Back to top

Tragedy Offstage

Tragedy Offstage
Suffering and Sympathy in Ancient Athens

An evocative study of the actions through which Athenians expressed compassion for those who suffered—as well as the limits of their pity.

December 2006
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
250 pages | 6 x 9 | 5 tables |

Humane ideals were central to the image Athenians had of themselves and their city during the classical period. Tragic plays, which formed a part of civic education, often promoted pity and compassion. But it is less clear to what extent Athenians embraced such ideals in daily life. How were they expected to respond, emotionally and pragmatically, to the suffering of other people? Under what circumstances? At what risk to themselves?

In this book, Rachel Hall Sternberg draws on evidence from Greek oratory and historiography of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE to study the moral universe of the ancient Athenians: how citizens may have treated one another in times of adversity, when and how they were expected to help. She develops case studies in five spheres of everyday life: home nursing, the ransom of captives, intervention in street crimes, the long-distance transport of sick and wounded soldiers, and slave torture. Her close reading of selected narratives suggests that Athenians embraced high standards for helping behavior—at least toward relatives, friends, and some fellow citizens. Meanwhile, a subtle discourse of moral obligation strengthened the bonds that held Athenian society together, encouraging individuals to bring their personal behavior into line with the ideals of the city-state.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Home Nursing
  • 2. The Ransom of Captives
  • 3. Bystander Intervention
  • 4. The Transport of Sick and Wounded Soldiers
  • 5. The Judicial Torture of Slaves
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Rachel Hall Sternberg is Assistant Professor of Classics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.


Browse this book with Google Preview »

One night, several passersby see a group of thugs attacking someone in the center of the city. On a nearby island, another man's childhood friend lies mortally ill, unable to rise from his bed. Athenian citizens, this time soldiers, are wounded and unable to walk as the rest of the army retreats after a disastrous battle. A man kidnapped by the marauding crew of a warship is first sold into slavery, then ransomed, then threatened with slavery once again if he cannot pay off his ransomers. In a murder trial, a slave is tortured for legal evidence as parties to the case look on. In each instance, the sufferers who face pain, danger, or death are desperately in need of help. Will they get it? How do strangers, friends, war comrades, neighbors, or slave-owning citizens feel about the suffering that they witness? Do they care? Can they afford to? Will pity, empathy, or a sense of humanity prompt them to intervene? All of these people live in the same society. What do they think they owe one another?

This book studies part of the moral universe of the ancient Athenians: how adult male citizens may have treated one another in times of adversity, when and how they were expected to help. It is not a cheerful book, and cannot be, because it concerns suffering, and a certain amount of time must be spent building up a detailed picture of the terrible situations that Athenians sometimes faced and how they dealt with them. Lest readers relatively new to the world of classical Athens carry away an indelibly grim picture of that time and place, it is worth stating at the outset that Athenian society made room for joy and pleasure and valued both highly. Elite male citizens feasted, competed, and pursued their passions; the entire community held celebrations throughout the year. Yet the fortunes of individuals and the city-state were mutable, and calamities got in the way, casting a shadow over lives and engendering a profound distrust of the future that is captured perfectly in the famous and impossible anecdote in which Solon the Athenian advises Croesus to "call no man happy until he is dead."

Throughout the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., and despite all the vicissitudes of history, Athens witnessed a remarkable cultural flowering that would impart to the West a world of ideas: naturalistic art that put human beings at the center; a democratic system of government; a refined concept of virtue; philosophy for the soul, medicine for the body; rhetoric that allowed people to persuade and be persuaded; narrative history; and many types of poetry. The poetry was part of ordinary people's lives. They all knew Homer, and each spring at the Theater of Dionysus, on the south slope of the Acropolis, Athenians staged and watched numerous spectacles, including choruses, dithyrambs, comedies, satyr plays—and tragedies. The latter told stories that moved their spectators; similar scenes are found in the histories (Griffin 1998, 56-59). Strikingly, most tragedies had to do with irremediable suffering. One thinks, for example, of Oedipus, driven to blind himself; of Cassandra, the anguished war captive who foresees her own death; of Jason's young bride, whom Medea hideously kills. In scenes such as these, the chorus and other characters are made to feel pity, and so are the spectators.

Until recently, the lion's share of scholarship on pity in ancient Greece was inspired by Aristotle's discussion of the pity and terror—leading to some kind of purging or katharsis—experienced by those spectators. The emotions Aristotle describes were no doubt real enough, but one must draw a clear distinction between "tragic pity" and pity in everyday life. They are not the same. Indeed, commenting on the turmoil created by faction and warfare in his own day, Isocrates says that people weep in the theater but view the actual calamities of others with something like pleasure (4.168): "They think it worth crying over the misfortunes composed by the poets; but looking upon real sufferings, the many and terrible things brought about by war, they are so far from pitying that they rejoice more in the evils of others than in their own private advantages." In the theater, pity is akin to pleasure and costs nothing but spent tears. Nothing is required of the spectator but a fleeting emotional involvement in fictional situations that are soon over and done with. In real life, however, pity may lead to significant expenditures of time, energy, goods, or money; it can entail lasting emotional pain. Despite the important place that tragedy occupied in the culture of Athens, we must not assume that tragic pity bore more than a passing resemblance to the pity that one experienced in the real world of private and civic obligations, where the illnesses, bereavements, financial embarrassments, and misadventures of family, friends, or war comrades often tested bonds of affection (philia) and placed heavy demands upon individual Athenians.

