Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Valeria Andò, Nicola Cusumano (ed.), Come bestie? Forme e paradossi della violenza tra mondo antico e disagio contemporaneo. Mathesis, 4. Caltanissetta: Salvatore Sciascia editore, 2010. Pp. x, 313. ISBN 9788882413569. €20.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Filippo Carlà, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This volume, edited by Valeria Andò and Nicola Cusumano, collects contributions to the topic of violence in ancient cultures. Violence is here not intended in an "objective" sense as a (lack of) security, or the occurrence of crime. (This sort of "quantitative" approach has indeed been tried,1 but is hampered by the lack of sources.) The object of analysis here is rather violence as a cultural and social construct. This is a universal element of socialization, according to Hermann Popitz: every society perceives and registers as "violence" what exceeds the limit of shared tolerance; and violence is of course generally an important part of the definition of the Other, be it the barbarian, the tyrant, or whoever.

This point is particularly well shown by Valeria Andò in the first contribution, "Cannibalismo e antropopoiesi nella poesia iliadica" (1-18), which analyzes, mainly on the basis of the Homeric poems, the use of cannibalism in the construction of models of absolute alterity, and therefore in establishing norms of humanity.

Marzia Soardi's contribution ("Né uomo né bestia. Riflessioni sulla theriotes a partire dal VII libro dell'Etica Nicomachea": 77-88), which analyzes the concept of theriotes in Aristotle, develops the same point. According to the Stagyrite, as is well known, someone who does not feel the need to live in a community is either a beast or a god.2 Only a few human beings abandon their natural position between the two to move, either through exceptional virtue towards the gods, or, because of theriotes, towards the beasts. In this sense, theriotes is once again an anthropopoietic quality that defines the Other. By this might be meant either the barbarian (among barbarians, suggests the philosopher, the quality is found more often),3 or the "deviant" within our own society.

An interesting example of analysis at the crossing point between juridical, religious and more general cultural history is provided by Barbara Marino's "Alastores. Violenza e memoria oltre l'umano" (63-76). Here the deeper cultural significance of the alastores, the "ghosts" of people who suffered violent deaths, but at the same time people who are guilty of such violent acts, is analyzed, with special reference to their connection with memory – since the very word indicates the impossibility of forgetting.

A further point which deserves investigation is the construction of memories of violence: examples of "deviant" behaviors which are culturally constituted as paradigmatic. Roberto Pomelli's study ("L'artefice crudele e il tiranno che una volta fu giusto. Il toro di Falaride e la hybris della mimesis": 89-119), which deals with Phalaris' bull and the literary tradition concerning it, moves in this direction. Pomelli's attention is concentrated on the connection of this tradition with Greek reflection on the imitation of nature, particularly evident in Lucian's elaboration of the legendary material.

Some contributions provide analysis of single literary texts, underlining the use of images of violence, often in connection with metaphors drawn from the animal world. These include the articles by Maurizio Civiletti ("I Sette contro Tebe di Eschilo e l'assedio come dimensione della bestialità": 19-44), Antonietta Provenza ("Eracle e l'odio di Era. L'immagine del toro nell'Eracle di Euripide": 45-62), and Stefano Caneva ("Da Crono agli eroi. Ordine e disordine, violenza e homonoia nelle Argonautiche di Apollonio Rodio": 165-88). Pietro Li Causi ("Granchi, uomini e altri animali. La genesi della violenza nel De sollertia animalium di Plutarco": 189-208) deals with a work by Plutarch which affirms the dehumanizing character of violent acts – including those practiced against animals. This kind of "pro-animal" thinking, which is found also in the Pythagorean school, and even in Varro,4 is extremely interesting, since it assigns a negative value to an activity, hunting, which was always perceived as typically aristocratic, and as a crucial element in the construction of social identities.5 We are therefore dealing here with an alternative anthropopoietic model, which is at least in part constructed on conscious opposition to established cultural models.

The topical connection between violence and animals is to be found not only in Aristotle, but throughout ancient literature. The only article in the volume dealing with Roman culture is an analysis of this topos in Roman literature: Fabio Tutrone's "Confini in discesa. Rappresentazioni della violenza e della bestialità nella cultura romana" (209-33) – which arguably places excessive trust in Girard's theory of sacrifice and its applicability to the ancient world.6

One contribution is dedicated to Carthage: Sergio Ribichini's "Trofei punici" (121-40) deals with the reconstruction of Punic victory celebrations. Greek and Roman authors typically identified such celebrations as excessively violent, and this was of central importance in qualifying the Carthaginians as barbarians. As Ribichini says, this cultural filter could have deeply influenced the choice of the episodes presented in the sources. However, Ribichini does not put these problems at the center of his investigation, which is aimed at reconstructing, as far as possible, the Punic celebrations, by comparing the literary sources with Carthaginian inscriptions and artistic depiction. In this sense, the contribution does not seem to fit very well with the rest of the book and with the ostensible topic of "violence" as a cultural construct.

Much more apt is, in this sense, the article by Nicola Cusumano ("La passione dell'odio e la violenza correttiva. Greci e Cartaginesi in Sicilia (409-396 a.C.)": 141-63). Cusumano analyzes the way in which Diodorus Siculus, in Books 13 and 14 of his Library constructs the Carthaginians as the Other par excellence of Greek culture. Very interesting is the attention given to the description of Greek acts of violence which, as the author shows, not only display evident differences, e.g. in the respect shown towards sanctuaries, but are more generally intended to be seen as reactions to provocation. Additionally they assume an educative character, since they teach the Carthaginians that their cruelty rebounds on them. This attribution of meaning to the violent act separates it from barbarian cruelty in an anthropopoietic perspective.

