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Autochthony and the Athenians

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2009

Vincent J. Rosivach
Fairfield University, Connecticut


Athenians of the fifth and fourth centuries claimed with pride that their ancestors had always lived in Attica, a claim which they expressed by describing themselves as Related to this Athenian belief that they had always lived in Attica was a second, that, as a people, they were literally ‘sprung from the earth’. It is generally assumed that both beliefs developed at a very early date, but this is merely an assumption, and in the course of this paper we will see evidence suggesting, to the contrary, that both ideas were relatively late developments. This paper focuses on the development of the concept of autochthony, as far as our sources allow, in an effort to understand better what autochthony meant to the Athenians. In particular it considers how the Athenians came to think of themselves as ‘born from the earth’. It then suggests how, through the medium of the word the idea of being ‘born from the earth’ came to symbolize ‘living in a place from time immemorial’. Finally it examines how the concept of autochthony was used in contexts which relate it to the ideology of Athenian democracy.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 1987

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1 The most influential proponent of this orthodox view was E., Ermatinger, Die attische Autochthonensage bis auf Euripides (Berlin, 1897), followed most recently byGoogle ScholarN., Loraux, ‘L'autochthonie: une topique athenienne. Le mythe dans l'espace civique’, Annales E.S.C. 34 (1979), 126,Google Scholar and C., Berard, Anodoi: Essai sur l'imagerie des passages chthoniens (Neufchatel,1974), 31–8. In the latest work on the subjectGoogle Scholar, M.J., Miller (The Athenian Autochthonous Heroes from the Classical to the Hellenistic Period [diss. Harvard, 1983]), also follows Ermatinger, though the origin of the concept of autochthony is not a central part of Miller's work which is more concerned with the use which later authors made of the concept. On E. Montanari, II mito dell'autoctonia: Linee di una dinamica mitico-politica ateniese, second edition (Rome, 1981) see below, note 31.Google Scholar

2 It is unimportant for our purpose here whether II. 2.547ff. is a late Athenian interpolation.

3 Cf. e.g. X. Mem. 3.5.10 where takes the place of autochthony in the standard list of patriotic legends discussed below.

4 Ermatinger (above, n. 1) calls attention to the appearance of the element both in and in Erichthonius. another earthborn early king of Attica whom Ermatinger sees as merely a doublet of Erechtheus, but it is (a) far from certain that Erichthonius is just a doublet of Erechtheus; (b) far more likely that the xdwv element in his name relates to his chthonic origins rather than to the autochthony of the Athenians.

5 More generally, F. Brommer (‘Attische Könige’, Charites: Studien zur Allertumswissenschaft, ed. K. Schauenburg 153–64), after examining the literary and archaeological evidence, finds that while Theseus was promoted by Pisistratus in the sixth century, there is no certain trace of the other Athenian kings before the fifth; Brommer concludes (163–4) that all these kings qua kings are likely to have been inventions of the classical period, and that their invention was due ultimately to political motives.

6 On earthborn Erichthonius see above, n. 4.

7 By contrast the Athenians are rarely called Kekropidai in texts of the classical period.

8 Harp. (s.v. ) does say that the Thebans were , but by his day was synonymous with , and Harpocration's reference is to the chthonic origin of the Spartoi. On this item of Harpocration see further below, n. 46.

9 Demus apparently thinks that the word somehow refers to Erechtheus himself, since he asks ‘What do jackdaws and a dog [referring to the Paphlagonian's oracle] have to do with Erechtheus?’ (1022).

10 That is a folk movement of the people as a whole. Athenian tradition did include migrations of refugees who came to Attica to join the Athenians, notably at the time of the ‘Dorian invasions’ (cf. e.g. Hellanic. FGrHist 4 F 125, Hdt. 5.65.3), and more recently Cleisthenes' reforms were supposed to have added numerous foreigners to the citizen roles (so e.g. Arist. Pol. 1275b36–7). Interestingly enough, however, the Athenians did not seem bothered by the contradiction between traditions which spoke of immigrants incorporated into the citzen body on the one hand, and the claim of autochthony, on the other, that the ancestors of the Athenian citizen body as a whole had always been in Attica.

