BMCR 2022.05.06

Being alone in antiquity: Greco-Roman ideas and experiences of misanthropy, isolation and solitude

, Being alone in antiquity: Greco-Roman ideas and experiences of misanthropy, isolation and solitude. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2022. Pp. ix, 470. ISBN 9783110757934. $114.99.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This volume is a timely contribution to a long-neglected area of classical scholarship. Previously, the subject of solitude and loneliness in antiquity has been taken up only sporadically in a small number of papers.[1] Here, however, it receives the attention of 22 scholars who offer new approaches and thought-provoking insights into the phenomenon. Loneliness is today considered a problematic emotion, one that is likely to increase the risk of premature mortality and other adverse health outcomes. Given the current discussion of a “loneliness epidemic” reflecting the impacts of digital technologies, one may wonder whether in face-to-face societies such as ancient Athens or Rome this phenomenon was widespread at all. Yet as the editor of the volume states in his introduction, the complexities of solitude as a concept should not be overlooked. In every historical period, regardless of the stigma of being alone, loneliness has been experienced (p. 4), whether by choice (voluntary rejection) or compulsion (marginalized groups). The aim of the volume is to explore the multifaceted experience and dimensions (social, emotional, temporal, spatial, affective, etc.) of being alone in antiquity. The book does not claim to be a comprehensive treatment of this phenomenon, but is rather intended to reveal its complexity and multivocality to the reader (p. 9).

The reader of the volume is faced with a veritable embarras de richesses of different topics, ranging from figures who embody the archetype of misanthropy and solitude, such as Timon, Cicero, and Bellerophon, to the practiced solitude of asceticism and contemplatio. The volume contains 21 chapters, written in English, French, and German, and is divided into three parts: I. Times and Places; II. Individuals, Norms, and Stereotypes; and III. Gender, Emotions, and Mental Conditions.

First, Angelos Chaniotis examines the role of nocturnal solitude in Greek culture. In antiquity, solitude is difficult to achieve even at night, a time generally associated with communal activities. Being alone at night appears in connection with lucubratio but is also associated with grief and the absence of company, underscoring the value of community. Chaniotis concludes that the night, as the polar opposite of day and as an enhancer of emotions, is a suitable setting for the representation of solitude in literary texts.

Next, Karolina Sekita turns her attention to how people perceived death in terms of separation, solitude, exclusion, and isolation. Despite the dead’s separation from the world of the living as a result of burial, they were reintegrated into the world by means of tombstones and the memories of loved ones. In this way, the dead had an “absent” presence in the world of the living.

Shifting the focus away from Athens, Aurélie Damet considers loneliness and social exclusion in Sparta. The Spartan social structure and its tendency toward plurality, as manifested in the Spartan diarchy, left little room for the individual. Focusing on a marginalized group of citizens known as tresantes, the author shows how norm violations, such as cowardice in war, could lead Spartans to be socially excluded, meaning they were no longer able to participate in communal activities. An interesting aspect of Damet’s analysis is her remark on the psychological effects of such exclusion, which does not rule out the prospect of increased risk of suicide.

Offering a new angle on the Roman villeggiatura, Darrel Janzen shows how slaves and servile stereotypes served as characterizing foils for solitude and freedom. This slave imagery was part of imperial authors’ literary strategies, recalling the liberation, independence, and autonomy that they enjoyed in solitude, far away from the perceived bondage and compulsion of negotium. In contrast to the prevalence of contributions dealing with solitude in Greco-Roman literature, Przemysław Piwowarczyk’s chapter focuses on letters between monks written on ostraca in the region of Western Thebes in the 8th century, shedding new light on monks’ representations and perceptions of the solitary life.

The second, much longer part of the volume is arranged chronologically. It starts with Francesca Boldrer and Herbert Graßl’s chapters on lonely individuals in antiquity. While Boldrer turns her attention to the mythical figure of the sea god Proteus, who despite his secluded domicile was sought out for his prophetic knowledge, Graßl addresses the archetypal misanthrope: Timon. Graßl compellingly argues that Timon’s withdrawal from society was for moral reasons, insofar as his friends refused to support him when he experienced financial hardship. Disappointment as a result of asymmetrical altruism made Timon eternally suspicious of mankind. Rosalia Hatzilambrou enlightens the reader about the evaluation of unsociable individuals in classical Athens. Seeking social isolation in a society characterized by reciprocity, commitment, and participation was not only seen as negative but could also be dangerous, since the person would no longer have social support in precarious situations such as litigation. As Frances Pownall discusses in her chapter on Dionysius I, misanthropy and loneliness are also standard topoi of the tyrant.

