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Risk and Hellenistic Decision-Making

Paul Vadan

University of Chicago

The coining of the term ‘risk’ has been interpreted by sociologists Niklas Luhmann and Anthony Giddens as a new way of conceptualizing danger and uncertainty, which signaled a break between modernity and ‘traditional’ societies. The novelty, they argue, consisted of the advent of statistics and probability that revolutionized the way societies interact with nature and the future. As part of the panel “Approaching Risk in Antiquity,” this paper will challenge these assumptions vis-à-vis the ancient world, by adopting as a premise the philological approach of Classical scholars like Robert Kaster and Peter Struck.[1] They have shown that even though the ancient Greek language did not have specific terms for various modern concepts, it was nevertheless perfectly capable of expressing them, but in a cultural form sufficiently different from our own. Specifically, my paper will examine how risk was expressed in the political language of the Hellenistic period, and how it shaped the communal decision-making process.

The paper will focus on how Hellenistic historians conceptualized and expressed the cognitive processes involved in identifying, assessing, and responding to present or potential threats. I will specifically focus on their emphasis on calculating (λογίζεσθαι), judging (κρινεῖν), or taking counsel about (βουλεύεσθαι) decisions considered dangerous (κινδυνῶδες) or cautious (ἀσφαλής). I argue that they denote a comprehension of various degrees of danger, that was often expressed through a language of likelihood (εἰκός) and expectation (ἐλπίς). I will then explore how such ancient expressions of risk provided Hellenistic decision-makers with the conceptual tools to make estimations and assume speculative behavior on the international political stage. I will also refer to the epigraphic evidence during the Cretan War at the end of the 3rd century BC, as a case study for how risk management strategies were implemented and referred-to by communal decision-making bodies.

Exploring the conceptualization of ancient risk will also be of value to Classical philosophers, as it touches upon an ongoing intellectual engagement by Hellenistic historians with Aristotelian ideas about the character of wisdom with respect to deliberation. As a case in point, Aristotle considered to be wise those men who calculated well (εὔ λογίσονται) on matters for which there is no τέχνη.[2] But as will be made clear from my paper, ancient historians interpreted the sagacity (φρόνησις) of decision-makers in making correct (κατορθῶν) calculations, a craft (τέχνη) that could be exercised. Furthermore, the paper offers Classical scholars a model for using qualitative probability to better understand ancient risk assessment and decision-making, in the absence of formal mathematical tools.


[1] Niklas Luhmann, 1991, Risk: A Sociological Theory, Rhodes Barrett (trans.), de Gruyter, and Anthony Giddens, 1991, The Consequences of Modernity, Stanford University Press.

[2] δοκεῖ δὴ φρονίμου εἶναι τὸ δύνασθαι καλῶς βουλεύσασθαι περὶ τὰ αὑτῷ ἀγαθὰ καὶ συμφέροντα, οὐ κατὰ μέρος, οἷον ποῖα πρὸς ὑγίειαν, πρὸς ἰσχύν, ἀλλὰ ποῖα πρὸς τὸ εὖ ζῆν ὅλως. σημεῖον δ’ ὅτι καὶ τοὺς περί τι φρονίμους λέγομεν, ὅταν πρὸς τέλος τι σπουδαῖον εὖ λογίσωνται, ὧν μή ἐστι τέχνη. ὥστε καὶ ὅλως ἂν εἴη φρόνιμος ὁ βουλευτικός.  Arist. Eth. Nic. 1140a25-30.

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Approaching Risk in Antiquity

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