BMCR 2007.09.44

The Bad Citizen in Classical Athens

, The Bad Citizen in Classical Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xi, 250. $80.00.

In this well-researched and fascinating study, Matthew R. Christ explores the ways that Athenians failed to live up to their civic ideals. Christ (henceforth C.) focuses on three manifestations of bad citizenship: draft evasion, cowardice on the battlefield and avoidance of the financial obligations placed on the wealthiest citizens. Contesting romantic views of Athenian solidarity and patriotism, C. argues convincingly that Athenians acted shrewdly in each of these areas to balance the ideal of self-sacrifice with their personal interests.

In Chapter One, “The Self-Interested Citizen,” C. argues that self-interest was central to Athenian understandings of human nature and that Athenian institutions and civic ideology were constructed in ways that channeled this basic human motivation towards collective ends. C. begins by observing that tragic, comic and oratorical sources articulate anxieties arising from the conflict between individual selfishness and collective needs. C. then suggests that Athenian democratic ideology pragmatically acknowledged the legitimacy of self-interest and tailored its ideals accordingly. For example, the democracy established both equality and individual freedom as important principles, and was careful to curtail the latter only when it threatened collective interests. Similarly, democratic ideology conceptualized the relationship of individuals to the city both as a hierarchical parent-child relationship, and as a more reciprocal relationship based on mutual self-interest. According to the latter paradigm, citizens voluntarily served the community in order to further their own interests. So Herodotus famously attributes Athens’ military strength to its democratic constitution where “each was zealous to succeed for his own sake” (5.78). Similarly, funeral orations extol the war dead as sacrificing themselves to protect Athenian principle of individual freedom (Dem.60). Although C. emphasizes the Athenians’ preference for voluntary civic service in contrast to the Spartans’ use of compulsion, he explores in subsequent chapters the institutional means used to force citizens to perform public services.

Chapter Two, “The Reluctant Conscript,” demonstrates that draft evasion was a real problem in classical Athens. C.’s argument is twofold. The frequency of the theme of draft-dodging in Athenian tragedy, comedy and oratory shows that the Athenians had pronounced anxieties about this topic. Second, the fact that the Athenian army was conscripted and that there were institutional mechanisms to ensure that citizens served shows that the Athenians could not rely on volunteers. As C. memorably puts it: “while some embraced [the risks of hoplite service,] others preferred a long life without glory to a short life with it” (p. 10). C. then reconstructs the reasons why an individual might avoid military service. Possible motivations include disagreement with the aims of the campaign or suspicion that public speakers or generals were pursuing their own interests in advocating a campaign. More typically, consideration of family obligations could deter an Athenian from serving.

In making this argument, C. places himself in strong opposition to scholars who see Athenian culture as remarkably altruistic.1 By contrast, C. cites Aristotle: “all men, or most men, wish what is noble but choose what is profitable” ( EN 1163a1). C. argues, moreover, that draft dodgers faced little risk of being brought to court since there were no public prosecutors and volunteer prosecutors risked a heavy fine if unsuccessful. Finally, C. outlines the various ways military service could be avoided. A powerful man could put pressure on the generals to have his name removed from the list, be granted an exemption, or be transferred from hoplite to less risky cavalry service. More typically, men might fail to show up for muster. C. draws on numerous anecdotes to argue that generals and soldiers alike might have deliberately overlooked these no-shows since their failure to demonstrate sufficient civic-mindedness would make them a liability on campaign.