Another paper not directly connected to the rest of the volume is Francesco Massa's "In forma di serpente. Incesti, mostri e diavoli nella condanna cristiana dei culti dionisiaci" (235-56). The article is centred on the presence of the snake in the Donysiac legend and cult. The metamorphosis of Jupiter into a snake, in which form he sires Dionysus according to one variant of the myth, is the object of Christian criticism. Massa compares the use of the image for anti-pagan means by Clement of Alexandria and Firmicus Maternus, drawing some interesting conclusions about the evolution of Christian opposition to paganism. Nonetheless, the theme of violence does not appear in the article (except indirectly, in the fact that Jupiter, as a snake, is supposed to have raped Persephone) – nor do any of the motifs that might have united the volume as a whole.

Giuseppe Burgio's concluding chapter ("Tra imbestiarsi e trasumanar. Politica e educazione come antropopoiesi": 257-80) is no less problematic. The contribution, from a scholar of the social sciences, deals with the topic of anthropopoiesis, and in particular with the function of educational systems and political life as means by which the individual is institutionalised, and by which society institutionalises itself. Once again, although the concept of anthropopoiesis is central and relevant to understanding the cultural models which shape identity (since the article ultimately assumes that the construction of autonomy is the construction of a full human being), the topic of violence is completely absent. What is more, the paper is composed of contemporary reflection rather than historical reconstruction. It is true that the subtitle of the whole volume makes reference to a "contemporary discomfort" (of which there is indeed seldom trace in the other contributions). But this is related to a theme – violence – which does not appear in Burgio's reflections.

The topic of the entire book is not new, and reference must be made to the volume edited in 2009 by Martin Zimmermann, which had already opened up many of the problems discussed here.7 The main direction in which this volume tends, the cultural elaboration of violence, is the right one to take in connection with the sources at our disposal. They provide us, literally as well as iconographically, with mediated representations of violence, which cannot help us in achieving a direct knowledge of violence in society or evenemential history and / or daily life – though it is extremely useful in the analysis of social and cultural structures, as has already been made clear.8

The pervasive philological approach, and the overwhelming focus on the Greek world make the volume more limited than the title suggests. It would probably have been better either to dedicate the volume to violence in Greek culture (excluding other contexts), or to try to reach a better balance and a comprehensive treatment of different periods and cultures of the ancient world. The general structure is sometimes difficult to grasp, and the connection between the articles not apparent. This makes the reader regret the lack of an introduction and / or of a conclusion, which could have explained the approach chosen, justified the choice of articles, and allowed conclusions to be drawn.

Nor is any reference made to the broader historical problem: there is no trace, e.g., of engagement with the theories of Elias, Bourdieu, or Foucault.9 Pomelli's article in particular would have gained much from a reflection on the constitution of particular examples of violence as parts of the "cultural memory" of a given society, or even to their creation as "inventions of tradition".10 Such memory was on many occasions given material form and strengthened through the constitution of real "Erinnerungsorte" – the most famous example being of course the Athenian place called "of the horse and the maid".11 Such an approach would have helped – in this specific case, for example, to explain the contradiction between Polybius' version of events and that of Timaeus; and it would also have brought interesting results in relation to the general topics of violence as anthropopoiesis, and of the definition of the Self and the Other.

Nonetheless, some of the articles here contribute interesting and well elaborated reflections to the general debate on violence in the ancient world: Andò's, Cusumano's and Marino's contributions in particular stand out, and open the way to further reflections.


1.   E.g. G. Herman, "How Violent was Athenian Society?", in R. Osborne and S. Hornblower (eds.), Ritual, Finance, Politics. Athenian Democratic Accounts (Oxford 1994), 99-117.
2.   Aristotle, Politics 1253a27-9.
3.   Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea 1145a29-31.
4.   Iamblicus, Vita Pythagorica 100; Varro, Saturae Menippeae 293-6.
5.   See e.g. J. K. Anderson, Hunting in the Ancient World (Berkeley 1985); J. M. Barringer, The Hunt in Ancient Greece (Baltimore / London 2001); J. D. Hughes, "Hunting in the Ancient Mediterranean World" in L. Kalof (ed.), A Cultural History of Animals in Antiquity (Oxford / New York 2007), 47-70.
6.   On sacrifice, the author should have consulted at least M. Hénaff, Le prix de la vérité. Le don, l'argent, la philosophie (Paris 2002).
7.   M. Zimmermann (ed.), Extreme Formen von Gewalt in Bild und Text des Altertums (Munich 2009).
8.   S. Müth, "Zur historischen Interpretation medialer Gewalt" in Zimmermann, Extreme Formen von Gewalt (as in n. 7), 193-229.
9.   M. Zimmermann, 'Zur Deutung von Gewaltdarstellungen' in his Extreme Formen von Gewalt (as in n. 7), 7-45.
10.   On cultural memory, see J. Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis (Munich 1992); on collective memory, M. Halbwachs, La mémoire collective (Paris, 1950); on the "invention of traditions", E. Hobsbawm, "Introduction: Inventing Traditions" in E. Hobsbawn and T. Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge 1982), 1-14.
11.   Among others, Aeschin. 1.182. On the concept of "Erinnerungsort", see P. Nora, Les lieux de mémoire (Paris 1984-92), and A. Assmann, Erinnerungsräume. Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses (Munich, 1999).

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