BMCR 2021.03.27

Questione d’autorità: un’antropologia della leadership nella cultura greca

, Questione d'autorità: un'antropologia della leadership nella cultura greca. Antropologia del mondo antico, 11. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2019. Pp. 239. ISBN 9788815280305 €20,00.

In the introduction to his work, Carmine Pisano delineates three fundamental aspects that characterise authority. First of all, authority gives rise to voluntary adherence and obedience. Secondly, it cannot be identified with the “charisma” of an individual, but rather constructs a particular type of social relationship which every culture constitutes and represents in its own specific way, through certain rites and practices. The example of the perplexities felt by the English powers in 19th-century India towards the authority which the Mughal emperor held onto even after his deposition is particularly illuminating in this respect. Thirdly, power and authority are not synonymous, but rather two sides of giving orders, which can coincide or remain distinct. Authority is therefore not reducible to a kind of anthropological universal notion but is instead here considered a social function which maintains variable relations with the sphere of power. The introduction closes with the observation that there is no obvious Greek term which can be said to express what our modern languages call “authority”.

The first chapter (La nozione greca di autorità) addresses precisely the question of the word itself, starting from the Latin auctoritas, which, according to Cassius Dio, could not be “hellenised” (55.3.1-5). Does this mean that the concept of authority cannot be transposed as such to ancient Greece? According to Mommsen, followed by R. Heinze and H. Arendt,[1] whose contributions are reviewed by C. Pisano, this was indeed the case: the Greeks had no term linguistically related to auctoritas and even lacked the notion itself. This position is no longer tenable once the notion has been “unromanised” (deromanizzata) and considered to be a cultural function potentially applicable to other cultures. This function is neither persuasion nor coercion, but rather the voluntary obedience of a community to a given position in the social hierarchy. A closer reading of the passage by Cassius Dio invites us to move in this direction: for the Roman historian, it is not this kind of authority (in a social and cultural perspective) that is impossible to “hellenise”, but the constitutional concept of auctoritas, since there is no “Greek Senate” as such. C. Pisano thus moves more towards the works of B. Lincoln and M. Bettini[2] who, each in his own way, assert that authority is not an entity but an effect. He adopts a “linguistic and pragmatic” point of view to address authority: behind auctoritas, there is an auctor, i.e. “someone who makes something succeed in a field of possibilities” (p. 33). In Greek, the word ἐξουσία falls into such a semantic field and reflects the same type of social relationship as that conveyed by the Latin word. Exousia expresses the abstract realisation of a possibility (ἔξεστι). But the formation of the word shows that it also designates a faculty granted by someone or something to another who exercises it. In short, in the representation of authority, the Greeks seem to have favoured the metaphorical field of delegation, while Rome, without ignoring it, chose the image of growth (augere).  Homeric epic is chosen as a case-study to test these introductory considerations in the next three chapters.

The second chapter (Figli e allievi di Zeus) investigates the authority of the Homeric basileis, focusing especially on Agamemnon in the Iliad. What exactly is Agamemnon’s authority as a “chief”? In addressing this question, which runs through the entire chapter, C. Pisano reviews a series of works on royal authority and power in Greece, as well as references to “big men” in anthropological literature. However, since the question posed involves speaking of the Trojan cycle, i.e. something we call a “myth”, he judiciously specifies what kind of approach he adopts to examine these sources. He considers myth to be a narrative in which a culture discusses socially recognised forms of thought and patterns of behaviour. As such, the “Homeric myth” is a historical source to be interpreted. In this context, C. Pisano invokes an interesting consideration by U. Eco on the “limits of interpretation” of a text, between internal (the text itself) and external (the text in the light of social models outside it) points of view. According to Eco, one way to limit the infinite deployment of interpretations is to privilege whatever corresponds least easily to our own habits of thought. Regarding the authority of the chiefs in Homeric epic, one easily subscribes to explanations that base this authority on genealogy, wealth, the practice of giving, and military power. However, when old Nestor justifies the authority of Agamemnon to Achilles, he makes him “the most king” (basileutatos) among the kings because he possesses the sceptre of Zeus (Il. 1.277-281). What might appear to us as a simple oddity could be rooted in a representation of the authority of Agamemnon and the basileis that is strictly Greek. Even if the term ἐξουσία does not appear in the epic, the idea the word conveys, namely a “faculty granted by someone or something to another who exercises it”, is particularly well illustrated by the sceptre of Zeus. (However, one should probably deepen the analysis of the term ἐξουσία to take in the precise contexts of its usage before its appropriation by Jews and Christians.)

The next chapter (Nel mondo delle culture orali: l’autorità degli artefatti) begins by stepping out of the Greek world and opening up to comparisons to examine the problem of authority passing through an artefact. The works of M. Mauss and C. Severi, as well as theories of agency by A. Gell, are brought together to understand the status of certain objects as living beings of a sort which form the visible trace of an invisible network of relationships. Never forgetting the sceptre, C. Pisano draws on comparisons to perceive this instrument as a synthesis of the relationships that define powers and roles in a society without written codes of law. The authority of the one who leans strongly “on” the sceptre to speak is linked to a code, which also indicates those who are “under” the sceptre and therefore subject to voluntary obedience, especially in terms of gifts and tributes (Greek time). At the other end of the chronological arc, in the Periegesis of Pausanias, we find the sceptre of Zeus as “the deity whom the people of Chaironea honour the most” (Paus. 9.40.11-12). A mobile instrument, the sceptre is intended to pass from hand to hand, since it is the holder of the priesthood who welcomes the object into his home every year and honours it every day. It thus defines a network of relationships, while objectivising sovereign power through the “presentification” of the divine power of Zeus.

