In this study that builds on an interesting series of articles published between 1993 and 2000, Gabriel Herman (H.) argues provocatively and polemically that Athenians — unlike other Greeks, or for that matter any other historic people — embraced a code of behavior that entailed underreacting to aggression and refraining from retaliation, and, thanks to this “revolution in the history of moral ideas” (267), they lived in harmony with one another in “a remarkably peaceful society” (206). According to H., moreover, Athenians were a gentle and altruistic people, who not only refrained to a high degree from doing harm to one another (they even “did their best not to hurt each other’s feelings” ), but actively assisted one another and generously supported the city through self-sacrifice as liturgists and hoplites — the “state ran like clockwork in times of both peace and war” (258). H. is aware that his thesis is a controversial one: “This interpretation of the evidence is contentious; it could (and probably will) be argued that it is entirely erroneous” (203). In my view, while H.’s interpretation is not entirely wrong (cooperative values were indeed important in Athens and Athenians enjoyed a high degree of solidarity), he goes much too far in portraying Athens as a peaceful and harmonious place, and Athenians as a gentle and altruistic people.
A word should be said from the outset about the polemical nature of this book. H. not only offers a picture of Athens that challenges much current scholarship, but insists quite vehemently that other scholars (the long list includes Kenneth Dover and, above all, David Cohen) have failed to see the truth about Athens due to their lack of objectivity in assessing the evidence; H. casts himself, by contrast, as “entirely detached” (98-9) and “objective” (100-1), invoking Thucydides as his model (107) (H.’s view of Thucydidean objectivity is not much in vogue these days.) This perspective makes H. too confident in the strength of his own arguments and too dismissive of competing views (see, e.g., 201 n. 55). H. goes so far as to berate scholars for coming up with such divergent assessments of Athens: “some of the historians … have transgressed the limits of legitimate disagreement and variation. Had they exercised their judgement more professionally, their accounts could not have been so wildly different” (101-2). This is all a bit hard to take, and an unhappy distraction from H.’s development of his thesis.
I will first survey and comment on the individual chapters of this book, and then offer a critique of some of its more extreme claims. The first four chapters lay the groundwork for the analysis of conflict and cooperation in Athenian society in the remaining six chapters. In Ch. 1, “Moral precepts and society,” H. argues that each society has a unique “code of behaviour,” by which he means, “a complex of explicitly defined or implicitly recognised rules that a community of people accepts and makes predominant, thus differentiating its moral profile from the total range of possible human norms and types of behaviour” (22-3). Fundamental to H.’s thesis is the proposition that “moral principles and actual behaviour constitute a single, inseparable whole, so much so that it is often more expedient to infer principles from behaviour than to do the opposite” (16). H. posits, moreover, that although a society’s complete code of behavior is multifaceted and complex, how its members behave “in situations involving co-operation or conflict contains … the clue to unravelling that community’s code of behaviour and indeed to evaluating its entire moral profile” (28). In advancing this view of the systematic nature of morality and the unity of morality and behavior, H. emphatically rejects Dover’s position “that popular morality is ‘essentially unsystematic'” (23)1 on the grounds that, while public opinions may diverge on various matters, moral norms are “profoundly internalised” and “consistent with widespread patterns of behaviour” (24). I will return below to these controversial claims.
In Ch. 2, “Athenian society and government,” H. surveys Athenian political and social life, highlighting the features that in his view make Athens an extraordinarily stable and happy place for its citizens. Even the most ardent admirers of democratic Athens may find themselves uncomfortable with some of H.’s generalizations. For example, in surveying Athenian political institutions, H. asserts, “It would seem that the political organisation of democratic Athens reflected the people’s collective norms almost perfectly” (62), and the democracy “could hardly have functioned so smoothly had certain rules not been scrupulously observed” (63). H.’s view of Athenian social relations shows a similar tendency toward idealization. Having postulated that “ties tend to be intimate, friendly and confidential” in societies where “many stranded relationships” prevail (57) and that Athens was such a society, H. paints a picture of extraordinary social harmony in Athens: “People from very different classes and backgrounds met freely and uninhibitedly, city people associating with country folk, aristocrats with commoners, sailors with farmers, metics and visitors with citizens and slaves, so that each individual’s particular characteristics were able to thrive and find expression” (58). H. does little to substantiate these generalizations, which many scholars will view as oversimplifications of the complexities of Athenian political and social life. Although H. acknowledges the existence of tensions and conflicts in Athens, he is quick to minimize these. For example, on the subject of tensions between rich and poor, he observes: “The economic gap between the Athenian rich and the Athenian poor looks considerable to us, but by the pan-Mediterranean standards of the time it was moderate” (73). While the distribution of wealth in Persia was no doubt more skewed than in Athens (73 n.113), this did not stop average Athenians, who lived in an egalitarian society, from being sensitive to the substantial gap between them and the liturgical class.2 Having offered this rosy overview of life in Athens, H. returns to the question of Athenian attitudes toward conflict, and posits that “Under such conditions conflicts do not normally turn violent, and when they do they do not escalate” (78).
