BMCR 2013.09.39

Choses privées et chose publique en Grèce ancienne. Genèse et structure d’un système de classification. Collection HOROS

, Choses privées et chose publique en Grèce ancienne. Genèse et structure d’un système de classification. Collection HOROS. Grenoble: Èditions Jérôme Millon, 2012. 492. ISBN 9782841372690 €35.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

This volume edited by Arnaud Macé addresses the question of the Classical Greek distinction between private and public spheres from the perspective of conceptual history. It analyzes the development of both terminology and ideas of ‘individual’/’private’ and ‘collective’/‘public’ in Ancient Greek literary texts from the 8 th to 4 th centuries. The book ties in with the ideas presented in 1998 in a volume of Ktèma (cf. pp. 10-11). 1 It follows a different approach, though, in presenting and interpreting the specific usage of the terminology and concepts under discussion within the corpora of single Greek authors or generic corpora.2

It is not easy to classify this book. It is a sourcebook collecting sections of Classical Greek texts (in new French translations) relevant to the matter under discussion. But it also promotes fresh thinking on the subject, and the volume as a whole aims most definitely at research in addition to providing readers with a selection of relevant sources easy to access. This is important, since the concepts here presented are relevant not only for Classicists, who are familiar with the language and cultural background of these sources, but for the Humanities and Social Sciences in general.

As it is not possible to comment on every chapter in this review, I will give an overview of the thematic outline presented in the introduction, followed by remarks considering the scope, unity, and differences of the chapters.

Arnaud Macé ( La genèse sensible de l’État comme forme du commun. Essai d’Introduction générale, pp. 7-40) first classifies the study of Ancient Greek concepts of private and public as part of the general study of state and sociality, thus distancing the volume from the earlier idea of of a ‘Greek Sonderweg’ (p. 9). The terms analyzed in the volume are, then, briefly explained. Macé convincingly differentiates the Greek terms κοινός and δημόσιος, one tending more towards the notion of public spirit and common experience (κοινός) the other towards the practical involvement of the sphere of state (δημόσιος). Importantly, Macé states that there is no absolute diachronical or interpersonal consistency of terminology in the texts presented in the volume (pp. 11-16). Building upon a formal distinction between an inclusive (ἴδιος vs. κοινός) and an exclusive (ἴδιος vs. ἀλλότριος) definition of the individuum (one defined as part of, the other as opposition to the idea of community, pp. 16-20), he then describes the former as an identity developing from sensuous experience in assemblies, theatres, cult practices etc. (pp. 20-25) and the latter as a description of social realities developing from social and political dissent (pp. 25-29). Against such an opposition of ‘self’ and ‘community’ fourth-century authors like Plato or Isocrates claimed a reconciliation of public and private interest (pp. 32-38). The outlines of these concepts analyzed in the volume are not new in every aspect, but have seldomly been exposed as lucid and clear before. After this useful introduction the volume follows a roughly chronological order. The chapters each address texts ascribed to single authors or corpora (such as the Homeric Hymns or the Corpus Hippocraticum). An exception is chapter X ( Orateurs, logographes et sophistes dans l’Athènes du V e et du début du IV e siècles, pp. 301-340) by Marie-Pierre Noël, which collects texts from different rhetorical and philosophical genres from the turn of the 5 th and 4 th centuries. The book ends with very useful tables of the usage of the terms under discussion and an Index Locorum.

Some remarks should be made on the scope of this collection. On the one hand, it seems plausible to include texts from Archaic times to the 4 th century, when the concepts of Plato and Aristotle began to dominate the field (pp. 13-14). On the other hand, there is no obvious reason for including only some of the important authors of the Fourth Century. The speeches of Demosthenes and Aeschines, for example, can neither be considered as belonging to the Platonic or Aristotelian tradition nor should they be excluded for reason of content. Instead, these texts, belonging to the sphere of political realities, could have provided a helpful contemporary contrast to the rather theoretical concepts in Isocrates, Xenophon and Plato comprised in the last three chapters of the book. More problematic, though, is the fact that in some chapters, the corpora under discussion can in no way be considered homogeneous. It surely is commendable that the volume includes many texts that are often ignored by modern historians, such as the Homeric Hymns (Christine Hunzinger, pp. 97-115) or the fabulae of Aesop (Arnaud Mace / Olivier Renaut, pp. 155-166). Yet one wonders, how the different texts of whole genres of Greek Lyric poetry (Nadine Le Meur, pp. 117-154) or the Corpus Hippocraticum (Marie-Laurence Desclos, pp. 223-272) could represent specific and consistent steps in the development of concepts and ideas about society – they simply comprise too heterogeneous corpora that represent not only different authors (with their specific terminologies), but also different times. A different problem arises in Macé’s chapter on Plato, where some texts are lacking explanations on the respective fictional speaker’s individual stance as depicted by Plato. Even though Macé notes the identity of the speakers, readers unaware of the ironic development of erroneous definitions in Plato’s dialogues could easily miss the insight that, for example, the description of the just man’s disadvantages presented by Thrasymachus in text F.2 do not represent Plato’s own ideas on the matter.3 These problems are addressed but not resolved in the introductory remarks to the single chapters (pp. 97-98, 117, 155-158, 167-168, 429-431). Another problem is the transmission of ideas through later authors, for example in the fragments of the Presocratics (Olivier Renaut, pp. 167-190) or Plato’s presentation of Sophistic thought (Marie-Pierre Noël, pp. 309-311, 332-339). Here, it is very difficult to tell whether the terms and concepts used by the later authors are identical with their original usage in the Presocratic or Sophists.4

Nonetheless, it must be stated that the editors and authors have succeeded in collecting significant texts that – with only a few exceptions – deliver strong evidence for the concepts presented in the introduction.

