Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.09.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.09.35

Carmine Catenacci, Il tiranno e l'eroe: storia e mito nella Grecia antica. Lingue e letterature Carocci, 145.   Roma:  Carocci editore, 2012.  Pp. 239.  ISBN 9788843066476.  €24.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Robin Osborne, University of Cambridge (

In its first fascicle for 1982 Arethusa published Jean-Pierre Vernant’s ‘From Oedipus to Periander: lameness, tyranny, incest in legend and history’ (later variously reprinted, e.g. in R. Buxton ed. Oxford Readings in Greek Religion (Oxford, 2000) ). In Urbino in November of the same year Bruno Gentili gave, at a conference on Oedipus in Greek theatre and in European culture that he helped to organize, a paper published as ‘Il tiranno, l’eroe e la dimensione tragica’ in B. Gentili and R. Pretagostini Edipo: il teatro Greco e la cultura europea Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, Atti di Convegni 3 (Rome, 1986) 117–23. Both scholars drew attention to the parallels between Oedipus and Periander and raise the question of the significance of such parallels between ‘heroes’ and tyrants, and between ‘myth’ and ‘history’.

This book, which investigates the relationship between tyrants and heroes at greater length, is ultimately the product of a doctoral dissertation of 1992. This was published in 1996 as Il tiranno e l'eroe: per un'archeologia del potere nella Grecia antica. This book is a revision of that earlier publication, altering its sub-title, updating the bibliography and expanding on some discussions, but keeping the overall argument and structure of the earlier work, with the addition merely of a brief conclusion. There are indexes of ancient names and notable terms, though their usefulness is vitiated by the failure to sub-divide long entries (major tyrants and major ancient sources are followed by more than 50 entries) and by too restrictive a notion of when a particular word is at issue. So ‘eros’ is followed by just one page reference, and no cross-references, despite chapter 3 being entitled ‘L’eros’ and despite ‘sessualità’ commanding ten references and a cross-reference to three further references to ‘sensualità’. Revealingly, nothing political comes between ‘poligamia’ and ‘populare’.

The book consists of an introduction, six chapters and a conclusion. The first chapter, which makes up almost a third of the book, concerns ‘premonitory signs’, the second parents, the third love, the fourth children, and fifth intelligence and fortune, and the sixth death. In each Catenacci analyses relevant tyrant stories, briefly pointing to parallels in myth.

Vernant’s 1992 article has become a classic. It has been published in several languages and is constantly referred to by those who work on archaic Greek history, Greek tragedy, and Greek religion. It derives its power from the obvious and immediate appeal of the central analogy between the stories around Oedipus and the stories around Periander, between Labda and the Labdakids. But it also derives its power from its methodology – from its interest in the shape of whole stories and awareness that stories in sources regularly discarded by historians may be among the most revealing about how people conceived and analysed the world. Vernant’s is a paper that still serves to vindicate the whole structuralist enterprise. Gentili’s paper has never achieved the same fame, partly because of its greater brevity and its later and much more obscure publication, partly because of its less overtly structuralist framework.

The first edition of this book has been noticed primarily in Italy and has penetrated little to the academic world outside, and it is hard to see this second edition making significantly greater impact. The reason for this is that just as the first edition failed seriously to address ‘the archaeology of power’ referred to in its sub-title, so this edition fails to grapple with the relationship between history and myth to which its sub-title draws attention. Catenacci proves to have remarkably little interest either in myth or in history.

Only tiny numbers of mythical figures are discussed and those infrequently – Achilles and Agamemnon each on three pages plus one further footnote, Prometheus appears twice, Amphiaraos and Procrustes just once, Peleus and Thetis in a single footnote; Jason and Priam never appear. The question that already exercised Gentili, over whether the narratives about heroes influenced the narratives about tyrants, or vice versa, gets little airing. Not the least reason for this is the very subdivision of stories that is created by the structure of the book. It is only in seeing how the different elements of a story hang together that we get some sense of how our overall expectations are being manipulated.

It is largely for this reason that the one chapter in which Catenacci appears to be reaching for something to say about how the template common to heroes and tyrants might relate to history, either as events or as writing about those events, is in the discussion of premonitory signs. It is here that question of the whole story is implicitly, if not explicitly, raised. Catenacci has an interesting discussion (esp. pp. 60–61). But even here Catenacci is primarily exercised by the old question of whether the story has been constructed to produce a positive or a negative effect. Although Catenacci is good on ‘the many lives of oracular stories’ (p. 72), the opportunity is missed (cf. e.g. p. 79) of exploring the ways in which stories may have been good to think with not because they provided positive or negative examples but because they offered glimpses both of the good and of the bad.

In the end this is a book that is expository rather than analytical – the new conclusion is only just over one-side long. Catenacci has the material, and the scholarship, narrowly conceived, under firm control. But he neither aspires to structuralist analysis (all the powerful structural observations are traced by the footnotes to Vernant, Detienne, or Loraux), nor is prepared to pursue the agenda of questions that have been highlighted in literary and historical scholarship over the last twenty years – e.g. about the cultic side of heroes, about the narratological aspects of tyrant stories, about contexts of performance, about the interaction of tragedy and oral history. This is not surprising in a book that was essentially conceived in the late 1980s. Not the least of the lessons to be learned from this book is the extent to which classical scholarship continues to move on.

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