Did Athenian democracy erode popular belief in divination?

Divination was a prevalent feature in Archaic Greece, as it provided objective advice, to assist people in making appropriate decisions in problematic predicaments. In certain situations its ambiguity allowed decisions to be postponed, or blame to be assigned to others. Divination was also used to explain matters that seemed unexplainable, such as crop failure or drought. This is illustrated in the Homeric epics, which depicts numerous oracle interpreters, such as Calchas, consulting oracles on domestic, as well as, military decisions.

Divination was a guiding authority in ancient society. However, during the fifth and fourth century BC, the democratic establishment and the dominance of politics, overtook the importance of divination, so that decision making occurred in democratic assemblies, with the use of rhetoric. Unexplainable matters were now approached by cults, such as the Sophists, and the increase in scientific knowledge meant that divination was not so readily consulted. Democracy brought politics, rather than religion and divination, to the forefront of society.

The Melian dialogue illustrates the Athenian's waning belief in divination. Firstly, it highlights the lack of divinity because of the rise of democracy. The Athenians approach the subject of justice, by suggesting that its equality is dependent on the discussion and persuasion of both of their people. 1 The distinct lack of gods in this statement is significant, when compared to the literature of Archaic Greece, which assigns the gods as issuers of justice.

For example, in the Iliad, Apollo justly sends down a shower of arrows onto the Greeks for taking the daughter of his priest. 2 We must take into consideration that this is merely fiction, but it still highlights the important role of the gods in ancient society. Furthermore, when the Athenians suggest to the Melians that they should become allies with them, against the Spartans, the Melians state: '… We trust that the gods will give us fortune as good as yours… '3 In contrast, the Athenians dismiss the protection of the gods, and state:

'This kind of attitude is not going to be of much help to you in your absurd conquest for safety at the moment'. 4 Thucydides portrays the Athenians in an arrogant light, which suggests that they will get their comeuppance for such sacrilegious opinions. Furthermore, Thucydides also highlights the scientific approach that the Athenians have towards their domination of the Peloponnese, suggesting that it is the 'law of nature', that they should conquer as much as they can. The rise of freethinking, that the democracy had established, had lead to the neglect of the gods.

In comparison, Xerxes, in his conquest to dominate Greece, complies with a dream that is sent from the gods, which indicates to him and Artabanus that he should continue with the Persian wars. 5 Herodotus, writing in the early fifth century, highlights the importance of following divination, whereas, Thucydides, writing in the later fifth century, focuses on decisions made by the people. The Sicilian expedition, from 415BC, also demonstrates the dominance of Athenian democracy and it is this specific event that led to the disbelief of divination.

Thucydides states after the defeat of the Athenians at Syracuse, that the people turned against the: '… Prophets and soothsayers, and all who at the time had, by various methods of divination, encouraged them to believe that they would conquer Sicily. '6 On a basic level, this merely demonstrates that the oracle mongers had misused their interpretation, in accordance with the will of the government, who had already decided to embark on this expedition. It highlights that the oracle mongers were nothing but frauds, only eager for the money that the success of the campaign would have brought in.

7 Thus, after this wrong interpretation of the oracles, the Athenians did not publicly consult any forms of divination for political matters. However, it is noteworthy that a large extent of the decision to undertake this expedition was formed from democratic debate and the use of rhetoric, rather than the consultation of oracles. Firstly, there is a significant lack of divination and a greater focus on democracy, before the launch of the expedition, when numerous assemblies are held to decide whether to go to Syracuse or not.

Nicias opposes the campaign8 and even attempts to suspend the whole undertaking, by exaggerating the amount of armaments that they will require. 9 However this only encourages the Athenians-the older citizens, because this will ensure their victory, or protect them if they are defeated, the young, because this will enable them to travel, and the general public and the soldiers, because they will receive money from this campaign.

The use of rhetoric in this democratic debate predominantly influences the public to vote in favour of going, rather than the less significant influence of the oracle. This is highlighted further by the speech of Alcibades, which influences the public radically. 10 The lack of consideration to the oracle, in comparison to the significance of rhetoric, suggests that consulting oracles were merely part of a ritual and it has been suggested by critics that when oracles were actually consulted, they were manipulated to fit the political situation, by the oracle mongers, or simply neglected.

Thucydides also highlights the small amount of divination which is practised by the Athenians, when he describes the one libation, at the end of the debate, after the decision has been finalised11, the one notable sacrifice when the Athenians victor, before Syracuse,12and the neglect to acknowledge further omens, when it thunders, lightenings and rains heavily. 13 In comparison to the events of the Persian war, in which the Greeks were more open to oracles and omens, there is a distinct absence of acknowledging and performing different forms of divination by the democratic Greeks.

