Wednesday, April 3, 2019


Monica R. Gale, J. H. D. Scourfield (ed.), Texts and Violence in the Roman World. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xv, 384. ISBN 9781107027145. £90.00.

Reviewed by Matt Myers, University of Nottingham (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]

The role of violence as a social and cultural phenomenon in the ancient world has received significant attention in recent years. 1 Gale and Scourfield's Texts and Violence in the Roman World adds to this growing area of scholarship by examining the myriad ways in which violence is depicted in Latin literature from Plautus to Prudentius. This is an excellent book full of exciting contributions to the study of Roman literary violence. I am sure that it will prove invaluable to scholars working on any aspect of violence in the ancient world. Though the scope of the book is wide, and the texts and genres covered numerous, the relationship between literary violence and issues of narrative, gender, power, and status form a common thread throughout many of the contributions, and chapters often have much to say that is applicable beyond the chosen author or genre. Due to the limits of space, I shall discuss only a selection of the chapters here, but, suffice to say, all make interesting contributions to their respective fields.

One of the book's key strengths is its introduction, in which the editors go well beyond the customary brief discussion and summary of contributions and provide a detailed overview of the centrality of violence in Roman society. The chapter is divided into subsections examining the role of violence in myth, history, and literature; the relationship between violence, language and power; its relationship to issues of gender and sexuality; and issues of reader response. Gale and Scourfield do a very good job of highlighting the nuance involved in defining violence (a point that is also made by Bruce Gibson in Chapter 9) and emphasise that in the ancient world, as in the modern, violence is something other people do. Physical harm deemed necessary or right is always characterised in more neutral terms (e.g. 'reasonable force'). This nuance of definition, coupled with the wide range of Roman representations of violence, precludes any single interpretive theory. Indeed, one of the major merits of the book as a whole is the emphasis placed on the complexity of Roman literary violence.

One way in which the authors draw attention to this complexity is through discussion of violence in modern media. Just as the extreme aestheticisation of violence in Tarentino films such as Kill Bill (2003–4) attracts viewers for very different reasons than the harrowing realism of a film like Once Were Warriors (1994), so too does violence in Roman literature appeal to audiences on different levels, and in different ways. The inherent attractiveness of violence to audiences of film and literature may be beyond dispute, but in the Roman world, as in the modern, representations of violence attract for a multitude of disparate reasons and can invoke audience responses ranging from celebration to condemnation, identification to objectification.

David Konstan and Shilpa Raval's chapter, 'Comic Violence and the Citizen Body', opens the book with an examination of the impact of stage violence in New Comedy as a function of status roles. In contrast to the 'painless, and not harmful'2 violence of Old Comedy, the depiction of violence in New Comedy was much more naturalistic. Given this increased realism, one might question the function of such violent representations in a comic play. Konstan and Raval argue that while the mistreatment of slaves may well have been humorous to a socially superior citizen audience, the constant threat of violence and enslavement against citizen characters in these plays may also have encouraged audience reflection upon the fragility of citizenship and identity in uncertain times.

Paul Allen Miller's chapter 'Discipline and Punish: Horatian Satire and the Formation of the Self' presents a Foucauldian reading of Horace in which the Satires represent an internalisation of the genre's traditional violence to explore issues of self-formation and self-discipline. Miller sees Horace as seeking to bring about a similar shift from public violence and punishment to internalised discipline and self-surveillance as that attributed to the eighteenth century in Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish. For Miller, this change is represented by the transition from the verbal violence of Lucilian satire, directed against those who deviate from social, political, and cultural norms, to the internalised violence of Horace's Satires in which this violence is directed back towards the satirist himself, in the form of self-depreciating humour. Miller sees this shift as symptomatic of the political change taking place during the writing of the Satires. The collapse of the Republic necessitated new forms of elite self-identification, as libertas, in the sense of freedom of speech, was curtailed and redefined as freedom from civil strife and the freedom to live in quiet retreat. Horatian satire thus naturally turned its attack toward the excesses of the self, rather than the character and actions of others.

