The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Christine Plastow
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
It’s a bit of a weird one! I work on the Athenian forensic (law court) speeches, and I’m particularly interested in speeches from homicide trials. I know that sounds grim, but I promise I have a particular reason why this one makes me happy, so bear with me! This particular speech is Antiphon 6, On the Chorus Boy. It’s a defence speech for a man accused of poisoning a boy who was part of a theatrical chorus that he was managing.
When did you first come across this speech?
I first met this source while I was writing my PhD on the homicide speeches. It’s one of only 5 surviving speeches from homicide trials, so it was essential reading for me.
Can you tell me a bit about the speech and its context?
The defendant in the trial argues that he’s innocent (obviously!) but particularly that the whole trial is the result of a plot against him by his political opponents. He says that they waited so long to bring the case against him that it can’t possibly be sincere. He also says that this meant he was able to go about his normal business for a long time until they brought the case against him. This is because, once a person was accused of homicide, they weren’t allowed to enter certain buildings or parts of the city, such as temples, law courts, and the agora (marketplace), because they were seen to be ritually unclean and socially excluded. The speaker says that he was the key witness in a different trial, and that the friends of the people who were being prosecuted in that trial had brought this homicide charge against him in order to stop him being able to enter the law court and give his crucial testimony. That’s all a bit complicated, but it does bring me to the moment that I like most in this speech…
What do you like most about this speech?
While he’s arguing that the case against him is frivolous and insincere, the speaker says this:
‘To top it all off, by Zeus and all the gods, in the Council-house in front of the Council Philocrates here [the prosecutor] joined me on the podium, and with his hand on my arm he talked with me, calling me by name, and I did the same.’ (translation by Michael Gagarin)
The speaker’s point is that if the prosecutor Philocrates really believed that he had killed the boy in question, he would have considered him to be ritually unclean and socially excluded, and would not have been seen with him in public in this way. But what I love about this moment is how it encapsulates a fragment of human interaction – this feels like real life to me. There are plenty of problems with saying ‘the ancients were just like us!’ – in many ways they were totally different. But moments like this remind me that humans have been humans for a very long time: communicating, calling each other’s names, and, yes, touching each other. Simple moments of connection between people have been happening for thousands of years in so many forms, and they continue today. To me, it’s a reminder that we come from a long line of human beings living human lives, and that encourages me to believe that we can continue to do so long into the future.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
My best tactic is keeping a playlist of songs that make me want to dance. Even if I’m in a rotten mood and can’t imagine wanting to drag myself off the sofa, I put on that playlist and soon enough I start dancing around my living room. It doesn’t have to be expert dancing – mine certainly isn’t! Just moving the body, getting the blood flowing, and reminding yourself that joy exists in the world.
Christine Plastow is a Lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University. She works on the Athenian forensic speeches, and Athenian rhetoric, law, politics, and history more broadly. Her book Homicide in the Attic Orators was released by Routledge in 2020. She also works with London-based performance collective By Jove Theatre Company. You can find Christine on Twitter @chrissieplastow.