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The subject of vengeance in Athenian legal and social discourse has received considerable treatment over the past two decades (see, e.g., Fisher 1992; Hunter 1994; Cohen 1995; Allen 2000; Herman 2006; Scheid-Tissinier 2006; McHardy 2008). Scholars, however, have not fully appreciated how litigants invoke the concept of timōria, commonly translated as “vengeance” or “punishment.” Litigants not only cite the desire for personal vengeance (timōria) as a legitimate motivation for litigation (e.g. Dem. 53.1-2, 58.1-2, 59.12; Lys. 10.3, 14.1-2), but also recommend that jurors, as agents of the community, join them in seeking vengeance (timōria) on wrongdoers to punish them for legal and moral transgressions (e.g. Dem. 50.64; Din. 1.109; Lyc. 1.141; Lys. 12.94, 13.3). The frequency of these claims suggests that Athenian audiences were receptive to them, yet scholars have not given close attention to understanding how and why litigants reconciled personal and collective interests. This paper argues that litigants employed a “rhetoric of timōria” that sought to blur the difference between personal vengeance and collective vengeance/punishment. Demosthenes’ prosecution of Meidias for striking him at the City Dionysia in 348 BCE richly elucidates this thesis.

A critical question posed by this speech is whether personal slights merited physical or legal retaliation. By prosecuting Meidias instead of returning the blow, Demosthenes faced suspicions that the attack was not severe or that he was vindictively escalating a private quarrel. But Demosthenes capitalizes on his restraint by staging a vivid replay of the events following the assault in the theater. Beginning with the probolÄ“ or prejudicial vote first brought against Meidias, Demosthenes stresses the public nature of his personal vengeance. Meidias’ attack on him at the festival provided the perfect context to avenge himself legally (26), since other citizens supported him and were hostile to Meidias (2, 215, 226). Demosthenes closely associates timōria with boÄ“theia (help, aid), arguing that those who suffer violent hybris but restrain themselves can look to the jurors and the laws to aid and avenge them (30, 45, 76). Finally, Demosthenes emphasizes that restraint allows the jurors to exact their own timōria from Meidias (28, 40); he gives them personal and public grounds for anger (46, 70, 123, 183, 196) and vengeance (34, 127, 142, 227) in order to convict Meidias on the spot and safeguard themselves from future acts of aggression (220). By encouraging his jurors to exact vengeance from Meidias, Demosthenes casts collective interests in personal terms analogous to his own. Restraint, therefore, offered Demosthenes greater opportunities than immediate retaliation to avenge himself on his enemy.

Demosthenes’ detailed presentation of timōria in Against Meidias suggests that litigants did not suppress vengeance but harnessed it for their own purposes. Indeed, Athenians were highly sympathetic to the pursuit of vengeance when it was carried out collectively in accordance with democratic ideals. If we appreciate how litigants made persuasive arguments using this rhetoric of timōria, we can better understand Athenian attitudes towards vengeance and the role of legal discourse in shaping them.