Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Henning Wirth, Die linke Hand: Wahrnehmung und Bewertung in der griechischen und römischen Antike. HABES: Heidelberger Althistorische Beiträge und Epigraphische Studien Bd. 4. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010. Pp. 271; 12 p. of plates. ISBN 9783515094498. €49.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Katharina Rebay-Salisbury, University of Leicester (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Henning Wirth's book offers a comprehensive overview of Greek and Roman perceptions of and attitudes to the left hand. The book is based on a 2008 dissertation at the University of Heidelberg, which remains apparent in its structure. Its four main parts survey connotations of terms for left and right in Ancient Greek and Latin, explore the meaning of left and right in the intellectual world, discuss the significance of the use of the left and right hand and finish with the issue of left-handedness. The arguments are based almost exclusively on texts, in the disciplinary tradition of ancient history and epigraphy, whilst archaeological data such as funerary monuments, graffiti, coins, wall paintings and mosaics are merely used as illustrations and not as a source. Although the book pre-supposes knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin (terms are explained in the main text to underline the argument, but sections of texts are not translated in the footnotes), it is accessible to archaeologists and anthropologists as well.

The main points are summed up at the end of each chapter, and the last chapter provides a comprehensive abstract (p. 241-7). The appendix includes a list of abbreviations (following L'Année Philologique), a list of dictionaries and lexica as well as a list of secondary literature, a list of illustrations and an index of personal names, places and keywords. The cited literature reveals a balanced use of German, English, French and Italian scholarship and others. There are 19 high-quality black-and-white illustrations.

Chapter 2 (p. 13-48) analyses the use of terms for left in the Greek and Latin languages. This approach implies that from semantic insights and the ways in which terms are used one can understand the ontological categories of cultures and their understanding of the world. Staring with a short survey of the meaning of the German word links, Wirth moves on to investigating the use, meaning and connotations of σκαιός, λαιός, ἀριστερός and εὐώνυμος as well as laevus, scaevus and sinister. Whilst meanings of these terms overlap, they are not identical; the author notes that there are no synonyms with exactly the same meaning (p. 30). In the juxtaposition of left and right it quickly becomes apparent that left has primarily negative connotations and may be used to express evil, unfortunate, inconvenient, awkward, wrong or stupid. Exceptions in the field of early Roman divination remain (sinister meant fortunate in this context), and Henning Wirth succeeds in explaining semantic changes and changes in the preference of particular terms over time.

Chapter 3 (p. 49-112) on left and right in the Greek and Roman intellectual world is divided into sections on biology, religion and belief, divination and military system. Natural philosophers noted early the supremacy of the right side in the human and animal body. This had repercussions for explaining sex differences: the right side became associated with the male body and the left side with the female body, in regard to foetal development for instance. The fact that the heart is usually found at left side of the body did not fit the dualistic way of thinking about the body, but the contradiction could be explained away by claiming that the heart had to balance the otherwise colder, less active left side (p. 55). In the sphere of beliefs we find the same kind of dualism, with right being normally associated with luck and fortune, and left being associated with bad luck and misfortune. Whilst this has probably always been true for the Greek world, Wirth spends considerable time explaining that in the early Republic the reverse was believed and only gradually changed to a uniform system for the ancient world; traits of conservative thought were preserved longer in religious practices such as divination. Still, Olympic gods would be associated with the right side, chthonic gods with the left side. The left/right dualism in the religious sphere affected temple architecture, the way movement was choreographed through religious buildings, the way in which offerings were made and the way in which funerary rituals were carried out. The last section of this chapter explains left and right in the military system, emphasising the regulatory effect military order has. Wirth discusses the order of battle as well as strategies and tactics that involve choices between the left and right side. Furthermore, he discusses the sides on which weapons are normally carried and considers exceptions to these rules.

Chapter 4 (p. 113-208) represents the main part of the book and tackles the significance of the right and left hand in the Greek and Roman world in considerable detail. First, the role of the hands of the gods is investigated. In many cultures the hand is used as a symbol for divine intervention; this is particularly true if gods are imagined with anthropomorphic traits, such as in Oriental, Egyptian, and Greek religion, perhaps less so in early Roman religion (p. 120). The right hand of the gods is usually source of healing, protection and help, and yet punishment and destruction may also be administered by the right hand. In general, it seems again that the divine right hand is the active, the left hand the passive one. It comes as no surprise that the right hand of the Roman Emperor becomes a symbol of divine power. Because of her role as the goddess of trust, Fides is often symbolized by a right hand (p. 126). It is this right hand that plays a role in the handshake, which can confirm relationships and signal attachment between friends and family, but also seals deals and contracts between less familiar partners. Next, the role of the left and right hand in veneration and prayer is considered (p. 137). Wirth then reflects on the right hand of the winner (p. 144). Last in this section on the right hand, we learn about dismembering the right hand as a punishment (p. 148).

