Monday, January 23, 2017


Valeria Andò, Violenza bestiale: modelli dell'umano nella poesia greca epica e drammatica. Mathesis, 8. Caltanissetta; Roma: Salvatore Sciascia Editore, 2013. Pp. 139. ISBN 9788882414269. €20.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Fabian Horn, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (

Version at BMCR home site


In recent years, there has been a growing body of publications treating cruelty and violence in antiquity as well as their depiction in ancient literature, to which is now added Valeria Andò's book. The introduction (pp. 11-16) states that the book originated from the concern of the increasing violence in our times1 and the question of the relationship between violence and humanity. After briefly addressing positions on violence in different fields, such as political and social theory, psychoanalysis, and ethology, Andò points out the difficulties of investigating violence in general and in Ancient Greece in particular. Her own approach draws on the anthropological concept of anthropopoiesis, the idea that human beings, both individually and as a society, constantly develop models of humanity and what it means to be human.2 Andò argues that violence constitutes a deviant response to the instinctive need of human beings to care for their own survival and that this should be reflected in our texts by the description of violence as inhuman and beastlike. The following six chapters of Andò's slim volume focus on examples from a range of texts that conceptualize extreme violence in terms of inhuman, "bestial" behavior.

The first chapter discusses violence in the Iliad as a cultural phenomenon exploring the question of humanity and human behavior (pp. 17-30). Violence is an integral part of the Iliad, but Andò investigates the boundaries of violence and the line between acceptable human conduct and inhuman, animal behavior by focusing on the references to cannibalism as the ultimate expression of violence. Referring to the (non-Iliadic) story of Tydeus, who lost the gift of immortality by eating the brain of Melanippus, Andò argues that cannibalism as a form of bestial behavior constitutes a clear transgression of acceptable human heroic conduct in epic poetry. Consequently, Achilles' mutilation of Hector's body with its elements of cannibalism (Il. 22.346-7; 24.41-3) appears as more animal than human behavior. In Andò's reading, the final reconciliation with Priam marks not only Achilles' return to the heroic norms from his earlier excessive violence but also demonstrates that Achilles never fully gave in to his cannibalistic, bestial urges, as Tydeus did. The other references to cannibalism, Hera's and Hecuba's desire to eat raw flesh (Il. 4.34-6; 24.212-3), further illustrate that this animal behavior goes beyond the acceptable limits of violence.

The second chapter, on cruelty in the tragedies of Aeschylus (pp. 31-49), starts with preliminary remarks on violence in Greek tragedy. After presenting diverse approaches, Andò proposes to read Greek tragedy through the interpretive lens of the representations of beastliness in Aeschylus' animal imagery. Andò first analyzes the use of δάκος, lit. 'bite' > 'monster', in Aeschylus, referring to Sept. 558, Supp. 898, Ag. 1232, and Cho., but with particular focus on Ag. 824, which, according to Andò, Aeschylus chose for the characters in his tragedies who committed the most abominable atrocities. Then she discusses the animal imagery in the parodos of the Agamemnon, which brings together the spheres of the hunt, sacrifice, and war. She concludes that Aeschylus employed animal imagery to characterize the Trojan War as a monstrous event and show how violence blurs the distinction between animal and man: animal imagery makes explicit the transgression of human norms and represents the violence of war through the distance of otherness, but can also legitimate violence, when the animal imagery is applied to the victims. She does not elaborate on the use of animal imagery for the victims, but notes that in the Agamemnon, it is the Greek victors whom Aeschylus marks as bestial through his animal imagery. Yet, this reading of 'bestialization' in Ag. 824 clashes with the narrative situation of Agamemnon's triumphant victory speech upon his return and is thus not persuasive, particularly since it is immediately followed by a lion simile, a stock feature of descriptions of heroism in the Homeric poetry. Andò illustrates Aeschylus' use of bestialization with another example from the Seven against Thebes where Eteocles, at the moment when he is about to meet his brother, is affected by "raw-biting" lust (Aes. Sept. 692: ὠμοδακής, an Aeschylean ἅπαξ).

The next chapter (pp. 51-74) discusses bestialization in Euripides' Hecuba, whose portrayal of violence against the innocent Andò initially likens to contemporary terror and suicide bombings. She offers a summary of the play focusing on the victims of violence, but concludes that the ghost of Polydorus does not inspire horror and that the sacrifice of Polyxena, for whom immolation becomes the way of salvation from slavery and a demonstration of her nobility of spirit, is also not horrifying. However, when viewed through the pain of her mother, her death appears ultimately senseless, a dissolution of familial and social order in times of war. Horror only enters the tragedy when the mutilated corpse of Polydorus is brought on stage, which effects Hecuba's change from mater dolorosa to avenging furia. Andò reads the disfigured body of Polydorus as a symbol of the dehumanizing effect of war and violence, which destroy trust and the sacred bonds of hospitality as well as the identity and uniqueness of the human being. She proceeds to discuss Hecuba's revenge as the final and most horrible act of violence in the tragedy completing the bestialization of both Hecuba and Polymestor, who has been blinded and re-enters the stage reduced to the state of an animal, and whose sons have been slain and dismembered to be thrown as food to wild animals. In her explanation to Agamemnon, Hecuba likens herself to an animal on the hunt (Eur. Hec. 1173: θὴρ ὥς). Thus, the tragedy offers an ideal example for Andò's observation that extreme violence can be conceptualized in bestial terms: at the height of horror, distinctions between human and animal collapse and in punishment of the bestial and outrageous crime of Polymestor, Hecuba oversteps the boundaries of the human condition. Her literal transformation into a dog, predicted by Polymestor, is a symbol that extreme violence ultimately turns human beings into animals.

