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A Dream on Trial: The Contest of Oracular Interpretations and Authorities in Hyperides' In Defence of Euxenippus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Issue number3
Early online date12 Sep 2018
Accepted/In press20 Mar 2018
E-pub ahead of print12 Sep 2018


King's Authors


This paper re-examines Hyperides’ speech In Defence of Euxenippus as evidence for the role of divination in fourth-century BCE Athens. The oration recounts an occasion of oracular divination through incubation at Amphiaraos’ sanctuary in Oropos, whereby the Athenian Assembly ordered individuals to undergo incubation to resolve an issue concerning land ownership. This paper argues that Hyperides’ speech not only furnishes crucial evidence which broadens our understanding of divination beyond the famous oracle at Delphi, it also provides us with a valuable case study for the process of oracular consultation. The paper analyses the different stages of this process, including the selection of incubants, the nature of the dream received and the aftermath of incubation, demonstrating how the dream could be contested. It thereby sheds new light on the complexities of oracular transmission and interpretation, both of which are open to contestation as a result of the multiplicity of religious authority.

Some time in the late 330s or early 320s BCE, a dispute arose over ownership of a hill near Oropos, a territory near the border of Boeotia and Attica.1 Oropos had recently been restored to Athenian control, most likely by Alexander in 335, and the Athenian Assembly had subsequently divided the five hills surrounding Oropos into lots and allocated them to the ten Athenian tribes in groups of two, as a speech by the orator Hyperides recounts (Hyp. 4.16).2 A dispute arose, however, about one particular hill, appointed to the tribes Hippothoönthis and Acamantis: it was claimed this land actually belonged to the god Amphiaraos, whose sanctuary stood in Oropos, and that the hill was thus unlawfully allocated to the two tribes. In order to resolve this conflict the Assembly of Athens decided to send a group of men to Amphiaraos’ sanctuary to undergo incubation and ask the god himself for his opinion on the matter. A question of land ownership therefore became, as this article will show, one of competing oracular interpretations.

The orator Hyperides recounts these events in his speech In Defence of Euxenippus (Hyp. 4) written for Euxenippus Ethelokratous of Lamptrai, who was one of the incubants in the affair. The speech is unusual and exceptional: it is the only oration preserved from classical Athens which discusses an instance of oracular divination by way of a dream.3 Moreover, this oracular enquiry does not present the god with a therapeutic request, as is customary at Amphiaraos’ Oropian sanctuary in the fourth century, but rather submits to the god a question of public decision-making. Divination in the ancient Greek world constituted an assemblage of techniques and methods used to seek the counsel of the gods. The most prestigious form of divination in the classical period was oracular, which itself existed in various forms, whether functioning through dreams—as in the case of Oropos—or prophets.4 The affair of Euxenippus raises a number of intriguing questions regarding the role of oracles in public decision-making, which forces us to rethink the usual picture of oracular divination, built up as it is largely from sources concerning the more famous oracle of Apollo at Delphi. Why did the Athenians decide to consult the oracle here with a question of land allocation? How did oracular consultation through incubation, usually employed for individual, therapeutic consultations, work with regards to a collective, public issue which involved two of the city’s tribes? And, most significantly, what does this rare source for the process of oracular consultation tell us about how authority was negotiated in this public decision-making process, in which a divine dream undergoes human transmission and multiple interpretations, in order to become a decision-making tool in a matter of land allocation?

This paper offers a re-examination of Hyperides’ speech In Defence of Euxenippus, which intends to both deconstruct the oracular case at its heart and contextualise the speech as a source for the role of divination in the public life of classical Athens. Of course, the exceptionality of the case means we cannot automatically or unquestioningly regard it as representative of general oracular practice. Furthermore, the use of the speech as a source is made complex by the rhetorical nature of Hyperides’ oration: his narrative evidently shapes and constructs events in such a way as to best substantiate his argument of defence in Euxenippus’ impeachment trial. Nonetheless, if we proceed with caution and awareness of both the case’s singularity and of the rhetorical nature of the depiction found in Hyperides’ speech, the affair of Euxenippus can illuminate certain aspects of the divinatory process which remain largely hidden in other sources. Hyperides’ speech affords us a valuable rare glimpse into the process of how divine signs were employed by presenting the different stages involved: from the type of issue which requires oracular advice to the decision to consult the oracle, from the functioning of the divinatory consultation itself to the subsequent interpretation of the sign and the final resolution of the problem. Yet this process and its results have not received the attention they deserve: general studies of divination largely ignore Euxenippus’ case.5 The few scholars who have examined it, meanwhile, limit themselves primarily to the question of purpose: they merely weigh up the political, economic or religious considerations which affected why the Athenians here decided to consult the oracle, but they do not go far beyond this reason for the consultation.6 In contrast, this paper sets out to explore the important ignored issues of the functioning of the oracle and its consequences, investigating how divination is here actually used for conflict resolution.

As divination provided the ancient Greeks with the most direct means of accessing indications of the will of their gods, the role of oracles in Athenian life has long been an object of study and has functioned as a cornerstone of the wider debate on the role of religion in Athenian democracy. Scholarship on ‘official’ oracular divination, the consultation of oracles by officials or city states, in matters concerning public, political or military affairs, has focused largely on Apollo’s oracle at Delphi, for which we have the most evidence, both literary and epigraphic.7 Recently, the publication of the lead inscriptions from the oracle at Dodona has opened up the debate somewhat beyond Delphi.8 Yet the nature of the Dodonian oracular questions, sustaining and sustained by a growing scholarly interest in the role of the individual in religion, has been very much geared towards recognising the importance of divination in private everyday life.9 With regards to divination in public discourse, in the political and legal decision-making of Athens, Delphi still rules the roost. Scholars have concentrated on the question of the function of official consultations: from early-twentieth-century attitudes which derided oracular divination as charlatanism or mere formalities, theories have evidently moved on to focus on the role of divination in its social setting, or as a lens through which to view the mentalities of cultures which make use of such practices.10 Public divination has come to be seen as a regulatory device, used to gain consensus in situations where this is lacking, or—taking it more seriously—as a way of dealing with contingency and risk.11 This paper aims to throw new light on the subject of Greek public divination by examining a source—and oracle—neglected in this regard, proposing an alternative way of interpreting the function of oracular consultations.

Who eventually makes the decision regarding the disputed land in Oropos, and how do they do so? This study sets out to answer this question by paying attention to the different actors involved in the decision-making process, their assigned roles, and their authority. After a short introduction to the speech itself, the analysis will deconstruct the different stages of the oracular consultation. It will commence, first, with the Assembly’s decision to consult the oracle, paying particular attention to the selection and identity of the incubants. Second, it will move on to Oropos and the incubation rite itself, scrutinising the way in which the nature of the dream is experienced and articulated by the dreamer. As Hyperides’ account of the events leading up to the court case are rather confused, it will be necessary here to attempt to reconstruct the details of the speech’s narrative, in particular to clarify the content of the dream and its relationship to the subsequent trial. The third section of this paper will put Euxenippus’ dream in a wider context by surveying comparable evidence for oneiromancy in the Greek world. The final section will examine the aftermath of the consultation, which constitutes the stage of the oracle’s interpretation. It will demonstrate how contested this interpretation of the dream was, as expressed through the discussion of the Assembly upon Euxenippus’ return, the decree proposal which a man called Polyeuctus made regarding the dream, and Polyeuctus’ subsequent prosecution of the dreamer Euxenippus. This analysis will therefore provide an investigation into the different agents invested with authority in this decision-making process—the god, the demos, and various individuals—as well as the challenges made to different holders of authority throughout the whole process.

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