[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]
“The importance of oaths to ancient Greek culture can hardly be overstated”(2), Alan Sommerstein states in the introduction, and this premise is behind the seventeen contributions to this volume. This book is the result of a 2004 conference entitled “The Oath in Greek Society,” which was held at the University of Nottingham, and contains revised versions of most of the papers which were given there, as well as a few commissioned contributions.1 The volume is divided by thematic considerations into three unequal parts: ‘Oaths and their Uses’, ‘Case Studies’, and ‘From East, to West’. The essays are followed by notes, a bibliography for the entire volume, a general index, and an index locorum. The volume is carefully produced, with a minimum of typographical errors,2 and should prove to be a great contribution to the study of oaths in antiquity.
In the Introduction, Alan H. Sommerstein defines the term “oath,” noting that a true oath has three characteristics: a declaration, a specification of the powers invoked as witnesses, and a curse if the oath is violated, which may be explicit or understood (2). He then goes on to discuss the role of oaths in Greek society, making reference to the various contributors’ articles as they become appropriate. He also outlines the thematic considerations which determined the three sections of the volume: in Part I, the focus is on the nature of Greek oaths and their functions in various societal arenas; in Part II, the contributors examine specific texts and occasions in which oaths and the violation of oaths are the focus; and in Part III, the shortest section of the volume, the essays explore the connections between Greek oaths and oaths of other cultures with whom the Greeks were in contact.
The first essay of Part I, by P.J. Rhodes, examines the role of oaths in the sphere of Greek politics; his main focus is on oaths within the Athenian state, but there is also some discussion of the use of oaths in Greek political leagues such as the Delian League. He then goes on to examine the different oaths which demarcated political events and the participation of Athenian citizens in the democracy, distinguishing between so-called regular oaths, which were sworn on various occasions by everyone in a given category (i.e. the ephebic oath, oaths of office, dikasts’ oaths), and special oaths at specific occasions or sets of events (the oath related to the Kylonian conspiracy, the oath of the restored democracy in 403). Rhodes makes the significant, yet often overlooked, point that oaths could also be used in the context of plots against established regimes, as well as to uphold them. After examining oaths specific to Athenian political life, Rhodes extends his focus by looking at evidence from elsewhere in the Greek world and notes that in general we find oaths being used in the same sorts of contexts as we see them used in Athenian politics. Finally, he turns his attention to oaths in interstate leagues, including the Delphic Amphiktyony, the Delian League, Peloponnesian League, Second Athenian Confederacy, and the League of Corinth, and comes to the conclusion that the minimum undertaking of a league oath was not to cause harm to another member (with the Peloponnesian League and possibly the Delian League being notable exceptions), but that depending upon the terms under which the league operated the oath of allegiance to the league could involve a number of different provisions.
In “Oaths in Greek International Relations,” Sarah Bolmarcich argues that the oaths contained in certain Greek treaties contained some flexibility, and that, as a result, there were circumstances under which failing to fulfill the terms of an oath was not the same thing as breaking the oath. Bolmarcich notes that “there was a difference between a violation of an oath without cause, and failure to fulfill the obligations of an oath when asked due to circumstances—violation by commission and violation by omission, as it were” (27). Some oaths had built-in “escape clauses,” circumstances under which the failure to fulfill the oath obligation was acceptable, while other oaths contained clauses that indicated they would be upheld without tricks or deceit. She adduces numerous documents in support of her argument, although due to the nature of the sources they are unevenly distributed between the oaths with “escape clauses” and oaths that referenced deceit. The only example of the use of an “escape clause” given by Bolmarcich is the arguments of the Corinthians to the Spartans regarding the Peace of Nikias and Argive alliance at Thuc. 5.30, when they maintained that the gods and heroes stood in the way of the fulfillment of their oaths; however, she correctly notes several other occasions in Greek history where religious obligations prevented the fulfillment of “military or diplomatic obligation or need” (30). However, the use of clauses referencing tricks and deceit was common in regulatory decrees of the Athenian empire (although they were not exclusively used by the Athenians and their allies), and Bolmarcich is therefore able to provide several examples of interstate documents containing such clauses. She concludes that these sorts of clauses were not “sophistic” attempts to get out of one’s oath obligations, but rather a necessary concession to the sovereignty of each Greek polis.