Objects can be providers of authority, but so can spaces, as explained in chapter 4 (Il bottino e l’assemblea: un’ antropologia del ‘centro’). The anthropological literature offers numerous examples of the relationship between space and social order. The “centre” is one of the essential spaces of the Homeric world, not because of an intrinsic sacrality, but rather because it functions as an empty bag that assumes different forms depending on what is put into it. Thus, γέρας is not a gift as such, but a part taken from what is common and placed at the centre. Authority is also shared and not an exclusive privilege: the agora is the place for shared questions, just as the spoils and prizes placed at its centre are shared. However, the differing value of the discourses of Achilles and Thersites in the assembly, while their content is comparable, attests to the social nature of authority. The chapter ends on a comparison of the Homeric agora with two institutions outside the Greek world: the thing, a circular and judicial court from the Norwegian Middle Ages, and the kauwa-auwa of an Aranda group from central Australia, a kind of stake designed as a mobile centre of authority.

After objects and spaces (whether physical or mental), the work then turns in chapter 5 (Quelli che operano per il popolo) to figures of authority other than the basileis. The title of this chapter is the translation of the Greek word δημιουργοί and concerns the herald,[3] the priest, the diviner and the bard, as figures whose authority is “a faculty granted by an external source” as defined earlier. They are here shown as represented “at the centre” of a spatial context and using a sceptre. But authority needs to be recognised as legitimate. Chapter 6 (La legittimazione dell’autorità) addresses this topic, with the analysis of the myth of the Pelopids, Euripides’ Ion, the story of Phrixus and the ram, and its effects on Jason and Medea’s destiny. Authority here is closely linked to the notion of αἰδώς, “respect” and “shame”, its indispensable component, without which the sceptre does not have any power and requires a new owner.

So far the authority holders studied have all been male. Chapter 7 (Figure femminili dell’autorità) looks at the female figures that can be associated with such characteristics, such as Aspasia of Miletus and Diotima of Mantinea, as staged by Plato. Once freed from Christianising readings, the Pythia is also a figure of authority, infused by the words of the Delphic god. I am not completely convinced of the benefits of adding this “female” chapter to the book. The whole construction would have been perfectly coherent without it, and this chapter is not as convincing as the others.

The concluding chapter (Autorità senza autore) refers to C. Severi’s work, already addressed in chapter 3, on authoritative discourses independent of a written source. The myths (μῦθοι) stigmatised by Plato are speeches of this type, as is the rumour (φήμη) that led to the condemnation of Socrates. Nόμος itself (as βασιλεύς in Pindar and Herodotus) refers to traditions that are self-evident precisely because they have no author.

Had I written this review in French, I would have concluded with this sentence: “Ce petit ouvrage est un grand livre”, which is untranslatable into English. I felt it necessary to write the review in English, though, to try to make this Italian work known to a wider public. For it belongs to a very fine tradition of study shared by the historical anthropology of Jean-Pierre Vernant and the more philological anthropology that characterises the Centro di Antropologia del Mondo Antico of the University of Siena.

Should I say that this is, in some ways, a structural study? I would certainly risk being misunderstood. And yet, it is indeed the structures of thought and action mobilised by the Greek representation of authority that C. Pisano deploys with great philological finesse and a remarkable knowledge of anthropological research. The result is a book dealing with almost all the methodological issues in the field of historical anthropology, a book continuously rooted in Greek evidence but swept by a breath of air coming from elsewhere that emphasises the specificity of the Greek vision of authority.


[1] Th. Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht I, Leipzig, 1887; R. Heinze, “Auctoritas”, Hermes 60 (1925) 348-366; H. Arendt, “What is authority?”, Between Past and Future, New York, 1961.

[2] B. Lincoln, Authority: Construction and Corrosion, Chicago, 1994; M. Bettini, “Le parole dell’autorità e la costruzione linguistica del leader”, in M. Flores (ed.), Nazismo, Fascismo, Comunismo. Totalitarismi a confronto, Milano, 1998, p. 391-398; id., “Authority as ‘Resultant Voice’: Towards a Stylistic and Musical Anthropology of Effective Speech in Archaic Rome”, Greek and Roman Musical Studies 1 (2013) 175-194; id., “Se l’autorità ‘fa crescere’. Dall’auctoritas della cultura romana all’exousia dei Vangeli”, in id., Dèi e uomini nella Città, Roma, 2015, p. 99-117.

[3] A topic already addressed by C. Pisano in his PhD, published in 2014: Hermes, lo scettro, l’ariete. Configurazioni mitiche della regalità nella Grecia antica, Napoli, M. D’Auria editore, 2014.