Thursday, June 5, 2014


Ed Sanders, Chiara Thumiger, Chris Carey, Nick J. Lowe (ed.), Erôs in Ancient Greece. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xiv, 349. ISBN 9780199605507. $160.00.

Reviewed by Donald Sells, University of Michigan (

Version at BMCR home site


What separates this volume from the many previous studies of erôs, Sanders and Thumiger explain in the Introduction, is its focus on the erotic as an emotion instead of, for example, a literary theme or mythological figure. The seventeen papers contained arose from a conference at University College London in March 2009. The volume's overall quality is high and its greatest strength is the diversity of sources, theoretical approaches, and genres through which it tackles this complex and fascinating aspect of Greek culture. Given its varied content, the volume is also very well-organized, and includes theoretical treatments of the subject, philosophical and scientific analyses, and studies of Eros and the erotic in myth and literature. The Introduction contextualizes the papers with a brief discussion of central areas of erôs scholarship and the growing field of emotion studies. They warn of the problems of trans-historical and cross-cultural analyses, such as the extent to which the emotions of different societies and periods are comparable. Space prevents me from discussing every contribution, so I aim to highlight those chapters that give the prospective reader the best sense of the collection as a whole.

Chiara Thumiger explores the erotic drive and madness as sources of death and destruction in Greek tragedy. Thumiger maintains that madness and erôs are linked by their irreducible duplicity in Greek thought, which recognized good and bad forms of each. Her primary focus, however, is on erôs in tragic action, that is erôs affecting the central episode of tragedy, in this case Aeschylus' Supplices and Sophocles' Trachiniae. While the hubris, impiety, and violence of the Egyptian suitors' drive to possess the maiden chorus of Supplices is clearly insane, it is harder to see (as Thumiger does) Sophocles' Deianira as an agent of maddened erôs, conceived here as the urge to protect the institution of marriage. Although she does acknowledge erôs' power over all, including herself (441-4), Deianira's erotic motivations do not seem particularly mad, and even reflect, at least according to one recent study (Hall 2009), some attempts at reasoned deliberation. Thumiger makes an interesting case for tragedy's use of the language of erôs as a metaphor for other types of perverse and dysfunctional urges and drives, like the Greek army's excessive lust for slaughter at Troy (Ag. 341). While I agree that extant tragedy seems primarily interested in the destructive potential of erôs, Thumiger goes a bit too far when dismissing examples of positive erôs in tragedies like Euripides' Alcestis and Helen, not to mention the (fragmentary) Andromeda, most famous for its depiction of romantic love. 1

One of the finest papers is Ed Sanders' look at sexual jealousy in Euripides' Medea, which reacts to David Konstan's assertion (2006: 219-43) that such an emotion was non-existent in Classical Greece. Using recent work in cognitive psychology, Sanders shows—contrary to most interpretations of the play—that sexual jealousy drives Medea's revenge as much as her wrath and heroic pride. Sanders persuasively demonstrates Medea's preoccupation with the physicality of her lost marriage-bond, underscored by characters' repeated use of 'bed words' (e.g., lechos, lektron, etc.) with sexual overtones. Medea's loss of identity offers an extreme version of the partial loss of self which is identified by modern psychologists as the predominant emotion to precede feelings of sexual jealousy. Medea's trauma is concentrated on her loss of Jason, in whom her identity was totally invested after her violent break from her consanguineous family in Colchis. Sanders persuasively connects those emotions traditionally assigned to Medea—pride, anger, hatred, grief—to the source of her sexual jealousy, the loss of her husband. Although convincing, this paper could have fleshed out its theoretical underpinnings a bit more.

In the volume's lone contribution on ancient science, Ralph Rosen teases out Galen's views on the pathology of erôs in his work On the Opinions of Plato and Hippocrates. Like many good papers, this one begins with a problem: why do Galen's discussions of the erotic drive reduce it to merely a base appetite and fail to reflect Plato's more nuanced understanding of erôs as a basic part of human nature in Symposium and Phaedrus? To see whether Galen, an avid reader of Plato, makes room for Plato's erôs, Rosen examines Galen's view on the natural functions of the desiderative part of the soul, which (like Plato's) includes the erotic drive. Galen's distinction of a drive controlled by reason, energeia, from a harmful pathos, seems to acknowledge a positive conception of erôs that contributes to health and well-being like that described by Diotima to Socrates (Symp. 206c-d). Furthermore, Galen's location of the desiderative part of the soul (with its nutritive drives) in the liver, the organ tasked with the supreme responsibility of providing nutrients to the rest of the body (as in Plato's Timaeus 70a7-b2), suggests that Galen's erôs, like ordinary desires to eat and drink, has a similarly important role to play in the body's nourishment.

One of the strangest versions of erôs belongs to Hesiod, the topic of Glenn Most's illuminating chapter on the Eros of the Theogony. One of the cosmos' original three divine beings, Eros is the engine of divine reproduction which prompts the complacent, primordial Chasm and Earth to create the two major families of gods (116-22), only not with each other, and not in the same way. Earth and her subsequent generations couple with other divinities within their family to create beings with individualized personalities (e.g. the Titans and Olympians). The family of Chasm, by contrast, consists of personifications relating to notions of crime and punishment (e.g., Nemesis: 223), and this seems to be related to their parthenogenetic style of reproduction. The particular divine personalities resulting from these different reproductive styles creates the particular competitive dynamic of the Hesiodic cosmos: the children of Earth fight with each other for status, the baleful divinities of Chasm represent the various aspects of transgression and punishment which structure that violent competition. While in the divine world Eros organizes the cosmos, in the human world of the Works and Days Eros is an unequivocally negative force introduced by the creation of woman, Pandora, a threat to male success.

