Cephalusblegging and the Cult of Bendis

by John Holbo on June 6, 2006

I’m writing up a set of explanatory notes to go with Plato’s Republic, Book I. And I find myself unable to fact-check something I found on wikipedia – namely, Cephalus, the old guy we meet right at the beginning, is “an elderly arms manufacturer.” Arms manufacturer? How do we know? And how much do we know? Ship-building, sword-making, what? It would be interesting to know more for a couple reasons. First, it casts Socrates’ whole ‘would you give a madman his weapons back?’ question in a slightly more personal light. Selling weapons to madmen – hey, a deal’s a deal – is the modern complaint about arms dealers, after all. Also, it is ironic that, in just a few years, the war will be lost and Cephalus will have his fortune seized by the Thirty Tyrants; his son Polemarchus will be dead, executed. (This whole war business is a double-edged sword. Profitable, but tricky to handle safely.)

Can any intrepid classicists get me a source for the Cephalus-as-arms-manufacturer fact?

And another thing. The dialogue opens with Socrates and co. attending the festival of Bendis. Here the wikipedia entry is quite nice – indeed, a model of how this sort of thing can go nicely. Because someone has kindly released into the public domain a high-quality photo of a Bendis statue. Very neat. Go wikicommons! (Since part of Plato’s complaint about the goddess is probably that this peculiarly Athenian, syncretic mash-up of Artemis/Bendis is incoherent – irrational, a democratic ‘coat of many colors’ folly – I think maybe I’ll photoshop a little message on her garment: ‘My followers went to Athens and all I got was this lousy tunic.’)

But I’d like to know more, and – weirdly – there doesn’t seem to be a lot about it. (You’d think there would be a ton of stuff about a goddess, and her festival, which Plato saw fit to use as a symbol at the beginning of only the most-read frickin’ philosophy book in, like the history of the world. Except for Confucius’ Analects, yeah.)

Specifically, I’d like to know more about this. The link goes to the long abstract for a conference paper which has, apparently, never been published. (I’ve emailed the author. Haven’t heard back.) His thesis seems to be that Athenian civic recognition of the Bendis cult created an odd public policy problem – namely, you could sneak yourself citizenship by joining the cult, then use cult membership as evidence that you had phratry membership, then use phratry membership as citizenship evidence. But citizenship is supposed to be a strict lineal descent thing, not open to just any Thracean-come-lately dock-worker. So A = B and B = C, but A is not supposed to = C. Another way, then, of illustrating the point that Plato was probably bothered by the incoherent, half-rationalized nature of Athenian politics. A truly traditional society wouldn’t be legalistic enough to allow this sort of thing to happen. And a properly-written legal code would prevent it. Instead we get: stupid ol’ democratic Athens. (Anxiety about illegal immigration springs eternal in the souls of grumpy conservatives?) I would very much like to know more. But I’m not getting a lot of love. Any classicists out there have citations to offer?

In other Cult of Bendis news, I recently finished House of M, vol. 1. I find all these syncretic messings about with Marvel theology to be a bit disorienting. But this is funny (but it contains poop jokes about the origins of ideas, if that offends you.) “You are now entering Marvel Continuity. Population: wtf.” See also (via Farber.)



bob violence 06.07.06 at 1:32 am

“Arms dealer” sounds a bit anachronistic, but Cephalus was a manufacturer of shields (well, he probably never actually made a shield, but owned a shield factory which employed 120 slaves). His son, Lysias, is a rather famous orator. The information about the shield factory comes from Against Eratosthenes, the speech Lysias delivered about the confiscation of his property under the dictatorship of the Thirty Tyrants.

Something that may play into the speculation about citizenship is that Lysias, Polemarchus, and their father Cephalus were not Athenian citizens: they were metics, resident foreigners. Cephalus came from Syracuse originally, and had citizenship there. Lysias was granted Athenian citizenship by a decree of Thrasybullus rewarding those who assisted in the restoration of Athenian democracy in 403, but this measure was quickly annulled; Lysias remained a metic until his death.

