Ancient and modern

Aristophanes on Mazher Mahmood

Solon created a vacancy for the ancient equivalents of the Fake Sheikh

22 November 2014

9:00 AM

22 November 2014

9:00 AM

Undercover journalist Mazher Mahmood, otherwise known as the Fake Sheikh, has been accused of dodgy dealing in luring the innocent to commit ‘crimes’ which he has then exposed to the press. The Athenians knew all about his sort.

They called such people sukophantai (pl.), our ‘sycophants’, though the derivation of the word remains obscure, and it is not clear how it came to mean ‘toady’ in English. The sukophantês came into being as a result of legislation by the Athenian statesman Solon (c. 640–560 BC). Since there was no such thing as the police or a Crown Prosecution Service in the ancient world, it was important to find some way of bringing to book those who had harmed individual citizens. So Solon, arguing that ‘the best governed state was one in which those who were not wronged were as diligent in prosecuting criminals as those who had personally suffered’, ruled that for certain types of offence, ‘anyone who wanted to’ could bring a case to court.

This was where the sukophantês came in. Those cases offering financial rewards for a successful prosecution were his stock-in-trade; or he could blackmail people wishing to avoid prosecution, or accept money from those who would pay him to bring a case against a personal enemy. Becoming wise to this, Athenians penalised those who dropped cases midway and those who failed to gather a fifth of the jurors’ votes.

In Aristophanes’ comedy Wealth (388 BC), the sycophant finds himself impoverished because the blind god Wealth has his sight restored and can now see who deserves to be rich. He laments his ‘patriotic martyrdom’, claiming that, as ‘unofficial superintendent of all public and private affairs’, he was simply ‘seeking to help my beloved city to the utmost of my ability’. Just like that heroic Mr Mahmood, who claims to have acted in all our interests by bringing many people to ‘justice’.

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