Informers, Flatterers, and Figs: On Sycophants

From the Suda

“To be a sykophant: To rub sexually. That’s how Plato and Menander use it.”

Συκοφαντεῖν: κνίζειν ἐρωτικῶς. οὕτως Πλάτων καὶ Μένανδρος.

Browse the Suda on the Scaife Viewer. Or, check out translation and commentary on the Suda Online

More from the Suda

“To be a sykophant: to falsely accuse someone. They the Athenians called it this at the time when a fig-plant was first discovered and they were stopping the export of figs for this reason. Those people who reported that figs were being exported were called “sykophants” [lit. “fig speakers”]. Over time, anyone who accused people in a super annoying manner were named in this way.

Aristophanes writes “these things are small and indigenous” since being a sykophant is a native characteristic of Athenians. Aelian adds “he alleged [sukophantei] that he god was negligent. For these reasons plagues and famine over came the Himerians’ city.”

Συκοφαντεῖν: τὸ ψευδῶς τινος κατηγορεῖν. κεκλῆσθαι δέ φασι τοῦτο παρ’ ᾿Αθηναίοις πρῶτον εὑρεθέντος τοῦ φυτοῦ τῆς συκῆς καὶ διὰ τοῦτο κωλυόντων ἐξάγειν τὰ σῦκα. τῶν δὲ φαινόντων τοὺς ἐξάγοντας συκοφαντῶν κληθέντων, συνέβη καὶ τοὺς ὁπωσοῦν κατηγοροῦντας τινῶν φιλαπεχθημόνως οὕτω προσαγορευθῆναι. ᾿Αριστοφάνης· καὶ ταῦτα μὲν δὴ σμικρὰ κἀπιχώρια. ἴδιον γὰρ ᾿Αθηναίων τὸ συκοφαντεῖν. Αἰλιανός· ὁ δὲ ἐσυκοφάντει τὸν θεὸν ὀλιγωρίας. ἐκ δὴ τούτων νόσοι καὶ τροφῶν ἀπορίαι τὴν ῾Ιμεραίων κατέσχον.

Even more from the Suda

“Sykophant: When there was a famine in Attica, some people were gathering figs in secrete which had been promised to the gods. After this, when times were good again. Some people were prosecuting these men. This is where the term developed. Look at the term “fig squeezer” too.

Συκοφάντης: λιμοῦ γενομένου ἐν τῇ ᾿Αττικῇ, τινὲς λάθρα τὰς συκᾶς τὰς ἀφιερωμένας τοῖς θεοῖς ἐκαρποῦντο· μετὰ δὲ ταῦτα εὐθηνίας γενομένης, κατηγόρουν τούτων τινές. ἐκεῖθεν οὖν συκοφάντης λέγεται. ζήτει ἐν τῷ ἀποσυκάζεις.

“Sykophant: The devil. For he made a false accusation of god, claimed that he prevented [humans] from having a share of the tree [of knowledge]. He also spoke slanderously against Job: “Does Job worship god with no return?”

Consider also sykophantia, which means false prosecution.

Συκοφάντης: ὁ διάβολος· τὸν γὰρ θεὸν ἐσυκοφάντησε, φήσας κεκωλυκέναι τοῦ ξύλου τὴν μετάληψιν· καὶ κατὰ τοῦ ᾿Ιώβ· μὴ δωρεὰν σέβεται ᾿Ιὼβ τὸν θεόν; καὶ Συκοφαντία, ἡ ψευδὴς κατηγορία.

For the story of Solon and the sycophants, see Plutarch’s Life of Solon on the Scaife Viewer. The sense of flatterer or parasite is somewhat present in the ancient Greek but becomes more prominent in English usage. The negative use can be seen in the fragment from Alexis’ The Poet (fr. 187) preserved in Athenaeus:

The name of sykophant is not rightly
Given to corrupted men.
For it should have been right for any man
Who was good and sweet to have figs
Attached to him to reveal his character.
But it fills us with confusion on why something sweet
Has been attached to someone bad.

ὁ συκοφάντης οὐ δικαίως τοὔνομα |
ἐν τοῖσι μοχθηροῖσίν ἐστι κείμενον.
ἔδει γάρ, ὅστις χρηστὸς ἦν ἡδύς τ᾿ ἀνήρ,
τὰ σῦκα προστεθέντα δηλοῦν τὸν τρόπον·
νυνὶ δὲ πρὸς μοχθηρὸν ἡδὺ προστεθὲν
ἀπορεῖν πεπόηκε διὰ τί τοῦθ᾿ οὕτως ἔχει.

