BMCR 2022.04.16

Unveiling emotions III: arousal, display, and performance of emotions in the Greek world

, Unveiling emotions III: arousal, display, and performance of emotions in the Greek world. Heidelberger Althistorische Beiträge und Epigraphische Studien, 63. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2021. Pp. 544. ISBN 9783515129503 €82,00.

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

The collective volume Unveiling Emotions III edited by Angelos Chaniotis is the third and final publication that resulted from the project, “The Social and Cultural Construction of Emotions: The Greek Paradigm.” The project was funded by the European Research Council and was hosted by the University of Oxford for the duration of 4 years (2009-2013).

The study of emotions has gained traction in the last two decades, attracting the interest not only of disciplines such as philosophy and philology but also of archaeology and ancient history, as the proliferation of publications on the subject can attest. The study of emotions in Antiquity, through any of the aforementioned disciplines or their combination, aims primarily at identifying and reconstructing emotions, as well as understanding the way and the media through which they were aroused and displayed. The context in which particular emotions were evoked and expressed, the way they were manipulated and the aims they served are also aspects that researchers have problematized and are some of the issues that are addressed also in this book. Emotions are present in every aspect of human expression. They can dictate behavior and influence human relationships. At the same time, they are social and cultural phenomena,[1] that fulfil specific functions and can be constructed, controlled and manipulated. Consequently, the study of past cultures through the manifestation of emotions offers a significant insight and a more nuanced interpretation of the past.

The book consists of a preface and sixteen chapters divided into three parts, each addressing a different aspect of emotions. Thus, the chapters of Part One (Emotional Constructions) focus on the way emotions shape or reflect social structure, those of Part Two (Arousing Emotions) examine their evocation through various media, such as texts or images, while Part Three (Performing Emotions) approach the expression of emotions through performative media, such as drama or dance. The contributions of the book cover a chronological span of 14 centuries, from the early Archaic period to late Antiquity, through the examination of written and iconographic evidence. The written sources, particularly, include a variety of different literary genres, such as private and public letters, decrees, oratory, tragedy, even magical spells.

In the Introduction, Angelos Chaniotis points out the agency of emotions as a driving force in the material expression of past cultures, and therefore the relevance of their systematic study, not only for their own merit, but also as a means to achieve a more nuanced understanding of past cultures.

Part One addresses the way emotions shape or reflect social structure and begins with Spatharas’ contribution on the neglected emotion of disgust, indeed “the least noble of emotions” (33). The author juxtaposes “core” and “moral” disgust and the ways this emotion was used to stigmatize groups and individuals and construct social hierarchies in ancient Greek society. Chaniotis examines the manifestation of power relations through the expression of emotions as attested in ancient literary and documentary sources. Through the examination of specific case studies, the author highlights the dynamics of uneven relationships, such as the relationship of the subordinate Greek cities with their Roman rulers during the second and first centuries BCE, which was based on fear of the former by the latter, or the myth of the loving master and the loyal slave in the Late Hellenistic and Imperial periods. The emotions expressed in contemporary grave epigrams offer a distorted picture of the relationship between masters and slaves, presenting the former as caring and the latter as loving in a deliberate attempt to idealise the relationship and exculpate slavery. Similarly, Kravaritou examines the way the public display in the form of epigraphic texts erected in public spaces that expressed collective guilt and remorse would re-establish the relationship between Greek communities and Greco-Roman rulers, after it has been disrupted by an act of transgression. Both authors emphasise the significant fact that emotions can be socially constructed. Particularly interesting is Xanthou’s chapter, which addresses emotional intelligence theory through the philosophy and educational program of Isocrates. The author argues that the emphasis placed by Isocrates on eunoia, that is favourable disposition, in his teachings can be read as an encouragement to his audience to practice empathy. Finally, Giannopoulou examines the impact that Polybius’ Book Six would have had on the audience. She argues that the historian’s analysis of the circulation of political systems, namely their growth, rise and decline, which depended, according to him, on natural and psychological processes, as well as on cultural factors, aimed at moving his audience emotionally and morally.

Part Two examines the way different types of texts and images can evoke particular emotions. Peebles’ fascinating contribution examines the emotional impact Archaic depictions of the gods Apollo, Athena, and Zeus brandishing weapons would have had on the viewers. By omitting the depiction of the opponent, the threat suggested by the image was directed to the viewer, thus arousing both the emotion of fear of punishment, but also that of hope for protection, rendering the impact of these images extremely powerful. Tait examines indications of emotions in letters written in the Demotic Egyptian script (sixth century BCE to the third century CE). Although the expression of emotions in this corpus of letters is restricted, that is not the case in letters addressed to deities, where the vivid account of the writers’ sufferings is deliberate in order to secure the favourable intervention of the deities. Giannopoulou’s second contribution highlights Polybius’ personal emotional experience (autopatheia) expressed in his writings, as a way to educate and encourage the imitation of virtue to his readers.

