Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Matthew R. Christ, The Limits of Altruism in Democratic Athens. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. x, 215. ISBN 9781107029774. $90.00.

Reviewed by Robert W. Wallace, Northwestern University (

Version at BMCR home site


Author of The Litigious Athenian and The Bad Citizen in Classical Athens, Matthew Christ is an old hand in the field of Athenian democratic sociology — perhaps especially for its darker aspects. His new book explores the question how far the Athenians were altruistic toward other people and other poleis. He concludes that, although the Athenians often represented themselves as compassionate helpers of those in need, in fact they helped others very little, except for friends or family, or from expediency. One quality distinguishes Limits from Christ's previous books: it is polemical. While invariably courteous, right from p. 3 Christ states his challenge to recent positive views of Athenian behavior in books by Rachel Sternberg (which Christ reviewed in JHS 2008), Gabriel Herman (which Christ reviewed in BMCR, 2007.07.37), and Polly Low. He later includes among his targets Virginia Hunter (28ff.), Nicole Loraux (49ff.), and David Konstan (51ff.). Other recent scholars have also been positive about Athens, including many contributors (also Christ) to Rosen and Sluiter, eds., Valuing Others in Classical Antiquity (2010). So Christ is bucking a trend. How does he fare?

The main issue, as often, concerns the sources. Christ quotes many passages to support his arguments, although these statements were mostly written for other purposes and need not always be taken as he does. Much of the evidence is pretty squirrelly, and different ways of looking at it occurred to me so often that, except for Christ's superb Chapter 3, I often came away believing rather the opposite of Christ's thesis. I might have an equally hard time trying to prove my case.

The five sections of Chapter 1, "Helping behavior in classical Athens," argue that Athenians helped friends and family but on the whole not strangers, even if fellow citizens. To clarify some questions regarding the use of evidence, I discuss these sections, here labeled (a) through (e), in some detail.

(a) In "Helping Fellow Soldiers" (13-17), Christ first contends that the story Plato's Alkibiades tells of Sokrates defending him when he fell wounded at Potidaia (Smp. 220d-e) actually indicates that such behavior "may not have been common," because Alkibiades recommended to the generals that Sokrates be given "a prize for valor." Had the generals actually given Sokrates a prize for valor, this might help Christ's argument. In fact they gave "the prize for valor" to Alkibiades, who then argued unsuccessfully that Sokrates deserved it. Did Alkibiades argue this because he was Sokrates' lover, or valued himself so highly? Did the generals think Sokrates' behavior not so atypical that it deserved a prize? Also, how much of Alkibiades' story in Plato is true? He is drunk and will not promise not to lie (214c, e). Can we be sure his insistence here that he is not lying (220e) does not imply the opposite?

Christ also accepts as factual Thuc. 7.75 on Athenian behavior after Athens' defeat at Syracuse, when kinsmen, comrades, and tent-mates abandoned the wounded and sick despite their pleas. In two different ways this passage may not support the conclusion that Athenians did not help fallen soldiers. On the one hand, the main theme of Thucydides' History is Athens' progressive moral collapse, culminating with Melos and Sicily. Hence, this writer had his own reasons for painting Athenian behavior at Syracuse as especially depraved. Compare 2.53 on Athens' supposed social and moral collapse (also undocumented elsewhere, including in Thucydides,) during the plague, and the amoral Melian Dialogue, which most agree is largely Thucydidean fiction. On the other hand, in 7.75 as the troops abandoned their comrades, Thucydides says they wept and felt "shame and self-reproach." Christ rightly says, "this episode suggests that hoplites were generally expected to support their wounded associates." Nonetheless, he concludes from it that in "exigent circumstances, hoplites did not risk their own survival," and as "the circumstances of defeated forces were often dire, the abandonment of the sick and wounded was probably not uncommon." Hoplite remorse at 7.75 supports the opposite conclusion, as does the implication that readers will be shocked. Also, 7.75 implies nothing about victorious troops helping wounded comrades.