Efrossini Spentzou's chapter, 'Violence and Alienation in Lucan's Pharsalia: The Case of Caesar', succeeds in coming at perhaps the most famously violent text in Latin literature from a fresh perspective. Rather than focus on the multiple graphic depictions of physical violence that the poem is famous for, Spentzou considers a more metaphorical form of violence, seeing the transgression of social, cultural, and political norms throughout the poem as a form of violence that is emblematic of the character of Caesar's 'bruising grip over the epic'.

Bruce Gibson's chapter, 'Tacitus and the Language of Violence', similarly avoids detailed analysis of scenes of violence and instead focuses on the subtlety of meaning behind a single word: vis. For Gibson, the various shades of meaning of this word, ranging from the neutral 'strength', 'power', or 'influence' to the more censorious 'violence', make it a useful tool for Tacitus in depicting a principate in which the distinction between 'power' and 'violence' can so easily be elided. Of course, vis is used with both positive and negative connotations, both by Tacitus and others, but for Tacitus, even when used in a positive light, the potential for vis to become straightforward violentia is ever present.

J. H. D. Scourfield's chapter 'Violence and the Christian Heroine: Two Narratives of Desire', shifts the focus to the period of late antiquity and the martyrdom of Christian women in Jerome's first letter, and in poem 14 of Prudentius' Liber peristephanon. For Scourfield, both these texts allow, or even invite, a sexualised scopophilia on the part of the reader, even as they seek to encourage chastity and Christian moral virtues. Such conflicting potential reactions thus emphasise the role of the reader in making interpretative choices based on moral and cultural expectations, rather than authorial control over the central message.

The book does not feature a concluding chapter, though this is an omission less keenly felt given the comprehensive nature of the introduction. Nevertheless, a brief conclusion, (re)emphasising the underlying themes, would have been welcome, especially given the fact that many contributions touch upon issues of central importance in the modern, as well as the Roman, world. This minor criticism aside, this is an excellent book with much to offer anyone interested in the representation of violence in ancient Rome. One of the key functions of a book of this kind should be highlighting new avenues for future research and in this respect it certainly succeeds. Though contributions generally focus only on one or two specific texts, there is scope for many of the ideas and methods contained within to be fruitfully be applied to a wide range of genres and time periods. The chapters are constantly thought-provoking, and the book as a whole serves as an excellent introduction to the varied field of Roman literary violence.

Authors and Titles

Introduction: Reading Roman Violence, Monica R. Gale and J. H. D. Scourfield
1. Comic Violence and the Citizen Body, David Konstan and Shilpa Raval
2. Contemplating Violence: Lucretius' De rerum natura, Monica R. Gale
3. Discipline and Punish: Horatian Satire and the Formation of the Self, Paul Allen Miller
4. Make War Not Love: Militia amoris and Domestic Violence in Roman Elegy, Donncha O'Rourke
5. Violence and Resistance in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Carol E. Newlands
6. Tales of the Unexpurgated (Cert PG): Seneca's Audionasties (Controversiae 2.5, 10.4), John Henderson
7. Dismemberment and the Critics: Seneca's Phaedra, Duncan F. Kennedy
8. Violence and Alienation in Lucan's Pharsalia: The Case of Caesar, Efrossini Spentzou
9. Tacitus and the Language of Violence, Bruce J. Gibson
10. Cruel Narrative: Apuleius' Golden Ass, William Fitzgerald
11. Violence and the Christian Heroine: Two Narratives of Desire, J. H. D. Scourfield


1.   Important recent publications include Fagan, G. 2011. The Lure of the Arena: Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Games. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Riess, W. and Fagan, G. G. (eds). 2016. The Topography of Violence in the Greco-Roman World. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press; and the first volume of the forthcoming Cambridge World History of Violence.
2.   Arist. Poet. 5 (1449a34-5).

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