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Hellenistic Risk Agenda

Paul Vadan

University of Chicago

My paper explores the ability of Hellenistic communities to assess and take risks in times of crisis. The underlying argument is that, although they may have lacked modern mathematical formalism, decision-making bodies were perfectly capable of probabilistic thought. I will look at literary evidence to draw attention to how decision-makers calculated chances of success at critical moments, particularly in a context of conflict. Risky situations produced significant psychological pressures. An awareness of the destabilizing emotions of risk, I argue, led communities to develop collective risk management strategies. Through appeals to patriotism, kinship, and hope, as well as public rituals meant to foster social cohesion, communities sought to contain and channel people’s fears and hesitations from degenerating into panic at critical moments.

I will focus on the Rhodians’ resistance to Demetrios ‘the Besieger’ in 305 BC. I thereby highlight the risk management strategies that a Hellenistic community had at its disposal to mobilize the population and ensure its resilience. 3rd century BC epigraphic evidence further corroborates my observations. Specifically, Koan inscriptions related to the beginning of the Kretan War provide insight into the process of deliberation that informed difficult decisions. Inscriptions further disclose an active concern with the emotions of risk and how to address them, through an emphasis on the virtues of self-sacrifice and incurring danger (kinduneuein). I posit that such epigraphic monuments in turn became lieux de mémoire meant to inspire members of a community to maintain social cohesion and endure present or incoming danger.

The paper will contribute to a deeper understanding of ancient collective risk. Its implications are significant, considering that there is a recent trend in sociology, stemming from the influential work on Risk Society (Beck, 1975), that perceives antiquity as a world guided by rituals of divination and resignation to fate. This perception has even persuaded some classicists to reject the possibility that we can indeed talk about an ancient risk agenda (Beard, 2015). I thus offer support to Esther Eidinow, whose use of the category of ancient risk has at times been dismissed as anachronistic (Beerden, 2013). On the contrary, I believe that decision-making and analytical processes undertaken by Hellenistic communities can be identified with the modern concept of collective risk. Finally, my argument serves as a gateway to integrate Classics into modern studies of risk, international policy, and the psychology of decision-making.

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Risk and Responsibility

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