Friday, September 24, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Martin Zimmermann (ed.), Extreme Formen von Gewalt in Bild und Text des Altertums. Münchner Studien zur Alten Welt. München: Herbert Utz Verlag, 2009. Pp. 350. ISBN 9783831608539. €39.00.
Reviewed by Jörg Fündling, RWTH Aachen University, Germany


Violence presents itself to the historian's eye as a deeply disturbing and, at the same time, amorphous field of study which is in desperate need of methodical and structured approaches. The ten stimulating and (with few exceptions) highly instructive papers presented at a Munich conference in 2003, spanning the whole range from Egypt to Late Antique Rome, constitute a welcome gain in clarity.

Martin Zimmermann's introductory essay "Zur Deutung von Gewaltdarstellungen" (pp. 7-47) offers a highly useful synopsis of the literature. Key contributions and positions in the fields of sociology, anthropology and philosophy appear side-by-side with case studies from ancient history and archaeology. Zimmermann goes on to explain the choice of "extreme violence" as a test case: acts considered transgressive in their own time and environment will allow conclusions about acceptable acts, settings and amounts of force; they also provoke comment from participants and narrators alike. Casual slaps for domestic slaves will rarely be mentioned, feeding them to murenas will.

Both Egypt and the Ancient Near East are represented by studies that confront the iconography of rulers with written testimonies. The Egyptian side of the evidence is presented by Renate Müller-Wollermann ("Symbolische Gewalt im Alten Ägypten", pp. 47-64). The topical scene of the pharaoh smiting his enemies is virtually omnipresent, on scarabs or other small artefacts as ruler propaganda, but also on temple walls with an apotropaic function. Paintings on sandals allow the wearer literally to trample on bound enemies from abroad. It is remarkable that the painter of a Roman-age mummy shoe (fig. 8, bottom, p. 57) went out of his way to make two fictitious victims miserable: both prisoners are tied up in stances that in real life would impede their balance and cause considerable pain.

Andreas Fuchs ("Waren die Assyrer grausam?", pp. 65-119) contests the familiar notion of Assyrian love for carnage and impaling. In order to inculcate the lesson that Assyria's king is strong enough to punish his enemies, a pictorial world is created in which the lawful rulers, and they alone, are able make people suffer. Fuchs's conflicting wish to denounce Assurbanipal, the stereotypic "good Assyrian", regrettably undermines his main argument, and his page-long jeering at the king -- embarrassing, yellow-livered, prone to be sorry for himself -- is tedious. What do we learn from the final assertion that Assyrians deserve to be called "cruel" from the standpoint of "our contemporary feelings" (115)? This only points to our own concept of cruelty, not analysed by Fuchs.

Bruno Jacobs applies more scrutiny to the Persian case and three spectacular forms of capital punishment ("Grausame Hinrichtungen -- friedliche Bilder. Zum Verhältnis der politischen Realität zu den Darstellungsszenarien der achämenidischen Kunst", pp. 121-153). The explanation for the conspicuous absence of death scenes in Achaemenid art, as well as for their presence in the Assyrian case, must be sought in the valid conventions of representation alone. On the other hand, the alleged Persian inventiveness in the area of death penalties is a recurrent theme in Greek sources. One example is throwing someone into cold ashes. (subsidens in Ov. Ibis 314 should not be read as "herniederfallend", p. 146. The ashes do not trickle down but give way under the victim's weight.) Jacobs does make it clear enough that the techniques in question guarantee a lethal result, but this is obviously no proof that they were applied. The role of Chinese tortures and execution methods, real or not, in modern European literature and popular fantasies comes into mind: tickle torture, Death of a Thousand Cuts, the Iron Shirt... Jacobs himself is reserved concerning reports of vindictive Persian queens (pp. 122f.; 132f.) though he cites Vergil's epic monster Mezentius who tied his victims to corpses (Aen. 8.481-488); that this would be viable does not make such proceedings an established Etruscan tradition.

