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Punishment in Ancient Athens 

Danielle S. Allen, edition of March 23, 2003

page 3 of 7

· Why (To What End)? ·

The Athenians, then, punished in answer to someone’s anger, but to what end did they do so? If a modern citizen were to hear that someone, a parent or teacher, or a state, had punished out of anger, he would expect the motives of the punisher to be essentially vindictive. Anger, we think, leads directly to a desire for payback of the eye-for-an-eye variety. In contrast, the Athenians developed a far more nuanced view of what it meant to take anger as the starting point of punishment. Anger might be the origin of punishment, but they also conceded that it was a disease.

Plot on a Map
Troy (in text as “Trojan War”).

In tragedy characters regularly invoke anger as the reason to punish but they also reiterate the idea that wrongdoing and its punishment involved the community in some sort of communal sickness. This is especially evident in the tellings and re-tellings of the myth of the House of Atreus, the story of how King Agamemnon won the Trojan War and returned to his hometown of Argos only to be killed by his wife Clytemnestra who was is turn killed years later by their son Orestes. He then is driven out of the city by the Furies. All of the versions of this story use the metaphor of disease to describe the effect of wrong-doing on the diverse members of a community who participate in an event of wrong-doing and its punishment.

Read about the evidence
Euripides (Eur. El.).
Euripides (Eur. Orest.).
Euripides (Eur. Or.).
Aeschylus (Aesch. Eum.).

Euripides, for instance, describes the victim, that is, the murdered Agamemnon, as a festering wound within the household (Euripides’ Electra, 318). In another play, he makes the wrong-doer, Orestes, diseased and calls him a disease in the land (Euripides’ Orestes 395, 831). Aeschylus, in contrast, treats would-be punishers, namely, the Furies, as bearers of illness to the land; he says that their disease drips from their eyes (Aeschylus’ Eumenides 480). In the mythical tradition of the House of Atreus all the parties to wrong-doings and the responses to it—victim, wrong-doer, punisher, and the community or “land”—somehow share in a “disease”; and this surely symbolizes the idea that no party to the experience of wrong-doing is exempt from the trouble it introduces to the community. But in exactly what sense is each of these parties diseased?

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Insomn.).

When Aeschylus describes the Furies’ disease, the sickness of their anger, as dripping from their eyes, he employs the common Athenian habit of drawing connections among vision, anger, and the spread of the disease of social disruption. Those who looked upon a murderer were polluted by the sight; and a murderer’s glance was said to spread poison just like the look of a snake. In Greek conceptions of vision, sight involved the physical transfer of particles and properties from one person to another. Aristotle provides a graphic example of the idea that vision was a physical transfer of properties from seer to seen when he writes that whenever a woman who was menstruating looks into a mirror, the glass ends up covered with blood (De insomnis 2.495b.25-3). Vision was a two-way exchange between seer and seen and so an exchange of glances provided a figure for intersubjectivity in general. Wrong-doers and their acts of wrong-doing were poisonous and were like poisonous snakes, because they introduced anger to the community: glares, glances, and poisonous looks or, simply, negative forms of intersubjective exchange among citizens. They were “plagues” to the community as a whole precisely because sight of them made people angry. Whereas the victim and would-be punisher were diseased because they felt anger, the wrongdoer transmitted disease because, in angering people, he upset the harmony of social relations. Anger justified punishment since, as a disease, it demanded a cure.

In Euripides’ play Orestes, one of the characters gives his city the following advice on how to cure the city in respect to Orestes’ pollution:

Read about the evidence
Euripides (Eur. Orest.).

“If the wife who shares his bed kills a man and the son of this one kills the mother in turn, and afterwards the one born of this one does away with murder by means of murder, where will a limit of these evils be reached? The ancient fathers handled these matters nobly: whoever was stained with blood, they did not allow to come near to the sight of their eyes, nor to encounter them — but rather required such a person to make matters holy by exile and not to exchange blood for blood” (Eur. Orest. 508).

Here the speaker recommends exile as a way to deal with wrongdoing and to avoid cycles of angry vendetta. Exile is useful precisely because it removes the wrong-doer from the sight of those who are angry. As we shall see, the Athenians often used extremely violent methods of punishment in their attempts to cure the community and to restore its peacefulness, but the notion that punishment cures the community does not necessarily require a turn to violence. Tragedy itself reflects an awareness that the problem of anger can be addressed with words, and with attempts to restore friendship, as well as with exile. How then did the Athenians try to restore peace when real dramas of wrongdoing unsettled the city? How did the Athenians identify wrongdoers, negotiate the question of their desert, and then sentence them?

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