I’ve never heard this business about Bendis creating a “backdoor” into Athenian citizenship, and I doubt that many metics would have been able to pull it off. The standard line on the cult is that it was a way to incorporate the Piraeus, which had a large foreign population, into the religious life of the city as a whole. Athens had strong connections with Thrace, where Bendis came from, going back to at least the 6th century BC, and the Piraeus probably had a sizable Thracian population (if I’m remembering right, many slaves were of Thracian origin).


Belle Waring 06.07.06 at 3:57 am

Thanks, Bob, that was very helpful. The only other tidbit I have about Bendis and Thrace is that, apparently, Thrace had lots of timber – can’t build ships without it – and the Athenians were very concerned to be on good terms with the King of Thrace in time of war.

Another question, while I’ve got you on the line. I picked up Mickolas Pappas, Guidebook to Plato and the Republic (2nd ed). He says the events of the Republic take place in 422 BC. During the Peace of Nicias, before the whole Sicilian mess. But he also says that the Assembly accorded Bendis full civic recognition in 430. I never really thought about this before. But do we know this? The first festival of Bendis took place 8 years after the Assembly voted her an official Athenian goddess? Presumably Pappas wouldn’t say so unless we know so, but it sounds strange.


John Holbo 06.07.06 at 4:17 am

Whoops. Previous comment by John, not Belle.


John Emerson 06.07.06 at 6:25 am

As I’ve explained elsewhere, the author functions “John” and “Belle” are a franchise like “Wonkette”, and have been outsourced to a series of impoverished English majors in Bangalore (called “Singapore” to throw people off the scent). “John and Belle” are paid by the word, as some have surmised.

Seems like the new guy is just getting used to the job — perhaps the previous guy quit suddenly.


John Holbo 06.07.06 at 7:43 am

Too true.


Adam Kotsko 06.07.06 at 8:29 am

The “most-read” title is pretty obviously right, at least in the West — but I wonder what would be the most-read philosophy book of the 20th century, for instance. Surely Nietzsche could at least put up a fight.


rea 06.07.06 at 8:35 am

The foregoing posts mmost definitely cast Cephalus in a curious light. As Athens prepares to break the Peace of Nicias by going to war with Syracuse, Cephalus, a citizen of Syracuse, is in Athens manufacturing shields, which the Athenians wil use against his countrymen . . .


John Emerson 06.07.06 at 8:38 am

If anything is a fever-swamp, it’s history of myth. I’ve seen it speculated that Apollo was of Scythian (steppe barbarian) origin. I can’t find the original piece, but here’s a different one making that claim:



John Holbo 06.07.06 at 8:53 am

I’m Apollo. No, I’M Apollo! I’m Apollo, and so is Belle!


ettinauer 06.07.06 at 8:56 am

I suspect the business about the Assembly according Bendis “full civic recognition” in 430 is a little loose, but there is epigraphical evidence that the cult was established by 429/8, when it’s included in treasury accounts (IG I^3 383); and there’s a famous (by the standards of epigraphy, anyway) assembly decree of unclear date that regulates public worship of Bendis (IG I^3 136; some attribute it to 432/1, so maybe that’s what Pappas is relying on).

A decent source for this stuff is Robert Garland’s Introducing New Gods, which, being only 15 years old or so is fairly current by Classics standards; has pretty substantial discussion of Bendis with documentation (the cites above are from it); and, happily, is searchable on Amazon. He accepts a date of c. 432 for the cult’s entry, and offers some (plausible but less-than-definitive) evidence to suggest that it was state-sponsored at its introduction.

The abstract you link to is interesting (once upon a time I did a fair amount of thinking about Athenian citizenship), and doesn’t strike me as completely implausible on its face, but I’d tread carefully before reaching conclusions about what was bothering Plato on such a slender speculative reed.


