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Performing Oaths in Classical Greek Drama

by Judith Fletcher. Forthcoming. Cambridge University Press

This monograph is a study of the numerous oath swearing scenes and references to formal oaths sworn offstage in Athenian tragedy, satyr drama and comedy. It explores the relationships between the performativity of language and social factors such as gender, age and status. While drama uses oaths as powerful plot devices that bind characters to action, it does so in a way that evokes the numerous oath ceremonies that structured the life of an Athenian man or woman in the fifth century. Download PDf with further information.

Horkos:  The Oath in Greek Society 

ed. Alan H. Sommerstein and Judith Fletcher (Bristol Phoenix Press, Exeter). ISBN 978-1904675679 – order at Amazon.

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Introduction (Alan H. Sommerstein)

Part I:  Oaths and their Uses

  • Oaths in political life (P.J. Rhodes)
  • Oaths in Greek international relations (Sarah Bolmarcich)
  • Litigants' oaths in Athenian law (Michael Gagarin)
  • The dikasts’ oath and the question of fact (David C. Mirhady)
  • Could a Greek oath guarantee a claim right? (David M. Carter)
  • Oath and contract (Edwin M. Carawan)
  • “An Olympic victory must not be bought”: oath-taking, cheating and women in Greek athletics (Jonathan S. Perry)

Part II:  Case studies

  • Epinician swearing (Bonnie MacLachlan)
  • Horkos in the Oresteia (Judith Fletcher)
  • Masters of manipulation: Euripides’ (and Medea’s) use of oaths in Medea (Arlene Allan)
  • Cloudy swearing: when is an oath not an oath? (Alan H. Sommerstein)
  • Thucydides and Plataian perjury (Simon Hornblower)
  • The oath of Demophantos and the politics of Athenian identity (Julia L. Shear)
  • The Syracusans’ great oath and the Greek hierophantic performance (Tarik Wareh)

Part III:  From East, to West

  • Oath and allusion in Alcaeus 129 (Mary R. Bachvarova)
  • Cosmological oaths in Empedocles and Lucretius (Myrto Gkarani)
  • Omnuo auton ton Sebaston [“I swear by Augustus himself”]:  the Greek oath in the Roman world (Serena Connolly)




The Oath in Archaic and Classical Greece

A.H. Sommerstein and A.J. Bayliss, Oath and State in Ancient Greece, Berlin 2012

A.H. Sommerstein and I.C. Torrance, Oaths and Swearing in Ancient Greece, Berlin, to appear 2013/14

A blurb and table of contents for Oath and State in Ancient Greece can be taken from the De Gruyter website: search for “Sommerstein Bayliss”, then click “Read Content”, and you will get the ToC.

A blurb for Oaths and Swearing in Ancient Greece can also be taken from the De Gruyter website by searching for “Sommerstein Torrance”.

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  1. What is an oath?
  2. Oath and curse
  3. Oaths in traditional myth: Helen’s suitors and others
  4. Oath and promise, friendship and enmity, trust and suspicion
  5. The linguistic expression of oaths
  6. Ways to give oaths extra sanctity
  7. Oaths, gender and status
  8. Oaths and characterization
  9. Oaths in oratory and rhetoric
  10. Artful dodging, its methods and its limits
  11. The binding power of oaths
  12. Divine and human responses to perjury
  13. The informal oath
  14. The Hippocratic oath
  15. The decline of the oath?

“Swearing by Hera: a deme meme?”

by Alan H. Sommerstein. Classical Quarterly 58 (2008) 326-331.


This paper suggests that the practice of swearing by Hera, noted even in his own time as a mannerism of Socrates, was actually a local rather than a personal peculiarity, originating in Socrates’ deme of Alopeke.

Both in Plato and in Xenophon, Socrates from time to time swears by Hera; this oath usually accompanies an expression of admiration.  It was evidently a habit of the historical Socrates (imitated by one of his pupils, Aischines of Sphettos, in an anecdote reported by Diogenes Laertius), but no convincing explanation of its origin has ever been given.  Informal oaths by Hera are otherwise extremely rare, with only two instances in all of Greek literature other than Plato and Xenophon; with the exception of Ares, Hera is the only one of the thirteen principal divinities by whom no one swears in any surviving comic text or fragment. Read more...

