Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.02.28 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.02.28

Werner Riess, Garrett G. Fagan (ed.), The Topography of Violence in the Greco-Roman World.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2016.  Pp. vi, 416.  ISBN 9780472119820.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Conor Whately, University of Winnipeg (

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

For many of us the ancient world was a violent place, but the varied kinds of violence that characterized that world—in battle, against women, against slaves, and so on—rarely get treated together in single volumes. This book, edited by Werner Riess and Garrett Fagan, does just that, with an emphasis on the setting (topography) of violence, and how this affects its interpretation. The fifteen, sometimes matching, chapters focus on classical Greece and Rome, especially the cities of Athens and Rome. On balance, this book provides a valuable introduction to violence in classical antiquity.

Riess’ short introduction opens the volume with a discussion of the spatial turn, and in it he argues that both space and circumstance had an important role in determining whether a particular act was violent, and for whom. This is followed by David Philips’ paper on Xenophon, hubris, and shame, which draws on the evidence of Xenophon and Athenian law. Philips argues that in Athenian society the intent of the actor and the impact on the sufferer helped determine whether a violent act, like Xenophon’s striking of a man digging a premature grave for an ill soldier (Xen. Anab. 5.8.6-10), was justified: the striker of the blow commits an act of hubris, or he does not.1 Trundle discusses the famed krypteia, and emphasizes its secrecy and relationship to the agoge. Among other things, Trundle traces its history from an initiation rite to a distinct element of Spartan military service, and he rightly dismisses those who attempt to view this Spartan institution sympathetically.

Riess’ chapter looks at assassinations and executions in classical Athens, and particularly those involving Athenian citizens. Topography features prominently here, for Riess notes that an assassination only qualified as tyrannicide if it took place in public. His chapter also includes a useful catalogue of Athenian executions and homicides where we know, or at least have a good idea of, the location of the killing. Continuing the emphasis on legal matters, Rosanna Omitowoju examines women in Athenian courts. Omitowoju’s paper is the first in the collection to focus specifically on a disenfranchised group, perhaps somewhat surprising in a collection on violence. One particularly striking example she draws upon is the case of Neaira, allegedly the lover and foreigner who had been living with Stephanos, an Athenian, as his wife. It illustrates well the problems with the source material, here a lawcourt speech, and with Athenian law, such as we have it, at least when it comes to the rights of women.

Peter Hunt’s chapter deals with slaves in classical Greece and examines two points: violence as a means of social control, and violence as reflecting wider thinking and values. Hunt notes, unsurprisingly, the difficulty in measuring violence against slaves, and he covers the myriad ways that slaves in Classical Greece might experience violence. In her entry on the Spartan hoplite, Ellen Millender highlights the battlefield’s place as the setting for violence in the Greek world, and she makes a strong case that this was the place where the Spartans best revealed their character. Among other things, Millender notes that Spartans were socialized in all aspects of war, education included, a defining feature of their polis. Yet, although the performance of Spartan hoplites on the battlefield reinforced fundamental socio-political structures, the Spartan mirage that the battlefield fostered also obscured significant challenges at home and abroad. Oswyn Murray’s short essay finishes the Greek section with the symposion. His paper looks at violence and the symposion through the ages, from Archaic, even Mycenaean, through Hellenistic Greece, stressing the strong links between alcohol, banqueting, and violence in the Greek world.

Josiah Osgood opens the Roman section with assassinations, and the chronological breadth of this first Roman essay matches that of the last Greek one, ranging from the fall of the Gracchi to the murder of Elagabalus. Along the way, Osgood covers some of the most gripping historical events of the late republic and occasionally highlights the significance of the setting of acts of political violence, like the Curia of Pompey, the location of Caesar’s assassination. Fagan’s first contribution surveys urban violence in the city of Rome, and he concentrates on five locations: the street, the forum, the bath, the circus, and the theatre. Some of the instances of violence that he covers are widespread and not peculiarly Roman, as he readily admits. The crowding at baths, for example, could fray the nerves and lead to violent outbursts. Serena Witzke examines violence against women, with a particular emphasis on non-Roman women.2 She argues that Roman women were treated well, relatively speaking, in the late republican and early imperial eras, which was in stark contrast to the experiences of non-Roman women. Topography is at the forefront, for the violence meted out to Roman citizen women had to be hidden away, in contrast to that against non-citizen women.

