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Punishment in Ancient Athens 

Danielle S. Allen, edition of March 23, 2003

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· Conclusion ·

Moments of anger gave the Athenians reason to punish. Acting out of anger, they wished to cure themselves, the victim and the wrongdoer of the trouble and unease provoked by the wrongdoing and its emotional aftereffects. In punishing, they distinguished between those wrongs that were trivial enough for a single magistrate to restore the peace and those that required the work of the community. In respect to those more significant disruptions of the peace, they again made a crucial distinction, this time between private suits in which participants were to be given the chance to cultivate their skills at justice, at venting and then restraining their emotion, and public suits in which the community was given a chance to reflect on its norms publicly and to issue a decision that would be dramatically recorded in public memory. Then, when it came to the final moment in punishment, the moment of the actual administration of the penalty, the Athenians flexibly turned sometimes to penalties that would help them remember the wrongdoer, the wrong, and the community’s decision about it and at other times to willed forgetfulness. The Athenians thus employed an idea of punishment that focused primarily on a consistent recognition of the need to restore communal peace in face of a disruption. Anger led not to retribution but to restoration.

Finally, the Athenian focus on anger reveals two things about punishment. First, punishment arises simply from the desires of the punishers, which is to say, from the desires of the community. Questions of how to punish therefore involve us in asking who we want to be and what our relations to our desires are as those are expressed by anger. The Athenians dramatized this idea once a year at a festival called Thargelia where they administered a “cure” for themselves as a whole city. The festival involved an especially violent ritual. It was said that the Athenians had once killed a Cretan man named Androgeos and had afterwards repented of their own act of wrong-doing. Every year thereafter, to deal with the problem of the city’s guilt and implication in the murder, they drove two undesirable members of the community out of the city in rituals resembling stonings. Such a scapegoat was called a pharmakos. It is related to the word pharmakon which means both medicine and poison and from which we get “pharmacy” and “pharmaceutical.” The ambiguity of the word pharmakon reveals two things, the first being the paradoxical nature of punishment as viewed from the Athenian perspective. Punishment forces a community into facing the idea that acts of violence are expected to cure a community that otherwise disavows acts of violence.

The second feature of punishment revealed by the ritual requires that we know a bit more about it. The festival of Thargelia marked the end of the year, and the day after saw a festival marking the beginning of the new. The Athenians moved through the year knowing that they would conclude the year with a mock stoning, in which they would mimic a communal act of passion and admit to the communal desire to inflict harm. This they would do in order to cure themselves. The festival dramatized the certainty that the community’s rules against violence would eventually break-down; it dramatized that everyone was mutually implicated in the break-down; and that everybody was mutually implicated in a system for restoring order which inevitably treated certain citizens as means to the ends of other citizens. The festival was an admission that the origin of punishment in anger implicates all citizens in a set of disordered relationships, which must be restored but which can be restored only by a process that imposes itself on different citizens in different ways and to different degrees. We can and should deplore the violent means that the Athenians used to make such an admission, but surely the admission itself is an important one: dealing with wrong-doing and punishment requires that we think about the community’s desires and the problem of anger within the community and about how best to respond to those desires and that anger.

Read about the evidence
Sophocles (Soph. Ant.).

Sophocles gave an accurate description of Athenian politics when, in the “Ode to Man,” of the Antigone, he had a chorus praise humankind for having taught itself political skills that include not only judgment and voice and wind-swift thought but also “constitutional anger,” an anger that both regulated the city and was regulated by it (354-55). Punishment may originate in anger, but one need not satisfy it in order to resolve it and restore peace.

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