The depths of the defendant’s poverty can be ascertained most transparently not through an accurate accounting of his property (which Lysias never has his client offer) but rather by way of a hypothetical whose thought experiment illustrates the “chasm between the rich and poor among Athenian citizens” (Major 2021: 256) and possibly elicited sympathetic laughs (Carey 1990: 49), or resigned nods of recognition (Major 2021: 256-57), from members of the Council.
First, some cultural context is required to make sense of the hypothetical and its rhetorical function in our case. Ancient Athens funded certain civic, religious, and military projects through a quasi-voluntary system of liturgies, wherein public duties were assigned to citizens who met certain wealth and property requirements. This institution was essentially a form of taxation on the rich, which also allowed citizens to build social capital and inter-elite prestige. One of the most prestigious and expensive public duties, the choregeia, entailed the funding of a tragic chorus for one of the state’s dramatic festivals (Wilson 2000). The position of a choregus required a significant amount of wealth, so much so that its imposition could place a financial burden even on members of the Athenian elite. For this reason, among others, wealthy Athenians regularly sought to avoid the performance of a liturgy (Christ 1990). One legal remedy was to challenge another citizen to take up the assigned public duty or have the challenged exchange their property with the challenger. Such exchanges of property (antidosis) were quite rare. This legal challenge more commonly culminated in a court trial where the jury would rule which of the two citizens had the best financial resources to perform the liturgy.
Our defendant postulates a scenario in which he is called to perform a liturgy as a choregus and in turn challenges the prosecutor, a man of great wealth, to an exchange of property. The defendant claims that the prosecutor, if faced with this hypothetical antidosis, would choose to perform the liturgy ten times out of ten. The whole scenario is patently absurd since the defendant could not be as poor as he contends and be called to perform a liturgy for the state.
This imaginary liturgy likely serves several purposes, some persuasive and others political. First, the risible proposition that a man who stands before the Council pleading to retain a one obol pension might also be called on to produce a tragedy effectively underscores the poverty of the defendant without addressing any specifics about his assets. It also allows the members of the jury, predominantly men who would also not meet the property qualifications for a liturgy, to identify with the working-class defendant through the humor of the scenario (Carey 1990: 49). To laugh with the defendant is to like him. Second, the hypothetical scenario effectively casts the challenger as a malignant and predatory citizen. If his accuser would never accept a hypothetical antidosis with the defendant (never mind this rarely occurred in reality), then his accuser must possess enough wealth to perform the liturgy. It is then terrible (δεινόν) and quite wicked (πονηρότερον) that he accuses the defendant of being wealthy when an obol pension and not a liturgy is at stake. This hypocrisy of the elite challenger may have had a further political resonance with certain members of the Council if we follow Dillon (1995) in understanding the state disability benefit as a mechanism to combat elite control of the working poor in Athens. By providing financial support to the poor, the state undercut the ability of elites to recruit citizens to their cause through monetary gifts. In this context, the challenger’s effort to disqualify the defendant’s benefit can be understood as an attempt to undercut the power of the democratic state (Major 2021: 257). By the end of the chapter, then, the defendant has again managed to put the challenger and his (political) character on trial.