A History of Trust in Ancient Greece.
This work examines the operation of systems of impersonal trust in ancient Greece. Rejecting the Aristotelian view of political cooperation in Greek city-states as rooted in personal trust shared among fellow citizens, Steven Johnstone seeks to illuminate the ways in which effective functioning of the polis depended on economic and political systems that allowed citizens to act as if they trusted one another.
Readers proceed from an introductory chapter to the public marketplace, where the practice of haggling is analyzed as a system for addressing the asymmetry of information between sellers and buyers resulting from the use of coinage; sellers instantly know the value of the coins they are receiving in a given transaction, but buyers do not have similarly reliable information about goods for sale. The next chapter concerns the practice of measuring, especially in the grain trade, which in the classical period relied heavily on personal trust and expertise among the network of independent merchants and buyers; this is contrasted with the more standardized and impersonal system of quantity and quality controls in the larger-scale markets of Hellenistic Egypt.
In chapter 4, Johnstone explores how Greeks kept track of household supplies and managed consumption over time by skillful use of common containers rather than exact measurement or account keeping. A chapter follows on the attribution of money values in nonmarket contexts, tracing a shift over time from reliance on personal methods of valuing to impersonal ones: from unilateral ad hoc self-declaration of a citizen's value upon assuming a public office, for example, to regular, comprehensive censuses of all citizens and their worth. A subsequent pair of chapters examines collaborative practices that nurtured trust among those assigned to the many boards and committees of the Athenian polis, including a regime of collective liability under which all members of a group might be held responsible for the actions of any single member.
The book concludes with a chapter on rhetoric, defined as "a system for simplifying matters by means of institutional arrangements and conventional language so that large groups could decide things" (148). This admittedly idiosyncratic view keeps in sight not just a single speaker's attempt to persuade but also the opposing speaker's alternate presentation of events and the jurors' task of deciding a matter based on two potentially untrustworthy accounts. The persistence of the Athenian rhetorical system over time leads Johnstone to suggest that personal distrust felt by jurors for particular speakers was somehow managed through development of impersonal trust in the larger decision-making process.
This book is a heap, as the author acknowledges: an unlimited profusion, as opposed to the more precisely bounded standard academic monograph (2, 8). This sense of abundance pertains not only to the subjects covered but also the evidence adduced, which derives from virtually all known Greek literary genres as well as legal texts, inscriptions, and papyri. Such a hoard might fairly be said to contain something for everyone but perhaps too much for anyone. But where to draw the line? One would not want to miss the genuinely fascinating discussion of grain sacks or of containerization as the key to household management. And who is not grateful for revelation of the erotic implications of haggling over the price of shoes in Herodas's mimes, to say nothing of the author's explication of more familiar topics such as Solonian property classes, the trial of the Athenian generals at Arginusai, the value of rhetorical training, or the unequal exchange of armor between Diomedes and Glaukos in the Iliad? Johnstone's work is a product of extensive learning, broad perspective, bottomless curiosity about human interaction in antiquity, and an unyielding urge to subject even familiar evidence to fresh analysis. It is highly stimulating reading for those interested in ancient Greek society, recommended for advanced undergraduates and above.
Truman State University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2013|
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