This book examines those demands. It searches for the everyday existence that underlay the high art of tragedy—the mundane world in which playwrights and audiences lived out their lives. It also explores, and indeed tests, the civic self-image of the Athenians. In a speech entitled Panegyricus, Isocrates praises Athens for defending the wronged (4.52) and exalts the city's mythological achievements familiar from tragedy: aid to suppliants from elsewhere in the Greek world who sought help against an unjust and insolent enemy. The fifth-century empire of Athens, he claims, was won not through violence but by treating other cities well (4.80). This speech, written c. 380 and greatly admired in antiquity (Dobson 1974, 276), strongly suggests that the humane treatment of fellow Greeks was central to Athenian civic ideology. Here is how the statesman and orator Demosthenes describes the ethos of Athens (24.171): "To pity the weak and not permit the strong and powerful to commit outrages; not to handle the populace savagely, nor flatter the man who seems always to be in a position of power." Demosthenes says elsewhere that pity is embedded in the laws and constitution (22.57): "In them there is pity, pardon, everything appropriate to free men." This ideal of kindness persisted, so that centuries later it was thought that Athenians of the classical period had erected an altar to pity in the center of town.

Pity sometimes influenced the votes of jurors in the lawcourts. Still, to judge by the historical accounts of Herodotus and Thucydides, Athenian citizens who attended the Assembly typically approached political and military issues with hardheaded pragmatism. Donald Lateiner (2005) points out that where the interests of the polis were at stake, there was little or no room for pity: expediency ruled foreign affairs. But what of individual decisions concerning relatives, friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, and slaves? To whom did pity apply? To whom was it denied? Confronted with the suffering of another human being, what was the appropriate response? Would most people turn away in loathing or indifference, or was one expected to help? Under what circumstances? And at what risk to oneself? In short, what was one supposed to do in the face of another person's misery?

These questions raise ethical issues that are still relevant today, so it is not surprising that helping behavior, together with the emotions of compassion or sympathy, has lately commanded considerable interest in a broad range of academic fields, including biology, anthropology, psychology, social psychology, and philosophy. Julia Annas (1993, 223-325) has analyzed Aristotelian concepts relating to "other-concern" in a section that touches on some of the same issues at stake here. David Konstan, in Pity Transformed (2001), explores Greek and Roman concepts of pity as they developed over a period of a thousand years. He relies heavily on Aristotle and the Stoic philosophers, along with comedy and other genres of imaginative literature. This book, however, takes a different tack.

First, it focuses strictly on Athens in the classical period, looking neither forward nor backward in time, in an attempt to capture the moral and emotional climate of that important historical moment. Second, it presents a series of case studies, grounded in oratory and historiography, that offer snapshots of Athenian life. Of course, the evidence is uneven, incomplete. But these morality tales, when examined closely, yield a wealth of insight and information about Athenian social realities and Athenian cultural ideals. They provide a glimpse of specific quotidian issues that the most highly valued canonical texts—tragedy and philosophy—do not provide.

The Limits of Aristotle

Until a few years ago, few had attempted to analyze pity or helping behavior in everyday Athens. The main reason, it seems, was simple: Plato and Aristotle set the agenda for moral philosophy, and compassion was not on it. Neither of them ever wrote, so far as we know, about what one was supposed to do in the face of another person's misery. Yet ordinary people faced that question every day, for they could hardly avoid witnessing the suffering of others. In modern America and Europe, most of us have limited personal contact with suffering; severely sick or injured individuals are usually treated in hospitals and other care centers by trained professionals, so that one can speak, as Susan Sontag has, about the separate kingdoms of the well and the ill (1977, 1). In ancient Greece, however, those kingdoms were intermingled. Sick people were almost inevitably taken care of at home, by relatives or slaves; noisome diseases or painful war wounds would constantly have tested the fortitude of caretakers. Beggars, outcasts, and the poor would have been highly conspicuous in their plight, since people who lacked a home and family had no sure place of refuge. Slaves, with their unenviable lot, were everywhere. In other words, the haves could not easily insulate themselves from the have-nots. Those possessed of good fortune were constantly brushing shoulders with people to whom the gods had dealt, as Zeus does in the Iliad, a portion of unmixed evil (24.531-533). Moreover, no one, rich or poor, was invulnerable to the blows of fate, and no one was exempt from painful moral choices.

A generation ago, Jacqueline de Romilly traced the course of humanity and gentleness in Greek literature. Hers was a study in intellectual history that did not purport to recapture everyday moral attitudes or behavior. Indeed, she complained that evidence of everyday behavior is prohibitively scarce (1979, 6): "The most significant thing, with regard to relations between people, would be in effect to define the place of gentleness in everyday life and in the contemporary judgments of individual conduct. But that is almost never what the texts bring us." Of course, no genre of Greek literature can be taken as a pure and undistorted reflection of the everyday. That is obviously true of epic and of tragedy, whose scenes are almost always set in the mythological past and shaped by theatrical conventions far removed from ordinary life. It is also true of philosophy, which represents the best intellects of Athens and can hardly be regarded as typical. Moreover, ancient writers tended to draw a veil of privacy over personal matters, and de Romilly was right in saying that the evidence is scarce. Yet it is well worth seeking.

