1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sycophant

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SYCOPHANT (Gr. σνκοφάντης), in ancient Greece the counterpart of the Roman delator (q.v.), a public informer. According to ancient authorities, the word (derived by them from σίκον, “fig,” and φαίνειν, “to show”) meant one who informed against another for exporting figs (which was forbidden by law) or for stealing the fruit of the sacred fig-trees, whether in time of famine or on any other occasion. Another old explanation was that fines and taxes were at one time paid in figs, wine and oil, and those who collected such payments in kind were called sycophants because they "presented,” publicly handed then; over to the state. Bockh suggested that the word signified one who laid an information in reference to an object of trifling value, such as a fig (cf. "I don't care a fig about it"), but there seems no authority for such a use of ovkqv in Greek. According to C. Sittl (Die Gebarden der Gricchen mid Romer, Leipzig, 1890), the word refers to an obscene gesture of phallic significance (see also A. B. Cook in Classical Review, August 1907), called "showing the fig" (faire la figue, far la fica or le fiche), originally prophylactic in character. Such gesture, directed towards an inoffensive person, became an insult, and the word sycophant might imply one who insulted another by bringing a frivolous or malicious accusation against him. According to S. Reinach (Revue des études grecques, xix., 1906), who draws special attention to the similar formation "hierophant," the sycophant was an official connected with the cult of the Phytalidae, whose eponymus Pbytalus was rewarded with a fig-tree by the wandering Demeter in return for bis hospitality. The final act of the cult, the "exaltation" of the fig, with which Reinach compares the "exaltation" of the ear of corn by the hierophant at the Eleusinian mysteries, was performed by the sycophant. Again, like the hierophant, the sycophant publicly pronounced' the formula of exclusion of certain unworthy persons from the celebration of the mysteries of the fig. As the cult of the Phytalidae sank into insignificance beside the greater mysteries, the term sycophant survived in popular language in the sense of an informer or denouncer, whose charges deserved but little consideration. L. Shadwell suggests that the real meaning is " fig-discoverer," not " fig-informer," referring to the blackmailer who discovers the " figs " (that is, the money) of the rich man and forces him to hand it over by the threat of bringing a criminal accusation against him. It .must be remembered that any Athenian citizen was at liberty to accuse another of a public offence, and the danger of such a privilege being abused is sufficiently obvious. The people naturally looked upon all persons of wealth and position with suspicion, and were ready to believe any charge brought against them. Such prosecutions also put money into the pockets of the judges, and, if successful, into the public treasury. In many cases the accused persons, in order to avoid the indignity of a public trial, bought off their accusers, who found in this a fruitful source of revenue. Certain legal remedies, intended to prevent the abuses of the system, undoubtedly existed. Persons found guilty of bringing false charges, of blackmail, or of suborning false witnesses, were liable to criminal prosecution by the state and a fine on conviction. Penalties were also inflicted if an accuser failed to carry the prosecution through or to obtain a fifth part of the votes. But these remedies were rather simple deterrents, and instances of informers being actually brought to trial are rare. Sycophants were an inseparable accompaniment of the democracy, and the profession, at least from a political point of view, was not regarded as in any way dishonourable. The idea of encouraging the citizens to assist in the detection of crime or treason against the state was commendable; it was not the use, but the abuse of the privilege that was so injurious. Allusions to the sycophants are frequent in Aristophanes and the Attic orators. The word is now generally used in the sense of a cringing flatterer of the great.

See Meier and Schomann, Der allische Process (ed. J. H. Lipsius, 1883-1887); article by C. R. Kennedy and H. Holden, in Smith's Dictionary of Antiquities (3rd ed., 1891).