Wisconsin (2020) h/b 258pp £100 (ISBN 9780299328009)

K. is Professor of Classics at the University of Washington and specialises in the sociology of Classical Greece—particularly gender issues and slavery. Her previous book published Status in Classical Athens (2013).

The book discusses the style and purpose of insults in Athenian society during the classical period. It was clearly an active issue in Athens because there seem to be almost as many Greek words for insult and invective as the Inuits have for types of snow. K. seeks to categorise insults into five broad groups, although she emphasises that in reality things were much more fluid. Each group is then analysed in its separate chapter.

The distinctions that K. makes are between:
Benign (primarily verbal) insults—skômmata, aischrologia
Insults used in comedy—kômôidein ­
Insults used in oratory—diabolê, loidoria
Malign verbal abuse—kakêgoria, aporrhêta
Criminal abuse—hubris

One of the structural difficulties is that, of its nature, casual verbal abuse does not survive—except occasionally in graffiti as in Pompeii. Thus while we can know that citizens stood on carts at various festivals, shouting insults at everybody passing by, we can only guess at what form the insults took (e.g. ‘baldy’ or or ‘fat arse’). We can on the other hand know the detail of the invective from the theatre or the public courts but only in their more formal and structured environments

K. argues that Athenian society welcomed benign abuse as healthy and contributing to the well-being of the polis but reacted badly to malign abuse and legislated against it. A person convicted of hubris might on occasion be sentenced to death. The point at which an insult passed from benign to malign was fluid and was determined more by the intent of the abuse than its accuracy. There is some evidence that the conventions of acceptability shifted over time, for example, that insults permitted in earlier comedies were deemed unacceptable for later plays.

Many insults are common to most societies—cowardice, criminality, sexual deviation—but K. suggests that two types on insult were particular to Athens—not being a proper citizen and (related to that) engagement in commerce or trade. A common trope was that Euripides’ mother had been a vegetable seller. It was part of the armoury of a litigant to introduce insults into his pleadings and teachers of rhetoric advised how to do this to the greatest effect. In both assembly and lawcourt speeches, there were probably conventions about the levels of vitriol with which the insults could be expressed. It is intriguing to note that, just as American prosecutors add racketeering charges to a lesser crime in order to flush out a plea bargain, Attic litigants threaten to turn a civil action for slander into the weightier charge of hubris. There was, however, a disadvantage to this change in that in a civil action any fine awarded went to the plaintiff, while in a criminal action for hubris any fine accrued to the state.

Most actions for hubris involved more than verbal abuse. If you called a man a coward you risked being taken to court on a  charge of slander (depending largely on how much of a twinkle was in your eye), but if you called him a coward and beat him up at the same time, you were very likely to be cited for hubris.

This summary does not do justice to the depth of the research, especially into the court room speeches of the Attic litigants—witness nearly 100 pages of detailed notes and references, roughly two thirds of the length of the main text, which is clearly written and free from jargon. But for the general reader it is perhaps a little bloodless. The effect is rather as if someone had analysed the variety and structure of dirty jokes without ever actually telling any of them.

Roger Barnes