Conversely, Sabine Müller’s chapter addresses the image of the solitary fighter who stands up to the tyrant, taking the case of the historiographer Kallisthenes of Olynthos. The portrayal of Kallisthenes, and in particular his partial isolation in Alexander’s court, remains dichotomous. On the one hand he is described as arrogant, boorish, and unpopular in order to justify Alexander’s treatment of him. On the other hand, he is portrayed as a virtuous freedom fighter. Meanwhile, Fabio Tutrone uses Lucretius’ de rerum natura to show that, contrary to the communis opinio that the Epicureans lived isolated from society, Epicurean doctrine in fact provided an alternative view of social life.

Bernadette Descharmes examines Cicero’s letters by exploring two new aspects – exile and mourning – that address phenomena closely related to solitude. She convincingly argues that Cicero’s solitude in exile was more emotional than physical, while after the death of his daughter Tullia, he consciously yearned for the physical solitude that became the premise of his studia. However, this exciting chapter raises the question of whether solitude provided the grief-stricken Cicero with a protective shield, since his grieving encountered criticism in Rome.

Andres V. Matlock turns to Cicero’s use of solitudo in his philosophical writings (specifically, de Fin. 5). As Matlock notes, this term does not refer to loneliness or desolation, but rather conveys a sense of “oneness.”

A new perspective on the withdrawal behavior of the emperor Tiberius is provided by Monika Frass in a chapter on his portrayal by Suetonius. Frass offers a close and detailed analysis of Tiberius’ Vita by showing how the emperor becomes victim not only of personal injuries from his family members and disappointments, but also suffers because of his constant fear of the “hateful collective,” which was one of the many reasons for withdrawal from Rome. As well as disappointment and self-protection, Tiberius’ withdrawal is associated with his profligacy and the desire to remove himself from responsibility and negotia. Suetonius focuses on the emperor’s absence and isolation as factors underscoring his state-damaging misconduct.

Islème Sassi’s chapter moves toward late antiquity and sheds new light on how Christian asceticism considered solitude, taking as an example the letters of the bishop Paulinus of Nola. While solitude is associated with liberation from turmoil and the stresses of everyday life, there were also critical voices warning against the misanthropic and destructive isolation of the ascetic. A middle path between these two positions was taken by Paulinus, whose moderate asceticism is expressed through his continued participation in public discourse.

The final section turns to the emotional and psychological impact of loneliness. Bruce M. King opens the section by discussing the friendship (φιλότης) of Achilles and Patroclus, which creates for the two characters a private space of retreat, offering a respite from the social order, outside the constraints of the military camp.

The following chapter by Christian Laes contains many important observations on the psychological implications of age disparity in Graeco-Roman antiquity. Ancient sources also problematize marriages with an asymmetry of age by emphasizing their psychological consequences, including the fear of being cheated on and the bitterness for a young wife to have an elderly husband (p. 334). By referencing prominent spouses, Laes illuminates the emotional challenges of such marriages, in which the female voice, however, remains silent. As Laes finally states, loneliness in marriages with an age disparity is not mentioned in particular, and therefore had to be seen as a matter of fact that was accepted.

Also devoted to the topic of lonely women is Thomas Gärtner’s contribution, which highlights the multiple variations of the motif of lonely and abandoned heroines in Ovid’s Epistulae Heroidum. Gärtner notes that the laments of the abandoned women about their loneliness are not merely emotional expressions but are also part of an erotic technique of persuasion and seduction.

Stefan Feddern and Florian Krüpe’s contributions bring us back to the psychological effects of exile. The subject of Feddern’s research is Ovid’s suffering in the Tristia (1,5), wherein the poet uses the hero Odysseus, the sufferer par excellence, as a figure to identify with. In order to overturn the common opinion that the comparison between the sufferings of these figures is meant to convey comedy, Feddern convincingly demonstrates that Ovid’s descriptions are not fiction but rather, and despite some exaggerations, an expression of his deep sorrow. Loneliness also characterizes the desolate situation of the poet, who, unlike Odysseus, has been alone from the beginning of the exile (p. 372).

While Ovid’s suffering in exile is documented in extenso in his Tristia and letters, the emotions of the exiled emperor’s daughter Julia remain closed to us. For this reason, Krüpe, who investigates the loneliness of the emperor’s daughter, takes a different approach, by drawing heavily on her modern reception. His detailed analysis of her portrayals in modern novels and movies is a veritable tour de force. Through these depictions, Julia and her emotional suffering come alive.

The volume concludes with a chapter by Nadine Metzger, who provides a meticulous analysis of loneliness in medical writings. Here, the desire for solitude is associated with mental illness and becomes a symptom of insanity (mania), melancholy, and misanthropy. As in Rosalia Hatzilambrou’s exploration of social withdrawal in classical Athens, human flight from society has the potential here to be defamatory. Refusal to be a zoon politikon, meaning not to be part of the community, leads to the questioning of an individual’s mental faculties.

