Wednesday, February 11, 2015


Alan H. Sommerstein, Isabelle C. Torrance (ed.), Oaths and Swearing in Ancient Greece. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, Bd. 307​. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2014. Pp. viii, 246. ISBN 9783110200591. €109.95.

Reviewed by Donald Lateiner, Ohio Wesleyan University (

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No one can be "oathier" in English, but in archaic Gortyn a woman slave might be "more trusted on oath" than a free man (ὁρκιοτέραν, hapax: IC iv.72 col ii.11-16). The reality of divine guarantors for Hellenic oaths is hard now to grasp, and this volume helps elucidate that power. It "completes the publication of the [Nottingham] project" (v) on Archaic and Classical oaths. Horkologists may access the invaluable data collection of over 3,700 oaths at The Oath in Archaic and Classical Greece. The project engendered Horkos, The Oath in Greek Society (Exeter 2007), edited by Sommerstein and Judith Fletcher, and Oath and State in Ancient Greece (Berlin 2013), "a partner volume" edited by Sommerstein and Bayliss (cited in this volume as S&B). The researchers illuminate this crucial and oft-employed institution of archaic and classical Greek private and public life. Collaborators include Andrew Bayliss, Judith Fletcher, Kyriaki Konstantinidou, and Lynn Kozak. The present volume requires access to the previous ones. The division of topics allots more state and interstate documentary material to S&B and more private parties and literary evidence for the process to S&T.

The team premises their studies on a strict three-element definition (1-2): Oaths are assertory declarations of the past or present, or promissory for the future. The swearer calls down on himself a conditional curse, and specifies superhuman powers (gods, heroes, even objects, abstractions, etc.) to witness and guarantee truth or performance. The self-curse fortifies credibility and ensures completion. Both the second and third leg may be explicit or implicit—a fuzziness that caused problems in the actual swearing situation and bedevils current analyses. Sommerstein asserts (2n.7) that there is an equation of oath and curse, but if Dionysus' self-curses produce his slave's acceptance of his implied oath, then an oath word is not necessary to prove an oath's occurrence (Frogs 579-89; cf. 210).

Fifteen chapters examine oath processes and language in myth, epic, drama, oratory, and historiography. Oaths occur when trust is lacking. This mode of conflict resolution supplies a Band-Aid when needed, often only a temporary solution. The Hellenes took them seriously, in part because they had no superior earthly enforcers of agreements—the religious framework of the oath process (28) alone had sufficient clout.

Oaths in traditional myths dominate chapters 3 and 8 but find frequent mention throughout. The discussion here starts from the Iliad, an epic based on oath(-breaking), as Torrance notes, and Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis. The Oath of Tyndareus, essentially below Homer's radar, did not bind late-comers Achilles and Neoptolemus. Thucydides pooh-poohs this oath's significance, despite or because of his attention to oaths in his war. The truce-oaths broken by the Trojans during the two months of the Iliad figure prominently (3.245-301). Oaths may explain why characters (including Zeus) act contrary to their interests—the compulsion of their sworn word.

Kozak (Chapter 4.1) examines warrior oaths, "a fluid spectrum of war relationships" (60). Greeks could distinguish, when to their advantage, oathed agreements from promises, handshakes, undertakings, alliances, compacts, vel sim. The terminology and ancient practice can be less precise than some Nottingham Databasers allow. The problem concerns terminology and interpretations of explicit/implicit factors. Do Diomedes and Lycian Glaucus swear an oath or—as xenoi—simply pledge a truce, exchange, and "frenemyship"? Does Hermes swear friendship with Apollo (cf. 200n.84—can a nod seal a compact?)? Community representatives may swear oaths, e.g., Priam for the Trojans (Iliad 3.105ff.), and individuals, e.g., Achilles (by the scepter, Iliad 1) and Agamemnon (Iliad 9 and 19). Odysseus as commander uniquely (in Homer) demands oath from subordinates—although it fails (Ody. 12.297-307). Kozak dissects Achilles' three oaths and Odysseus' as Iliadic warrior (2.257-64) and "stranger" on Ithaca. The former's oath language and gestures are unique and (of course) intense; the latter's volunteered oaths attempt to build trust for the unexpected beggar's "incredible" insistence that the hero will soon return home. Kozak discusses Achilles' two refusals to swear oaths (with Hector in Il. 22 and Priam in 24—for opposite reasons, the latter supposedly "redeeming" the former (221). One of Cretan Aethon's self-curses counts as oath, although it sports no "linguistic marker" of oath word or named god.1 This seems reasonable since oath words appear in closely parallel situations (14.149-52, 171). Despite many attractive lies, Odysseus never swears to the truth of any falsehood (229).