In Ch. 3, “The moral image of the Athenian democracy,” H. critiques previous scholarship on Athenian morality and behavior, especially in connection with the question of cooperation and conflict in Athenian society. “Modern scholarship has come up with few answers that are either consistent or well argued … Athenian morality has been subjected to a disturbingly confusing series of judgements” (85). For example, H. characterizes Dover’s Greek Popular Morality (Oxford 1974) as “a work of outright subjectivity” and faults its “pessimistic picture of Greek sentiments and emotions” and its view of Greek morality as unsystematic (94). David Cohen, draws particularly strong fire for grouping Athens with other Mediterranean cultures in which honor is paramount, retaliation common, and feuding prevalent (97).3 In H.’s view, modern scholars have too often let their own modern preconceptions shape their interpretations of the ancient situation, reading Athenian values in terms of their own modern ones (he labels this process “the fusion of moral norms” ). H. is especially critical of “the lexical approach,” which focuses on studying ancient moral terms and, according to H., distorts them by translating them into modern terms that reflect the assumptions of the inquirer (102-3). What is called for instead, H. argues, is objectivity and “very firm precautionary measures” (101); a focus on actions rather than words since what people say about their values may be very different from how they behave (98-9); and a single, unified interpretation of Athenian values and behavior (100). In concluding this chapter, H. turns from modern assessments of Athens to contemporary ones, arguing that Athenians were admired by other Greeks. Although most of the source material praising Athens is Athenian, H. asserts too confidently of this: “It is inconceivable that so many Athenian speakers, prose-writers and playwrights could have conspired to force upon their audience of both Athenians and non-Athenians an image of Athens that was seriously at odds with the general view” (114).
In Ch. 4, “Representations and distortions,” H. turns to the critical methodological question of how to use ancient source material to study conflict and cooperation in Athens. H. rejects drama as a source on the grounds that a considerable gap separates drama from reality: ” Pace Adkins, people on the stage do not generally behave as people do in real life. Pace Dover, they do not even sometimes behave as people do in real life” (126, emphasis in original). The rejection of even Dover’s moderate position strikes me as extreme. H. is reluctant to draw on Plato and Aristotle as they disagree with one another on the question of vengeance; H.’s rejection of Aristotle, whom scholars have traditionally viewed as an insightful commentator on contemporary values, is especially surprising. This leaves H. with the testimony of historians (especially Thucydides) and, above all, of forensic oratory. H, like other scholars, sees forensic speeches as valuable sources concerning contemporary values since litigants adapted their normative statements to what they though popular juries wanted to hear. H. goes beyond most other scholars, however, in insisting that we focus almost exclusively on forensic oratory to reconstruct Athenian values, and in positing that forensic oratory provides not only good evidence for contemporary values but “the best evidence we have of how the Athenians characteristically behaved in situations of co-operation and/or conflict” (136). I will return to these claims below.
