Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.02.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.02.06

Bernard Eck, La mort rouge: homicide, guerre et souillure en Grèce ancienne. Collection d'Études anciennes. Série greque, 145​.   Paris:  Les Belles Lettres, 2012.  Pp. 447.  ISBN 9782251326825.  €35.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Irene Salvo, Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa (

[The table of contents is given at the end of the review.]

Ten years after Robert Parker’s seminal book on miasma and the rites of purification in Greek religion,1 the lex sacra of Selinous reopened the discussion on pollution, especially that following bloodshed. The work under review, a revision of the author’s Mémoire d’habilitation à diriger des recherches, testifies to this revival of interest. Eck aims to illustrate how the Greeks represented the phenomenon of homicide, analyzing literary and epigraphical sources from both the archaic and classical periods. Having chosen an appropriate perspective from which to study this topic, Eck explores how Ancient Greek society reacted to this unlawful act. The culprit was mentally represented as polluted, and blood pollution constitutes the fil rouge of this study.

The first of the seven chapters provides an overview of the concept of blood pollution and introduces the Erinyes (pp. 14-48). To remove pollution, a purificatory rite or katharmos, was required. Within this rite, Eck considers particularly relevant the act of killing again: the repetition of the phonos was more important than the shedding of blood. Following Mauss and Hubert,2 Eck demonstrates that animal sacrifice was equally violent as homicide. The sacrifice modified the status of the murderer, reintegrating him into his social community. The ritual worked according to the rule of similia similibus curantur: the sacrifice was an authentic expression of magic thought. With regard to the Erinyes, Eck relies on Ernst Wüst’s study,3 granting less space to other contributions on this widely debated topic. Taking into consideration Aeschylus and Homer, Eck underlines that the Erinyes and blood pollution existed in parallel, without any common traits, although they were interrelated in the Greek imagery.

In the second chapter (pp. 49-87), Eck reassesses the relationship between blood pollution and killing in battle, and challenges the communis opinio that the blood shed in battle did not cause pollution. He thinks that the relevant sources have been neglected or misunderstood.4 For example, the famous purification of the army described by Xenophon in the Anabasis cannot be explained as being aimed at restoring military unity and cohesion,5 but could be justified by the need to purify soldiers of battlefield acts. Analysing civil war in particular, Eck laments the scarcity of sources attesting to pollution in the case of a stasis. However, the decrees of reconciliation from Dikaia (Macedonia), not taken in consideration by the author, can demonstrate the obligation for every citizen to perform a rite of purification after the stasis.6

Chapter three (pp. 89-129) deals with the old question of Homer’s silence regarding blood pollution. Eck criticizes Parker’s idea that the act of supplication implied a purification:7 Homeric murderers were not always identified as suppliants, their gestures did not have a religious dimension, and purification could exist without supplication. He rather tracks pollution in war contexts: soldiers were miaiphonoi, polluted by homicide, like the god Ares. Then, in the Greek mentality, polluted warriors emerged before polluted murderers, and pollution in cases of homicide was absent from Homer because the poet did not know the feeling of guilt. It should be noted, however, that miaiophonos in the Iliad, the epithet of Ares, does not necessarily imply blood pollution: it can refer to physical blood stains rather than a metaphysical miasma; Olympian gods were never polluted.8

Chapter four (pp. 131-210) explores the figure of the killing warrior in the Iliad in a highly original and successful way. Eck outlines the psychological traits of the Homeric heroes on the battlefield, and agrees with Jonathan Shay in viewing them as being in a berserk state: they are furious, reckless, merciless killers.9 Homer perfectly described the universal combat traumas: he materialized the abstract in the image of the mort rouge, πορφύρεος θάνατος, that could be best translated as ‘iridescent death’, like the colour of the eyes of dying soldiers. The action of the Iliad resembles many contemporary wars, and Homer negatively judged war as the hypostasis of evil.

Chapter five (pp. 210-281) analyses the limit of the belief in blood pollution. Mentalities have not changed since Homer: this belief was uncommon. It was irrelevant to classical Athenian homicide laws and, even in Attic tragedies, pollution was not systematically linked to homicide. I think that this conclusion overemphasizes the limits of the existing evidence and tends to consider the domain of law as completely separate from religion, whereas they were, in fact, interconnected. Eck underlines the coexistence of the religious and secular meaning in his analysis of the adjective μιαρός, noting that, in Aristophanes and Demosthenes, the adjective was employed as an insult used to indicate a sale individu. This insult had a political and moral connotation, without any relationship with the idea of pollution, since traitors were not polluted (p. 262), but we do have indications of pollution being ascribed to traitors, as in the lex sacra from Eresos,10 that opened a sanctuary for pure persons alone and excluded, among others, traitors.