Achieving the desired emotional response from their audience was part of the training of orators already by the 4thcentury BCE, as Potter stresses. These techniques developed over the centuries, as can be observed in the writings of Latin authors and in the rhetorical exercises (progymnasmata). However, it was mostly through mimesis that students learned to move their audiences emotionally. Palme draws attention to the fact that Dioskoros’ ability to emotionally manipulate his readers has resulted in a distorted representation of sixth century CE Egyptian society, since his writings have been taken by modern scholars, such as philologists, papyrologists, and historians, at face value, as have been his accusations towards the pagarch Menas.

Part Three focuses on the expression of emotion through performance and begins with Fantuzzi’s contribution. The author examines the expression of emotion on the part of the chorus in Euripidean drama through the description of works of art, such as Achilles’ panoply (Electra) or the sculptures decorating the Delphic sanctuary of Apollo (Ion). Slaney’s chapter is a fascinating account of the expression of emotion in ancient pantomime that reached its acme during the first and fifth centuries CE. Understanding the performance and being emotionally moved required that the spectators were able to recognise the emotions associated with the particular gestures and movements. Potter examines the emotional impact of sophistic declamation on the ancient audiences through the examination of Philostratos’ Lives of Sophists, in order to highlight the performative aspect of oratory. Karambelas addresses the expression of emotions in a legal context during the Imperial Period and Late Antiquity through the intriguing account of specific cases, such as the trial of Herodes Atticus by Marcus Aurelius and that of the sophist Ioulianos and his students by an anonymous proconsul in Corinth during the 4th century CE. The author examines the imperial court as the arena for the expression or suppression of emotions by the judge as well as by the litigants, while he demonstrates, among others, the role of the court as a medium through which emotional catharsis is achieved between the involved parts. Finally, Frankfurter’s contribution is a captivating account of the emotions expressed through the use of magic spells and ritual figurines in early Christian Egypt. The author argues that turning for help to such means indicates in itself “emotional crisis,” in addition to the emotions expressed by magical spells or the desires reflected by maternal figurines deposited in sacred places. These means did not only express people’s emotional state and channel their frustration, but also served as an imaginary resolution to their crises.

The variety of the emotions addressed, some of them previously neglected, such as disgust or autopatheia and the different dimensions of the role emotions played in past cultures, not only highlight the complexity of the subject but also the value of its analysis in our understanding of and interpreting the past. The book is a valuable contribution to the study of emotions in Antiquity and an essential read for anyone interested in the subject.

Table of Contents

Angelos Chaniotis – Preface, pp. 7-8
Angelos Chaniotis – Display, arousal, and performance of emotions: Introduction, pp. 9-30.
Part One: Emotional Constructions
Dimos Spatharas – Projective disgust and its uses in ancient Greece, pp. 33-73.
Angelos Chaniotis – Power relations as emotional relations: Hellenistic and Imperial realities and fictions, pp. 75-103.
Sophia Kravaritou – Displaying guilt, remorse, and redemption in Greek public contexts, pp. 105-125.
Maria G. Xanthou – Isocrates and emotional intelligence theory: from local audience to international politics, pp. 127-158.
Vasiliki Giannopoulou – Emotions and politics in Polybios Book Six, pp. 159-189.
Part Two: Arousing Emotions
Matthew Peebles – Threatening gods for fearful mortals: Weapon-brandishing divinities in ancient Greek art, pp. 193-229.
John Tait – Examining the exploitation of the emotion in Demotic Egyptian letter-writing, pp. 231-242.
Vasiliki Giannopoulou – Autopatheia: personal empathic experience, didactic mission, and readershaped empathy in Polybios, pp. 243-280.
Elizabeth Potter – Learning emotion: the progymnasmata and the rhetorical education of the ancient audience, pp. 281-320.
Bernhard Palme – Emotional strategies in petitions of Dioskoros of Aphrodito, pp. 321-342.
Part Three: Performing Emotions
Marco Fantuzzi – Describing images, connoting feelings: choral ecphrasis in Euripides, pp. 345-372.
Helen Slaney – Repetition makes it tragic: emotion in ancient pantomime, pp. 373-398.
Elizabeth Potter – Emotion, performance, and persuasion in Philostratos’ Lives of the Sophists, pp. 399-448.
Dimitris Karambelas – Emotions in court: judicial display and psychic audience between the Imperial period and Late Antiquity, pp. 449-515.
David Frankfurter – Desperation and the magic of appeal: representation of women’s emotion in magical spells and ritual figurines, pp. 517-536.
Index, pp. 537-542.
List of Contributors, pp. 543-544.


[1] Chaniotis, A. 2012. “Unveiling Emotions in the Greek World: Introduction”. In: Chaniotis, A. (ed.). Unveiling Emotions: Sources and Methods for the Study of Emotions in the Greek World. Stuttgart: Steiner Verlag, p. 11-36 (15).
Wagner-Durand, E. 2020. “Imaging Emotions. Emotional Communities of Mesopotamia and the Potential of an ‘Emotional Turn’ in the Study of Visual Cultures”. In: Bracker, J. (ed.). Homo Pictor. Image Studies and Archaeology in Dialogue. Heidelberg: Propylaeum. Freiburger Studien zur Archäologie und visuellen Kultur, Band 2, p. 235-279 (237).