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A Song of Dice and Ire: Games of Chance and Anger in Greek Oratory

Christopher Dobbs

University of Missouri - Columbia

It is striking how frequently games of chance are paired with anger in Greek literature. Passages from a wide array of genres and time periods associate dice and knucklebones with ire, but the details of the relationship vary considerably among the sources. For example, in the very first appearance of a game of chance in Greek literature, Patroclus becomes incensed while playing knucklebones (ἀμφ᾿ ἀστραγάλοισι χολωθείς, Odyssey 23.88) and kills Amphidamas’ son. The scholiast on the same passage records Anacreon as saying that the knucklebones of Eros are madness and uproar (ἀστραγάλαι δ᾿ Ἔρωτός εἰσιν μανίαι τε καὶ κυδοιμοί, fr. 398). Conversely, Plato’s Socrates implies that such games assuage anger rather than cause it: he recommends mitigating one’s vexation at misfortunes by treating them like throws of the dice (μὴ ἀγανακτεῖν…ὥσπερ ἐν πτώσει κύβων, Republic 604b-c). This paper argues that Greek orators exploit the complex relationship between games of chance and anger in their censure of contemporary social practices.

This paper comes in two parts. In the first part, I briefly trace the connection between games of chance and anger from the earliest Greek sources to fourth-century BCE Athens, where the evidence is most robust. I then focus specifically on oratory as the vehicle for a discourse of propriety in democratic Athens. Greek orators return time and again to the link between games and ire, but with a new locus of anger: other members of society. In the Odysseus, attributed to the orator Alcidamas, the eponymous hero charges Palamedes with inventing only detriments to society, not benefits (22-28). Foremost on that list are dice, which the speaker claims bring grief and financial loss for the losers while affording the winners only derision and reproach (νενικηκόσι καταγέλωτα καὶ ὄνειδος, 27), which, contextually, come from moralizing nonparticipants (cf. Muir 2002). When Alcidamas’ contemporary Isocrates rails against the youths of his day, he disapproves of those who play games, but reserves his harshest criticism for those who gamble (παιδιαῖς…ἐν τοῖς σκιραφείοις κυβεύουσι, Antidosis 286-287; cf. Too 2008), the monetization of the activity marking the latter as especially appropriate for rebuke (Kurke 1999; Kurke 2002). Less than a decade later, Aeschines, who claims never to have vexed another Athenian with a lawsuit (οὔτε…λυπήσας, Against Timarchus 1), prosecutes Timarchus out of indignation for the man’s shameful behavior, including gambling away others’ wealth and his own patrimony (42, 53, 75, 95-96; cf. Lysias 14.27, 16.11; Carey 1989; Fisher 2004). Furthermore, one of Timarchus’ previous lovers is infuriated at having been spurned (ὠδυνᾶτο…ἐζηλοτύπει, 58) and becomes a nuisance, so Timarchus and his then-current lover beat the man and break all of his gaming equipment (ἀστραγάλους τέ τινας διασείστους καὶ φιμοὺς καὶ κυβευτικὰ ἕτερα ὄργανα, 59), showing a complicated, new connection between games of chance and anger.

In the second part of this paper, I explore why games of chance seem to have been so commonly paired with anger, taking into consideration recent work on Greek emotions (e.g. Braund and Most 2004; Konstan 2006; Kalimtzis 2012; Chaniotis and Ducrey 2013). I compare the orators’ criticisms to show that the underlying concern is impropriety by the participants of games of chance, including poor stewardship of both personal resources and the state, and I demonstrate how the orators exploit the association of games and anger by appealing to their audiences’ emotions (cf. Rubinstein 2013). This study expands our knowledge of how Greek emotions could be coupled with social practices and leads to a better understanding of decorum in fourth-century BCE Athens.

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Style and Rhetoric

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