Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.08.36 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.08.36

Juliette Harrisson (ed.), Imagining the Afterlife in the Ancient World.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2018.  Pp. xvi, 196.  ISBN 9781138299795.  £115.00.  

Reviewed by Mark F. McClay, University of Miami (

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

The volume under review collects ten papers from a 2015 conference, “Imagining the Afterlife” at the University of Birmingham. The contributors are an international group of rising scholars from the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, Poland, and Croatia. They are trained variously in classical philology, archaeology, and art history, and the volume is notable for its interdisciplinary scope.

Harrisson’s introduction frames the volume as part of the ongoing critique of “belief” in scholarship on ancient religion, suggesting instead that ancient afterlife ideas be approached as “imaginative” phenomena. Molly Evangeline Allen (Ch. 1) examines depictions of death in the Athenian visual record, tracing an iconographic shift from the funeral (prothesis and grave) to eschatology (psychê and Hades). Nick Brown (Ch. 2) revisits the well-known 6th-c. Phrasikleia epigram and korê-statue, reading the monument in terms of three simultaneous “identities” it creates for the deceased (the textual, sculptural, and “real” Phrasikleia).

Isabella Bossolino (Ch. 3), focusing on the Etruscan Vanth, traces a differentiation of functions among chthonic divinities of Etruria (with their Greek influences). Josipa Lulić (Ch. 4) treats the local iconography of chthonian Mercury/Hermes in a cluster of reliefs from Roman Dalmatia. In a well-crafted contribution, Gabriela Ingle (Ch. 5) discusses the painted dining-scenes in the interior of Roman tombs and considers their possible meanings.

Safari F. Grey (Ch. 6) ambitiously re-examines the Homeric Odyssey through an extended definition of “afterlife” that includes not only the underworld of the Nekyia, but also such dynamics as the quasi-death of dreaming and the expression of heroic identity through the use of the proper name. Stephanie Crooks (Ch. 7) looks at the figure of Daphnis in Vergil’s Eclogue 5, focusing on his tomb and arguing for a connection with contemporary Roman material culture. The editor’s own contribution (Ch. 8) is an innovative treatment of Cynthia’s “ghost” in Propertius 4.7 through the analytical lens of folklore studies: using submissions and reader comments from the website Jezebel’s annual ghost-story competition, Harrisson explores the complexities of modern readers’ attitudes toward the “reality” of ghost-stories; this background is used in turn to interrogate the “fictionality” of Cynthia’s ghost as presented by Propertius to his readers. Comparison of this sort will not be to everyone’s taste; but the experiment is well- executed and offers insights into both Propertius and the more general question of “belief.”

The informative contribution of Julia Doroszewska and Janek Kucharski (Ch. 9) examines the ritual mutilation of corpses (maschalismos) in Classical Athenian sources and the explanations given for this term in Hellenistic scholarship and Byzantine lexica. The authors focus on the chronology of evidence, concluding that the term was misconstrued beginning with Aristophanes of Byzantium and that many specific actions associated with maschalismos were only assigned to it in much later sources. In the final chapter (Ch. 10), Frances Foster looks at Vergil’s netherworld through the eyes of the 4th-c. commentator Servius: noting departures from his usual exegetical practices in his treatment of Aeneid 6, she situates his interpretation of the Vergilian underworld in the context of late antique pedagogy.

As this summary of the book’s content suggests, the collection, while ranging across many interesting subject areas, exhibits two weaknesses that are typical of conference volumes: unevenness of quality and vagueness as to its central ideas. Harrisson’s introduction illustrates both the virtues and shortcomings of the book as a whole. The title and introduction both lead the reader to expect a prominent role for the category of “imagination” in the volume, but this promise is never quite fulfilled. After having reviewed theoretical arguments surrounding “belief” in some detail (1-9), the editor leaves “imagination” frustratingly under-explicated (9) and does little to show how this category represents an advance over “belief” in studying the afterlife. Readers will look in vain for any engagement with (or even citation of) Charles Taylor’s “cultural imaginaries” or the considerable philosophical and theoretical literature on both the social and individual “imagination.”1 Even the critique of “belief” is not really followed through: the book’s chapters are riddled with precisely the kind of misprisions and oversimplifications that Harrisson cautions against, including too-quick inferences from visual, literary, and archaeological evidence to underlying “beliefs” about the afterlife. Key terms lack stable definitions from one chapter to another, or even within a single contribution. The word “afterlife” frequently slips its semantic moorings and drifts beyond the realm of eschatology: thus one reads about the “afterlife” of the dream-state, of postmortem memorialization, of post-classical reception, and so forth. These lapses do not in themselves undermine the book’s interest: indeed, one of its valuable features is the contributors’ willingness to use familiar terms and concepts creatively in defamiliarizing ways. But the absence of serious second-order reflection on these semantic differences—to say nothing of the interrelations among these forms of “afterlife”—represents a missed opportunity.

