Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.09.29

Fiona McHardy, Revenge in Athenian Culture.   London:  Duckworth, 2008.  Pp. vii, 179.  ISBN 9780715635698.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by Ruth Scodel, The University of Michigan (
Word count: 1649 words

This book wants, above all, to make an important point about revenge: that whether fifth-century Athenians attempted to take revenge for injuries, and how they went about it, was not simply a matter of following a code, but, inevitably, a matter of rational calculation of potential costs and benefits. It participates in an ongoing debate that has engaged, in different ways, scholars with interests and methods as different as (for example) Gabriel Herman, Danielle Allen, and William Harris, but its approach and conclusions are its own.1 McHardy uses evidence mainly from the orators, tragedy, Herodotus, and (more problematically) Homer, on the assumption that the Homeric poems were a significant influence on the thinking of Athenians. She argues that violent revenge was likeliest in sexual offenses against women, while exile typically sufficed for homicides. Property disputes, she argues, were closer to sexual offenses, while a strong tendency to seek reconciliation governs the response to personal insults. In a final chapter, she examines the complex motivations of Orestes' revenge in Homer and tragedy. She also argues that women are generally portrayed as eager for revenge, whatever the consequences--they do not perform the rational calculations men do.

Throughout, there are both passages of real insight and disputable interpretations. Although I am very sympathetic to the argument that revenge behaviors depend on a cost-benefit analysis--and the argument about women as revengers convinces me--I am very uneasy with the book. Sometimes I am simply not convinced because I do not see enough evidence--my sense from Lysias 1, for example, though it is really only an intuition, is that killing adulterers was not regular practice. In any case, one instance is not enough.

Most of my uneasiness is methodological, though, and since these issues are more interesting and important than my agreements, I shall give them more attention, although this is unfair to the book itself. My main concern about the central claim is that, even though it seeks to complicate oversimplified ideas about how Athenians viewed and took revenge, it may not complicate them enough. First, not only rational considerations would come into play (a point McHardy acknowledges on 102, where she comments that young men can get carried away). Homo economicus does not exist. Second, even more factors could enter the calculation than those, such as relative status, that McHardy considers. For example, classical Athens was a not a culture that refused to recognize accidents, as the world of the Norse saga does. Even if the victim did not want to forgive someone who offended accidentally or under severe provocation, the community might apply pressure. The circumstances surrounding an offense, whether it involved women, property, or life, would influence how the community would judge revenge and so the calculations of the potential avenger. McHardy assumes, largely on the basis of Lysias 1, that it would be less honorable to accept financial compensation from a sexual offender than to kill him. Maybe. But Euphiletus makes a completely unverifiable claim that Eratosthenes was a habitual seducer, surely because he feared that if the jurymen suspected that his wife had initiated the adultery, they might pity Eratosthenes. On the other side, Athenians had to worry that, if they accepted compensation, they would be suspected of having colluded in the adultery for profit. (McHardy makes the excellent point about this speech that Euphiletus emphasizes how carefully he watched his wife before his child was born: he wants no doubts of his son's legitimacy).

Then there is the use of Homer. On p. 78, McHardy compares the Athenians of ps.-Demosthenes 53 to Homeric characters, suggesting that they "inspired by the mythical heroes" when deciding about how to act in property disputes. But the sneaky plotting of which Apollodorus accuses Nicostratus, while it resembles some episodes of the Epic Cycle (the murder of Palamedes), is not very much like the open cattle-raiding of the Homeric world, and the combination of covert violence with recourse to the courts is very different from anything in Homer. Throughout, the book could be more subtle in distinguishing underlying emotions, which may be the same for classical Athenians and Homeric heroes, and their methods of seeking revenge. Even if much classical Athenian justice is basically about revenge, it makes a difference whether a man seeks revenge by killing his enemy, or his enemy's cousin, or goes to court. Similarly, McHardy is surely right to call on the evidence of Herodotus and tragedy, but exactly how such representations were received and either echoed or influenced actual social behavior is very hard to know, and needs careful and subtle discussion.

