10). A. Podlecki in Aeschylus' Eumenides (Warminster, 1989), ad loc., points out that Apollo claimed that the marriage bond is `greater than any oath' (Eum. 217f.). In the Elektra Orestes urges the paidagogos to add a false oath to the fictional report of his death, but the servant does not in fact do so.

(23.) Honor Thy Gods, p. 85.

(24.) Ibid.

(25.) Ibid.

(26.) Id., p.283 n. 88.

(27.) K.J. Dover, Aristophanes' Frogs: a Commentary (Oxford, 1993), pp. 40 f.

(28.) The phenomenon of `discontinuity of characterization' is discussed (without reference to this passage) at length elsewhere by K.J. Dover, Aristophanic Comedy (Berkeley, 1972), pp.59-65. Such discontinuity is usually for the sake of a joke, of which three follow here in rapid succession. In addition, the naval context suggested itself due to the poet's (and surely the public's too) preoccupation with the recent battle of Arginousai, which is referred to three times in the play (33 f, 190ff., 693 ff.).

(29.) Mikalson, Honor Thy Gods, p. 85.

(30.) TAPA 99 (1968), 19-35; quote p. 35.

(31.) Id., 25.

(32.) Id., 35.

(33.) Honour Thy Gods, p. 86.

(34.) Dover, Frogs, pp. 16ff., with examples.

(35.) Of course the former's charge was unofficial, in the context of a civil suit. K. J. Dover, Talanta 7 (1976), 29, evaluates the sole source for the latter's prosecution (Satyros' Vita Euripidis, colt 10) and finds it wanting, as it lacks corroboration and comes from an author who considered the plot of Ekklesiazousai to be a historical event (p. 29). We can agree with Dover that 'the extent to which [Euripides] laid himself open to attack for impiety should not be exaggerated' (p. 43), but neither should it be minimized: I would not say Euripides was trying to be impious, but he was certainly trying to be controversial, and this was risky in the late fifth century.

(36.) The fragment comes from Diogenes Laertius 2.18, which includes similar claims from other comic poets. The two were likewise connected in later tradition; see passages cited in Kassel-Austin PCG III.2, 217. As noted above, Sokrates is obliquely associated with Euripides at Frogs 1491, again in the context of `babbling' (lalein).

(37.) Strepsiades' Byzantine witticism puns on the word nomisma: coinage, but also custom, usage -- recall that Sokrates was charged with ou theous nomizein, not acknowledging the gods.

(38.) That Strepsiades immediately swears by Zeus after being told it is no longer valid is perhaps another small joke, although earlier his student guide had also done so (217), as does Sokrates himself (330).

(39.) It must be noted that Sokrates' argument here is not ridiculous, but rather strikes to the heart of the problem: how could people believe the gods punished perjury in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary? This is potentially very serious ground, perhaps too serious -- and so the discussion quickly turns to the nature of lightning (403).

(40.) E.g., Air and Ether at 264 f. (recall Ether in the quotations from Euripides at Thesm. 272, Frogs 100); a trinity of Chaos, Clouds, and Tongue at 424 (recall too the emphasis on `tongue' in Hipp. 612).

(41.) It is interesting that the opening words of Pythagoras' On Nature (ou ma ton aera, ton anapneo, Diog. Laert. 8.6) seem to echo this oath of Sokrates (ma ten anapnoen, ma to Chaos, ma ton Aera), although the Pythagorean context does not seem controversial: he swears 'by the air I breathe and the water I drink' that he will bear no blame for his treatise. Cf. Hirzel, op. cit., p. 99 n. 2, and for the latest attempt to trace Pythagorean elements in the Clouds, M. Marianetti, Religion and Politics in Aristophanes' Clouds (Hildesheim, 1992), pp. 63 ff.

(42.) Variations of this joke were good enough to serve later philosophers whose belief in the gods was called into question, at least according to Diogenes Laertius 2.102 (attributed to Theodoros of Kyrene) and 6.42 (Diogenes the Cynic), cited by R. Neil, The Knights of Aristophanes (Cambridge, 1901), ad loc.

(43.) Not including Sokrates, Dover, n.35, 24f, counts 14 separate instances involving nine individuals, including Diagoras, Aspasia, Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Euripides, and Prodikos. He is inclined to dismiss all but the case of Diagoras. M. Ostwald, From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Lav, (Los Angeles, 1986), pp. 274 ff., 528 ff., admits the trials vs. Anexagoras and Protagoras as well. The case for an extensive witch hunt was made by E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley, 1951),pp. 189ff.

(44.) Cf. Hirzel, op. cit., pp. 100f n. 1.

(45.) Numerous variations of this scholion are found elsewhere; see passages cited by Kassel-Austin ad Kratinos fr. 249. Cf. Hirzel, op. cit., pp. 96 n. 1 and 100 n. 3.

(46.) `Euripidean oath: perhaps the one by the dog or goose' in Paroemiographi Graeci, edd. E. Leutsch and F. Schneidewin (Gottingen, 1839), vol. 1,413, cited by Hirzel, op. cit., p. 101. The `perhaps' shows that the author did not really know what a `Euripidean oaths was, though his guess reflects negatively on both Sokrates and his peculiar oath by linking them to Euripides. Could the term have had anything to do with Hipp. 612?

(47.) Plato's Gorgias (Oxford, 1959), ad loc. Cf. R. Hoerber, C] 58 (1963), 268f.

(48.) Neither Plato nor Xenophon have Sokrates swear by the goose, or any of the `Rhadamanthine' oaths supposedly used by him.

(49.) Hirzel, op. cit., p. 102 n. 21 cites passages which specifically emphasize Sokrates' respect for oaths: Plato, Apol. 32b; Xen. Mem. 1.1.18, Hell. 1.7.15.
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