There are a few typographical errors and inconsistencies in the volume, but these do not seriously undermine the work. Taken as a whole, the volume opens up a new area of study in the classics and is a major and valuable contribution to the study of emotions. It shows that loneliness was an essential part of the human experience in antiquity. It also serves as an important reminder of the importance in ancient societies of social integration and active participation in the community. In this value system people who withdrew from society were treated as lawless or mentally ill, rendering them outsiders and objects of hatred. The benefits of social integration on the one hand and the risks of exclusion on the other made loneliness more the exception than the rule. Aside from these observations, many contributions also explore the psychological effects of loneliness and isolation, including its relationship to mental disorders. In summa: the many facets of loneliness and solitude revealed by this volume demonstrate the subject’s great potential in classical scholarship. Hopefully, therefore, it will inspire readers to carry out further study.

Authors and titles

Introduction: When a Man Is an Island: Introductory Remarks on Being Alone in Antiquity, Rafał Matuszewski
“Are you lonesome tonight?” Nocturnal Solitude in Greek Culture, Angelos Chaniotis
Forms of Solitude and Isolation in the Face of Death in Ancient Greece, Karolina Sekita
Solitude, société et politique à Sparte, Aurélie Damet
Elite Solitude, Slavery, and Social Privilege at the Imperial Roman Villa, Darrel Janzen
O.Frange 773 as a Micro-Discourse on a Solitary Life in Western Thebes, Przemysław Piwowarczyk
Einsamkeit und Misanthropie des Weisen: Die Gestalt des Meeresgottes Proteus in Mythos und klassischer Literatur (Homer, Vergil, Ovid), Francesca Boldrer
Timon der Misanthrop, social distancing und die Gesellschaft Athens im 5. Jh. v.Chr., Herbert Graßl
Being Unsociable in Classical Athens: A Very Bad Attitude Indeed, Rosalia Hatzilambrou
Dionysius I and the Loneliness of Power (or, The Tyrant as Cyclops), Frances Pownall
Kallisthenes of Olynthos and the Twofold Image of “Being Alone” at Alexander’s Court, Sabine Müller
A View from the Garden: Contemplative Isolation and Constructive Sociability in Lucretius and in the Epicurean Tradition, Fabio Tutrone
“Next to yourself, solitude is my best friend” (Cic. ad Att. 12.15 [252]): Cicero’s Experience of Being Alone – A Case Study, Bernadette Descharmes
The Solitude of a Lifetime in Cicero’s De Finibus 5, Andres V. Matlock
Alleinherrscher – Herrscher allein? Das Tiberiusbild in der Kaiserbiographie Suetons, Monika Frass
Fori strepitu remotus ruris otium celebravi: Paulinus von Nola balanciert zwischen Weltabgewandtheit und Teilhabe am gesellschaftlichen Diskurs, Islème Sassi
Bellerophon and Akhilleus: Self Destruction and World Destruction in the Iliad, Bruce M. King
The Loneliness of a Marriage with Age Difference in Graeco-Roman Antiquity. Exploring the (Im)possibility of Writing Emotional History, Christian Laes
Das Motiv der Einsamkeit bzw. Verlassenheit in den ovidischen Heroidenbriefen, Thomas Gärtner
Zu Ovids Vergleich zwischen seinen und Odysseusʼ Leiden (trist. 1,5), Stefan Feddern
Exil, Isolation, Rufmord: Über die Einsamkeit einer Kaisertochter und ihr mediales Nachleben, Florian Krüpe
Pathologische Menschenflucht. Melancholische misanthropia in der kaiserzeitlichen und frühbyzantinischen Medizin, Nadine Metzger


[1] See Rafał Matuszewski’s bibliography in the introduction, 17-19. Additional literature that is not mentioned in the bibliography: R.J. Baker, The Threshold of Loneliness: Propertius, I, 18. In: C. Deroux (Ed.), Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History III, 1983, 126-140 (Propertius’ lamentation in solitude). On the motif of loneliness in Philoctetes by Sophocles: S. Kaiser, Philoktet auf Lemnos. Das Motiv der Einsamkeit bei Sophokles, André Gide und Oscar Mandel. In: Th. Baier/F. Schimann (Eds.), Fabrica. Studien zur antiken Literatur und ihrer Rezeption, Stuttgart 1997 11-33. Z. Ritoók, Antigones Einsamkeit, Acta archaeologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 38, 1998, 341-352. D. Drescher, Tristis eris, si solus eris. Ovids Phyllis: Zur Inszenierung von Einsamkeit bei Ovid (rem. 570 – 608; her. 2) sowie Vergil (ecl. 2) und Properz (I, 18). In: D. Bormann /F. Wittchow (Eds.), Emotionalität in der Antike. Zwischen Performativität und Diskursivität. Festschrift für Johannes Christes dargebracht von Freunden und Kollegen, Berlin 2008, 77-108. J. Vogt, Synesios im Glück der ländlichen Einsamkeit. Museum Helveticum 28, 1971, 98-108.