Hurt Me Too Deep: Millennia of ‘Marriage Story’

“What is love? Baby don’t hurt me…”

– Haddaway

Watching Marriage Story, I could not help but be reminded of that other, similarly-titled film with a narrow focus on the evolution of a relationship, Love Story. While the ending of Marriage Story is, in the strictest sense of the term, more tragic, I found myself far more devastated by the ending of Love Story, if for no reason than the fact that the inexorable workings of fate can still produce outcomes which are far more heartbreaking than the ways in which humans casually but steadily ruin their own lives.

A part of the dramatic backdrop for the relationship between Charlie and Nicole is their joint development of a modern adaptation of Electra, which is slated to move to Broadway as the couple begin their separation, with Nicole moving out to L.A. to resume her pursuit of a screen acting career. Electra serves as a potent precursor to the dramatic fallout between Charlie and Nicole, given that Electra (along with her brother Orestes) avenge their father Agamemnon’s murder at the hands of their mother, Clytemnestra. There, too, a once (apparently?) happy couple had been driven apart by distance and bad decisions on the part of a husband. While Nicole claims throughout the movie that Charlie had neglected her emotionally because he was too absorbed in his own work to take note of anyone else’s needs, so too one might see Agamemnon’s violent sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia as the summit of professional self-absorption.

For a movie entirely separate from the horror genre, Marriage Story features two separate Halloweens – one near the middle of the film, and the other in the last scene. When we first see Nicole on the set of her new TV pilot, she is trying on different masks. The film is pressing us hard to see our individual characters as just that – masks or personae, mutable projections of who we are to an external audience whose love and adoration we seek. When, in the middle of the film, Henry opts to go as a ninja for Halloween rather than the Frankenstein costume which was custom made for him back in New York, he is not only asserting his nascent sense of autonomy in a new setting, but he is rejecting the persona which his father (a respected director) is offering him, one which would have him represented as the intentional creation of a mad genius.

We are inclined to think that love is a deeply genuine and authentic experience of penetrating behind the veil of fabricated social personae. America’s leading philosopher of relationships, Chris Rock, once said that marriage involved learning to love “the crust of that person.” One night stands and casual dating are dismissed as superficial lust or mere attraction, while the noun love is freighted with hefty emotional and spiritual baggage.

“Now I know what love is.”

nunc scio quid sit Amor

Vergil, Eclogues 8.43

It is, perhaps, for this reason that a contemporary reader of Roman love elegy finds it so perplexing. As a genre, elegy was built around a set of conventional tropes and expressions, many of which involved the most passionate effusions of romantic sentiment and devotion. And yet, the mistress of the Roman love elegist was either a fiction, or (if a real person), a persona or stylized version of that person placed in genre-appropriate situations and scenes. While the love poems of Catullus can on occasion appear to be sincere enough, he is not really an elegist. By the time that Ovid and Propertius are on the scene, we get the sense that they are keen enough on love, but perhaps even more keen on writing about it in novel ways. This requires not only that they fashion mistresses and fictional backdrops for their poems, but also that they contrive expressions of their own personae as lovers. Consider Propertius 1.8B as a parallel to a situation in Marriage Story. After she leaves for L.A., Charlie is eager for Nicole to return to New York, and a central point of their potential redemption as a couple in his mind is her return to this geographical center:

“Here she will be! Here she remains! Fuck the haters! We have won – she did not withstand our constant prayers.”

Hic erit! hic iurata manet! rumpantur iniqui!

    vicimus: assiduas non tulit illa preces.

Despite Charlie’s initial hope that their romance can be renewed, and later his hope that he can at least give his son Henry a New York life, the geographical decentering of his life in New York into a far-flung and sprawling L.A. existence serves as a metaphor for the gradual dissolution of his family’s bonds.

2020 golden globe nominations

While much of the love talk from poetic personae among the Roman poets may seem to us somewhat disingenuous (playing upon such grave emotion for artistic effect), Marriage Story presents us with a romance shot through the filter of hyperrealism. The film’s most believable and affecting scene begins as an attempt at reconciliation between Charlie and Nicole, who have realized that the lawyers involved in the process of divorce have complicated matters substantially. A series of small misunderstandings and frustrations lead this conversation into their most heated argument in the whole movie:

Nicole: You’re so merged with your own selfishness, you don’t even identify it as selfishness anymore! You’re such a dick!

Charlie: Every day I wake up and I hope you’re dead! Dead, like if I could guarantee Henry would be okay, I’d hope you’d get an illness, and then get hit by a car and die! Oh, God! I’m sorry.

Nicole: Me too.

One of the hardest parts of watching Marriage Story is trying to convince yourself that Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver were ever a happy couple. But if you can suspend this initial disbelief, the movie is so captivating because it is so real, and this particular argument was one of the most believable lovers’ quarrels on film, because it ended not with violence or with one party storming away, but with an utterly pathetic Charlie on his knees, apologizing for the winged words which just escaped the bulwark of his teeth. Love, like death, wounds us so deeply because we cannot really understand it.

For the film starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, Jade  Healy used the couple's apartments to signify their breakup.

Old Sinatra sings,

Love and marriage, love and marriage

They go together like a horse and carriage

This I’ll tell you brother

You can’t have one without the other

We know, of course, that this is the kind of facile codswollop that people love in popular music, but it is manifestly untrue to experience, unless one takes the metaphor to suggest that love (the horse) is yoked to the institution of marriage (the carriage) until it has been so thoroughly worn out by dragging it that it collapses and dies. To be sure, I know some people whose marriages still seem imbued with a spirit of love and romance, but I know just as many who have settled into a kind of loveless cohabitation with the other parent of their child. (A friend of mine once said bluntly, “We definitely don’t love each other anymore – he’s kind of a jerk – but we’re like roommates with kids, and divorce is expensive.” Indeed, though the internet has managed to distort the narrative into some kind of Charlie vs. Nicole prize fight, it seems clear that the only villain in the story is the teeming mass of swamp monsters that make up the legal profession.)

Love is something which simply happens to you, but marriage is a project which must be made to work. English novels in the 19th century were wholly absorbed with the theme of marriage, yet somehow managed never to get around the central paradox of the marriage plot: all of the older married couples were insufferably meddling and obviously miserable, yet the highest happiness is held out to the young prospective couple if only they can get married. Why do we never see the central young couple of the 19th century grow to hate each other? Because the novel always ends when they get married! George Eliot reversed this trope in Middlemarch, with a conscious intention to write a story which begins, rather than ends, with the heroine’s marriage. This marriage, which begins as a wholly loveless but idealistic (for Dorothea) and practical (for Casaubon) business produces nothing but misery for the young Dorothea. But, as Aeschylus says, learning from suffering and all that, eh? Dorothea comes into her own as an unhappy bride, and then later as a widow. Only at the end of the book does she manage to fuse the concepts of love and marriage when she is betrothed to Will Ladislaw. (Of course, we never know how that goes in the end.) Moreover, despite its ostensible simplicity, Marriage Story is a rather complicated title, because the movie is not about marriage so much as divorce, i.e. the end of a marriage. Whereas most marriage-driven narratives work us toward the point of marriage as a goal of life, Marriage Story explores lives which have moved beyond marriage as something left behind.

