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Continuity and Tradition: The Persistence of Greek Values *

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 September 2009


I believe that studies by social anthropologists working in mainly rural communities located in present-day Greece may help to deepen our understanding of the Greeks of antiquity, and this is a belief that I have held for more than twenty years. It is a belief, moreover, which is steadily winning a general acceptance. To put it succinctly, ancient and modern Greeks can be shown to share values in common and, thus, one enables us to understand the other more clearly. But why should values have persisted, from Homer to the twentieth century? It is not, let me stress, because of ethnic continuity, but rather because both groups comprise small-scale subsistence agriculturists, working the land as a family unit; in other words, both groups represent what a social anthropologist would classify as peasant society, and communities of this type, however widely separated in time and in geographical situation, share common values and Mediterranean peasants perhaps to an especially great extent, though this is not a point I would wish to press. Greece, of course, has changed dramatically in recent years as the drift from countryside to city has intensified. But have the fundamentals of life also changed so very much? Not according to Renee Hirschon who speaks as follows of the preoccupations of those ‘heirs of the Greek catastrophe’, that is, Greeks expelled from Asia Minor in the early twenties and now settled in the Kokkinia district of the Piraeus: ‘In Kokkinia social live revolves around the division of the sexes and their complementray roles, while family reputation and prestige were principal concerns.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 1996

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1. See my Greek Peasants, Ancient and Modern: a Comparison of Social and Moral Values (Manchester, 1970)Google Scholar.

2. See, for example, the use of such comparative evidence by Cohen, David, Law, Sexuality, and Society: the Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens(Cambridge, 1991), especially 35 ffCrossRefGoogle Scholar. The ‘other side’ of the case has been put in a review of Cohen by Walsh, John, Ploutarchos 9, 1 (11 1992), 5760Google Scholar; see also Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood in Reeder, Ellen D. (ed.), Pandora: Women in Classical Greece (Princeton, 1995), 111–20Google Scholar. Notice also the use of comparative evidence of this type by New Testament scholars, for example by Esler, Philip F., The First Christians in their Social Worlds (London and New York, 1994), 19 ffCrossRefGoogle Scholar. (= ‘Reading the Mediterranean Social Script’) and the comment made by Lateiner, Donald, Sardonic Smile (Ann Arbor, 1995), 244 n. 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar: ‘I have derived substantial benefit from modern recorders of Greek gendered habits. Other analysts of antiquity from alien climes might gain similar profit.’

3. My own opinion on ethnic continuity very much coincides with that of Danforth, Loring M., ‘The Ideological Context of the Search for Continuities in Greek Culture’, Journal of Modem Greek Studies 2 (1984), 5385 despite his remarks on p. 61Google Scholar.

4. Particularly in the light of ‘a critical view’ advanced by Pina-Cabral, Joao de, ‘The Mediterranean as a Category of Regional Comparison’, Current Anthropology 30 (1989), 399406Google Scholar. Cf. also Dubisch, Jill, In a Different Place (Princeton, 1995), 193 ffCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5. Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe: the Social Life of Asia Minor Refugees in Piraeus (Oxford, 1989), 234Google Scholar.

6. Aidōs is now the subject of a heavily detailed assessment by Cairns, Douglas L., Aidōs: the Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature (Oxford, 1993)Google Scholar; for Homer see also Yamagata, Naoko, Homeric Morality (Leiden, 1994), 156ffGoogle Scholar. On dropi and the present-day Greek see Friedl, Ernestine, Vasilika, a Village in Modern Greece (New York, 1962), 85–6Google Scholar; Campbell, J. K., Honour, Family, and Patronage: a Study of Institutions and Moral Values in a Greek Mountain Community (Oxford, 1964), 269–72, 286–91, and 310–12Google Scholar; Boulay, Juliet de, Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village (Oxford, 1974), 104 ffGoogle Scholar; Herzfeld, Michael, The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village (Princeton, 1985), 233–4Google Scholar; Greger, Sonia, Village on the Plateau: Magoulas, a Mountain Village in Crete (Studley, 1988), 130Google Scholar; and Danforth in Loizos, Peter and Papataxiarchis, Euthymios (edd.), Contested Identities: Gender and Kinship in Modern Greece (Princeton, 1991), 103–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7. The study of mētis is especially associated with J.-P. Vernant and other members of the so-called Paris School: see, for example, Detienne, Marcel and Vernant, , Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society (Hassocks and Atlantic Highlands, 1978)Google Scholar. Poniria (including examples) is considered by Friedl, , op. cit., 80Google Scholar; Herzfeld, , op. cit., 25, 31, 40–1, and 198–9Google Scholar; Herzfeld in Dubisch, Jill (ed.), Gender and Power in Rural Greece (Princeton, 1986), 230–2Google Scholar; Hirschon, , op. cit., 2441Google Scholar; Herzfeld, in Contested Identities, op. cit, 82Google Scholar; and Hart, Laurie Kain, Time, Religion, and Social Experience in Rural Greece (Lanham, 1992), 183–4Google Scholar. Cf. also Campbell, , op. cit., 282–3Google Scholar and Boulay, du, op. cit., 115–17, 176, 186–7, and 197Google Scholar.

