Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Jerzy Styka (ed.), Violence and Aggression in the Ancient World. Classica Cracoviensia, 10. Kraków: Ksiegarnia Akademicka, 2006. Pp. 227 (pb). ISBN 978-83-7188-917-1.
Reviewed by Cheryl L. Golden, Newman University

This collection of essays in English, French and German forms the 10th volume of Classica Cracoviensia, featuring presentations from the 2005 international conference on Violence and Aggression in the Ancient World. The international conference chose this theme to examine the issue of terrorism in the ancient world, clearly in response to the current "grim experience of global terrorism...." (p. 8). The essays run the gamut from Homer to Vergil, from Egypt's Boukoloi to Rome's Clodius Pulcher and from Plato to Lucan. While some of the essays seem to struggle to fit the editor's aim at investigating terrorism as a theme, all address the issue of violence or aggression in its various literary, historical and philosophical forms. A few examples should suffice to show the depth and breadth of the essays presented.

Several of the essays look to literary evidence for their analyses. Krzysztof Bielawski's "Theology of Violence in Greek Tragedy" asks whether one can use tragedy to study Greek "theology" and, further, if it is "possible to reconcile theology and violence" in the tragedies (p. 27). Bielawski looks to Plato for support of the term theology and its use for this particular effort, relying on Plato's Republic, 2.379A. Satisfied that Plato would support the term, the author then proceeds to treat the plays as "theological" and religious sources and the tragedians as serious "theological thinkers." Such an approach certainly pushes the limits of modern day theologians, but for Bielawski's purposes we will allow it. The author contends that violence in Greek tragedy is an important element in a god or gods' revelation of themselves or their aims. Bielawski continues, stating that "the language of sacrifice is the language of violence" (p. 30). The concepts that violence and revelation are in some fashion complementary, and that worship and sacrifice involve violence, are hardly new. More interesting are Bielawski's assessments that violence in tragedies is either allowed by a god or actually caused by a god, and further that violence permitted by a god is either a sign of the god's supremacy, or relates to a situation in which the god demands a transformation of an individual or of humanity as a whole. Violence wrought by a god can come as a moral punishment (as often), or as a means by which to reveal the true nature of the god. Tying violence to sacrifice, the author concludes that violence justified by a god allows mortals to fully experience the divine and to engage in an intimate form of worship of the god.

In comparison we have Joanna Komorowska's "The Tide of Violence: Euripides' Phoenician Women." Komorowska aims through her analysis of Euripides' use of violence and retelling of myth to demonstrate the duality of violence within the Theban royal household and within the city of Thebes. The author sees multiple levels of violence in the play and hopes to "unravel the potential intent of the author, the hypothetical philosophical reflection that influences the details of the well-known myth shaping theme into a form that gives the play its rhythm and maddening velocity...." (p. 98).

Komorowska's essay is well organized and quite convincing. She offers a useful diagram of the play as she discerns its organization and themes as related to her thesis. Particularly convincing is her outline presented on page 107, breaking the play down into: "civilisational violence and the monsters; acts explicitly ending in death; non-fatal acts of violence; verbal violence/abuse; and pictorial violence."

Her analysis of the role of Ares as supporting the violence and even feeding on it recalls Bielawski's aims nicely. Komorowska's own writing style captures that same rapidly developing violence that pushes and pulls Euripides' plot along. A joy to read, the essay is complex and compelling.

Jerzy Danielewicz presents an essay on "Verbal Abuse and Satire in Early Greek Iambus," aiming to systematize the various forms of "iambic aggression" found in Archilochus, Hipponax and others. Danielewicz carefully defines this often irreverent poetry as a form performed on public occasions to lampoon public figures of power. The words often threaten physical aggression, lambasting "honorees" while invoking sexual obscenities. The author finds examples of overt verbal aggression as well as veiled assaults. Overall, Danielewicz concludes that such performances were meant to entertain, to take advantage of an opportunity to go against the social norm that would otherwise expect the target of the invective to be treated with social respect. Finally, although the words used might be interpreted as aggressive and offensive, ultimately, Danielewicz contends, they are anything but--for the aim of aggression is to harm the target, the aim of the iambic in these cases is to honor the target.