For example, in Herodotus, the Greeks more often than not, consult oracles before debating on the subject of whether military action should be undertaken. This is illustrated by the Delphic oracle of the wooden walls, which determines whether the Athenians should attack the Persians from their wooden ships, or hide behind their wooden defences. 14 It is significant that there is still an assembly to discuss this oracle, but the debate is formed around the oracle.

Whereas, in the case of the Sicilian expedition, the debate focuses on human reasoning and the interpretation of the favourable oracle is merely an added reassurance to the already favourable opinion, to undertake the campaign. Rhetoric is the influential feature. Thus, the failure of the Sicilian expedition can largely be blamed on the democratic debate, rather than the oracle, which has a negligible influence on the situation; it is used rather as a scapegoat, when the expedition fails. Thucydides asserts that:

'The result of the excessive enthusiasm of the majority was that the few who actually opposed the expedition were afraid of being thought unpatriotic if they voted against it, and therefore kept quiet. '15 This illustrates one of the main reasons why the Sicilian expedition failed; that is, the people were pressured to vote in favour because of the democratic system that ironically oppressed their freedom of speech. However, this highlights the dominance of human influence, rather than the influence of divination.

Furthermore, the Athenians show reluctance to consult oracles, such as the Delphic oracle, because of its pro-Spartan stance, for example, when the Spartans consult the oracle, they are told that Apollo will be supporting their side. 16 The Delphic oracle was biased against the Athenians, therefore, they turned to their human devices. It is also notable that Athenian democracy believed in individual thoughts and self-assertion, preferring not to obey orders from other sources. Thus, consulting oracles went against their democratic belief.

In contrast, the Spartan state was based on following orders, therefore, consulting oracles provided them with guidance. The sceptic interpretation of Thucydides towards these events also relays the deteriorating belief in divination, due to democracy. For example, Thucydides places a logical explanation next to the omens that he reports. That is, he states that the stone Hermae in Athens had been disfigured, which was considered to be a bad omen for the forthcoming expedition. Thucydides insinuates that this occurred due to drunken men.

17 Likewise, when he reports the omen of thunder when the Athenians have been defeated by the Syracusan side, he states that this occurs often in the season of autumn. 18 Thucydides neither denies nor verifies the relevance and interpretation of divination, but assigns a logical explanation to them, highlighting his sceptical attitude. He also acknowledges that oracles can be manipulated, when he relates that an oracle concerning the Athenian plague was recalled and interpreted to fit the situation, when a word was translated to mean 'death', rather than 'dearth'.

This illustrates his scepticism to the interpretation of written oracles. Furthermore, Thucydides criticises Nicias for being too inclined to divination, as Nicias was persuaded by his men to postpone their journey because of an eclipse that had been seen, Thucydides blames this as a reason for Syracusan domination over the Athenians. 19 Dover20 has suggested that even though Thucydides may have been a sceptic towards divination, he was still not an atheist. This is illustrated when he reports on the episode concerning Cylon,21 as the oracle foresaw the future through a sequence of events, which was not accessible to human reasoning.

Thucydides acknowledges the truth of the oracle, which illustrates that although Thucydides may not have fully believed in divination, he still appreciated its importance in society. Parker suggests that: 'For Thucydides religion is the underlying fabric which holds society together. '22 In contrast, Herodotus is an avid believer in divination, he believes that an earthquake at Delos, after Datis had left there: '… Was an act of the god to warn men of the troubles that were on the way. '23

Furthermore, he asserts his assurance in oracles when he states that he knows that Mardonius' oracle, which was applied to the Persians, was actually meant for the Illyrians. 24 But like Thucydides, he also accepts that, on occasions, bribery took place when oracles were interpreted. 25 Herodotus believes in divination, although it shows signs of corruption and ambiguity, as oracles are manipulated. This behaviour is criticised by fifth century BC comic poets, such as Aristophanes, as this is evidence that divination was misused, yet is still consulted by the public.

Herodotus goes along with the general opinion that favoured divination, which suggests that during the early fifth century BC, divination was still held in high regard in Athenian society. On the other hand, Thucydides sceptical opinion illustrates that there was a growing increase in the disbelief in divination, but that it was still present in society. This also demonstrates the change in thought concerning divination between the era of Herodotus and Thucydides. Aristophanes, the fifth century BC comic writer, also illustrates the deteriorating belief in divination.

He mocks seers and oracle interpreters, as he depicts them misinterpreting different forms of divination, to please the general opinion, so that they can receive rewards of money. Hierokles, an oracle monger is called a: 'Greedy impostor. '26 Aristophanes observations are not without evidence, as his oracle mongers reflect the characteristics of the real life oracle mongers of the Sicilian expedition. Moreover, he criticises written oracles, as they can be reused and manipulated to fit political events, which emulates the oracle concerning the Athenian plague, in Thucydides.