Noel Lenski, like Hunt, focuses on slaves. For Lenski (and many others besides), the very system of slavery was bound up in acts of violence and, again like Hunt, he provides a bewildering array of different kinds of abuse slaves might be expected to suffer. This includes all those seemingly paradoxical, but legally sanctioned, instances of the abuse of slaves in legal trials. Graeme Ward’s chapter explores the tension between competition and comradery in Roman combat, with the battlefield the locus for this competitiveness and cooperation. He discusses the three contexts in which soldiers could desert their comrades: to retrieve weapons, to seek out the enemy, and to save a fellow soldier’s life. David Potter’s contribution, something of an outlier, looks at second- and third-century (AD) descriptions of battle. He examines how a handful of historians—Cassius Dio, Herodian, Dexippus, and Tacitus—used similar material, here the tried and true battle description. He takes into consideration their varied source materials (both written and visual) and different objectives, such as audience engagement (war as theatre). Fagan’s second paper, on the Roman arena, returns to ground covered in his important book,3 while providing a good introduction to the violence of gladiators. It covers the different types of gladiator, the impossibility of clarity in the case of the famous “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” gesture, and the spectacular sets and devices deployed in gladiatorial shows. Fagan’s second chapter is the only one to contain illustrations, and they enrich the discussion. John Donahue closes the book with an evaluation of violence in the Roman cena, noting that violence itself was the antithesis of the dining experience. Donahue notes that, here as so often, we lack useful data, and in this case that means resorting to sources like works of fiction, here Petronius’ Satyricon.

The book focuses on the centre of the classical Greek and Roman worlds. A little more attention to peripheral times and places would not have gone amiss even if, in the case of late antiquity for example, violence has been the subject of some significant treatments recently.4 Clarity is essential in a volume that covers so much ground, and some points fall short. 5 This book would have benefitted from a conclusion or a discussion chapter highlighting underlying themes. For instance, the law features prominently in the majority of the Greek-themed chapters, but generally less so in the Roman ones. To be sure, some of this is due to the abundance of surviving Greek oratory and the evidence of Demosthenes. On the other hand, Cicero alone has furnished us with more than enough speeches that deal with Roman republican legal matters, to say nothing of the Corpus Iuris Civlis. A closing chapter might have fleshed out these peculiarities. Following from that, there is quite a lot of overlap in the chapters, and some additional cross-references would have served the reader, and the individual authors, well. Not least, topography could have featured more prominently in some of the chapters, as the introduction and title suggest it would.

Still, it is no mean feat to have so many strong chapters on violence in one volume, and which cover such a broad range of the human experience in Classical Greece and Rome. This book would work best as an introduction to violence in the Classical world, thanks in part to the relative symmetry in the presentations, as well as the abundance of familiar ground in the contributions. In this it would seem to have met its aims: to benefit undergraduate and graduate students, as the dustcover claims. Those offering a course on violence in the ancient world would do well to include this as part of their required reading.

The book is well produced and virtually free of typos, with only a couple of small errors.6 In short, even if "topography" does not feature as prominently as it could have, this book should be the standard introduction to violence in classical antiquity.

Authors and titles

Werner Riess, Introduction
David D. Philips, Xenophon and the Muleteer: Hubris, Retaliation, and the Purposes of Shame
Matthew Trundle, The Spartan Krypteia
Werner Riess, Where to Kill in Classical Athens: Assassinations, Executions, and the Athenian Public Space
Rosanna Omitowoju, The Crime That Dare Not Speak Its Name: Violence Against Women in the Athenian Courts
Peter Hunt, Violence against Slaves in Classical Greece
Ellen Millender, The Greek Battlefield: Classical Sparta and the Spectacle of Hoplite Warfare
Oswyn Murray, Violence at the Symposion
Josiah Osgood, The Topography of Roman Assassination, 133 BCE-222 CE
Garrett G. Fagan, Urban Violence: Street, Forum, Bath, Circus, and Theater
Serena S. Witzke, Violence against Women in Ancient Rome: Ideology versus Reality
Noel Lenski, Violence and the Roman Slave
Graeme Ward, The Roman Battlefield: Individual Exploits in Warfare of the Roman Republic
David Potter, War as Theater, from Tacitus to Dexippus
Garrett G. Fagan, Manipulating Space at the Roman Arena
John Donahue, Party Hard: Violence in the Context of Roman Cenae


1.   This chapter ends with a remarkable tale of seducers (moichoi) punished with radishes, where “radish” is used as a verb.
2.   A disclaimer: this reviewer knows Witzke from his graduate student days at McMaster, but had not been aware of her contribution until he received the book.
3.   See BMCR 2013.12.42 on G. Fagan’s, The Lure of the Arena, (Cambridge, 2011).
4.   See M. Gaddis’, There Is No Crime For Those Who Have Christ, (Berkeley, 2005); BMCR 2007.09.23 on H. Drake’s Violence in Late Antiquity, (Burlington, VT, 2006); BMCR 2010.08.36 on T. Sizgorich’s, Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity, (Philadelphia, 2009); and BMCR 2012.08.30 on B. Shaw’s, Sacred Violence, (Cambridge, 2011).
5.   Omitowoju’s distinction (pp. 113-114) between “real” (in quotation marks) and real (not in quotation marks) is one such case.
6.   Tiberius is too early to be considered an emperor from the high empire (p. 291), while Davidson’s paper on Polybius’ gaze was published in 1991, not 1981 (p. 326, n. 1).

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