Michael Gagarin reexamines the phenomenon of the oath-challenge, or proklesis, in Athenian litigation. The oath-challenge is a common feature of Athenian forensic speeches, and numerous examples of the genre mention an example of proklesis at some point during the proceedings. Gagarin notes, however, that of all the speeches in which an example of proklesis is recalled, in only one case was the proposed oath accepted and carried out: the dispute between the sons of Mantias, preserved in Demosthenes 39 and 40. Largely on the basis of this accepted oath-challenge, scholars of Athenian law have argued that an accepted oath-challenge was an alternative means of settlement in the Athenian legal system.3 However, Gagarin notes that the proklesis in this case was particularly decisive and “highly unusual, in that when it was proposed, it was intended to be decisive by being refused, not accepted” (40). Gagarin goes on to examine the other examples of the oath-challenge in Athenian forensic oratory which are similar to the one in the dispute between Mantias’ sons, and then turns his attention the roots of the oath-challenge in Greek culture, analyzing four examples of the phenomenon in Homer and the Hymn to Hermes. He argues, rightly in my opinion, that we cannot necessarily conclude from this particular case of the dispute between the sons of Mantias that all other oath-challenges in Athenian law would have been as decisive to the outcome of the case.
Remaining on the theme of the oath in the Athenian judicial system, David Mirhady explores the terms of the dikasts’ oath in Athens, which contained two key elements: the jurors swore to cast their votes according to the laws, and they further swore to do so by their “most just understanding”
David Carter discusses the idea of rights in the context of promissory oaths in ancient Greece, attempting to determine whether the Greeks had the concept of a right guaranteed “not by one’s simple humanity, nor by the law, but by a contract into which one has entered” (62) Carter looks for claim-rights arguments in cases where there was an alleged breach of contract, noting that while in most cases in which agreements were broken seem to have been tried under the dike blabes, there was one procedure in Athenian law, the dike emporike connected with maritime loans, under which the Athenians could bring suit for breaches of agreement. He then examines more closely two such cases, preserved in the Demosthenic corpus as speeches 35 and 56 before turning briefly to Euripides’ Phoinissai and Thucydides’ depiction of the Plataians’ arguments to the Spartans when they decide to march against Plataia in 429 to test his interpretation. He comes to the conclusion that the Greeks did indeed make arguments based upon the ideas of claim-rights embedded in contracts, and that, in making such arguments, references to previously sworn oaths strengthened the argument for the claim-right, although it did not guarantee it. Thus, it was the agreement or contract between the parties which created the claim right, if it was recognized at all, not the oath itself; the oath served only to reinforce this right by making its violation an offense against the gods as well as man.
Edwin Carawan also considers the relationship between oath and contract in his contribution, examining which contracts required oaths and which did not, and further, what sorts of commitments the presence of such an oath affected which were not affected in contracts lacking oath clauses. He also considers the question of the circumstances under which the sanctions contained within an oath could be invoked to reinforce contractual obligations. Examining both epigraphical and textual evidence, Carawan argues that in general commercial life in the ancient Greek world was predicated simply upon the basis of agreements in which no oaths were required; the presence of oaths seems to indicate a prior relationship in which there were conflicting claims. Therefore, oaths were only used when disagreements arose and had to be settled, at which point the parties involved in the dispute took and oath to abide by the settlement.
