A Letter To Lysias: The Trial Of Eratosthenes In 403 B.C., Historical Doubt, And The Corruption Attendant To Modern American Political Life Poem by Dennis Ryan

A Letter To Lysias: The Trial Of Eratosthenes In 403 B.C., Historical Doubt, And The Corruption Attendant To Modern American Political Life

Sunday afternoon, December 9,2018 at 4: 28 p.m.; Saturday night, August 6,2022 at 9: 14 p.m.

"My father Cephalus was induced by Pericles to come to Athens, and lived here for thirty years, during which time neither he himself nor my brother nor I took any part in legal proceedings... Under the democracy we lived without giving or receiving offense from anyone... [But] at a meeting of The Thirty, Theognis and Peison made a statement that some of the metics [foreigners allowed to live and work in Athens] were disaffected, and they saw this as an excellent pretext for action... They divided up the metics' houses between them... I personally was giving a dinner party when they called. They turned out my guests and handed me over to Peison..."
— Lysias (459-380 B.C.) , Athenian orator, speech writer in legal cases, and resident alien, from "Against Eratosthenes", a speech given at trial or at Eratosthenes' public accounting in 403 B.C.

"But for my children, I would have them keep their distance
from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie
at the monster's feet there are still the mountains."
--Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) , American poet, from "Shine, Perishing Republic"


Where do I begin? To say I think I understand
partially, how you feel over this time and distance—
disillusioned and despairing—that only, since those
in power in your city Athens, and those close to power,
corrupt, don't change. It's the same here now, more
than two thousand years laters. It's power and politics
versus the people (demos) —even one's friends, family
sacrificed in the name of politics, power. Just look at
the speeches, rhetoric, and actions of the last disgraced
and defeated president, Donald Trump, this tyrant who
continues his demagogic rants today in from of his political
sycophants. It is unfortunately, this same familiar theme
from antiquity until today, August 6,2022. This your agony—
your elder brother Polemarchus, and thousands like him,
even Antiphon, Archeptolemus, and Socrates of Athens
finally swept up in the political tides, given lethal doses.


The commission of evil, the invention of evil acts,
know no limits as man's imagination verges upon,
then surpasses the unimaginable, never reaching an end—
so you began the prooimium of your case lodged against
the aristocrat and former Ephor known as Eratosthenes,
who arrested your brother on the street at the command
of The Thirty, who then made him drink the hemlock
without giving a reason, a trial or a defense. His funeral
was conducted in a shed, his body stripped of his clothing,
a single garment lent by a friend covering his corpse. Why
is this still important today; and why do I retell your story?


How does it happen that a high government official,
an Ephor should become the defendant in a public trial?
Did he, in fact, commit high crimes against the state,
the polis, its citizens while in office after he had sworn
an oath otherwise to uphold the laws and protect the people?
Yes, that was the case you brought against Eratosthenes,
providing ample evidence, proofs, the testimony of witnesses
to bear, that bore out your diegesis, your narrative of facts
concerning the killing of your brother, the theft of property,
belongings owned by him, you—down to his wife's gold earrings.


How does a coward who deserts his ship and comrades
at Aegospotami, who continuously conspires to overthrow
the democracy become fit to lead? Then as a leader engage
in that ‘Reign of Terror' of The Thirty, during which thousands
of citizens and metics alike are executed—hung or compelled
to drink hemlock? And then, to flee the city for Salamis, Eleusis,
where he and the rest of The Thirty sent 300 Athenian citizens
to prison and their untimely deaths? To escape to the Peiraeus,
and finally back to Athens until this time, his mind always set
against the democracy? What are you, the jury, to find, do
with this leader, but to find him guilty, showing all of Athens,
and the dead, that such heinous crimes will not go unpunished.


Such was your case against Eratosthenes—the speech you gave in 403 B.C. at his trial or euthynai—I have read the transcript—following the restoration of the democracy. Called to accounts, Eratosthenes could only equivocate, lie to cover up his actions—we have his testimony, then your calling out these equivocations, and his contradictory actions: "When you had a majority in favorof release, you claim to have opposed the execution, but when Polemarchus' safety lay in your hands alone, you rushed him into prison." As snow fell here the morning of December 10,2018, and as the sun blazed away today in early August almost four years later, in a far-away country purporting to be democratic, but is so in name and appearance only, I can report that your tribulations, public and private, are ours—our federal, state, county and local officials cannot be trusted to act on conscience, with probity and courage, for the public good. Eat cynical earnings...


