The ability of human beings to feel compassion or empathy for one another—and express that emotion by offering comfort or assistance—is an important antidote to violence and aggression. In ancient Greece, the epics of Homer and the tragic dramas performed each spring in the Theater of Dionysus offered citizens valuable lessons concerning the necessity and proper application of compassionate action. This book is the first full-length examination of compassion (eleos or oiktos in Greek) as a dramatic theme in ancient Greek literature.
Through careful textual analysis, James F. Johnson surveys the treatment of compassion in the epics of Homer, especially the Iliad, and in the works of the three great Athenian tragedians: Aischylos, Euripides, and Sophokles. He emphasizes reciprocity, reverence, and retribution as defining features of Greek compassion during the Homeric and Archaic periods. In framing his analysis, Johnson distinguishes compassion from pity.