BMCR 2005.07.32

Ancient Anger. Perspectives from Homer to Galen. Yale Classical Studies 32

, , Ancient anger : perspectives from Homer to Galen. Yale classical studies ; v. 32. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 1 online resource (x, 325 pages).. ISBN 9780511163753. $65.00.

It is difficult to say anything both useful and general about this book, since the essays vary so much in content, method, style and success. The eleven papers were originally delivered at a colloquium on ancient anger held in 1999. Although anger in epic bulks large here (six essays focus on epic, and it appears in all the others), topics also include magic, the ancient novel, oratory and more. In addition, epic itself ranges from Homer to Silius. The primary audience for the book will be graduate students and teachers. However, all Greek and Latin is translated and the writing is jargon-free and clear, so advanced undergraduates could use the book as well.1 Specialists on anger or emotions in antiquity will certainly want to look at the collection, and many readers will find individual essays to be useful. Since the contributions are so varied, I will spend the bulk of the review looking at them individually.

D.L. Cairns opens the volume with a wide-ranging essay on anger in the Iliad and the broader question of how best to study the emotions. Cairns argues that we should include more than merely linguistic or semantic analysis of emotion terms in other cultures; classicists should also draw insight from other disciplines, e.g. sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. He then offers a detailed look at key terms for anger in the Iliad. Cairns persuasively denies the common claim that mênis signifies specifically divine anger. He also argues that a Kantian-style (my characterization) distinction between “moral” and “non-moral” anger does not fit Homer. Although he offers many fine insights into the use of particular words and phrases for anger in Homer, Cairns did not entirely persuade me that I should begin reading up on sociobiology or the like. My concern is that as amateurs in such fields, we have no principled way to distinguish reasonable from unreasonable use of such material nor to deal with arguments between scientists.

In comparison to Cairn’s use of modern science, Glenn Most’s essay on the same poem seems — for better or worse — rather old-fashioned. Most starts from a familiar puzzle: “What does it mean that an epic that begins with the word for wrath culminates in an episode of pity?” (51). He reminds us that analytic scholars used this apparent paradox to deny the poem’s unity. In a unitarian spirit, however, Most attempts to show that pity is integral to the plot of the poem from the beginning. In particular, he argues that the pity of a Greek or Trojan warrior for a slain comrade will lead naturally to a murderous rage at the Trojan or Greek who is responsible. In this way, pity often drives anger — a connection which runs counter to our preconceptions. Most also makes a strong case for a development in Achilles’s character as the poem goes on: initially Achilles feels distress on his own behalf, then for a close friend, but at the end of the poem he is able to see even Priam’s pain as valid. As the scope of his pity expands, Achilles also learns to control his anger, at least somewhat. Although many readers will not be bothered by the scruples of the analysts, Most offers helpful insight into the interplay of pity and anger within the poem.

With D.S. Allen’s essay, we shift forward to the courts of classical Athens. She argues that anger was a desirable and admirable state of mind in oratory since the Athenians believed that “hot-blooded” anger contributed to justice and good politics. An orator who makes a speech in anger speaks straightforwardly and directly. Anger is thus, surprisingly to us perhaps, a mark of truth. Using Aristophanes, Allen also claims that the Athenians believed that anger contributes to freedom and equality. (Think of the Greek reaction to the Persians or the attitude of the poor towards the rich in a city-state.) Of course, as Allen explicitly acknowledges, a political order which requires and relies on anger runs many risks. Thus, she also shows how the scope of anger was limited (not in the home, never for women) and regulated (sycophancy violates the rules of proper anger: the sycophant has no personal reason for anger, he does not speak up quickly in the grip of anger, etc.).