Love is one of the oldest and most well-trodden paths in our literature, but no amount of analysis will ever resolve its mysteries. Marriage Story takes up in medias res, and presents us with a muddling mess of a life shared between two people who still love each other in some way. So much of our narrative focuses on the inception of love that Marriage Story can hold our attention almost by default, as something of a novelty – how often do you see such a genuine and honest movie about divorce? There is no real resolution in the end – just a final shot of a former couple who have begun to adjust to a different kind of relationship. Charlie and Nicole may not be Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, but they join the ranks of countless couples before them, whose lives outstripped their loves.

Murder of Agamemnon, Pierre-Narcisse Guérin

“Was never true love loved in vain,
For truest love is highest gain.
No art can make it: it must spring
Where elements are fostering.
So in heaven’s spot and hour
Springs the little native flower,
Downward root and upward eye,
Shapen by the earth and sky.”

-George Eliot, Middlemarch

From Odysseus to Lindsey Graham: Apologetics for Despotism

Ye gods, what havoc does ambition make among your works!

Joseph Addison, Cato 1.1

As news reports make clear that the grim specter of despotism has begun to prevail all the world over, it may be a salutary exercise to remember that tyrannical abuse of authority is enshrined and even championed in some of our oldest literature. In the Iliad, when Agamemnon makes a trial of the Achaeans under his command, he finds that – contrary to his expectation – all are eager to abandon the field and head home after years of fruitless war. (Perhaps the Trojan War can be viewed as a precursor of America’s foreign adventures – military quagmires waged for dubious motivation, entailing that unpalatable combination of wholesale slaughter and crime at which humanity seems to excel.)

Odysseus rallies round and attempts to stop the men by doubling down on this cheerfully antidemocratic sentiment:

Let there be one ruler, one king…

…εἷς κοίρανος ἔστω, εἷς βασιλεύς… [Iliad 2.204-5]

Perhaps we ought to be more surprised that the men are recalled to their martial project not by a speech calling for common effort or reminding them of the chance for personal emolument which may follow a successful siege, but a miniature disquisition on their personal inferiority to the king. Thersites is meant to be a reviled character, and Homer paints an unflattering portrait of him, but he is the only one to advocate for what a dispassionate observer of the facts might call common sense.

After pointing out that Agamemnon has already appointed to himself a hefty share of plunder and captive women, he notes that Agamemnon had erred in affronting Achilles, who was a better man than himself. Thersites urges the men to return home and let Agamemnon finish the war on his own, when Odysseus strikes him. This violence inflicted upon their champion actually instills a sense of delight in the men for whose benefit Thersites had just advocated.

This acceptance of personal despotism may strike the attentive reader as unrealistic, but it is easy for to be idly carried away by this propaganda, and Odysseus’ soundbite formulation, “Let there be one ruler,” has the sort of captivating quality which all propagandistic sloganeering is meant to. “Drill Here. Drill Now. Pay Less.” has such a harshly commonsensical sound about it that all more prudent alternatives are gracefully elided by its elegant tricolonic balance of six syllables.* Sideshow Bob, in a Simpsons episode in which he steals the mayoral election, explains why the citizens of Springfield need him:

Your guilty conscience may force you to vote Democratic, but deep down inside, you secretly long for a cold-hearted Republican to lower taxes, brutalize criminals, and rule you like a king.

Many (I am among them) have expressed surprise that so many Republicans have abased themselves to such a shocking degree for a man who seems so patently unworthy of it. The subtext of this is of course that we could, though still appalled, understand the fervor to defend him if he were more intelligent, more charming, less loathsome and vile. Yet this seems to miss the point that loathsome and vile is what Republicans have been shilling for over the past several decades. Who are the mainstream figureheads of their public outreach? Hannity, O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh. They are loud, obnoxious, and perfectly content to advertise their stupidity as a kind of common-man credential. Roger Ailes developed the Fox News model with the specific intention, not of vying with CNN for straightforward news coverage, but of appealing to an audience who would find ready comfort in propaganda already prepackaged for their prejudices.

After Romney’s defeat in 2012, the Republican party reportedly did some strategizing, and decided that they may need to jettison racism, misogyny, and other forms of unregenerate barbarism in order to win elections. Four years later, Trump offered a kind of catharsis for real Republican values, and became so beloved because, like so many reality stars and social media figures before him, he showed that it’s okay – nay, even profitable – to be a vile piece of shit. Trump ungirded the belt of restraint imposed by the fastidious managerial class of Republicans (like William F. Buckley, Romney, etc.), and urged Republicans to stop sucking it in, to let the fatty accretion of 19th century prejudice hang free.

Image result for rush limbaugh
If only yesterday were farther away.

In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon explains that Commodus was killed by his domestics once they had reason to fear his violence. Commodus was succeeded by Pertinax:

Such an uniform conduct had already secured to Pertinax the noblest reward of a sovereign, the love and esteem of his people. Those who remembered the virtues of Marcus were happy to contemplate in their new emperor the features of that bright original; and flattered themselves that they should long enjoy the benign influence of his administration. A hasty zeal to reform the corrupted state, accompanied with less prudence than might have been expected from the years and experience of Pertinax, proved fatal to himself and to his country. His honest indiscretion united against him the servile crowd, who found their private benefit in the public disorders, and who preferred the favour of a tyrant to the inexorable equality of the laws.

Chafing under the virtuous discipline of Pertinax, and missing the vicious and licentious indulgence of Commodus, the praetorian guards murdered Pertinax in turn and literally sold the office of emperor to Didius Julianus. In much the same way, the Republican base, molded by years of racist, misogynist, and crackpot ranting, was eager to throw off the oppressive yoke of feigned civility, and return to the gilded age of honest and forthright evil.

Having lived my entire life in the south (Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee), I remember friends’ dads who were still ardent enthusiasts for the Confederacy, the “lost cause”. Of course, this was peppered with the sort of apologetics (developed during Reconstruction) which insisted that the Civil War was a conflict about states’ rights. Though we may lament the “rise” in white supremacy, I suspect that the old Pertinacious restraint has simply been removed, and that these guys are just happy that Trump allows them to be honest (a privilege which he rarely affords himself). That is, we have experienced, not a rise in racism, but simply a revelation of it.

The narrative of the “lost cause” is central to the current crisis. Much has been made of the kompromat which may have induced certain once reluctant Republicans (like Lindsey Graham) to lodge their lips on the Trumpian sphincter, and there may be something to that notion. Yet the simplest explanation is that they are simply engaged in the bald and unapologetic pursuit of power. One may modify Samuel Johnson:

Greek, sir, is like lace despotic power; every man gets as much of it as he can.

Any sensible and cynical power broker could easily see that the base won’t go away, even if Trump does. They have become unshakeable in their faith, and regard him as something close to a savior. (Lest this seem exaggerated, just watch Rick Perry talk about him as God’s Chosen One, or look up the videos of the Trumpians saying that they would pick Trump over Jesus.) One day he will be gone. But the damage won’t. His ideas won’t. His base won’t. And what began as but a recrudescence of infantile barbarism will be revealed as one of the dominant forces in our politics for some time to come. Trump himself will be “the lost cause.” Whether he is impeached or voted out, he will always be a martyr to his acolytes. Every time his swamp monsters abase themselves in public, they are simply auditioning for the role of St. Peter to Trump’s Christ. Trump revealed that what had begun as a base loosely organized around talk radio and cable news talking points could be transformed into an intensely loyal hive mind ready to give obeisance to one person.