Ted 06.07.06 at 9:22 am

*Is* it the most read? Assuming that a sizeable percentage of the readings of philosophy books are done by college undergraduates, I would submit that it is not. If you put _Republic_ in its entirety on an undergraduate syllabus you’re not going to have a lot of time to read anything else and you’re going to have a challenge getting things down to a level undergrads can make sense of. On the other hand, the _Apology_, Locke’s _Second Treatise_, and the _Communist Manifesto_ (just to name three) are relatively short and you can get the basics out there in a lot less time than you can with the _Republic_. You also get crossover with the latter two into fields other than philosophy: political science and history, and I suppose even economics. The _Republic_ would seem to have less crossover potential. At any rate, I don’t want to derail the conversation away from the original question – it’s very interesting. Carry on.


Oskar Shapley 06.07.06 at 9:34 am

Yes but who is Spartacus?


spartacus 06.07.06 at 10:17 am

I am Spartacus.


greensmile 06.07.06 at 11:35 am

that Plato guy is so lazy! He never put any of his stuff on line. That got all his commentators into some bad habbits. Just try to get even an abstract from a paper presented at a symposium on Plato from an online source. No Luck! you gotta trudge to the philosophy department of the most heavily endowed university to find the dusty volume. I wanted to get even a sentence to quote from Ferrari’s paper on myth and conservatism in Plato’s Statesman but can get no closer than this, on line.
At this rate I am going to have to break down and buy a book…read two pages of it…then add it to the dusty volumes of my personal composting of western civ.


Gary Farber 06.07.06 at 12:29 pm

“I’m Apollo. No, I’M Apollo! I’m Apollo, and so is Belle!”

Where’s Starbuck, and does she have your Arrow?


bob violence 06.07.06 at 1:12 pm

Yes, Thracian timber. Very important stuff for a naval power. Thrace also had precious metals, primarily gold. The Athenians repeatedly tried to establish colonies in Thrace (Amphipolis is the most important one), but they kept getting destroyed, conquered, or sometimes decided to revolt on their own. The historian Thucydides was exiled in 424 because he couldn’t reach Amphipolis in time to prevent its surrender to the Spartans.

The cult of Bendis had some pretty unusual features: her shrine was owned by a group of resident Thracians, who also organized the procession from the Prytaneion in Athens to the Bendideion in Piraeus. There’s no other state festival in which non-citizens have such a prominent role. (This is from Robert Parker’s Athenian Religion, which is using the inscriptions that ettinauer mentions above. Parker also cites R.R. Simms, “The Cult of the Thracian Goddess Bendis in Athens and Attica,” Ancient World 18 (1988) 59-76.)

I’m starting to find it quite odd that Plato sends Socrates down to the Piraeus to discuss the ideal city. As much as Plato disliked certain features of Athenian society, he must have disdained the Piraeus even more, since it was the most mercantile and sea-oriented part of Attica, probably had many foreigners living there, and was, according to later authors, where the most radical democrats lived. In going from Athens to Piraeus it’s almost like Socrates is going to the antitype of the Kallipolis.


John Emerson 06.07.06 at 1:36 pm

Allan Bloom’s translation of the Republic discusses the significance of Piraeus, Cephalus, Polemarchus, etc. Straussian POV aside, I found his conclusions interesting and perhaps convincing. I can’t remeber whether he mentions Bendis.


John Emerson 06.07.06 at 1:39 pm

Some things about Bendis here.


Tim O'Keefe 06.07.06 at 2:14 pm

A good source to answer questions of this sort is _The People of Plato: A Prosopography of Plato and Other Socratics_, by  Debra Nails (Hackett 2003). Actually, it’s an excellent source.


Ted 06.07.06 at 5:22 pm

Bob —

As I’m sure you already know, the Piraeus was also the place from which Thrasybulus launched the attack on Athens to restore the democracy in 404.