Emma Stafford begins the sole chapter on representations of Eros in Athenian cult and vase-painting by testing David Konstan's assertion (1994: 57) that erôs was not popularly regarded as the basis of permanent, conjugal relationships in the Classical period, but rather an extramarital, wayward passion of the kind, for example, glimpsed in tragedy (see Thumiger above). Stafford furnishes two types of evidence in support of her contention that Eros develops from associations with pederastic erôs in late Archaic and early Classical cult and vase-painting into a patron of marriage in the mid- to late-Classical period: Eros' connection to the cult of 'Aphrodite of the Gardens' on the North Slope of the Acropolis and his presence in the wedding imagery of vase-painting, particularly adornment and procession scenes. Although the evidence presented here falls outside of the present reviewer's area of expertise, Stafford's collection of the material evidence in support of Eros in marriage offers a valuable correlate to those positive treatments of marital erôs in fifth-century drama, particularly Old Comedy. I would have been interested to know whether the author thinks Eros' shifting institutional role in Athenian cult and art reflects an actual shift in Athenian public sentiment about the bond of marriage, or merely an idealization of the wedding ritual itself in popular art.

Douglas Cairns' detailed and meticulous study of the poetic imagery used to describe erôs in Plato's Phaedrus is another strong chapter. Cairns explores Plato's use of traditional imagery drawn from erotic and philosophical poetry to establish the common metaphysical basis of popular erôs and the erôs of Socrates' second speech, i.e., the edifying Platonic kind. Central to his discussion is the iconic image of the soul as a chariot, which is drawn from the poetry of Parmenides (B 1.1-10 D-K) as well as the erotic works of Anacreon and Ibycus. Cairns argues that Plato's myth effectively revises the popular conception of everyday erôs into a derivative, debased form of Platonic erôs characterized by its lack of clear memory of the Beautiful and the restrained response to that memory. Because it is an imperfect memory of the Beautiful, common erôs is attraction to an individual for who he is. Platonic erôs, by contrast, is attraction to that individual's quality 'that imitates, participates in, or otherwise depends upon an abstract', and not the individual himself. This chapter is an important addition to the growing body of work on the poetic features of Plato's prose.

Most studies of erôs (and gender) in Aristophanic comedy tend to underscore Old Comedy's interest in direct treatment of the physical, carnal aspects of sexual relationships that other genres treat euphemistically or obliquely. James Robson offers a welcome study of the more subtle forms of Aristophanes' language of love in Acharnians, Lysistrata, and Wasps, each of which reflects a 'distinctive erotic landscape'. The chapter looks at erôs, pothos, philia and their cognates, but philia is the concept that seems to bear the greatest conceptual weight. In Acharnians, uses of philia mark the shifting allegiances of male characters, particularly the chorus. In Wasps, the positive philia of Bdelycleon's relationship to the people (as understood by the chorus) is contrasted with a wide-ranging diversity of erotic terms describing his father, the explosive yet impotent Philocleon. Robson's best insights are on the Lysistrata, where the frequency of philia-words—almost always pertaining to women—emphasizes the sense of unity which is distinctive of Greek comic wives. The play's many references to female philia underscores, in linguistic terms, the women's suitability for such a spontaneous, panhellenic movement: unlike men, they can transcend factions and petty disputes for the greater good. 2

Vanessa Cazzato analyzes imagined worlds of erôs juxtaposed in Ibycus fr. 286 PMGF, preserved by Athenaeaus (13.601B). Cazzato's elegant analysis of this corrupt thirteen-line fragment focuses on its 'turn' (6-7), when the poet inserts himself and divides the fragment's two different erotic worlds. The calm serenity of the fertile garden of the maidens, blooming with quinces and grapes (1-6), represents heterosexual erôs. This is distinct from the poet's world of inner turmoil, where Eros/erôs never rests (ἐμοἱ δ᾿ ἔρος οὐδεμίαν κατάκοιτος ὥραν) and carries on like Thracian Boreas, dark and ablaze with lightning (7-13). The second world's symposiastic setting, Cazzato argues, need not be an actual symposium, only an aesthetic locus blending (as other studies of lyric have shown) with other imagined worlds. The one problematic aspect of Cazzato's interesting interpretation is its identification of the poet's erôs with both the emotion felt and the poet's beloved. Lines 6-7 would thus describe both emotional torment and 'an attractive youth who will not lie (κατάκοιτος) with [the poet]' (her emphasis). While κατάκοιτος is cognate with κατάκεισθε, which has been described as an allusion to the symposium in another poem (Callinus fr. 1 West), there is no parallel use of this hapax (as Cazzato acknowledges), and in fact a quick TLG search indicates that it only turns up in fifteenth-century Byzantine prose, where it seems to mean something like 'bedridden'. While Ibycus may in fact identify Eros and the object of his erôs elsewhere (fr. 287 PMGF), it is very difficult to see this here in fr. 286.

While some of its chapters are more successful than others, Erôs in Ancient Greece as a whole is a major contribution to the study of this fascinating and fundamental topic in Greek literature, culture, and thought.


1.   Gibert, J. (1999-2000), 'Falling in Love with Euripides (Andromeda)', in Cropp, M., Lee, K., and Sansone, D. (eds), Euripides and Tragic Theatre in the Late Fifth Century (Champaign): 75-91.
2.   This idea is probably best expressed by Konstan, D. (1993), 'Aristophanes' Lysistrata: Women and the Body Politic', in Sommerstein, A.H., Halliwell, S., Henderson, J., and Zimmermann, B. (eds), Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis (Bari): 431-44.

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