In his discussion of a work by Anne Burnett listed below, Michael Lloyd remarks (The Classical Review 49  348-349; 348):
Retributivism has been fashionable in moral and legal philosophy for at least twenty years, and classical scholars have become correspondingly more enthusiastic about the Greek injunction to harm your enemies as well as help your friends.
“Enthusiastic” about harming one's enemies: yes, but you are not supposed to admit it. Plus, it doesn't work out very well in practice.
Revenge tragedy is a Greek genre of great power. The idea that its goal is to dissuade people from practicing retributive justice is an invention however of school marms. It's not that simple.
The fact is, retribution has never gone out of style in life or art. Actual revenge and the desire for revenge soak the television screen every night. It doesn’t matter whether you watch CSI-Miami, Heroes, or the evening news. It's not about refraining from retaliation. It's about packaging it.
Jews and Christians honor teachings which give wide scope to the principle of returning good for evil (Exod 23:4-5; Lev 19:17-18; Jer 29:7; Prov 25:21-22; Matt 5:38-48; Rom 12:17-21). Nonetheless, we are part of a culture in which it is the norm for people to set themselves up as judge, jury, and executioner over against their ideological opponents. States, movements, and individuals acting alone agree on the right to retaliate.
One of the enduring lessons of 9/11, no matter how you slice and dice it, is that projects of revenge remain a force of extreme potency. This is not something new under the sun. Here is a telling Helene Foley quote (2001:154):
Although even in Homer there are alternatives to resolving quarrels by self-help justice, it is clear, as Anne Burnett argues, that the civic community’s power to punish is “a borrowed version of each man’s ingrained right to retaliate” and that revenge is “an honorable imperative essential to the preservation of order.” Even the anger that provokes revenge can, according to Aristotle, align itself suitably with reason, honor, and justice. The popularity of revenge in tragedy must be evaluated from this perspective.
People like to write histories of God and the devil. It empowers them, or so they think. It would be more to the point to write a history of justice. Its unspeakable etiology: retaliation.
The concept of closure and the role retribution has in the attainment of closure – for example, in cases of murder in which surviving kin are given a say when the convict in question comes up for release – do not have a place in the political and theological projects of a great number of very smart people. Given the abuse of the principle of retribution on the one hand, and teaching that goes in the opposite direction on the other, that is hardly surprising.
On the other hand, the fact that redistributive justice – which those same people usually affirm - is a type of retributive justice is almost universally overlooked. You know, progressive taxation, affirmative action, things like that. The feeling seems to be that redistributive justice cannot be a form of retributive justice. If it were, we would all be rednecks, and that can’t be.
The argument is not about retribution, something almost everyone, consciously or unconsciously, takes to be a touchstone of justice. It’s about polarization, the need to neatly differentiate opposing ideological camps. If the identity tests are incoherent, who cares? The tests succeed in separating the sheep from the goats. On the one hand, you have those who cling to God and guns. On the other, those who look to the law to coerce people into following their enlightened dictates.
Anne Pippen Burnett, Revenge in Attic and Later Tragedy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Helene P. Foley, “The Ethics of Lamentation,” in idem, Female Acts in Greek Tragedy (Martin Classical Lectures; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001) 145-171