Harpalos’ Arrival in Athens as a ‘Structure of the Conjuncture’

Alex J. Gottesman (Bryn Mawr College)

“Structure of the conjuncture” was the term the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins used to describe his view of history. Located between cultural expectations of what an event should look like, what, and how, it should mean, and how individuals exploit it for their own, historically meaningful, purposes, the “conjuncture” is the space where history is produced. In his Islands of History (1985), Sahlins models how to study the conjuncture’s “structure” by focusing on a particularly notorious arrival: that of Captain Cook at the island of Kauai in 1778, followed by his murder at Hawaiian hands the following year.

According to Sahlins, Cook’s fate was the outcome of a singular confluence of perceptions. To the Hawaiians, Cook might have appeared as if he were reenacting the ritual of the “dying god” Lono, who returns every year only to be killed again in a confrontation with the king. To his British comrades, on the other hand, it seemed like the Hawaiians murdered Cook because he accidentally offended their feelings of taboo. Each perspective implies its own kind of cultural logic, the former a ritual logic, the latter a causal logic. Both perspectives have to be given weight in a thorough historical analysis.

In this paper, I will attempt to apply Sahlins’ ideas to another arrival that can also be studied as a “conjuncture.” Like Cook’s arrival in Kauai, the Macedonian Harpalos’ arrival in Athens in 324 BCE created a stir (Din. 2. 4). Coincidentally, Harpalos also arrived twice, like Cook. Like Cook, Harpalos’ arrival in Athens led to his murder under mysterious circumstances (D.S. 17. 108. 4-8). Finally, like Cook’s arrival, the significance of Harpalos’ arrival has been the source of significant scholarly controversy.

I will argue that, like Cook, Harpalos was also the victim of a particular confluence of perceptions, or of a “structure of the conjuncture.” His perception of Athenian history and agency was influenced by his reading of Athenian tragedy, with which, it seems, he was very familiar (Plut. Alex. 8. 3). A common narrative pattern in tragedy begins with a supplicant’s arrival in Athens and ends with the Athenians undertaking a war on behalf of the supplicant against his pursuers. I would suggest that Harpalos’ approach and arrival was designed to activate that cultural pattern. Where Harpalos miscalculated was in assuming that tragic patterns were reliable predictors of action. By contrast, pragmatic motivations inspired the by now quite aged Demosthenes to break from the tragic pattern, and cleanly and unexpectedly to throw Harpalos into prison (Hyp. 1. 8).

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