In the final essay of Part I, Jonathan Perry examines the oaths taken by Olympic athletes in antiquity and how these oaths relate to a series of Olympic scandals—both real and alleged—from the late fifth and fourth centuries. He begins with the case of the Spartan Kyniska, who won an Olympic victory in probably the 390s BCE, examining the possible motivations of Kyniska and particularly her brother Agesilaos in entering Kyniska’s horses in the competition. Scholarly theories regarding these motivations include references to Agesilaos’ panhellenism,4 new opportunities available to wealthy Spartans at this time to participate in these sorts of agonistic competitions and thus display their wealth,5 and the opportunity for Agesilaos to avenge his family’s dishonor at the hands of Alcibiades by the victory of another royal woman in the same event as Alcibiades’ notorious victory of 416.6 Perry proposes yet another explanation, based upon a similarity of language between the biographical accounts that discuss Kyniska’s victory and Pausanias’ description of the Zanes at Olympia. Perry argues that Pausanias’ summaries of the inscriptions on the Zanes, particularly the first and sixth of those statues, seem to echo the opinions of Agesilaos as preserved in the accounts of Xenophon and Plutarch regarding the role of money in the winning of an Olympic victory. He argues that “It would seem reasonable to conclude that the process of swearing an oath…could have a practical, as well as religious value” (84-5). Perry goes on to examine the oaths sworn at Olympia, as related by Pausanias, to the Olympic scandals of 400, 396, 392, and 388, all of which hinged upon the integrity of the Eleans charged with overseeing the sanctuary and games, and argues that in response to these scandals, Agesilaos may have had Kyniska’s statue produced and erected at Olympia, designed to further shame the Eleans. He further argues that in response to this act, the Eleans discovered another act of cheating during the games of 388, leading to the erection of the first of the Zanes.
Turning to Part II, “Case Studies,” Bonnie MacLachlan examines the rhetorical trope of epinician poetry in which the poet (or poetic voice) swears to the truth of his assertions. MacLachlan notes that oaths in epinician poetry are odd in two specific ways: first, oaths are generally sworn in cases of uncertainty as to the truth, but epinician oaths swearing to the truth of the account are sworn in the presence of people who may have actually witnessed the events described, and who therefore did not need verification of the truth of the account. Second, oaths are usually sworn in situations of mistrust, but epinician poetry was ostensibly performed at an occasion honoring the victor, in other words, a situation in which one would not expect to find reference to a dispute. By examining various oaths in Bacchylides and Pindar, MacLachlan concludes that the oath in epinician poetry acted first as a reinforcement of the poet’s praise of the victor and second as a buttress to the poet’s claim of divinely revealed knowledge and wisdom in the composition and performance of his poetry.
Judith Fletcher explores the role of oaths in the Oresteia, noting that although the concept of justice in the Oresteia has received a great deal of attention, there has not been much attention paid to the oaths which provide the structure for this justice. Fletcher traces the evolution of oaths throughout the trilogy, arguing that until Athena tenders the dikasts’ oath at the culmination of the story, oaths function in the Oresteia as a way of binding members of the unhappy house of Atreus into a never-ending cycle of violence, vengeance, and retribution. However, as justice develops throughout the cycle, so do the oaths that structure it, until the establishment of the Areopagus renders both oaths and justice in forms familiar to the fifth-century Athenian audience. She connects this development with the development of the Erinyes, who also evolve from vindictive to beneficial forces, and further examines this in the context of the establishment of the patriarchal civic space of classical Athens, so that oaths also become gendered acts; Fletcher argues that while male characters enjoy particular advantages in the swearing of oaths, the oaths of the female characters, especially Clytemnestra, are usually in some way flawed or corrupt. Of particular interest is Fletcher’s analysis of the anakrisis of the Eumenides, which seems to preserve traces of an oath-challenge; Orestes here refuses the oath-challenge offered by the Erinyes, thus eluding their trap. Fletcher reads this as yet another example of the female characters’ inability make oaths work for them, but given the earlier contributions concerning the dikasts’ oath and the oath-challenge by Mirhady and Gagarin, respectively, in the volume, this brief analysis has some interesting implications. Fletcher notes that with the culmination of the trilogy we also see the first time a female character is able to make oaths work for them; Athena successfully elicits an oath from male characters, and this is intimately connected with the establishment of civic justice and a new type of oath, which eliminates the self-destructive violence of the earlier plays and binds men to judge in accordance with the laws of the polis.