11 The earliest example of this way of thinking in our extant texts is Hdt. 7.161.3 where the Athenians are said to have asserted their claim of superiority over the Spartans as cf. in a similar vein Hdt. 1.56.3 where the Pelasgic race, which Herodotus says is contrasted with the Hellenic race which was the whole of this latter passage is a projection back into an earlier set of races of the contrast between Athenians and Doric Spartans, as Ph.-E. Legrand notes (Hérodote [Paris, 1967] adloc; contra F. Jacoby, FGrHist IIIB, vol. 2, p. 316 n. 41). Isocrates uses the same contrast to argue Athenian superiority to Sparta at 4.63 (cf. 4.25.

12 I have described here the logical development of the process, but particularly the two movements of transferring Erechtheus' chthonic origins to the Athenians as a whole and making these chthonic origins the metaphor for permanent habitation may have been combined in a single step, in e.g. an influential drama or a precedent-setting speech.

13 See the Appendix below.

14 The name Palaechthon is found only here. Elsewhere when Pelasgus is given a chthonic origin he is born directly from the earth ═ Asius, frag. 8 K. appears to be the earliest text; on Hes. frr. 160–1 M.-W. see the Appendix below).

15 Pelasgus is an Argive, but the historical Argives never claimed to be autochthonous in any sense, and Aeschylus must have had Athens in mind in some way when he wrote these verses, whether they are meant as an oblique reference to the Athenians' own Pelasgic (═ indigenous) origins, or more simply to present Pelasgus in a favourable light by emphasizing his autochthony to an Athenian audience which was proud of its own autochthony. In the epigram quoted in Aeschin. 3.190 refers to the

16 For the date of the Supp. see A.F., Garvie, Aeschylus' Supplices: Play and Trilogy (Cambridge, 1969), 11.Google Scholar

17 ‘Sprung from the land itself’, LSJ 9; cf. ‘ex ipsa terra ortus, ex ipsa tellure oriundus’, Stephanus, TGL s.v.; ‘aus dem Lande selbst’, Pape, Handwörterbuch s.v.; ‘né du sol même de la patrie’, Loraux (above, n. 1), 1.

18 C.D., Buck and W., Petersen, A Reverse Index of Greek Nouns and Adjectives (Chicago [1945]), 253.Google Scholar

19 The adjective appears in prose only in reference to the underworld (e.g. Hdt. 6.134.1).

20 I apologize for this lengthy list, but I know of no other way of fairly presenting the case for what I think originally meant

21 Hes. Op. 433; the translation is that of M. L. West, Hesiod: Works and Days… (Oxford, 1978) ad loc.; cf. also A. R. 3.232 and schol. ad loc.

22 A. Ch. 163; cf. , schol. vet. ad loc. Despite the - a gloss on a gloss - in the scholion, sound like they should be spears or perhaps clubs rather than swords.

23 S. Ph. 35; cf. Eustath. 1457.26–7 [ed. Bas.], explaining at II. 23.826.

24 Com. adesp. 854 K. ap. Poll. 7.61; [ ═ subtemen[ Bekk. Anec. 467.18.

25 Cf. ‘exactly ten’, Th. 5.20.1.

26 For the dative usage see H.W., Smyth, Greek Grammar, rev. by G.M., Messing (Cambridge, MA, 1956), no. 1525.Google Scholar

27 Cf. the definitions of and given in the scholion to Th. 5.18.2, and by Harp. s.v.

28 There is really no parallel for the use of the prefix in this looser sense of ‘independent’ except perhaps the hapax legomenon (Th. 5.79.1, quoting the Doric text of a treaty between Sparta and Argos). (X. HG 5.2.14), which is often cited to illustrate is in fact an unnecessary emendation (for ) which appears to be inspired by at Th. 5.79.1.

29 This, however, would appear to be exactly the sense of Cheiron's , glossed differently by Hesychius and Eustathius (1457.22–4: [═ self-roofed', i.e. naturally roofed over]). The words are probably quoted from a now lost drama (trag. adesp. F 201).

30 For in the sense of ‘the same as before, unchanged’ cf. e.g. Th. 2.61.2, 3.38.1. (Strictly speaking the other examples of (J) occur in contexts which imply ‘the same as X’, but this seems to be simply a matter of context.) Note also Thucydides' indirect reference to autochthony in the Funeral Oration which describes the Athenians as (2.36.1).

