Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.09.04

Steven Johnstone, A History of Trust in Ancient Greece.   Chicago; London:  University of Chicago Press, 2011.  Pp. xii, 242.  ISBN 9780226405094.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by David M. Ratzan, Columbia University (


Steven Johnstone has written a stimulating, if curious, book on trust in classical Greece. Across seven substantive chapters the author covers a series of seemingly disparate topics—all without so much as mentioning the word pistis. The result is a historical lipogram: an anthropological archaeology of the practices, but not the discourse, of trust. This is also a timely book; current events (cf., e.g., Losing Faith in American Institutions) and the recent interest in ancient institutional analysis makes trust, and in particular “impersonal trust,” or “the ways that abstract systems allow people to routinely interact, even with strangers, as if they trusted one another,” (2) a subject of prime importance to anyone interested in the development, successes, and failures of political, economic, and legal institutions, ancient or modern.

Johnstone begins Chapter 1 (“Introduction”) with the surrealist claim that “this book is a heap” (2). Thus he warns the reader that the subject and his treatment are “essentially unbounded”: precise definitions are hopelessly artificial. True to metaphor, the book is indeed heapish. Johnstone explores no precise manifestation of trust; limits himself to no specific geography, group, institution, or evidence; and embraces no particular theoretical perspective. The only explicit boundaries are chronological, drawn at the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E. Chapter 1 also contains—somewhat disappointingly—the only sustained discussion of trust. Johnstone aims to explore the “systems” and “practices” of trust in Greek society and selects—without justification—the following for study: “haggling” (Ch. 2) “measuring” (Ch. 3) “keeping track” (Ch. 4), “valuing” (Ch. 5), “collaborating” (Ch. 6), “apportioning liability” (Ch. 7), and “deciding” (Ch. 8). One could easily argue that other topics were of equal or greater import, e.g., reputation, dispute-resolution, and voting. Although unbounded and without a conclusion, the book is clearly organized, moving from the economic realm of the individual in the agora to the political collective in the ekklēsia and dikastērion. The studies are also tied together by the fundamental claim that the Greek experience complicates the simplistic identification of impersonal trust with the modern condition; rejecting this idea, Johnstone finds systems of impersonal trust often “repersonalizing” relationships or “supplementing” personal trust. This, then, is an institutional study of trust, but less technical and more overtly anthropological or sociological than the recent neo-institutionalist work of J. Ober, A. Bresson, J. Manning, and D. Kehoe (to name but a few in a growing field).

Chapter 2 (“Haggling”) begins with the premise that money did not automatically impersonalize market transactions because coinage altered only one side of the information equation; while sellers relied on the standardized quantity of precious metal they received, buyers still had to assess the quality of goods. This “information asymmetry ... intensified personal relationships by exacerbating buyers’ distrust of sellers. The system of trust in money repersonalized market relationships by creating new pools of distrust” (14). Distrust took discursive form in haggling, the economic and cultural practice par excellence of the agora. Johnstone dissects haggling’s ritualized banter as revealed in comedy and Herodas and concludes with some political attempts to control or suppress haggling, including Nikophon’s currency decree (SEG XXVI 72), which he sees as directed primarily at sellers who opportunistically capitalized on the known heterogeneity of the coin supply by refusing to accept even “good” coins except at a discount.

