Were There Better Angels of a Classical Greek Nature?

Violence in Classical Athens

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
Restricted access

This article explores Steven Pinker’s thesis with regard to fifth-century BCE Athens. Pinker’s view that the political state became the arbiter of violence is important, but for ancient Greeks that meant that wars became more devastating. States coordinated military action more effectively than earlier tribal chiefs. With regard to violence within communities, the absence of civic values, human rights, or robust legal systems meant that violence mediated many relationships between men and women, masters and slaves, and even aristocrats and lower-status citizens. Violence was a prominent aspect of all ancient people’s lives. In short, Pinker’s thesis provides an excellent heuristic device to analyze Greek antiquity if only to discuss how it may or may not apply in real terms.