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The Birth of the Mob: Representations of Crowds in Archaic and Classical Greek Literature



The Birth of the Mob: Representations of Crowds in Archaic and Classical Greek Literature


Justin Jon Schwab

Doctor of Philosophy in Classics

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Leslie Kurke, Chair

This dissertation surveys the representation of crowds and related phenomena in Homer, the Attic tragedians, and Aristophanes.

The first chapter begins by noting that while recent scholarship has explored the role of the crowd in ancient Roman history and literature, virtually no similar work has been done in archaic and classical Greek studies. Admittedly, Greek poleis were on a much smaller scale than was Rome, and it may be for this reason that classical scholars have assumed "the" crowd is not a feature of ancient Greek society. In order to explain why this absence of study is due to a limited understanding of what crowds are, I survey the development of crowd theory and mass psychology in the modern era. I adopt the model of Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power, which studies crowds as part of a spectrum of group behavior, ranging from small "packs" to imagined crowds at the level of a nation. Under this expanded model, I argue that crowds are universal human phenomena whose representations in archaic and classical Greek literature are fruitful objects of study. The chapter ends with a brief survey of "crowd words" to be examined, including homilos, ochlos, homados and thorubos.

The second chapter studies crowds in Homer through a close reading of several words and passages. The two crucial words for this study are homilos and homados, which refer respectively to a crowd and the distinctive noise it makes. I survey the homilos in the Iliad as a background of anonymous figures against which elite figures display their excellence, before arguing that the suitors in the Odyssey are the closest Homer comes to representing a crowd. Individually elite, they nonetheless are reduced to the status of a mob by the fact of their aggregation.

The third chapter examines the crowd in tragedy. I argue that the crowd looms as an offstage threat to the elite characters depicted onstage, most obviously in such plays as Sophocles's Ajax and Euripides's Andromache and Orestes, but to some extent in almost every surviving tragedy. In this chapter, the word ochlos (not yet present in Homer) is the key crowd-term, although homilos and other words are also present. The works of Euripides are particularly rife with descriptions of crowds, and my survey illuminates just how central the topic was to his work, in a reflection of the troubled politics of his era.

The fourth chapter examines the discourse on the crowd in Aristophanes. I demonstrate that the comedian's work is highly concerned with crowds and other groupings of people. Athens during the Peloponnesian war was crowded, not only due to the siege but in mentality and dramatic representation. To many of Aristophanes's characters, the improper aggregation of bodies is just one symptom of the general disintegration of society and decline of traditional morality. Where in tragedy the crowd must remain offstage, comedy can also bring crowds onto the stage, in such scenes as the opening of the Acharnians.

I close with a Postscript presenting two quotes of Plato, from the Republic and the Laws, whose descriptions of crowd behavior and its effect on individuals take on new significance in light of the deep history of the representation of crowds which this dissertation explores.

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