BMCR 2016.08.07

Envy, Poison, and Death: Women on Trial in Classical Athens

, Envy, Poison, and Death: Women on Trial in Classical Athens. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xii, 421. ISBN 9780199562602. $110.00.


Eidinow’s book differs from the recent work of other scholars on envy in Greek antiquity in that, while those have sought to understand the meaning and experience of the emotion, this seeks to describe how and in what circumstances envy could prompt collective action and so be considered a social agent and historical dynamic.1 Three fourth-century graphai trials against women (Theoris, Ninon, and Phryne) who were ostensibly charged with “magic” invite this investigation: Eidinow asks why these women were perceived by group consensus as posing risks so dire as to warrant public trial and even the execution of two of them. Answering this question requires detailed consideration of the force of phthonos as an interpretive filter through which others’ behaviours and one’s own experience could make sense, identification of both the ritualized and informal outlets that created and communicated that sense, and, finally, the location of the communal contexts in which emotion could translate into public action.

The first section, “The Women,” considers the evidence for the three trials, the charges, and the accused. Purported misdeeds vary among the defendants and among the sources for each, ranging from the general category of asebeia to more specific allegations of wielding harmful drugs and/or incantations, introducing religious innovations, convening “unlawful thiasoi,” and instructing slaves in deception. As complements, Eidinow considers four more similar incidents of popular notoriety, if dubious historicity, that involve women claiming special influence with the gods or using poisonous philtra. The variety of accusations leaves in doubt the nature of the precise charge under which the women were brought to trial. Eidinow carefully dissects the interpretations others have offered—murder, magic, impiety—against an array of ancient evidence and broader contextual considerations, and notes that asebeia was perceived as a threat to the community at large, whose responsibility, therefore, it was to address it. Charges aside, however, evidence points to the connection between the specifics of the accusations—poisons and spells—and anxieties about managing phthonos, and so it is to envy that Eidinow turns in the second section.

“Envy” begins with definitions of phthonos in Greek evidence: it was a violent, consuming, dangerous emotion that bred in close quarters, the pain that was felt at the success of one’s fellows, the desire to deprive rather than to have. Eidinow notes the problems that face historical inquiry into emotions, elusive presences that surely wielded dynamic influence. To find an approach, she veers away from ancient sources to look at modern psychological investigations into what an emotion is. This is still a contentious question—is an emotion a function of biology or is it a personally constructed experience? The difficulties in resolving this issue are in fact what give license to the historian. Emotions may seem recognizable to us in our ancient sources—but we may give them different names, different situational spurs, different resolutions, and use different metaphors in the here and now: the experience and description of the emotion is expressed in terms specific to that society. Therefore, the kinds of descriptions, metaphors, and situations a culture ascribes to an emotion—its “cultural discourse”—are the things that give the historian ingress, and which allow emotion to be considered not merely an individual experience but rather a factor in the on-going normative construction of morals, the mediation and description of interpersonal relations. In the identification of an emotion’s presence and function in society, “emotion talk” is therefore of supreme importance. Eidinow notes that “the emotion talk around phthonos in ancient Greek literature has a startling prevalence” (102), and goes on to describe its presence in archaic and classical times through an examination of epinician poetry and forensic speeches, with particular emphasis on the agency phthonos exerted over words in the suppression of due praise and the proliferation of malicious gossip. Authors of both genres therefore aimed to manage the phthonos that the authors presumed to be latent in their audiences, and in so doing, contributed to the shaping of communal morals. Divine and mortal phthonos —resentment at the dynamics of relationships of reciprocity, themselves the threads of Greek social fabric—furthermore held an explanatory position in narratives of turns of fortune and contributed to a general sense of instability.

“Poison” follows, in which Eidinow returns to words, and specifically, poisonous talk, that is, gossip, as the means by which phthonos gained agency. Couching her discussion in sociological studies of how gossip works (“circulation, formation of meaning…and action,” 176). Eidinow stresses the importance of approaching gossip as a “reconstructive genre” that does not transmit a narrative so much as midwifes its creation, a process in which both teller and listener are active participants. She examines the use of gossip in courtroom rhetoric. Allusions to “what everyone knows” were commonly used to discredit opponents, allusions that might in fact might point to what no one knew or to events that never took place, but which now influenced popular thought. Allegations themselves might arise from gossip too, as Eidinow demonstrates by considering a selection of public inscriptions in the form of epitaphs, binding spells, and “confession inscriptions.” These attest to gossip’s ability to spread suspicion and so isolate, and Eidinow suggests that even attempts to deflect suspicion might give rise to more gossip. Interestingly, the episodes of gossip to which some inscriptions point suggest that gossip spread concerns over the use of malicious pharmaka within the community. Eidinow then turns to curse tablets as further evidence for the presence and function of phthonos. She argues from the standpoint of “conceptual blending” that the tablets borrow the metaphor of binding from the contexts of justice; this association would furthermore have allowed the creators of tablets to imagine themselves not as envious aggressors, but as victims justified in seeking punishment.