The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle would seem a logical place to turn when investigating moral attitudes, especially the bonds of kinship and friendship discussed in Books 8 and 9. His treatment of philia has justly attracted the attention of scholars such as Konstan (1997) and Pangle (2003), who write about friendship rather narrowly defined as the bonds of affection and trust between two people, like the legendary friendship between Achilles and Patroclus. In asking how such friendship contributes to human happiness and the good or virtuous life, Aristotle finds that it can heighten one's awareness of pleasure and conscious activity (Pangle 2003, 190). Friends are expected to help one another, but the essence of friendship in the highest sense is shared conversation, shared activity, and a sense of affinity that can lead to greater self-knowledge (Cooper 1999, 283-285).

Aristotle also takes a wider view of philia as a universal bond (Eth. Nic. 8.1.3) and the foundation of society (8.1.4). As Konstan points out, the term philia encompassed much more than modern "friendship." Pangle writes that it "can cover all bonds of affection, from the closest erotic and familial ties to political loyalties, humanitarian sympathies, business partnerships, and even love for inanimate things" (2003, 2). In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle talks about husbands and wives, parents and children, as well as same-sex age-mates and friends. Reciprocity is a recurrent theme (see esp. 9.1 through 9.2). Friends are sought in times of prosperity and adversity alike (9.11). "For it is the part of a friend to render service, and especially to those in need, and without being asked, since assistance so rendered is more noble and more pleasant for both parties" (9.11.6, trans. Rackham). Aristotle furnishes examples of friendly feeling and mutual reliance between soldiers and shipmates, for example (8.9.1), travelers (8.9.4), and members of demes and tribes (8.9.5). All friendship, he says, involves community: en koinonia men oun pasa philia estin (8.12.1). He urges repeatedly, however, that friendships based on mere utility are shallow and fleeting (e.g., 8.4.2, 8.6.4, 8.13.4) compared to those based on a true affinity between virtuous men.

Aristotle seems so perspicacious that it is tempting to rely heavily on him. Yet there are limits to his treatment. First, he is all too brief on the topic of friendship in adversity, and the examples he gives are few (see below). Second, he is most keenly interested in the moral ramifications of elite friendship between men who are more or less equals, rather than the practical ramifications of a broader philia at every level of society. Consequently, we cannot afford to look at Athenian social relations through Aristotle's eyes alone. To gain fresh perspectives, we must look elsewhere.

Methodological Framework

For the purposes of this project, I set aside philosophy in favor of two literary genres that are arguably more prosaic and quotidian because they usually purport to talk about actual events. Those genres are historiography and oratory. The first includes the Histories of Herodotus, the Peloponnesian War of Thucydides, and the Anabasis and Hellenica of Xenophon. The second consists of speeches composed for the courtroom, democratic assembly, or other public occasions: works written by or attributed to the most famous Attic orators, including Antiphon, Andocides, Lysias, Isocrates, Isaeus, Demosthenes, Aeschines, and Lycurgus. These texts, which refer in complex ways to everyday life, cover a span of roughly 130 years, from Antiphon and Herodotus in the mid-fifth century to the last letters of Demosthenes in the late 320s. The two genres are not equivalent, and each in fact contains a startling range of work: "historiography" ranges from ethnography to political and military history to historical romance and autobiographical narrative, while "oratory" encompasses actual courtroom speeches, schoolbook examples of the same, funeral addresses, deliberative speeches, and so forth. Two of the three historians reflect fifth-century Athens, while most of the orators reflect fourth-century Athens. Yet the genres do sometimes dovetail: they describe the feeling of pity, for example, in very similar ways (Sternberg 2005). And the texts do offer multiple points of entry into the ancient city-state, with its complex social structures that both dealt with and gave rise to tensions and difficulties that Aristotle never describes.

Sir Kenneth Dover, who devoted six pages to compassion in his Greek Popular Morality (1974), hammered out a useful framework for evaluating moral attitudes expressed in oratory as well as in tragedy and comedy. Our task, he urged, is to discern how ancient texts reflected the presuppositions of their intended audiences (1-13). Approaches to historiography soon followed suit, and my own methodological stance can be briefly stated. Although scenes from Xenophon or Lysias, or any of the other historians or orators, are not transparent windows on the past, they at least purport to tell us what is real or attempt to create a convincing fiction, and they reveal emotions and attitudes in two ways. First, the author can make the characters within his narrative respond to one another in various situations, thereby disclosing ancient views on individual psychology. Second, he can attempt to impress or influence his intended audience, thereby pointing to popular attitudes and expectations, the social ideals of the day. Such texts cannot be regarded as a faithful and accurate reflection of actual events. We can never say with certainty, "This is what a given person said or did." All we can say is, "This is how someone in Athens wrote about moral choices, and it must have seemed plausible at the time," for the texts were believable in their own day.

In a city-state or polis that lacked state-sponsored schooling, citizens derived their concepts of virtue from their private upbringing, no doubt, but also, and more importantly perhaps, from public events, including performances of Homeric epic, dramatic spectacles, athletic competitions, political assemblies, funerals for the war-dead, litigation, and public readings of historical works. Individual Athenians were implicitly encouraged to match themselves to the ideals of the city-state. Discrete narratives embedded in the speeches and histories, which are replete with terms of approbation and opprobrium, show how. They also suggest the range of actions open to people living in that culture; they illuminate social structures and reveal how people defined themselves at a specific historical moment, just as modern discourse allows observers to understand similar phenomena within contemporary culture. Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist studying volunteerism and charity in the United States, writes (1991, 45):

When I talk about "acts of compassion," then, I do not mean a particular set of behaviors, taken simply at face value, such as a visit to the hospital or an afternoon of volunteering at a center for abused women. I mean the cultural framework as well: the languages we use to make sense of such behaviors, the cultural understandings that transform them from physical motions into human action. The discourse in which such behavior is inscribed is no less a part of the act than is the behavior itself. The possibility of compassion depends as much on having an appropriate discourse to interpret it as it does on having a free afternoon to do it.

