The informer and the sycophant in Diogenes Laertius

I’m currently rereading Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers as my bedtime book.  This evening I came across a curious passage in the life of Plato (III, 24):

There is a story that he [Plato] pleaded for Chabrias the general when he was tried for his life, although no one else at Athens would do so, and that, on this occasion, as he was going up to the Acropolis with Chabrias, Crobylus the informer met him and said, “What, are you come to speak for the defence?  Don’t you know that the hemlock of Socrates awaits you?”  To this Plato replied, “As I faced dangers when serving in the cause of my country, so I will face them now in the cause of duty for a friend.”

I noted the words, “Crobylus the informer”, and I wondered what Greek word ‘informer’ represented.  For we think of informers — delatores — as a feature of Roman society.  So I looked across the page — I’m reading this in the Loeb edition — and was amused to read Κρωβύλος ὁ συκοφάντες – “Crobylus the sycophant“.

I had never associated sycophancy with tale-bearing and informing, but of course the link is an obvious one.

6 thoughts on “The informer and the sycophant in Diogenes Laertius

  1. « As I faced dangers » ?… but when Socrates drank the hemlock, everybody was around him, except one ; « Plato, if I am not mistaken, was ill. »… (¹) A diplomatic illness ?

    1. « Phaedo », 59b.

  2. Sycophant means literally fig teller. Fig were a very expensive fruit at the time, and stealing from them was a major offense. An entire class of what we would call today slimy people emerged who would blackmail people by threatening to denounce to the authorities that person as a fig stealer. That was what was originally a sycophant, someone who denounces to the authorities fig stealers.

  3. Yes sycophant in Ancient Greek relates to officious litigants – a feature of the Athenian legal system. And it it still carries the sense of malicious informers in Modern Greek (i.e. different to what we in English would think of as a ‘sycophant’).
    A good overview of the ‘institution’ of sycophancy
    here. An extract:

    The most colorful feature of the Athenian discussion of legal excess and abuse is the allegation that an individual is a “sycophant” (sukophantai). While this term of invective is freely applied, “sycophancy” tends to connote malicious and devious legal behavior for personal advantage, including monetary profit. A “sycophant” brings false charges; blackmails individuals with the threat of litigation; and generally subverts democratic legal process for his own ends. We do not know the origins of this word, and Athenians may not have either. Literally, sycophant seems to mean “fig-revealer.” While the word may have had sexual associations (“fig” was slang for “genitals”), it was not as far as we can tell a “dirty” word: it appears in courtroom rhetoric, which avoided the obscenities voiced regularly on the comic stage and presumably in everyday life. In any event, “sycophant” was a powerful word, with a wide range of negative connotations. No Athenian would advertise himself as a “sycophant”; this was a label hostilely imposed on rivals and enemies. It was up to one’s audience to decide whether or not the label was appropriate.

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