Tuesday, April 17, 2018


Eirene Visvardi, Emotion in Action: Thucydides and the Tragic Chorus. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Roman language and literature, 377. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2015. Pp. x, 287. ISBN 9789004269293. $149.00.

Reviewed by J. L. Rosenberg, Academy of Art University (jrosenbe4@i.art.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


[I apologize to Professor Visvardi and to the editors of the BMCReview for this review's lateness.]

Visvardi has developed her 2007 Stanford doctoral dissertation into an analysis of collective emotion as conveyed by Thucydides and by the surviving fifth-century tragedians. The former is confined to chapter 2, the latter to chapters 3 and 4; chapter 1 is the theoretical frame for the book. There is a brief coda at the end. Despite the subtitle, Thucydides is second in Visvardi's mind; indeed, he is a lens on the tragic chorus rather than a focus in his own right (35). Ultimately, this disparity leaves the most robust questions—inter alia, how did Thucydides' description and characterization of collective civic emotion interact with tragic instances of "choral emotion"?—unanswered.

The first chapter begins by acknowledging the groundswell of publications on emotion in the ancient world.1 Visvardi characterizes fifth-century Athens as "a culture of emotions" (2) or "a culture of passions…Athenians explicitly give emotion a prominent place in their public discourses and decisions" (3). Aristotle is adduced as a heuristic, despite, as Visvardi acknowledges (17), largely bypassing the chorus' role in his Poetics.2 A special focus is placed on "choral otherness" (22 and n. 58)—building on the work of Helene Foley—as in the chorus of the Hippolytus (and later in the monograph, on the Supplices and on the Bacchae). The crux of the work and the justification for the title is the claim that "tragedy has the power to move the audience not as 'rationalistic spectators' who individually pick apart ambiguities in the plays' civic discourse but as a body that responds emotionally en masse" (30).3 This is the explicit form of link between tragedy and our understanding of the Athenian δῆμος acting formally qua civic institution and informally as a crowd of voices or, in Thucydides' sharper moods, an ὄχλος. The chorus is both exemplar and preceptor of collective behavior—an extension of the role of μίμησις in the Poetics (1448b passim).

This framework is flawed, and so tarnishes many of Visvardi's sensitive readings of the plays, notably an excellent sustained analysis of δείνον in the Bacchae (213–38). The concept of "choral otherness" assumes a homogenous audience, and really one composed of citizen men only, but this is a fantasy long abandoned.4 It is difficult to construe otherness in a play such as Persians, in which Other and Self commingle. It is difficult to accept that "a lot of Athenian citizens in the audience were experienced in choral dancing" (29). Were that true, how should that affect our understanding of choral otherness? This is not explored. Visvardi further claims (ibid.) that, regarding the chorus, "otherness does not forestall empathy", though this seems a near-perfect oxymoron. Visvardi splits tragic choruses into "active" and "passive"—this is indeed the means of dividing chapters 3 and 4—though this seems less to be an operative variation within the genre than a chronological development of it.5 In short, these contradictions compromise the very premise of the study.

Chapter 2 addresses some of the rich dramatic subtext in Thucydides: demos-as-chorus, Pericles-as-choregos, the treatments of the Plague and of the debates over Mytilene and Sicily as essentially tragic, and so on. This is the strongest chapter in the book, as it gathers together several strands of Thucydidean scholarship from the past twenty years or so. The most characteristic section is perhaps the treatment of the Mytilenean debate (73–83). Thucydides takes us swiftly from the hasty decision of the Athenians (καὶ ὑπὸ ὀργῆς ἔδοξεν αὐτοῖς, and in anger they decided III.36.2) to kill or to enslave the Mytilineans, to their regret (καὶ τῇ ὑστεραίᾳ μετάνοιά τις εὐθὺς ἦν αὐτοῖς, and straightaway the next day there was a change of their mind III.36.4), through the speeches of Diodotus and Cleon (III.38.4) and finally to the Athenians' final decision, following Diodotus, to reverse their initial death-sentence (III.49.1). The second trireme, goaded by the cakes and prayers of the Mytilinean ambassadors, overtakes the first just barely and happily ever after. This is nothing if not staged.

