Presumably the sycophant “showed his own figs” or manly vigor inappropriately and also denigrated other people both by pointing out facts about their lives that should have been kept out of the public eye and by shaming them too agressively. As Isocrates wrote (15.314), the sycophant “shows to all [epideik-nusthai] his rawness [omoteta], his misanthropy, and his fondness for making enemies [philapechthemosune].” In misspending in the economy of pleasures, the sycophant stood with moichos, the male prostitute, and the citizen who violated the norms of homosexual love—an exclusive club for those poneroi or base men who did not deserve to be active citizens.65 The intersection of anger and sexuality in the trope of figs does not allow us to produce an epigrammatic definition of who or what the sycophant was but it does allow us to see the web of meaning within which the sycophant’s bad reputation and dirty name were established. That web of meaning is based on an ethical system that coalesced around the problem of trying to deal with desire. The sycophant violates the economy of desire by initiating processes of anger when the time or situation is not appropriate* Thus, Demosthenes describes the statute of limitations as having been drawn up specifically so as to prevent sycophancy (36.26-27).67
The ban on the sycophant’s acts of “exposure” limited excessive aggressiveness in the judicial system. The Athenian requirement that speakers explain their personal interest ensured that prosecutors had only an “honest” interest in sating a “ripe” anger and were not acting for some more savage and unseasonable ulterior motive. The economy of anger put limits on the number of public conflicts and disputes in which any individual could be legitimately involved, just as the economy of desire put limits on the number and kind of homosexual love affairs an Athenian citizen could have and still maintain a political role in the city. The need for prosecutors to prove and justify their personal anger was guard against the much decried oligarchic activity of too frequent and too comprehensive punishment.68
The city’s drive to put constraints on desire operated in all arenas and on the basis of a consistent set of norms for “proper use” that were at the heart of Athenian culture. The slurs against sycophants contributed to the constraint of desire. The word “sycophant” was used to mark the moments when the Athenian normative structure seemed to have failed to constrain a particular individual’s will. Orators who made charges of sycophancy and defended themselves from charges of sycophancy involved themselves in a conversation about how to manage the diverse and conflicting wills of the citizenry, about how to define the Athenian system of value, and about how to regulate behavior that impacted social relationships. Lycurgus’s attempt to redefine sycophancy by validating disinterested prosecution was an attempt to effect a cultural paradigm shift and to redefine the rules for using political insititutions.
The word sycophant could also be used to mobilize citizens into acting more aggressively to impose their norms upon their fellows. The oligarchs began their late fifth-century attack on Athens by claiming that they would rid the city of its sycophants/* Xenophon reports:
First of all they arrested and brought to trial on capital charges all those persons who were known to have made their living by acting as sycophants [apo sukophantias] and by being offensive to the aristocrats. The Council of 500 and all other citizens were glad to vote against these men. and whoever thought he himself was not like these (sycophants], was in no way troubled. (Hell. 2.3.12-13)
The so-called sycophants were vulnerable to the attack of the Thirty because they had failed to meet the norms of the good man and good citizen. The democrats, who understood themselves as distinct from the sycophants, were willing to let the oligarchs eliminate them. The citizenry’s acceptance of the Thirty’s generalized attack on people labeled sycophants indicates the power of the word to regulate the norms of public agency and boundaries of the city’s ethical system and to legitimate moves against members of the citizenry who failed to live up to these.