Syc OED

 

Chief Minister of Bullsh*t

Cicero, Letters to Atticus 92 (4.18) October or November 54

You may ask me “how are you handling these things?” By god, pretty damn well and I love myself for doing so. My friend, we have not only lost the marrow and blood of a just state, but we’ve lost its decoration and facade too.

There is no Republic where I might find happiness or comfort. You may ask, “Can you really take this well?” Yes. That’s it. I recall how well the state thrived when I was governing it and the gratitude it gave me. No grief touches me at all at seeing one person capable of everything. Those who were upset that I had any power are wrecked by it.

No, I have many things to bring me solace. But I do not move from where I am, instead I return to that way of life which is most natural, to my books and my research.”

Dices ‘tu ergo haec quo modo fers?’ belle mehercule et in eo me valde amo. amisimus, mi Pomponi, omnem non modo sucum ac sanguinem sed etiam colorem et speciem pristinae4 civitatis. nulla est res publica quae delectet, in qua acquiescam. ‘idne igitur’ inquies ‘facile fers?’ id ipsum. recordor enim quam bella paulisper nobis gubernantibus civitas fuerit, quae mihi gratia relata sit. nullus dolor me angit unum omnia posse; dirumpuntur ii qui me aliquid posse doluerunt. multa mihi dant solacia, nec tamen ego de meo statu demigro, quaeque vita maxime est ad naturam, ad eam me refero, ad litteras et studia nostra.

Carved bust of Cicero 

Dictatorships, Tyrants, and Kings

Hannah Arendt, Personal responsibility Under a Dictatorship 36

“Politically, the weakness of the argument has always been that those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil.”

Call witnesses or live in a dictatorship.

Cicero, Letters to Quintus 19

“We have no small hope in our elections, but it is still uncertain. There is some suspicion of a dictatorship. We have peace in public but it is the calm of an old and tired state, not one giving consent.”

erat non nulla spes comitiorum sed incerta, erat aliqua suspicio dictaturae, ne ea quidem certa, summum otium forense sed senescentis magis civitatis quam acquiescentis

Philo, On Dreams 12.78

“Indeed, just as frightened horses raise their necks up high, in the same way all those devotees of empty glory raise themselves above everything else, above cities, laws, ancestral custom, and the affairs of individual citizens. As they move from demagoguery to dictatorship, they subdue some of their neighbors as they try to make themselves superior and upright–and then they plan to enslave however so many minds remain naturally free and unenslaved.”

τῷ γὰρ ὄντι καθάπερ οἱ γαῦροι τῶν ἵππων τὸν αὐχένα μετέωρον ἐξάραντες, ὅσοι θιασῶται τῆς κενῆς δόξης εἰσίν, ἐπάνω πάντων ἑαυτοὺς ἱδρύουσι, πόλεων, νόμων, ἐθῶν πατρίων, τῶν παρ᾿ ἑκάστοις πραγμάτων· εἶτα ἀπὸ δημαγωγίας ἐπὶ δημαρχίαν βαδίζοντες καὶ τὰ μὲν τῶν πλησίον καταβάλλοντες, τὰ δὲ οἰκεῖα διανιστάντες καὶ παγίως ὀρθοῦντες, ὅσα ἐλεύθερα καὶ ἀδούλωτα φύσει φρονήματα,

Zonaras, 7.13

“So, the dictatorship, as has been reported, was pretty much the same thing as a kingship, except that the dictator could not go on horseback…”

ἦν μὲν οὖν, ὡς εἴρηται, ἡ δικτατορία κατά γε τὴν ἐξουσίαν τῇ βασιλείᾳ ἰσόρροπος, πλὴν ὅτι μὴ ἐφ᾿ ἵππον ἀναβῆναι…

Cicero, Letters to Atticus

“This is no minor stink of dictatorship…”

et est non nullus odor dictaturae

Hannah Arendt, Personal responsibility Under a Dictatorship 45

“The dividing line between those who want to think and therefore have to judge by themselves, and those who do not, strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences. In this respect, the total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable: we now know that moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, and that all that then will be left is the mere habit of holding fast to something. Much more reliable will be the doubters and skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome, but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds. Best of all will be those who know only one thing for certain: that whatever else happens, as long as we live we shall have to live together with ourselves.”

From the Suda:

“Tyrannos: The poets before the Trojan War used to name kings (basileis) tyrants, but later during the time of Archilochus, this word was transferred to the Greeks in general, just as the sophist Hippias records. Homer, at least, calls the most lawless man of all, Ekhetos, a king, not a tyrant. Tyrant is a a name that derives from the Tyrrenians because these men were quite severe pirates.* None of the other poets uses the name tyrant in any of their works. But Aristotle in the Constitution of the Cumaeans says that tyrants were once called aisumnêtai, because this name is a bit of a euphemism.”

