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Splitting Images: Communication in Classical Athens

E. Hall looks at the methods used in ancient Greece to court public opinion in the light of the modern media and messages of democratic politics today.

Athens without its citizens, a silent city, would still have had the appearance of a democracy. Many of its laws were inscribed in stone; the visual environment communicated powerful ideological messages through depictions of the archetypal myths and narratives of the Athenian democracy. A sculpture of the tyrant-slayers, whose assassination of the tyrant Hippias' brother was popularly believed to have inaugurated the democracy, stood conspicuously in the market-place; public art portrayed valiant Athenian democrats defeating the tyrannical Persians who had failed, despite invading the city in 480 and 479 BC, to deprive it of its political liberty.

Yet the Athenian democracy consisted not in silent images but in noisy procedures; the poet Pindar can use 'the noisy regiment' as an alternative term for democracy. Democracy was actually a process which consisted in public verbal performances, by prominent men, in front of large audiences of responsive and vocal fellow citizens.

A modern politician understands the extent of the influence of the media; without publicity on television, radio and in the press, his or her career is unlikely to advance. Modern political parties have their media directors and publicity consultants, not to mention advertising copywriters. In democratic Athens, there were no political parties, but the situation for any aspiring politician was broadly comparable. He needed to avail himself of every possible opportunity for communicating himself and his ideas to the mass of citizens. The arenas for mass public communication were the assembly, the lawcourts, the cemetery and the theatre. What steps would an aspiring politician take in preparation for communicating with the voting public, and propagating his popularity?

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