It may be time to consider altogether abandoning executive power as a governing instrument. Even Agamemnon was ostensibly just primus inter pares, serving as something like a president of the Trojan expedition (seeing that the other kings did not owe him hereditary fealty or anything of the sort). Yet, his wanton abuse of power in his conflict with Achilles lay at the root of the suffering in the Iliad. Had all decisions been made by a council of equals rather than an irresponsible executive, it is likely that the conflict would not have led to Achilles’ withdrawal. Yet, Agamemnon’s position as executive meant that he stood as a metonym for the war effort itself, and so Achilles justified renouncing what was at root a communal and cooperative endeavor because he could not brook the insolence of the man presiding over it. (It is moreover clear that the problem was not simply the intransigence of the two men, but the wanton abuse of power on Agamemnon’s part.)

Much of our popular entertainment is devoted to the pursuit of power in the hands of one person. Audiences who wasted the better part of a decade on Game of Thrones were eager to see who would finally sit on the Iron Throne, despite the fact that the internal logic established by the narrative itself showed a.) that it actually didn’t matter to practically everyone in Westeros who sat on the throne, and b.) that there is no finality implied by that first sedentary moment upon the throne, since several rulers were killed off in the course of the series. Amidst all of the other interesting narratives, we really just wanted to know who would seize power – the very possession of it has the power to enchant us.

Similarly, our contests for president have resulted in a twisted political system which rewards organizing, not around an idea, but around a person, and regarding that person as the captain or figurehead of the team. This was true even during the Clinton years, when Democrats mounted a defense of a man who really didn’t need or warrant defending simply because he was the boss.

Of course, the presidency, like all of the basic elements of our government, was a contrivance of the founders, some of whom floated the idea that it (along with senate seats) should be a lifetime appointment. It was intentionally designed to be limited to a small elite (indeed, so petty were many of the founding generation, the requirement that a candidate be a citizen born within the U.S. was designed to exclude Alexander Hamilton from ever attaining the office) and was not intended to be a democratically elected office.

It was a bad idea then, and it is a bad idea now, especially given the size of the population governed by this one person, and the immense power which they have at their disposal. No individual, irresponsible to the will of the nation, should be trusted with such power, especially as it has apparently become the operative norm that no president can be held accountable for any crime. What is this but semi-elective, short term despotism? Indeed, a recent Pew Research poll suggests that Republicans in particular have become more keen on eliminating the system of checks and balances altogether, granting presidents more absolute and unrestrained power in order to “address the country’s problems.” Naturally, this is because they think that their man (and by extension, their team or even they) will be the conductor of the old tyranny train as it takes off from despotism depot.


Naturally, like most critics, I have no useful schemes to suggest as alternatives, if for no other reason than that I suspect that the human drive for individual power is too deeply entrenched to allow for such a radical shift in political organization. In America, the popular will has repeatedly been thwarted by design. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the founders had something of a fond partiality for classical learning and exempla. Although Classics department websites may tout knowledge of Greek as some introduction to “the civilization that invented democracy,” one would be hard pressed to find a literature as virulently anti-democratic as the classics. And to think, it all started with Odysseus’ assault on Thersites. Maybe it is time to reconsider Thersites as the true tragic hero of the Iliad – the one man who, in arguing that the common soldier’s subservience to Agamemnon primarily benefited Agamemnon, could have saved countless lives had his counsel prevailed. In this light, maybe Odysseus deserved another ten years of suffering. I only fear that we can expect at least as many for ourselves.

What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? (Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, 5.1)

Image result for george washington as a king
As Augustus knew, despotic power is most effective when disguised as republican government.
*I confess that this is Joel’s favorite example, and I have used it here as a tribute to his sagacity in analyzing political rhetoric.

From The Iliad to The Irishman

The Irishman is in many ways Scorsese’s saddest film. Its central tragic conflict centers on people who, while engaged in violent and heady power struggles throughout their lives, prove wholly incapable of managing basic human relationships and living through the utter ordinariness of life.

Scorsese lays the blame for Hoffa’s downfall upon his haughty and insolent behavior in and immediately following his jail sentence. His poorly disguised disdain for his fellow prisoner Tony Pro escalates when they have both finished their sentences, and Hoffa asks Tony for support in his attempt to regain control of the union:

Tony: He said he’ll take care of it, no questions asked. You wouldn’t do that but he will. I meant the other thing.

Hoffa: What other thing?

Tony: You know.

Hoffa: I don’t know.

Tony: Your apology.

Hoffa: My apology? My apology for what?

Tony: For what you said when you were sitting there eating your ice cream like some fucking king.

Hoffa’s inability to strike a conciliatory tone mirrors the attitudes of both Agamemnon and Achilles in their quarrel at the beginning of the Iliad. Unable to make even slight conciliatory gestures to the opposite party, each of these characters brings ruin upon himself when a simple ‘sorry’ would have yielded dividends. As narrator, Frank points to Hoffa’s time in jail as the beginning of everything falling apart.

Tragedy is the result of individual choices, but in some ways the saddest part of life is the inexorable fate which awaits us all, brought on by the ravages of time. I felt genuinely sad watching Joe Pesci’s hands shake as he denied that he was able to eat bread any more due to his advanced age and failing health. He was introduced and maintained his presence throughout the film as one of its most powerful operators, but he was rendered wholly unable to eat the bread and wine which he and Frank had bonded over during their first shared meal. While this may be a mechanism for heightening the pathos and hinting that Russell, unable to eat the bread, is thus separated from the possibility of communion and redemption, it also strongly suggests the spirit underlying Tennyson’s Ulysses when he says

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are.

In his final scene, Russell says that he is going to church and tells Frank not to laugh. How far degraded from the power broker he once was. Frank, however, has the misfortune to survive his time in jail and struggle to adapt to a dull and ordinary life, spurned by his daughters, and abandoned to the care of the nursing home.

The inability to return to a boring life of plain domesticity is characteristic both of the tragic figures drawn from the Trojan cycle who return home, as well as of the criminal figures whom Scorsese so often profiles. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill tells us, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” By the end of the movie, Henry is no longer a gangster, but a washed up loser and a rat. Similarly, in The Irishman, everyone either ends up dead or, like Frank, forced to reckon with the mundane tragedy of everyday existence once the high times have ended. Menelaus and Nestor seem to do well enough, but Agamemnon is murdered when he returns home, and, if any of the post-Odyssey stories hold any weight, the comforts of home actually had little to offer Odysseus.

At the close of the movie, Frank waxes Nestorian when his nurse asks about a picture of his daughter Peggy posing with Jimmy Hoffa.

Nurse: Who’s that with her?

Frank: You don’t know who that is?

Nurse: No.

Frank: Jimmy Hoffa.

Nurse: Oh, yeah.

Frank: Yeah, right, “Oh, yeah.” You don’t know who he is.

Nurse: Okay, I don’t.

Frank: Yeah. Oh, boy, you don’t know how fast time goes by until you get there.

It is fashionable to make fun of Nestor for being so sentimentally nostalgic for a lost time when men were better and more heroic, but this is the very nostalgia on which heroic poetry itself was based. Similarly, Scorsese’s films often exude a kind of wistful nostalgia, especially for the middle of the 20th century. As the narrator, Frank is well aware of the fact that people now don’t really know much or care much about Jimmy Hoffa. His comments on this score are a metapoetic conceit whereby Scorsese, who surely dove deep into Hoffa history, is able to nudge the audience slyly about his own choice of subject, while simultaneously reflecting upon the transience of time. Hoffa may have been a minor king in his own day, but time and folly robbed him of his power and his fame, as he has now been abandoned to the curio cabinet of history.

