BMCR 2019.07.52

La Nuit: imaginaire et réalités nocturnes dans le monde gréco-romain. Entretiens sur l’antiquité classique, 64​

, , La Nuit: imaginaire et réalités nocturnes dans le monde gréco-romain. Entretiens sur l'antiquité classique, 64​. Geneva: Fondation Hardt, 2018. ix, 410. ISBN 9782600007641 CHF 55.00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

With the publication of Murray Melbin’s seminal article “Night as Frontier” in 1978, scholars began to take seriously the hours of the day between sunset and sunrise as a distinctive period of human activity worth studying on its own terms.1 While Melbin’s focus of inquiry was modern America, historians of pre-modern Europe have applied his insights to the study of the nighttime activities of people and to literary representations of the night. Medievalists and early modernists have been at the forefront of this “nocturnal turn.” Over the past two decades, Jean Verdon’s Night in the Middle Ages (2002), Craig Koslofsky’s Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe (2011), and especially A. Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (2005) have corrected for our long neglect of the night as a topic of historical inquiry in preindustrial Europe. Thanks to their efforts, we can no longer say, as Georg Christoph Lichtenberg observed in the late eighteenth century, that “[o]ur entire history is merely the history of the waking life of man.” 2

The experience of ancient nights has not received as much attention as the European Middle Ages. The volume under review remedies this situation by bringing together nine papers in English, French, German, and Italian on the topic of the night in the ancient world, from the ancient Greece to the later Roman Empire. The contributions to this book fall into two broad categories: historical studies and literary analysis. The volume’s editor, Angelos Chaniotis, opens the collection with an essay that serves double duty as an introduction to historical research on the night and an analysis of the socio-cultural factors that contributed to changes in the nightlife of ancient people in the ‘Long Hellenistic Age.’ He credits a rise in security measures, participation in private associations, the gifts of benefactors that prolonged the opening hours of baths and gymnasia, and the diffusion of nocturnal religious celebrations with an increase in the nighttime activities of ancient people. As a result, throughout the Hellenistic period, “the night” was progressively “made safer, brighter, more efficient, and more full of life” (p. 40). As Chaniotis notes, artificial illumination also played a role in this trend. Following seamlessly on this paper, Andrew Wilson’s contribution “considers the effectiveness and limitations of available lighting technology” (p. 59) in the Roman world, with an emphasis on its impact on economic productivity. He proceeds with a discussion of the historical and archaeological sources for the use of lamps, candles, and street lights, and argues that “effective illumination extended the useful hours of the day, and thus allowed for extending the working day” (p. 74). The topic of artificial lighting is taken up once again later in the volume by Leslie Dossey, who draws attention to “a virtual explosion” of glass lamp production in the later fourth century, which coincides with historical accounts of street lighting in large imperial cities in the eastern Mediterranean. Using the evidence of patristic sermons, she argues that late antique city-dwellers were more active in the public sphere after nightfall than their early imperial predecessors, because the daily habits of people had changed; in the fourth and fifth centuries, they tended to do their bathing, shopping, and dining at night. As a result, “[t]he nights were becoming busier, more pressured, more like part of the day” (p. 317). While Dossey denies the influence of the widespread adoption of Christianity for this change (see the discussion on pp. 329-330), Filippo Carlà-Uhink’s article shows that early Christians were most active at night, which prompted suspicion among Roman pagans, who generally avoided conducting religious rites after dark.

More than half of the papers in the volume treat the depiction and perception of the night in ancient art and literature. Ioannis Mylonopoulos examines scenes of violence in ancient Greek art, where “depictions of nocturnal brutality often achieved a fascinating level of explicit goriness and cruelty” (p. 175). Ancient artists rendered many scenes from the Trojan War (the murder of Dolon and Rhesos by Odysseus and Diomedes, the rape of Kassandra, the killing of her father Priamos by Neoptolemos) on dozens of vases and other media between 580 and 400 BCE. The murder of children, sometimes by their own mothers, and assaults on other vulnerable members of society were also depicted as a nocturnal activity, perhaps, as Mylonopoulos suggests, as a “social comment in visual terms against the atrocities of war” (p. 195). In ancient literature, military ambushes also took place at night. Sergio Casali surveys the evidence for the depiction of nocturnal ambushes ( imboscate notturne) in Greek and Roman epic poetry. While the readers of Homer and Euripides would have viewed these activities as familiar, the Roman audiences of Virgil and Statius considered these maneuvers to be a morally reprehensible intrusion on the private lives of the victims, even when they were soldiers, perhaps because ancient Athenians were trained as warriors, while the audience of the Roman epic poems had no direct experience with military tactics. Moving from poetry to prose, Koen de Temmerman examines the representation of the night and nocturnal phenomena in Greek and Latin novels. He identifies numerous tropes and literary commonplaces related to the night in these works: night as a time of exacerbated suffering; as a time for cognitive rumination, sometimes due to sleeplessness caused by love-sickness; as a time of erotic encounters; and as a time of story-telling. While the hours of darkness were generally perceived as ripe with hidden danger, the poems of Sappho offer a different view. According to Renate Schlesier, her verses portray the night as a stage lit by the stars and the moon, on which the sleepless play out the dynamic scenes of their nocturnal lives. An outlier among these contributions is Vinciane Pierenne-Delforge’s paper about Night as a divinity. While Hesiod draws attention to Nyx as one of the primordial deities born from Chaos, there is very little evidence for public devotion to her and the surviving epigraphy that may allude to her cult is fraught with ambiguity, as the discussion following this article suggests.

Taken together, the papers in this volume offer a stimulating introduction to the potential of studying the night as a venue for historical action and as a literary trope in Greek and Roman society. I was surprised that none of the contributors took up the insights of A. Roger Ekirch’s application of modern research about bi-phasal sleep as a way to explain nocturnal activities in pre- industrial Europe, but these papers make clear that there is much more work to be done on many more topics related to the Night than those treated here, including ancient star-gazing, divine incubation, and other actions and events shrouded by the darkness. As Chaniotis reminds us, “the sum of night stories does not constitute a history of the night” (p. 9).

Table des Matières

Préface par Pierre Ducrey
Angelos Chaniotis, “Nessun dorma! Changing nightlife in the Hellenistic and Roman East “
Andrew Wilson, “Roman nightlife “
Renate Schlesier, “Sappho bei Nacht”
Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge, “Nyx est, elle aussi, une divinité  : la nuit dans les mythes et les cultes grecs”
Ioannis Mylonopoulos, “Brutal are the children of the night!” Nocturnal violence in Greek art
Sergio Casali, “Imboscate notturne nell’epica romana”
Koen De Temmerman, “Novelistic nights”
Leslie Dossey, “Shedding light on the Late Antique night”
Filippo Carlà-Uhink, “Nocturnal religious rites in the Roman religion and in early Christianity”
Table des illustrations


1. Murray Melbin, “Night as Frontier,” American Sociological Review 43.1 (1978): 3-22.

2. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Philosophical Writings, trans. Steven Tester (Albany: SUNY Press, 2012), p. 154.