In Chapter 3 (“Measuring”) Johnstone argues on compelling comparative grounds that standardized quantities inspire trust only when coupled with standardized qualities. The lack of quality controls explains why Greeks typically measured with traditional, unstandardized containers. He shows convincingly that attempts to determine the precise capacity of the phormos are anachronistic category mistakes: it “was not, in the first instance, a standardized measure ... but a customary object used in trade” (43). Measuring in such units was made practicable by personal experience in judging quality and quantity, supply networks articulated by personal trust, and the basic constraints of practicality (e.g., a phormos was probably the biggest sack/basket of grain a man could lade). More provocatively, Johnstone argues that the medimnos was “a notional” measure, often even “an imaginary measure because no grain was actually measured” (45). In his view, the medimnos was used primarily to estimate large amounts of grain or to equate grain (of inherently variable quality, since there were no standards) by describing it as a function of an “abstract price,” i.e., “X drachmas per medimnos,” where X describes neither a particular price one had paid nor an “average price,” since there was no data collection of market prices to establish an average price). In support of this thesis he convincingly demonstrates that measuring large amounts of grain was expensive, inexact, and did not in any case obviate the need for expertise. Therefore, “the medimnos was a tool not of precision but of abstraction” (48). This interpretation will likely strike many readers as gratuitous. More certain and significant are the implications of the cost of measurement; it was typically borne or imposed only in public accounting (officials being inherently suspect) and in the retail setting of the agora, which is the only place weights and measures seem to have been regulated.

In Chapter 4 (“Keeping Track”) Johnstone proposes that in the absence of a large, overarching administrative power like the Hellenistic state, Greeks, like other traditional cultures, “exercised strategic and rationalized control over stuff through ... containerizing ... the dispensing of supplies through the art of allocating based not on measuring, written accounting, and mathematical calculations but on an expertise in gauging the fullness of containers” (63). This insight, which he deftly applies, has important implications for our understanding of Greek economic rationality and taxation. For example, Johnstone considers the payment of first-fruits to Eleusis, the Athenian grain tax, and the Solonian classes, showing in each instance that there is no evidence individuals were required to measure out wealth precisely. He suggests that they instead estimated total production and the proportional tax, paying amounts they unilaterally declared under oath. Johnstone concludes briefly by arguing that containerization reified trust in the physical control that free men exerted over access to stored wealth.

Johnstone in Chapter 5 (“Valuing”) asks how Greeks assigned monetary values (timēmata) to non-market items, like net worth, eligibility for political office, and citizenship. Denomination in monetary terms did not objectify valuing; as with taxes, valuations were declared ad hoc by interested individuals without recourse to objective standards. Such “radically subjective” declarations could, however, be contested by others, and this agōn of valuing placed a check on cheating. Johnstone closes this particularly rich chapter by documenting the shift from the personal and interpersonal practices of classical valuing to the more impersonal ones of the Hellenistic period, when states and independent commissions fixed values, and citizenship (exemplified by Athens and Cyrene) went from being a function of “unilateral declarations to comprehensive, objective censuses, from qualifying activities to a pure wealth qualification” (100). Thus humanity, having ceased to be the Protagorean “valuer and metron of all things,” was reduced to the object of the impersonal metron of money (110).

Chapters 6 (“Collaboration”) and 7 (“Apportioning Liability”) explore mechanisms that “nurtured trust among strangers” on the various collegial boards and committees which characterized classical Greek political life. Ch. 6 is short because the evidence is thin, oblique, and generically compromised (esp. Herodotus and Xenophon); collaboration left few traces for the archaeo-anthropologist. Johnstone submits that appointment by lot logically devalued pre-existing relationships of trust, and therefore trust between members must have been the product of internal practices. The best evidence he musters is Dem. 19.188ff., which testifies to the custom of communal meals and rituals. For the rest, Johnstone is forced to assemble hints and hearsay, arguing that boards operated by the collaborative trading of gnomai, not adversarial debate; aimed at consensus; and, when necessary, relied on simple majorities through voting. Chapter 7 turns to the main negative incentive Greeks attached to boards: legal liability. Johnstone models the various modes of liability and how they likely affected relations among board members, suggesting that “the threat of collective sanctions encouraged group participation, solidarity, and trust” (127). Liability, however, encourages responsibility in those held liable and reliance in those holding them liable; the trust here is the latter party’s in the law. Johnstone’s discussion thus intersects orthogonally with his theme. Indeed, his chosen example of Arginusae (133-37) illuminates one board’s struggle to negotiate responsibility and delegation—and the demos’s insistence on personal reliance—but nothing about the generals’ trust (or distrust) of each other.

