BMCR 2020.07.23

Violence in the ancient and medieval worlds

, , Violence in the ancient and medieval worlds. Interdisciplinary studies in ancient culture and religion, 19. Leuven; Paris: Peeters, 2018. x, 582 p.. ISBN9789042936027 €84,00 (pb).

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

The role of violence in pre-modern societies is currently seeing increased interest from classicists, ancient historians, and medievalists. Hot on the heels of a number of recent studies,[1] Pimentel and Rodrigues’ collection of essays on ancient and medieval violence adds to this growing body of literature with a wide-ranging set of case studies that consider issues of violence in literature, art, archaeology, and history from the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt to sixteenth-century medieval Europe. Such a wide-ranging topic may seem ambitious in a single volume, even one that runs to nearly 600 pages and features 32 separate chapters, but the editors make clear that they are not aiming for comprehensive coverage but are rather providing snapshots of the research of several authors working on violence in different periods, with the aim of illustrating diachronic aspects of the theme. Curiously, despite the parity between ancient and medieval implied by the title, the distribution of material is weighted heavily in favour of the ancient world, with only 7 of the 32 chapters focusing on the medieval period. The vast majority of the studies are concerned with very specific manifestations of violence in a relatively narrow timeframe and only a small number make explicit comparisons between the two periods. Consequently readers must make any connections between ancient and medieval themes largely on their own. However, the editors’ brief introduction does go some way towards addressing this hurdle to their supposed diachronic approach by discussing the role of violence throughout human history and pointing (albeit briefly) to many of the themes that will crop up in later chapters.

Though not stated explicitly in the introduction, the origins of the volume seem to go back to an international conference on ancient and medieval violence held at the University of Lisbon in 2014. Many of the chapters are insightful and make significant contributions to their respective fields, but I cannot help thinking that a more selective editorial approach with more explicit linking of different themes could have resulted in a more tightly focused and cohesive book. That said, the chapters are generally thought provoking and many readers (myself included) will certainly be glad of the opportunity to engage with the results of what seems to have been a highly stimulating conference. Given the limits of space and the sheer variety of the chapters on offer, I am able to discuss only a small representative sample.

Some of the most successful of the essays are those that take an explicitly interdisciplinary approach and view the ancient and medieval evidence in light of modern concerns and methodologies. Margherita Carucci’s chapter, ‘Domestic Violence in Roman Imperial Society: Giving Abused Women a Voice’, takes modern definitions and theories of ‘intimate partner violence’ and uses them to explore the emotional experiences of Roman women in the early imperial period (in which evidence of spousal abuse is more sparse than in other periods such as Late Antiquity). While previous studies have tended to focus on the reasons Roman men engaged in domestic violence and the conditions that upheld that violence, Carucci instead focuses on the marginalised experiences of the victims themselves, using modern terminology to ‘give ancient women a voice’ and demonstrate how they experienced and reacted to violence inflicted by intimate partners. Of course, the usual caveats about the almost exclusively male nature of the evidence apply here, but Carucci nevertheless succeeds in drawing attention to how ancient women negotiated a phenomenon that clearly formed a large part of Roman social relations, regardless of the lack of specific descriptive ancient vocabulary. In a similar vein Susan Deacy’s chapter, ‘Why Does Zeus Rape? An Evolutionary Psychological Perspective’, applies theories drawn from evolutionary psychology, and in particular the specific ‘rapist types’ proposed in a 2008 evolutionary study conducted by McKibben et al.,[2] to examine Zeus’ use of sexual violence throughout Greek mythology. Deacy presents a Zeus who both reflects the evolved behaviours of a specific type of rapist while simultaneously encoding morally contradictory characteristics. The results of the investigation presented in this chapter remain preliminary, but Deacy highlights several fruitful avenues of approach and promises further evolutionary informed research on Zeus’ sexual behaviour and the applicability of mythology to the work of evolutionary psychologists.

Violence in mythology is also the focus of Daniel Ogden’s chapter on ‘Dragon Slaying in the Ancient and Early Medieval Worlds’. Ogden examines five classical examples of drakōn-slaying relating to the foundation of cities and demonstrates how these early pagan examples influenced the development of later hagiographic Christian motifs, even as the specifics of the narratives varied widely. In the Medieval section of the book, hagiography is also the focus of María Elisa Lage Cotos’ chapter ‘Oportet te accipere virum et laetari: A Form of Violence in Some Lives of Virgin Saints’, though the violence considered here is of a very different kind, with Lage Cotos examining the forced marriage of virgin saints as a form of ‘non-bloody violence’[3] committed by Roman governors (though of course the refusal of a proposal often leads to a more conventionally bloody form of violence later). Given the recurrence here of issues such as sexual coercion and domestic violence that are also discussed in earlier chapters, it is a pity that these diachronic themes are not examined in more detail in the introductory chapter.

While the original languages of the conference included Portuguese, French, and Spanish, the chapters themselves are all written in English and are generally well presented, though a fair number of typos and awkward sentence constructions have slipped though the editing/translation process. There is also some inconsistency in the quotation of ancient languages, with some authors choosing to provide translations, while others simply quote untranslated Latin and Greek. (Opinions on this will differ, but I tend to think a volume aimed at facilitating interdisciplinary research should err towards accessibility.) The volume itself comes in a simple and unadorned paperback binding. Such decisions are of course beyond the control of editors and contributors, but it must be said that an RRP of €84 for a paperback book is particularly steep, even in the costly world of academic publishing. The flimsy binding also seems an unwise choice for a such a large book that—due to its wide-ranging appeal—is surely destined for a hard life in university libraries.