The competing concepts of a ‘community of the senses’ (including the individual) and of an exclusive opposition between community and individual, as presented in the introduction, are manifest, for example, in the chapters on Hesiod (esp. pp. 76-82), Aischylos ( La Tragédie, Michel Fartzoff, pp. 190-221), Herodotus (Karim Mansour / Mélina Tamiolaki, pp. 273-300) – the first author whose texts show a systematic distinction of κοινός (referring to public spirit, pp. 288-290) and δημόσιος (referring to the political sector, pp. 282-288) –, Thucydides (Agathe Roman, pp. 341-366), and Plato (Arnaud Macé, pp. 429-462). The development of these concepts is especially clear in the later chapters of the book. This concerns, e.g., the great influence of the work of Thucydides (pp. 343-348, 353-365) on fourth century writers’ appeals to reconciliate individual and community by identifiying self-interest and common good (Isocrates, pp. 381-400 [Marie-Pierre Noël] / Xenophon, pp. 401-428 [Vincent Azoulay / Pierre Pontier] / Plato, pp. 429-462), or the development of the concept of a Hellenic community (Aristophanes, pp. 367-370, 375-379 / Isocrates, pp. 382-385 / Xenophon, pp. 402-403, 421-422) as a result of the experience of interpolitic leagues since the fifth century. Another recurring motive is the self-confident claim of Greek authors about their own importance in securing and strenghtening public spirit (e.g. Hesiod, pp. 82-83 / Homeric Hymns, p. 104 / Pindar, pp. 134-137 / Presocratics, pp. 168-173 / Xenophon, p. 421-422, 426-428 / Plato, pp. 431-433, 454-462). Some texts clearly show the influence that the prerequisites of genre, topic and audience have on the perspective taken in literary texts. Nadine Le Meur, for example, explains the strong tension between individual and public interest in Greek epinicia by the competing audiences of the individual aristocratic addressees and a broader audience of public recitaton (p. 119). The very different perspectives taken in Homer’s Iliad (the individual in conflict with society) and Odyssey (the integration of the individual into the community) can be explained by their different thematic settings (pp. 41-73). Also, the section on Attic Oratory (pp. 304-308, 311-331) by Marie-Pierre Noël shows how Athenian litigants used the distinction between private and public interest as means of argumentation in different contexts.

The different chapters represent texts from more than four centuries and authors of very different regional and social origin (cf. Homer to Xenophon to the writers of the Corpus Aesopicum), so that not all chapters can be considered part of the same consecutive development of concepts, and even less of specific terms. While the latter is especially true for the early texts such as the epics of Homer (David Bouvier, pp. 41-73), Hesiod (Christine Hunzinger, pp. 73-95) or the Homeric Hymns (Christine Hunzinger, pp. 97-115), where the terms δημόσιος/ἴδιος/κοινός did not yet exist (though they use equivalent terms like ξυνός, and the problem of individuum and community is adressed throughout), the former problem becomes especially obvious in the (very accurate) chapters on Tragedy (pp. 190-221) and on the Corpus Hippocraticum, where Marie-Laurence Desclos has to state (223-225) that in medical literature the terms under discussion are used in a rather idiosyncratic way, so that they can not really be considered part of the same conceptual tradition represented by the texts in the other chapters.

A little confusing is the fact that, even though that was obviously attempted, the single chapters do not follow a homogeneous structural pattern. In some chapters interpretations and conclusions are included in the texts section while in most others they are presented in the introduction (with additional footnotes of differing extent in the texts sections). Also in some chapters the array (and headings) of introduction and texts section do follow analogous patterns, resulting in a clear arrangement of the respective chapter as a whole, but in others they do not. Finally, the extent of the bibliographical notes to the different chapters varies dramatically depending on the exhaustiveness of the commentary.5 This makes it difficult to compare the chapters in their specific impact on the general argument of the book, and it renders some chapters more useful than others for those interested in the terminology of the respective single author/corpus.

To conclude, the volume presents a rich collection of sources for the origin and development of the conceptual distinctions individual/community and private/public in Greek thought, and it provides the reader with numerous insightful comments on these texts, giving a comprehensive overview over the topic as represented in Greek literature. This ambitious program leads to a number of difficulties in methodology (homogeneity of the corpora, consistency of the collection etc.) and structure (alignment of the single chapters, extent of commentary etc.) that the authors and editors thoroughly attempted but did not succeed. As a result, the book is just as insightful and useful for students and scholars in the field as it is difficult to use, and it needs a careful reader able to circumnavigate the methodological cliffs it contains.


1. François de Polignac, Pauline Schmitt Pantel (edd.): Public et privé en Grèce ancienne. Lieux, conductes, pratiques, Ktèma 23 (1998).

2. In this focus on terminology the volume differs from other recent publications on the question of community, public spirit, and individuality in Antiquity, cf. Vasileios I. Anastasiadis: Interest and Self-Interest in Ancient Athens, Spudasmata 151, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht 2013; Martin Jehne, Christoph Lundgren (Hg.): Gemeinsinn und Gemeinwohl in der römischen Antike, Stuttgart: Steiner 2013.

3. F.2=Plat. Pol. I 343d1-344a3, p. 450; cf. the similar problem in E.2=Plat. Soph. 222c9-223a9, p. 445.

4. Some of the texts presented in the section on Gorgias of Leontinoi do not clearly refer to Gorgias, cf. A.5 (Plat. Hipp. I 282b-c), B.2 (Plat. Phaidr. 272c-273c).

5. Malika Bastin-Hammou’s chapter on Aristophanes (pp. 367-379) contains no bibliographical notes at all and refers to only one single work in the footnotes.