Continuing the examination of oaths in tragedy, Arlene Allan turns to Euripides’ Medea and argues that Medea’s claim that Jason had given her a sworn pledge of loyalty should be regarded as a fabrication. Allan notes that as a result of an increased appreciation of the role of oaths in the Medea“the form Medea’s vengeance takes becomes understandable in terms of a generally held Greek belief that oath-breakers, along with their property and progeny, should be and would be wholly destroyed” (113). However, Allan argues that Euripides’ use of oaths in the play is not straightforward, and that Jason’s alleged promise to Medea is meant to be read as yet another in a long line of fabrications and manipulations of the truth that Medea employs throughout the action of the play. Allan demonstrates that the audience is given no reason to accept the validity of Medea’s claim “except through appeal to the theatrical convention which requires that the audience willingly suspend their disbelief and take what a character says at face-value” (123). We therefore cannot conclude with any degree of certainty that Jason is an oath-breaker who deserves the loss of his children as punishment.
In “Cloudy swearing: when (if ever) is an oath not an oath?,” Alan Sommerstein turns from tragedy to comedy, undertaking a statistical analysis of so-called “informal oaths,” or common expressions of ordinary speech such as “by Zeus,” in Clouds in order to determine whether there are “any criteria by which we can determine the degree of sanctity and significance to be attached to an informal oath.”12 To this end he considers the Clouds entries in the database of all references to oaths and swearing which was constructed between 2004 and 2006 by the members of the Oath in Archaic and Classical Greece Project funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Sommerstein considers seven hypotheses concerning the expression and context of an oath might influence its sanctity and binding force: is the oath by Zeus or by another god or gods; if the oath is by Zeus, does it name him with the definite article; is the name of the god invoked accompanied by an epithet; is the oath-formula a conjunction of two or more invocations; is attention drawn to features of sanctity within the environment; has the oath been solicited by another person; and has the oath been preceded by an explicit discussion of swearing. There are, as Sommerstein notes, forty-six informal oaths in Clouds; by analyzing these oaths in the context of the seven above criteria, Sommerstein comes to the conclusion that, so far as Clouds is concerned, an oath is never not an oath. However, he notes that the picture is somewhat more complicated with reference to the rest of the Aristophanic corpus. Despite this, he is able to conclude that “even in the case of informal oaths uttered by characters in comedy, there remained, in the late fifth and early fourth centuries, a significant degree of reluctance to attach an oath-formula to a false or insincere statement, and an even stronger degree of reluctance to show such an action as being successful to the detriment of others” (137).
Simon Hornblower’s contribution, “Thucydides and Plataian perjury,” is offered as a response to a 2003 article in Classical Quarterly by Stephanie West, ”
Julia Shear considers the oath of Demophantos in the context of Athenian identity in the aftermath of the second oligarchic coup in less than a decade. She argues that the political identity of Athens and the Athenians was altered and updated in response to the oligarchies of the Four Hundred and the Five Thousand. Shear begins by laying out the terms of the text of the decree and oath of Demophantos, which set forth the manner in which the Athenians should respond if the democracy should be overthrown in the future. It specified that anyone who overthrew the democracy or who held office after the democracy was overthrown could be killed with impunity and his property was to be confiscated and tithed. Shear examines five aspects of the document in her discussion: the emphasis on democracy as the only possible government in Athens; the manner in which the provisions of the oath retrospectively justify the death of Phrynichos; the clear picture the oath presents of the proper Athenian and his activities; the creation of an unusual oath-taking ceremony; and finally the decision regarding the location of the stele bearing the text of the oath. Shear’s arguments are in the main convincing, particularly those involving the method and timing of the novel oath-taking ceremony specified in the decree and the implications of the erection of the stele bearing the oath in its site in the Agora.