Τύραννος: οἱ πρὸ τῶν Τρωϊκῶν ποιηταὶ τοὺς βασιλεῖς τυράννους προσηγόρευον, ὀψέ ποτε τοῦδε τοῦ ὀνόματος εἰς τοὺς Ἕλληνας διαδοθέντος κατὰ τοὺς Ἀρχιλόχου χρόνους, καθάπερ Ἱππίας ὁ σοφιστής φησιν. Ὅμηρος γοῦν τὸν πάντων παρανομώτατον Ἔχετον βασιλέα φησί, καὶ οὐ τύραννον. προσηγορεύθη δὲ τύραννος ἀπὸ Τυρρηνῶν: χαλεποὺς γὰρ περὶ λῃστείας τούτους γενέσθαι. οὐδεὶς δὲ οὐδὲ ἄλλος τῶν ποιητῶν ἐν τοῖς ποιήμασιν αὐτοῦ μέμνηται τὸ τοῦ τυράννου ὄνομα. ὁ δὲ Ἀριστοτέλης ἐν Κυμαίων πολιτείᾳ τοὺς τυράννους φησὶ τὸ πρότερον αἰσυμνήτας καλεῖσθαι. εὐφημότερον γὰρ ἐκεῖνο τὸ ὄνομα. ὅτι καὶ ἕτεροι ἐτυράννησαν, ἀλλ’ ἡ τελευταία καὶ μεγίστη κάκωσις πάσαις ταῖς πόλεσιν ἡ Διονυσίου τυραννὶς ἐγένετο.

For Aristotle’s distinctions, see Politics, book 3 (1285a)

*According to Louise Hitchcock and Aren Maeir (“Yo-ho, Yo-ho: A Seren’s Life For me.” World Archaeology 46:4, 624-640) the Philistines used the word seren to mean leader; this word may have been related to Hittite tarwanis and was possibly circulated by the ‘sea peoples’. Greek tyrannos may have developed from this. Chaintraine notes that the etymology of turannos is unclear but that it may be related to Etruscan turan or Hittite tarwana.

Etymologicum Magnum

“This is likely formed from Tursennians*. Or it derives from Gyges who was from a Turran city in Lykia, and he was the first one who was a tyrant. Others claim it is from truô [“to distress, wear out, afflict”], that it was truanos and that the rho and nu switched places through pleonasm. Ancients used to use the word Turannos for kings. There was a time when they used a call the tyrant ‘king’.

Τύραννος: ῎Ητοι ἀπὸ τῶν Τυρσηνῶν· ὠμοὶ γὰρ οὗτοι· ἢ ἀπὸ Γύγου, ὅς ἐστιν ἀπὸ Τύρρας πόλεως Λυκιακῆς, τυραννήσαντος πρῶτον. ῎Αλλοι δὲ ἀπὸ τοῦ τρύω, τὸ καταπονῶ, τρύανος· καὶ ὑπερβιβασμῷ τοῦ ρ, τύραννος, κατὰ πλεονασμὸν τοῦ ν. Τύραννον δὲ οἱ ἀρχαῖοι καὶ ἐπὶ βασιλέως ἔτασσον· ἔσθ’ ὅτε δὲ καὶ τὸν τύραννον βασιλέα ἔλεγον.

*A name for Etruscans

s.v. Αἰσυμνητήρ

“An aisiomêtês is one who has proper plans. A tyrant is the opposite.”

ὁ αἰσιομήτης, ὁ αἴσια βουλευόμενος· ὁ γὰρ τύραννος τοὐναντίον.

What’s the difference between a king and a tyrant?

s.v. Βασιλεύς

“For, a king must truly do noble things. One who does evil, he’s a tyrant.”

δεῖ γὰρ ἀληθῶς βασιλέα καλοποιεῖν· ὁ δὲ κακοποιῶν, τύραννος

Etymologicum Gudianum

“Tyranny: It differs from a kingship and a tyrant is different from a king. For a kingship is something that exercises power according the law. But a tyranny is a force without reason, following its own law. A king is someone who rules according to just laws; but a tyrant, who can never rule justly nor without the boundaries of the law, he steps outside of the laws.”

Tyrannos: from some tyrant, the one who first ruled badly, from the city of Tyre. It means two things: a kind and the man as a tyrant.”

