BMCR 2008.03.44

Civic Obligation and Individual Liberty in Ancient Athens. Oxford Classical Monographs

, Civic obligation and individual liberty in ancient Athens. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. x, 443 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 019922658X. $150.00.

Table of Contents

Peter Liddel’s revision of his Oxford doctoral dissertation, which was written under the supervision of Oswyn Murray, seeks “to elucidate how the considerable obligations of the citizen to the city and to the society that surrounded him (known here as civic obligations) were reconciled with ideas about individual liberty, and the ways in which this reconciliation was negotiated, performed, and presented in the Athenian law courts and assembly, and through the inscriptional mode of publication” (v). This is an interesting and ambitious project — perhaps a bit too ambitious given the scope of the topic and the complexity of the issues involved. There is much to be admired here: clear writing, careful organization, abundant citation of scholarship and of primary sources (though primarily from the orators and inscriptions). In my view, however, while Liddel provides a good survey of the wide range of obligations associated with citizenship and productively explores some of the ways in which they were “negotiated” and “performed,” he is not entirely successful in illuminating the relationship between civic obligation and individual liberty in Athens. After a synopsis of Liddel’s book and some comments on particular features of it, I will turn to some general problems that I have with his approach and analysis.

In his introductory chapter, Liddel states: “This book highlights an important congruity in ancient and modern liberal ideas of liberty: the coexistence and interdependence of the notions of liberty and obligation … The ancient Athenian ideas of liberty and obligation paired here have rarely been investigated in tandem, and the consequence of this is that interpretations of Athenian liberty have been taken out of their historical context. This work assesses the extent to which the Rawlsian model of liberty might be used to elucidate the kind of liberty that existed in the ancient Greek city” (2). The second chapter lays out in detail the Rawlsian model of liberty upon which Liddel draws heavily in his study, emphasizing Rawls’ allowance “for the compatibility of duties and liberty” within his theory of justice for a well-ordered society (41). In such a society, according to Rawls, it is mutually beneficial for individuals to accept voluntarily certain constraints on their freedom: “if one sacrifices one’s natural liberty for the duties demanded by life in a well-ordered society, one has a right to expect liberties and other goods which are consequent on others’ having made the same sacrifices” (55). The third chapter sets forth, and seeks to justify, the parameters of Liddel’s study, which investigates the period 410-317 B.C. (but focuses on the years from the Social War [357-355] on), and draws primarily on oratory (especially Lycurgus, Against Leocrates) and inscriptions (especially honorary decrees and lists, and dedications).

The heart of Liddel’s study lies in the next two chapters, which treat “the negotiation of obligations” and “the performance and presentation of obligations” respectively, with each chapter running about one hundred pages and containing nearly forty sections and subsections. The many topics surveyed in these chapters and their treatment in discrete units sometimes gives the impression of a catalogue, and description of values and institutions often takes precedent over in-depth analysis of them.

In his fourth chapter, Liddel aims “to emphasize the range and variety of ideas held up as justifications of civic obligations, the significance of the Athenian honorific system, and the popular response to this system expressed primarily by the dedicatory habit” (109). Under these broad rubrics, this chapter addresses many subjects: how laws and decrees established civic obligations and how their “physical and oral dissemination” promulgated these obligations; the wide range of values used in the grounding of obligations in oratory including piety, values of “sharing, reciprocity, and consensual contribution;” the arguments, images, and paradigms employed by orators in speaking of civic obligations; the city’s encouragement of competition among Athenians to fulfill their obligations through honorary decrees and lists; and how Athenian dedications can be viewed “as a popular response to the city’s encouragement of obligations” (109). In general, although I found this to be a solid survey of the topics in question, I did not see much new ground broken except in the welcome juxtaposition of material from the orators with inscriptional evidence — the two are too often treated in isolation by scholars. I found intriguing Liddel’s assertion, in connection with his survey of dedications that speak of service to the city, that “the practice of dedication illustrates the inseparability of the performance of obligations and polis religion” (198), but wonder how much such dedications attest to religiosity as opposed to self-celebration. I will return below to Liddel’s conclusion to this chapter that “The Athenians seem to have been unconcerned with the idea that obligations got in the way of their liberty” (209), which I do not find persuasive.

Liddel’s fifth chapter, which examines “the statutory demands, performance, and oratorical and epigraphical accounts” of obligations in Athens (210), seeks to demonstrate that “the Athenians attempted to present their performance of civic obligations not just as obedience to the law but as supererogatory donations to the polis, and not as encroachments on their own liberty but indeed as vital to the preservation of the liberty of the polis” (209). Liddel casts his net widely, surveying “civic obligations of domestic life”; political, judicial, financial and military obligations; the provision of grain for the city; the obligation of not leaving the city in a time of crisis; and religious obligations (211). Liddel reasonably observes that public speakers and honorary decrees often downplay compulsion in speaking about citizen performance of obligations, preferring to cast these as voluntary even where they were legally mandated, as in the case of the trierarchy, payment of the eisphora, and military service. Liddel is, however, too ready to assume that these idealizing claims about performance of civic duties correlate with actual citizen behavior and that social pressures on Athenians to perform civic duties ensured compliance (cf. 265; and 311-12, quoted below).

