Wednesday, August 17, 2016


Mary R. Bachvarova, Dorota M. Dutsch, Ann Suter (ed.), The Fall of Cities in the Mediterranean: Commemoration in Literature, Folk-Song, and Liturgy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xvii, 277. ISBN 9781107031968. $99.99.

Reviewed by Adam J. Goldwyn, North Dakota State University (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume contains a brief foreword placing the work in its broader scholarly context, an introduction that lays out the major theoretical and discursive issues the volume addresses, and ten chapters, each of which examines, often in comparative ways, various iterations of city laments as a genre and the possible chains of influence and appropriation between them. It traces the movement of the city lament from its origins in ancient Sumeria to Hittite Anatolia, where it was picked up by Homer (broadly conceived) and brought west, first to Classical Athens, and then to imperial Rome. The two concluding chapters address what might be called the reception of the lament, the first addressing the aftermath of the 1453 conquest of Constantinople (the New Rome) and the second the laments of Greeks fleeing Smyrna in 1920-22 during the Greco-Turkish War.

The volume differs from a previous collection by Ann Suter, one of the current editors, Lament: Studies in the Ancient Mediterranean (Oxford University Press: 2008), in that it focuses only on "laments for a fallen city," one of the three categories of ancient lament first established by Margaret Alexiou in 1974 and still accepted as the basic taxonomy. What separates the "lament for a fallen city" from "funerary laments" and "laments for heroes" (79) is that the latter two, according to Suter, are "carefully ritualized emotional outlet[s] and […] vehicle[s] for managing an unexpected yet common event" (1). The city lament, by contrast, is not bound by these same rigid rules of composition, but is rather recognized via a constellation of interlocking generic, formal and thematic conventions "in which the meaning of memory-making about fallen cities reside[s]" (3). This formal freedom, coupled with the often powerful immediacy of the experience, gives these laments an emotional force lacking in either fiction more generally or the more constrained form of ritual funerary or heroic lament. City laments also cross generic, stylistic, and performative boundaries (as is made clear by the subtitle: "literature, folk-song, and liturgy"), thus opening them up to new theoretical avenues for thinking about such works: from the gender and genre theories Alexiou identifies in her Foreword (xi) to others used in the volume such as narratology, trauma theory and memory studies, as well as those the volume does not apply but future scholars might, such as post-colonial theory or cognitive approaches.

The volume begins with John Jacobs' "The city lament genre in the ancient Near East," which analyzes five canonical Sumerian laments written sometime between 2000 and 1600 BCE. Though each of the five laments is more accurately Mesopotamian than Mediterranean, Jacobs argues that the essential themes of the genre are manifest in its earliest exempla. In a brief and rather speculative concluding section, "The lament from the ancient Near East to the ancient Mediterranean," Jacobs identifies, for instance, the "alternation between the voice of the poet and the voice of the personified city" that can be found in both Mesopotamian and Mediterranean (including both Greco-Roman and Biblical traditions) as "a generic, if not a genetic, connection" (32).

Mary R. Bachvarova's "The destroyed city in ancient 'world history': from Agade to Troy" continues this theme by suggesting that the Iliad has its roots in the Anatolian epic tradition. This is a career-long theme treated in greatest depth in her recent monograph From Homer to Hittite: The Anatolian Background of Ancient Greek Epic (Cambridge University Press: 2015). In these and other works, Bachvarova argues that the influence of ancient Near Eastern (specifically Anatolian Hittite and Luwian cultures) on the Homeric epics has been systematically neglected. This is surely true, though to what extent remains an open question; her claim that "Hurro-Hittite epic has had a clear impact on the Iliad," for instance, seems somewhat overstated (55). Her assertion that "the basic plotline of the Trojan War … derives from a narrative tradition of which the Huro-Hittite Song of Release is our prime example" (55) is undermined by her suggestion in previous work that "only a thin outline of the plot of the Hurro-Hittite Song of Release can be gleaned from the fragments that remain" ("Relations between God and Man in the Hurro-Hittite Song of Release." Journal of the American Oriental Society 125.1 [2005]: 45-58, 45). Here and elsewhere, Bachvarova's provocative arguments about the relationship between Greeks and Hittites challenge the scholarly consensus and open up new avenues for thinking about such issues, even if some of her claims may still be met with justifiable skepticism.