Τυραννὶς, βασιλείας διαφέρει, καὶ τύραννος βασιλέως· βασιλεῖα μὲν γάρ ἐστι κατὰ νόμους ἄρχουσα ἐξουσία τίς· τυραννὶς δὲ ἡ ἄλογος ἐξουσία, αὐτωνομίᾳ χρωμένη· βασιλεύς ἐστιν ὁ κατὰ νόμους δικαίους ἄρχων· τύραννος δὲ, ὁ μήτε δικαίως ἄρχων, μήτε νομίμως, ἀλλὰ καὶ τοὺς νόμους ἐκπατῶν.

Τύραννος, ἀπὸ τυράννου τινὸς, πρώτου κακῶς διακειμένου, ἀπὸ Τύρου τῆς πόλεως· σημαίνει δὲ δύο, τὸν βασιλέα καὶ τὸν ἄνθρωπον τύραννον.

arrogant finger

Aristotle, Politics 1285a

“Citizens guard their kings with arms; foreigners protect tyrants. This is because kings rule according to the law and with willing citizens while tyrants rule the unwilling. As a result, kings have guards from their subjects and tyrants keep guards against them.”

οἱ γὰρ πολῖται φυλάττουσιν ὅπλοις τοὺς βασιλεῖς, τοὺς δὲ τυράννους ξενικόν: οἱ μὲν γὰρ κατὰ νόμον καὶ ἑκόντων οἱ δ᾽ ἀκόντων ἄρχουσιν, ὥσθ᾽ οἱ μὲν παρὰ τῶν πολιτῶν οἱ δ᾽ ἐπὶ τοὺς πολίτας ἔχουσι τὴν φυλακήν.

Reasons for Revolutions: Wanting To Be Equal Vs. Wanting Just More

Aristotle, Politics 1302 a

“We have already happened to discuss the reason why people are predisposed towards a revolution. People who desire equality rise up in strife when they believe that they have less even though they are allegedly equal to those they oppose. But those who want inequality or their own superiority imagine that even though they are unequal that don’t have more but merely an equal amount. (Of course, these feelings may exist both justly and unjustly. People who are in a lesser position engage in strife in order to become equal; those who are merely equal, do it to become superior.”

Τοῦ μὲν οὖν αὐτοὺς ἔχειν πως πρὸς τὴν μεταβολὴν αἰτίαν καθόλου μάλιστα θετέον περὶ ἧς ἤδη τυγχάνομεν εἰρηκότες. οἱ μὲν γὰρ ἰσότητος ἐφιέμενοι στασιάζουσιν ἂν νομίζωσιν ἔλαττον ἔχειν ὄντες ἴσοι τοῖς πλεονεκτοῦσιν, οἱ δὲ τῆς ἀνισότητος καὶ τῆς ὑπεροχῆς ἂν ὑπολαμβάνωσιν ὄντες ἄνισοι μὴ πλέον ἔχειν ἀλλ᾿ ἴσον ἢ ἔλαττον (τούτων δ᾿ ἔστι2 μὲν ὀρέγεσθαι δικαίως, ἔστι δὲ καὶ ἀδίκως)· ἐλάττους 30τε γὰρ ὄντες ὅπως ἴσοι ὦσι στασιάζουσι, καὶ ἴσοι ὄντες ὅπως μείζους. πῶς μὲν οὖν ἔχοντες στασιάζουσιν, εἴρηται.

 

Plutarch, Solon 94

“The city was following the laws, but they were already expecting a revolution and longing for a different kind of government, not because they were hoping for equality, but because they would have more in a revolution and they would rule over their opposition in every way.”

ὥστε χρῆσθαι μὲν ἔτι τοῖς νόμοις τὴν πόλιν, ἤδη δὲ πράγματα νεώτερα προσδοκᾶν καὶ ποθεῖν ἅπαντας ἑτέραν κατάστασιν, οὐκ ἴσον ἐλπίζοντας, ἀλλὰ πλέον ἕξειν ἐν τῇ μεταβολῇ καὶ κρατήσειν παντάπασι τῶν διαφερομένων.

Laws and Fear of the State

Sophocles, Ajax 1071-1086

“The laws are never taken well in a city
Where fear has not been planted too.
Nor can any army be ruled wisely
If it has no foundation of fear and shame.

But even if someone has a powerful body
He can seem to fall because of some minor evil.
Understand this: whoever has shame and fear
That’s the person who has safety.

But wherever it is that someone can be outrageous and do what they want
Know that this city eventually will sink to the depth
Even if it was running smoothly for years.

Let me have some fear then at the right time
And let us not imagine that if we do what makes us happy
We won’t pay the penalty of grief in turn.”