To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may

not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander,

till he find it stopping a bung-hole? (Hamlet 5.1)

Many of the other power players and potentates who appear throughout the film appear with captions below them at their first appearance, providing information on their date and manner of death. These have the effect of cinematic footnotes, and suggest that all of these characters are now just that – footnotes in a largely forgotten history. The movie itself is a real triple decker (at three and a half hours), and though it goes by quickly (as Frank himself suggested), one cannot help but feel that the slow burn of the film is meant to thumb the nose at fleeting time itself.

The gangsters who died in the middle of mob activity are the most Achillean of the characters, if for no other reason than in each case, an early death cut one off from the possibility of old age, drab disappointment, and lonely domesticity. Hoffa’s death is like that of Agamemnon: murdered by someone he trusted after withdrawing (or rather, being forced out) from the scene of glory. Frank, however, is something more like Odysseus: his involvement in a particular conflict had become such an integral part of his character and worldview that he was wholly unsuited for domestic personal relationships. As Alyssa Rosenberg wrote, the most important scene in Frank’s narrative arc is not killing Hoffa, but being wholly rejected by his daughter Peggy. In a subsequent scene, another of his daughters reveals to him just how entirely isolated from his family he has been for his entire life.

There is a tendency to think that tragedy occurs in the middle of great and impressive action, but a fair number of tragic figures simply cannot manage the everyday details of basic human life: being happy at home, content with enough, conceding a small piece of your vanity and apologizing to defuse a tense situation. George Eliot managed to spin an entire novel out of the tragedy and the heroism of quiet, unglamorous, everyday life. We should not be too take in by the grand setting and weighty backdrop of so many of our narratives: in the end, they’re all just about living.

“Just about anybody can face a crisis. It’s that everyday living that’s rough.” (Bing Crosby in The Country Girl, 1954)

Image result for the irishman retirement home

Piraeus, Heterotopia

Collection of the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation. Karl Baedeker’s “Greece, Handbook for Travelers”, Leipzig, 1894

I. From Omonoia to Piraeus

Aristophanes, Knights, 813-819 (sausage-seller speaks)

“Oh! citizens of Argos, do you hear what he says? You dare to compare yourself to Themistocles, who found our city half empty and left it full to overflowing, who one day gave us the Piraeus for dinner, and added fresh fish to all our usual meals. You, on the contrary, you, who compare yourself with Themistocles, have only sought to reduce our city in size, to shut it within its walls, to chant oracles to us. And Themistocles goes into exile, while you gorge yourself on the most excellent fare”

ὦ πόλις Ἄργους κλύεθ᾽ οἷα λέγει. σὺ Θεμιστοκλεῖ ἀντιφερίζεις;
ὃς ἐποίησεν τὴν πόλιν ἡμῶν μεστὴν εὑρὼν ἐπιχειλῆ,
καὶ πρὸς τούτοις ἀριστώσῃ τὸν Πειραιᾶ προσέμαξεν,
ἀφελών τ᾽ οὐδὲν τῶν ἀρχαίων ἰχθῦς καινοὺς παρέθηκεν:
σὺ δ᾽ Ἀθηναίους ἐζήτησας μικροπολίτας ἀποφῆναι
διατειχίζων καὶ χρησμῳδῶν, ὁ Θεμιστοκλεῖ ἀντιφερίζων.
κἀκεῖνος μὲν φεύγει τὴν γῆν σὺ δ᾽ Ἀχιλλείων ἀπομάττει.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.93.3-5

“Themistocles likewise persuaded them to build up the rest of Piraeus, for it was begun in the year that he himself was archon of Athens, because he conceived the place both beautiful, in that it had three natural havens, and, also that, since the Athenians were now seamen, it would very much advance the enlargement of their power. For he was indeed the first man that dared tell them that they ought to take upon them the command of the sea, and then immediately helped them in the obtaining it. By his counsel also it was that they built the wall of that breadth about Piraeus which can now be seen.”

ἔπεισε δὲ καὶ τοῦ Πειραιῶς τὰ λοιπὰ ὁ Θεμιστοκλῆς οἰκοδομεῖν(ὑπῆρκτο δ᾽ αὐτοῦ πρότερον ἐπὶ τῆς ἐκείνου ἀρχῆς ἧς κατ᾽ ἐνιαυτὸν Ἀθηναίοις ἦρξε)νομίζων τό τε χωρίον καλὸν εἶναι, λιμένας ἔχον τρεῖς αὐτοφυεῖς, καὶ αὐτοὺς ναυτικοὺς γεγενημένους μέγα προφέρειν ἐς τὸ κτήσασθαι δύναμιν(τῆς γὰρ δὴ θαλάσσης πρῶτος ἐτόλμησεν εἰπεῖν ὡς ἀνθεκτέα ἐστί), καὶ τὴν ἀρχὴν εὐθὺς ξυγκατεσκεύαζεν. Καὶ ᾠκοδόμησαν τῇ ἐκείνου γνώμῃ τὸ πάχος τοῦ τείχους ὅπερ νῦν ἔτι δῆλόν ἐστι περὶ τὸν Πειραιᾶ


Piraeus Station

The journey begins at Omonoia Square, one of the most recognizable landmarks of modern Athens, built in the 19th century after the birth of the modern Greek state, and also iconic to the turbulent history of the country: Included in the initial urban plan of Athens (1833), it’s been renamed many times, as many as it has been renovated, rebuilt, destroyed and remade. A witness to the city’s modernization, once the site of the neoclassical architecture that has characterized central Athens (the body politic’s desire to mimic a grandiose past), it was once regarded as an icon of multiculturalism, in the same way that it is now despised for the same reason.

The rather derelict area is now traditionally known as a gray area for foreign workers, low cost retail (and drugs) and most recently, a site of contestation of European identities with the refugee tents going up in the area, making inescapably visible the plight of human rights and the failure of international law to protect those who need it most. As the square watched the refugees of the Asia Minor arrive in Athens from the port of Piraeus to rebuild their lives in Greece, it has now watched refugees from imperialist wars in the Middle East flock into Europe, but with little hope to rebuild anything.

Yet this image of Omonoia Square with the tents (just a stone’s throw from the Greek parliament), has a tendency to fade quickly. In a kind of white flight that saw the wealthy abandon the city center as it became progressively impoverished—a situation that paradoxically gave it its multicultural character. But a recent change of government has put forward plans for the reclamation of the city center by investor capital. Will the square be cleaned from its intangible history of migrations?

It remains to be seen. But it is significant that here we begin the journey towards “Piraeus/Heterotopia”, a participatory theater project by Japanese artist Akira Takayama that took place in 2017 (as a part of the Fast Forward Festival, organized by the Onassis Cultural Center), and is now dormant but latent since I was able to “awaken” it, during a visit to Athens in May. The project consists basically of an unusual walking tour of the port area, armed with a smartphone app and a map, with several stops selected based on the hidden (or at least not apparent right now) history of the area, unlocking a speculative oral history: At every stop, visitors listen to a story (it’s necessary to reach the spot physically to unlock the sound audio in the app) written by commissioned writers from different countries.