Zimmermann's important contribution "Extreme Formen physischer Gewalt in der antiken Überlieferung" (pp. 155-192) concentrates on graphic literary descriptions of violence. The elaborate topical framework into which such reports inevitably fit impedes the separation of actual violence from modified or completely fictitious scenes. Zimmermann's note that each set of topoi may serve as a pattern for actual social behaviour -- and will, on the other hand, draw contents from both imagination and experience -- is most important. His examples for the deliberate blending of political reality and tragic play-acting, for Nero as well as for Tiberius and Caligula, make a strong case for the Roman historians' self-understanding as an active political opposition against oppressors' abuse of the purple. 1

Susanne Muth ("Zur historischen Interpretation medialer Gewalt. Darstellungen von Leiden und Sterben im Athen des späten 6. und frühen 5. Jahrhundert [sic] v. Chr.", pp. 193-229) is able to modify the familiar view that the Persian Wars brought a far more aggressive, even xenophobic note into Athenian art. Vase paintings do turn from mere hints at superiority to killing scenes and prostrate enemies -- but the advent of outspokenness and drastic deaths is gradual and even predates the Ionian Revolt. Muth's list of new subjects in the role of the defeated -- mythical brigands and sinners, but also old people and foreigners -- is most exciting, as is her observation that women now appear on both sides of such conflict scenes. The author's circumspection and detachment have the last word throughout her paper, yet they do not preclude decisive comment whenever the evidence allows. Both in method and in the use of her material, Muth'spaper is exemplary.

The second iconographical essay, Felix Pirson's "Zur Funktion extremer Gewalt in Kampfdarstellungen der hellenistischen Sepulkralkunst Etruriens" (pp. 231-256), turns to a corpus of battle scenes from Etruscan tombs of the late third and second centuries B.C. -- yet another case in which social changes have been proposed as a reason for the sudden appearance of tormented and humiliated enemy figures. Many of these are characterized as Celts, and more than just an undertone of sexual domination is present. Pirson points to the common Roman scorn for passive partners in anal intercourse.Etruscan and Roman sexual ethics were compatible in this respect.

The sexual aspect of violence is even more evident in Martin Hose's contribution on "Sadismus in der hellenistischen Dichtung" (pp. 257-273). Hose gives short shrift to the notion that sexual pleasure in inflicting bodily or mental pain might simply not have existed; instead he supposes that it may not have been perceived as sexual at all. The most striking examples in his search for sadistic imagery come from the mimiamboi of Hero(n)das, which propagate stereotypes of female behaviour and character flaws in general. Mime 3, a mother's appeal to her son's schoolteacher Lampriskos to flog the lazy pupil within an inch of his life, pours scorn on her transgression of a woman's social role -- the meting out of punishments in the household are considered best reserved for men. The same applies to Bitinna who, in Mime 5, orders two thousand lashes in revenge for her bed slave's impotence, a number resembling the supernatural quantities in trashy flagellation literature. Bitinna eventually settles for a punitive full-body tattoo, then spares Gastron after all; she is not only ridiculously vindictive but also fickle.

We return to the question of tyrannical violence with Dirk Rohmann ("Tyrannen und Märtyrer: Seneca und das Gewaltkonzept in der Literatur des ersten Jahrhunderts n. Chr.", pp. 275-294). Seneca's writings De ira and De clementia, are singular but certainly not "wissenschaftlich" (p. 276), and attention should have been given to the intriguing fact that the latter was written for a future tyrant. Rohmann's lists of various Latin uses of crudelitas and related words are welcome but far from complete -- not a single reference to Suetonius, to name just one major gap. 2 A comparison with historical accounts of the reigns of first-century "bad" emperors (pp. 283-291) is basically an oversimplified echo of Zimmermann's paper. Rohmann goes so far as to declare that not a single action or dictum of this kind can be tested for its factual nucleus. Even a topos, though, tends to have its real-life applications. Rohmann's final hypothesis that suffering slaves and peasants gradually took the dying senator's role in first-century Latin literature is not convincing.

