Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.35

Laurel Fulkerson, No Regrets: Remorse in Classical Antiquity.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. xix, 263.  ISBN 9780199668892.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Melina Tamiolaki, University of Crete; Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, DC (


A recent trend in the study of emotions in antiquity is the comparison with modern manifestations of emotions or “emotional scenarios”. This line of research, which has been pursued both for the study of emotions in general1 and for individual emotions more specifically,2 has yielded important results: through a systematic comparison between ancient and modern terms regarding emotions, the cultural values of the ancient world have been better delineated and highlighted. Fulkerson’s book follows this trend: it focuses on the emotions of remorse and regret and examines to what extent ancient representations of these emotions fit with our modern conceptions of them. An investigation on a similar topic was recently offered also by David Konstan in his book on ancient forgiveness.3 Fulkerson’s study complements that of Konstan in two ways: first, by including in her investigation a different and broader group of terms (Konstan examined terms related to συγγνώμη, while Fulkerson is mainly interested in terms which belong to the thematic of regret [see below]); second, by offering an analysis of scenes in which these terms may not occur, but in which nonetheless the emotion of remorse can be detected. Fulkerson’s analysis thus nuances that of Konstan, since she chooses to insist not so much on the absence of remorse in classical antiquity in the form we conceive of it in the modern world, but rather on the fact that in the ancient world this emotion (and its display) had a very distinctive representation and function.

Drawing from a wide range of sources, Greek and Roman, Fulkerson highlights the divergences from modern conceptions of this emotion. The findings of her investigation are compelling and can be summarized as follows: a) status played a more significant role in the manifestation of remorse in antiquity: e.g. people of underprivileged groups (such as women, slaves etc.) are presented in our sources as more susceptible to expressing this emotion than powerful men; b) the public display of remorse is a key theme in antiquity; the occurrences of this display suggest that remorse can often become an object of manipulation (e.g. it was used in order to avoid punishment, to show a better character etc.). From this perspective, the (modern) concern about whether the expression of remorse is genuine or fake counted less in antiquity, since what seemed more important was the benefits that would derive from its expression; c) in Ancient Greece, consistency was valued much more highly than fickleness and mutability; that is why the expression of regret was not viewed as an internal transformation, or even as an occasion for self-improvement, but as a character flaw and a sign of lack of (or deficient) virtue. Ancient authors seem to allow for mutability only on exceptional occasions (for example, young people are more justified than adults when they take wrong decisions).

The book contains an introduction, ten chapters, a bibliography and three indexes (an index locorum, an index of Greek and Latin and a subject index). In the introduction Fulkerson explains the purpose (p.7) and structure of her book (pp.45-46) and offers a useful overview of the vocabulary related to her topic, which she divides into modern vocabulary (including the terms remorse, conscience and regret), Greek vocabulary (terms related to μεταμέλεια, μετάνοια, συνείδησις, σύννοια, but also occasionally to αἰδώς) and Latin vocabulary (paenitentia, conscientia, pudor).4 Fulkerson then unfolds her argument into ten chapters: the first four chapters deal with Greek sources, the next four treat Latin sources, the ninth chapter is devoted to Plutarch expounding on the topic of character stability in antiquity, while the tenth chapter offers some reflections about remorse in Christian and pagan contexts, together with some concluding remarks. Fulkerson states in her introduction (p. 45) that she chose to present some representative case-studies from ancient Greek and Latin literature that better support her thesis.

Fulkerson’s investigation begins with Homer. The first chapter discusses the scenes of Agamemnon’s apologies in Books 9 and 19 of the Iliad. These scenes confirm Fulkerson’s observation that men of high status have difficulty in expressing remorse. Agamemnon uses the verb ἀασάμην (9. 116, 119, 19.137), which means “go mad” to express his grief for the problems caused by his insult to Achilles, but his speeches also contain elements that undermine his apology: he attempts to appease Achilles’ anger by insisting on the gifts he will offer to him, thus making a show of power, and he attributes his insolent behavior to Zeus (19.137-138). The next two chapters deal with two tragedies, Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Euripides’ Andromache respectively. Fulkerson examines in the first place the character of Neoptolemus: right from the beginning of the play he is presented as hesitating to follow Odysseus’ advice to deceive Philoctetes; the play reveals a gradual acknowledging of his mistake. The example of Neoptolemus bears some resemblances with modern remorse scenarios, since it shows that successful reparation of a mistake can be possible (p. 73). Hermione, the heroine of Euripides’ Andromache, is a more complex figure. She is the wife of Neoptolemus and decides to kill Andromache and her son from Neoptolemos; but when Neoptolemus appears suddenly, she gets frightened, makes a quick display of remorse and finally gets away with Orestes. Fulkerson argues convincingly, contrary to some commentators who see Hermione as a sympathetic figure, that she is immoral and that her display of remorse is feigned. She further suggests that Hermione’s feigned display of remorse is a proof that this emotion was valued in antiquity, which explains why it could become an object of manipulation. The fourth chapter turns to a historical figure, Alexander the Great, and examines the manifestations of his remorse after having murdered Cleitus: Alexander is presented as feeling great grief and even considering suicide. Fulkerson studies four divergent versions of this incident (by Arrian, Plutarch, Curtius and Justin). Despite their different emphases (Plutarch and Arrian are more eager to shift responsibility from Alexander, Curtius stresses human frailty, while Justin describes in detail the king’s emotions) all the sources depict Alexander as experiencing remorse, a fact that testifies, according to Fulkerson, to an awareness of the importance of this emotion, and more specifically of its public display.

