BMCR 2004.12.12

Salt and Olives. Morality and Custom in Ancient Greece

, Salt and olives : morality and custom in ancient Greece. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004. xviii, 217 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm. ISBN 0748616195. £19.95.

John Dillon’s Salt and Olives evolved from a fourth year seminar on Greek Popular Morality that Prof. Dillon has taught for many years at Trinity College, Dublin. The course title is an obvious reference to Dover’s famous Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle. Unlike Dover, Dillon brings a lot of extended quotations from primary sources into his book, the bulk of which are forensic but which also include works of philosophy and comedy.

Dillon seamlessly weaves the primary texts into an exposition of case studies in a way that allows him to delight and entertain with topics ranging from family issues to slavery and religion. The treatment of the primary texts and the stories surrounding them display not only an impressive erudition, as one would expect, but a penetrating method, as Dillon distills and reasons through the evidence methodologically. The forensics incline to detective work, half of which is in the finding, the other half in the interpreting of clues. The latter is a skill that in this case has been highly refined and is highly instructive for scholars and students alike.

Dillon points out that he moves outward from the oikos to the polis, and then dwells on features of Athenian life that can be unsettling, i.e., pederasty, slavery and religious practice, while finally dwelling on the role of the anecdote in Athenian self-image. The book comprises eight chapters focusing on the following topics: 1. the family, 2. problems of non-citizen women, 3. inheritance, 4. friendship and enmity, 5. homosexuality, 6. slavery, 7. piety and impiety, 8. the anecdote. In what follows I will try and offer a brief glimpse into each, and then offer some concluding remarks.

Chapter 1 first looks at a case of adultery in fourth century Athens, that of the cuckold Euphiletos, through Lysias’ court speech, followed by Isomachus’ representation of marriage in Xenophon’s Oeconomicus. Then Dillon turns to Menander’s Dyskolos, followed by the story of Philoneos, derived from the court speeches of Antiphon. Dillon successfully extracts important attitudes and family structures from the forensic, philosophical and dramatic contexts. He is careful to remind us that although New Comedy contains a great deal of the soap-opera, we can nonetheless, with caution, derive and distill assumptions regarding the status of men and women in the household.

Chapter 2 moves to the status of non-citizen women, taking up in large part the saga of Neaira, with generous helpings of Apollodorus, interspersed with astute interpretive remarks. The text moves seamlessly between the agents speaking for themselves to Dillon’s observations, providing a kind of double narrative that yields interesting and informative insights into the case at hand. From Neaira we turn to another comedy of Menander, the Dis Exapaton, the fragmentary nature of which is supplemented by Plautus’ Roman adaptation. Brief reflections on the figures of Chrysis in The Girl from Samos, and Gnathania in Machon’s Chreiai serve to round out this tour of the treatment of courtesans and mistresses and their sometimes ambiguous but always precarious status.

Chapter 3 takes up the issue of inheritance, moving subtly from the interior foibles of household management to the preservation of the oikos across generations. What is strikingly informative about this chapter is the reflection on the inadequacy of record keeping as a means of dispute resolution and the trouble that it seems to have engendered, as well as the willingness of people to abuse their role of guardian in the case of premature death of a relative. We start with the story of Kiron, told through the speech of Isaios, and move to a case of Lysias’ (preserved by Dionysius of Halicarnassus) regarding the skullduggery of Diogeiton in misrepresenting the extent of the estate bequeathed to his nephews by his brother Diodotus. Then we turn to the personal woes of Isaios’ famous student Demosthenes, who became a student precisely in order to deal with his own problems of inheritance. Two other cases follow, that of the marriage alliance of Konon and Nikophemos and the bizarre tale of Boiotos’ claim to the name of his half-brother Mantitheos, along with the identity and rights that accompanied it. Dillon’s ability to present and analyze the cases shows an admirable attention to detail without being pedantic, as well as an enviable ability to assess the motivations and legal posturing of the agents.

Chapter 4, a discussion of friendship and enmity, opens with reflections on philosophical approaches towards friendship in Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle before examining two case histories, one deriving from Demosthenes’ battles with his guardians, the other involving Apollodorus, the prosecutor of Neaira. The selection of these two cases is fortuitous in that it provides a continuity of characters that allows us to see the interrelatedness of themes, if not the insidious nature of the enmities that arise from and are perpetuated by Athenian litigiousness.

Chapter 5 deals with homosexuality, with a focus on the moral attitudes towards the practice of pederasty in classical Athens. We start with the speeches of Phaedrus and Pausanius in Plato’s Symposium, accompanied by a section from Plato’s Phaedrus and rounded out by an examination of parts of Xenophon’s Symposium. We move from philosophy to practice with an examination of two case studies involving Theodotus (from Lysias’ Against Simon) and Aeschines’ protracted dispute with Timarchus. Dillon’s remark at the end of this chapter is interesting:

Either, I think, we must conclude that Athenian adult males were quite oblivious to the harm that they were doing to the psyches of the young…, or that in fact, in a society where such practices were accepted, no significant harm was done (126).

