struggles over Aristotle's public record in Athens

The Athenians reportedly erected an inscribed column on the Acropolis to honor Aristotle for his favors and services to Athens.  In the ancient world, public communication through such stelae was common:

Suppose for a moment that you are visiting a pan-Hellenic shrine such as Delphi in the third century B.C., or taking a stroll through the agora of a major Greek city such as Athens, or through one of its cemeteries.  What would you see?  In this period, early in the Hellenistic Age, you would in all likelihood see great numbers of inscribed monuments wherever you looked, among other sights.  At the shrine you might — if you were literate — read inscriptions on many of the dedications to the gods, or peruse the honors bestowed on the sanctuary’s special benefactors; you might even glance at temple inventories.  In the city’s agora you might note laws engraved on stelae, decrees, accounts, commemorations of important civic events and prominent individuals.  In cemeteries you would see large numbers of inscriptions adorning the grave markers, often consisting of no more than the deceased’s name and parentage.[1]

Stones gave the public record weight and permanence.  But what was written in stone wasn’t unassailable.  One of Aristotle’s opponents attacked Aristotle’s record by attacking the stela honoring Aristotle:

there was a citizen of Athens named Himeraeus who excluded himself from the community’s decision concerning the inscription and opposed its opinion of Aristotle. After the people had inscribed their words of praise on the pillar and placed it on the tower of the Acropolis, this man ran up and cast it down.[2]

Himeraeus thus rejected interpersonal verbal engagement and instead struck physically the inscribed pillar.  The civic authority and other Athenians responded with a decisive exertion of political power:

{Himeraeus} was seized by Antinus {Antipater} and put to death.  Another Athenian, called Stephanus along with a group of others, erected another pillar and inscribed it with similar words of praise. They also included the name of Himeraeus who had thrown down the first pillar and the description of his foul deed, adding a curse upon him and a vow to his excommunication. [3]

Adding the punishment of Himeraeus to Aristotle’s stela emphasized the Athenians’ determination to secure that public record.  Athens was a highly verbal society.  Verbally attacking Aristotle’s record would have been of relatively little concern.  But not all forms of public communication were equally free.[4]

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[1] Bing and Bruss (2007) p. 1.  The inscriptions of laws in stone at Gortyn also points to the importance of public writing.  Inscriptions in the Roman period peak in frequency at the end of the second century GC.  Meyer (1990) associates that peak with status competition, specifically the value of publicly declaring Roman citizenship.

[2] HP p. 110.  Düring (1957)’s translation of this and the subsequent quote does not differ significantly.  Himeraeus is plausibly identified as the anti-Macedonian older brother of Demetrius of Phalerum. See Fortenbaugh (2000) p. 315.

[3] HP p. 110.  Antipater. one of Alexander the Great’s generals, ruled Greece after Alexander’s death.  Antipater had Himeraeus executed in 322 BGC (after the Lamian War).  Fortenbaugh (2000) p. 315.  In the context of this biographical story, that execution presumably occurred after Himeraeus had been exiled from Athens.

[4] While this biographical story is probably apocryphal (perhaps composed in Greek in the early Hellenistic period), it shows detailed knowledge of Athenian honorifics.  The account of the struggle over the stela is probably realistic even if apocryphal.


Bing, Peter and Jon Steffen Bruss. 2007. “Introduction.”  In Brill’s companion to Hellenistic epigram.  Brill’s companions in classical studies. Leiden: Brill

Düring, Ingemar. 1957.  Aristotle in the ancient biographical tradition.  Göteborg: Almqvist och Wiksell.

Fortenbaugh, William W., Eckart Schütrumpf. 2000. Demetrius of Phalerum: text, translation, and discussion. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

Meyer, Elizabeth A. 1990. “Explaining the Epigraphic Habit in the Roman Empire: The Evidence of Epitaphs.” The Journal of Roman Studies, v. 80, pp. 74-96.

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