Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.06.41

Violaine Sebillotte Cuchet, Libérez la patrie! Patriotisme et politique en Grèce ancienne.   Paris:  Editions Belin, 2006.  Pp. 367.  ISBN 2-7011-4361-6.  €26.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Kostas Vlassopoulos, University of Nottingham (
Word count: 2410 words

This is a very interesting book on the neglected subject of patriotism in ancient Greece. While the polis has monopolised interest for a long time, and ethnicity has also become a significant subject of study in recent years, the understanding of patris and the formulation of a patriotic discourse have not attracted equal attention. In a very thoughtful introduction (7-28) Sebillotte Cuchet situates her work within a debate that goes back to the eighteenth century. Enlightenment authors tried to wrest the concept of patriotism from association with the monarchy through a return to antiquity, which in their eyes offered an understanding of patriotism as the sovereignty of the nation, equality, liberty and fraternity. In reaction to the Jacobin experiment, many authors tried to build a different understanding of fatherland and patriotism. Fustel de Coulanges, the most notable among them, denied the existence of a social contract among the ancients and argued that fatherland was initially associated with attachment to family land, ancestral gods and the tombs of the ancestors which gradually, through the association of many oikoi into a polis, was extended to the community at large as well. Sebillotte Cuchet argues that the Greek understanding of patriotism is closer to Fustel than to Rousseau. She stresses that though the discourse of the polis often focuses on institutional considerations, the discourse of patris emphasizes attachment to the ancestors, the land and the fraternal links between members of the same community. In particular, reference to patris serves to emphasize the affective link between the individual and his community and the importance of sentiments and emotions in political discourse.

The body of the book is divided in three parts. The first part, comprising chapters 1-4, approaches the concept of patris as fatherland, from the perspective of the relationship between a community and its territory.

Chapter 1 (31-45) focuses on the figure of Odysseus and the link between his identity and his quest to return to his fatherland. According to Sebillotte Cuchet, patris in the epics is associated with an attachment to a land and a lineage. The figures of the epic introduce the subject of how individuals construct their identity through association with a particular space.

Chapter 2 (47-78) examines the relationship between collective identities and the nature of the inhabited territory. Herodotus (9.122) relates the story of how Cyrus resisted the proposal of the Persian noble Artembares that the Persians should abandon their rugged lands and occupy a better territory, as befits a ruling people. Cyrus countered that soft lands breed soft men, and thus the Persians would risk loosing their martial character and ruling position by changing their territory. The chapter examines the prehistory of this presumed link between land and identity in the Homeric epics, the poetry of Theognis and the Hippocratic authors. The epics do show a few instances of a link between land and identity, or, as the author calls it, of a mimetism between the land and the people. In the poetry of Theognis, Sebillotte Cuchet traces an aristocratic ideology in which identity is mainly based on the relationship with other aristocrats through lineage, xenia and the symposium. Exile from the fatherland, in this discourse, is the severing of links with friends and companions, not the forced abandonment of native land. But within this genre there develops the idea of a 'mimetism of production', in which the richness of the territory mirrors the power of those who control it (as evidenced in Artembares' proposal). Finally, the Hippocratic authors exhibit the first instances of 'psycho-geographic mimetism', based on the idea that the nature of the territory determines the nature of the people who inhabit it, as exemplified in the Herodotean story above. Collective identity is formed by the kind of territory a people inhabit, not by birth or cultural practices, as in aristocratic discourse.

Chapter 3 (79-109) examines the relationship between Spartan identity and its territory. Can the Spartan collective identity be understood as the result of the influence of the territory? Sebillotte Cuchet argues that the virility and the martial spirit, which the Hippocratic authors attributed to the influence of the territory on its inhabitants, are in the case of Sparta mainly attributed to their institutions and practices, to their politeia. But this is not the whole story, and she makes two further claims. The one is that the Spartan territory is also seen as rugged and mountainous, and thus can fit within the scheme of 'psycho-geographic mimetism'; the other concerns the connection between the helots and territory. Sebillotte Cuchet analyses Hellanicus' etymology of 'helot' from the conquered city of Helos, which means 'marsh'. This, in her view, is evidence of the conceptual link between wetland, effeminacy and enslavement to others, evidenced in the Hippocratic authors and Herodotus. Both claims are interesting, but the author does not adduce much evidence to support them, and they are not in my view very convincing.

