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Piety And Politics In Thucydides Notes

Classics Notes > Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War Notes

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"How far is politics influenced by and linked up with piety?" Religion and piety is something which typically Thucydides has very little time for; in fact he criticises Nicias in book seven for an over-reliance on such things. However the incident of the hermae and the mysteries in book six is an instance in which the relation between piety and politics is unavoidable. Since Thucydides does not give a great deal of information about religion in Athens and its relation to politics of the city, it is useful to ascertain a general impression of this relationship so that the incident may be seen in its proper context and its influence gauged. To an modern audience the panic which the desecration of the hermae and the mocking of the mysteries causes may seen slightly strange; if religion was mocked in a similar way today it would merely seem extremely distasteful. However ancient religion was fundamentally different from modern religion in that it depends almost entirely on outward forms, such as statues and procedural sacrifices which had to be performed in a particular way in order to please a deity. If a person went against these then a god was easily offended and would bring swift vengeance on the perpetrator. In Athens this meant that they would have to quickly find whoever was responsible before they all suffered equally in the god's retribution; it did not matter so much if that person was actually guilty because only a scapegoat was needed. The scope of the Athenian laws against impiety which were in place to prevent such things happening show the protective concern of the demos in such religious matters therefore the link between the city and religion becomes so close that to attack one was to attack the other. In Athens the essence of the city was democracy so if you attacked the city you were also attacking its democratic ideals, therefore the link is further extended so that any attack on religion could and would be seen as an attack on democracy itself. This idea is further supported by the fact that the polis provided the fundamental framework for religion; each city had its own particular cults and ceremonies so a person's religion was affected strongly by the city they came from. In Athens this link is particularly strong because full participation in religion was reserved only for those people who had a full role in the democracy; the adult male citizens. Also the Acropolis, symbol of Athenian power and reflection of the greatness of their democracy, was a temple to Athena. This again shows how religion and politics were inextricably linked in the minds of the Athenians. Furthermore they had the belief that the continued existence of the city rested on the good will of the gods as the olive tree, the symbolic core of the city, showed. When this was cut down by the Persians it was said in Herodotus to have immediately started to grow back and indicated that Athens was not to fall permanently. With this in mind it is easy to appreciate why politics could be influenced by piety because the city only existed when the people were pious and kept the gods happy. The Eleusian Mysteries were a festival which had central importance in the religion of Athens therefore any mockery of them would be taken extremely seriously and seen as a particular attack on the city itself. The importance of this ritual shows well how hard it is to

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