Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.04.21 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.04.21

Sebastian Scharff, Eid und Außenpolitik: Studien zur religiösen Fundierung der Akzeptanz zwischenstaatlicher Vereinbarungen im vorrömischen Griechenland. Historia – Einzelschriften, 241.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016.  Pp. 389.  ISBN 9783515112031.  €68.00.  

Reviewed by Roy van Wijk, University of Fribourg (

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This book is based on the author’s PhD thesis, ‘Eid und Außenpolitik. Studien zur religiösen Fundierung der Akzeptanz zwischenstaatlicher Vereinbarungen im vorrömischen Griechenland’, which was defended at the University of Münster in 2012. As the title indicates, oaths in interstate relations form the core of this book. More specifically, it treats the ways in which oaths could be utilised as a religiously motivated argument or justification for declaring war, intervening in other people’s affairs, or other actions in the political arena. There has been an increased interest in oaths over the last years, a movement spearheaded by the Nottingham Oaths Project.1 With these recent developments in the study of oaths in Greek society and politics, one can wonder what novelties this book has to offer.

One noticeable difference is the book’s chronological scope. Moving beyond the confines of the Archaic and Classical periods, the delineation used by the Nottingham Oaths project, Scharff’s study not only incorporates examples from those periods, but also includes instances from the centuries afterwards, right until the Day of Eleusis in 168 B.C.E. The reason for this break-off is understandable, as the ascent of the Romans in the eastern Mediterranean had a cataclysmic effect on the interaction between poleis at the interstate level. The rise of this vastly superior military power limited any prior flexibility in determining policy vis-à-vis others and thus clearly marks a watershed in the Greek political sphere. Another advantage of the book is that it offers a distinctively non-Athenian flavour in comparison to previous studies. Undeniably, Athenian sources can never truly be avoided, but the prospect of a broadened perspective that incorporates sources from the wider Greek-speaking world carries with it the tantalising possibility of allowing a more generalised approach. Thus, rather than regarding Athens as the norm for broader rituals and engagements involving oaths and interstate relations, its position is analysed within a larger Greek system.

In the introduction, Scharff lucidly sets out the parameters of the study and engages with current debates in interstate relations in antiquity, providing the scope needed to properly place oaths and religious arguments in their context. Reviewing the different views on interstate relations, the author opts to balance the two extreme strands of the spectrum—realism2 and idealism3—and transmutes both into a more moderate approach, thus allowing space for a less deterministic view. In other words, the will of the strongest still weighed heavily, but was not entirely determinative when it came to interstate relations. Such an approach allows Scharff to balance the negatives and positives associated with oaths without losing sight of the potential advantages that oaths provided to the dominant parties in treaties.4

The following chapter (ΔΙOΣ OΡΚΙΑ. Vertragseide in der homerischen Welt—Ein chronologisches Vorspiel, pp. 27-45) deals with the question of oath usage in Homer and, accordingly, in early Greek society. The author cleverly avoids discussion of the Homeric Question and quickly moves through Homer’s epics to demonstrate the importance of oaths in this early context, as well as putting emphasis on the inherent ambivalence shown toward them by the Greeks. The most poignant example is the first sworn oath in Homer. It only lasts 24 hours before it is broken for politically expedient reasons! Other important aspects of this chapter are early attestations of ‘morally accepted grounds’ to break a treaty or start a war and the role played by Zeus as the guarantor of oaths and treaties.

That role is of importance for the third chapter (Das Konzept der göttlichen Vergeltung als religiöses Fundament griechischer Eide, pp. 46-64). In it, the development of the oath ritual in post-Homeric society is retraced. The author makes a compelling argument against the consensus that towards the start of the Classical Period there is a decreased importance of the cursing ritual and a diminution of Zeus’ role as a guarantor. The rise of other vengeful guardians of oaths and treaties and different sets of rituals therefore does not signify a decline of importance for either Zeus or the oath ritual itself. Rather, without a definitive canon to adhere to, these differences were the result of experimentation. 5 The threat of divine retaliation, in other words, continued to exert its influence with Zeus as its main enforcer.

What follows is a significant empirical chapter (Empirischer Teil: ‘Gleiche’ und ‘Ungleiche’ Eide: Vertragseide aus chronologischer, geographischer und typologischer Perspektive, pp. 65-213), meandering meticulously through a large selection of sources, both literary and epigraphical, and ranging chronologically from archaic to late Hellenistic times. It is in this extensive chapter that the arduous work of the author comes to the fore, as all the sources are briefly contextualised without losing track of the main argument. It is also in this chapter that the geographical and diachronic scope of the book reveals its benefits most clearly. As it ranges from treaties sworn in Archaic Crete to the early formation of the Delian League under Athenian auspices to the interactions between kings and poleis in the second century B.C.E., this large sample size allows the author to trace some notable developments in the oath-taking traditions over time. That analysis is also due to the impressive array of treaties that included and employed oaths, such as inter-polis treaties, sympoliteia agreements or arrangements specifying the relations between Hellenistic rulers and their soldiers. One striking feature that emerges from the author’s exegesis is the existence of specific clauses signifying a mutual distrust between the participating parties, who wished to see these suspicions crystallised in the treaties to ensure that they could not be cheated or misled. Such a clause is a revealing feature that indicates political guile and the malleability of oaths.