The second section concludes with a contribution on the Great Oath of the Syracusans by Tarik Wareh. The megas horkos of the Syracusans was only administered on two occasions that we are aware of, both times during the fourth century BCE, and both times by “faithless political schemers” (161). Wareh argues that we must examine this ritual in terms of the available comparative evidence in order to discover “their potential variation in civic and emotional meaning according to the traditions in which they are expressed in a given place and time” (161). Wareh sees the effectiveness of the Great Oath of the Syracusans in terms of the hierophantic performance, and attempts to examine the rituals of the megas horkos in the context of cognate features of the rite as described by Plutarch in his Life of Dion with other public rituals evoking Demeter and Kore in Sicily and Greece. In this vein he considers particular examples of hierophantic performance in successful contexts, which the two examples of the Syracusan oath cannot be considered. Specifically, Wareh attempts to link the failed oaths of Kallipos and Agathokles with the stories of Telines’ restoration of Geloan exiles (preserved in Herodotos 7.253.2f), Diodorus Siculus’ narrative of Gelon’s accounting of his political career to the assembly of the Syracusans in 11.26.5-7, and the journey of Timoleon from Corinth to Sicily, preserved in both Plutarch and Diodorus, reading aspects of each as hierophantic performance and emphasizing the connections with the cult of Demeter and Kore. While the Telines incident is suggestive, I found the comparisons with the stories of Gelon and Timoleon much less convincing. Wareh reads Gelon’s unarmed appearance before the Syracusan assembly as hierophantic largely by analogy to the Telines narrative and, in my opinion, places too much weight on the fact that Diodoros next mentions Gelon’s use of spoils to build temples to Demeter and Kore. Similarly, Wareh attempts to connect the story of Timoleon with Deinomenid tradition by linking the migration of Timoleon with that of Deinomenes. While Wareh is correct in noting the similarities of the traditions—namely the migration of sacred implements from one locale to another, suggesting the language of cult foundation—I find his reading of “much more latent priestly undertones” (166) in the Timoleon narrative problematic, all the more so as they are partially based upon the symbolic connotation of ears of wheat in the Eleusinian Mysteries, which Wareh himself notes is simply “our best guess based on the scanty and problematic sources” (167). At this point Wareh argues that “in every instance of someone appearing in that role [that of hierophant] publicly…it is to cement civic peace and concord through the power of the goddesses” (167), and attempts to use Ephesian and Eleusinian examples to cement his point. While I found this section as a whole more convincing that the previous examples, one may wonder if the Ephesian story, in which Herakleitos drinks kukeon in order to teach the Ephesians how to maintain homonoia, can really be considered an example of a hierophantic performance, even though the connections to rituals of Demeter and Kore are clear.
The first contribution to the third and shortest section of the volume is Mary Bachvarova’s “Oath and Allusion in Alcaeus fr. 129.” In this fragment the poet calls the gods of Lesbos to their sanctuary in order to witness his plea for an Erinys to be set upon Pittakos, since Pittakos has forsworn his oath, forced Alcaeus into exile, and is allegedly forcing the Lesbians to suffer from internecine strife. Most previous studies of this fragment have focused upon the structural juxtaposition of the formal oath invocation with Alcaeus’ curse against Pittakos. Bachvarova, in contrast, reads the fragment as a structural whole by focusing on its ritual utility, arguing that the wording “echoes the wording and gestures of the oath ceremony that the prayer recalls as it activates the curses spoken then” (179). She reads the imagery of the poem in the context of the imagery of Eastern Mediterranean oaths stretching back as far as c. 1400 BCE, and including examples of Akkadian, Hittite, Hebrew, and Aramaic oaths. The cultural similarities between various Hittite and Semitic ceremonies, curse imagery, and oaths with similar rituals found in Greek texts have been long noted. Bachvarova continues this scholarship by reading the first section of Alcaeus fr. 129, through line 20, as being similar with other Greek and Near Eastern loyalty oaths, as well as also containing elements of similarity with Mesopotamian promissory oaths and Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty. The second part of fr. 129, which contains Alcaeus’ curse against Pittakos, has often been seen as something radically different in tone from the first part of the poem, a position which Bachvarova argues against by again invoking similarities with comparanda of curses and magic from the Eastern Mediterranean. She notes that the images of clothing, eating, and trampling in Alcaeus’ fragment have parallels in curses and magic ritual from various cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean, including the Hittites and Assyrians. Moreover, Bachvarova contends that the reference to Pittakos as “Swollen-belly” also has cross-cultural connotations which have been previously overlooked, citing several references to dropsy in Near Eastern oath curses.