Akira Takayama, Piraeus / Heterotopia, Fast Forward Festival 4, Onassis Cultural Center

The story being told ‘might’ have happened there, and it’s written based on detail research of the history and possible connotations associated with the specific spot. Here we introduce the idea of a para-fiction: It’s both true and fictional. Starting with Ancient Greece, all the way to the current refugee crisis and the Asia Minor catastrophe in between, “Heterotopia” highlights the important role of this area as a space of transition, overturning the current European idea of migration from a state of exception, to an essential aspect of human history.

This “strange land”, is for Takayama an ‘heterotopia’ following from Foucault’s use of the term, as a space of otherness that is larger than the sum of its parts. The urban and economic history of modern Athens has been nothing but strange combination of randomness and neglect, so that the port with its privileged location stands far beyond the metropolitan heart of Athens (centered around the Acropolis), and is not necessarily part of the self-image of Athens today, but it reappears in this project as an epicenter of mobility and demographic change. In what follows, I will stay loyal to the spirit of the project, leaving the oral stories alone, for they need to be experienced in person (the app is still functional and it is possible to do the walking tour).

I will focus on a few spots in the project, attempting to unmask the presence of the past – classical and otherwise, and make it present. At a time of infinite powerlessness before our current condition, with the global erosion of the liberal democratic project, these places of ‘otherness’, at the borders of European capitals (and particularly for Athens, an alleged monument to the Western tradition), remind us of the porousness of history, and therefore, of the tragic but nonetheless pluralistic experiences that have shaped the birth of modern polities.

The arrival in Piraeus is a continuation of the fragile multiculturalism of Omonoia (something that truly stands out in a country like Greece, built along the lines of 19th century ethno-states and largely self-identifying as white, by association with the classical past of Europe), with wares being sold in many languages and crowds of tourists rushing to catch the ferries to the Greek islands. As we know from ancient writers, particularly Thucydides, Piraeus was developed in the 5th century BCE under the statesman Themistocles, who in 493 BCE initiated the works of a fort in Piraeus, and in 483 BCE, the Athenian fleet left their order port in Phaleron, and relocated to Piraeus, a move that would be decisive in the battle of Salamis.

Phaleron, the old harbor, now the district of Palaio Faliro, is also the site of fascinating history: One of the most important archaeological findings of recent years was the mass grave in Faliro Delta, furnishing valuable information—and many new questions—about a rather obscure period of Greek history, the 7th century BCE. The find was the subject of another Japanese artist’s work, when Hikaru Fujii presented his video/performance work “The Primary Fact”, once again at the Onassis Cultural Center’s Fast Forward in 2018, that I wrote about.

Hikaru Fujii, “The Primary Fact”, Fast Forward Festival 5, Onassis Cultural Center

The archaeological site was revealed during the construction of a complex for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, now housing the national library and the national opera, highlighting the hybrid situation of Greece where these long-established shipping families such as Onassis and Niarchos act as a kind of para-state; not unlike the rule of the oligarchs, mentioned by Plato in the opening portion of his “Seventh Letter”. But returning to Piraeus, its story is long and complicated: Athens and Piraeus were connected through a pathway between the two walled cities (the Themistoclean Walls were completed in 471 BCE), but it declined after being destroyed by the Romans. What follows for Piraeus is a long dormant period during Byzantine and Ottoman rule, and later revival when Athens was designated the Greek capital under Bavarian Otto I.

To what degree was the revival of Piraeus part of the European antiquarianism regarding Greece? It would be difficult to answer. The current station building goes back to 1920s, a period of intense conflict in Greece with their loss in the war against the new Turkish republic, along the way forfeiting claim to the historical Greek Smyrna, and receiving thousands of Greek refugees from the Asia Minor, reluctantly welcomed into a country still very poor and largely undeveloped. It was from Piraeus that Greek migrants left to pursue the American dream, and it was also from there that the Nazis occupied Greece.

Different generations of migrants have settled in the area temporarily before moving on (during the research for Heterotopia, Takayama and his team also spoke with refugees from Syria in the refugee camp of the Piraeus port), but postclassical history seems to capture little of the imagination in Greek historiography, where the only path to connect a grandiose classical past with the birth of the modern republic, is the silencing of everything else. In this way, Greeks both reconnect with the European tradition and lay claim to their ‘whiteness’ (opposed to the people of the former multicultural Near East), and replace complexity with a traditional nation state.

Continue below for parts 2-4

Continue reading “Piraeus, Heterotopia”

Latin Hell (for Halloween)

Getting to Hell is supposed to be easy. Yet, if one were to take a survey of popular culture, it seems rather a difficult task. A not insignificant part of this difficulty is the necessity of knowing Latin to get there.

At the beginning of Christopher Marlowe’s Tragedy of Dr. Faustus, we find Faustus in his study surfeited with the sorts of learning available to mere humans. Opening up books of theology, medicine, and law, he casts them aside and, having first claimed that Aristotle’s Analytics had ravished him, changes tack and says that it is magic and necromancy which occupy his soul.

Perhaps we should be more inclined to think that his famous bargain had already been struck in order to outfit him with the kind of heroic polymathy which could encompass three such disparate and apparently endless subjects. But Faustus is tired of the merely human, and decided to consult with Cornelius and Valdes, two dabblers in the demonic, about the procedure for summoning spirits from Hell. These two characters equip him with the requisite conjuring knowledge, but it is surprising that someone of such apparently limitless erudition would require help to be initiated into this art. Nevertheless, they provide him with the necessary incantatory formula, and later than night, Faustus expends a fair amount of breath on his Latin invocation of Mephistopheles:

Sint mihi dei Acherontis propitii!  Valeat numen triplex Jehovoe! Ignei, aerii, aquatani spiritus, salvete!  Orientis princeps Belzebub, inferni ardentis monarcha, et Demogorgon, propitiamus vos, ut appareat et surgat Mephistophilis, quod tumeraris: per Jehovam, Gehennam, et consecratam aquam quam nunc spargo, signumque crucis quod nunc facio, et per vota nostra, ipse nunc surgat nobis dicatus Mephistophilis!

We, in our own state of enlightenment, know that the Demogorgon invoked by Faustus is an entirely fictive deity, conjured into existence by a scribal error for demiourgon. Perhaps Faustus should not have abandoned book learning so early. But to return to the point: Mephistopheles appears after this lengthy invocation, but informs Faustus that the incantation was merely incidental to his appearance – the real trick being to abjure God and the Trinity:

     MEPHIST. That was the cause, but yet per accidens;

     For, when we hear one rack the name of God,

     Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,

     We fly, in hope to get his glorious soul;

     Nor will we come, unless he use such means

     Whereby he is in danger to be damn’d.

     Therefore the shortest cut for conjuring

     Is stoutly to abjure the Trinity,

     And pray devoutly to the prince of hell.

There is something slightly suspicious in this claim, given that Faustus first needed to seek out two known conjurers to learn the incantation, and received no visit from Mephistopheles earlier despite making clear his intentions to indulge in necromantic art at the potential price of his soul. Later, when Faustus is waiting for the return of Mephistopheles, he bids him to come, but Mephistopheles only arrives after Faustus delivers the command in Latin:

     FAUSTUS. Of wealth!

     Why, the signiory of Embden shall be mine.

     When Mephistopheles shall stand by me,

     What god can hurt thee, Faustus? thou art safe

     Cast no more doubts.—Come, Mephistopheles,

     And bring glad tidings from great Lucifer;—

     Is’t not midnight?—come, Mephistopheles,

     Veni, veni, Mephistophile!

          Enter MEPHISTOPHELES.