Visvardi focuses on the rhetoric of the two orators (here the work of Ed Sanders would have been particularly illuminating), rightly summarizing that Cleon advocates the virtue of the gut reaction (ὀργή in its broader sense), Diodotus the virtue of deliberation (γνώμη). Consider, however, the dramatic rhetoric of the author. Thucydides skips the debate and speeches in the first instance (at III.36.2), which we might assume to have taken place, in order to characterize the initial decision as spontaneous and emotional (ὑπὸ ὀργῆς). He isolates the speeches of Diodotus and Cleon, being unusually transparent in his characterization of them—ῥηθεισῶν δὲ τῶν γνωμῶν τούτων μάλιστα ἀντιπάλων πρὸς ἀλλήλας, since these were the opinions spoken that were most opposed to one another (III.49.1)—as merely those best suited to pit heart against head, as it were, and caps the whole thing with a fairytale ending. In all, Thucydides acts as the chorus: warning, moralistic, seemingly-omniscient and yet constrained by the deeds of the actors. This is not to dismiss the content of the orators' speeches, but only to propose that higher-level analysis might have yielded more powerful and intriguing conclusions. Indeed, there is little in the way of acknowledgement of the efflorescence of scholarship on Thucydides' dramaturgy.

By Chapter 3 ("Emotion in Aeschylus' Active Choruses") Thucydides has been largely left aside. What follows is an 'emotional reading' of the choruses of the Eumenides, Supplices and Septem. Visvardi summarizes her reading of the Eumenidesthus: "the transition to a still passionate but authoritative judicial system also overlaps with a transition to a new type of fear" (99). This type is characterized as "more rational" and qualified as "an ideal emotional disposition". This is an intriguing means of exploring the origins of the Areopagus, although it is the very opposite of the choral argument. Thucydides is brought in for a brief comparison some fifty pages into the chapter (153), and only for his presentation of Pericles as an adept gardener of fear (II.65.9).6 Reading Pericles' skillful playing of his audience through the rhetorical lens of the Eumenides, for example, would have been illuminating.

Thucydides hardly appears in Chapter 4, which takes as its material the Philoctetes and the Bacchae, and so the reader is left with a fairly straightforward and often excellent close reading of parts of these plays. A fascinating discussion of the role of maenadism in the framework of polis cult (via Seaford, 230f.) could fruitfully link back to Thucydides. How, moreover, does this relate to the Eumenidean "transition to a new type of fear" for which Visvardi argues above? The chorus of bacchantes exemplifies both the wisdom of Pericles' fear-gardening and the broader rhetorical acknowledgement that appeals to γνώμη must be matched with appeals to ὀργή—but this is not a novel conclusion. Why should the chorus be the chosen body for conveying such wisdom? In the coda, Visvardi proposes "one aspect of choral expression that is unvarying and points to the performative power of the chorus within the plays: it is a collectivity that remains cohesive" (242). The obvious counter-argument—division into semi-choruses—is acknowledged in a note (242 n. 2), but this is dismissed without explanation: it does "not seem to undermine the characteristics of collectivity and cohesiveness". Surely the case of the split vote of the chorus of the Eumenides begs the question of further examples.