Myrto Garani argues that Lucretius evokes Empedokles’ social and political imagery in “Cosmological Oaths in Empedocles and Lucretius.” Garani begins by examining two fragments of Empedokles, DK31 B30 and B115, arguing that their combination by Simplicius is partly mistaken, on the basis that “in DK31 B30 the disruption of the Sphere occurs according to and oath that both Love and Strife respect, on the contrary in B115 Strife gains control due to a crime and more importantly due to the transgression of oaths” (193). After separating these two fragments, Garani turns to an examination of the mention of “broad oaths” which is contained within each fragment. Garani concludes that Empedokles gives us an illusory vision of oaths in which transgression of oaths is impossible, and that by this means he offers a model of social behavior for human society. Garani then examines Lucretius’ metaphor of the foedera naturae and argues that, “after refuting the points with which he does not agree and making the necessary deviations and adaptations” (196) necessitated by the differences between Epicurean thinking and Empedoklean cosmology, Lucretius integrates Empedokles’ metaphor of the oath into his own doctrine.
The final contribution to the volume is Serena Connolly’s ”
Overall, the essays in this volume are thoroughly and carefully researched and contain many intriguing arguments and points concerning the role and form of oaths in the ancient Greek world. This book is an important contribution to the discussion of oaths in Greek society and should be consulted by anyone interested in the topic.
Authors and titles:
Alan H. Sommerstein, “Introduction” (1-8)
Part I: Oaths and their Uses P.J. Rhodes, “Oaths in political life” (11-25)
Sarah Bolmarcich, “Oaths in Greek international relations” (26-38)
Michael Gagarin, “Litigants’ oaths in Athenian law” (39-47)
David C. Mirhady, “The dikast’s oath and the question of fact” (48-59)
David Carter, “Could a Greek oath guarantee a claim right? Oaths, contracts and the structure of obligation in classical Athens” (60-72)
Edwin M. Carawan, “Oath and contract” (73-80)
Jonathan S. Perry, “‘An Olympic victory must not be bought’: oath-taking, cheating and women in Greek athletics” (81-88)
Part II: Case Studies Bonnie MacLachlan, “Epinician swearing” (91-101)
Judith Fletcher, “Horkos in the Oresteia” (102-112)
Arlene Allan, “Masters of manipulation: Euripides’ (and Medea’s) use of oaths in Medea” (113-124)
Alan H. Sommerstein, “Cloudy swearing: when (if ever) is an oath not an oath?” (125-137)
Simon Hornblower, “Thucydides and Plataian perjury” (138-147)
Julia L. Shear, “The oath of Demophantos and the politics of Athenian identity” (148-160)
Tarik Wareh, “Hierophantic performances: the Syracusans’ Great Oath and other examples” (161-176)
Part III: From East, to West Mary R. Bachvarova, “Oath and allusion in Alcaeus fr. 129” (179-188)
Myrto Garani, “Cosmological oaths in Empedocles and Lucretius” (189-202)
Serena Connolly, ”
1. Specifically, the contributions of P.J. Rhodes and Simon Hornblower.
2. I.e., “strtucture” for “structure” in the Table of Contents.
3. See, for example, David Mirhady’s short but influential article, “The oath-challenge in Athens,” CQ 41, 78-83.
4. See Paul Cartledge, Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta (Baltimore 1987) and D.R. Shipley, A Commentary on Plutarch’s Life of Agesilaos (Oxford 1997).
5. See Stephen Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (London 2000).
6. D. Kyle, “‘The only woman in all Greece’: Kyniska, Agesilaus, Alcibiades and Olympia,” Journal of Sport History 30, 183-204.