In Ch. 5, “The structure of conflicts,” H. rightly observes that Athenian litigants often cast themselves as moderate and restrained in the course of the conflicts that lie behind their current suits (e.g., Lys. 3, Dem. 21 and 54): “self-restraint and under-reaction are consistently praised and encouraged, while excessive reactions and extreme retaliations are consistently denounced as unsuitable” (159). Although it is reasonable to infer from this that litigants expected jurors to approve of restrained behavior and view it as admirable, H. takes this as evidence of an unambiguous, fixed social norm: “We can only conclude that in democratic Athens exercising self-restraint in the face of adversity must have been a deeply internalised ideal that had profound effects upon the courses of action pursued by the members of that society” (173). For H. these forensic invocations of restraint prove that Athenians in their daily lives had a high threshold for tolerating verbal and physical provocation and slights to honor, and this clearly distinguishes Athens from feuding societies: “In genuinely feuding societies the threshold of offence is very low and even lesser provocations such as a penetrating stare, an inadvertent gesture or some trifling incident tend to bring about extreme responses” (171). While H.’s examples of spontaneous violent response to slights in nineteenth-century Corsica and early twentieth-century Albania are quite striking, it seems odd to compare forensic claims of restraint by one party in Athens before a court of law with graphic accounts of feuding behavior in other societies that are not part of courtroom discourse. It is not beyond belief that Athenians sometimes (and perhaps often) retaliated violently against slight provocations from an enemy. The presence of courts in Athens may have helped contain extremes of feuding behavior, but they did not necessarily eliminate it.
In Ch. 6, “Revenge and punishment,” H. continues to make the case that Athens was not a feuding society. The view of modern researchers that vengeance was “a central driving force” in Athens “could hardly be more mistaken” (189-90). H. acknowledges that “litigants did indeed often speak of timoria,” which ” can be translated as retribution or vengeance” (190, emphasis in original), but he believes that this “has very little to do with ‘primitive’ vengeance and a great deal to do with what we would call punishment” (191) as this was carried out “officially via state agencies” in a way “completely unlike the ‘vengeance’ of feuding societies” (193-4). True to his methodological principle that the “lexical approach” to value terms is a bane, H. provides no lexical support for this interpretation of timoria. If, according to H., Athenian litigation is not about vengeance, it is also not about honor. Challenging David Cohen, H. argues that “Litigation in Athens may indeed be viewed as a competitive arena, but as one in which the competition consisted of demonstrating how little one’s own behaviour had to do with feuding; the more non-feuding characteristics a litigant managed to display, the better his chances of winning became” (200). To the possible objection that litigants only “paid lip-service” to the values of cooperation and restraint, “but nobody actually took a blind bit of notice of it” (203), H. replies that “Everything we know of Athenian society … militates against this interpretation of the evidence. Our sources reveal a multiplicity of signs that the code to which the speakers were appealing was real, influencing Athenian life more profoundly than any rival moral code” (203). As a first step toward supporting this claim, H. turns to assess how violent Athenian society was. H. makes much of the fact that Athenians went about unarmed, since there is “a close correlation between availability of weapons and incidence of violence in a society” (210). This is credible if we add the qualifier “deadly” to “violence” here. H. cites Lys. 12.10, in which Lysias speaks of keeping a chest of coins and valuables in his house, as evidence that Athenians did not worry much about being robbed (208), but does not mention the seizure of the chest by one of the Thirty, who apparently had not internalized the peaceful values that Athenians in general had according to H.’s thesis. Ch. 7, “The coercive power of the state,” which examines how “the Athenian demos’ absolute power of final decision was translated into action” (221), does not seem to me to be very integral to this book. H. argues that “Those who undertook coercive functions,” including the city’s modest police force, various magistrates, and individuals exercising self-help, “must have done so on the understanding that if they were unable to impose their will on some recalcitrant individual or group the hoplite force would come to their aid” (255). While it is true that the armed citizenry could be called on to oppose those thought to be seeking to overthrow democratic rule, as far as I am aware Athenians did not conceive of their hoplite force as the ultimate coercive power behind the enforcement of the city’s laws against citizens by its various agents. According to H., the city’s hoplite force was its “ultimate defence, a signal force to be invoked whenever the city’s system was under threat. By an easy extension, it also shows how both dedicated and occasional coercive agencies relied on the backing of the hoplites” (255). I am not convinced this would have been an easy extension for Athenians, who preferred to envision their hoplite forces as protection against external threats from foreigners rather than internal breaches of law by citizens. In Ch. 8, “Transformations of cruelty,” H. returns to his main thesis, arguing that the “refined, cultured and law-abiding citizens of Athens” (259) embraced a restrained civic morality that had evolved far beyond the more primitive morality of the pre-polis feuding society that is