In sum, the promise and premise of the book—to take two principal Athenian fifth-century sources of different genres and to see how they relate vis à vis collective emotion—are unfulfilled. In looking at only five tragedies in any detail, the rich array of choral emotion in the other twenty-odd that survive complete is collapsed. Reducing Thucydides to a lever is a pity both because the History is much more a beneficiary of the tragic art (published as it was toward the close of the era of surviving Attic tragedy) than vice-versa, and because Thucydides is far too rich a source to be a tool. Yet even as conceived the study disappoints. Vast and unsupportable assertions—to name but one: "strong and especially disruptive emotion tends to be associated with femininity and barbarism" (23)—consistently undermine the argument as constructed. The book is well produced, though not without a few errors.7


Aristotle, ed. Leonardo Tarán and Raphael Gutas. Aristotle Poetics. Leiden: Brill, 2012.
Athanassaki, Lucia. Ἀείδετο πὰν τέμενος: οι χορικές παραστάσεις και το κοινό τους στην αρχαική και πρώιμη κλασική περίοδο. (Choral Performances and Their Audience in the Archaic and Early Classical Periods). (reviewed BMCR 2010.09.21) Herakleio:  Panepistemiakes Ekdoseis Kretes, 2009.
Chaniotis, Angelos (ed.). Unveiling emotions : sources and methods for the study of emotions in the Greek world. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2012.
Csapo, Eric and William J. Slater. The Context of Ancient Drama. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Sanders, Ed and Matthew Johncock (edd.). Emotion and Persuasion in Classical Antiquity. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2016.


1.   Visvardi does not cite the work of the 2009-2013 project "The Social and Cultural Construction of Emotions: The Greek Paradigm", whose principal investigator, Angelos Chaniotis, sits on the editorial board of the series in which this monograph appears (I was a research assistant on the project). Chaniotis, who from 2006 has published extensively on collective emotion in the civic and theatrical spaces, is not cited at all. Indeed, the bibliography has notable omissions, from Lucia Athanassaki's 2009 monograph (cited above) to Peter Meineck's body of work on emotion in Greek theatrical performance.
2.   The longest continuous discussion of the chorus in the Poetics (1452b14-27) is excised by some editors, though Tarán ultimately accepts it in his 2012 editio maior. That said, nothing in the description of the functioning and function of κάθαρσις (49b26-8) excludes the chorus.
3.   This is a central precept of ancient (and modern) rhetoric; here the study might benefit from engagement with ancient rhetoricians and scholarship on forensic oratory. See now Sanders and Johncock 2016 (cited above).
4.   Csapo and Slater (cited above), 286ff. dispel Pickard-Cambridge's old assertion that there were no foreigners at some dramatic festivals. Csapo and Slater also include women, children, metics and slaves in the audience.
5.   One Aristotle may well acknowledge in his proviso to the definition of tragedy, δρώντων καὶ οὐ δι᾽ ἀπαγγελίας ("with people doing things and not by means of narrative", 49b26–7).
6.   ὁπότε γοῦν αἴσθοιτό τι αὐτοὺς παρὰ καιρὸν ὕβρει θαρσοῦντας, λέγων κατέπλησσεν ἐπὶ τὸ φοβεῖσθαι, καὶ δεδιότας αὖ ἀλόγως ἀντικαθίσθη πάλιν ἐπὶ τὸ θαρσεῖν, "whenever he sensed they [the demos] were disproportionately emboldened to arrogance, by speaking he bullied them into fear; and when on the other hand he saw that they were senselessly fearful he set them back to being bold."

18 n. 43: for "Aristotle, is not" read "Aristotle is not".
23 n. 61: for "vary between different audience members" read "vary among…".
30: in "the set of choruses that I focus on take on…" read "takes on…".
35: in "the relationship between reason and emotion…posit questions" read "posits questions".
73: for "Megarian degree" read "Megarian decree".
117 n. 59: for "the citizens fear" read "the citizens' fear".
132: for "better than say" read "better than to say".
183: for "lies that result to safety" read "lies that result in safety".
189: close quote after " '…got you as a friend (671)."
193: for "not only…isolation entails. They also…" read "not only…isolation entails, they also".
240: for "such culture of trust" read "such a culture of trust".
247: for "common in both genres" read "common to both genres".
264: for "Shorey (1993)" read "Shorey (1893)".

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