Then, as now, the possibility of compassionate action or helping behavior is created, in part, by language and rhetoric: words reflect culture, and they also shape it. If Wuthnow is correct, the texts of classical Athens should make accessible precisely the kind of analysis that de Romilly thought impossible. This book therefore attempts to understand helping behavior in everyday Athens by building on the premise that ancient narratives in which one person must respond to another person who is suffering or in danger employ a subtle rhetoric of moral obligation. The storyteller and the characters who speak within the story use terms of praise and blame. Their language, even if not overtly moralizing and didactic, expresses approval, derision, or dismissal. Through it, we can learn much about the cultural framework within which ordinary Athenians, as moral agents, lived and acted. The stories also point to specific deeds that Athenians were expected to perform that have gone largely unnoticed by modern scholars.

My first task was to peruse all extant oratory and historiography in search of stories in which individuals directly confronted the suffering of others and were obliged to respond, either by offering help or by refusing it. To be useful, the stories had to be detailed and reflect attitudes toward human beings in dire circumstances, namely the sick or helpless, poor and destitute, slaves and prisoners of war. I considered only those situations where to feel pity or furnish help might carry a high personal cost. Very few stories met all the criteria, and those few dictated my chapter topics: home nursing, the ransom of captives, bystander intervention in street crime, the transport of sick and wounded soldiers, and the judicial torture of slaves.

My second task was to set the chosen narratives in context. In order to grasp the moral implications of the passages, it was necessary to draw a detailed picture of the physical settings and social realities that Athenians confronted: the practical pressures and constraints under which they, as moral agents, operated every day. How can one assess home nursing, for example, without looking at domestic architecture? Or the handling of sick and wounded soldiers, without looking at military logistics? I also compiled all known examples of the five situations under scrutiny: every documented instance of bystander intervention in street crime, or judicial slave torture, and so forth. Such information, together with relevant scholarship on each subject, as well as parallels from comedy, creates a backdrop against which each major narrative can be considered. Social historians of ancient Greece may be familiar with this descriptive material, but much of it will be new to specialists in philosophy or literary criticism, or students of Roman culture and society, or readers interested in the history of emotion.

My third task, finally, was to subject the chosen texts to a close reading. In so doing, I attempted to discern how Athenians described their emotional responses and what they thought their moral obligations were, especially toward friends. Literary tools were employed to analyze the rhetoric and the attitudes that it reflects. Where appropriate, theoretical work from anthropology or sociology or social psychology was brought into play. In each instance, I examined the position of the moral agent who, faced with someone else's pain or jeopardy, must decide how to act. Although such decisions will have depended largely upon the individual character of the moral agent and the complex circumstances of the moment, one can learn something about the expectations laid upon that moral agent by society.

The material, as I explored it, led me to adopt the model of a moral agent who stands at the center of three concentric circles: first, his nearest and dearest family and friends; second, friends and acquaintances to whom his obligations were less binding; and third, fellow citizens whom he knew barely or not at all. The moral agent is imagined as a man perforce because all of the narratives revolve around men; where the evidence permits, however, I do consider the role of women in a household confronted by sickness or by the prolonged absence of adult male relative. The model is not as simple as it sounds, because a moral agent cannot always easily discern to which circle the "other" belongs. Is one's neighbor, for example, to be counted as a close friend or an acquaintance? Will a half-sister living in another household honor the ties of kinship? If not, how should she be treated? A further complication in analyzing any interpersonal relationship is that the parties involved would not necessarily both view it in the same light. Either one might have trouble interpreting the actions of the other or assessing his own level of obligation. And finally, the pressure of events could transform even the closest amity into bitter enmity. A real-life moral agent, then, negotiating the treacherous depths of social life, might experience considerable uncertainty in deciding what sort of help to offer, and to whom.

In every chapter, I have tried to draw out from ancient stories the emotions and attitudes reflected there—to explicate the texts. I have therefore avoided imposing questions or categories not found within them. So, for example, I did not explore an Athenian's religious obligations toward suffering people because such obligations won no mention in my sources. Why did religion go unmentioned there? It's hard to say. Perhaps the stories, so few in number, are unrepresentative and therefore misleading on this score. Or perhaps the religious dimension of popular morality was so obvious that it required neither comment nor reminder. Or perhaps Athenians seldom thought of Zeus or the other gods when making everyday ethical decisions.

Similarly, I have declined to weigh costs and benefits for each moral actor except as the text allowed. The characters in these everyday dramas do not mimic Aristotle or Thucydides: they never systematically analyze issues of merit or of expediency, interest, advantage. An overt weighing of motives would serve no purpose in the particular texts we have: the man who boasts to jurors that he nursed his dying friend, for example, has no reason to spell out all the reasons why, and a man embroiled in litigation with a former friend will certainly distort their prior dealings. But I restricted my study to situations where helping behavior imposed high costs—such high costs, in fact, that only some kind of moral imperative, a very strong feeling or societal expectation, would prompt a person to act. In general, the moral agents in these narratives could have derived little or no short-term advantage from their involvement with people in pain or jeopardy, and some took risks that undercut any possible long-term advantage.