In the final section, “Death,” Eidinow returns to the trials of the three women with which she began her study, to describe Athens’ economic and social instability in the early- to mid-fourth century BC as circumstances that allowed phthonos to leap from malicious gossip to legal indictment. Conditions were ripe for increased resentments over economic disparity, the performance of civic duties and the enjoyment of civic benefits, and so for the proliferation of suspicion, distrust, phthonos, and gossip. Eidinow notes the extreme vulnerability of women in the post-Peloponnesian War period, and treats the plight of the many widows, orphans, and unmarried girls who would have been dependent upon relations, friends, or their ability to support themselves through the provision of services often considered disreputable. At the same time, the lack of definition of women’s civic identity meant that they could be exposed to suspicion, and so gossip, about their status, which had consequences for the families to which they were attached. Social resentments and envy were frequently expressed in the “cultural model of the dangerous woman” (323), a stylized portrait of a female who must be considered everyone’s problem by virtue of her ability to compromise the integrity of the household and so the health of the community. That such women could be brought to trial on ambiguous charges should be considered, Eidinow suggests in a brief epilogue, the result of the “social trauma” of the Peloponnesian War that was still resonating in the fourth century. Anxious emotions required new focuses, and indeed, required action, in changing circumstances. The attempts to address these newly identified threats themselves influenced the evolution of communal concepts of antisocial behaviour, and so of the witch.

Eidinow’s study is both innovative and instructive in its demonstration of how an emotion can be discerned as a historical agent that fosters development of social values and stereotypes, and even motivates actions that comprise history. Her command of ancient material and scholarship is matched by her ability to frame questions, offer caveats, invoke insights and suggest approaches from other disciplines. Indeed, the interdisciplinary framework of this work is remarkably broad, interesting, and enlightening; the following complaint must be understood as subordinate to this assessment. It is hard not to get stuck on Eidinow’s disinclination to consider Schadenfreude as very relevant to her study (the discussion comes up specifically in relation to binding spells, where Eidinow argues against Versnel’s interpretations of several).2 Her approach is based in part on the acceptance of the current, narrow psychological definition of the term: it is a pale pleasure that arises when another experiences a misfortune wrought entirely by chance. This definition cannot include enjoyment of misfortune that one has helped to cause or gloating. It is as easy to agree with Eidinow that “the term Schadenfreude does need some more reflection” in its application in the ancient context (226) as it is to wish that Eidinow had undertaken some detailed reflection about the place of enjoyment of another’s misfortune. Considering Schadenfreude, even in senses close to its modern clinical definition, might strengthen the connection between [phthonos] and the pursuit of “justice” and phthonos and gossip. Indeed, if Schadenfreude is pleasurable, envy is not—but engaging in malicious gossip is (e.g., Eur. Phoen. 200-201). Gossipers may be creative agents in reality, but they often regard themselves as passive, mere conveyors of information (256 n. 9). Malicious gossip is undertaken at its target’s expense and so, it seems, might be understood as Schadenfreude in action (as Versnel points out, derision can take many forms; see 2, 149). The minimization of Schadenfreude also throws into question where, if anywhere, humiliation ought to figure in processes of envy, and this problem compounded by the examination of evidence that really does seem to treat humiliation either to argue that humiliation is not really a factor (e.g., 225-229 on SGD 60, where Eidinow’s understanding of Epaphroditus as a slave, an identification not required by the evidence, perhaps skews her interpretation of the degree of humiliation involved) or to subordinate it on the grounds that it is incongruous with other narratives of phthonos (e.g., 251-252 on Plato’s association of phthonos with laughing at a friend’s self-delusion). But let this criticism merely demonstrate Eidinow’s ability to engage, to provoke, and to provide the means of continued discussion about ground she is breaking.


1. See e.g., Ed Sanders. Envy and Jealousy in Classical Athens: A Socio-Psychological Approach. New York and Oxford: OUP, 2014; David Konstan and Keith Rutter, eds. Envy, Spite, and Jealousy: The Rivalrous Emotions in Ancient Greece. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2003.

2. H. S. Versnel. “Κόλασαι τοὺς ἡμᾶς τοιούτους ἡδέως βλέποντες ‘Punish those who rejoice in our misery’: On Curse Texts and Schadenfreude.” In D. Jordan, H. Montgomery, and E. Thomassen eds., The World of Ancient Magic. Bergen: Paul Åströms Förlag, 1999. 125-162.