It may be that the alienness of Piraeus made it the perfect spot to discuss the radical ideas found in the Republic. Alternately, it may be that Plato wants to show that even in such a setting philosophy is possible if you keep it private and discuss things with only the few people able to appreciate it (e.g., not Cephalus, who is removed from the scene early on).


radek 06.07.06 at 6:01 pm

There is a citation on that info. Is it recent?


Chris 06.07.06 at 11:43 pm

Most read… Aren’t we forgetting Jesus, George W. Bush’s favourite political philosopher?


ettinauer 06.08.06 at 1:22 am

And just to expand a little, now that I’ve had a chance to look at a few actual books: I’m not familiar with Pappas, but it looks like he’s eliding a fair amount of controversy (which may well be appropriate to the nature of his book) when he specifies the dates you mention above.

422 is by no means solidly established as the dramatic date of the dialogue (although it has influential adherents). And it looks like establishing the dramatic date and the date of the of the first Bendideia (and the associated inscription) are related problems. Middle of last century, there was a consensus that the inscription was from 430 or so, though there seem to be only a few scholars who dated the Republic accordingly (it would be at odds with biographical details about Cephalos and his family from external–though questionable–sources, partcularly the biography of Lysias attributed to Plutarch).

The current consensus (of the two or three people who actually care about this) seems to be that the inscription/founding of the Bendideia date to 413/2, which, if correct, would arguably put the dialogue there, too (and thus well after the Peace of Nikias and not long after the Sicilian disater; though this, too, presents biograpical difficulties). (A delay between introduction of the cult and establishment of a festival might not be strange if the cult was originally essentially a Thracian ex-pat organization with a local seal of approval, and only later was an effort made to integrate it. In fact, it might not be strange regardless; there aren’t a whole lot of data points on cult importation/festival establishment in this period.)

Of course, any attempt to fix the dialogue’s dramatic date on internal evidence like this assumes that Plato both intended and achieved chronological verisimilitude; and scholars since antiquity have recognized that this is a dubious assumption.


John Holbo 06.08.06 at 7:36 am

Thanks for comments, everyone, this has been an extremely helpful thread – thanks especially to ettinauer and tim, for the references. (Jokes are nice too, of course. I like them.)


Tim McG 06.08.06 at 9:47 am

If you’re interested in Athenian citizenship, you might also look at Edward Cohen’s The Athenian Nation, wherein he argues inter alia that Perikles’ citizenship law did not restrict citizenship to the children of two Athenian citizens (polites), as it is commonly interpreted, but to the children of two Athenian residents (astoi). So the children of metics, for example, could, if they wanted to, get themselves enrolled as citizens.

There was also at least one deme which was proverbial for not looking into your background before enrolling you as a citizen, and I’m totally blanking on the name of it (the saying goes, “today a slave, tomorrow a demesman of…”). Cohen mentions it a few times, too.

I’d have a hard time believing that phratry membership would get you very far, but I’d be willing to accept cult membership as doing so: you hang out with a bunch of people for five or ten years, letting on that you’re a citizen, and, in the near-total absence of written records, next time someone questions you about it, you say, “hey, I’m a citizen, just ask all my buddies down at the cult!”


Scott Eric Kaufman 06.08.06 at 4:38 pm

For some reason I feel like I should weigh in on this issue, but really, I’ve got nothing. (Except that the new Twilight Singers album sounds nothing like the former ones and everything like mid-period Afghan Whigs, with the possible exception of “My Time Has Come,” which could’ve come off one of the later ones.)


Kattai 06.08.06 at 6:53 pm

I was a Classics Graduate Student at U of W Madison. Any of the Professors at the above link can help. Try Patricia Rosenmeyer or Barry Powell. Sorry I can help personally. Happy hunting!


agm 06.08.06 at 9:40 pm

Rule of Acquisition 34: War is good for business.


JoséAngel 06.10.06 at 12:35 am

On navigation, arms making and the origin of capitalism and the State in ancient Greece:

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