Through calculated use of gossip, women, non-citizens, or slaves wielded a potent weapon against those who wronged them.
At the heart of the greatest works of Ancient Greek literature are mighty acts of revenge. Revengers overcome their enemies through superior physical prowess, as when Achilles kills Hector in a single combat to avenge the death of his comrade Patroclus; or through their employment of trickery and deceit, as when Medea slays Creon and his daughter by using poisoned clothing in revenge against Jason, her unfaithful husband. But how could a person lacking in physical strength, magical abilities or supportive friends take revenge?
Low-status women without strong family connections were among the weakest in Ancient society but they wielded a powerful weapon in ensuring the demise of a hated enemy: gossip.
Idle gossip or rumor is personified by the Ancient poets. In Homeric epic, rumor is said to be a messenger of Zeus, rushing along with the crowds of soldiers as they muster, conjuring an image of the way she speeds among people from mouth to mouth, spreading through crowds. Hesiod also portrays her as in some way divine, but equally something of which to be wary, "mischievous, light, and easily raised, but hard to bear and difficult to be rid of." The fourth-century Athenian orator Aeschines alludes to gossip about private matters being spread seemingly spontaneously through the city. Ancient people from all walks of life, men and women, free and slave, young and old, were thought to indulge in gossip, ensuring its swift passage to all corners of the city. The propensity for a huge range of members of society to gossip opened up conduits between the lowliest and the mightiest, the weakest and the most powerful.
While Aristotle suggests that gossiping was frequently a trivial, enjoyable pastime, he also makes clear that gossiping could have malicious intent when spoken by someone who has been wronged. This evaluation of words as weapons in the hands of the wronged is particularly pertinent when thinking about how the Athenians made use of gossip in the law courts in Athens, because Ancient court cases were based heavily on character evaluation of those involved in the case rather than on hard evidence. In the absence of professional judges, the aim of the speakers was to discredit their opponents' characters in the eyes of the jurors, while presenting themselves as upstanding citizens. The power of gossip was feared by ancient litigants, so they carefully outlined how the negative stories the jurors might have heard about them weren't true, and had been spread intentionally by their mendacious opponents.
From the Ancient orators, we learn that public places such as shops and marketplaces were useful locations to spread false rumors aimed at discrediting an opponent because of the crowds that gathered there. In one case, written down by Demosthenes, Diodorus alleges that his enemies spread false information by sending newsmongers into marketplaces in the hopes of swaying public opinion in their favor. Demosthenes himself accused his opponent Meidias of spreading malicious rumors. And Callimachus is said to have repeatedly told the crowds gathered in the workshops a sorry tale of his harsh treatment at his opponent's hands. In these instances, the intention of the gossipers is to spread false information across the city to generate an impression of the individuals involved that will help them win their legal cases.
The law courts in Athens were the preserve of men, so women needed to rely on male relatives to act for them. However, the Ancient sources make clear that women's ability to gossip could be a useful tool in attacking an enemy. In order to demonstrate his opponent's bad character in court, the speaker of Against Aristogeiton 1 describes an incident involving Aristogeiton's violent and ungrateful behavior towards a resident alien woman named Zobia, who had apparently helped him when he was in trouble but, as soon as he regained his strength, he physically abused her and threatened to sell her into slavery. Because she was a non-citizen, Zobia had no access to the official legal channels in Athens. She did, however, make full use of the unofficial channels by telling her acquaintances about her maltreatment. Despite her gender and lowly status, Zobia's use of gossip to complain about how Aristogeiton treated her meant that his reputation as untrustworthy and abusive spread through the city. This gossip was employed in court by a male litigant in order to display Aristogeiton's poor character to a jury made up of men. So women's gossip could be used effectively to discredit the character of an opponent in court — and a low-status woman, with no access to legal modes of retribution could, through gossip, achieve a form of vengeance.
