Bendis, Orgeones, and Athenian Politeia: Plato's Social Commentary

Christopher Planeaux

This study examines the significance of Bendis' entry into Attica, using the setting of Plato's Republic to show the implications, and illustrates the impact "creating" cultic societies had on Athenian politeia as well as Plato's understanding of it. The paper argues generally that claims of citizenship remained a jealously guarded privilege in Athens but suffered legal hurtles from a limited conception. The paper then argues specifically that Plato carefully and quietly commented on this limitation (and its importance) through his selection of the inaugural Bendideia as the setting for a detailed discussion pursuing justice within cities-in-speech.  Part I briefly discusses the Republic's setting, highlighting what Plato does not emphasize, and argues that a blatantly obvious cultural context exists that escapes current analyses.  Plato's dialogue uses the four classifications of Greeks recognized by Athenian law:  citizens, foreign residents, slaves, and foreigners (handout).  Initially, this appears as clear and concrete distinctions.  Plato then chose the inaugural Bendideia, arguably one of the largest and most elaborate annual celebrations in Athens, but does not explain certain details:  Athenians created four separate cultic societies (orgeones) to accommodate the foreign goddess Bendis and her hero companion Deloptes.  Part II examines the uniqueness of orgeones (thiasoi of sacrificial votaries) in Athenian society:  specifically with regard to phratriai.  These votaries blurred distinctions between citizens and non-citizens.  Orgeones were not, by definition, members of a hereditary thiasoi, yet an orgeon could petition acceptance into a hereditary phratry, and the phratry offered access to Athenian politeia.  The outright creation of an orgeones group was unprecedented (until Bendis) and the total size of Bendis/Deloptes' groups was staggering.  Part III analyses the conceptual weakness of Athenian politeia: a hereditary privilege, which an individual could demonstrate through membership in legal and cultic societies.  Two such groups were critical:  demes and phratriai.  Recurring scrutiny of the Athenian Citizen Lists shows that many had laid claim to citizenship without cause, and a resulting census would disfranchise thousands.  Such scrutinies occurred repeatedly during both Socrates' and Plato's lifetimes.  Court speeches exist that illustrate the problem (handout).  A defendant would call witnesses and offer other proofs for politeia.  Enrollment in either a deme or phratry or both served as support.  A law, dating at least to the time of Solon, reveals that an orgeon was entitled to phratry membership.  If granted, one could then use that status to support citizenship. Part IV stresses the significance of the Republic's setting with regard to Athenian politeia.  The dialogue's opening draws attention specifically to the Thracian and "native" processions of Bendis marching into Peiraieus.  This cult whose membership numbered up to 3,500 could offer a substantial "backdoor" to Athenian citizenship privileges for a large number of otherwise unqualified individuals.  Moreover, a census took place the time Plato wrote the Republic, which removed many from the Athenian polity.  Part V proposes two hypotheses:  1) Athenian politeia was clearly defined from the top down, i.e. a "citizen" could defend his claim through certain demonstrations, but this concept proved flawed from the bottom up, i.e. when a "non-citizen" could make the same demonstrations. 2) An appreciation of the Republic's complex setting from the time of Socrates reveals a subtle but involved commentary on Athenian society of Plato's lifetime.  If true, then the Republic may be not only a philosophical text but also a detailed social commentary, offering critical (and contemporary) insights into the post-imperial polis.

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