Finally, when Xenophon strikes a muleteer for not helping a wounded comrade and is supported by his troops, Christ speculates why this need not imply that the troops were outraged by the muleteer's mistreatment of the wounded. Possibly so, but certainly it will not show the opposite.

(b) "Aiding the poor" (17-26) begins with traditional aristocratic generosity to fellow demesmen, in return for political support. Later, in courts and Assembly, wealthy men adduce their generosity to the city and the poor. Christ calls such claims infrequent and hence of limited significance. Dem. 36 stresses how selflessly generous the wealthy Phormio was to many citizens. I agree with Christ, these comments are probably exaggerated. However, Christ's speculations (23) do not mean that Phormio had not been generous. The same applies to Demosthenes' similar claims of public and private generosity, where Christ's many "may have"s vel sim. will not substitute for hard argument. May it not be that mentioning fellow citizens' dependence on charity was painful even for rich citizens?

(c) In "Nursing the sick" (26-28), Christ's sole evidence that in medical crises "only family and friends can truly be relied on" is a phrase in Thucydides, that during the plague good people made a point of visiting their friends and died (2.51.5). However, Thucydides' point is ironic, goodness led to doom, an irony Euripides also exploited (see e.g. the virtuous Andromache in Tr. 634-661). In both the plague and at Syracuse, prayers to the gods are ineffective. Christ must press 2.51 to imply his point.

(d) "Bystander intervention" (28-41) discusses six passages from the orators describing bystander response (or not) to violence between individuals. Christ presents reasons for not thinking three of these passages significant. The fourth, Dem. 54, is contradictory at a key point, while in the fifth and sixth Christ doubts speakers' accounts of bystander help. It seems difficult to draw positive conclusions from these passages.

In (e), "Helping in litigation," the rarity of private volunteer prosecutors, if true, may primarily reflect the inevitable fact that normally victims prosecuted. This is no special indicator that Athenians did not help others. Rhodes (JHS 1986: 135-36) has more evidence than Rubinstein (discussed here) that people normally supported fellow-demesmen, - tribesmen, and "contemporaries" (hêlikiôtai) in court.

Chapter 2, "Helping and democratic citizenship," first argues that rather than helping each other, democratic ideology encouraged citizens to respect each other by leaving them alone and not harming them. Christ seems right that claims of autochthony stress Athenians' unity as a group. I also like his demonstration that the late-fifth and fourth-century ideology of homonoia promoted ideas of civic harmony and not brotherly love (50-61). However, it did so because Athens had just come through a period of murderous civil war. Civic harmony was appropriate to one particular period, and does not imply that citizens should not also support each other. So too, when Dem. 25.87-90 emphasizes toleration among an ideal intergenerational family, that emphasis reflects the intergenerational tension that had plagued Athens since the 430s (so George Forrest and Barry Strauss). Christ's treatment of philia in Aristotle (50-53) underplays its civic importance, including in passages he quotes (e.g., "philia seems to hold cities together," EN 1155a22, or philia is strong in democracies "because the citizens being equal have many things in common," EN 1161b7-12). In the Rosen/Sluiter volume, Konstan's "Are fellow citizens friends? Aristotle versus Cicero on philia, amicitia, and social solidarity" (which Christ critiques [54 n.10]) reaches more positive conclusions on Greek citizen friendship. Christ seizes on any possible distinction in our sources between the philia of family and citizens, when both are similar if not equally strong. By contrast, the final section of this chapter, "Helping as a civic virtue" (67-93), skillfully sets out the evidence that citizens should help the city, through military service, liturgies, and public prosecutions; in turn the city should protect and support its citizens. This section reinforced my image of Athenians as non-selfish, while Christ contends that civic helping supplanted ideals of mutual support among citizens.