In the analysis of the complex lex sacra from Selinous, Eck tends to follow the first editors,11 while neglecting more recent studies that were worth citing.12 Given the abundance of defixiones at Selinous, he considers it plausible that belief in the occult action of the angry dead was an important part of the local sensibility and brought about cultic laws that were both cathartic and apotropaic. Similarly, in Cyrene, there was a belief in the need to exorcise evil forces associated with the spirit of a murder victim. Eck recognises that every interpretation of the last three paragraphs of the Cyrenaic cathartic law (real persons/visiting ghosts) contains flaws, 13 but finds particularly remarkable the contribution of Harold Stukey, who saw the three hikesioi as malevolent spirits.14

In the sixth chapter (pp. 283-321), Eck analyzes homicide in classical Athens and in Plato, together with religious interdictions. The Platonic system could have functioned also by eliminating blood pollution. Although the bibliography on these subjects is vast and it is impossible to be exhaustive, some important studies are missing. 15

Chapter seven (pp. 323-381) focuses on the ritual status of the tyrannicide and collects anti-tyranny laws, mainly attested by inscriptions. Eck underlines that the tyrant or the opponent of democracy was presented as a polemios, an enemy of war; in this way, there was an additional legal justification for killing a tyrant.

In his conclusion (pp. 383-391), Eck sums up his main arguments: blood pollution was characterised by an irrational feeling of guilt, and it pertained to the individual rather than to the city and its laws. Furthermore, chronologically, the idea of blood pollution was experienced first on the battlefield and then in the private sphere following a homicide.

An appendix (pp. 393-410) asks whether blood pollution and feelings of guilt in war are universal and atemporal, proposing a reading of the contemporary tales of war (First and Second World War, Vietnam, Rwandan genocide): Greek blood pollution is probably culturally determined, but human psychology requires one to forget the horrors committed in war. A bibliography, a useful index of sources, and a good general index close the volume.

Eck is innovative firstly in stressing that blood pollution is inconstantly and incoherently attested; secondly, in showing that Greek soldiers did contract pollution through killing opponents in battle. I would rather invert these two points: while blood pollution is attested by the literature and inscriptions from the archaic to the Hellenistic periods, the evidence for polluted armies is never unambiguous and straightforward. In addition, he over-emphasises the contiguity of homicide (and tyrannicide) and killing in battle. The use of the same word, φόνος, also in the context of war does not mean that killing an enemy and committing murder were in the same thought category, as Eck states. He writes that killing in battle was considered in legal terms and classified as lawful homicide (p. 381). Although the same term is sometimes used, these two acts were undoubtedly distinguished in the ancient Greek mentality and law.

Another idea that often recurs in Eck’s analysis is the interpretation of blood pollution as a feeling of guilt. It was an irrational emotion unrelated to the laws, implying total culpability as it was a capital crime, and the notion did not fit a nuanced justice. This can be contradicted by the lex sacra of Cleonai,16 that considers mitigating circumstances for blood pollution. Above all, it is difficult to apply psychological explanations to the Greek world: the feeling of guilt does not include the materiality of pollution.

A comment, then, in more detail: Eck (p. 303, n. 98) criticizes Arnaoutoglou for writing erroneous phrases, such as “pollution starts immediately after the prorrhèsis”, but the debate on whether the pollution started after the homicide was committed or after the public accusation was made remains open.17 Finally, the literary sources, and Homer in particular, receive greater attention and accuracy than the inscriptions.

Despite these remarks, the arguments are clearly presented, and the book is free of typos. It will be welcomed by anyone with an interest in Greek religion and warfare.

Table of Contents

1 – Perception de la souillure et purification
2 – Le témoignage des textes
3 – Les Érinyes
Les Érinyes selon Eschyle
Les Érinyes selon Homère
Signification des Érinyes
1 – Retour sur les Érinyes
Les Érinyes et la guerre
Approche iconographique
2 – Discussion sur des textes oubliés
Le problème de la souillure à la guerre
Les Tragiques
3 – La question de la lustration de l'armée
4 – Souillure et guerre civile

1 – Les poètes archaïques et la souillure du meurtre
2 – Homère sans souillure
L'homicide chez Homère.
L’absence de la souillure
3 – Homère sans souillure?
Iliade VI, 266-268
Iliade XXI, 218-222
Iliade X, 572-579
Iliade I, 314
4 – Arès miaiphonos. Arès et les siens. Arès dans la tragédie grecque
5 – Comprendre Homère

1 – Question de méthode
2 – La folie meurtrière
Le guerrier sauvage
Le guerrier fou
Aspects physiques
Le berserker
3 – Manger l’ennemi
Le guerrier cannibale
Signification du cannibalisme
4 – Mutiler les corps
«Outrager un cadavre»
Le désir de vengeance et autres explications
5 – Arès, «mal accompli»
«Le fléau des mortels»
De la nature profonde d’Arès
6 – Mourir
Mourir pour la patrie
Dire la mort
«La mort rouge»
«Le puissant destin»
7 – Homère et la guerre
Polémos kakos
Le phonos
«La grande bouche de la guerre»

