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Dicing with Danger: Some Vocabulary and Concepts of Ancient Greek Risk

Esther Eidinow

University of Nottingham

As Gerd Gigerenzer has stated, ‘[t]he term “risk” has several senses.’ In his book ‘Reckoning with Risk: Learning to Live with Uncertainty’, the focus is, importantly, on its numerical assessment. He argues that risk can be distinguished from uncertainty when it can be expressed as a number—a probability or frequency—on the basis of empirical evidence. But he notes that there are other co-existing interpretations of probability:  these include propensities, which depend on the properties of the object in question, e.g., the design of a die; and, importantly, degrees of belief (subjective probabilities).

As sociological approaches to risk illuminate, we can unpack this latter use of the term ‘risk’ to find at least three separate meanings. For example: ‘risk’ may convey ideas of hazard, loss, damage or threat; it may communicate the process of weighing up gains and losses in decision making; and, finally, a risk calculation may turn on an intuitive evaluation, developing from experience, rather than objective measures (and, indeed, in other books, Gigerenzer expands on the value of intuitive decision making). In the modern world, we ignore these other aspects at our peril. For modern risk studies, perhaps especially approaches to ‘risk-management’, the recognition and examination of the multiple dimensions of this concept continue to prove crucial to a better understanding of how individuals, groups and societies understand, communicate and respond to risk.

The claim has been made that use of the term risk to describe perceptions of events in the ancient world is inappropriate, since there was no calculation of probabilities, and therefore there was no ancient risk-vocabulary (Beerden 2013: 199). But this argument depends, as we have seen, on a narrow definition of ‘modern risk’, which fails to acknowledge sociological and psychological conceptions of risk, in which the idea of probability is subjective—an individual and/or social perception of likelihood—rather than a numerical calculation. Indeed, it is widely recognised that the term kindunos and its cognates may convey many of the modern meanings of ‘risk’ (e.g., on Thucydides’ use of this family of terms, see Greenwood 2017: 168; Grissom 2012 translates the term as risk passim, although he uses the language of ‘danger’ in his introduction and final conclusion).

In this context, rather than dismissing the presence of risk, it is more helpful to our understanding of the ancient mentalité to examine similarities and differences between ancient and modern conceptions of ‘risk’. This paper aims to contribute to this aspect by exploring some aspects of the semantic network of ancient risk, drawing from a range of sources including the writings of Herodotus and Thucydides. It will include examination of imagery and concepts used to describe the anticipation of events, as well as metaphors used in relation to kindunos and cognates. The paper will explore the ways in which this language interacts with a wider set of ideas relating to the uncertain future, for example the roles played by C/chance and F/fate.

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Approaching Risk in Antiquity

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