Nevertheless, the attempt in both Jacobs' and Bachvarova's chapters to search for the influence of the ancient Near East on Greek culture is a valuable one, and the claims of the ensuing chapter, "Mourning a city 'empty of men': stereotypes of Anatolian communal lament in Aeschylus' Persians," which Bachvarova co-wrote with Dorota Dutsch, provides a welcome analysis of the non-verbal aspects of lament. While re-visiting both the verbal and structural parallels between Hittite lament and ancient Greek lament, the most compelling aspect of this chapter comes in its examination of the performative aspect of lament. The authors suggest that understanding both Greek and Persian (as representative of all barbarian) modes of lamentation requires a better understanding of their performance, "which include tearing of clothes, scratching cheeks with clenched nails, uttering shrill cries, tearing the hair, and abundant tears" (101).

Geoffrey Bakewell's "Seven Against Thebes, city laments, and Athenian history" offers Aeschylus' Theban tragedy as a counter-model of city lament to the Persians. In addition to a list of literary and stylistic differences which productively complicate any attempt to classify the two very different tragedies as city laments, Bakewell notes that "there is a world of difference between imagining the sack of one's city and experiencing it" (116), i.e. imagining the sack of imaginary cities like Troy and Thebes on stage, versus suffering that fate, as the Athenians had in 480 BCE or, perhaps more powerfully, visiting that fate upon other cities, which the Athenians themselves had begun to do with distressing frequency in the mid to late fifth century.

This practice of mediating laments for the fall of real cities through those of imagined cities is the concern of the ensuing three chapters, all of which address Troy as an exemplum for Rome: Alison Keith's "City laments in Augustan epic: antitypes of Rome from Troy to Alba Longa," Jo-Ann Shelton's "The fall of Troy in Seneca's Troades," and Catherine Conybeare's "How to lament an eternal city: the ambiguous fall of Rome." These pieces show how different authors in different genres—Plautus' comedies and Seneca's dramas on stage, Vergil and Ovid in epic, and Polybius and Livy in historiography—dealt with Rome's complicated understanding of the place of their city in its longer history: "the Romans are descendants of the lamented lost city [of Troy], but now claim to be invincible" (8). These chapters, taken together, provide valuable insight into what Jeppesen calls "a sort of double vision," in which laments are seen "from the view of both the conqueror and the conquered" (153). Unlike the homogenous cast and audience of Attic tragedy, in cosmopolitan Rome, "[t]he plays themselves were both written and performed for an audience comprised of Romans and Greeks, masters and slaves, victors and vanquished" (153). The triumphant Romans were both the source of the lamentation—they were the ones razing the cities, after all—and the ones who composed the laments, while the actors, often slaves from subject cities, played both Roman conquerors and the subject peoples themselves.

The final two chapters examine two post-Classical catastrophes that befell the Greeks in Asia Minor; the first, Andromache Karanika's "Messengers, angels, and laments for the fall of Constantinople," addresses the 1453 sack of the city by the Ottomans, while the second, Gail Holst-Warhaft's "'A Sudden Longing': lamenting the lost city of Smyrna," examines the laments of the Greek refugees who fled to mainland Greece during the Greco-Turkish War of 1920-1922. The latter of the two chapters adds musicology to the volume's list of disciplinary approaches, and thus in some ways marks an implicit return to the ancient Greek tragedies discussed earlier, which were also in large part sung.