Another example of women's gossip being cited in court appears in Lysias 1 On the Murder of Eratosthenes. In this speech, the defendant Euphiletus claims to have legally killed Eratosthenes because he caught him committing adultery with his wife. Euphiletus tells a story about how an old woman approached him near his house to inform him of his wife's affair with Eratosthenes. This story functions in part to highlight the supposedly naïve character of Euphiletus, who needs someone to point out his wife's infidelity explicitly, and in part to demonstrate the appalling behaviour of Eratosthenes who is cast by the old woman as a serial adulterer.
According to Euphiletus, the old woman did not come of her own accord, but was sent by a jilted lover of Eratosthenes. In composing this part of the speech, Lysias draws on the vocabulary associated with revenge acts in Ancient Greek literature when he characterises the deserted woman as angry and hostile towards her lover, and wronged by his behavior towards her. The implication is that this woman intentionally passed on gossip about Eratosthenes' involvement with Euphiletus' wife in order to urge on someone with the ability to act against Eratosthenes either through official legal channels or through his own strength. A woman with no ability to seek retribution for such a wrong, and no power to act against her enemy, can achieve revenge through the power of her speech.
Athenians were well-aware of the calculated use of gossip to launch attacks on their enemies, and they made careful use of gossip in rhetoric to cast aspersions about their opponents in the law courts. The presence in legal cases of women's gossip, including gossip spread by low-status members of society, demonstrates that the Athenians did not discriminate about the source, but took advantage of all kinds of gossip in their attempts to defeat their adversaries. Through calculated use of gossip, women, non-citizens or slaves with no access to official legal channels wielded a potent weapon in their attempts to attain revenge against those who wronged them.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
"The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think," Albert Einstein said. So go back to school, Ivy League style.
The idea of continuing to learn new things after leaving school is an attractive one, but one that can seem daunting. Finding both the time and the proper resources to learn something new can prove difficult, and leave us with unsatisfied curiosity. Even if we find a class we might be interested in, the cost can be prohibitive.
So, to help you curious cats out, we present 8 online classes from Yale you can take right now, at no cost.
Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics
Who hasn’t looked up at the night sky and wondered about the mysteries of the cosmos? This series of video and audio lectures covers the big questions of space, such as back holes, extra-solar planets, and dark energy, while discussing both what we know and what we wish we knew. Course notes are also available to help you review after school lets out.
Cervantes’ Don Quixote
It can be difficult to tackle a classic novel with little to no help. For those who want to read this classic of world literature but don’t quite know where to start, this series of video lectures help facilitate a close reading of one of the greatest adventure stories of all time. There are 24 one-hour lectures in this set, organized by chapter so you can find the area you need help understanding and start there. It's like being part of the world's brainiest book club.
Do you know why a good deal is a good deal? Why people act the way they do when confronted with a lose-lose situation? Game Theory is the study of how people react to problems of conflict and cooperation and it's used in business, politics, and even computer science. This course consists of 24 one-hour lectures, and you can also download the exams and solutions to test how well you understood the course. For a taster, here's Professor Barry Nalebuff from the Yale School of Management who came to the Big Think studio to discuss Game Theory:
Introduction to Ancient Greek History
The Glory that was Greece: we’ve all seen the statues, heard the big names, and benefit from their achievements, but do you know the story of how it all happened? This series of 24 lectures, some clocking in at over an hour, introduces the history of ancient Greece to us from the Dark Ages to the rise of Alexander. While the lectures might not leave you speaking Greek, it will leave you with a better understanding of why the world today is the way it is. There are also downloadable files that can help you remember the keywords, dates, and big events.
Moralities of Everyday Life
You have some idea of what kindness is, right? Can you explain it? How responsible are we for our moral stances? In this course, provided via Coursera, the moral psychology behind many of the concepts we use in our everyday thinking is examined and explained in readings and video lectures. The class materials can be viewed for free, or taken as a graded class for a fee. The recommended commitment is 2-3 hours per week. Bonus: this course is taught by Big Think favorite Professor Paul Bloom:
Journey of the Universe: The Unfolding of Life
Have you ever wanted to learn the story of life, the universe, and everything?* In this series of classes, available both to English and Chinese speakers, the story of the universe and the evolution of biological life is examined. In later lectures, new ways to understand our place in the ever-changing universe are examined. The classes consist of readings and video lectures, and for a fee you can also take quizzes to see how well you understand the material.
