BMCR 2007.01.28

Citizen and Self in Ancient Greece: Individuals Performing Justice and the Law

, Citizen and self in ancient Greece : individuals performing justice and the law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (ix, 592 pages). ISBN 9780511219115 $90.00.

Table of Contents

Vincent Farenga, Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at USC, has produced a hefty volume linking ancient Greek conceptions of citizenship to developments in the understanding of the self. Citing his indebtedness to performance studies,1 F. defines citizenship as the successful enactment of a number of “scripts”: “fixed, stereotypical representation[s] of knowledge incorporating a sequence of actions, speech acts, and situations” (8). Ranging from Homer to the Attic orators, he focuses in particular on “scripts” involving deliberation and the rendering of judgments. His analysis is based upon categories derived from a number of modern theorists. From Rawls2 F. develops the “voluntarist” self, “a radically autonomous entity whose “[‘right’] to choose is, above all, prior to any ‘good’ it or others might choose” (16). From Sandel and Taylor3 he borrows the “communitarian” or “cognitive” self that emerges not from self-fashioning but rather from deliberating on and accepting ends chosen by others. And from Habermas4 he distills the “deliberative” self “whose participation in communicative interactions with others promises degrees of change and even transformation” (31). F. traces the development and intermingling of these three “selves,” concluding that Greek citizenship ultimately consisted of: adequate freedom to pursue one’s (and one’s family’s) self-interest subject to the limitations of the common good; a modicum of social recognition from others; and the freedom, nay the obligation, to interact with and debate one’s peers in rational fashion. F.’s range is broad, and his analysis consistent and thorough. Moreover, his command of the relevant scholarship is up-to-date and impressive. But for this reviewer the book proves a bit too top-heavy with theory. It predicates Greek conceptions of citizenship upon the responses a series of literary and historical giants might have made to two questions if asked to decide an issue of justice: “In order to decide this question who must I become, and who do I wish to become?” (540). But Greek ideas of citizenship arguably had as much to do with how ordinary, less philosophical folk living in hundreds of distinct πόλεις responded to eminently practical (and arguably more pressing) questions: “Who gets to hold what offices, and for how long?” and “How should we distribute public obligations and benefits?” Moreover, even those fully supportive of F.’s more theoretical approach may find the work heavy going in places: on occasion jargon-induced pain outweighs scholarly gain. These limitations aside, F.’s work has a significant contribution to make.

A brief summary of the individual chapters follows. Ch. 1, “Justice to the Dead: Prototypes of the Citizen and Self in Early Greece,” argues for Achilles’ self-transformation in light of books 1, 9, and 24 of the Iliad. According to F., the hero “progressively splices lament for a fallen leader and the deliberation of leaders into a unique, hybrid discourse, a ‘self-lament'” (38) which establishes his own τιμή autonomously. Ch. 2, “Performing Justice in Early Greece: Dispute Settlement in the Iliad,” examines how βασιλεῖς went about rendering judicial δῖκαι, likening their actions to poetic performances. These rulers redistributed τιμαί among the those involved (and strengthened their own authority) by several means, including “illocutionary” appeals to θέμις, catalogues of past deeds and misdeeds, recollections of oath formulae, and representations of the events in question from a number of points of view. Together these techniques enabled rulers to mount virtuoso displays of “ontological frame switching” (172). Ch. 3, “Self-Transformation and the Therapy of Justice in the Odyssey,” uses books 5 and 11 of the epic to argue that Odysseus offers the audience a model of “therapeutic self-transformation” (178). In brief, the poem opened to listeners the possibility of becoming “frame-switchers” themselves, and thus of serving as magistrates and jurors. Ch. 4, “Performing the Law: The Lawgiver, Statute Law, and the Jury Trial,” examines the poetry of Hesiod, Theognis, and Solon with special attention to the conceit of the lawgiver as carpenter/joiner. F. argues that under popular sovereignty in the fifth century, Athenian jurors were encouraged to perform, i.e. join themselves with the minds of, their litigant peers. By contrast, under the sovereignty of law in the fourth century, they were led to join themselves with the minds of the great lawgivers. Ch. 5, “Citizenship by Degrees: Ephebes and Demagogues in Democratic Athens, 465-450,” reads Aeschylus’ Supplices in light of both the ἐφηβεία and the making of Athenian foreign policy. F. likens the Danaids to ephebes undergoing their δοκιμασία, and compares Pelasgus’ actions to the persuasive strategies used by Cimon and Ephialtes in the debate about whether to aid Sparta against the helots on Ithome. Ch. 6, “The Naturalization of Citizen and Self in Democratic Athens, 450-411,” attributes to Protagoras and Pericles “a citizenship paradigm … designed to inoculate each Athenian’s performance of citizenship from susceptibility to the voluntarist dimensions of the inner life” (425). It further argues that Antiphon subsequently offered a different paradigm, encouraging individuals to perform “an autonomous moral deliberation that switches frames from nomos to physis and back again in order to calculate the advantages and disadvantages of each” (455). The final chapter, “Democracy’s Narcissistic Citizens: Alcibiades and Socrates,” argues that the former sought to exercise a radical moral autonomy privileging the needs of his individual φύσις over the demands of his city’s νόμοι. By contrast, the latter submitted himself to the laws, even while redefining his own φύσις in such a way as to put it entirely out of reach of his peers. A brief conclusion, extensive bibliography, and substantial index round out the work, which is attractively produced. Although I noted a number of typos, none materially affects F.’s arguments.

F.’s theoretical focus sometimes entails a bit of practical slippage. For instance, Ch. 5 argues that the Danaids’ presentation of themselves before Pelasgus is akin to the performance of an important citizen “script”: ephebes undergoing a δοκιμασία. The idea is an interesting and potentially powerful one. Yet in historical Athens the δοκιμασία generally resulted in either citizenship or enslavement, whereas what the Danaids receive is clearly μετοικία. Moreover, F.’s description of this status as “a quasi-citizenship” (398) flies in the face of Whitehead’s conclusion that “a more apt soubriquet [for metics] than ‘quasi-citizen’ would be anti -citizen, the negative image.”5 Likewise, the historical ephebes who underwent scrutiny were exclusively male. And F.’s approving citation of Vidal-Naquet to the effect that the ephebe was “a temporary woman” (393) does not make the Danaids’ (rather permanent) gender disappear. While the chapter offers a provocative interpretive gambit, it might be said to founder because of insufficient support on the flanks.

Perhaps the best way to sum up the volume is by borrowing its figure of the virtuoso βασιλεύς speaking a δίκη. Like him, F. is adept at citing θέμιστες and θέσμια (understood here as past scholarly achievements and shortcomings). He too makes a number of illocutionary statements (e.g. abundant “We’ll later see” colloquialisms). And like the βασιλεύς F. attempts to place a dispute (here, the nature of Greek citizenship) in a variety of new and unfamiliar frames (and in the process enhance his standing as an authority). Now the judgment F. presents is certainly worth considering. But we might also recall the shield of Achilles, where the question as to who has spoken the straightest δίκη (18.508) is a matter for considered reflection.


1. As exemplified by Simon Goldhill and Robin Osborne, eds., Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy, Cambridge, 1999.

2. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, revised edition, Oxford, 1999.

3. Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, second edition, Cambridge, 1999; Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Cambridge (μἀ, 1989.

4. Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, tr. W. Rehg, Cambridge (μἀ, 1996.

5. David Whitehead, The Ideology of the Athenian Metic, Cambridge, 1977, p. 70.