Torrance (Chapter 5.2) examines a nearly exclusively Sophoclean phenomenon in which characters retroactively call "oath" what was originally an unsworn agreement. This problem, appearing in nearly all his extant tragedies, requires complicated arguments about the "trope" or "stylistic device." The Philoctetes presents the interplay of friendship, heroic trust, and sophistic oaths (e.g., 811-813, 942). In Oedipus at Colonus, Theseus recasts his own unsworn promises as oaths (1145), and Polyneices' corpse-guard (Antigone 388-94) oddly describes his asseveration as oath-bound. The matter remains puzzling.

Torrance (Chapter 5.3) also tackles Eideshorte, sanctifying but non-divine entities, from Achilles' scepter to dogs and plants. Immediate contexts determined the choice of unexpected oath-witnesses (119). The Athenian ephebic oath included Boundaries, Wheat, Barley, Vines, Olives, and Figs. Oath witnesses will pursue and punish perjurers, here promising agricultural fecundity or threatening starvation (117). Oath witnesses enhance mighty asseverations (e.g., Dem. 8.49-50, 18.208, "by the men of Marathon"). Some oath-objects are comical, and not only in Aristophanes. Euripides (in Cyclops) has Silenus swear by fish, the Sausage-Seller (in Knights) swears by knuckles, butcher cleavers, and Hermes Agoraios (297-8)—the god of commerce, thieves, and liars. Socrates swears oaths by the goose (a euphemistic pun: khêna/ Zêna) and the dog (13 times)—oaths not seriously binding, but emphatic. These attestations underline what follows by "a formula of 'swearing without swearing'" (123). Torrance then (Chapter 6.1) surveys oaths that increase sanctity through special deities, locations (the Agora lithos), libations, sacrifices, and gestures such as touching the earth or sacrificial victims. Flouting these witnesses is doubly damned after literary oath ceremonies.

Fletcher (Chapter 7.1) explores the few surviving oaths connected to women, sworn by or to. Surviving (male) sources mainly cite such performances for the anxiety that women's oaths cause the "collective masculinity" (comedy: Lysistrata, tragedy: Agamemnon). Elsewhere, men manipulate women's unsworn and putative contents in Attic law courts (e.g., Lysias 32)—a male litigant avoiding a nuisance oath ritual can insert the woman's "testimony." Chastity oaths occur in a few ritual inscriptions and in the later worlds of erotic fictions (e.g., Heliodoros' Liebespaar; cf. Carian women's abstinence at Hdt. 1.146, Birds 705-7, and Lysistrata). At Gortyn, women enjoyed "a certain legal agency, or, at least, legal visibility" (164). Throughout Hellas, pledges (pistis) stand inferior to oaths (horkos). For Sparta, we disagree whether Demaratus' mother swore him an oath in Herodotus' dramatically reported, oath-filled mini-narrative (6.63-9).2

Gods swear in order to guarantee their dicier dealings with each other (Chapter 7.3). The river Styx is the default witness for Demeter, for the trickster Hermes and Hera, and others, but never for humans. (The apparently deranged Spartan King Cleomenes proves the rule, Hdt. 6.74.) Zeus, bound by Hera's oath that doomed Heracles in Agamemnon's self-serving dissertation on atê (Il. 19.101-33), swears another to exile the goddess Delusion—but nowhere else in this extended period (Torrance 201).

Scrupulosity applies to the letter and spirit of the law, as Shakespeares' Shylock discovers, demanding on oath his pound of flesh. Greeks reveled in tales of clever oath dodging (Chapter 10)—fulfilling the literal word but evading undesired outcomes, when they cunningly can. One could dodge oaths by unexpected interpretations, or phrasing a false oath so that it was "technically" true (Autolycus' art), or a combination (247). Although one-eighth of the database's oaths are subject to allegations of false swearing, Bayliss believes this shows how seriously Greeks took their word. His Table 3 (Chapter 10.2) commendably lists 35 artfully dodged oaths, whether successful or not in finding wiggle-room. Thucydides has Pericles eulogize his dead, alleging that Peloponnesians, not Athenians, deploy "devices and deceits" (2.39.1), but Paches paid no heed. Dodging oaths was arguably legitimate when retaliatory or in self-defense against imposition, and forgiven when the loser should have perceived the loophole. Bayliss observes Polybius admiration for Roman diplomacy's rectitude and hyper-morality (279)—but suppresses the notorious Ebro treaty interpretation (Polyb. 1.168ff.).