The Thirty did not ultimately restrict their attacks on Athenian citizens merely to people whom the citizens already called sycophants. Xenophon writes:
Then the Thirty began to take counsel as to how they might use the city as they saw fit. . . . they arrested those whom they wished—not now the base people and those of little worth [tous ponerous te kai oligou axious), but from this point on those people whom they thought were least likely to submit to being ignored, and who would gather supporters together in the greatest numbers, if they tried to fight back against the Thirty. (Xen. Hell. 2.3.13-14)
The Thirty attacked all those whose wills might disrupt the newly installed oligarchic social system. Ultimately, Xenophon says, the oligarchs’ extermination of the sycophants was not about getting rid of all the people whom the democratic masses normally identified as sycophants (tous homologoumenous sukophantas, Xen. Hell. 2.3.38). Instead, the Thirty used the label “sycophant” to expand the category of the socially unacceptable according to oligarchic terms.70
Theramenes, who was initially a member of the oligarchic faction, eventually came to the conclusion that things had gone too far and expressed his dissent by saying that the Thirty, with their extensive “punishments,” were worse than the sycophants whom they had set out to destroy in the first place (adikotera ton sukophanton, Xen. Hell. 2.3.22). The oligarchs had been able to begin their attack on Athenian democrats by deploying the word sycophant. Theramenes tried to end their attack with the same word. Both he and the other members of the Thirty recognized the power of the word sycophant, with its capacity to delineate “common knowledge” distinctions between the socially acceptable and the socially reiectable. The Athenian orator who called upon his jurors to recognize someone as a sycophant was likewise calling them to a more vigilant defense of the city’s system of value and the distinction between forms of behavior which were and were not socially desirable.
The use of a near obscenity, the term sycophant, to establish the contours of the practice of legitimate prosecution reveals the power of ideology to regulate democratic norms. On the topic of obscenity, Henderson writes:
The great majority of obscene words are those which, although they may be unmistakably direct in their reference, neither attain to the absolute and exclusive explicitness of primary obscenities nor possess their hallucinatory and repressive power, but which distance the listener in a greater or lesser degree. They are products and components of the capacity for abstract and metaphorical thinking characteristic of latency. Unlike the primary obscenity, valuable only for its directness and primitive force, the value of metaphorical obscenity lies precisely in its flexibility and nuance.’
The word sycophant functioned in the following fashion: all Athenians knew in general that a sycophant essentially misused the lust of prosecutorial anger (whether by faking it, overindulging it, or accepting money for it) and thereby violated democratic norms of public agency. No Athenian, however, would (or perhaps could) specify precisely the full set of terms that delineated the sycophant’s misuse (despite modem efforts to write up “economies” of spending desire). And, anyway, the whole matter was slightly obscene. Nonetheless, the word sycophant was widely recognized as a word that straightforwardly separated the socially respectable from the socially rejectable despite, or rather because of, its vagueness, its metaphoricity, and the tinge of obscenity. The word sycophant captured, in general, what was beyond the pale established by the norms of public agency.
E. Csapo writes: “It is often said that symbols are interesting because they encompass contradictions. But symbols are also contradictory because they are interesting. . . . [they are] the loci of struggle between competing social groups, and necessarily ambivalent, because the language of the debate must be common, even if competing groups ascribe different values to the terms. The word sycophant was vague, so the fence between the respectable and the reject-able could be moved easily with a simple shift in definition (or resignification) of the term sycophant. The word sycophant was available for those like Lycurgus who wished to attach new definitions to it and thereby change the “norms of public agency” in the process. Does this explain why the modem definition of sycophant could have strayed so far from its ancient origins? More important, the vagueness of the word sycophant reveals the degree to which the city’s norms were contestable and the system of value susceptible to being revised over time, despite its consistency across diverse social spaces. The “norms of public agency,” and the symbolic language that expressed those norms, were powerful ideological tools. In the context of democratic Athenian punishment, they primarily allowed for the controlled indulgence of anger; but they also provided orators like Lycurgus with the means with which to contest socially dominant definitions of politics, the public sphere, and the good citizen.
The orators speeches for the prosecution and defense helped to establish a consistent set of norms throughout the citizenry at a given moment in time but also made it possible for that consistent set of norms to be shifted over time. The symbolic rhetoric associated with the sycophant reveals the nature of the media in which the orator worked. Speech could be used both to refer to already existent systems of value and to make those systems malleable and fluid.
But this malleability is not the whole of the story for there was also a written law. Written law aspires not to establish norms that are malleable and fluid but rather norms that are consistent over time. There was a tension, in Athens, between the power of speech to set and revise communal norms and the power of law to fix them. That tension appears in any society that tries to use law, but the Athenians dealt with the tension differently than do modem democrats.
(From the book The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens By Danielle S. Allen)