Little seems hitherto to have been made of the fact that in Plato and Xenophon there are persons other than Socrates who swear by Hera:  Lysimachos son of Aristeides, the wealthy aristocrat Kallias and his brother Hermogenes, and Lykon the father of Autolykos.  Of these four, at least three were members of the deme Alopeke (Lykon’s deme is not known – he should not be identified with Lykon of Thorikos, the later accuser of Socrates).

It is therefore a plausible hypothesis that the habit of swearing by Hera, especially when expressing admiration, was common in the deme of Alopeke throughout the fifth century BC, and was to some extent known to outsiders as characteristic of the deme.  Socrates used it so frequently that it became associated with him in particular, and from him it passed to some of his pupils and associates who had no connection with his deme – to Aischines (see above) and also to Xenophon, who puts it into the mouth of at least one character in the Kyroupaideia .  It then disappears, to resurface only once, many centuries later, in a letter of Aristainetos.

Why Alopekeans in particular should have developed a tendency to swear by Hera we do not know; possibly she had a locally important cult centre in the deme (as she did e.g. at Erchia) – it is striking that personal names incorporating the name of Hera, which are generally rare at Athens, seem to cluster in and around Alopeke.  The fact that they did develop this tendency, which initially (it seems) no one else shared, is an interesting example of a dialect feature associated very specifically not just with a single polis , but with a small subpart of one.


“On your head be it sworn: oath and virtue in Euripides' Helen

by Isabelle Torrance.  Classical Quarterly 59 (2009) 1-7.


This article discusses the two oaths in Euripides' Helen in the context of other oaths from Greek poetry, specifically examples of oaths sworn by the head of Zeus. It argues that Helen's oath-taking in Euripides' play confirms her chastity and looks forward to her predicted apotheosis. In the case of Menelaus it argues that his oath bond with Helen casts him in a more positive light than has generally been acknowledged by scholars.

“An overlooked tragic fragment:  PMG 960”

by Alan H. Sommerstein.  To appear in F. Cortés Gabaudan and J. Méndez Dosuna ed. In Memoriam Antonio López Eire (Universidad de Salamanca).


There has never been any agreement on the authorship or date of the lyric fragment PMG 960:

“By sceptred Hera who looks down from Olympus,

my tongue is locked in a secure treasure-house”.


Several features of the fragment, however, make it highly likely that it comes from a tragedy:

(1) The word rendered as “sceptred” is spelt skēptoukhon , as in Attic; in non-dramatic lyric (Pindar, Bacchylides), words of this family are always spelt in the Doric fashion ( skapt- ).

(2) The swearing-formula “ nai + accusative”, used in this fragment, and its negative equivalent “ ou + accusative” occur several times in tragic lyric (five times in Sophocles, once in Euripides), and were clearly in regular use in some spoken dialects (Doric, Arcadian), but they are not found anywhere in non-dramatic lyric of the archaic or classical period, where the regular formulae are nai ma and ou ma.

(3) Oaths by Hera are extremely rare in Greek literary texts; indeed, leaving aside the present fragment, they occur, before the imperial period, only on the lips (or in the writings) of members of the single Attic deme of Alopeke (see “Swearing by Hera: a deme meme?”), of associates or former associates of Socrates – and of married women in Attic tragedy, especially when acting contrary to their husbands’ wishes.

(4) The speaker(s) are evidently pledging themselves to secrecy; this is an essentially dramatic plot-feature, frequent in tragedy, and it is hardly surprising that we know of no instance of it in non-dramatic lyric.

I conclude that PMG 960 should be regarded as a tragic fragment.  Most probably the lines were sung by a chorus of married women, agreeing to a request by a character, almost certainly another woman, to keep secret some vital information, probably about a scheme of hers to deceive her husband.  They cannot be firmly assigned to a specific author.  Aeschylus is excluded because (1) the metre of the fragment (dactylo-epitrite) is not used by him and (2) the quoting author, Clement of Alexandria, immediately afterwards cites him by name as the source of a different passage.  Sophocles and Euripides are both possibilities.  Clement was reflecting, in his previous sentence, on the myth of Tereus, and it is tempting to associate the fragment with the plot of the sisters Procne and Philomela against the former’s husband in Sophocles’ Tereus ; but the evidence is far from decisive.


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