BMCR 2008.03.31

Tragedy Offstage: Suffering and Sympathy in Ancient Athens

, Tragedy offstage : suffering and sympathy in ancient athens. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. 1 online resource (238 pages). ISBN 9780292794368 $45.00.

Table of Contents

What the ancient Greeks found worthy of pity and why has long been of interest to scholars, whether they study Homer, Sophocles, the Athenian law courts, or the Poetics of Aristotle. Recently, scholars have sought a more comprehensive or theoretical account of pity, starting from Aristotle in the Ars Rhetorica or Homer’s Iliad 24. The most prominent example is David Konstan’s Pity Transformed (2001). In Tragedy Offstage, Professor Sternberg turns the focus onto expressions of pity in everyday life primarily in late fifth and fourth century Athens, using as source material oratory and historiography instead of philosophy and tragedy. Sternberg is to be commended for shifting the focus of the study of pity from theoretical questions like, “what was the emotion of pity like?” to the practical questions like, “what did Athenians actually do when confronted with the suffering of others?” and “what did they feel morally compelled to do?” Accordingly, Sternberg seeks to gauge the typical Athenian’s response to the suffering of family, friends, neighbors, citizens, military comrades, and slaves in five areas of quotidian activity that make up her five chapters: Home Nursing, the Ransom of Captives, Bystander Intervention, the Transport of Sick and Wounded Soldiers, and the Judicial Torture of Slaves. Sternberg’s examples are compiled and helpfully arranged in tables at the beginning of each chapter, along with a brief description of each response to the suffering of others. The individual chapters are broken down into background material and previous scholarship followed by close readings of particular works: Isocrates 19 ( Aegineticus), Demosthenes 53 ( Against Nicostratus), Lysias 3 ( Against Simon), Demosthenes 54 ( Against Conon), Thucydides’ History (Book 7), Xenophon’s Anabasis, Demosthenes 37 ( Against Pantaenetus). Writing for critics of philosophy and literature as well as students of Roman society and the history of emotion, Sternberg’s discussions have a structure and dramatic flow similar to Debra Hamel’s Trying Neaira (2003), which retells a single court case with a lively and informative narration within the context of contemporary social life and law.

While Sternberg asks interesting questions and writes with extensive knowledge of many different areas of ancient daily life and social history (from domestic architecture to overseas piracy), it was difficult for me to discover anything that had not already been said about the rather limited source material, and I was left with the impression that Sternberg was thus forced either to state something obvious (or at least intuitively plausible) or to argue for something much more tenuous. Even though Sternberg aims her descriptive material at readers like myself (a critic of literature), I was not surprised by the work’s main conclusions: that an extraordinarily close male friend might endure disgust and exhaustion to nurse his dying friend; that friends and neighbors might lend one another money to pay a ransom; that bystanders who witnessed street crime were not likely to intervene physically, but were expected to provide testimony in court; that soldiers were expected to save the lives of the sick and dying if possible; that Athenians did not generally feel much pity for slaves who were tortured for their testimony (18-19, 176-178). The non-obvious or non-derivative conclusions that Sternberg draws I found to be far more tenuous. To illustrate this point, I will focus on Sternberg’s central claims in her first chapter (Home Nursing).

Sternberg begins the chapter with a survey of the evidence and previous scholarship on home nursing, especially of home nursing performed by men. Aspects of domestic architecture, city-planning, and Hippocratic medicine all contribute nicely to her discussion. Sternberg focuses her attention on Isocrates’ Aegineticus, which recounts the tale of a man who tends to his life-long friend, Thrasylochus, in the last stages of tuberculosis and then contests an inheritance with Thrasylochus’ half-sister. From this body of evidence Sternberg draws a conclusion that is either tenuous or not very surprising: that there was a “clear moral imperative” in ancient Athens or Siphnos (the speaker’s place of birth) for male friends to provide “constant” nursing to their ailing or dying friends (40). To support this claim, Sternberg contends that the speaker addresses the jury in such a way as to assume that they “knew very well” what it was like to care for sick and dying relatives (29-30), even though the speaker himself confesses the difficulty (nay, near-impossibility) of relating his own horrible experience (19.28.1-6). For this reason, it is possible that the speaker was unable to win sympathy from the jury. In most instances we cannot know whether a speaker’s appeal to sympathy actually worked (in this regard appeals to sympathy have a similar epistemic status as a tragic play); in Lysias 1, for example, how many Athenian jury members accepted Euphiletus’ outrage as justification for his murder of the adulterer Eratosthenes? Not even a majority of Athenians sympathized with Socrates’ unconventional pursuit of truth. In the case of the speaker of the Aegineticus, it is possible that the jury suspected him of nursing Thrasylochus with exceptional devotion to win his inheritance, as stipulated in a will that seems to have been made only when Thrasylochus was near death (19.12). They may have imagined that there was no other reason why a friend would attend another in such a way.

Even if it is granted that the speaker’s appeal did win the sympathy of the jury, one example of a friend caring for a friend in such a way does not lend itself to generalization because the friendship between Thrasylochus and the speaker was so extraordinary: they were life-long friends with inherited friendship ties from their fathers (Thrasylochus’ father had in fact been previously married to two of the speaker’s relatives). The speaker had also been a close friend of Thrasylochus’ brother, Sopolis; he was the adopted son of Thrasylochus and husband of his sister; Thrasylochus was bereft of all other caregivers, including family. Finally, the speaker’s nursing care for Thrasylochus comprises only a part of his appeal to the jury’s sympathy, and arguably not even the central part. Legal claims, the wishes and interests of Thrasylochus’ surviving family members, the good deeds done for Thrasylochus and his family before the home nursing may all have been enough to win the verdict. Thus, we still cannot say how much of an impact the speaker’s nursing care may have had on the jury. If I have misconstrued Sternberg’s assertion and she means rather that there was a moral imperative for extensive nursing in the case of an extraordinary friendship (like the one between the speaker and Thrasylochus) in extraordinary circumstances (with no help from anywhere else), then her claim is much more plausible, but not a great surprise: in Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Neoptolemus who is initially not even a friend comes to pity and care for Philoctetes in much the same way that the speaker cares for Thrasylochus. All in all, I see no compelling reason to assume that men in Athens who thought of themselves as philoi would be expected to provide “constant” nursing to each other in any other case than extraordinary friendships and extraordinary circumstances.

In sum, the strength of Tragedy Offstage does not lie in Sternberg’s conclusions or argumentation but in the breadth of material surveyed and presented. Sternberg’s approach might perhaps have produced fresher insights if she had compared the literary presentation of similar cases in greater depth with the evidence from every day life. How different, for example, is Theseus’ pitying treatment of the “disgusting” Oedipus (Soph. OC), or Neoptolemus’ of Philoctetes, or Patroclus’ of Eurypylus ( Il. 11.837-848) from the treatment that the speaker in the Aegineticus shows to Thrasylochus? Is there a different morality or rationale at work? Such an approach might have brought us closer to understanding what kinds of physical contact and nursing the feelings of pity elicited among men in ancient Greece. Nevertheless, I believe two groups of people can profit by reading Tragedy Offstage : (1) those seeking an introduction to the several kinds of suffering that ancient Athenians were faced with, if not on a daily basis then probably at least at some times in the course of their lives, and (2) those seeking a good survey of previous scholarship and a wide range of approaches to these areas.