Given that he conversed with Faustus earlier in English, the problem cannot simply be chalked up to a linguistic barrier. Devils, demons, and spirits appear to respond far more readily to Latin invocations. Though Mephistopheles claimed that abjuring God would suffice, he yet does seem to be a stickler for the niceties of a learned language.

In the utterly execrable film, The Ninth Gate, rare book detective Bob Corso is enlisted by antiquarian and Satan enthusiast Boris Balkan to validate the authenticity of his demon summoning tome:

BALKAN: Nemo pervenit qui non legitime certaverit.

CORSO: You only succeed if you fight by the rules?

BALKAN: More or less. Ever heard of the Delomelanicon?

CORSO: Heard of it, yes. A myth, isn’t it? Some horrific book reputed to have been written by Satan himself.

BALKAN: No myth. That book existed. Torchia actually acquired it. The engravings you’re now admiring were adapted by Torchia from the Delomelanicon. They’re a form of satanic riddle. Correctly interpreted with the aid of the original text and sufficient inside information, they’re reputed to conjure up the Prince of Darkness in person.

Here we have all of the prerequisites for talking about the demonic: a little bit of Latin, a book of incantations with some fictive erudition to trace its history, and a couple of assholes engaged in dialogue which would embarrass even the most pretentious undergraduate. (Why would two people with fluent understanding of Latin would translate it to each other like they’re in an intermediate reading class?) The plot of the movie is ridiculous and in no way worth recounting, but much time and money has been spent and many lives have been lost before Corso finally has the engravings necessary for conjuring the Devil himself. But why should it be so hard?

Of all the cinematic or literary treatments of soul selling, only The Simpsons has caught the true spirit of the enterprise. One day, Bart casually remarks that he would sell his soul for a Formula 1 race car, at which point the Devil appears and tells him that it can be arranged. That’s it. No book hunting, no incantations, no experts on demonology, and most importantly no Latin.

We are reliably informed that the Devil is preeminently concerned with enlarging his kingdom as much as possible by ensnaring souls to drag to Hell. Indeed, in certain lines of Christian thought, going to Hell is for all practical purposes the default fate for most of humanity. And so, it strikes me as peculiar that admission to Hell is guarded by something resembling an entrance exam to an elite college in the 19th century: the formulaic repetition of recondite knowledge couched in a learned language. Surely, the Devil is multilingual, or at least has a translation team at hand. Indeed, if the plan were to ensnare souls, one would expect that there would have been a shift away from official demoniacal use of Latin to guarantee broader and more democratic access to eternal damnation. Maybe Satan should have taken a cue from Vatican II.

As it stands, there are still firm believers in Latin both on this earth and below. Consider this little bit of pompously introspective douchebaggery from The National Catholic Register:

I felt like a bit of a fraud that day. Any idiot can pray in their native tongue. And given the panoply of televangelists, it seems like many idiots do. Moreover: our Church HAS an official language: Latin—hence the term, “The Latin Church.”


“Well, so what?” a reader might well ask. Well, for one thing: it takes effort to pray the Office in Latin. The pre-Vatican II Liturgical Hours are all longer than the post-Vatican II vernacular version (and there are more of them), so more time is spent in prayer.

Plus, I think God appreciates effort. […]

I am no more conversant in Latin today than I was the first day I picked up the Latin-English Little Office. However, I am convinced that the Devil, whom we are constantly being told does not exist, must truly hate anyone who, with a sincere heart and extra effort, prays in the official language of the Church—a language which traces itself back to the great Fathers of The Church and their inestimable writings. For that matter, I’m pretty confident that the Devil hates prayer in language of any sort, but I like to think Latin drives him absolutely crazy—and keeps him away.

Well buddy, I have some bad news for you: it seems that the Devil appreciates the extra effort, too. All of the Latin one learns for hymnals and the Vulgate is really just jeopardizing young souls who could easily turn conjugations in to conjurations. Worse still, they could then read all of the smutty parts in Ovid. Perhaps we ought to counsel an abstinence-only educational approach to ancient languages. Indeed, if its effectiveness for sexual education is a reliable indicator, we may still be able to save most university Classics programs by letting high school students know that the only way to safely avoid bodily and spiritual damnation is to avoid studying Latin. This has the inestimable benefit of not even being a lie.

Latin’s association with both the liturgical and the demoniacal is likely too firmly rooted now ever to be shaken, and I suspect that as Latin recedes farther and farther both from public life and from general educational accessibility, its association with the dark arts will likely become stronger. When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin for his Vulgate edition, Latin was still a living, vital, spoken language. Consequently, there was no sense at the time that Latin was the particular language of the Devil and his dark arts. Indeed, it is only after Latin ceased to be a language for daily speech and began to be used only among ecclesiastics and other highly learned functionaries that it took on its associations as especially apt for liturgy, exorcism, and conjuration. The farther Latin recedes into dusty obscurity among the archives of arcana, the more potent its current cultural associations will become. For those of us who have taken the time to master it, we can take comfort in the fact that we have earned ourselves a special spot in Hell.

The Shame of Mock Slave Auctions in Secondary Classics

Dani Bostick teaches high school Latin and an occasional micro-section of ancient Greek in a Virginia public school. She has published several collections of Latin mottoes online and has a strong presence as an activist for survivors of sexual violence on Twitter.

The Junior Classical League purports to foster interest in the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome and is one of the largest academic clubs in the world with 50,000 members and 1,200 chapters. For the last six decades, JCL has also supported mock slave auctions as a source of entertainment. Humor derived from dehumanization and degradation have no place in our society, especially given our country’s shameful history of enslavement and other forms of systemic racism.

My essay should end here. Ideally, the notion of mock slave auctions in an organization sponsored by the American Classical League should prompt outrage, activism, and sustained action. Too often, though, this kind of racism is tolerated and normalized by those both inside and outside of secondary classics. Latin teachers and other stakeholders, even those who purport to care about social justice, often protect the field over individuals marginalized and harmed by patterns of racism and hostility in secondary Latin. 

We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the state of secondary Classics. We are in dire need of reform.

The Junior Classical League is a space so insulated from the realities of racism that slave auctions have been a common source of entertainment and fun for decades. In 2016, a story about a mock slave auction went viral after black audience members were subjected to this racist spectacle at an Illinois Junior Classical League convention. In a demonstrably deceitful response, the National Junior Classical League and the American Classical League claimed they “regret to hear of the incident” and that “this incident in no way reflects the values we have as an organization.” 

The Junior Classical League did not “hear of the incident,” they have organized, promoted and sponsored similar events for the better part of a century. In the 1950s, a teacher wrote in Classical Outlook, “One boy bought a pretty girl just to have her following him around… The club has been asked to repeat the auction in assembly before the whole school.” 


Slave auctions continue in the Junior Classical League, often sanitized with the branding “Rent-a-Roman.” The 2011-2012 National Junior Classical League scrapbook contains a picture of a “slave” posing with her “master at the annual Rent-a-Roman.” In 2012, an event affiliated with the California Junior Classical League included this description: “You can offer yourself up for sale or bid on the merchandise to purchase a companion/ money-servant for the rest of the lunch hour.” In 2014, a write up in the newsletter of the Classical Association of the Midwest and South include a teacher touting activities that included a “master/slave program.” The 2017 California Junior Classical League constitution included a reference to slave auctions as a fundraising opportunity: “Should a slave auction be held at the state convention, the money acquired shall go to the state scholarship fund.” In 2018, the Pennsylvania Junior Classical League newsletter contained a report on a Saturnalia event where club leaders are “auctioned off to serve as ‘slaves’ for the night… these individuals will be ordered around by their new masters to fetch food, sing, dance, and entertain.”