The square-limbed Roman letters scale in the thaws, wear in...
As happened in Greek and Roman times, how many of our own
public officials need to be called out, be required to give an accounting of their actions? The mind reels at the myriad. Men and women such as ourselves—they are weak, caught up, entangled in plansone with the next, have one another's backs should questions arise as to their decision-making, dubious and doubt-filled as it may be. What happens when the judge is dragged before the bar—what then? —for actions that evidence collusion with the police, the District Attorney, the courts, the Public Defender's Office? What then? Eratosthenes was
one of them. He would have fit in well here despite the language difficulty.


Amongst The Thirty, Eratosthenes was aligned with the "moderates", Theramenes being the most prominent of them—his name appears in the transcript, he too a subject for discussion who doesn't fare well in your account. (What aristocrats, oligarchs, and tyrants do?) He twice subverted the democracy, finally placing Athens in Spartan hands following secret negotiations to which his fellow Athenians weren't privy. He betrayed his own country to put the moderate oligarchs in power backed by a Spartan garrison—he had the walls of the Pieraeus torn down and the democratic constitution abolished, acting strategically, like the strategus he had been elected to become.


He had won election when The 400 came to power in 411 B.C..
He glimpsed his opportunity, took it, making short work of friends, Antiphon and Archeptolemus included, who had opposed his "moderate" political stance: "His dastardly conduct allowed him to sacrifice boththe freedom of Athens for his adherence to oligarchs and the life of his friends for his adherence to the populace of Athens..." Friends? Great friends? Friendship? What are these to a political opportunist? What weight do these carry in comparison to wielding power? And so he wore the same boot on both feet, alternating feet, only to die by such—so branded cothurnus—by Critias and the other radical oligarchs.


Your indictment of Theramenes was so complete that Eratosthenes could not effectively use him in his defense, could not reference his association with this "great leade"r without the jury first being fully aware of Theramenes' treasons against Athens. And so onto your epilogos—first recapitulating for the jury disaster after disaster foisted on the nation by these two, followed by this capping reminder: the Spartan garrison stationed upon the Acropolis to preserve their domination and your slavery. Then question followed question: Did it please the jury to hear of men dragged away from their children, families and forced to commit suicide? Did jury members risk their lives to return to the Pieraeus to free their people, only to allow enemy survivors to escape and conspire again against the democracy? Then the time came to cast votes.


We are back at where we began, with that which I partly understand: disbelief, disillusionment, shock at the abomination, at what had happened. The jury received its final instructions if a jury in fact was present—I believe there was; I am with you—your words still ringing true: "it is beyond me to describe the truth of what was perpetrated, which would be beyond the scope of any number of accusers... " You said the dead were listening then to what you were saying, and I believe they are listening again now, yours and mine, at this very moment to this, your recounting: "every vote of not guilty with be a vote for their own condemnation, every vote of guilty being one of retribution
on their behalf." So it went: "Yours is the power. Cast your vote." The final tally? It has yet to be discovered—the result left in doubt. Even the occasion, location, time of the speech, the preparation of the transcript, remain in doubt in the minds of some Ancient experts.

XI (Epilogue)

Evil deeds had been done, hadn't they? Innocent men done
to death, Polemarchus included, and you Lysias, his brother
had served as witness, denounced it all. You alone had escaped
to tell us, and then, what of these deceased men's orphans?
We must trust they too had stories to tell. The actors in this drama have become my familiars—you Lysias, Eratosthenes, Theramenes—and I would escape this familiarity if only I knew how. The Fates, however, seem to have decreed I must know, and that knowledge... either that, or I myself have decreed it, it being a matter of temperament, proneness, an inclination to make certain decisions. Why and how men, and now women, will invent and commit such atrocities, we will never understand. Beyond my ken—I want to read Aristotle again, "On Friendship", that section that discusses our most honest friends. This is still important today, and this is why I retell your, your brother's story.

Saturday, August 6, 2022
Topic(s) of this poem: political,politics,america,american history,rome,ancient,corruption,murder,assassin,history,police,police brutality
Political life, the corruption that lies therein, has not changed from Antiquity (i.e. ancient Greece and Rome) until today in the modern United States. It us just the names of the actors, the politicians, that are different.
Dennis Ryan

Dennis Ryan

Wellsville, New York
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