But the diachronic expansion represented by these forays into medieval and modern laments also points to the limitations of the volume. The authors trace one specific thread of city lament based in the antecedents and descendants of Trojan War lamentation through various iterations of the Greek and Latin (via Greek) tradition. But surely conquest and exile are not limited to the Mediterranean's ancient past, nor is lament limited only to the Greek and Roman tradition. Indeed, Holst-Warhaft's chapter leaves unmentioned how the ethnic cleansing of Greeks from Asia Minor resulted in a chain of such events: many of the Asia Minor Greeks moved to Thessaloniki, with the result that in two decades the only majority-Jewish city in Europe was well on its way to becoming virtually Judenrein even before the arrival of the Nazis; many of those Jews, in turn, moved to British Mandate Palestine and had a hand in the dispossession of the region's Arab population. A strain of city laments on these falls based in biblical poetics can be seen in, for instance, the work of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) or in scholarly articles such as Shmuel Rafael's "Spain, Greece or Jerusalem? The Yearning for the Motherland in the Poetry of Greek Jews" (in Homelands and Diasporas: Greeks, Jews and Their Migrations, edited by M. Rozen, 211–223. London: I.B. Tauris, 2008). More broadly, there is no mention of either the ancient or medieval Western Mediterranean, which would perhaps have had its own traditions based in Scandinavian, Celtic, Berber, or other oral or folk traditions.

These criticisms of scope aside, I agree with the opening lines of Alexiou's Foreword: "The volume is timely" (x)—indeed distressingly so—a rare and laudable instance of academic publishing coinciding with and implicitly adding diachronic depth and insight to contemporary events. Alexiou's Foreword begins with two epigraphs, the second of which is a list of cities that begins with Aleppo and lists Dresden, Homs, Grozny, Hiroshima, and other modern ruined cities alongside Athens, Jerusalem and Constantinople and then describes how she corrected the proofs while listening to a radio show playing a contemporary lament for Aleppo. Indeed, reading this volume alongside the virtually daily newspaper headlines about the evisceration of Syria, not to mention Baghdad (the site of the Sumerian laments that are the purported origin of the genre), the refugees fleeing across (and often drowning in) the Mediterranean from North Africa or Turkey, or President Obama's recent trip to Hiroshima—the first by a sitting American President—to mark the seventieth anniversary of the most infamous modern example of city annihilation, shows that city laments are not simply the reserve of ancient imperial capitals, but are a current phenomenon as well, and one experienced more often than not by those on the margins of society rather than its elite classes. Would the laments of these people fit into the generic, stylistic, and thematic paradigms that the authors of this volume outline? One hopes that if such an inquiry were to be made, it would be done by scholars as provocative and insightful as the ones represented here.

1 comment:

  1. I thank Prof. Goldwyn for his prompt and mostly positive review of our volume. I write to correct preemptively one claim I fear he could be seen as attributing to us, about the existence of liturgical lamentation among the Hittites. As stated on p. 50 in a discussion of city laments, "lamentation as a recorded genre is strikingly absent from the Hittite corpus," beyond mentions of laments at Hittite royal funerals. In Chapter 4, Dutsch and I suggest the possibility of a tradition of liturgical lament for disappeared young men in west Anatolia, comparing it to the "Hittite mugawar invocations for disappeared gods" (p. 81). Mugawars are not laments, and probably were rooted in pre-Hittite Anatolian practices. Liturgical laments for disappeared beings among Iron-Age Mariandynians could have developed out of cognate local Bronze Age Anatolian practices on the western periphery of the Hittite kingdom (not the same as "Hittite" practices). Because of lack of evidence we explicitly refrain from attempting to explain how the Mesopotamian city lament themes we compare to themes in Aeschylus' Persians ended up in the putative liturgical laments performed in Iron Age western Anatolia (see pp. 84-5). Throughout this chapter we compare the phraseology of passages from Aeschylus' tragedy, not with Hittite, but with Sumerian city laments, the same laments discussed by Jacobs in Chapter 2. (N.B., our point is that the laments Aeschylus puts in the mouth of his Persian characters are not Persian, but west Anatolian, see pp. 89-90. On p. 85 we suggest why: "Aeschylus references ... the Anatolian-influenced Milesian lament of Phrynichus' Capture of Miletus." I appreciate that not all readers will be persuaded by our argument here.)

    I regret any confusion the compressed discussions in these chapters may have caused. Further clarifying information can be found by following the trail of citations in the footnotes.


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