Furthermore, he demonstrates the absurd interpretation of omens, such as when a member of an assembly feels a raindrop, and therefore calls off the whole meeting. This highlights that omens were used for political matters. Aristophanes also chastises oracular figures, such as the Pythia, because they were subject to bribery. Herodotus, himself, admits this in his works. 27 It is also significant that there are lengthy passages in Aristophanes' plays, such as, The Knights and The Archanians, denouncing oracle mongers, however they fail to appear in his later plays, such as The Frogs, after the Sicilian expedition.

This was either because people had lost interest in the mundane subject of criticising oracle mongers, or because of political matters. That is, his observations on the corruption of divination reflected too closely on the oracle mongers and misinterpretation of divination surrounding the Sicilian expedition. As evidence for this discussion, Smith suggests that Aristophanes liked to ridicule oracle mongers and expose frauds therefore, his plays, meant for entertainment, have an element of exaggeration. But it is significant that Aristophanes still bases his work on true evidence, such as the Sicilian expedition.

Certain material from the fourth century BC also suggests that belief in divination decreased with the emergence of democracy. For example, Demosthenes illustrates that the orator had now adopted the role of a prophet, as he interpreted the decisions of future events, with the use his rhetoric: 'For what is the orator responsible? For discerning the trend of events at the outset, for forecasting results, for warning others. '28 Furthermore, the orator, Isocrates, belittles the role of the mantis, as he describes Thrasyllus adopting this occupation because his friend had left him his books after his death and he had no other profession.

This illustrates the low regard certain people had for the mantis. 29 Other fourth century BC material, in particular Xenophon, suggests that divination was still consulted, but with a degree of scepticism. For example, Mikalson states that: 'Xenophon lists 'sacrifices, omens and dreams' as the means by which the gods give these signs. '30 This is illustrated in Xenophon's dream about his father's house on fire31, for which the meaning of it only becomes relevant after he has woken up, as it drives him to action because of his imminent feelings of fear.

Xenophon only refers to it as a sign from a god in retrospect, he is cautious not to immediately call it an omen. It is notable that the philosophers in the democratic period, specifically Plato, criticised those superstitious people who reacted to all dreams as omens of some kind. 32 It is also significant that the dream is interpreted privately and not in a public manner, because of the public misinterpretation of the Sicilian expedition. It is also noteworthy that the profession of oracle mongers ceased to prevail in the fourth century BC, whereas the role of the mantis was still important in the democratic society.

Xenophon himself consults them to explain his dreams and omens. This highlights that in democratic Athens there was still an important role to fulfil concerning interpreting divination, but the public did not trust oracle mongers because of the Sicilian expedition. This shows the scepticism of the democratic era. In conclusion, we can note that belief in divination did erode due to Athenian democracy, firstly because of the Sicilian expedition, in which the oracle mongers abused their positions, to convey favourable oracles, to please the general opinion that they should embark upon this campaign.

So that from this date onwards, from 415BC, there is no evidence that oracle mongers were consulted, because of the scepticism of the public. Secondly, the belief in divination waned because the democratic regime encouraged self assertion and individual thoughts, so that to obey orders form an oracle or omen would be seen as going against the democratic regime. Thirdly, the rise of rhetoric provided objective advice on situations, which had previously been asserted by oracles and different forms of divination.

In a similar vein, generals, in the democratic era, were employed to make military decisions, therefore divination did not need to be consulted. However, divination was not completely removed from Athenian democratic society. Xenophon illustrates that in times of war, the Athenians still turned to divination for guidance33, however they retained a degree of caution towards it. It is significant that Xenophon is present at many of the sacrifices and when omens are being interpreted, so that he has an insight into the interpretations, as he was the, hegemon, head of the army.

Divination was still present in Athenian democracy, despite sceptical attitudes towards it, because it was able to explain situations beyond human reasoning that had not yet been approached by the philosophers and minds of democratic Athens. Moreover, it was still a reassuring feature to everyday citizens, who still practised divination in private, Xenophon's Anabasis, illustrates its constant use in the lives of his soldiers.

However, its use in the public sphere was limited because of the major mistake from the Sicilian expedition. Moreover, the use of divination was part of Greek culture, and had become part of daily lives, it is significant that sceptics, such as Thucydides, never denies any of the omens from divination or refutes the existence of the gods, but maintains that it is an important part of society. Thus, Athenian democracy did erode belief divination, but not to such a great extent that it was completely erased from Athenian society.





J.Bremmer Prophets, seers and politics in Greece, Israel

and modern Europe

K.Dover The Greeks and their Legacy

R.Garland Religious Authority in Archaic and Classical Greece

T.Harrison Sicily in the Athenian imagination: Thucydides and the

Persian wars.

J.Mikalson Athenian Popular Religion

R.Parker Greek States and Greek Oracles

Athenian Religion