Chapter 4 (111-41) is devoted to the connection between the Athenian community and its territory. Thucydides' comment that the inhabitants of Attica had always remained the same, because of the poverty of her soil (1.2.5) provides the background for an examination of Athenian conceptions. It examines Solon's liberation of the 'black land' of Attica through his reforms and his constitution of a political community of free citizens, who have exclusive access to the land. It compares the Athenian attitude to freedom and their territory during the Persian Wars with the strategy adopted by the Phocians who fled Asia Minor and relocated to the West, in order to avoid subjugation to the Persians. Finally, it studies the Athenian strategy towards their territory during the Peloponnesian War, and the relationship between the defense of a city founded on the rock of the Acropolis and the importance of the sea.

The second part, consisting of chapters 5-7, approaches the patris as a form of political kinship. Sebillotte Cuchet argues that there are two different ways in which ancient Greeks approached political kinship. The one approaches patris vertically, as an enlarged oikos, whose members are descended from the same ancestor. The other follows a horizontal focus, which stresses fraternity among members of the same kinship group.

Chapter 5 (145-174) examines the relationship between the community and its ancestors. Sebillotte Cuchet makes a distinction between the reference to patris in the Homeric epics and its use in the Athenian polis of the classical period. Defending the patris in the epic is tantamount to defending the wives, the children, the oikos and the family plot of land. On the contrary, the defense of the fatherland as evidenced, e.g., in Aeschylus' Persians includes in addition the sanctuaries of the ancestral gods and the tombs of the ancestors. Sebillotte Cuchet believes that this difference is evidence of the transition from the Homeric society, where the royal oikos encompasses the totality of the particular oikoi, to the classical polis, where the participation of all oikoi in power necessitates the invocation of the ancestors and the ancestral gods as a uniting force. The chapter examines various manifestations of this discourse, including the cult of Tritopatores, the colonial heroic cults, and the cult of Apollo Patroos in Athens. All of these institutions and practices create links between the citizens through the concept of common ancestry; but Sebillotte Cuchet argues convincingly that the focus of these practices is not so much on the figure of the father / ancestor, but on the concept of 'filiation', which joins together the descendants.

Chapter 6 (175-198) examines the political use of classificatory kinship. Sebillotte Cuchet argues for the political and public role in Greek cities of groups based on fictive common descent, like gene and phratries. She stresses the importance of the notion of kinship for constructing groups which are based on, but also intend to foster friendship (philia) and concord (homonoia). Sebillotte Cuchet examines oligarchic communities which, in addition to fictive kinship, put a strong emphasis on groups of companions, like the hetaireiai and the andreia in Crete and Sparta. But her main emphasis is an analysis of phratries and similar groups in Athens, Tenos, Thasos, Argos, Cyrene, Caria and Nakone.

Chapter 7 (199-220) examines the construction of a community out of the disparate mercenary elements of the Ten Thousand and the conflict between two different modes of constructing this community. Sebillotte Cuchet begins by analyzing the dream which prompted Xenophon to action after the capture of the Greek generals by Tissaphernes. Xenophon's dream that his father's house was destroyed by a bolt sent by Zeus the King is interpreted as a liberation from the oikos of his father and an invitation to play the father for the new community to which he now belongs. Sebillotte Cuchet offers a fascinating analysis of how Xenophon in his exhortation to the troops constructs a new concept of fatherland, based on the ancestral gods and the struggles of their ancestors for freedom. Xenophon's focus on the vertical construction of the community through reference to the ancestors is contrasted with the vertical approach of other members of the Ten Thousand who stress the fraternity created by common aims and participation in common activities. This is certainly a very stimulating way of looking at the text of the Anabasis and will, it is hoped, be explored further in the future.