Mock slave auctions are just one example of a much larger, pervasive problem in secondary Classics that includes trivializing slavery and turning oppression, and the oppressed, into a source of humor. In 2017, Erik Robinson documented problematic portrayals of slavery in secondary text books. The National Latin Exam, which over 140,000 students take, is notorious for their regressive treatment of slavery and other forms of oppression (e.g. sexual assault). There are too many examples to list here, but one recent question echoed the racist myth of the loyal slave. Loyalty is predicated on autonomy and feelings of allegiance, which mitigates the culpability of enslavers and misrepresents the realities of slavery. 

loyal slave

It is beyond the scope of this article to explain why slave auctions are racist and how this kind of humor, even in the context of ancient Rome, supports the messaging and strategies of white supremacy groups. Suffice it to say, these kinds of events are unethical and harmful. Recently, the New York attorney general’s office investigated a school for holding a slave auction, finding “that the teacher’s re-enactments in the two classes had a profoundly negative effect on all of the students present — especially the African American students — and the school community at large.” A student who witnessed the Illinois JCL slave auction told the Washington Post, “Since JCL is primarily white, they are so into their, like, white privilege, I guess, that they don’t know how they can affect minorities.”

The Junior Classical League has abused its monopoly and imposed a twisted value system on its members. JCL membership appeals to students looking to build their college resumes. And, many teachers are contractually required to sponsor a chapter. Our dues should not support this kind of culture. We should not cultivate students’ interest in this distortion of Classics.

The American Classical League has hired a diversity consultant, and in most of my correspondence with them, I am reminded of this fact. It is a positive step for the ACL to obtain the services of an outside expert, but a diversity consultant should be a small part of a larger strategy to eradicate racism from secondary Classics, not a standalone solution. As long as stakeholders in secondary Classics and our post-secondary colleagues protect the status quo through both action and inaction, this culture will persist and become even more toxic.

Concern for people affected by these systemic failures must trump the defense of the organization. ACL, JCL, NLE, and other affiliates exist to promote Classics. Nothing in the promotion of Classics should also include the promotion of racism and white supremacy, especially when hundreds of thousands of children are affected by the way the ACL has shaped the field. 

It is time for decisive action and commitment to change.

The co-chair of the National Latin Exam accused me in a late-night Twitter direct message of wanting a spectacle. I do not want a spectacle. (Perhaps that accusation was wishful thinking.) I want the culture of secondary Latin to stop supporting racism and narratives of white dominance.

This goal will take work, not just words. If you are interested in advocating against racism in Classics and want to know how to help, feel free to email me at 

Meanwhile, here are a few ways the American Classical League and its affiliates can begin to change the culture in secondary Classics. This list is far from exhaustive:

1)  Apologize for your role in perpetuating white supremacy and racism. Stop treating each instance of problematic content and practices as some sort of aberration. 

2)  Remove leaders and volunteers who have aggressively defended and perpetuated the status quo and who prioritize the interests and image of the organization over the well-being and safety of students.

3) Provide information to teachers about how to talk about white supremacy and dangerous appropriations of Classics. Our field has supported racist ideas and is used to legitimize hate and violence. We have a responsibility to equip students to recognize and counter these appropriations, even when they come from within our own field.

4) Remove all content immediately that is incompatible with the goal of “Classics for All” and release an accompanying statement that explains why the material was harmful. Do not legitimize offensive content and practices by engaging in a ‘both sides discussion’ and hiding behind procedure and tradition. Swift action and adherence to procedures are not mutually exclusive.

Colleagues in post-secondary Classics. Here are a few calls to action and points to consider: 

1) Find out if JCL held a mock slave auction on your campus. If so, apologize. Do not allow them on your campus. Fraternities have been suspended for holding slave auctions. It is even worse when they are held as entertainment in the context of an academic program for children. 

2) Formally condemn the practice of slave auctions and call on the Junior Classical League and, more broadly, the American Classical League, to own its uncomfortable past and repair the damage it has done through events like these and the culture they reflect. 

3) If you publish a newsletter or promote activities in secondary Latin, vet them before you provide a platform for abhorrent practices. There is no excuse for a “master/slave” activity to have been featured in a CAMWS publication (or any publication). 

4) Stay informed about what is going on in secondary Classics and hold organizations accountable for failures that affect both current students and the future of the field. 

Stolen Voices and the Specters of Domestic Violence

We are happy to have this guest-post by Idone Rhodes (bio below) reflecting on classical texts and lives lived outside of them

“Bind my hands in chains (as they merited fetters),
Until all madness departs, if any friend is present:
For madness brought thoughtless arms against my mistress;
She cries, injured by my frenzied hands.”

Adde manus in vincla meas (meruere catenas),
dum furor omnis abit, siquis amicus ades:
nam furor in dominam temeraria bracchia movit;
flet mea vaesana laesa puella manu.

Ovid’s Amores 1.7 starts out with Ovid’s apparent guilt over beating his lover. He details the “madness” that drove his “thoughtless arms” against his mistress and now proclaims that his hands “merited fetters” for the crime of passion.

As we find out later on, this behavior stemmed from his desire for sex and his lover’s unwillingness to provide that. Although readers hear Ovid apologize for this behavior straight off the bat, this first passage reeks of the poet’s trying to make himself feel better for what he did, as opposed to an actual recognition of the error behind his actions and a genuine expression of contrition. This understanding shines through particularly in his parenthetical, “(they [have] merited fetters).”

A response like this one is not uncommon in modern examples of domestic abuse. The abuser will promise to get better, to mend his ways, as a way to get back into the good graces of his partner. Moreover, he will blame his behavior on “madness” and claim that it wasn’t the “real him” doing such things. “Abusers often apologize a lot and buy gifts and make big, sweeping excuses, and promise things will be different. And maybe they mean it, or it least it feels like they mean it. Some even try to seek help for their abusive behaviors. But it’s also important to remember that apologies can be part of the manipulation cycle,” as one Bustle article by Teresa Newsome points out. By outlining his abuse and his penance in this way (articulating that he deserves to be locked up while also ascribing his crime to furor), his victim (or a victimized reader) might take his apology at face value and forgive him.


Each day she wakes up, showers, and heads downstairs to make her son breakfast. Bustling around her, other mothers do the same for their young children, who remain fast asleep in their apartments above. She rouses her son from bed, dresses him, and finishes getting ready for the day. The woman and her two-year-old walk 25 minutes to the nearest bus stop. Hopping off the bus a few stops later, she leaves her son at his daycare and heads to her GED program. At the end of the day, she picks him up, and they return home.

As in the morning, a flock of mothers swarms the kitchen at six pm, but this time children dance around them, yelling and playing. After dinner, the woman meets with her career counselor while volunteers watch her son in the play room. This is the daily the life of a survivor of domestic violence, and her son bore witness to the events that brought them to need the services of this shelter. Her story—and his—is certain to be as old as civilization.