Although all of the previous essays mention or rely on Aristotle, at least in part, David Konstan is the first to focus closely on Aristotle’s analysis of anger. Aristotle, as is well-known, defines anger as “a desire, accompanied by pain, for a perceived revenge, on account of a perceived slight on the part of people who are not fit to slight one or one’s own” ( Rhetoric 2.1378a31-33 — this is the translation Konstan uses). What will be new to many readers is that Konstan insists on narrow or technical meanings for a number of terms, and he cleaves to a very strict interpretation of the whole. Most importantly, Konstan insists that — for Aristotle, of course — an emotion cannot be anger if it does not result from a “perceived slight” nor unless it results in a desire for “perceived revenge.” Not every harm is a slight, and not every revenge could be perceived. What all this means is that although Achilles’s feelings towards Agamemnon are a paradigmatic case of Aristotelian anger for Konstan,2 Achilles cannot be angry with Hector — at least not in an Aristotelian sense. Although Konstan does not discuss this point, by his analysis Achilles is angry at Agamemnon but hates Hector. This may seem fine, or merely a verbal quibble, but I would argue that whatever Homer thinks of the definition of anger and hate, he clearly represents Achilles as having transferred and intensified one emotion from the quarrel with Agamemnon over to Hector.

W.V. Harris takes up the ancient Greek attitude towards anger and rage in women. Harris begins with semantics, and he argues that Greek orgê should be understood as ‘rage’ rather than ‘anger’ because orgê is very intense, it essentially involves revenge, it can be very long-lasting, and it often involves insanity. All of this fits what we call ‘rage’ rather than ‘anger’. In his view, most Athenians held something like Aristotle’s mean theory for men: rage is right and good if appropriate, controlled, limited, etc. Women, however, were considered especially liable to emotions, but a good, self-controlled woman should not become angry. A woman like Clytemnestra, who indulges freely in anger, violates the gender rules and comes to seem more and more “man-minded”. Although his larger analysis is not particularly novel, Harris offers a good summary of the common consensus and he makes many helpful observations on specific texts.

Christopher Faraone offers a survey of what will surely be new material to many readers: anger in ancient magic. He surveys and contrasts two related types of spell. (Faraone covers both actual spells on objects as well as spell-books.) One type of spell works to stop the positive anger or spirit of a rival in a competitive situation, e.g. a trial, athletics, business. The other type of spell works to cure or draw off the negatively represented anger of a superior, e.g. a wife’s spell to calm a husband. The situation and relationships determine how the emotion is viewed, and anger or spirit is not essentially good or bad. For example, an athlete who wishes to check his rival’s spirited anger does not view the emotion itself negatively. He simply wants to weaken his opponent and win. The survey was fascinating to me, and if nothing else the curses are awfully fun to read.

J.H.D. Scourfield demonstrates the importance of anger to the plot of Chaereas and Callirhoe. The novel begins with an act of (apparently) homicidal rage and it ends with a dissolution of anger and an act of pity. The novel’s structure thus follows epic models. In addition, Scourfield argues that we see Chaereas mature as he moves from uncontrolled, jealous rage to exemplary self-control. Finally, the author makes a persuasive case that the display of anger follows various gender rules in the novel. Chaereas, as a male, appropriately channels anger in battle, whereas Callirhoe is characteristically feminine in her frequent lack of anger. However, the portrayal of Callirhoe is not entirely stereotypical since she is remarkable for her self-control and her use of reason. Scourfield concludes the essay with an brief but provocative discussion of how Chariton creates ambiguity by creating room for two “ideal readers”, one male (or a woman who has accepted a male view of things) and one female (or open to a feminist (my word) view of things).

Ann Hanson surveys the anger of infants and young children in the medical writers and Homer. Hanson helpfully divides the topic into a number of discrete headings (e.g., crying babies, swaddling, etc.), and then for each heading she considers first what the medical writers had to say and then how that picture fits Greek literature, especially Homer. I have to say that I found the actual analyses rather weak. First, Hanson never confronts the general or specific issues surrounding her method: does it matter that the doctors come later than the literature? how closely does literature reflect real child-rearing practices (especially highly stylized and artificial literature such as Homeric epic)? how closely does the advice of the doctors match real life anyhow? This list of worries goes on and on. Second, the agreement of the literature with the medical writers seems preordained — even where the literature is silent about a practice. So, for example, although Homer never depicts a swaddling, Hanson nevertheless asserts, “The infants of the Iliad were no doubt swaddled at birth” (197).3 Finally, Hanson disconcertingly speaks about characters in Homer and other literary works as though they were real people with full biographies which she can infer from Galen or the like.