Taking us in a different direction than the above literary analyses, several essays in the collection analyze evidence for political and social acts of violence and aggression. Stanislaw Stabryla's essay on "P. Clodius Pulcher: Politician or Terrorist" asks whether Clodius was an "original yet unscrupulous" politician or simply a terrorist. Clodius' use of collegia to stir up violence and chaos in the urban center of the empire has received tremendous attention in scholarship of the Republic. Stabryla finds that his use of such tactics may have begun in the winter of 68/67 while stationed in Mesopotamia. While serving there, Clodius took up the cause of rebellious soldiers under Lucullus. The soldiers rebelled against undertaking a winter campaign against Mithridates. Our author concludes that this example serves as something of a blueprint for Clodius' later actions in that here in the east, he took advantage of "simple soldiers" by behaving as a "defender of the most aggrieved or exploited social classes..." (p. 205).

It may be the translation and word choice, but at times the author seems to take our especially hostile sources (Cicero, Plutarch) rather literally in his analysis (pp. 204-207). For example, Stabryla seems to fully accept Cicero's condemnation of Clodius as a murderer, embezzler, poisoner, cheat, blinded by hatred and a general sociopath. Perhaps Clodius was all these things; more support for such descriptions is wanted in this area given the other fine analysis in the essay. One other point for criticism comes with Stabryla's list of terroristic activities conducted by Clodius (p. 211). While arson, hiring slaves, gladiators and the odd thug to threaten and intimidate with street violence all seem to fit the bill, stealing "valuable objects" from Cicero's home and constructing a portico connecting Clodius' property to Cicero's hardly seem worth the appellation.

In the end, the author sees many of Clodius' actions as symptomatic of the times: bribery, political opportunism, demagoguery. Still, Clodius' extraordinary use of arson, murder and gang violence created chaos contributing to a terroristic element in an already volatile city. Such politics and tactics at Rome would abide certainly throughout the first century B.C. if not beyond.

Two essays deal with social and political violence in Roman Egypt. Adam Lukaszewicz addresses the archaeological evidence from Kom el-Dikka in the city center of ancient Alexandria, offering that the evidence supports the existence of a 6th century "learning institution" connected with the Roman theatre identified there. While the identification of the "classrooms" there may be far from secure, when coupled with the graffiti indicating rival circus "youths," the Blues and Greens, Lukaszewicz begins to bring together a vision of Alexandria replete with competitive street violence, near a "university" of sorts in a city congested with peoples from a variety of cultural, religious and political backgrounds. His work adds to the image we often have of ancient overpopulated cities as emporia for world trade, as well as dangerous living. Lukaszewicz' Alexandria recalls the similar volatile elements present in the Rome of Stabryla's Clodius, above.

Lukaszewicz argues convincingly--through the evidence of graffiti--that the site at Kom el-Dikka may also have associations with Athanasius and the religious violence of Alexandria in the 3rd century A.D. Less secure but no less intriguing is his suggestion that the "learning institution" may have been the location of Hypatia's teaching and violent end in the early 5th c. A.D.

Tomasz Polanski's "The Boukoloi Uprising, or how the Greek intellectuals falsified Oriental History" works to understand the evidence supplied by Cassius Dio regarding a 2nd century A.D. story of the Boukoloi, their leader Isadorus, and their attempt to wrest Alexandria from Roman control. Avidius Cassius was sent by Rome to restore order in A.D. 171/2.

Polanski reviews the literary evidence for the Boukoloi, describing them as cannibalistic bandits living on boats along the Nile, hiding in marshes amongst the reeds, maintaining a tribal organization with a self-proclaimed king. The sources suggest they are barbarians with a barbarian language and barbarous religious practices. They are, in a word, uncivilized. Polanski provides evidence to assert that these people did exist, most likely spoke an Egyptian dialect and that their religious rites did not include cannibalism.

Polanski then offers an historiographical analysis to support that the Boukoloi were not merely shepherd bandits or pirates but rather a distinct group living in Egypt under Roman control. The event of their "rebellion" of the 3rd century A.D. ought to be viewed alongside a long list of rebellions against foreign rule in Egypt.

The remainder of Polanski's essay aims to place the Boukoloi event into a context associated with more modern times and insurgents rebelling against foreign occupation. While the writing and analysis in this section are intriguing, with examples of the Christeros war in Mexico of the 1920's, the Polish Guerilla War of 1942-47 and hints at the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, they may push us beyond what the evidence can support.

This volume of essays provides an eclectic overview of the theme of violence in antiquity from the perspectives of politics, society, religion and art. Some of the essays may be hard pressed to find terrorism as defined in the modern context, negating the editor's claims that we are looking to terrorism or terroristic evidence from antiquity. That is not to say that the theme of violence and aggression does not make a fine topic for analysis. Despite our distance in time from the peoples studied in this collection, human nature's tendency toward violence in our relationships with one another, in our aspirations and ambitions to know the divine, continue to reflect our propensity for violence.

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