reflected in Homeric epic. With the transition to statehood in Athens and, in particular, under the classical democracy, gentle values emerged and predominated, including “an entirely new form of ‘honour’ that had nothing to do with violent retribution” (267), honesty (268), and rejection of the maxim “help friends and harm enemies” (278). H. characterizes this transformation as “a revolution in the history of moral ideas” (267) that entailed “restructuring sentiments and emotions” (265) and a “remodelling” of human personality (266). To illustrate “the remarkable psychological metamorphosis undergone by the human psyche during the transition from the Homeric society to the civic” (281), H. explores in the remainder of this chapter Athenian attitudes to cruelty. He argues, in speaking of agonistic pastimes in Athens, “Animal fights and some combat sports were popular, but any cruelty beyond this was not on offer” (281). Although H. presses this thesis too far (e.g., when he asserts in connection with cock-fights that “The Athenians were fond of animal fights, but they liked them because they enjoyed gambling on the results rather than because it was regarded as pleasurable to watch animals suffering” ), in general Athenians seem to have been less bloodthirsty than Romans when it came to the treatment of humans and animals in sporting contexts. It seems fair to argue too, as H. does, that Athenians were more humane than Romans and others in eschewing “gory public executions” (291); but H. is right to note that hemlock poisoning and apotympanismos were not particularly benign methods of execution. To say that “the Athenians had deliberately purged their punitive system of the spirit of vengeance” (294), however, strikes me as an exaggeration. The spirit of vengeance is strong in the courts (this often seems to be an apt contextual translation of timoria), and was not absent from the execution of judgments.
The first half of Ch. 9, “Interactions with the divine,” argues that Athenians, in the stories they wove about the city’s mythical past, ascribed their own gentle values and behavior to gods and heroes. In an “updating process,” the democracy moved away from the Homeric representation of gods and heroes as vindictive, savage, and cruel, and projected their own democratized, civilized values onto them instead (324-5). Thus, Athenians favored the moderate Athena as patroness, portrayed Theseus as a civilizer, and celebrated the patriotic self-sacrifice embraced by Codrus. H. acknowledges that this new way of representing gods and heroes does not entirely displace Homeric representations of them, as the old and new representations coexist in Athens; but he argues that, while the old representations might “titillate” Athenians (325) and evoke “repressed or dormant emotions” (326 ), the new images reflected their actual values. One could argue equally well, however, that these representations coexisted because they reflected genuine tensions concerning proper values and behavior in Athens. In the middle of this chapter, H. shifts his focus away from heroes and the divine to argue that Athenians selflessly and altruistically subordinated themselves to the needs of their community. H. takes liturgies as a prime example of this generous self-sacrifice, minimizing too much their compulsory dimension (only allowing that they were “sometimes compulsory rather than voluntary” ) and passing over the well documented problems with the trierarchy through the course of its history.4 H. likewise exaggerates the willingness of Athenians to die for the city as hoplites: the Athenian was “expected to fight, and perhaps even to die, in an other-regarding effort on behalf of his community”; this “selfless patriotic fervour is amply documented throughout the literary sources” (352). One may wonder, however, if Athenians were so keen to fight and die for the city, why conscription was necessary and why the topic of draft evasion crops up with some frequency in our sources.5 This chapter concludes with a section entitled “A very unusual empire,” which argues, as Athenians themselves no doubt did (cf. Thuc. 1.77.5), that their subjects were better off under Athenian rule than they would have been under the domination of others, including the Persians.
Ch. 10, “The growth of communal feeling,” opens with a discussion of economic exchange in Athens, arguing that “The Athenians’ unique code of behaviour was instrumental in establishing circumstances that boosted economic exchange and engendered popular perceptions of well-being that have rarely been surpassed in any ancient economy, or, indeed, in the annals of the entire pre-industrial west” (375). H. maintains that social trust, citizen solidarity, and communal devotion helped boost economic exchange and growth. While the Athenian economy was capitalistic, there were “handouts to the needy and a remarkable degree of mutual support between individuals and between households” (389); I am skeptical especially of the latter claim. In the remaining sections of this chapter, H. argues that Athenians achieved a high level of cooperation among self-interested individuals for collective objectives, with “freeloading being reduced to a bare minimum” (392). The key to this, H. maintains, is that there was “a moral climate that led individual Athenians to identify their own well-being with that of the city to an extent that would be inconceivable in a nation state built on a larger scale” (392-3). H. proceeds to invoke modern game theory in connection with the happy state of affairs in Athens, highlighting a gaming scenario in which individuals, by refraining from retaliation against competitors, maximize benefits to themselves. While H. acknowledges the possibility that all players in Athens may not play by the same strategy (a crucial point in my view), he is inclined to believe Athenians embraced the strategy of non-retaliation as the most desirable one.
