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A Place for Justice in the Assembly? Pursuing Self-Interest and Helping the Wronged in Athenian International Relations

Matteo Barbato

University of Birmingham

This paper aims to advance our understanding of the role of justice in Athenian international relations. The relevance of justice in Athenian deliberation on foreign policy and the development of its relationship with self-interest throughout the classical age have long been the object of debate. Kennedy (1959) argued that in the fifth century deliberative orators focused either on justice or interest and regarded them as mutually exclusive (see also Cohen 1984), whereas in the fourth they tended to combine both kinds of arguments. Heath (1990), on the other hand, argued that justice was a central component of both fifth- and fourth-century deliberative discourse. These studies, however, did not appreciate the influence of the Assembly on Athenian decision making. This aspect has been addressed by Harris (2013), who has convincingly shown that speakers in the Assembly were expected to focus their arguments on the interests of the city. As a result, deliberative orators (as opposed to speakers in the lawcourts) avoided appeals to punishment and corrective justice but could address issues of distributive justice, which dealt with the fair distribution of material and non-material goods.

This paper builds on Harris’ conclusions and investigates the role of justice in Athenian international relations through the methodology of the Discursive Institutionalism, which stresses the mutual influence between ideas and institutions (Schmidt 2008, 2010). This approach will allow me to tackle two potential counterarguments against the centrality of self-interest in the Athenian Assembly. The first relates to the ‘helping the wronged’ motif in Athenian ideology. This reflected a norm that compelled poleis to intervene in foreign affairs through dynamics comparable to those of corrective justice (Low 2007). To what extent was this norm compatible with the focus on Athenian interests appropriate to the Assembly? I shall answer this question by analyzing Demosthenes’ use of the ‘helping the wronged’ motif in his speech For the Megalopolitans. Through comparison with Lysias’ Funeral Oration, I will show that the discursive parameters of the Assembly led Demosthenes to downplay the altruistic aspect of the motif and conceptualize Athenian help for the victims of injustice compatibly with the focus on self-interest. I shall then address the second counterclaim. One may argue that the emphasis on self-interest in Athenian deliberation is amplified due to Thucydides’ cynical picture of interstate relations and to the influence of the Empire on Athenian foreign policies during the fifth century. I shall therefore compare two inscribed decrees which illustrate how the norm of ‘helping the wronged’ was implemented in Athenian diplomacy and expressed in official documents in the fifth (IG I3 61) and fourth centuries (IG II3 1 367). I will show that both inscriptions appealed to corrective justice but used it to pursue Athenian interests by fostering advantageous relations of reciprocity with foreign political actors. This picture is compatible with (and provides a more nuanced version of) Thucydides’ view of international relations and is consistent from the fifth to the fourth century despite the changes in Athenian external power.

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New Institutionalism and Greek Communities

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