The last part is devoted to the subject of dying for the fatherland. Chapter 8 (223-54) is devoted to the subject of patriotic rhetoric. The chapter starts by asking why Nicias asks the Athenian soldiers encamped in front of Syracuse to fight for their patris, when they are engaged in an expedition far away from their fatherland. Sebillotte Cuchet argues that the rhetoric which centers on fighting and dying for the patris is chosen because it creates an affective personal link between the individual and his community. She examines the different ways of dying for the patris as presented in the Iliad, the poetry of Tyrtaeus, the stories of Tellus the Athenian and Aristodemus the Spartan in Herodotus, and the accounts of the battle of Salamis presented by Aeschylus and Herodotus.

Chapter 9 (255-90) turns our attention to the issue of the link to a land, often presented in the image of a nourishing mother, and the myths of autochthony. Sebillotte Cuchet examines the discourse of the attachment of the citizen-farmer to his land and his determination to defend her against enemy attack. Next, she turns her attention to the ways in which patris is conceived as a mother, giving birth and nourishing her children. The myths of birth from the mother earth serve to create a collective identity for all the members of the community and intend to convince the citizens/soldiers to defend and even die for their fatherland without recourse to the affective solicitation created by the rhetoric of patris, examined in the previous chapter.1 The myths of autochthony, by presenting patris as motherland, raise the issue of the relationship between patris and the feminine, sexuality and fecundity, and thus "enable the transfer of the link of birth from the individual mother to the collective land" (276).

Lastly, Chapter 10 (291-317) examines the image of the 'ideal patriot'. As Sebillotte Cuchet notes, there are both male and female versions of this image. The chapter closely examines Lycurgus' Against Leocrates and the oath of the Athenian ephebes in order to reconstruct the traits and attitudes associated with the ideal patriot. On the other hand, attention is given to the stories of females, like Aglauros, Parthenos and Iphigenia, who have sacrificed themselves to save their country. Sebillotte Cuchet points out the similarities between marriage and sacrifice for these female figures and argues that their virginity serves to highlight their fidelity to their father, oikos and genos.

The above summary should make clear the richness of the material studied and the many issues that the book raises. Nevertheless, the book is not without its problems. One problem is the author's habit of quoting too little of the ancient sources and resting a lot of her arguments on a single important passage. This can lead to very interesting and illuminating contradistinctions, but it often leaves the reader with a feeling that the argument is incomplete. I am also particularly concerned with the author's attempt to make chronological distinctions or to present a periodisation. The distinction in Chapter 5, for example, between the era of the Homeric society and the era of the Athenian polis is deeply problematic on a number of counts. It is also often the case that Sebillotte Cuchet uses sources from different periods indiscriminately, as in her discussion of Sparta in Chapter 3. Furthermore, she pays too little attention to the nuances and focuses of different genres. To use the same example, she never enquires whether the distinction she makes between the content of patris in Homer and in Aeschylus should be attributed to the divergent emphases of two different genres, instead of a social progression.

Nevertheless, Sebillotte Cuchet has managed to show convincingly that the semantic field of patris is distinct from that of polis and focuses on the affective link between the individual and his community. This is an important claim and will certainly generate a considerable discussion. But at this point a number of issues arise. To begin with, it is a pity that the author has not devoted more space to the implications of the different connotations of patris and polis. There is a limited discussion in the introductory chapter, but the issue is largely evaded. How, for example, are we to account for the fact that philopatris is so rare compared to philopolis, when patris stresses precisely the affective link? Some time ago W. R. Connor stressed how novel the concept of loving your polis was in late fifth-century Athens under her new politicians.2 How would this observation apply to patris? Finally, one would have to assess the importance of the reference to patris in the actual experience of Greeks. It is impressive how few of the quotations in this book come from the texts of the orators. Is this evidence that when it came down to actual exhortation the appeal of patris was actually limited? Or is it to be explained in some other way? There is no reason to criticize the author for not providing answers to these questions; other scholars can easily take them over, if they wish so. But these questions are really highly stimulating and the book deserves attentive reading for raising them.


1.   It is unfortunate that Sebillotte Cuchet has missed the discussion of this subject in E. E. Cohen, The Athenian Nation, Princeton, N.J., 2000, 79-103.
2.   W. R. Connor, The New Politicians of Fifth-Century Athens, Princeton, NJ, 99-108.

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