In recent years in the United States, the conversation about domestic violence and abuse (defined by the National Domestic Violence Hotline as “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship”) has become more public, and laws have evolved—though not everywhere—to further protect victims and survivors of intimate partner violence. New York State’s Family Protection and Domestic Violence Intervention Act of 1994 finally recognized “domestic violence as a violent crime” and “protects victims of domestic violence by creating mandatory arrest policies and requirements that police responding to domestic violence complaints prepare and file incident reports.”[1]

In many states, standards have existed and still exist which require that a victim’s injuries be visible or permanent at the time of her trial in order for any case to be brought against her abuser; no bruises, no conviction, as one Atlantic article by Rachel Louise Snyder notes. Not only does this practice discount non-physical forms of abuse, such as mental or emotional manipulation, it doesn’t consider the fact that these trials often occur weeks, months, or even years after a woman has left her abusive situation.

Nonetheless, stigma around the issue (arising in large part from societal expectations about gender roles and the nuclear family) often dissuades or downright prevents victims from coming forward or leaving abusive relationships. Victims would rather endure their abuse than potentially disrupt their expected family role (as an obedient and loyal wife, for instance, or, more complicatedly, as the primary caregiver), as well as their family’s reputation in general.[2] Loveisrespect, an organization that works with young people to raise awareness for domestic violence, lists “believing abuse is normal,” “cultural/religious reasons,” and “pregnancy/parenting” as some of the deciding factors for remaining in an abusive relationship.

The normalization of violence against women is deeply ingrained in our society, and it’s become tough for women to disrupt the pretense of a “perfect” family and risk facing the perceived shame of coming forward. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men.” We all likely know people from all of our communities who have dealt with domestic abuse, but the issue is still considered so taboo that it goes undiscussed, remains hidden in the shadows.

As a volunteer and youth board member at an organization working to end domestic violence and aid those affected by it and as a student of the Classics, I found myself curious about the antiquity of domestic violence as a concept, as a part of cultural grammar. I wanted to see how ancient sources revealed the experiences of survivors, not just of physical violence, but also of psychological abuse in all its forms.

I have long turned to Classical literature when searching for a better understanding of a modern issue. For instance, when learning about democracy in the present, I look back to Ancient Greece to understand how the notion and practice of dêmokratia has evolved over time. In many ways, these stories represent a previous iteration of where and who we are now. By struggling with works from antiquity, we have the opportunity to grapple with what has changed and what needs to change between then and the present; we might see how domestic violence, rather than actually evolving out of society, has just grown into it to such a point that abuse is no longer a recognized issue.

Before I dive in, I want to add a caveat to my article. I would like to fully acknowledge that men, just like women or any other person, can and do experience domestic violence. In fact, one in nine men are reported to experience such abuse. Moreover, domestic violence impacts LGBTQ relationships as well, with the compounded factor of finding safety in communities or families that are not accepting. For example, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women have suffered “rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner,” in contrast to the 35% of heterosexual women. Ancient examples, however, almost exclusively feature female victims and male perpetrators, so that dynamic will occupy much of this discussion.

Given my interest in the civic life of Athens, which is often hailed, rightly and wrongly, as a model of American civic and political life, I figured I’d start there. While tragedy is a more obvious choice in looking for examples of violence, I’ve started with comedy, as it connects more closely with the how society can hide (from) and rationalize domestic abuse.

Lysistrata: οὐ γὰρ γρύζειν εἰᾶθ᾽ ἡμᾶς. καίτοὐκ ἠρέσκετέ γ᾽ ἡμᾶς.
For you did not allow us to mutter, and you do not appease us.

Magistrate: κἂν ᾤμωζές γ᾽, εἰ μὴ ᾽σίγας.
You would cry out in pain, unless you kept silent.

As Llewellyn-Jones points out, the reference to domestic violence is obvious in this excerpt from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, an Ancient Greek comedy giving insight into the ways women “control” Athenian politics.[3] Lysistrata illustrates that, although Athenian men do not please their wives, the wives voice no complaints about their treatment. In most circumstances, a situation like this might indicate only a dysfunctional relationship, not an abusive one; however, the use of the verb ἐάω (to allow) indicates that these women have not chosen to remain silent; they simply have no other option. The magistrate further drives home this reality with his response, where he essentially suggests that if women were to say something out of turn to their husbands, they would face some sort of physical attack. By pointing out her husband’s error, Lysistrata would undermine his authority; by speaking at all, she has challenged his masculinity by feeling she has the right to voice her mind, so he responds violently. He further perpetuates a cycle of psychological abuse by “stealing” her voice, and he attempts to gaslight her by suggesting that her prevention from speaking is actually for her own benefit! Looking back on Latin and Ancient Greek texts reveals a culture accepting of domestic violence, a situation which can be expected from a society deeply committed to patriarchy.[4]

Today silence, or lack thereof, can play a similarly integral role in domestic abuse. As much as we like to believe we’ve progressed culturally since antiquity, our understanding of gender roles has actually not much changed. A woman who is too loud or “mouthy” or open with her opinions is seen as a threat to the men around her, especially in a situation when she is seen as in danger of equaling, let alone outstripping, her husband or partner.

In short, women in abusive relationships learn to keep silent to avoid upsetting their partners in a way that might incite violence or repercussions. This cycle creates a situation in which the woman loses her autonomy (as the man becomes her mouthpiece). I have observed that some of the women I work with have found opportunities for education only after leaving their abusive homes; their partners or situations inhibited them from educating themselves, possibly as a means of keeping these women quiet and unable to speak for themselves, just like the women of Lysistrata.

Moreover, as Kristen Lewis writes in an article for the Huffington Post, “victims often have family ties to or are financially dependent on their abusers,” as was certainly the case during the time period in which Lysistrata was written.[5] The silence extends beyond the relationship as woman has nowhere to turn to for aid or assistance. Her grievances fall on deaf ears conditioned by the belief that a man has ownership over, and can therefore do whatever he wants to, his wife. Although there are many more laws now protecting victims of domestic abuse (as opposed to the nearly zero laws regarding the issue in Ancient Greece and Rome), the learned pattern of silence creates an isolation tank, out of which many do not emerge for fear that they might lose resources from their partner or face harsher violence if the partner were to find out.

With so many sources depicting so many aspects of intimate relationships in the ancient world, Classicists have the opportunity, as well as the responsibility, to detect the indications and representations of abuse in these materials; by understanding this phenomenon’s roots in the past, we can equip ourselves with a more keen and precise lens for preventing, detecting, and combating intimate partner violence in the world around us today.

Women with a mirror. Fragment of an Attic white-ground vase, ca. 480–470 BC.


My name is Idone Rhodes. I am an 18-year-old senior at Milton Academy. Feel free to contact me at

I would like to give acknowledgment and many thanks to @dreadfulprof for his guidance and editorial recommendations in the creation of this article.


[1] Nolder, Michelle J. “The Domestic Violence Dilemma: Private Action in Ancient Rome and America.” Boston University Law Review, vol. 81, 2001, pp. 1119–1147.

[2] “3. Causes and Complicating Factors.” SVAW – Domestic Violence: Explore the Issue, Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, 2003,

[3] Llewellyn-Jones, Lloyd. “Domestic Abuse And Violence Against Women In Ancient Greece.” Sociable Man, 2011, pp. 231–266., doi:10.2307/j.ctvvn9fm.16.

[4] Tuttle, Kate. “Tracing the Roots of Misogyny to Ancient Greece and Rome with Mary Beard.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 28 Dec. 2017,

[5] Kapparis, K. “Women and Family in Athenian Law.” Women and Family in Athenian Law, 22 Mar. 2003