1 – Homicide sans souillure
Retour sur la tragédie grecque
La législation sur l’homicide et la souillure
Des raisons qui inspirent les lois sur l’homicide
2 – Souillure, superstition et religiosité dans les discours judiciaires consacrés à l’homicide
Antiphon, sa vie et son œuvre: problèmes et controverses
Le contenu des Tétralogies
Les discours réels d’Antiphon
Conclusion sur Antiphon
Les discours de Lysias
3 – L’individu «souillé» et le «sale individu»
4 – Les démons du meurtre dans les lois sacrées
Loi sacrée de Sélinonte
Loi sacrée de Cyrène

1 – L’homicide dans le système judiciaire de l’Athènes classique
Aperçu du système
L’homicide légitime
2 – Interdits religieux, souillure et homicide dans la cité
3 – Le criminel selon Platon et la législation sur l’homicide dans les Lois

1 – Tuer le tyran
2 – De quelques lois à caractère anti-tyrannique
Loi d’Érétrie
Loi d’Eucratès
Loi d’Eucratès et décret au sujet d’Arthmios frappé d’atimie
Règlement entre Téos et Kyrbissos
Dirae Teiae
Loi de Démophantos
3 – Tuer le tyran, tuer à la guerre, ou de l’usage politique du meurtre légitime
Annexe: À propos de l’expression de la culpabilité dans quelques récits de guerre contemporains
Bibliographie générale
Index des textes cités
Index général


1.   R. Parker, Miasma. Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion, Oxford 1983.
2.   H. Hubert and M. Mauss, 'Essai sur la nature et la fonction du sacrifice', L’Année sociologique 2, 29-138, 1897-1898.
3.   E. Wüst, s. v. Erinys, RE Suppl. VIII, col. 82–166, 1956.
4.   See Aesch., Th., 679-682; Soph., Aj., 654-656; Eur., Hec., 21-27, 911ff.; Tr. 881ff.; Aristoph., Lys., 1159ff., 1182-1187; Xen., An., 5.7.34-35, 5.8.1.
5.   Parker, op. cit, p. 22f.
6.   K. Sismanidis, E. Voutiras, 'Δικαιοπολιτών Συναλλαγαί', in Ancient Macedonia. Seventh International Symposium held in Thessaloniki, Thessaloniki 2007: 253-274.
7.   Parker, op. cit, p. 134f.
8.   See F. Hoessly, Katharsis: Reinigung als Heilverfahren, Göttingen 2001, 74-76 (not cited by Eck).
9.   J. Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, New York 1994.
10.   IG XII Suppl. 126.
11.   M.H. Jameson, D.R. Jordan, R.D. Kotansky, A lex sacra from Selinous, Durham 1993.
12.   See e.g., S.I. Johnston, Restless Dead, Berkeley 1999; A. Dimartino, 'Omicidio, contaminazione, purificazione: il 'caso' della lex sacra di Selinunte', ASNP s. 4, 7, 2003, 305–349; L. Dubois, Inscriptions grecques dialectales de Sicile, II, Genève 2008; N. Robertson, Religion and Reconciliation in Greek Cities. The Sacred Laws of Selinus and Cyrene, Oxford 2010; C. Grotta, Zeus Meilichios a Selinunte, Roma 2010 (the last two studies are quite recent, but there is no author’s note stating that they appeared too late to include).
13.   P.J. Rhodes, R. Osborne, Greek Historical Inscriptions, 404-323 BC, Oxford 2003, no. 97.
14.   H.J. Stukey, 'The Cyrenaean hikesioi',CJ 32, 1937, 32-43.
15.   On homicide in Athens: D.D. Phillips, Avengers of Blood. Homicide in Athenian law and custom from Draco to Demosthenes, Stuttgart 2008; L. Pepe, Phonos. L’omicidio da Draconte all’età degli oratori, Milano 2012 (naturally, this was not available to Eck, but Pepe previously published on this topic in Dike 2008 and 2009-2010). Religious elements in Demosthenes: G. Martin, Divine Talk. Religious Argumentation in Demosthenes, Oxford 2009. On the inscription known as the ‘Judgment of Mantineia’, one immediately notices the absence of the numerous studies by Gerhard Thür, besides the cited text’s edition in IPArk no. 8 (see, with previous bibliography, G. Thür, 'Gerichtliche Kontrolle des Asylanspruchs', in M. Dreher (ed.), Das antike Asyl, Wien 2003, 23–36).
16.   IG IV 1607, a highly fragmentary text that is difficult to interpret; see also a lex sacra from Latos, ICret. 1.16.6.
17.   I. Arnaoutoglou, 'Pollution in the Athenian homicide law', RIDA 40, 1993, 109–137, p. 129. See also A. Bendlin, 'Purity and pollution', in D. Ogden (ed.), A Companion to Greek Religion, Oxford 2007, 178-189; D. Mirhady, 'Drakonian procedure', in C. Cooper (ed.), Epigraphy and the Greek Historian, Toronto 2008, 15-30.

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