Adapting Christ's superb essay in Valuing Others, Chapter 3, "Helping and community in the Athenian law courts," studies the Athenians' commitment to "collective communal protection of individual citizens" (94). Its main focus is protection in the law courts, not least as litigants call on dikasts to "run and help" them (boêthein) in their trials which they represent as crimes-in-progress , "just as a victim of crime in the streets might call on bystanders for help" (97). "The construction of the courts as venues for helping… was socially appealing to jurors. When litigants called upon large panels of jurors to help them, they invoked an attractive image of the Athenian community as one in which fellow citizens, acting collectively, would come to the rescue of a wronged individual out of a sense of solidarity and unity" (102-3). In Christ's first case study, Antiphon's Against the Stepmother, the speaker tells the dikasts, "you are now my family" (104). This brilliant chapter again convinced me that Athenians were altruistic, as they said; Christ stresses that dikasts could be generous at no risk to themselves. Parts of pp. 110-11 on Athenian public self-restraint could have been written by Gaby Herman.

In Chapter 4, "'Helping others' in Athenian interstate relations," it's Polly Low's turn. Christ agrees that prestige, honor, and therefore morality counted in interstate relations, and that Low's Interstate Relations in Classical Greece: Morality and Power sometimes acknowledges the role of self-advantage (121-26). However, Christ again argues that, for the most part, Athenians talked about morality but rarely acted upon it. After seeking to problematize the benevolent picture of earlier Athens presented in Euripides' Suppliants, the epitaphioi, and Isokrates, but without considering (e.g.) that Thucydides' negativism and a growing sense of moral propriety may have colored Athenians' views of their more recent past, he turns to Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon as "especially useful in assessing the motivations behind… Athenian interventions abroad." While acknowledging (138-39) that all three writers were anti-democratic and/or biased against Athens (also, like many historians, they enjoyed scandalizing readers), Christ mostly ignores such concerns when using them as sources. He focuses on three cases: helping the Ionians in the 490s (he at once calls Herodotus account "suspect" [141] while accepting it, as reinforcing his own pragmatic views); helping the Plataians (but Herodotus stresses how much the Athenians did for the Plataians, "taking on frequent toils for their sake" [6.108]; later during the Peloponnesian War, Christ accepts Thucydides' emphasis on to xumpheron as guiding Athens' relations with other powers [151], while covering himself ["we should not rule out the possibility that there is some truth to his depiction" [153]); and Athens' early fourth-century alliances (where again Christ's critical stance toward the sources is consistently biased toward his thesis). Christ rightly calls Xenophon "Thucydides' heir, in viewing relations between states as based primarily on expedience" (162). Last, in very fine pages, Christ compares Demosthenes' idealizing portrait of 340s foreign policy in On the Crown (330 BC) with his earlier deliberative speeches (354-341), when he tries to induce the Athenians to fight Philip more by pragmatic expediency than by idealism. But in difficult decisions, surely it is smart politics to stress pragmatism over idealism? Modern parallels occur, for example in US foreign aid and military interventions. Christ again concludes that while the Athenians said they were idealistic, mostly they were not. Better: they often were, but in tough times pragmatism appealed to all. Here as elsewhere, while acknowledging its complexity, Christ relentlessly turns the evidence to support his argument. His distinctions between idealistic and pragmatic in Athenian public life prove overly sharp.

Some final points. Christ could have discussed in greater complexity the proclamations of generosity by Athens' conservative upper classes, including Plato and Isokrates (see 61-67, a most interesting presentation). He might have better exploited tragedy, e.g. Sophokles' Philoktetes, where Neoptolemos (in the end a model Good Samaritan) helps the smelly but innocent Philoktetes despite the Greeks. In my opinion (also in Rosen/Sluiter), much evidence documents the improving treatment of classical women and slaves. However, historical developments figure not at all in this book. Finally, as with the upper classes, some Athenian democrats too will have been more altruistic than others, and at different times.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.