Introduction to Classical Music
You know all the names: Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach—but do you know why their classical music still endures? In this class, you can learn what elements classical music is comprised of, why the great symphonies are still played before crowds of millions, and even come to appreciate other genres of music a little more too. This nine-week course consists of lectures and readings that take 2-3 hours per week. This course can also be viewed for free, or taken as a graded class for a fee. (Really want to get those grades? Financial aid via Coursera is available for those who qualify.)
Fundamentals of Physics I & II
If you want to understand how the world really works, this comprehensive series of physics classes will put you in the know. This class requires a strong understanding of mathematics as an entry point, but is highly rewarding for those who can follow along, and basic calculus is reviewed in the first few videos. Problem sets and solutions are also available for those who want an extra challenge.
The above selection is just a small sampling of the courses offered by Yale, and the full list of classes can be found here and here. Many other excellent institutions have similar options. So, now that you know, you can view Ivy League-quality lectures online for free, whenever the mood strikes. Now there's just one question left: what are you waiting for?
* The answer is 42.
What made the Golden Age of Greece, and Western Civilization, possible? One author says "free trade".
Greece, the land that created Western civilization. The home of more philosophers, playwrights, and producers of knowledge then anybody can remember. The foundations of the modern Western world can be traced back to that collection of bickering city states and their varied systems of thought. If any nation can claim to be the most influential in history, Greece has a strong argument to make.
But, how could a small area on the rocky shores of the Mediterranean do this? After all, look at it now. What has it done for us lately?
According to author Josiah Ober there was a reason Greece was able to crank out such incredible cultural works, and that was a sound trade policy. One based on largely free trade between city states which specialized in goods for which they had a comparative advantage. Generating enough wealth to allow for artisans to perfect their craft, a middle class demand for high quality goods, and for major building projects to be undertaken for nothing more than glory and pride.
How does this trade principle work?
Comparative advantage is one of the most firmly held ideas in all of economics. Formalized by David Ricardo in 1817, it is simply the idea that the greatest amount of wealth can be produced by trade between two regions specializing in a particular commodity they are good at making rather than by everybody trying to make everything. While the exact policies this notion can be used to endorse can vary, ranging from utterly free trade to reciprocal tariffs, the principle holds in many scenarios.
In Greece, some areas produced marble, others mined precious metals. Colonies exported wheat to the Greek homeland where poor soil made large scale food production inefficient. Athens, famously, built ships. By focusing on what they were best at and trading for the rest, Greece built up a rather strong economy- one that left its people better off than they would be for another millennium. The result of this was several hundred years of unparalleled prosperity and cultural output.
This prosperity is seen in archaeological findings. The number of shipwrecks found in the Mediterranean shows us that trade volume increased thirty times over in the 400 years between the 8th and 4th century BCE.
Now, don’t presume that it was all sunshine and olive oil for Greece. Slavery was common in every city state, and women were not citizens in Athens. While Greece did better than many societies before it. It was never ideal, and the prosperity didn’t get to everyone. Greece also wasn’t totally devoted to free trade either; Athens had state control over the import of wheat and did have marginal tariffs for income purposes.
And, in the end, it couldn’t last. Conquered by Macedon and then by Rome, the memory of the Greek golden age has been passed on to us by others.
Was the Greek golden age made possible by wise economic policy? One author thinks so, and his ideas have a strong resonance for us today in a world where protectionism and economic nationalism are surging. Perhaps the glory that was Greece was based on economics, perhaps it was the culture of competition, perhaps it was a fluke. In any case, the legacy lives on.