Some particular errors and omissions deserve mention. Allen gives only passing attention to the dexiosis or handshake motif that appears in Classical Athenian funerary sculpture (27), but this would seem to complicate her argument for a chronological progression from the funeral to the eschatological in the visual record. Brown (41-2) draws attention to the sculptor’s self-referencing “signature” on the base of the Phrasikleia statue: he rightly insists that this be read as part of the monument, but this observation should also be connected to the more general tendency of poets and artists to link their own renown with that of their subjects.2 Lulić’s unpersuasive claim (73-5) of an Orphic background for the Dalmatian Mercury-reliefs depends on a protean definition of “Orphism” that is not informed by current scholarship.3

The volume shows signs of hasty production. Typos are frequent, and nearly all chapters suffer from a degree of roughness in writing, clumsiness of organization, and lack of final editorial polish. Most contributions would have benefitted from further revision and review before being brought into print. Neither editor nor contributors are well served by the publisher’s sale price, which will prevent the worthier chapters from finding a readership.

These criticisms should not obscure the book’s merits. While the volume taken as a whole does not represent a major contribution to scholarship, many of its chapters contain material that classicists and scholars of ancient religion will find of interest. Its breadth is such that it will offer almost all readers entrée to new issues, topics, and subject matter. We may hope that future researchers will follow up on the questions that its contributors raise about the imaginary realm of the afterlife and its permutations in the ancient world.

Authors and titles

Introduction (Juliette Harrisson)
Part 1: The Afterlife at Greek Funerary Sites
1. “Visualizing the Afterlife in Classical Athens: Interactions between the Living and the Dead on White-Ground Lêkythoi” (Molly Evangeline Allen)
2. “Phrasikleia: Playing with Signs” (Nick Brown)

Part 2: The Afterlife at Roman and Etruscan Funerary Sites
3. “‘Break on Through to the Other Side’: The Etruscan Netherworld and its Demons” (Isabella Bossolino)
4. “Guide of Souls? Mercurius Psychopompos in Roman Dalmatia” (Josipa Lulić)
5. “Funerary Dining Scenes in Roman Tombs: Ensuring Happiness in the Afterlife” (Gabriela Ingle)

Part 3: The Afterlife in Literature
6. “Cosmology, Psychopomps, and Afterlife in Homer’s Odyssey” (Safari F. Grey)
7. “Daphnis’ Tomb: Space for Immortality in Virgil’s 5th Eclogue” (Stephanie Crooks)
8. “Reality and Unreality: Literature and Folklore in Propertius 4.7” (Juliette Harrisson)

Part 4: The Afterlife in Late Antique Tradition
9. “A Ritual of the Afterlife or the Afterlife of a Ritual: Maschalismos in Ancient Greece and Beyond” (Julia Doroszewska and Janek Kucharski)
10. “Servius on Virgil’s Underworld in Late Antiquity” (Frances Foster)


1.   C. Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2003), with application in classical antiquity by C. Ando, Roman Social Imaginaries: Language and Thought in Contexts of Empire (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2015). On the immense philosophical literature, see E. Brann, The World of the Imagination: Sum and Substance (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017; 1st ed. 1991). On the social-imaginary aspects of “afterlife,” especially in connection with death and burial practice, P. Metcalf & R. Huntington, Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual (2nd ed.; Cambridge Univ. Press: Cambridge, UK, 1991), S. Scheffler, Death and the Afterlife (Oxford Univ. Press: Oxford, 2013), T. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton Univ. Press: Princeton, 2015) all would have deserved attention.
2.   E.g. Bacchylides 3.96-8, Ibycus 282a.47; cf. also R. Osborne, “The Art of Signing in Ancient Greece,” Arethusa 43.2 (2010), 231-51 on signatures in vase painting.
3.   Lulić’s bibliography includes R. Edmonds, Redefining Ancient Orphism: A Study in Greek Religion (Cambridge Univ. Press: Cambridge, 2013) and a few other recent studies, but her only citation of Edmonds’ book (74) is misleading, and her article shows only superficial engagement with recent literature and debates on Orphism.

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