31 Montanari (above, n. 1) recognizes Erechtheus' ideological role, which he attempts to date to the Cleisthenic reforms, as a symbol of ‘una tendenzialita politico-democratica’ opposed to the ‘〈tendenzialita〉 etnico-genetica’ characteristic of the pre-democratic political order (p. 59). Montanari's study, which focuses on Herodotus' acount of Cleisthenes and on Euripides'Erechtheus and Ion, is suggestive, but the evidence available cannot support the case he seems to be making, of a single orthodox view evolving over time, particularly through the agency of tragedy as a propaganda mechanism for the democratic state.

32 Particularly in his discussion of the logos epitaphios Miller (above, n. 1), 11–34, touches on some of the points considered here, but his focus is on the use individual authors make of the myth of autochthony, and not on the common ramifications of the myth found in a variety of authors. Miller also emphasizes what he sees as a sophistic critique of the traditional myth, and does not give sufficient credit to the political ideas which shaped the developed concept of autochthony.

33 See also above, n. 10.

34 The legend of Athenian autochthony is thus an expression, in mythological terms, of the same attitudes reflected in Athens' restrictive citizenship laws, beginning with Pericles' law of 451/0. For the argument cf. also [D] 59.74 where, it is claimed, Neaera should not be allowed to conduct the sacrifices required of the wife of the archön basileus since the archön basileus is the successor of the line of Athenian kings and, according to the orator, Neaera was not an Athenian citizen. By contrast, Lycurgus (Leoc. 41) says that it is enough to cause tears when one sees the Athenian demos, which had once been proud of its autochthony, now vote to make strangers citizens. On this use of the concept of autochthony see also Loraux (above, n. 1), 10

35 E.g. E. frag. 362.7ff. Isoc. 4.25 even uses the relation to argue, somewhat illogically, that Athens deserves to hold the hegemony of Greece.

36 There is also a claim to superior justice in Lysias' statement (2.17) that by being autochthonous the Athenians did not seize someone else's land and oust the original inhabitants (note esp. ).

37 Cf. also Hyperides' summary of the list (6.5, ed. Kenyon OCT): 17

38 So e.g. the indirect reference to the defeat of Eumolpus at E. Ion 277–8 in a play whose principal patriotic motif is autochthony.

39 So e.g. Isoc. 7.74 is not an obvious reference to autochthony, but that such a reference is intended is made clear by the mention of Amazons et al. in 7.75.

40 Herodotus does not include autochthony in the list, but at 9.27 the list is used to show thatAthenians are better than Arcadians, and autochthony would not have been an effective argument since the Arcadians were autochthonous too (cf. Hdt. 8.73.1).

41 Cf. above, n. 8.

42 [Apollod.] 2.1.1. and 3.8.1. are grouped together with Serv. Aen. 2.84 as Hes. frag. 160 M.-W.

43 Asius' work seems to have been a standard source for genealogical information, similar to but perhaps not quite as authoritative as Hesiod's Eoiae (cf. Paus. 4.2.1).

44 In fact he probably used the word (cf. [Seym.] 526).

45 This is not difficult to do when one is dealing with excerpts and paraphrases. Note for example that in the Servius item quoted above it is impossible to say how much of this information is specifically attributed to Hesiod and how much is not.

46 Harp. s.v. autochthones says… The flow of the Greek shows that only the part of this statement dealing with the Arcadians is to be attributed to Hellanicus (see also Jacoby's note on FGrHist 4 F 161). As we saw earlier (above, n. 8) when speaking of the Thebans Harpocration almost certainly means by ‘sprung from the earth’. In speaking of the Arcadians Harpocration may be using in a similar fashion to paraphrase what Hellanicus actually said, in which case Hellanicus could have indicated in some way that the Arcadians were born from the earth. It seems more likely, however, that Hellanicus himself used the word , and that Harpocration is quoting him directly; if this is the case, there is no reason to believe Hellanicus meant by it anything more than ‘indigenous’, no matter what Harpocration thought the word meant.

47 Research for this study was supported by a Summer Stipend from the Fairfield University Faculty Research Committee. Special thanks are owed to the editors and an anonymous refereefor their valuable criticism of an earlier draft of this paper.

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