Tragedy On and Off the Stage

The title of this book, Tragedy Offstage, is consciously transgressive: it breaks a time-honored rule among classicists and other literary scholars that the term "tragedy" should apply strictly to the artistic and literary genre that in fifth-century Athens was raised to astonishing heights by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. According to that rule, it is vulgar to label actual calamities "tragic" or to construe actual suffering and loss as "tragedy." Nevertheless, I wish to draw attention to several points of correspondence between the genre of tragedy and the realm of real life. In doing so, I will explain and justify the word "tragedy" in the title, my deployment of a scene from tragedy at the start of each chapter, and the occasional parallels from tragedy that are sprinkled throughout.

First, as noted earlier, most of the plays written by the great tragedians were very much concerned with suffering. Destruction and loss are prominent elements in tragic plots, and tragic characters often give voice to anguish. These artfully crafted scenes spring from the imagination of the playwrights and are usually set in the heroic past, but they bring to life real human conflicts and real pain. Despite the line between tragedy and the world—a line that Phrynichus was penalized for crossing when he depicted the actual fall of Miletus—Athenian tragedy was and is about trauma and pain that real people recognize. Terry Eagleton writes (2003, 17): "The discrepancy between tragedy as art and tragedy as life is an ironic one. For most pieces of tragic art behave exactly as though tragedy were indeed a matter of actual experience, rather than some purely aesthetic phenomenon." Surely this is why the genre may lay claim to an enduring interest that, in the fullness of history, has so often cut across temporal, geographical, and cultural boundaries. The word "tragedy," then, is a literary term, but it can supply a powerful and appropriate metaphor for certain terrible situations in everyday life. This is the metaphor that my title employs.

Second, many scenes of destruction and loss in Athenian tragedy focus on responses to suffering—responses from characters within various scenes who are confronted with the pain of others, and become spectators to it, but must also decide how to act in response to it. In the Trojan Women of Euripides, for example, Talthybius, the Achaean messenger who takes the child Astyanax away to be killed, witnesses the suffering of Hecuba and Andromache and is moved by it (786-789, trans. Kovacs): "Such herald's errands," he says, "had best be done by someone who is without pity and is more inclined than I am to heartlessness." He is especially touched by Andromache, the Trojan princess now condemned to be a slave and concubine (1130-1133): "She wrung many tears from my eyes as she set out from the land lamenting for her country and saying farewell to the tomb of Hector." Talthybius subsequently, on his own initiative, washes her young son's corpse (1151-1152). I have placed scenes similar to these at the start of each chapter: the Nurse responding to suffering Phaedra in Euripides' Hippolytus, Neoptolemus to the wounded hero of Sophocles' Philoctetes, and so on. This is not to suggest a facile relationship between these great works of literature and the actual experiences of ancient Athenians. Rather, it is to suggest that art and life are connected in meaningful ways; that tragic characters must respond to one another with some degree of realism because tragedy reflects the moral attitudes and social consensus of its day; and that Athenian audiences, having witnessed the responses of tragic characters, might or might not carry from the theater a residue of feeling, a propensity toward action, predicated directly or indirectly upon the dramatic confrontations they had seen on stage. Tragic pity, though in its moment fleeting, might in the long run produce consequences.

If this explanation is hedged about with qualifying adjectives and adverbs, speculative oppositions, and verbs in the conditional, let the reader forgive my circumspection. For to explore the interface between tragedy and everyday existence—to consider in detail how tragic poetry relates to the social and emotional and practical world of everyday Athens—would require a separate project built upon the theoretical work of "new historicism" as well as recent discussions of the sociology of tragedy and its social function. Though the present work calls upon tragedy from time to time for parallels, it focuses primarily on everyday life in classical Athens—on specific feelings and attitudes that contributed to the emotional and moral ambiance of the polis and were played out in the real world.

Greek Pity, Humanity, and Empathy

The most important feelings and attitudes of other-concern that emerged during my study of oratorical and historiographical texts were pity (oiktos and eleos), humanity (philanthropia), and empathy (for which there is no Greek word). Other words and concepts could have been pursued as well—the shared feelings denoted by the family of sun-compounds come immediately to mind, as does philia—but these three seemed most helpful in mapping the emotional and moral landscape of positive responses to suffering. The chapters of this book, then, will look at how pity, humanity, and empathy relate to specific situations, and some preliminary remarks are offered here. Admittedly, all three are hard to define in today's world, and harder still in a world that lies thousands of years in the past. We can never fully recover what the ancients thought or felt. Yet evidence for these concepts does exist—enough to merit an earnest attempt at interpretation.

I begin with pity. Most of us would agree, upon reading Greek tragedy, that the characters express recognizable emotions such as loss and anguish, pity and fear. Tragic plots may strike us as foreign, or even bizarre, but many scenes still convey transcendent meanings because certain responses, it seems, are common human experiences. Recent scientific research on human emotions has explored their biological underpinnings: autonomic responses, hormonal and electrocortical changes, muscle tension and tremor, facial expression, and so forth. The emotions, however, are shaped and refined by culture. We all recognize fear, for example, and yet different societies may ascribe to it—and to its expression—varying levels of sympathy or scorn. Fear may be considered either healthy and natural, or base and cowardly; a person, under given conditions within a given culture, may be expected either to admit fear or to conceal it. What of pity? Evolutionary biologists and psychologists, attempting to explain altruism, point to the fundamental importance of sympathetic responses within human society, but few scholars today would argue that a specific concept like "pity" is universal rather than culturally constructed.