The book's method relies on a very generalized set of anthropological parallels and on evolutionary psychology. This latter is an interesting attempt, but I do not think that it succeeds. Evolutionary psychology explains with such generality that it explains very little. McHardy believes that evolutionary psychology explains why sexual offenses are revenged more violently than homicide, and why property, which is vital for reproductive success, also prompts more violence than homicide does. Yet I am not entirely sure that it is true that property carries more evolutionary weight than the lives of one's close relatives--while it is true that wealth and the ability to protect it is necessary for an individual's reproductive success, selfish genes should be directed to protecting other family members who can also reproduce them. If the evidence showed that homicide prompted more violence than attacks on property, evolutionary psychology would explain that, too; it tends to become a form of aetiology.

Evolutionary psychology can explain why, in a very general way, men tend to more intense sexual jealousy than women do, while women are more concerned that men devote their resources to them and their children. But that does not say much about, for example, the Odyssey, where the suitors contend for a woman whose reproductive potential must be past its best. If Odysseus were primarily defending his reproductive future, as McHardy believes he is, one would have expected him, in rejecting Eurymachus's offer of compensation, to say something about the suitors' attempt to kill his son, which is their most direct attack on his genes' future. That is the weakness of the book. Repeatedly, McHardy bases her argument not on what the text at hand actually says, but on what she believes it implies on the basis of her theoretical assumptions. McHardy claims, for example, that an adulterer who eludes detection wins by having someone else bear the costs of raising his child (47). Now genetic forces may well make young males sexually aggressive, because this adulterous strategy could, indeed, work. But when Greeks actually talk about children, they express a desire for legitimate heirs or at least children who can be acknowledged and have obligations to their fathers. As a potential victim of adultery, the Athenian man is very aware that his wife's reproductive potential might be stolen, but that does not mean that it is her reproductive potential that the adulterer wishes to steal.

McHardy notes that Agamemnon in the Iliad mentions his intention of having sexual relations with Chryseis, that he claims to like her as much as Clytemnestra, and that he takes an oath that he has not used Briseis sexually. Since, if we rely on evolutionary psychology, sexual jealousy is fundamentally about reproduction, the oath implies that Achilles would need to be sure that any child Briseis bore was his own (59-60). Yet the heroes never refer to any interest in having children with their captives. (Briseis at Il. 19.297-99 says that Patroclus told her that Achilles would marry her. This may be a comfort to her because it would protect her reproductive potential, although it may be entirely about status.) McHardy interprets the citizen law of Pericles as intended to prevent men from obtaining children from slaves and captives (p. 60). That was surely not the main object of the law; the mysterious "concubine kept for begetting free children" is surely not a slave. There are, of course, many myths in which the children of slave women are important, like Teucer and Andromache's son by Neoptolemus. Yet in no case does it seem that the production of these children was the father's aim. I think it is important, when we consider Ajax' speech to Eurysaches (Sophocles, Ajax 545-76), to realize that it is only because Ajax is going to die without legitimate issue that Eurysaches becomes the heir.

In the discussion of Medea, she sees Medea's case as an inversion of the usual male responses and compares the situation of Medea's children to the children of an adulteress. But Medea's children are not victimized by social stigma; they are being, potentially, replaced. Jason claims that he seeks powerful half-brothers for his sons, but he does not seem to fight very hard against his sons' being exiled. Here, perhaps, evolutionary psychology might contribute. We have cases both in the contemporary West and in classical Athens in which men neglect existing children in favor of new sexual relationships, and this may reflect the advantages in reproduction of a many-children low-investment strategy. Yet Athenians actually tend to assume that women are capable not only of intense resentment of rivals for the father's investment in their children but also of intense sexual jealousy. Jason himself says so; it is taken for granted in Trachiniae, and in Antiphon's speech against the stepmother.

On the last paragraph, McHardy notes that her approach is likely to be controversial, and expresses the hope that the book will prompt further discussion. I certainly hope that it will. Very rarely have I felt moved to complain that a book is too short. Still, I cannot but wonder whether longer and more detailed discussions that brought together this study's special perspective with fuller treatments of the rhetorical goals of each passage would not have been persuasive. As it is, it is successfully very provocative, but frustrating.


1.   For G. Herman, she cites a series of articles whose arguments are united in Morality and Behaviour in Democratic Athens: A Social History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. D. Allen, The World of Prometheus. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. W. Harris, Restraining Rage: the Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.

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