Against Eratosthenes | Study Guide


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Against Eratosthenes | Summary




Lysias was a wealthy and famous speechwriter who lived in ancient Athens between 445 and 380 BCE. Eratosthenes was a member of the Thirty Tyrants of Athens and was responsible for the death of Lysias's brother Polemarchus. Eratosthenes was on trial for the murder. Lysias gave this speech at the trial.

Lysias starts his prosecution of Eratosthenes by addressing the jury. He acknowledges that the Thirty Tyrants have not only personally wronged him, but also betrayed the public. Lysias and Polemarchus's father Cephalus was born in the city of Syracuse in modern-day Italy. Cephalus lived in the city-state of Athens for thirty years. Cephalus owned a successful shield factory and Lysias's family was wealthy. Lysias notes that he, his brother, and his father were quiet members of Athenian society. Neither he, his brother, nor his father have ever been involved in any legal disputes.

Lysias and Polemarchus hold metic status due to the foreign birth of their father. In ancient Athens, metics were people who had some rights of citizenship but did not have full Athenian citizenship. Scholars believe that Athens granted Lysias citizenship later in his life. This likely occurred shortly before he gave this speech.

Lysias supported democracy during the battle to control Athens. He backed the democratic armed resistance against the Thirty Tyrants and gave money to the resistance. The Thirty Tyrants won and the resistance was defeated. Polemarchus and Lysias were especially vulnerable to the wrath of the Thirty Tyrants because of their wealth, status as metics, and Lysias's support of democracy.


Lysias describes the events leading up to Polemarchus's execution. Due to the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE), the Athenian government needed money. The Peloponnesian War was primarily fought between the rival city-states of Athens and Sparta with each city-state trying to assert their dominance over the other. Athens lost the war and a substantial amount of its funds which left the city-state in difficult straits. The Thirty Tyrants declared that they would purge unjust and disloyal people from Athens. They used this declaration as an opportunity to acquire wealth for the government they supported but also for personal gain. The Thirty Tyrants targeted metics and claimed that many metics opposed the rule of the Thirty Tyrants. Metics' lack of full citizenship made them more vulnerable to the Thirty Tyrants' plans.

The Thirty Tyrants used their claims against the metics as an excuse to seize their property, goods, and money. The Thirty Tyrants sought to increase their wealth under the pretense of protecting the state. They tried to disguise their intentions by arresting two poor metics and eight wealthy metics. The Thirty Tyrants seized Lysias and his brother because they wanted the brothers' wealth.

Peison was the member of the Thirty Tyrants who captured Lysias. Lysias bribed Peison to keep himself alive. Peison took Lysias to another house where another member of the Thirty Tyrants was guarding other captives. Peison then announced that he was leaving to go to Polemarchus's house. Lysias's friend Damnippus owned the house where Lysias was being held captive. Lysias persuaded Damnippus to bribe Theognis from the Thirty Tyrants to secure Lysias's freedom.

Lysias explains that he escaped and later learned that Eratosthenes had arrested and imprisoned his brother. After Lysias sailed to safety, he discovered that his brother was dead. The Thirty Tyrants had ordered Polemarchus's execution by drinking hemlock. Hemlock poisoning was a common execution method in ancient Athens and a favorite sentence of the Thirty Tyrants. The Thirty Tyrants refused to allow a funeral for Polemarchus and did not let his family dress him for his burial. Lysias notes that the Thirty Tyrants had seized Lysias's family wealth and even took Lysias's wife's clothing. A member of the Thirty Tyrants named Melobius also stole Polemarchus's wife's earrings from her ears.

Lysias directly addresses the jury and explains that the metics did not deserve this terrible treatment by the Thirty Tyrants. He supports his argument by noting that metics pay special taxes, participate in festivals, and have helped in every way that the city requested. Although they are not citizens they act as good and faithful people of Athens. Despite their loyal behavior the Thirty Tyrants imprisoned, exiled, and executed them. The Thirty Tyrants even denied burial rights to their victims. Lysias expresses his disgust at the Thirty Tyrants' attempts to defend their evil actions.

Cross-Examination of Eratosthenes

Lysias directly cross-examines Eratosthenes. He is the member of the Thirty Tyrants responsible for Polemarchus's arrest and death. Lysias inquires if Eratosthenes arrested Polemarchus, and Eratosthenes confirms that this is true. Eratosthenes professes that he opposed the Thirty Tyrants' decision to persecute the metics. Eratosthenes only captured the metics because the government ordered him to do so. Despite being a member of the Thirty Tyrants he claims to be afraid to disobey them.

Under Lysias's interrogation, Eratosthenes admits that he was present in the council chamber with the Thirty Tyrants when they decided to arrest Lysias, Polemarchus, and the other metics. Eratosthenes asserts that he was against the plan, spoke in opposition to it, and believed the actions were unjust.

Lysias asks how Eratosthenes could claim he was against the plan to execute Polemarchus when Eratosthenes alone arrested Polemarchus. Eratosthenes was responsible for Polemarchus's death because he did not help him. Eratosthenes maintains that he was essentially just following orders. Lysias argues that even if Eratosthenes was telling the truth about defending the metics there is no validity in this defense. Regular Athenians might have been able to claim that fear of the Thirty Tyrants forced them to commit unjust acts. Members of the Thirty Tyrants cannot defend their own actions because they feared reprisals from within their own group. Lysias finds this idea ridiculous.

Career of Eratosthenes and the Thirty Tyrants

Lysias recounts the career of Eratosthenes to strengthen his argument. Under the Athenian democratic government, Eratosthenes worked in opposition to the government. He attempted to establish an oligarchy in the Athenian army. He and a fellow member of the Thirty Tyrants, named Critias, abandoned the warship that was under Eratosthenes's command. Eratosthenes and Critias took unconstitutional powers and committed many crimes against Athenians. Eratosthenes did nothing to protect the rights and safety of people living in Athens. Lysias expands on the careers of the Thirty Tyrants.

Lysias uses the end of his speech to attack the leader of the Thirty Tyrants' moderate party, Theramenes. When the Thirty Tyrants discussed their evil plan against the metics, Theramenes opposed the executions, but Lysias criticizes Theramenes for various wrongs against people living in the city-state of Athens. Theramenes argued with Critias and other radical members of the Thirty Tyrants about how to administer Athens.These clashes created divisions within the Thirty Tyrants. Critias later had Theramenes executed by hemlock poisoning.


The core of Lysias's argument against Eratosthenes is that "just following orders" is not a justification for crimes. The argument against Eratosthenes is still very relevant in the modern era. After World War II (1939–45) an international court tried surviving members of Nazi leadership at the city of Nuremberg. The Nazi regime committed terrible crimes against humanity, including the Holocaust where thousands of people were executed because of their race, sexual orientation, or religion. Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann was one of the main organizers of the Holocaust. He claimed that he and others were "forced to serve as mere instruments" and that they were following orders. Eichmann's argument is the same one that Eratosthenes makes during his cross-examination. Like Eichmann, Eratosthenes is part of senior leadership and responsible for murders. The judges at Nuremberg rejected the Nazi defense of "following orders." Many members of the Nazi leadership were found guilty. Several of them were executed. These questions of responsibility and power addressed in "Against Eratosthenes" continue to this day.

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