Metameleia in 5th and 4th century Athenian oratory

Laurel Fulkerson

Despite a burgeoning interest in the passions in antiquity, certain of the emotions remain underexplored; metameleia is one of them.  The emotion of metameleia has been neglected for a variety of reasons, of which two are key.  The first derives from an only recently-discarded belief that the Greeks, as participants in a “shame-culture” did not feel emotions such as remorse, but were solely motivated by considerations of utility (i.e. were concerned with punishment rather than with ethics).  Although there remains profitable discussion of the ways in which shame-cultures and guilt-cultures might differ, and there is clearly some truth in the sentiment put so baldly above, there is no longer a notion that it was impossible for an Athenian to feel remorse. 

A second reason for the scholarly neglect of remorse is that the places that modern parallels might lead us to look for it, namely Athenian forensic speeches, seem to yield poor results.  Modern courtroom trials, in which offenders regularly express remorse as a way of lightening their sentences, differ – in this respect and others – from ancient trials, which do not feature plea-bargaining or appeals.  But, as this paper will demonstrate, the fact that remorse plays little role in sentencing does not mean that metameleia is unimportant to the orators. 

I will first outline the semantic field of metameleia and then discuss how it can illustrate both Athenian morality and the techniques used by fifth- and fourth-century orators to lead their audiences to draw certain conclusions.  I will argue that metameleia serves in forensic oratory to distance the object of the speaker’s attack from the speaker and from the judges (conceived of as a unitary moral force) and also, in other forms of oratory, to act as a check on the Athenian people themselves.  In both cases, it is used as a tool to manipulate the audience into finding certain propositions repugnant and their opposites desirable.  It will be seen that remorse fills a much larger function; it is central to morality and serves as a signifier of moral conscience.

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