In Chapter Three, “The Cowardly Hoplite,” C. examines various types of cowardly behavior on campaign including desertion, nervousness before battle, falling back in the ranks under the pretence of serious injury or being the first to flee during a rout. In this chapter as in others, C. is concerned with “garden variety” types of bad behavior rather then egregious examples such as dropping one’s shield mid-battle and fleeing on one’s own. C. notes the difficulties of determining cowardly behavior in the confusion of battle, but more significantly argues that the Athenians preferred not to hold individual hoplites accountable for cowardice. Indeed, although there were procedures for prosecution of desertion ( graphe lipotaxiou) and cowardice ( graphe deilias), no evidence has survived of any actions. C. concludes that “hoplites returning to Athens appear…to have faced little risk of prosecution” (p. 121). While C.’s overall point is well taken, he perhaps underestimates the importance of informal mechanisms for censuring deviant behavior in Athens such as social shaming or shunning.2

The most valuable aspect of C.’s discussion in this chapter is his detailed reconstruction of the “lived experience” of mustering for service, life on campaign, and the stages of battle. In reconstructing these standard aspects of Greek military activity, C. successfully demonstrates how these situations provided opportunities for performance of courage and cowardice before one’s peers. Drawing on recent studies that suggest that Athens was a performance culture of sorts, C. argues that good and bad citizenship was as much a product of public self-fashioning as inborn civic virtue.3 The final section of the chapter examines how public speakers exploited civic norms of courage and cowardice to blacken the reputation of their enemies and exalt themselves. Here C. provides a superb analysis of these themes in Demosthenes’ speeches, showing in particular how Demosthenes responded to Aeschines’ charges of cowardice and desertion by using martial imagery to describe his leadership in the assembly.

The final chapter, “The Artful Tax Dodger,” C. argues that the Athenians balanced their desire for honor with pragmatic concerns for the preservation of their personal wealth. In contrast to Davies and others who view the taxation system as “unusually effective,” C. argues that Athenian system of getting the wealthy to pay for major civic enterprises did not run as smoothly as these scholars assume.4 C. makes the excellent point that dry overviews of the administrative system and its development over time fail to capture the social tensions that prompted formalization and reform. C. remedies this deficit by contextualizing administrative developments historically and relating them to on-going tensions between wealthy citizens and the community.

C. persuasively shows that the financial obligations placed by the democracy on the wealthiest 5 percent of citizens caused tensions beginning in the post Persian war period when Athenian naval enterprises expanded, and more particularly during the long Peloponnesian War and in the fourth century when Athens experienced severe financial difficulties following the loss of her empire. C. argues that the continuous burden of liturgies could seriously diminish personal wealth unless rich Athenians devised careful strategies to hide their wealth and/or perform less expensive liturgies on some occasions when their names came up. For example, C. suggests that wealthy Athenians could volunteer to perform festival liturgies rather than undertake an expensive trierarchy. C. also suggests that they could discreetly save money by recycling costumes from a previous choregia. C. seems only to be slightly exaggerating when he concludes that for rich Athenians “tax evasion was a way of life” (p. 204).

In sum, this is an excellent book that goes a long way towards creating a realistic portrait of the ancient Athenians. Moreover, C’s study appears at the same moment as several other books that argue, by contrast, for a more “noble” Athenian character.5 It should be no surprise for readers of this review that we favor C’s point of view as a more balanced interpretation of the ancient evidence. C. could, however, have drawn more deeply on comparative historical material on bad citizenship. He also might have made use of important theoretical and anthropological work on face-to-face interaction.6 We suspect, nonetheless, that this comparative and theoretical material would have strengthened, not substantially changed, the results of C.’s extremely important study.


1. G. Herman, Morality and Behavior in Democratic Athens. A Social History. Cambridge: 2006; R. Hall Sternberg, Tragedy Offstage. Suffering and Sympathy in Ancient Athens. Austin, TX: 2006.

2. I (Sara Forsdyke) examine these modes of popular justice in my book in progress Politics and Popular Culture in Ancient Greece.

3. For example, S. Goldhill and R. Osborne (eds.), Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy. Cambridge: 1999.

4. J. K. Davies, Wealth and the Power of Wealth in Classical Athens. Salem, N.H.: 1981.

5. See above, note 1.

6. For example, the classic studies of E. Goffman (e.g., The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. Edinburgh: 1956; Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face to Face Behavior. Garden City, NY: 1967), or more recently, M. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: 1984.