In ancient Greek, both words for pity, oiktos and eleos, possess multiple meanings. Typically, though, both denote the sorrow or distress that one person feels for another who is in pain or jeopardy. This feeling was said to "enter into" a person who saw someone suffering, or heard a sad tale, or observed tears being shed. But pity was not to be trusted, because it could be easily manipulated and, unless brought into line with justice, might produce an undesirable outcome. According to Herodotus, for example, it was pity that restrained ten Corinthian men from murdering the infant Kypselos, with the result that he grew up—into a bloodthirsty tyrant. In the courtroom, the manipulation of emotion, including pity, was termed a tekhne (Dem. 21.196, Aeschin. 2.156). For that reason, perhaps, pity never joined the traditional virtues, such goodness or excellence (arete), justness (dikaiosune), and self-control (sophrosune). At the same time, Athenians prided themselves on their championship of the pitiable helpless and the wronged, and passages from oratory demonstrate how individual Athenians were encouraged to bring their own behavior into line with the humanitarian ideals of the polis. We are left, then, with a profound tension within Athenian culture, in that the emotion of pity was both rejected and accepted. The limited evidence suggests change over time. Despite the pity that Achilles famously showed Priam in the Iliad, no overt praise of pity in either historiography or oratory can be dated before the very end of the fifth century: there is none in Herodotus, Thucydides, Antiphon, or Andocides. Moralizing rhetoric, however, shifted toward a limited praise of it in the fourth century, perhaps as a result of the Peloponnesian War and the subsequent turmoil and hardships that touched Athens so closely. Eventually, the individual's capacity for pity became, in the courtroom setting at least, a litmus test of character.

The fourth-century praise of pity coincides with another development in the realm of words and ideas: the advent of philanthropia. The word means, literally, "love of humanity," and it may have originated as a term to describe the most desirable attitude of gods or heroes toward mankind. On a strictly human plane, it can mean the love of humanity that causes people to help one another. It prompts the generals after the battle of Arginusae to order the rescue of some 2,000 shipwrecked warriors (Xen. Hell. 1.7.18), though the order cannot be carried out. In Xenophon's historical novel Cyropaedia, defeated populations are allowed to retain some of their possessions owing to the philanthropia of Cyrus (7.5.73), and this same quality ensures his popularity and success (8.2.1, 8.4.7-8). In yet another work, Xenophon claims admiringly that the Spartan king Agesilaus won over entire cities because of his philanthropia (Ages. 1.22). Sometimes, it is true, philanthropia seems to mean no more than friendliness, as in passages from Aeschines and sometimes Demosthenes. In one speech, however, philanthropia in the grand sense is held up as the linchpin of Athenian society. Athenians, we are told (Dem. 25.87), live in "mutual philanthropia that you have by nature toward one another."

Two further points remain to be made about philanthropia. First, unlike pity, it does not mean sorrow for the sufferings of another. In none of its forty-six occurrences in the genres of oratory and historiography is there any suggestion that it was a feeling that could "enter into" a person, nor does it appear in association with sight, hearing, or tears, as pity does. It is not grouped with any emotion except for pity itself, and even that association is limited to two occurrences in the same speech. So philanthropia cannot be construed as a synonym for pity. The second point is that philanthropia seldom appears in close association with the traditional virtues. More often, it is grouped with pity, pardon, or gentleness. Perhaps we should view the capacity for pity and the love of humanity, taken together or singly, as qualities that were held up for unprecedented public praise in the fourth century. This is not the same as viewing them, unjustifiably, as qualities that were nonexistent in the fifth. The novel rhetorical move is to find someone boasting of his good character by claiming to be moderate, people-loving (philanthropos), and pitying many (Dem. 21.185).

Finally, a few words about empathy. In Xenophon's Cyropaedia, the uncle of Cyrus, named Cyaxares, feels outshone and humiliated by the military successes of his nephew (5.5.8-9). He weeps as he explains this to Cyrus, leading Cyrus to weep with him, presumably out of pity (5.5.10). Then he listens, unconvinced, as Cyrus explains why he should be pleased rather than perturbed by recent developments (5.5.10-24). At length, Cyaxares asks Cyrus to imagine his situation (5.5.28): "'If I seem to you,' he said, 'to take this to heart quite senselessly, turn all these things around to yourself, not to me, and observe how they appear.'" This act of imagining oneself into the situation of another person, as Cyaxares asks Cyrus to do, is what I shall call empathy. Over the past thirty years, social psychologists have explored various notions of empathy: cognitive empathy, participative empathy, affective empathy, empathic joining, and parallel and reactive empathy, to name a few (Staub 1987). Some notions emphasize affect, the sharing of a similar emotional state; others emphasize cognition, the ability to think about another's state. My own rather narrow definition of the term emphasizes the cognitive aspect of acknowledging another's jeopardy or pain. And indeed, Cyaxares does not invite his nephew to share his emotions, but rather to "observe how things appear." He doesn't want pity, he wants understanding.

The famous scene in Herodotus in which Cyrus the Great is about to have Croesus, captive king of Lydia, burned at the stake offers another example of empathy. The sight of his defeated foe has failed to inspire pity in Cyrus, but then Croesus cries aloud to Solon. Herodotus continues (1.86.4-6):

Cyrus, hearing him, told his interpreters to ask Croesus whom it was he called on. . . . So Croesus told his story while the fire was already lit and the edges were burning. Cyrus heard from the interpreters what Croesus said, and his mind changed and he recognized that he, a human being, was giving alive to the fire another human being who had been no less fortunate than himself; in addition to this, he was afraid of the penalty and pondered how nothing in human affairs was secure, and he ordered them to quench immediately the burning fire and bring Croesus down and those who were with him.