Ulrich Huttner ("Sterben wie ein Philosoph. Zur Inszenierung des Todes in der Antike", pp. 295-320) devotes his attention to forced suicides, voluntary deaths and early deaths from natural causes. He studies Seneca's end according to Tacitus in juxtaposition with Plato's description of the death of Socrates, the prototype of a "good death", and its imitation by Cato the Younger, Thrasea Paetus and, later, the Emperor Julian (Marcus Aurelius would have deserved an entry). A Christian instance is the role of Pionius in the Acts of that Martyr -- his final prayer is certainly an indirect echo of Luke 23,46 (p. 306) but derives from Acts 7,59, where Stephen provides a role model for martyrs. Many dying scenes were staged with more than half an eye to the witnesses as well as to posterity. The examples of philosophers and other famous men, and the ideal of making one's last hour contain one's life in a nutshell, exerted a powerful influence. Huttner warns against declaring all such reports fictional; there was an overwhelming interest in transmitting actual scenes, beautified or not (p. 319).

Jens-Uwe Krause closes this volume with considerations on capital punishment in theory and practice from the 4th to 6th centuries A.D. ("Staatliche Gewalt in der Spätantike: Hinrichtungen", pp. 321-350). Krause asserts plausibly that Late Antique executions may have been, on the whole, less painful and even less frequent than in earlier centuries. The arena industry of the Principate vanished, and this is an indisputable improvement; if, on the other hand, Constantine prescribed that delinquents be branded on their arms or legs rather than their faces (cf. p. 325), the stigma was slightly less visible but just as ignominious and painful as before. Condemnation ad metalla, "an alternative to capital punishment" (p. 328 cf. p. 325), meant a lingering death over weeks or months -- or only a few days in the case of an infamous Egyptian mine (p. 333). Krause's observation that frequent threats of the lawgiver do not automatically mean more and harsher punishments is evidently true; we should share his doubts that such laws could in the long run maintain their full rigour (p. 330). This leaves, of course, room for short-term efforts to make good the threat.

Given the wide span of themes and sources in this collection, one sadly misses an index. Some editorial cross-references between the papers might also have been welcome to underline their dialogue with each other. The unusually long gap between submission and publication has left some traces in the footnotes; several titles that have appeared in the meanwhile are still signalled as 'forthcoming', such as Zimmermann's contribution to the 2005 Historiae Augustae Colloquium Bambergense (159 n.21), Ch. Ronning's in Chiron 2006 (186 n. 152), or G. Fischer/ S. Moraw (edd.), Die andere Seite der Klassik (see Zimmermann's preliminary note, p. 5). On p. 175 the curse of the Digital Age has stripped μιμητής and ἀγωνιστής of their Greek font, and some footnote numbers on pp. 262-64 and 297 are erroneously printed as part of the text. These are minor flaws. In large part Extreme Formen von Gewalt is a treasure trove for the study of ancient mentalities and cultural history.


1.   One supposed exception, the death of Sedatius Severianus (p. 189), seems to imply criticism of the unhappy commander. It is customary to put the blame for Roman failures and disasters either on "earlier emperors" (impracticable in this case) or on the defeated general himself. If Severianus botches his dying attempts this mirrors his poor leadership. The vocal (and loyal) centurion must have foreshadowed the dedication of Lucius' armies that helped turn the tide against the Parthians. . Cf. the suicides at Otho's pyre in 69 which announce the eventual defeat of Vitellius: Tac. hist. 2, 50; Plut. Otho 17; Cass. Dio 63,15,1-2.
2.   For saevus/ saevitia see now the rudimentary list in J. Fündling, Kommentar zur Vita Hadriani der Historia Augusta. (Antiquitas Bonn (Habelt) 2006, 730-2; cf. 918f. on crudelitas).

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