Johnstone ends with rhetoric (Ch. 8), seen here as “a system for simplifying matters by means of institutional arrangements and conventional language so that large groups could decide things” (148). He thus comes full circle, reconsidering a thesis central to his first book, Disputes and Democracy (Austin, TX: 1999): “the relationship between litigant and audience was extremely problematic for Athenians since it required a trust in an abstract system more than in a specific known individual” (1999: 90, cf. 1-4). The discussion builds on this previous work, but the perspective is now self-consciously institutional. Thus Johnstone sketches the system’s structural elements, rules, and nodal points, as well as its vulnerabilities and reflexive, “self-policing” controls, arguing that a systemic view of rhetoric as a decision-making process reveals the fundamental inadequacy of traditional persuasion theory, since it fails to recognize the triangular dynamic of opposing speakers and audience. Johnstone ends the chapter—and, abruptly, the book—by concluding that the speakers’ opposing claims to truth and the audience’s rhetorical expertise produced a “pervasive distrust of speakers and speeches,” which paradoxically “seems to have allowed the system to regulate itself, stabilizing it and producing a generalized trust. People lodged this trust not in the character of speakers or the truthfulness of speeches, but in each other, in their individual and collective krisis, and in the lateral relationships among citizens that were forged through the process of deciding” (169-70).

This is an ambitious book, and readers will find much food for thought and plenty to argue with. As a whole, however, one must level two fundamental criticisms.

First, a history of trust in classical Greece cannot, in the end, ignore the discourse of trust. Greeks spoke too infrequently here in their own words about whom or what they trusted and why, even as they occasionally hinted that they might in fact have had something to add (e.g., Isoc. 13.5-6 [p.18] and Antiph. 6.10 [p.165]). Philology leaves no doubt that pistis was originally a purely personal quality; so, did the Greeks ever speak of “trusting” impersonal systems, corroborating Johnstone’s claims? In fact, there is some evidence that they did (e.g., Dem. 56.2), yet the relationship between practice and discourse—and the evidence of discourse itself—remains unexplored. Second, one misses precisely a sense of history or historical change. Johnstone dismisses the need to “plot the background narrative” of his period because it is well known (174n19). Fair enough; but it is insufficient simply to assert that Greece “was not—or not essentially—a ‘face-to-face’ society but a society constructed of a range of relationships, from the intimate to the objective” (2). A history (as opposed to a sociology) of trust demands a historical approach to the question of why, how, and to what extent Greek society moved beyond being a “face-to- face” society to one with the complex relationship to trust he carefully describes. Johnstone limits his historical agenda to achieving a sense of contrast with subsequent periods, and in this he succeeds admirably, throwing the essentially unstandardized, subjective, contested classical world into vivid relief against the more impersonal, objective, standardized Hellenistic, Roman, and contemporary worlds. Absent, however, is any development from the archaic period or even from within the classical period itself, which witnessed tremendous political, commercial, and social changes. And the stresses produced by these changes left traces for the historian of trust. Take, for example, Aristotle’s analysis of commercial or contractual relationships as species of philia, in which he constructs the manifestly trustless, utterly unfriendly, oxymoronic chimera of “legal friendship” (philia kata nomon , NE VIII.13). Ultimately, it was pistis that acquired technical legal meanings, denoting forms of trust (e.g., “credit”) or guarantees (e.g., oaths, security or sureties, documents, etc.) between people who could not or would not deal with each other strictly as philoi but through the intermediation of the law.1

In sum, this is an important and thought-provoking book, but more of a prolegomenon to the history of trust in classical Greece than that history itself. But all histories must begin somewhere, and so we are indebted to Johnstone’s ingenuity and effort in blazing the difficult trail of this hitherto neglected history.


1.   Cf. J. Vélissaropoulos-Karakostas. “Merchants, Prostitutes and the ‘New Poor’: Forms of contract and social status.” In Cartledge, P., Cohen, E. E., and Foxhall, L. eds. Money, Labour and Land. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. 130-39.

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