Herodotus provides a wonderfully detailed account of the inner thoughts that the hearing of this story has provoked. Cyrus recognizes that Croesus is a man like himself, fears retribution, and reflects upon the insecurity of life. Fixing on the moral danger of consigning to a fiery death another person, especially a king like himself, he changes his mind. Perhaps he pities Cyrus. On the other hand, he is moved more by intellectual reflections than by feeling. Cyrus' subsequent behavior, when he turns to Croesus for advice, confirms this view: he identifies with Croesus and speaks to him as one king to another (Hdt. 1.88-90). Empathy, then, combines with Cyrus' selfish fears and prompts him to spare Croesus (though his rescue is not achieved without the aid of a divinely sent rainstorm) in an other-directed piece of helping behavior.

The role of empathy in Xenophon's tale of Cyaxares and Cyrus, and in Herodotus' tale of Cyrus and Croesus, may be compared with the role of empathy in a passage found in On the Mysteries. When Andocides, in 399, appeared before the Heliaea to plead his right to participate in the community of Athens, he asked the judges to imagine themselves in his situation (1.57):

Come now! For it is necessary, gentlemen, for a judge to reckon affairs with fellow-feeling (anthropinos) just as if he were in the situation. What would each of you have done?

This kind of empathy, it has been argued since Hume and Rousseau, forms the basis of any moral society with claims to civility. A person who cannot imagine the situation of another human being is unlikely to help anyone but himself. The available evidence suggests, then, that the Athenian ideal of humanitarianism throughout the classical period rested not so much upon the feeling of pity as upon a sense of humanity or reasoned empathy. Ultimately, I believe, the Athenians were pragmatic about pity. Intentions mattered less than results. What one felt or said in the face of another person's misery, similarly, mattered less than what one did, as the speaker protests in Against Theocrines (Dem. 58.59):

For on top of our other misfortunes, this also, men of the jury, has happened to us: On the one hand, everybody urges us on, and they claim to share our pain (sunakhthesthai) over what has happened, and they say that we have suffered terrible things and that [the defendant] is subject to legal action. On the other hand, nobody who says these things is willing to act with us.

My effort to enter the everyday moral world of ancient Athenians, to grasp their style of thinking and feeling, relies entirely on their discourse. In the passage just quoted, for example, the speaker claims that his friends or acquaintances egg him on and say they share his pain but do nothing. How should we evaluate this claim? It sounds plausible, but there is no independent evidence to show how his friends actually responded. Never mind: for the purposes of this discussion, what matters are the representations of the speaker, who presents the shortcomings of his friends as a misfortune that the jurors can recognize and, with their votes, correct (Dem. 58.61).

The content of courtroom speeches is always studied rather than spontaneous, and the level of candor is likely to be low. Yet despite the best efforts of both parties to obfuscate the facts and confound their enemies, and despite post-trial editing, this discourse is useful: it may fail to disclose the internal states of litigants, but it does illuminate social life. William M. Reddy, historian and cultural anthropologist, has recently laid out in The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions a detailed theoretical basis for interpreting such discourse, which not only expresses emotions, he insists, but also elicits them, "confirming responses and intensifying emotional inclinations that were already there" (2001, 169). He usefully surveys recent "revolutions" in the study of emotions that have taken place in several academic disciplines. Psychologists have begun using laboratory techniques to probe the intertwined connections between cognition and emotion; anthropologists have been working with new field techniques, supported by complex theories, to study emotion's cultural dimensions. Reddy finds a convergence of views in the fields of psychology and anthropology "toward a conception of emotions as largely (but not entirely) the products of learning" (x). He wants to bring these developments to the attention of those literary critics and historians who deny the reality of the self and view human nature, including the experience of emotion, as completely constructed and variable. Their insistence that human experience is wholly dependent on cultural context, he says, short-circuits efforts to understand historical change (xi). As a historian, Reddy is interested in the "collective shaping of emotional effort and collective elaboration of emotional ideals" (56).

Tragedy Offstage attempts to ground Athenian concepts of pity, humanity, and empathy in the discursive practices of history and oratory—to uncover, in Reddy's terms, their collective elaboration. It also tests the realization of those concepts through the purported behavior of a few moral agents whose stories have come down to us, and it tries to set them in the larger context of Athenian society.

Spheres of Quotidian Life

The range of responses to suffering in everyday ancient Athens presents a complex and recalcitrant subject. It is not one that can be treated comprehensively; rather, it must be approached piecemeal. Each chapter here revolves around one or two of the most revealing stories found in Greek oratory and historiography. Each story, intriguing in itself, also opens for scrutiny an entire sphere of life that Athenians dealt with inside the household, or in the city streets, or abroad on military campaign. All five spheres of quotidian life are linked by themes of social cohesion and the sense of obligation that people felt—or did not feel—toward one another. In each case, I examine the emotional responses and moral attitudes expressed, especially those that may have entered into any decision to act.