Although H. allows that “Athens was no paradise on earth” (206), the picture of Athens he paints bears a striking resemblance to the image projected by the self-laudatory Attic funeral orations — a source he draws on too uncritically (e.g., “Had the influence of the maxim ‘help friends and harm enemies’ upon Athenian behaviour been anything more than negligible, it would not have made much sense for Pericles to describe the Athenians as characteristically free, open and tolerant” (Thucydides 2.37.2) ). This unrealistic assessment of Athens arises from H.’s questionable methodological assumptions and unfailingly optimistic reading of a fraction of the ancient source material.
One of H.’s major contentions is that Dover’s view of Athenian morality as unsystematic is wrong and that, in fact, a systematic and universal “code of behavior” can be identified. While Dover may be overly pessimistic about detecting patterns in Athenian values, H. goes too far in the opposite direction in advancing a monolithic Athenian view of proper values and behavior: “Just as no one Athenian can have taken more than one course of action at a time, the essential thrust of what the majority of Athenians said, thought and did seems likely to be susceptible of a single accurate interpretation” (100). There are numerous problems with this approach. First, this allows too little for the diversity of individuals and their personal values (cf. Arist. EN 1095a22). Second, this takes insufficient notice of possible tensions between values; for example, how should an Athenian citizen juggle the sometimes competing demands of protecting his oikos and serving the city? Third, this assumes too much about the fixity of values: While H. accepts that values can change over time (he thus offers an evolutionary paradigm to explain what he views as a shift in values from the time of Homer to that of democratic Athens), he seems to regard Athenian values in the classical period as fixed and determinate. As to H.’s repeated claim that morality and behavior constitute a unified whole, this posits too close a relationship between the two. Although it is reasonable to argue that morality and behavior are not divorced from one another within societies, the relationship between publicly proclaimed ideals of behavior in civic discourse and individual behavior in Athens need not be as close as H. believes.
A further problem with H.’s approach, as others have noted, is his privileging of forensic oratory over other sources. While forensic oratory is undoubtedly a good source for contemporary values, the exclusion of other sources, including drama and philosophy (especially Aristotle), is unwarranted. In the case of drama, H.’s claim that people on the stage “do not even sometimes behave as people do in real life” (126) asserts a gap between drama and contemporary experience that is hard to accept; a generation of scholars have productively explored this relationship. H. especially misses the value of Old Comedy, which is intimately connected with Athenian political and social life, for probing anti-social behaviors that litigants gleefully attribute to their opponents but often do not expand upon. A further question arises in connection with H.’s privileging of publicly proclaimed civic ideals over pragmatic moral wisdom: it is quite possible that a pithy and memorable maxim like “help friends and harm enemies” had as much impact on how Athenians behaved as the ideals of cooperation invoked by speakers in the courts and elsewhere.
In analyzing forensic oratory, H. legitimately notes that litigants frequently invoke peaceful values and seek credit for self-restraint in their conflicts with their opponents, but goes too far in inferring from this that turning the other cheek was a central tenet of Athenian morality. This common strategy of self-presentation suggests that litigants believed that jurors, as representatives of the Athenian community, valued restraint in civic life, and might regard aggressive behavior as a threat to social harmony. How a jury might vote in a particular situation involving aggressive and/or retaliatory behavior, however, depended on a host of factors, and we cannot be certain that they regularly and consistently punished aggressors and rewarded “wimps.” In his suit against Meidias, Demosthenes alludes to a very close vote in a verdict against Euaion, who had killed a drinking mate for striking him (Dem. 21.71-5), and Demosthenes does not take for granted that the jury hearing his suit will side with him against Meidias’ insolent aggression (see, e.g., Dem. 21.76).