οὐ γάρ ποτ᾿ οὔτ᾿ ἂν ἐν πόλει νόμοι καλῶς
φέροιντ᾿ ἄν, ἔνθα μὴ καθεστήκοι δέος,
οὔτ᾿ ἂν στρατός γε σωφρόνως ἄρχοιτ᾿ ἔτι,
μηδὲν φόβου πρόβλημα μηδ᾿ αἰδοῦς ἔχων.
ἀλλ᾿ ἄνδρα χρή, κἂν σῶμα γεννήσῃ μέγα,
δοκεῖν πεσεῖν ἂν κἂν ἀπὸ σμικροῦ κακοῦ.
δέος γὰρ ᾧ πρόσεστιν αἰσχύνη θ᾿ ὁμοῦ,
σωτηρίαν ἔχοντα τόνδ᾿ ἐπίστασο·
ὅπου δ᾿ ὑβρίζειν δρᾶν θ᾿ ἃ βούλεται παρῇ,
ταύτην νόμιζε τὴν πόλιν χρόνῳ ποτὲ
ἐξ οὐρίων δραμοῦσαν ἐς βυθὸν πεσεῖν.
ἀλλ᾿ ἑστάτω μοι καὶ δέος τι καίριον,
καὶ μὴ δοκῶμεν δρῶντες ἃν ἡδώμεθα
οὐκ ἀντιτείσειν αὖθις ἃν λυπώμεθα.

Sophocles

 

Bold Tongues and Barbarian Words

Sophocles, Ajax 1142-149

“I once before saw a man with a bold tongue
Railing on sailors to sail in a storm.
But when the storm fell, you couldn’t find a single word
From him as he hid beneath his cloak
And just let any sailor who wanted to walk over him.
This is how some great storm might blow in
Over you and your braying mouth
Ending your loud cry with a bit of cloud.”

ἤδη ποτ᾿ εἶδον ἄνδρ᾿ ἐγὼ γλώσσῃ θρασὺν
ναύτας ἐφορμήσαντα χειμῶνος τὸ πλεῖν,
ᾧ φθέγμ᾿ ἂν οὐκ ἐνηῦρες, ἡνίκ᾿ ἐν κακῷ
χειμῶνος εἴχετ᾿, ἀλλ᾿ ὑφ᾿ εἵματος κρυφεὶς
πατεῖν παρεῖχε τῷ θέλοντι ναυτίλων.
οὕτω δὲ καὶ σὲ καὶ τὸ σὸν λάβρον στόμα
σμικροῦ νέφους τάχ᾿ ἄν τις ἐκπνεύσας μέγας
χειμὼν κατασβέσειε τὴν πολλὴν βοήν.

For the full text, check out the version in Perseus’ new Scaife Viewer

1259-63

“Won’t you come to your senses? Won’t you learn your nature
And ask some other person who is free here
Who can tell us your affairs instead of you?
I can’t understand anything at all when you talk.
I don’t understand this barbarian tongue.”

οὐ σωφρονήσεις; οὐ μαθὼν ὃς εἶ φύσιν
ἄλλον τιν᾿ ἄξεις ἄνδρα δεῦρ᾿ ἐλεύθερον,
ὅστις πρὸς ἡμᾶς ἀντὶ σοῦ λέξει τὰ σά;
σοῦ γὰρ λέγοντος οὐκέτ᾿ ἂν μάθοιμ᾿ ἐγώ·
τὴν βάρβαρον γὰρ γλῶσσαν οὐκ ἐπαΐω.

1345

“Acting rightly is not easy for a tyrant.”

τόν τοι τύραννον εὐσεβεῖν οὐ ῥᾴδιον.

Achilles and Ajax

Police and the Unjust State

Demosthenes, Against Timocrates 164 (See the Scaife Viewer for the full text)

“These men have committed so much horror beyond their own criminal behavior that even while running a so-called democracy they turned each person’s house into a prison and put the police in our homes.”

οὗτοι τοίνυν τοσαύτην ὑπερβολὴν ἐποιήσαντο ἐκείνων τῆς αὑτῶν πονηρίας ὥστ᾿ ἐν δημοκρατίᾳ πολιτευόμενοι τὴν ἰδίαν οἰκίαν ἑκάστῳ δεσμωτήριον καθίστασαν, τοὺς ἕνδεκ᾿ ἄγοντες ἐπὶ τὰς οἰκίας.

 

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk 9

“For such dealing with criminals, white or black, the South had no machinery, no adequate jails or reformatories; its police system was arranged to deal with blacks alone, and tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that police. Thus grew up a double system of justice, which erred on the white side by undue leniency and the practical immunity of red-handed criminals, and erred on the black side by undue severity, injustice, and lack of discrimination.”

 

Juvenal, Satires

“Who will police the police?”

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?