In my view, one problem with this study is the extent to which Rawls’ theory of a just society and the compatibility of obligation and liberty within it permeate Liddel’s analysis of the Athenian situation. While aspects of Rawls’ analysis are appealing and his observation that obligation and liberty should not be assumed to be at odds with one another is intriguing, Liddel not only frames his study (37-71, 309-31) with extensive discussion of Rawls’ theory of justice and the question of its applicability to Athens, but refers constantly to Rawls in the intervening chapters. While political theorists may appreciate this orientation of the work, I thought it would have been more productive to present briefly Rawls’ arguments in favor of the compatibility of obligation and liberty, which are directly relevant to Liddel’s central thesis, and then to focus on probing the subtleties of the Athenian evidence at greater length. Too often, Liddel’s Rawlsian framework leads him to digress from his main thesis, for example, to comment on how far Athenian society seems to diverge from Rawls’ utopian society (e.g., in the Athenian treatment of women and slaves).

A second problem is the parameters Liddel sets for his investigation. Liddel’s arguments for limiting his study primarily to the period from the Social War to 317 are not very persuasive. While it is true that this period is relatively well documented (due to the high survival rate of orations and honorary inscriptions from this period) and this period may, as Liddel argues, have witnessed interesting developments in notions of obligation, one is left wondering to what extent earlier evidence supports Liddel’s thesis concerning liberty and obligation. More importantly, however, it seems to me that by limiting his inquiry primarily to oratory and honorary inscriptions and lists, Liddel has largely ruled out in advance discovering tensions between civic obligations and personal freedom in Athens. One would not expect honorary inscriptions to reveal citizen concerns over civic obligations, and public oratory in Athens is not a very likely place to find a libertarian critique of state intrusion on personal freedoms; public speakers, who were attempting to win over popular audiences in the law courts and Assembly, had little to gain from attacking the city’s imposition of obligations on individuals. Even so, Liddel goes too far in concluding, “No orator ever addressed the possibility that the performance, fulfilment, or even enforcement of civic obligations might stand in the way of freedom: this was outside the discourse of Athenian democracy” (317). There are numerous hints in the orators of tensions concerning the state’s demands on individuals, for example, in a liturgist’s not entirely innocent equation of the wealthy with slaves in their service to the city (Dem. 42.32). If we seek evidence of Athenian sensitivity to tensions between civic obligations and personal freedom, we can certainly find this in the writings of elite Athenians, like Xenophon, for whom state demands on the wealthy were tantamount to slavery ( Smp. 4.32, 45). If wealthy Athenians did not find it expedient to air such views before popular audiences, one did not have to be an anti-democrat like Xenophon to find civic obligations burdensome and an interference with “living as one wishes.” The numerous references in oratory (and elsewhere) to concealment of property by the wealthy to evade liturgies and the eisphora suggests that many rich Athenians did not view their civic obligations as compatible with their personal freedom and self-interest.

A third problem with Liddel’s analysis is that he too readily assumes continuity between the idealized standards of citizenship invoked in oratory and honorary decress and actual Athenian behavior, concluding “even the ‘quiet Athenian’, in order to avoid the risk of being prosecuted for avoidance of obligations, would have been obliged to obey the ordinances of Athens, present himself for military and ephebic service if and when called upon to do so, pay the eisphora and carry out the trierarchia as relevant to his wealth band” (311). I have argued recently that draft evasion and liturgy avoidance, which crop up frequently as subjects of concern in oratory, comedy and elsewhere in our sources, were common in Athens and that this reflected the willingness of many Athenians to pursue narrow self-interests over public goods, notwithstanding ideals of good citizenship.1 While Athenians may not often have philosophized about their evasion of civic duties and envisioned this as a triumph for individual freedom, in doing as they wished they acted contrary to, and outside of, the model Liddel presents in which civic obligations are fully compatible with personal freedom and compliance with civic mandates therefore almost inevitable. At one point, Liddel notes how Rawls describes “hypothetical members of society who refuse to participate in accordance with the arrangements of justice as fairness” including “the free-rider, who seeks the advantages of just institutions but fails to do the adequate share to uphold them” (60); Liddel would do well to take into account this possibility in Athens (see esp. Ar. Eccl. 730-876).2

In my view, Athenians were individuals, with diverse desires and interests, first and citizens second, notwithstanding the common modern notion that individual Athenian (and Greek) identity was inherently and inevitably polis -oriented and polis -derived (thus, e.g., Liddel asserts, “The conflation of public with domestic and personal obligations meant that public and personal morality were blurred, and any conception of individual liberty outside that closely connected with citizenship was displaced or rendered insignificant” [311]). Perhaps our most realistic view of Athenians in their complexity as independent individuals and interdependent citizens comes in Aristophanes’ comedies, where dynamic, self-interested individuals grapple with the challenges of life within the city. Liddel passes over comedy for the most part and tragedy as well so as to avoid “the dangers of decontextualization which make studies of concepts in ancient societies so problematic” (74), but in so doing misses a potentially valuable source of evidence for the Athenian experience and tensions within it.

Gabriel Herman has recently advanced a utopian image of Athens as a place of great harmony, where cooperation and non-violence were the norm.3 Liddel now offers us another positive (though less idealized) image of Athens where individual freedom and public obligations do not come into conflict in any substantial way. The real Athens, in my view, was very different from both of these scholars’ visions of it.


1. M. R. Christ, The Bad Citizen in Classical Athens (Cambridge 2006).

2. See my forthcoming “Imagining bad citizenship in Classical Athens: Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae 730-876,” in Kakos: Badness & Anti-Values in Classical Antiquity, edited by R. Rosen and I. Sluiter (Leiden 2008).

3. G. Herman, Morality and Behaviour in Democratic Athens: A Social History. (Cambridge 2006). For my reaction to Herman, see Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.07.37. [Editor’s note: see Herman’s response at Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.09.21.]