Quibbles about cohesion and presentation aside, the book offers a highly thought-provoking collection of essays that not only offer new and interesting takes on a wide variety of ancient and medieval themes, but also point the way for further research into issues of violence in the pre-modern world. Though the wide chronological and thematic scope of the volume means that relatively few readers will read it in its entirety, this level of variety is also a key strength, as there is something for everyone among the chapters presented here. The editors and contributors should be congratulated on producing a collection that so clearly demonstrates the importance of issues of violence, its representation, and interpretation to classicists, ancient historians, archaeologists, and medievalists alike. If, in doing so, the book encourages scholars to look beyond their own areas of expertise and engage in more interdisciplinary research, this can only be a good thing.

Authors and titles

Introduction: Occide, uerbera, ure! What about violence in Ancient and Medieval Times? Maria Cristina Pimentel and Nuno Simões Rodrigues

Violence in the Ancient World:
1. The Dawn of Human Violence: A Reading of Posidonius, Lucretius and Sallust, Nicoletta Bruno
2. Violence and the Feminine: The Elegiac Woman in Action, Arcangela Cafagna
3. Domestic Violence in Roman Imperial Society: Giving Abused Women a Voice, Margherita Carucci
4. Duel and Violent Death in Propertius’ Elegy 4,10, Irma Ciccarelli
5. The Wrath of Gods and Falls upon Men: The Case of Ancient Arkadia, María Cruz Cardete
6. Why Does Zeus Rape? An Evolutionary Psychological Perspective, Susan Deacy
7. The Motif of verberare puellam in Latin Elegiac Poetry, Rosalba Dimundo
8. Violence as a Manifestation of ‘pietas’, Paolo Fedeli
9. Violence in Prayer: God’s “Other Side” in the Book of Psalms. A Literary Approach, Maria Fernandes
10. The Rhetoric of Violence and Erotic Masochism in the Epistles of Philostratus, Rafael J. Gallé Cejudo
11. Another Medea? Violence and Procne’s Family in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 6, Nikoletta Manioti
12. Violence against Slaves as an Element of Theatre in Plautus, Marc Mayer i Olivé
13. Himerius’s Testimony on mousike as a Means of Preventing Violence in the Late Antique School of Rhetoric, José Guillermo Montes Cala
14. Violence and Myth: The Creative Violence of Dragon-Slaying in the Ancient and Early Medieval Worlds, Daniel Ogden
15. Death Omens in Aeschylus and Sophocles: Clytaemnestra’s Dream between Blood Revenge and the Struggle for Power, Pierpaolo Peroni
16. Viriathus and his Contemporaries as Victims and Perpetrators of Conflict Violence, Deborah L. Potter
17. Strike, Smite and Terrify: Reflections on Physical, Ritual and Psychological Violence in Ancient Egypt, José das Candeias Sales
18. Blood Feud and Blood Pollution in Archaic and Early Classical Greece, Irene Salvo
19. Violence in Statius’ Tydeus: Against Others or against Himself? Carlo Santini
20. Pursuit and Ritual on Early South Italian and Sicilian Red-figure Pottery. The Workshop of the Himera Painter and the New Iconographic Compositions of the late 5th Century BC, Marco Serino
21. (Not) Doing Violence to Myth: The Suppression of Force in Pindar, Daniel Sicka
22. Misit Thyesteas preces: Cursing and Magic in Horace’s Epode 5, Gabriel A. F. Silva
23. Filicide in the House of Atreus, Maria de Fátima Silva
24. Female Group Violence in Greek Myth: A Case Study on the Lemnian Androctony and the Crime of the Danaids, Nereida Villagra
25. ‘Visual’ Metaphors of Violence: Representations of Submission on Roman Coins, Marco Vitale

Violence in the Medieval World:
26. Violence in the Love Poems of the Carmina Burana, José Carracedo Fraga
27. Violence Reflected: High-Medieval Diplomatic cautelae as a Mirror of Society, José Manuel Díaz de Bustamante
28. A Targeted Violence: The Early Years of Venetian Rule in Padua, Daniele Dibello
29. Divino interime gladio: The Suffering of the Judge in Some Visigothic Passions, Ivan Neves Figueiras
30. Words, Actions and Controlled Lives. Women and Violence in Medieval Galicia, Miguel García-Fernández
31. Oportet te accipere virum et laetari: A Form of Violence in Some Lives of Virgin Saints, María Elisa Lage Cotos
32. Violence and Conflict in the Portuguese Medieval University: From the Late-Thirteenth to the Early-Sixteenth Century, Armando Norte & André de Oliveira Leitão


[1] Most recently, Gale, M. and Scourfield, J. H. D. (eds). 2018. Texts and Violence in the Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Other recent publications include: Fagan, G. 2011. The Lure of the Arena: Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Games. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Riess, W. and Fagan, G. G. (eds). 2016. The Topography of Violence in the Greco-Roman World. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press; Muravyeva, M. and Toivo, R. M. (eds) 2018. Parricide and Violence Against Parents Throughout History: (De)Constructing Family and Authority? London: Palgrave Macmillan; and the first volume of the forthcoming Cambridge World History of Violence.

[2] McKibbin, W. F., Shackelford, T. K., Goetz, A. T. and Starratt, V. 2008. “Why do men rape? An evolutionary psychological perspective” Review of General Psychology 12:86-97.

[3] Pg. 500.