Oaths were not "always totally binding," (Chapter 11.1). No one gets away with perjury in this period in our surviving texts (284), after Sommerstein explains in detail too subtle for viewers the disturbing oath- interpretations found in Eumenides (458 BCE; but contemplate Hdt. 1.164-7, the Phocaeans' oath). Asexual Hippolytus could not exonerate himself from his stepmother's trumped-up rape charge because of his "blind" oath. Despite his desperate distinction between tongue and mind unsworn (Hippolytus 612), the youngster—loyal to his tragic oath—never reveals the truth (Torrance, Chapter 11.3). Lovers' oaths were always notoriously fragile (Plato Symp. 183b)—written in ashes, wine, or water.

Did perjurers always suffer consequences? No. The many divine stewards of Hellenic oaths (including Oath's "swift, nameless, and limbless child," Hdt. 6.86, and the "Oath Gods") did not always act.3 The pious sometimes had to envision eventual penalties—judgment day quietly postponed. Men have sworn that oaths will endure while the sun rises or until iron lumps, now cast in the sea, surface again, but disaster may never [yet?] strike (300-1). The emigrating Phocaean community swore en masse an oath that half-plus quickly forswore: ψευδόρκιοι (hapax at Hdt. 1.164-7, cf. Ath. Pol. 23.5). Lysander comfortably delivered advice to perjure for the state in war and peace (Plut. Lysander 7-8). By the fourth century, accumulated experience led many to disvalue oaths. Konstantinidou (Chapter 12.2) notes that perjury was not a crime in Athenian law (distinct from the dike pseudomartyrion), and witnesses were not on oath in court (cf. S&B 87-100).

Sommerstein (Chapter 13) defines "informal oaths" as those swearings in prose or "less elevated poetic genres" [why less?] by a being or thing, and introduced by oath particles (e.g., ναὶ μά, οὐ μά)—but without [other] formal linguistic markers, i.e., no "swear" word or self-curse. He believes that hardly anyone disregarded oaths, even the "conversational phenomenon," with impunity. Sommerstein notes (Chapter 15) that from the late fifth century, oaths provided poor guarantees, and worse, indicators of shifty and shameless personalities (cf. Isocr. 1.23; Theophr. Char. 6.1, 8; more nuanced: Pl. Laws 949a). Although the doubting attitude towards oaths spread, public authorities kept demanding them and ordinary people kept swearing them (393).

Torrance (Chapter 13a) examines "oaths in the authorial person" found in prose authors and poets (chiefly Pindar). Pindar's epinician poems feature his unblemished lyric persona, so ostentatious oaths hardly surprise. She finds none in Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, and Thucydides. Herodotus avoids dangerous swearing in his own name, and confabulated no informal oaths. Xenophon, uniquely among prose authors, offers oaths to construct his own character's prudence in the Anabasis (361-5). In the Hellenica Xenophon as author swears once by Zeus about a character: Teleutias (5.1.4) prefers his men's welfare to amassing money. He resembles that fellow Xenophon in the Anabasis, a book that "Themistogenes" had written (Hell. 3.1.2). No orator before Demosthenes' epoch swore oaths in preserved texts. Demosthenes' speakers informally swear by Zeus to underline a point, and Aeschines' practice resembles his (349).

So, crabby Theognis prudently warned listeners against trusting oaths (284, 1139)! This volume's achievement advances the systematic study of early Greek swearing and its social dynamics. Another post-Alexandrian millennium of Hellenic oaths, at least, remains to be catalogued and analyzed.


1.  Ody.16.102, Oath Database #555. Is the speaker swearing as Aethon or Odysseus?
2.  The circumstantial evidence sufficiently suggests to me an intra-familial oath for Demaratus' mother. See "Oaths: Theory and Practice in the Histories of Herodotus and Thucydides," in E. Foster and D. Lateiner, edd., Thucydides and Herodotus (Oxford 2012) 154-84, esp. 165-7 n.35. Sommerstein denies that Herodotus suggests an oath, absent a satisfactory "linguistic marker." Konstantinidou, Fletcher, and other readers affirm its "oathiness," while Torrance has argued both sides of the question.
3.  Contributors ignore the implications of the thought-deed guilt-shame binaries in Leutychidas' fable about Glaucus' oath-infringement (Hdt. 6.86). To entertain the thought of breaking an oath to them seemed tantamount to perjury. Delphi and the Spartan King state that consideration of perjury entails divine destruction of one's family. The swearing curse-tablets need related attention.

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