Chapter 6 Essay

In this section, the defendant first addresses the allegation that he has a level of wealth that would disqualify him from receiving an obol from the state. To receive state assistance, according to Aristotle (Ath. Pol. 49.4), a citizen would have to provide proof of financial need in the form of a disability that prevented them from earning an income and a total valuation of their property that was less than three minai (Dillon 1995). Three minai is the equivalent of 300 drachmai. Considering that the average daily wage of a laborer was 1 drachma, an applicant for the state benefit would possess total property valuing less than the annual income of one of the city’s lowest-paid workers. This level of wealth would barely suffice to support a single citizen male independently, let alone an entire oikos.

From the outset, our defendant admits to working a trade (τέχνη), though exactly what he does is never made clear, and earning an income from it. This admission suggests that the provision reported in the Aristotelian law requiring a pensioner to be physically incapable of work was not applicable at this time or not strictly enforced (see the accompanying essay to Chs. 4 and 5). But what of the worth of the defendant’s property? How wealthy was he? As with the defendant’s working of a trade, Lysias never has the defendant offer a clear accounting of the value of his property. In fact, all the jury learns on that front is that his father did not leave him an inheritance; he had to support, until quite recently, his mother; and he cannot afford (and even here the language is vague: οὔπω δύναμαι) to purchase an enslaved individual to help run the workshop. To top it all off, he has no children—though he still holds out hope of a fruitful marriage, note the use of οὔπω (“not yet”)—who could help lighten the load and eventually take over the business and support him in his old age. If the defendant truly possessed property valued at less than 3 minai, the support of an entire oikos, as the speaker envisions, would have been (laughably?) impossible (Dillon 2016: 174).

Altogether, the inference is that the lack of an inheritance combined with the burden of supporting his mother and his meager income has left his property at a value below the three minai threshold; no hard, quantifiable evidence, however, is provided in support of this claim. Instead, Lysias has the defendant focus on the limited income (πρόσοδος) he makes from his trade. Present income is not, however, a faithful measure of total wealth. Moreover, in 4th c. Athens (a state with rather weak financial oversight of individuals) it was quite easy to hide liquid assets. Evidence of such financial chicanery may help contextualize the contradiction in the defendant’s statement that he both possesses a trade and has no other income than the obol pension.

The sad state of the defendant’s personal affairs was quite likely to have fostered class sympathy with a jury of Athenian citizens, which consisted of many working-class members (Major 2021). In particular, the defendant’s testimony that he does not earn a sufficient income to own an enslaved person while disturbing to our modern sensibilities, touches on a core feature of Athenian male citizen identity: the ability to own and derive income from the labor of an enslaved person as a marker of social status (Todd 1990: 165). Indeed, Lysias’ use of οὔπω (“not yet”), when he mentions the purchasing of an enslaved person, injects a hint of hopeful striving that might further appeal to the lower-income members of the Council. The defendant, in other words, is a man who seeks to better himself through the support of the benefit, and one who needs protection from the attacks of the elite challenger. At the same time, irony and humor is never completely absent in the speech of our defendant. The upsetting news of the defendant’s lack of an inheritance is undercut by its delivery: “my father bequeathed to me nothing” (ἐμοὶ γὰρ ὁ μὲν πατὴρ κατέλιπεν οὐδέν). By inverting the usual order of verb and noun, Lysias incorporates a sardonic surprise at the end of this sentence.

The brevity of the narrative is unusual and, once again, can lead to divergent interpretations of the defendant’s qualifications for the benefit and the aims of Lysias’ speech (see also the essay to Chs. 4 and 5). Is Lysias dispatching with the defendant’s background with such speed because disqualifications lurk just below the surface (Carey 1990: 47), or is the summary nature of the account in service of getting to arguments that present the defendant as a cause célèbre for the working class of Athens (Major 2021: 256)? A study of the appeals in Chapters 7 and 8 is consequential in this regard.

Suggested Citation

Taylor Coughlin, Lysias: For the Disabled Man (Oration 24). Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2022 ISBN: 978-1-947822-22-1