Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.05.40

Ineke Sluiter, Ralph M. Rosen (ed.), Kakos: Badness and Anti-value in Classical Antiquity. Mnemosyne: Supplements. History and Archaeology of Classical Antiquity; 307.   Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2008.  Pp. viii, 514.  ISBN 9789004166240.  $231.00.  

Contributors: Yelena Baraz, Christopher S. Van Den Berg, Matthew R. Christ, Cynthia Damon, Elaine Fantham, Nick Fisher, Martijn Icks, Jeremy B. Lefkowitz, Florence Limburg, Kathryn A. Morgan, J.J. Mulhern, James I. Porter, Ralph M. Rosen, Ed Sanders, Ineke Sluiter, Deborah Steiner, Ian C. Storey, Amanda Wilcox

Reviewed by Pamela Gordon, University of Kansas (
Word count: 1735 words

This book is a collection of essays about the discourse of "badness" and blame in antiquity. Its arresting title springs from an attempt to avoid modern conceptualizations about bad people and things by beginning with "an element from the ancient lexicon" (3).

Thus some of the authors seem to be engaged in a lexicographical project that aims to produce extended entries on κακός and malus; or studies of a broader range of the vocabulary of censure or disparagement. Elsewhere attention to κακ- or mal- is jettisoned entirely, sometimes along with attention to any particular elements of the Greek or Latin lexica. In general, however, these diverse essays form a coherent whole. All of the essays are products of the 2006 meeting of the Biennial Penn-Leiden Colloquia on Ancient Values. These colloquia have been held alternately at Leiden University and the University of Pennsylvania since 2000. Previous Colloquia have produced three publications: Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity (BMCR 2003.12.19; Free Speech in Classical Antiquity (BMCR 2006.01.12); and City, Countryside, and the Spatial Organization of Value in Classical Antiquity (BMCR 2007.07.23). Like its predecessors, this volume rises to a level above mere "conference proceedings."

In the introduction, Ineke Sluiter offers an informative outline of the use of the word κακός in classical Greek. Here we learn that κακός is a poetic word, appearing 39.14 times per 10,000 words in Attic tragedy, in contrast to 6.31 times in Greek prose. Perhaps most surprising is the infrequency of kakos in Greek rhetoric (only 8.01 times per 10,000 words). Also interesting is the rarity of the word in the Duke Databank of Documentary Papyri (0.3 times). Useful tables present the data on weighted frequencies (7).

The four top authors for the usage of kakos turn out to be Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod, and Aeschylus (in that order). Only three prose authors make a showing in the top ten, with Epictetus appearing just under Hesiod and the tragedians, and Lysias and Andocides as number 7 and 10, respectively. Aristophanes, Homer, and Theocritus also appear in the list of top ten. The introduction also promises that some of the essays are not overly focused on the single word κακός, but bring in such words as αἰσχρός, μοχθηρός, πονηρός, μιαρός, ὕβρις, and malus, pravus, nequam, vitiosus, malitia, malignitas, and superbia.

In chapter one, "Generic Ethics and the Problem of Badness in Pindar," Kathryn Morgan notes that a concentration of kakos vocabulary connects badness with certain types of speech: "the people on whom the poet sows blame, are (reflexively) those who sow blame"(55). Morgan argues convincingly that the genre of Pindaric epinician puts constraints on the construction of bad people, and "bad speaking" (kakagoria) becomes the epinician sin.

Jeremy B. Lefkowitz's essay, "Ugliness and Value in the Life of Aesop," offers a perceptive reading of Bentley's Dissertations (1699), and argues that the Life of Aesop is a significant text in which Aesop's ugliness is itself didactic. Like the fable, the body of the fabulist offers a lesson on the deceptiveness of outward appearances. Next, Deborah Steiner's "Beetle Tracks: Entomology, Scatology and the Discourse of Abuse" takes as its point of departure Semonides' claim that the dung bettle "leads the worst κάκιστον way of life" (83). Traversing archaic iambos, Attic comedy, and Hellenistic poetry, Steiner brings "natural history, genre and social standing" into the discussion of what is κακόν (115).

In the first of three essays on Aristophanes, "'Bad' Language in Aristophanes," Ian C. Storey demonstrates succinctly that Aristophanic ridicule does not rely heavily on kak-compounds, which tend in the comedies to designate general inferiority (e.g. bad poets). Moral overtones adhere more to other adjectives, including πονηρός ("wicked") and μιαρός ("despicable"). Although the authors do not engage each other's demonstrations that kakos often lacks moral connotations, the argument here invites comparison with the article by Rosen that immediately follows it, and with Van Den Berg's work on malignitas (below). Ralph M. Rosen's "Badness and Intentionality in Aristophanes' Frogs" continues the focus on Aristophanes' use of kakos to refer to bad poets and the bad things they do. Rosen argues persuasively that the contest between Aeschylus and Euripides in the Frogs has to do with a proto-theory of "mimetic badness" that examines why Aeschylus (but not Euripides) can represent wickedness without being accused of teaching bad things.

Matthew R. Christ's "Imagining Bad Citizenship in Classical Athens: Aristophanes' Ecclesiazusae 730-876," argues convincingly that Athenians frequently invoked a good/bad citizenship polarity not simply because one was a foil for the other, but because bad citizenship was "a familiar phenomenon and a common alternative" (169). Interestingly, the adjective kakos does not appear in Christ's quotations of Ecclesiaszusae and other texts that mention shirkers, sycophants, and freeriders.