The ultimate test of H.’s hypothesis about the dominance of non-retaliation as a code of behavior in Athens is not the courts, where litigants were free to represent their out-of-court motivations and behavior as they saw fit to gain an edge over their opponents, but rather the streets of Athens. Although Athenians do not appear to have engaged in the bloody feuding behavior found in some societies, there is plentiful evidence of street violence and drunken brawling. The same forensic orations in which litigants assert their own peace-loving ways regularly depict scenarios in which the litigants’ opponents allegedly acted aggressively and without restraint. One explanation of this might be that these were aberrant individuals who had failed to internalize the peaceful values that most Athenians had according to H.’s reconstruction. A more plausible explanation, however, is that Athenians varied widely in their aggressiveness and did not uniformly embrace the ideals of non-retaliation and peacefulness voiced by some litigants. H. asserts that the peaceful outlook (and verdicts consistent with this) of jurors “was second to none in moulding societal behaviour” (410). This may have been true for some of the individuals invoking these values in courts, but not for all Athenians. Those inclined to strike out in anger at their enemies or rivals in love and politics did not necessarily stop to think about how their behavior might be construed in court (many violent scenarios described in forensic oratory involve heavy drinking); and, if they did hesitate to consider the prospect of being brought to court for aggression, they might reasonably calculate that the likelihood of prosecution was not so great (in Athens, as in most societies, few disputes probably ultimately came before a jury) and that, if they were prosecuted before a court, they had a reasonable chance of avoiding conviction — for example, a “boys will be boys” defense to violence was not out of the question (cf. Dem. 54.14, 21). H. overestimates the certainty of prosecution and conviction in asserting that “immediate, heated reaction and passionate acts of revenge were dispensable as strategies of interpersonal behaviour simply because they had been rendered redundant by the community’s capacity to administer punishment” (411). H. seems too sure, moreover, that court verdicts brought conflicts between citizens to an end and prevented further violence.
H.’s overly optimistic reading of forensic oratory on the subject of cooperation and non-retaliation and of the impact of these ideals on Athenian behavior leads him to an unrealistic assessment not only of how Athenians behaved in conflicts but also of how they behaved as citizens in performing their basic civic duties. H.’s Athenians are devoted to the community to a remarkable extent: as hoplites, they embrace “other-regarding effort” for the community and manifest “selfless patriotic fervour” (352); as liturgists, they strive to serve the city, “preferring long-term communal benefit to short-term personal satisfaction” (351). My own view is very different — there is plentiful evidence that many Athenians were not so devoted to the community (see note 5). Indeed, H. goes so far as to characterize Athenians as altruistic, invoking a definition of altruism that focuses on benefits provided to others and that side-steps the issue of reciprocation: “an act may be called altruistic whether or not it is performed in the expectation of some form of reward” (348). It is not clear that the modern notion of altruism fits the Athenian context well, and H.’s side-stepping of the question of reciprocation takes us away from understanding what motivated Athenians and why they might choose to serve the city or not, as the case might be.
Although I disagree with much of H.’s analysis, scholars working on ancient Athens will want to read this book and evaluate its claims for themselves. Scholars may be frustrated, however, by the fact that there is no separate citation index, as this makes it difficult to track down H.’s discussion of specific passages — the Index includes references to the titles of the speeches cited, but not to the section numbers within the speeches. In addition, though this book was published in 2006, its coverage of the bibliography from 2000-2005 struck me as incomplete: H. makes no mention, for example, of R. K. Balot, Greed and Injustice in Classical Athens (Princeton 2001); Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity (Leiden 2003), edited by R. M. Rosen and I. Sluiter; and J. Roisman, The Rhetoric of Manhood: Masculinity in the Attic Orators (Berkeley 2005), though this last item may have appeared too late to be consulted.
[For a response to this review by Gabriel Herman, please see BMCR 2007.09.21.]
1. K. J. Dover, Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle (Oxford 1974) xii.
2. See, e.g., J. Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (Princeton 1989) 192-247.
3. See esp. D. Cohen, Law, Violence and Community in Classical Athens (Cambridge 1995).
4. See V. Gabrielsen, Financing the Athenian Fleet: Public Taxation and Social Relations (Baltimore 1994).
5. I discuss draft evasion, cowardice on the battlefield, and liturgy avoidance in M. R. Christ, The Bad Citizen in Classical Athens (Cambridge 2006).