The role of the left hand in everyday life is subsequently discussed, particular in relation to common forms of garments, which enable or restrict movement and gesticulation. The active connotation of the right hand and the passive connotation of the left is reinforced through the style of dress. Perhaps because the de-emphasised, passive left side could be used to hide stolen goods, theft became associated with the left hand (p. 157). The explicit use of the left hand in sex and masturbation in the Roman world is grounded in a sense of secrecy rather than in an understanding that sex was considered bad (p. 161). Furthermore, the left hand had a stronger connection to the underworld, which had implications for religious and magic practices. Herbs used for potions in magic and healing were often recommended to be plucked with the left hand, sometimes involving the fourth finger (digitus medicinalis ) as particularly significant. Incidentally or not, this is also most often the finger on which rings of friendship and partnership are worn (p. 179). In the last section of this chapter (p. 185), handedness in relation to eating and drinking is discussed as a mundane as well as a socially and ritually significant practice. Again, the preference for the right hand and direction is apparent in almost all contexts, from entering the room to serving, drinking and eating; and yet several burial monuments attest that cups and beakers were held in the left hand. This is, however, most often the case when the right hand is occupied by a different task such as holding a wreath or confirming a relationship. Despite the preference for the right hand in almost all spheres of life, the left hand did not seem to have been considered impure or unclean in the Greek and Roman world (p. 194), as it is, for instance, in Arabian, Indian, or some African cultures. The issue of purity and impurity is, however, not further explored in this book. A brief comparison and juxtaposition of Greek and Roman attitudes to the use of the right and left hand repeats many of the points made earlier, but makes apparent that in the Roman world there is a greater diversity of spheres of life in which sidedness and handedness is an issue.

Chapter 5 (p. 209-240) evaluates how left-handedness was explained and how left-handers were perceived. Although right-handedness was considered the biological norm, cultural practices were employed to ensure the correct development. After a period of swaddling a baby, for example, the right hand was unpacked first to improve the motor development of the right side. Left-handedness had strong negative connotations, and whilst sometimes it was mentioned as a mere fact of curiosity, as in the case of the painter Turpilius (p.216), in other cases left-handers were clearly discriminated against. Roman law states that left-handedness is not a fault that would render the trade of a slave void. Being left-handed as a consequence of injury of the right hand was considered to be better than being a congenital left-hander, especially if this was a result of particular bravery in war. It was still better to be considered a cripple (mancus ) than a left-hander (p. 223). Finally, Wirth discusses left-handed gladiators and examines the personal lives of Tiberius and Caesar in regard to handedness. Basing his analysis primarily on Suetonius, he concludes that Tiberius most probably was indeed left-handed but, despite popular belief, Caesar was not.

On the whole, the book situates the subject well and shows detailed knowledge of the Greek and Roman world. Well written and carefully edited, it makes for an entertaining and enjoyable read. As an archaeologist, I wished for a stronger consideration of archaeological evidence, treating it systematically as a source rather than as illustration. In recent years, handedness has sparked the interest of many archaeologists1 and osteoarchaeological methods are appropriate for investigation of this topic. In-depth transcultural comparison and a more systematic use of ethnographic analogies (rather than vague references without citation) also remain desiderata, especially in the light of the fact that research on the left hand has had a firm place in anthropological scholarship since Robert Hertz' seminal study.2 The rich detail of Henning Wirth's compendium of Greek and Roman attitudes to the left and right hand and handedness will be very useful source in the growing body of scholarship on body theory in the humanities.3


1.   Uomini, N. T. 2009. The prehistory of handedness: Archaeological data and comparative ethology. Journal of Human Evolution 57, 4: 411-419 Fries-Knoblach, J. 2009. "Archäologische Erkenntnismöglichkeiten menschlicher Händigkeit," in S. Grunwald, J.K. Koch, D. Mölders, U. Sommer, and S. Wolfram (eds) Artefact. Festschrift für Sabine Rieckhoff zum 65. Geburtstag. Universitätsforschungen zur Prähistorischen Archäologie 172. 663-688. Bonn: Habelt.
2.   Hertz, R. 1909. La prééminence de la main droite: étude sur la polarité religieuse. Revue Philosophique 68: 553-580.
3.   Shilling, C. 1993. The Body and Social Theory. London: Sage. Joyce, R. A. 2005. Archaeology of the Body. Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 139-158. Porter, J. I. (ed.) 1999. Constructions of the Classical Body. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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