€1.9 million award to support ‘Honour in Classical Greece’ project

Classics staff Professor Douglas Cairns and Dr Mirko Canevaro receive European Research Council award for ‘Honour in Classical Greece’ project. (Published 3 July, 2017)

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Professor Douglas Cairns (PI) and Dr Mirko Canevaro (Co-I), both members of the Classics department, have been awarded just short of €1.9 million by the European Research Council in support of a five-year project on ‘Honour in Classical Greece’. This will allow the recruitment of postdoctoral fellows and PhD students, and will involve a number of important publications and research events.

'Though "honour" may be an outmoded term in modern English, its modern analogues – esteem, respect, recognition, dignity, status, prestige, deference, face, image, etc. – still shape the dynamics of human social interaction,' said Professor Cairns. 'But modern understandings of honour in the societies and literatures of the past – especially the literature of ancient Greece – tend to present it as a single, specific, and more or less monolithic notion especially associated with zero-sum competition between alpha-males, a notion that is typically superseded by more co-operative, inclusive, and egalitarian values, whether in fifth-century BC Athenian democracy or in the eighteenth-century AD enlightenment. Where honour survives in popular perception as a characteristic of modern communities it is typically ghettoized in the world of inner-city gangs, in the Muslim East, or in the traditional machismo of the Mediterranean.'

‘Honour in Classical Greece’ will challenge these erroneous and misleading ideas. Using the findings of contemporary sociology and philosophy, with contributions from other disciplines from economics to literary studies, cognitive linguistics, and psychology, this project will lead to a root and branch transformation of the idées fixes that still mould the understanding of honour (Greek timê) in our ancient Greek sources. The project will show that, far from being a single value among many, timê is a pluralist, inclusive, and flexible notion, as important to ancient values of justice, friendship, and social solidarity as it is to the violence of heroic self-assertion and the pursuit of vengeance. It underpins not only the wrath of Achilles in the Iliad but also the community standards that seek to restrain and assuage that wrath. In Athenian law and politics it is as much about the rights that the law protects as it is about the pursuit of rivalry and competition through litigation. It pervades ancient Greek literature, thought, and society. This project will write its history.

This is the second major ERC grant to Edinburgh Classicists in the last few months, following Niels Gaul’s and Curie Virág’s success with their comparative project ' Classicising learning in medieval imperial systems: cross-cultural approaches to Byzantine paideia and Tang/Song xue', and the third in total, the first being Eberhard Sauer’s project 'Persia and its neighbours: The archaeology of the late antique imperial power in Iran'.