The investigation in the fifth chapter proceeds from Greek to Latin Literature, as Fulkerson analyzes scenes from the works of Menander, Plautus and Terence which contain expressions of remorse. The most prevalent pattern in these scenes is the expression of genuine remorse by an adulescens for the rape of a young girl. On the contrary, when old men express their regret for similar issues (usually involving women), they become ridiculous and their regret does not prove beneficial to them. These motifs show, according to Fulkerson, the appropriateness of the expression of remorse for the young men.

The next chapter deals with Ovid’s exile poetry and presents an intriguing case of manipulation of remorse: although Ovid mentions that the reasons for his exile were a carmen and an error, he never explicates what this error was. Moreover, he shows repentance for trivial things (such as infelicities of style in his poems), but never has recourse to the vocabulary of regret when he talks about his exile. His strategy is to present himself as innocent and victimized, while depicting the emperor Augustus, on the other hand, as cruel and never inclined to apology.

The next case-study concerns Nero and the expression of his remorse after the murder of his mother, Agrippina. As in the case of Alexander, Fulkerson examines different versions of this event (by Suetonius, Dio and Tacitus), all of which describe a mental state which can be viewed as an expression of remorse. The next chapter offers an example of a collective display of remorse. Fulkerson chooses to highlight the remorse expressed by Roman soldiers after their mutiny. She analyzes characteristic instances of Roman indiscipline which show that the public display of remorse is an important aspect of post-mutiny reconciliation. The final chapter is devoted to Plutarch. Through an examination of selected Lives, Fulkerson strengthens her thesis that consistency was considered a central value in classical antiquity. The topic of stability of character pervades Plutarch’s biographies: consistency is praised, while mutability is considered problematic and is only occasionally justified (for young people or people of lower status).

In a concluding chapter, Fulkerson remarks that the gap between pagan and Christian remorse may not ultimately be so great, and draws our attention to a shift in emphasis: a Christian scenario would highlight sin and repentance before God, while a pagan scenario emphasizes issues such as the symbolic lowering of status in the display of remorse.

Fulkerson’s analyses are stimulating and the case she makes about the value of consistency in antiquity overall convincing. Given that the material she attempts to command is vast, her study cannot have claims to comprehensiveness. However, a more demanding reader would perhaps expect a fuller justification of the selection of these particular case-studies. Fulkerson considers them as the most representative for her argument, but it would be helpful if she also gave examples (and explanations) of cases (or genres) that she chose to leave out (for instance, explaining why she focuses on the Roman army instead of the Greek, why she does not include famous episodes of repentance in Greek literature, such as that of Croesus in Herodotus). Furthermore, I am somewhat puzzled by the methodology followed in this study: in the introduction Fulkerson offers a semantic categorization and interpretation of the terms related to regret and remorse, but in the subsequent analysis she does not seem consistent in the exploitation of this terminology. On the one hand, she privileges contexts, regardless of the terms used; on the other hand, she comments very fruitfully on the absence of terms related to regret in Ovid, for instance. It is thus legitimate to wonder whether the study would lead to the same results if it pursued a more rigorous terminological investigation: if it examined systematically, for example, the instances in which terms related to regret occur, cease to occur or are replaced by other terms and explored the implications of these semantic changes (whether they are due to stylistic preferences or if they also raise ideological issues: concealment, propaganda etc.) An investigation of this sort could trace the history of the emotion of regret. Fulkerson’s book does not write this history, but certainly sets the basis for its exploration.


1.   The seminal study for the emotions in ancient Greece is that of D. Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature, Toronto; Buffalo; London 2006. For Rome, R. A. Kaster, Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome Oxford 2005. See also D. Cairns, “Look Both ways: Studying Emotions in Ancient Greek”, Critical Quarterly 50 (2008), 43-63 and recently A. Chaniotis, “Unveiling Emotions in the Greek World: Introduction”, in id. (ed.), Unveiling Emotions: Sources and Methods for the Study of Emotions in the Greek World, Stuttgart 2012, 11-31.
2.   See W. V. Harris, Restraining Rage: the Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge Mass.; London 2001, D. Konstan, Pity Transformed, London 2001, and more recently E. Sanders, Envy and Jealousy in Classical Athens, Oxford 2014.
3.   D. Konstan, Before Forgiveness. The Origins of a Moral Idea, Cambridge 2010. See also C. L. Griswold and D. Konstan (eds.), Ancient Forgiveness , Cambridge 2012.
4.   Given the importance of consistency and mutability for the author’s argument, the terms related to μεταβολή and μεταβάλλω could have also been included.

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