Monday, August 31, 2009

The Bad Citizen in Classical Athens.

I recently read Matthew R. Christ's (MC, from now on) excellent and well researched study "The Bad Citizen in Classical Athens". I picked it up for a few reasons. Primary among them was that I wanted to do something on a period of ancient history before the coming of Rome, but up there was also the fact that I'd heard this book was a really fine one. That turned out to be true.

MC's aim in writing this book, as he states in his introduction, was to offer some balance to the discussion over the "Athenian experience" (that is, how it was to be an Athenian living in the 5th century B.C.E) by way of highlighting the "bad citizen", i.e. the citizen that shirked military duties, the paying of tax and other civil payments or "donations".

Essentially the argument is for us to eschew the romanticised portrait of Athenian citizens of being overwhelmingly patriotic and concerned more with public than self interest, and realise that the truth was a great deal murkier. In his introduction MC argues that the Athenian citizen (especially a wealthy one) was particularly adept at working his way around financial and civic obligations.

The work is accordingly separated into four sections covering three different ways in which a "bad citizen" shirks Athenian civic obligations. They are entitled: "The Self Interested Citizen", "The Reluctant Conscript", "The Cowardly Hoplite"and finally "The Artful Tax Dodger". The ways a bad citizen may manifest themselves are outlined as the following: attempting to avoid conscription, cowardice when on military duty and also the avoidance of financial obligations that the wealthiest citizens were subject to.

M.C argues in the "Self Interested Citizen" that the "Athenian Experience", as it were, was much more self-centred than is commonly said. He points towards certain anxieties apparent in our sources (comedy, tragedy and oratory) regarding the dichotomy within an Athenian citizen with respect to self interest and common duty to the civic body.

He claims that the entire Athenian system acknowledged the "self-interested" citizen, and so only aimed to enforce civic obligation when absolutely required. He rests this argument on the idea that Athenian democracy promoted individualism and equality, which promoted self interest but had certain inbuilt mechanisms for coercing civic duties out of the reluctant.

The next two chapters ("The Reluctant Conscript" and "The Cowardly Hoplite") cover MC's arguments regarding the bad citizen in relation to the military. MC argues that many were reluctant to be conscripted into the army, pointing towards the anxiety apparent in tragedy of this fact, and also the more straight forward notion that conscription was required because not enough would volunteer.

The latter chapter consists of M.C's quite excellent description of Athenian military life, and how it left much room for the bad citizen to manifest himself, be it via cowardice, desertion or a myriad of other ways.

The final section is an analysis of how the wealthiest Athenians actively avoided (or tried to reduce) the financial obligation put upon them by the state. M.C claims these Athenians practically made a full-time job out of tax evasion. He points towards the obligation placed on the richest citizens to fund public shows (the chorus in the theatre, for example) and also exceptional financial expectations put upon them during times of strife (such as the Persian Invasion, the Peloponnesian War and the loss of the Athenian Empire in the 4th century B.C.E).

The book is excellently argued, and nicely detailed. It's intensely difficult to disagree with M.C significantly at any stage - he paints a very convincing picture of the "Athenian Experience", and an altogether more convincing one the romantic norm. There is perhaps an element of wishful thinking (or jealously/envy) when those of us from the 20th and 21st Century imagine the patriotic and selfless Athenians and compare them to the intensely self interested citizens of today's wealthy nations, and attempting to see through this is a thoroughly worthy enterprise.

To that end M.C presents an excellent study, which has plenty of depth and strikes a chord as being full and sensible in it's conclusions regarding Athenian life. It remains thoroughly useful to question what is accepted, and in doing so here I believe M.C has managed to uncover something vital and interesting about the "Athenian Experience", and while there is much room for debate, that is of great service to us all.


Relevant bibliography:

Christ, M.R, "The Bad Citizen in Classical Athens", Cambridge (2006)


Interestingly, M.C recently reviewed a work by Peter Liddell which takes a profoundly different view of the interaction between individual and his city than the one M.C advocates. The review can be found here at Bryn Mawr and is extremely interesting, as M.C takes a 3rd person view, so to speak, and has to defend his work and criticise Liddell's different view. Read with his book, it can be seen as a sort of meta-self-commentary, which is both useful and interesting.

The debate here continues as M.C also reviewed Gabriel Herman's "Morality and Behaviour in Democratic Athens: A Social History", to which Herman has replied (all at Bryn Mawr).

M.C on Herman here.
Herman's response here.

For what it's worth, I'm still with M.C, because I think he's more convincing. Although I may have further thoughts to add to this after I chew it over a bit more.

Update: It's been chewed over, and I still agree with M.C. On the whole he's more agreeable, and he's certainly right when he mentions the very polemical nature of Herman's prose. That said, Herman makes some interesting points, especially with regards the uniqueness of Athenian society in so many ways. He's rather unforgiving, and although I would need to read his work fully to make a proper judgement, I'm leaning towards the more pessimistic view (as it's called - but is it?) of Athenian society.

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