Chapter 1 explores a speech by Isocrates called the Aegineticus, in which the speaker describes how he devoted six months to nursing a friend in his last illness. His courtroom statement, seen in the context of Greek healing, reflects attitudes toward illness and suffering and delineates expectations laid upon the friends and family of the sufferer. It takes us to the heart of the oikos, the household unit on which Athenian society rested. The friendship between the two men, as depicted by the speaker, features trust, closeness, and affection; and the speaker earns a place in his friend's oikos in part by caring for the dying man as a kinsman should.

Chapter 2 examines the ransom of captives through a close reading of Against Nicostratus, a speech in the Demosthenic corpus that recounts how Apollodoros responded when his neighbor in the country was captured, sold into slavery, and then ransomed. Capture and ransom were standard features of ancient warfare, and a peacetime phenomenon as well. Such an event created a challenge for the oikos of the captive, but that challenge spilled beyond the confines of the household. Friends and neighbors could be called upon to contribute ransom money, and wealthy citizens might step in to help. This chapter, then, examines the position of a moral agent within the neighborhood and polis.

Chapter 3 analyzes a story found in Against Conon, a speech by Demosthenes in which the speaker is attacked and beaten in the agora of Athens by a group of men who hold a grudge against him. The story provides evidence for attitudes toward bystander intervention in street crime. The legal status of bystander intervention is considered, and modern social psychology is used to open up a range of questions about social behavior that seem to apply as aptly to ancient Athenians as to modern Westerners. Possible answers are considered in the context of street life and street crime in Athens. The bystander confronted with an assault in progress had to decide what to do, whether to intervene. A relationship of kinship or close friendship with the victim would likely dictate action: such bonds created pressure to intervene. Yet bystanders might witness the mugging of a stranger, a fellow citizen whose predicament tested Athenian humanity and empathy. In that case, any decision to act would be calibrated quite differently.

Chapter 4 takes up two stories about the long-distance transport of sick and wounded soldiers: the retreat from Syracuse, recounted in Book 7 of Thucydides; and a story that Xenophon, in the Anabasis, tells about a half-dead soldier on the march of the Ten Thousand. Here the moral agents are no longer in the oikos or the polis. Rather, they are far afield and under tremendous stress. Yet they have strong bonds to one another, especially in the tight-knit citizen army of the Peloponnesian War. Even the soldiers marching alongside Xenophon through Persia and the wilds of Armenia were bound together by their Greek identity. The logistics of carrying the sick and wounded, as well as the changing responsibilities of generals, are considered. Compassion emerges as an aspect of ideal leadership. Both case studies in this chapter reflect the expectation that the lives of the sick and wounded should, if possible, be saved.

Finally, Chapter 5 takes up the torture of slaves for legal evidence. Here is a chance to examine the limits of Athenian pity, philanthropia, and empathy, for violence toward slaves was an ineluctable facet of Athenian society. Although slaves do not appear to have been routinely regarded as subhuman, their inferior social status made them ineligible for pity if the fate of a free man was at stake. Slaves were outside the network of friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens, and could expect no help if faced with whip or rack. The practice of slave torture therefore furnishes a dramatic counter-example to the themes of pity, humanity, empathy, and philia explored in the first four chapters. Although slave torture cannot reveal how Athenians treated their slaves overall, it does demonstrate the slave's condition of friendlessness. It shows the citizen's complicity in the infliction of suffering and the lack of any moral imperative to mitigate or intervene.

In the end, I draw a number of conclusions about responses to suffering in everyday ancient Athens. Most of these conclusions are synchronic in nature: they apply generally to the entire period, which most scholars agree showed strong cultural continuity. A few are diachronic: they identify and describe change over time, from the period of the Athenian empire at its height in the mid-fifth century B.C.E. through its destruction at the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404, the revival of Athens in the contentious environment of the first half of the fourth century and its political eclipse by the kingdom of Macedon under Philip II (d. 336) and Alexander the Great (d. 323). Events could have a large and immediate impact on moral attitudes. Isocrates, for example, depicts the 404 defeat by the Spartans as a moral low point in Athenian history, when people were so deeply embroiled in troubles of their own that they had no time to pity or help one another, reducing them to savagery (4.112):

[The pro-Spartan decarchies] brought us all to this point of savagery (omotetos) that whereas before, because of the existing prosperity, every one of us had many to sympathize with him even in small misfortunes, but under the rule of these men, because of the multitude of our own ills, we ceased pitying one another. For they left no man enough leisure to share another's burdens.

At every turn, I attempt to find the place of pity, humanity, and empathy in the private lives of Athenian citizens—to discover what guided their personal behavior toward one another rather than the public decisions that they made in the Assembly or lawcourt. This quest therefore requires a departure from two well-known treatments of pity found in Thucydides' Peloponnesian War and Aristotle's Rhetoric. Thucydides, in the Mytilenean debate of Book 3, describes deliberations on the Pnyx in which opposing speakers, Cleon and Diodotus, both reject pity as a motive for political action, even as they tacitly acknowledge its power: the realpolitik of Athens made expediency, the interest or advantage of the city-state, a prime consideration. Aristotle, in Book 2 of the Rhetoric, offers an analysis of pity that is tailored to the courtroom setting: because jurors had to judge, he lays great emphasis on merit, on whether a suffering person deserved pity and hence a favorable outcome to the case. The present work respects Thucydides, with his emphasis on expediency, and Aristotle, with his emphasis on merit, but tries to go beyond them both, to explore a hidden realm, the emotional and ethical world of ordinary Athenian citizens faced with the painful challenges of everyday life.



Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
UPCC/Project Muse