I suspect that this remark may be unpopular with some readers, but I also suspect that it is true.

Chapter 6 delves into the theory and practice of slavery, moving from Homer’s representations of the swineherd Eumaios and Odysseus’ nurse Eurykleia through Plato’s Laws and on into Aristotle’s Politics, before reflecting on the issues of slaves that occur tangentially in the preceding chapters. The result is again one of successfully showing the interconnectedness of the cases and personae, yielding in the end a sense of tapestry from the most scant of sources. Bringing together the theoretical and the practical in such a way enriches our understanding of the culture, as does the contrasting nature of what follows in the chapter, namely the representation of slaves as deceitful and disrespectful in Old and New Comedy with a real life case study preserved in Demosthenes’ speeches of a faithful slave. The contrasting effect is one of showing (indirectly) the difficulty of generalization; recognition of such a difficulty is perhaps a true mark of cultural understanding.

Chapter 7 starts with a reflection on the non-systematic approach of Athenians to religious doctrine, a point punctuated by reflection on Plato’s Euthyphro. I can say that I had the opportunity to recommend this section of the book to a student preparing a paper on the Euthyphro with most felicitous results. We are further treated in this engaging chapter to a case of Lysias’ regarding the destruction of a sacred olive before we move on to a very nice treatment of the infamous mutilation of the Hermae and parodying of the mysteries in 415. The examination of the aftermath of this whole debacle through the fate of Andokides is remarkable for its astute assessment of motivation and action.

Chapter 8 is quite an original chapter and almost an invitation to further study. It deals with the nature of the anecdote in the formation of the Athenian self image and, in addition to being quite entertaining, raises interesting questions regarding the use of anecdote. Dillon is surely right in connecting the anecdote to the notion of self-image, and I am grateful for the implications of this investigation, namely that the literal truth of the anecdote does not take away from the insights into attitude that it affords. Diogenes Laertius would be grateful. Salt and Olives is a text that should delight and engage students in the kind of course from which it evolved, is an entertaining read for scholars and is accessible to general readers. I would make some concluding reflections regarding the project of this wonderfully researched and presented book, for what they are worth.

Dillon says that the course that gave rise to the book became confined, due to the want of evidence, to Athens of the later 5th and the 4th centuries. One wonders then, whether the subtitle “Popular Morality in Classical Athens” might be more appropriate. To be sure the text features figures from across the Greek world, but is heavily focused in perspective and personage by Athenians. Again, this is of necessity, for, as Dillon correctly points out we have far too little direct evidence of say the Spartans or Argives for this kind of study.

The main title, Salt and Olives, is explained by Dillon in the preface is the following way:

My approach could be summed up in the words ‘salt’ and ‘olives’ as these two items constitute the basic opson, or seasoning, with which the Athenians attempted to liven up their rather dreary staple diet of bread; it is my hope that, similarly, these case histories may help to bring to life what can otherwise become a rather tedious catalogue of customs and regulations, backed up by copious but near inaccessible references (xiv).

Dillon has admirably achieved this goal. This is indeed a lively and informative book that I found hard to put down. At the same time there seems to linger some irony in Dillon’s concluding reflections on anecdotes:

As to the question of the social context of the anecdote — where and when anecdotes tended to be told — I would suggest as a primary context the symposium, as the Athenians sat around their table with their wine and nuts, and secondly the assembly and the law courts, where such stories would fill the role of exempla, edifying or otherwise (209, my emphasis).

The passage serves to remind us of the other evidence lacking — that of the man in the street whom Dillon seeks to portray. The story is preserved for us, by the literate in the service of those wealthy enough to engage their services, or indeed require them in the case of forensics, or by symposiasts or propertied men willing to profane the mysteries and cavort with courtesans. To what degree is the morality of a class devoted to symposia, property, politics and law courts representative of a culture? We have little of the man in the street except through the eyes of their privileged masters. This remark is not a criticism of Dillon, nor a suggestion that he is not sensitive to the issue (indeed a brief reflection on his approach to slavery is enough of a response), but rather a lamentation.

Some remarks on layout follow. The main text is preceded by a brief exposition of Athenian monetary units and a glossary of terms that are employed throughout the text. Both are indeed helpful, but I can’t help thinking that for a beginner, the glossary entries which are presented out of context initially and explained in any case in the main text might better be collected at the back. I noticed only one typo in this carefully prepared volume. I believe that p. 188, n. 12 “soldanto” should be “sold into”.