8. Most helpful, I would suggest, are, on the ancient evidence, Fisher, N. R. E., Hybris, a Study in the Values of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greece (Warminster, 1992)Google Scholar and, on timē and Greeks today, Friedl, , op. cit., 86–7Google Scholar; Campbell, , op. cit., 268 ffGoogle Scholar; and Boulay, du, op. cit., 107 ffGoogle Scholar.

9. In Blok, Josine and Mason, Peter (edd.), Sexual Asymmetry: Studies in Ancient Society (Amsterdam, 1987), 70Google Scholar.

10. Cf. Campbell, , op. cit, 297 ffGoogle Scholar. and Iliad 1. 277–81.

11. Boulay, Du, op. cit, 226Google Scholar.

12. Campbell, , op. cit, 308Google Scholar. See, more generally, Black-Michaud, Jacob, Cohesive Force: Feud in the Mediterranean and the Middle East (Oxford, 1975), 178 ff.Google Scholar, and Elster, Jon, Ethics 100 (1990), 862–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar, but compare Herman, Gabriel, ‘How Violent was Athenian Society?’ in Osborne, Robin and Hornblower, Simon (edd.), Ritual, Finance, Politics (Oxford, 1994), 99117Google Scholar and in Eder, Walter (ed.), Die athenische Demokratie im 4. Jahrhundert v. Chr. (Stuttgart, 1995), 4360Google Scholar and the following discussion, 61–6. See also Mossman, Judith, Wild Justice: a Study of Euripides'Hecuba (Oxford, 1995), 169ffGoogle Scholar.

13. Herzfeld, , The Poetics of Manhood, 79Google Scholar.

14. Op. cit. (n. 13), 80.

15. Campbell, , op. cit., 263Google Scholar.

16. In Peristiany, J. G. and Pitt-Rivers, Julian (edd.), Honor and Grace in Anthropology (Cambridge, 1992), 130Google Scholar.

17. Friedl, Thus, op. cit, 65Google Scholar; Campbell, , Honour, Family, and Patronage, 144–5Google Scholar; Boulay, du, op. cit., 126–8Google Scholar; McNall, Scott G., The Greek Peasant (Washington, 1974), 50–1Google Scholar; Allen, Peter S. in Dimen, Muriel and Friedl, Ernestine, Regional Variation in Modem Greece and Cyprus: towards a Perspective on the Ethnography of Greece (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 268, 1976), 184Google Scholar; Herzfeld, , Anthropological Quarterly 53 (1980), 94CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Friedl, in Gender and Power in Rural Greece, 50Google Scholar; and Herzfeld, , A Place in History (Princeton, 1991), 134 and 271–2 n. 6Google Scholar.

18. Op. cit. (n. 16), 107–8.

19. Redfield, James M., Nature and Culture in the Iliad: the Tragedy of Hector (Chicago and London, 1975), 1516Google Scholar.

20. Colby Quarterly 29, 3 (Sept. 1993), ‘Essays on Homeric Epic’, 165–6. Cf. also Yamagata, , op. cit., 47 ffGoogle Scholar. and Zanker, Graham, The Heart of Achilles: Characterization and Personal Ethics in the Iliad (Ann Arbor, 1994), 79 ffCrossRefGoogle Scholar. Hainsworth, J. B., writing in La Épica Griega y su Influencia en la Literatura Española (Madrid, 1994)Google Scholar, edited by Ferez, J. A. López, however, believes that ‘Agamemnon makes a fair offer of restitution’ and that ‘Achilles is given a fair chance to extricate himself from the futile posture he had taken up’ (35–6)Google Scholar.

21. Iliad 9.147 and 289.

22. Iliad 9. 648 and 16. 59.

23. See, for example, Hirschon, , op. cit., 23Google Scholar and Hart, , op. cit., 21, 69, 80–5, and 247–9Google Scholar. Notice particularly the latter's statement that ‘autochthony is highly valued; family myths stress it, and most Greeks take deep pride in love for a place of “origin,” for a particular tópos' (p. 21).

24. Odyssey 6. 182–5.

25. See Hirschon, , op. cit., 138Google Scholar on the symbolism of the marital bed.

26. Odyssey 23.177–206.

27. Odyssey 23. 233–9.

28. Cf. Podlecki, A. J., G&R 18 (1971), 8990Google Scholar, who calls this ‘the most striking of all’ (p. 89) when he turns finally to the three similes in the Odyssey in which the poet seems to this critic ‘to manifest the highest degree of creative subtlety’ (p. 88).

29. Hirschon, , op. cit., 114Google Scholar.

30. Boulay, Du, op. cit., 94Google Scholar.

31. Hirschon, , op. cit., 143–4Google Scholar.

32. See Odyssey 23. 247 ff.

33. Odyssey 23. 306ff.

34. Op. cit. (n. 16), 105.

35. Ibid., 114.

36. Ibid., 115 ff.

37. Plut. Solon, 1.1 (descent); 2.1 (trader); 8.3–9.3 (general); 6.1, 20, 2–5, and 23.1 (sex); and cf. 12. 2, 14, 15.1–2, and 16ff. (independent).

38. Op. cit. (n. 16), 111; cf. Plut. Solon, 3. 3.

39. Ibid., 120ff.

40. Plut. Solon, 22. 1 and 24. 2.

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