The Oath in Archaic and Classical Greece

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  • Professor A.H. Sommerstein


(Description as of 2006)

  • Project runs: 2004-2007
  • A research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust

The oath was an institution of fundamental importance across an enormously wide range of social interactions throughout the ancient Greek world, its binding force one of the most important contributions of religion to social stability and harmony. For this reason, oaths are uttered, prescribed, or referred to in almost every kind of literary or inscriptional text we have from archaic and classical Greece, and a comprehensive study of the subject requires a survey covering all these texts.

The project team for "The Oath in Classical Greece" consists of Professor Sommerstein and two research fellows, Dr Andrew Bayliss and Dr Isabelle Torrance, appointed for a three-year term commencing in September 2004.

The objectives of the project are:

  • To create a database including all references to oaths in Greek texts of all kinds from the archaic and classical periods (i.e. down to 322 BC); when complete, the database would be made publicly available via the internet.
  • To analyse and interpret this evidence, in stages as it is collected, and present the results in seminar and conference papers, in articles and eventually in a co-authored monograph on the nature, employment and functions of oaths in archaic and classical Greek societies.

The cutoff date of 322 BC (coinciding with the death of Aristotle, the last writings of the Attic orators, and the end of the classical Athenian democracy) was chosen because at about that date there are fundamental changes in the geographical extent of the Greek-speaking world, its ethnic and cultural composition, its political organization and the nature of the available evidence.

There has been no comprehensive, dedicated scholarly study of the oath in ancient Greek society since Rudolf Hirzel's Der Eid (1902), and during the century since then much new evidence has become available and the study of society, ancient and modern, has been revolutionized. Information technology has now made it possible to carry out a complete survey of the evidence far faster and more efficiently than had previously been practicable, and the project is therefore centred on the creation of an electronic database, which will greatly ease the identification of significant correlations, variations and developments, and can be expected to illuminate such significant issues as the following:

  • Which ancient Greek social institutions were typically thought to require oaths (with or without additional sanctions) to ensure their proper functioning, and which were not?
  • To what extent did oath practices vary with time or place within the Greek world?
  • To what extent did oath practices, and the persuasive effect of an oath, vary according to the gender and/or status (e.g. citizen/foreigner, free/slave) of the swearer?
  • Did the oath practices of the imaginary worlds created by poets differ from those of the world in which they and their audiences actually lived?
  • Is there any evidence that might indicate whether, from the mid/ late fifth century BC, when traditional religious and ethical beliefs were being widely contested in intellectual circles, oaths came to be regarded as less securely reliable than formerly?
  • To what extent were the brief oath-like expressions common in conversation (usually translatable as "yes/no, by [name of god]") regarded as having the binding force of a true oath?

The database will be founded on a corpus comprising all texts in Greek, whether inscriptional or literary, that were certainly or probably written between the introduction of alphabetic writing and 322 BC. All references (explicit or by necessary implication) to oaths and swearing will be identified, and for each such reference a record will be created. Where the reference is to an oath taken, tendered or offered on a specific occasion, or prescribed to be taken or tendered under specific circumstances, the record will comprise the following fields:

  • source reference
  • category (literary, subliterary or inscriptional)
  • subcategory (genre of literature, type of inscription, etc.)
  • date of source
  • provenance of source (if literary, this means domicile of author)
  • whether oath is set in a historical or a fictitious context
  • date or occasion of oath (if the passage refers to a single occasion)
  • circumstances in which oath taken/tendered (if it was prescribed in those circumstances by law or custom)
  • place
  • person or authority proposing oath
  • person(s) taking, or asked to take, oath
  • (if oath was volunteered by swearer) person to whom addressed ("swearee")
  • what the swearer was asked, or offered, to affirm or promise
  • god(s) or other powers invoked
  • linguistic formula marking utterance as oath
  • consequences (if any) attached to taking oath
  • consequences (if any) attached to refusal to take oath
  • rewards specified for keeping oath
  • punishments specified for breaking oath
  • special sanctifying circumstances (location, sacrifice, etc.)
  • (if referring to a single occasion) whether oath was taken or refused
  • (if referring to a single occasion) effect of oath on behaviour or attitudes of others
  • (if referring to a single occasion) whether oath was kept or (disputably or indisputably) broken
  • (if oath broken) recorded consequences, if any
  • further remarks

There will be an annex to the database consisting of retrospective passages in sources later than 322 BC referring to oaths taken before that date; many of these statements are undoubtedly derived from pre-322 texts, and some are of high importance, but they must be kept separate from the main database because the risk cannot be excluded that they may be, as it were, contaminated by the cultural milieu of the later author.

The database, which will be an Access or MySQL relational database, will be created by the University of Nottingham's R&NT (Research and New Technologies) Database Team with the assistance of the University's Humanities Technology Officer, who will also provide the project team with any training they may need to use the database, as well as monitoring and managing its development over the course of the project.

The database will be created in stages, according to type of source, the staging being so planned that well-defined bodies of evidence would become available for analysis and interpretation fairly early in the process. Thereafter analytical and interpretative work will proceed alongside the expansion of the database.

Once fully populated with data, the database will be provided with an interface, including URL, HTML code and PHP scripts, that will allow it to be made accessible and effectively searchable via the internet. The resulting website will be hosted by the University of Nottingham, and deposit with the Arts and Humanities Data Service will be negotiated also. This final stage in the development of the database will not only make it available to the wider scholarly community but will also greatly facilitate the process of analysis and interpretation in the later stages of the project.

Next to the database itself, the most important outcome of the project will be a monograph, co-authored by Professor Sommerstein and the two research fellows, on the oath in archaic and classical Greek society. This will probably consist of three main parts, Part I discussing the nature and functions of oaths in the Greek world in general terms, Part II their specific uses within polis communities and in inter-state relations, Part III their exploitation in key genres of creative literature. It is hoped that a provisional version of Parts II and III will be complete by the end of the project period, but much of the writing of Part I and revision of the remainder would need to be done after the end of the period, with a target completion date of 2009.