The following chapter focuses on the death of Astyanax in Euripides' Trojan Women (pp. 75-86). Andò argues that the death of Astyanax is an inversion of a beneficial sacrifice for a community in that his execution marks the extirpation of Troy and its royal line. Again, the particular cruelty of the act is expressed through the image of cannibalism in Andromache's final challenge to the Greeks to "feast on Astyanax's flesh" (Eur. Tro. 775). In the second part of the chapter, Andò interprets the death and funeral of Astyanax. Throwing Astyanax from the walls of Troy is the final act of violence of the Greeks after the end of the war, and it is not a "beautiful death": the fall has destroyed the child's beauty and he died not in service of his community, which has already been annihilated. Thus, Andò argues, the ritual burial does not mitigate the violence and mark a return to human behavior from the beastliness of the killing. Rather, the death of Astyanax is the ultimate expression of the dehumanizing effect of war and presents an act of violence that goes beyond the confines of what is human.

Andò's chapter on violence in the comedies of Aristophanes (pp. 87-109) starts with the assessment that comic violence requires a different interpretive approach. Violence and death are only present on the comic stage in threats at the height of verbal aggression, but there they occur in grotesque or farcical settings and always have the potential to elicit laughter from the audience. Citing examples from all extant comedies of Aristophanes, Andò claims that "comic violence" is not really violence, since the defining features of epic and tragic violence, the causing of pain, blood, and death, are (largely, though not completely) absent in comedy. In support of this argument, she continues with a view on the "comic bestiary", the animal imagery of Aristophanic comedy, and argues that animals in comedy do not refer to the subhuman, but rather serve to ridicule, debase, and discredit characters and their real life counterparts, such as the demagogue Cleon. She concludes that Aristophanes used "comic violence" and the exclusion of real violence from the comic stage in a twofold function: as a means to create laughter by parodying violence in tragedy, but also in a political way, to demonstrate the ridiculousness and futility of violence.

The final chapter explores a different angle of the anthropopoietic approach and focuses on the interruption of visual and verbal communication in tragedy (pp. 111-23). Drawing on definitions from Aristotle, Andò asserts that it is a characterizing feature of humans to be political beings interacting with each other by means of speech. Thus, absence or failure of communication becomes associated with animal behavior and amounts to another form of inhuman comportment that may be directly related to or interpreted as violence. She then discusses selected passages from Euripidean and Sophoclean tragedy where communication is absent or rejected and direct face-to-face interaction disrupted, such as Hecuba's refusal to look at Polymestor directly (Eur. Hec. 968-75), Iocasta's futile attempt to make her sons look at and speak with each other in order to avoid the mutual fratricide (Eur. Pho. 454-64), Electra's appeal to Orestes not to let Aegisthus speak before his death (Soph. El. 1482-92), Haemon's furious gaze and attempt to kill his father before committing suicide (Soph. Ant. 1231-6), and Neoptolemus' suspension of the violence of treachery by remaining silent and refusing to meet the gaze of Philoctetes (Soph. Phil. 934-5, 1068-9). In general, this chapter offers brief and disparate readings of diverse passages from several tragedies which are only loosely connected to the book's main topic of bestial violence.

The tentative, and very brief, conclusion (pp. 125-6) does not try to draw together the diverse arguments presented in the individual chapters. Instead, Andò attempts a synthesis of a different kind and circles back to reflections about contemporary violence in the introduction. Surprisingly, in view of her chapters that treated violence as divergent behavior, she points out the risk of transferring violence to the margins of human conduct, to the sphere of beastly behavior, rather than viewing violence as an element of human identity.3 She closes with the hope that the acknowledgement of the violence of human nature might ultimately lead to a less violent humanity.

In conclusion, Andò's study touches upon many aspects of violence, politics, norms of social and human behavior, as well as gender and dynamics of power in Greek literature, but fails to consistently sustain the anthropopoietic approach, which is probably due to the fact that chapters I-V were originally published in other contexts. The chapters vary widely with regard to their scope and depth, ranging from interpretations of individual words to the study of motives. Generally, it remains unclear how representative the depiction of violence as bestialization is in Greek epic and tragic poetry, in what other terms violence is conceptualized, and whether different forms and functions of bestial violence may be distinguished systematically. Thus, Andò's readings present a collection of sometimes interesting and insightful observations on interrelations of violence with culture, humanity, social, and political norms; these are connected by the anthropopoietic question, but do not form a coherent picture of or offer a unified approach to violence in ancient Greek epic and dramatic poetry.


1.   Andò presents her anxiety about the increase of violence as a personal feeling, which is in tune with current sentiments; however, whether violence is really objectively increasing is doubtful, cf. esp. S. A. Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York 2011).
2.   The theoretical underpinings for this approach, cited but not discussed in detail, are F. Remotti, "Thèses pour une perspective anthropopoétique", in: C. Calame and M. Kilani, La fabrication de l'humain dans les cultures et en anthropologie (Lausanne 1999), 15-31, and F. Affergan, S. Borutti, C. Calame, U. Fabietti, M. Kilani and F. Remotti, Figures de l'humain. les représentations de l'anthropologie (Paris 2003).
3.   On this approach of viewing violence as something intrinsically human see now A. P. Fiske and T. S. Rai, Virtuous Violence. Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships (Cambridge 2015).

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