Focusing on laws regulating immoral behavior, Nick Fischer's article, "The Bad Boyfriend, the Flatterer and the Sykophant: Related Forms of the kakos in Democratic Athens," offers among other things an illuminating and precise catalog of 15 historical young men who were "attacked under more than one heading" (199), such as kolax, euruprôktos, and alazôn. Here the word kakos appears in the subtitle to the essay, but not in the quotations of ancient texts.

Aristotle is the subject of the next two articles. J.J. Mulhern's "KAKIA in Aristotle" returns to the exploration of the ancient lexicon (with kakia translated here as "vice"). Mining Aristotle and his ancient biographies, Mulhern suggests that Aristotle uses kak- to "exemplify the different ways of being bad that plague categorically different doings and qualities" (252). In chapter 10, "Pathos Phaulon: Aristotle and the Rhetoric of Phthonos," Ed Sanders begins with Aristotle's early treatment of phthonos (envy) in the Rhetoric. After an exploration of the ways Aristotle developed his theory of the emotions in the Ethics, he concludes that phthonos "stands apart from the others because of its badness" (278).

Much of James I. Porter's essay, "The Disgrace of Matter in Ancient Aesthetics," is excerpted from his forthcoming work on ancient aesthetics (313, note 99). Here he suggests that to kalon as it figures in canonical philosophical texts entails a "disgracing of matter" (314). He elucidates an alternative "material sublime" that converges with the immateriality of to kalon only in later antiquity.

In "With Malice Aforethought: The Ethics of Malitia on Stage and at Law," the first of seven chapters on "anti-value" in the Roman world, Elaine Fantham picks up the lexicographical thread and demonstrates concisely that the word malitia does not bear the same relationship to malus as kakia bears to kakos. Rather, the Latin noun connotes more specifically "bad intentions and willful deceitfulness," and is later "displaced by the concept of dolus malus" (320).

Apion is the subject of Cynthia Damon's essay, "'The Mind of an Ass and the Impudence of a Dog:' A Scholar Gone Bad." Her catalogue of the colorful epithets and sobriquets applied to Apion in antiquity includes μόχθος (Tedious) and cymbalum mundi (the world's gong). When Apollonius says that Apion writes "badly" (κακῶς), he means simply that he gets it wrong.

In "From Vice to Virtue: the Denigration and Rehabilitation of superbia in Ancient Rome," Yelena Baraz explores the semantics of Roman arrogance (focusing, for example, on adrogantia, fastus, and insolentia.) In Baraz's reading, the negative connotations of the word superbia at first reflected the status of pride under the Republic, but in later poetic contexts comes to be constructed as a positive quality.

Next, Christopher S. Van Den Berg offers a cogent study of another crucial element of the vocabulary of negative criticism in "Omnis Malignitas est Virtuti Contraria: Malignitas as a Term of Aesthetic Evaluation from Horace to Tacitus' Dialogus de Oratoribus." Arguing that the word malignitas "is both more and less bad than has often been acknowledged" (400), Van Den Berg demonstrates that it often designates literary rather than moral failure. In contexts of literary rivalry, malignitas engenders incorrect or unjust commentary on an opponent's work.

Each of the last three essays takes us further away from the close scrutiny of vocabularies of blame or censure. In "The Representation and Role of Badness in Seneca's Moral Teaching: A Case From the Naturales Quaestiones (NQ 1.16)," Florence Limburg explores and contextualizes Seneca's description of "Hostius Quadra's misuse of mirrors for the purpose of his sexual satisfaction," a lengthy passage that may seem salacious (434). In Limburg's alternative reading, Seneca's representation of vice has an apotreptic and didactic purpose. Amanda Wilcox also focuses on Seneca's philosophical understanding of vice in "Nature's Monster: Caligula as exemplum in Seneca's Dialogues." Gaius serves a purpose in Nature's plan and so is not evil on a cosmological level. Not simply a negative exemplar, he is "a provocateur of famous deeds" (460). In the last chapter, "Heliogabalus, a Monster on the Roman Throne: The Literary Construction of a 'Bad' Emperor," Martijn Icks explores the diverse ways ancient writers vilified the short-lived Heliogabalus.

Any scholar interested in the range and usage of κακός and malus (and other terms of negative assessment) should consult this volume. It will also be useful to scholars or advanced students interested more generally in the ways Greek and Latin texts dish out censure and blame. Here a note on an element from the contemporary English lexicon. The conference-goers seem to have accustomed themselves to employing the potentially whimsical word "badness" to refer to the rubric under which they were gathered. The term "anti-value" makes the occasional appearance beyond the title page and the introduction, but the authors resort most often to "badness" as the unifying term. The desire for an organizing principle other than the minimalist κακός is understandable, but it may be misleading to refer to a single abstraction in English when the ancient texts treated here do not attest to a unifying abstraction in Greek or Latin.

Most of the chapters are well worth reading, and all but one ends with a carefully demarcated conclusion that sums up its contribution. Unfortunately, the essays make scant reference to each other. This is perhaps a minor imperfection, but the lack of engagement seems odd for a collection of revised and carefully edited conference papers.

The individual bibliographies appearing at the end of each essay alert the reader to a range of pertinent publications, including many from the current decade (mostly in English). Latin and Greek are translated throughout, but German is not. Includes indices of Greek and Latin terms, an Index Locorum, and a General Index. Typographical errors are remarkably few.

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