BMCR 2007.09.21

Response: Herman on Christ on Gabriel Herman, Morality and Behaviour in Democratic Athens

Response to 2007.07.37

Response by

Christ regards my view of Athens as idealistic and misleading (“H. goes much too far in portraying Athens as a peaceful and harmonious place” (his italics), “H. paints a picture of extraordinary social harmony in Athens”, “having offered a rosy overview of life in Athens, H. …”). No doubt unintentionally but also unfortunately, the language chosen tends to suggest that my prose style is rather more nauseating than is in fact the case.1 Be that as it may, my conclusions are not in fact the result of wishful thinking, but, as I explain in my book, have been derived logically within the analytical framework used in my research. My method, in examining each individual social trait, has consistently been to examine where Athens should be placed on an imaginary spectrum running between whichever historical societies (note that ‘historical’!) represent extremes in this respect. Had the data fed into this analytical framework yielded different results, the book’s conclusions would have been different. For instance, had the majority of Athenian law-court speakers attempted to swing the dikasts in their favor by swaggering round demanding respect and breathing vengeance, I would have concluded that Athens should indeed be grouped together with feuding, ‘primitive’ or Mediterranean societies. Had the law courts and the state’s coercive apparatus (the importance of which C. wholly misses) stood revealed as largely useless in the face of escalating quarrels and blood-feuds, or had I discovered that most Athenians preferred to go out heavily armed in readiness for a street fight or drunken brawl, I would have concluded that their society was akin to Gregory of Tours’ Gaul.2 Had the people repeatedly (or even once) demanded land redistribution during the period under discussion, I would have concluded that Athens was pretty much like all those other unstable Greek states in which such demands were legion and invariably accompanied by staseis. Had mortal combat or gory public executions figured in the list of pastimes preferred by the Athenians, I might have concluded that their society was not unlike that of imperial Rome or those of early modern Europe. According to my evidence, however, none of these was the case. It is entirely open to any scholar to present me with contradictory evidence that I may have missed, whereupon I shall of course adjust my assessment of Athenian mores in accordance with this new evidence.

C. is also unhappy with my methodological premises, feeling that I have gratuitously rejected drama and Aristotle as sources and assigned too much importance to history and forensic oratory. In believing me to have adopted this approach for no good reason, he is mistaken. A quick glance at the index of my book (under “Aeschylus”, “Euripides”, “Sophocles”, “drama”, “Aristophanes” and “Aristotle”) will demonstrate that I have overlooked neither source. All I am suggesting is that when assessing Athenian mores we should assign less weight to drama than classical scholarship has customarily accorded it, since comparative evidence (for example, English Restoration comedies; 128) suggests that pieces written for the stage frequently incorporate distortions and exaggerations whose impact has systematically been underestimated. With regard to Aristotle, I believe that if we are to accept his testimony as evidence for a feuding spirit pervading Athenian society we must also take into account Plato, whose diametrically opposed views on the subject (particularly, though not solely, with respect to Socratic non-retaliation) have not generally been considered in this context, and must pursue an explanation for the discrepancy between the two (131-33).

C.’s misinterpretation of my approach is most significant when he describes my treatment 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 thought popular juries wanted to hear”. I do indeed agree with other scholars in seeing the forensic speeches as valuable sources of information concerning contemporary values, for the reason given. Other scholars, however, have chosen to take this material as evidence of ‘what really happened’ (who hit or killed whom and how and when he did so) and have concluded on its strength that Athens was some sort of feuding society. I, on the other hand, have argued that forensic oratory reveals not ‘what really happened’ but what the dikasts wanted to hear, thus offering us a rare unmediated image of Athenian society’s ideal norms concerning violence. The ideal that emerges from this evidence is a strategy of under-reacting to aggression and avoiding revenge whose affinity with the Socratic doctrine of non-retaliation is strong. That this ideal, rare if not unique in the ancient world, did have a significant restraining effect upon the people’s behavior is confirmed by examining certain concrete aspects of Athenian society such as homicide, street fights, petty conflicts and the amnesty of 403 BC (204-15).

C. is not impressed by my interpretation of this evidence and puts forward a specific challenge to it (although he makes no reference to the amnesty, which is central to my thesis). He asserts that in citing a passage in which Lysias speaks of keeping a chest of coins and valuables in his house (Lys. 12.10) as evidence that Athenians enjoyed a sense of security (208), I do “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”. But, as the book’s title shows, my discussion of the moral code in question is throughout explicitly associated with the democrats, not the oligarchs. It is, in fact, one of the book’s central theses that members of the oligarchic opposition entertained markedly different views concerning the strategy that people should adopt in circumstances involving conflict.3 This may best be illustrated by the events of 404-03 B.C., when, following the Athenian defeat, the oligarchs (backed by Sparta) seized power and executed hundreds of Athenians without trial, driving thousands into exile. When the democrats regained power, however, they did not pursue the statutory plan (depressingly routine throughout history) of instituting a retaliatory bloodbath but declared an amnesty whose essence was ‘to forgive and forget’, thus adopting a strategy of under-reaction to provocation on a national level. Lysias (who was, incidentally, a metic) could not have anticipated the seizure of power by the oligarchs that was to endanger his life and result in the plundering of his property. He could, and did, however, correctly anticipate that his life and rights of ownership would be respected and protected while the democracy endured.4