Another novelty that the author touches upon is the ‘sudden’ appearance of (Artemis) Tauropolos in treaties involving Hellenistic rulers. The role of Tauropolos appears limited prior to the fourth century, but her part gradually increased later on and she is repeatedly found in the solid company of more canonical gods to be sworn by. According to Scharff, this sudden importance can be traced to her close connection with the Macedonian royal house and subsequent attempts by successors of Alexander to create a connection to vindicate their rightful claims to kingship. This connection to the royal house has been identified before, but it has not been interpreted as a conscious attempt to forge these links and utilise it as a potential ‘weapon’ in interstate affairs. In addition, the increased canonisation of the gods invoked at the conclusion of treaties, coupled with the inclusion of Tauropolos, can be traced to one event: the foundation of the Corinthian League by Philip of Macedon in 338. Only a pivotal event, the author argues, could have forced such a decisive transition. It continued to serve as the blueprint for treaties undertaken by future rulers hoping to thereby evoke Philip. Over-emphasis on one singular event can prove problematic, but ascribing the homogenisation of treaties and forms of interstate relations to a shrewd diplomat like Philip accords well and should therefore not be rejected outright. Utilising one’s own gods and clauses in treaties to strengthen bonds or to enforce loyalty upon subjects was not unprecedented: one notorious precedent in this case is fifth-century Athens. Philip could therefore have emulated and perfected this strategy in dealing with oaths.

In chapter four (Der Eid als Argument in der zwischenstaatlichen Kommunikation, pp. 214-262) the author makes a compelling case for the strength of religious arguments in interstate relations. Again, the theme of ‘secularisation’ in the fifth century returns. This underlying current found throughout the book has its appeal, but one may wonder how current this attitude still is in scholarship. Most of Scharff’s references to it stem from (recent) German works (with a few exceptions: a French work from 1940, an English work from 1970 and a work by an English scholar written in German from 1979). 6 Nevertheless, this dated assumption does nothing to diminish the point the author wishes to hammer home: the strength of religious arguments in interstate affairs. Scharff uses the example of orators, who would employ these arguments—the broken oath and the divine wrath it would incur—at tactical places within their speech, for instance at the start or its end. These prominent and memorable positions would help them to influence their audience. More importantly, it shows that these arguments worked well, since they were repeatedly utilised in these situations. The role of oaths and the vengeful gods thus continued to function as a constant force in interstate relations and could help to justify actions undertaken by certain parties, or help boost confidence that the gods were on one’s side. The persistence of this role is one of the main propositions of this book, and it is a convincing one.

The final chapter (Vertragseide zwischen Griechen und Nichtgriechen, pp. 263-293) deals with the interactions between Greeks and non-Greeks with oaths functioning as a cross-cultural phenomenon to solidify treaties. It was possible for Greeks to agree with other non-Greek people on treaties or arrangements. The only problem with researching this particular aspect of oaths is that we are mostly dealing with Greek written sources, as there is a lack of epigraphical sources to corroborate any claims made to demonstrate the non-Greek perspective. The Greeks’ vision of others—notably the Persians—as oath-breakers is of the essence here. Of course this view is tainted by the well-known ‘othering’, the negative image of their eastern neighbour the Greeks harboured. In Lynette Mitchell’s Greeks Bearing Gifts (1997), Mitchell argues that the Persians did not regard the Greek poleis as equal partners and were therefore more willing to change sides easily and to pick the polis they wished to work with.7 Perhaps this also influenced their attitude towards the Greek insistence on oaths to verify agreements. Yet it is only a minor point. Oaths and sacrifices could still cross cultural boundaries and serve to strengthen agreements between parties.

Finally, the conclusion is brief and lucid, with a final note disclosing the tantalising possibilities of pushing the approach into the post 168 B.C.E. years and of future prospects for more research on this particular question. 8

This major study not only presents a rich variety of sources that will attract the interest of various scholars, it also anchors a new emphasis on the binding force of oaths and religious arguments in interstate relations and clearly displays the potential political benefits attached to their utilisation. Therefore, no discussion of political interaction in Greek archaic, classical and Hellenistic history should overlook this valuable contribution.


1.   Nottingham Oaths Project. For the publications: Alan H. Sommerstein, Judith Fletcher (ed.) Horkos. The Oath in Greek Society (Exeter 2007) BMCR 2008.08.55 and more importantly for this study, Alan H. Sommerstein, Isabelle C. Torrance (ed.) Oaths and Swearing in Ancient Greece. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, Bd. 307. (Berlin; Boston 2014) BMCR 2015.02.24.
2.   A strong proponent of this view is A.M. Eckstein, Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome (London 2006).
3.   P. Low, Interstate relations in Classical Greece (Cambridge 2007) amongst others.
4.   For instance the frequent violation of oaths (negative) but also its role as a deterrent for declaring war on each too easily (positive).
5.   Based on what Anthony Snodgrass has termed the Age of Experiment, cf. his Archaic Greece. The Age of Experiment (London 1980).
6.   V. Martin, La vie internationale dans la Grèce des cités (VIe-IVe s. av. J.C.) Paris ; J.G. Plescia, The Oath and Perjury in Ancient Greece Tallahassee ; D.J. Mosley, ‘Bericht über die Forschung zur Diplomatie im Klassischen Griechenland’ in: H. Biller, E. Olshausen, Antike Diplomatie Darmstadt, 204-235.
7.   L.G. Mitchell, L.G., Greeks bearing gifts. The public use of private relationships in the Greek world, 435-323 BC (Cambridge 1997) chapter 6.
8.   There are only some minor issues concerning the bibliography, but considering its size, these are unsubstantial. For one, there is a reference to Funke-Hallof 2013 on page 152, note 482, which is not found in the bibliography. Also, there is a reference to Syme 1962 on page 254, note 227, but in the bibliography it reads Syme 1963.

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