Christopher Gill attempts to revitalize the debate about anger in the Aeneid. Gill employs a distinction between reactive and objective attitudes which he borrows from P.F. Strawson’s famous essay “Freedom and Resentment.” We find reactive attitudes in normal social situations between (all least rough) equals who are considered (again, at least roughly) responsible for his or her actions. Objective attitudes occur between unequals in non-standard or artificial situations, and at least one party is not (or not sufficiently) responsible for their actions. Let me try to make this more concrete: we would expect reactive attitudes between warriors on the battlefield, but we would expect objective attitudes from a parent towards a child, a psychologist towards a patient, or a teacher towards a student. An objective attitude rules out emotions such as anger or resentment. Gill then uses this distinction in order to make sense of the difference between Aristotle and the Stoics on emotions and in order to interpret the final scene of the Aeneid. According to Gill, the Stoics urge us to have an objective attitude towards all other people, in all situations, but Aristotle finds plenty of room in everyday life for reactive attitudes. Gill further argues that Vergil’s epic privileges the objective (and thus Stoic) attitude. Putting this all together, he concludes by supporting those who interpret the end of the Aeneid as a failure on Aeneas’s part. He argues that Aeneas should be objective toward Turnus in accordance with the Stoic view of anger.

Elaine Fantham considers anger in Lucan’s epic — particularly divine anger and the anger of the narrator. Although many readers have been surprised at the absence of the gods from Lucan’s poem, Fantham convincingly argues that they are present even if they do not appear as actors. The narrator and characters never let us forget the gods, since they constantly attribute key events in the poem to the unrelenting anger of the gods towards Rome and its people. The triumph of Caesar and the destruction of libertas is the gods’ punishment for Rome. Punishment for what though? If I understand her correctly, Fantham believes that Lucan intentionally makes the poem more painful and difficult for his readers by not answering that question. This imitates the situation of everyday life: things happen and we may attribute disasters to divine anger, but we never know exactly what caused the anger. A lack of omniscience characterizes the poem’s narrator as does his eloquent anger at the gods over the destruction of the Republic.

In the final essay of the volume, Susanna Braund and Giles Gilbert survey the representation of ira throughout Roman epic. The authors start by summarizing an earlier analysis of Agathe Thornton: ira itself is neutral, and it can be good or bad depending on the specifics of individual cases. The authors then survey ira in battle scenes in Roman epic where they argue that anger is generally a neutral (or even positive) necessity for combat. I worry that they often seem to neglect negative implications in the similes. So, for example, they cite the famous simile from Lucan which compares Caesar at the Rubicon to a lion ( BC I.204-212) as an example of self-control and positive ira. However, the behavior of the lion in these verses is self-destructive, and in a larger sense, so is Caesar’s. However, even if not every example works equally well, the authors present a challenging case for those who consider ira in Vergil essentially bad.


1. The editing and production of the volume are excellent. I did note one unfortunate mistake in the bibliography: there should be two separate entries for J. Kim rather than two books under one author. Jaegwon Kim wrote Philosophy of Mind, but Jinyo Kim wrote The Pity of Achilles.

2. Konstan cites and briefly discusses (113) Aristotle’s use of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. Although Agamemnon’s treatment of Achilles is clearly an Aristotelian slight, it is less clear to me that Achilles response is perfectly consistent with Aristotelian anger: Achilles seriously considers killing Agamemnon, and this would not be a properly perceptible revenge. As Konstan says, “The revenge, then, must be analogous to the slight itself in that it produces a sensible hurt, and not just objective harm ( it will not do to kill the person, accordingly)” (111 – my emphasis).

3. Would we feel comfortable with such an ex silentio interpretation of Captain Ahab’s childhood based on Dr. Spock?