Dionysus as Demagogue in the Bacchae’s Demagogia/Hetaireia Conflict

Robert Holschuh Simmons
University of Iowa

While others of Euripides’ plays are consistently mined for insights into Peloponnesian War-era Athenian political history, cultural analysis of the Bacchae has focused more on aspects of the Dionysian in Athenian culture (Dodds, 1960; Henrichs, 1982; Zeitlin, 1990; Seaford 1996; Segal, 1997; Gould, 2001) or on sophists’ influence on the play’s rhetoric (Roux, 1970; Kirk, 1972).  Yet examination of close similarities between Dionysus’ portrayal in this tragedy and that of demagogues in contemporaneous Old Comedy reveals a timely conflict in the play between demagogia and hetaireia styles of coalition building.  Whatever the shortcomings of the latter, the former is revealed as far more erratic and dangerous, suggesting Euripides’ discomfort with Athens’ pervasive demagogic rhetorical manipulation of the masses for political advantage.

Euripides has characters in plays produced earlier than the Bacchae express disdain for  demagogic seduction of hoi polloi and abandonment of friends in favor of them (Hipp. 986-89; Hec. 254-57).  And comic poets regularly mock demagogues not only for cultivating support among the filthy masses (Ar. Eq. 217-19), but also for having questionable paternity and citizenship (e.g., Ar. Ran. 679-81; Plato Com. frr. 166, 170; Eupolis fr. 190).  Furthermore, Connor’s (1971) study of the politics of mass appeal in late-Fifth Century Athens reveals particular agitation among the chrestoi against Cleon-style seduction of the demos in the last twelve years of that century (cf. Thuc. 8.67.2-3, 8.68.4), during which time the Bacchae was written.  So when Euripides introduces Dionysus by having him boast of having won over servile barbarians and women, complain that his patronage is questioned, and lament his lack of recognition as a member of the pantheon, a reading of the god as, on one level, a stereotypical demagogue seems well justified.

And he fills out the demagogue role with his renunciation of his family in support of his individual advantage, just as Cleon did (followed by Hyperbolus and Cleophon), publicly cutting friendship ties when he entered public life (Plut. Mor. 806F).  Meanwhile, Pentheus, Cadmos, and Teiresias take their divergent actions based on their common commitment to hetaireia:  Pentheus in his aristocratic fear of the new (219; 467), Cadmos in his hope to gain by his association with a powerful family member (181-83; 333-36), and Teiresias in his commitment to ancestral traditions (200-03).

The suffering of the latter three men through their concessions to Dionysus suggests Euripides’ perception of the danger of demagogia, despite the imperfections of hetaireia.

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