Let us now move on to what C. calls “some of [the book’s] more extreme claims”. Taking on the mantle of the skeptical realist, C. asserts that my “optimistic” picture of Athens goes “much too far” and “beyond most other scholars”, bearing “a striking resemblance to the image projected by the self-laudatory Attic funeral orations,” a source upon which, apparently, I draw too uncritically. (Perhaps the fact that I have drawn upon it at all is worthy of note, since this evidence, along with that mass of source material that praises Athens to the skies (107-18), has been totally ignored by those scholars who subscribe to the pessimistic view of Athenian society, C. included.) My question is, “too far” with respect to what? C.’s answer to this question appears to be “too far” with respect to what seems plausible from his own modern perspective. If this is so, I would suggest that this approach, like K. J. Dover’s use of his personal experience as a yardstick by which to evaluate Greek popular morality, is not appropriate. It is surely imperative that we should judge according to standards that transcend our personal experiences or perspectives. I believe that it is possible to do so by reference to what I have described in my book as codes of behavior. Examining Athenian society within a wider comparative framework should enable us to observe a “complex of explicitly defined or implicitly recognized rules” pertaining specifically to that society that identifies its proper place on the spectrum of possible human norms and types of behavior (cf. 22-3).

Proceeding in this manner, we find that the Athenians appear to have shared certain explicitly defined or implicitly recognized rules (such as collective decision making and respect for the rule of law) with many other populations. They also appear to have shared the idea of a democratic regime (as far as we know, theirs was the first) with some, though not many, other cultures. Their ideal of non-retaliation, however, was shared only with the adherents of a single religion, Christianity, within which that ideal was by no means implemented consistently.

At least three features of the Athenian code of behavior do rather more than differentiate it from the total range of possible human norms and types, rendering Athens unique amongst the many societies that have evolved, reached their climax and declined over the last three millennia of western history. Let us look at these now.

(1) In no other known complex society has it been a usual procedure for a large citizen body of predominantly lower class people (about 6,000 of them, in fact) jointly and directly to make every important decision about how their society should be run.

(2) In no other known complex society have the state’s central functions consistently been financed (despite some difficulties) by contributions from a rich minority rather than by taxes imposed on the poor and moderately wealthy people who constituted the majority.

(3) In no other known complex society have the community’s central judicial functions regularly been fulfilled by non-professional juries whose numbers (in Athens, anything from 201 to 2,501) increased or decreased in direct proportion to the seriousness of the case.

If anyone can show me evidence that I have somehow overlooked the coexistence of such features in even one other complex society,5 I shall of course have to conclude that my assessment of Athenian society and mores has been unduly positive. If, however, the skeptics have no such examples to offer, I think they should concede that their skepticism is not justified and that my assessment of Athenian society and mores may be regarded as realistic.


1. Some unctuous expressions that C. attributes to me concerning Athens and the Athenians, such as ‘gentle and altruistic people’, ‘a peaceful and harmonious place’, have in fact nothing whatsoever to do with me. C. in his review is also in the habit of taking phrases out of context and assigning to them unintended meanings. For instance, he quotes my sentence ‘It would seem that the political organization of democratic Athens reflected the people’s collective norms almost perfectly’ (62) as an example of an idealized generalization which ‘even the most ardent admirers of democratic Athens may find themselves uncomfortable with’. This sentence is in fact part of a wider argument, starting in the previous paragraph, dealing with autocratic states within which the very structure of the political system precludes the expression of collective norms in the making and implementation of decisions. At this point I was arguing that the popular participation, rotation of offices and frequent meetings of decision-making bodies that constituted the democratic Athenian system made it possible to translate collective norms into operative measures in a manner that appeared almost perfect by contrast with such systems.

2. It should be noted, incidentally, that I have never denied the existence of this sort of casual violence in Athens (210). Nor would I need or wish to deny it, since my model, unlike C.’s, does not require a perfect society as a basis for comparison. This is why I have no difficulty in accommodating within my model any of the ‘imperfections’ that C. feels I should have mentioned (such as liturgy dodging and draft evasion), or indeed various unsavory aspects of Athenian society (118) such as slavery (67-72, 308-9), attitudes to women (49-52), persecution of politicians (226) and crowd mentality amongst the dikasts (148).

3. The reader is referred to p. 75 of my book: “Had they [i.e. the Athenian oligarchs] succeeded in obtaining control of the state they. . .would have imposed upon the community a pattern of interpersonal relationships drastically different from that worked out by the democrats” (to be read with p. 242).

4. Modern history offers a striking parallel. The Nazis who came to power in 1933 had apparently not internalized the peaceful values of the Weimar Republic, good Germans though they were. Some of their victims incorrectly assumed that they had. They paid a heavy price.

5. With the exception, of course, of those contemporary Greek states in which Athenian intervention resulted in the institution of democratic regimes after the Athenian pattern.