But when he had roasted [the meat] and put it on the platters,
Patroklos took the bread and set it out on a table
in beautiful baskets, but Achilles served the meat.
Patroklos, of course, is Achilles’ closest friend and companion. He and Achilles share the duties of hospitality, and no doubt Achilles, as the official host, has the more important task of serving the meat, while Patroklos has the less honorary task of serving the bread.
In Book Twenty-four of the Iliad, Priam comes to Achilles’ hut to ask for the body of his son, Hektor, who has been killed by Achilles because he killed Patroklos. Achilles offers him the same kind of hospitality he offered to the three ambassadors:
And he roasted [the meat] carefully, and pulled it all off [the spits]
And Automedon took the bread and set it out on a table
in beautiful baskets, but Achilles served the meat.
Lines 9.216–17 and lines 24.625–26 are identical, except for the name of the person serving the bread. Patroklos clearly can’t serve the bread because he has been killed by Hektor, whose father has come to ask for his body. The substitution of the name Automedon for the name Patroklos is a stark reminder of why Priam has come to Achilles, and a reminder of what Achilles has lost because of Hektor. The substitution carries with it all the grief and anger felt by Achilles and all the implicit threat of violence that Priam faces. The change of name signifies the absence of Patroklos and the reason for his absence. These lines, I would suggest, show the power of narrative to say something without explicitly saying it.
These lines are probably formulaic; that is, they probably belong to the stock of lines the poet has available to assist in the process of oral composition by improvisation. (I don’t mean to suggest that there was a complete set of fixed lines stored in the poet’s memory— formulaic composition was flexible and varied—but that’s another discussion.) Situations or actions which are likely to be happen with some frequency were likely to accumulate formulaic expressions—sacrifice, arming, preparing a ship for sailing, and so on. Offering hospitality no doubt occurred many times in oral epic, and it’s not surprising if there were formulas to express it. One might argue that this repetition of lines from Book Nine to Book Twenty-four is simply a consequence of the formulaic technique and therefore without any particular meaning. It is perhaps hard to imagine that the audience of oral epic performance would make the connection between these two passages. It is possible that the Homeric epics were usually performed in sections on different occasions; if so, it might seem even more unlikely that the audience would note the varied repetition of these two lines.
I am not persuaded by this argument. My reading of the epics tells me that Homer—the person or the tradition we call Homer, again that’s another discussion—was a skilled and subtle poet and psychologist. The epics are full of cross-references that come to their full meaning only if we allow ourselves to grant the poet the respect due to a great artist, a great composer of verse and narrative.
Most scholars, I believe, would agree that Books One and Twenty-four of the Iliad show a remarkable pattern of correspondences. We can identify a number of events in Book One which are then repeated in reverse order in Book Twenty-four; for instance, (A) Chryses’ appeal for the return of his daughter (1.10–42) corresponds to Priam’s appeal for the return of Hektor’s body (24.471–688); (B) the conversation between Thetis and Achilles (1.351–427) corresponds to another conversation between Thetis and Achilles (24.126–58); (C) the conversation between Thetis and Zeus (1.500–530) corresponds to another conversation between Thetis and Zeus (24.100–119); and (D) the gathering of the gods at the end of Book One (1.533–611) corresponds to the gathering of the gods at the beginning of Book Twenty-four ((24.32–76). Thus events ABCD in Book One are matched by events DCBA in Book Twenty-four. If Homer expected his audience to remember the events of Book One when they heard Book Twenty-four, he could have expected them to remember Book Nine as well.
The correspondence of events at the beginning and ending of the Iliad is an instance of what is called Ring Composition. This kind of ring can create an Invitation to Compare; here, for example, we are invited to compare Agamemnon’s rude dismissal of Chryses with Achilles’ gracious, if reluctant, acceptance of Priam.
Ring composition in various forms is very common in the Homeric epics and in classical literature generally. It is also common in modern literature, but less often noted by critics. Near the beginning of Orwell’s 1984, for instance, Winston Smith sees the three failed revolutionaries (Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford) sitting at the Chestnut Tree Café; at the very end of the novel, Smith himself, broken by interrogation, is sitting at the Chestnut Tree Café. A number of specific repetitions mark the ring: “It was the lonely hour of fifteen” (77 and 287); the song “Under the spreading chestnut tree (77 and 293); the chessboard (77 and 288). This ring is clearly an invitation to compare Smith to the earlier failed revolutionaries.
Rings can come in various lengths and have various functions. Flashbacks are often marked as rings. In the Odyssey, the famous passage which explains the scar of Odysseus is a ring, marked by the repetition of the words “scar” (οὐλήν at 19.393 and 19.464) and “recognized” (ἔγνω at 19.392 and γνῶ at 19.468). This flashback, like many others, is a folding back of time on itself, and a reminder that the past leaves its mark in the present. Each ring has to be interpreted in its own context.
All of these instances of Ring Composition, and the hundreds more that it would be easy to add to the list, are examples of Saying Something Without Saying It. These meanings typically don’t translate very well into explicit propositions. A joke loses its point if it has to be explained, and literary meanings are attenuated when they are stated as explicit themes.
II. Philology: The Art of Reading Slowly
All my life I’ve been fascinated by words, by the way words form phrases and sentences, and the way sentences form poems and stories. The technical term for this fascination is philology—the love of language. Friedrich Nietzsche defined philology as the art of reading slowly. For about six months I’ve been publishing a blog titled “The Art of Reading Slowly: A Blog about Language and Literature”, in which I post little essays on philological topics that catch my fancy. Here’s the link: )https://the-art-of-reading-slowly.com.)
As I see it, philology has four major components, all of which work together. These components are (1) historical linguistics, (2) the editing of texts, (3) the interpretation of meaning in context, and (4) literary criticism with a particular attention to language. I’m interested in all of these, and I post on all of them, but my own work lies primarily in the third and fourth areas. I created this blog as an invitation for anyone who has a passion for language and literature—readers and writers of all sorts. I would like to think of it as one part of a conversation among people who share an interest in the way language works and the way it turns into art.
My own training is in classical philology, ancient Greek and Latin literature, but my blog is mostly about the English language and modern literature. Here are some titles of the blogs I’ve published: “Lost in a Book” (about the experience of reading); “Plangent, Ostiole, and Winze” (about the vocabulary of Malcolm Lowrey’s Under the Volcano); “A Heap of Words” (about the rhetorical figure called congeries); “Rhetorical Figures in Ellen Glasgow’s The Romantic Comedians”; “Philology in the Future” (about editing texts); “Etymology and Entomology” (one of several posts on historical linguistics and etymology); and most recently “Verbish Nouns and Nounish Verbs” (about the parts of speech in English).
I have no particular plan for what comes next, though I think I will continue the discussion of parts of speech for another post or two, and I’m sure I will continue to talk about rhetorical figures, but anything that catches my eye when I’m reading might start me going. Several readers have contributed fascinating comments to the blog, and I encourage conversation; I’m also open to guest columns, and I was very pleased to publish a column, “Trauma and Reading Homer”, by Joel Christensen, the author/editor of sententiae antiquae and the author of the recent book about Odysseus, The Many-Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic. If you think you might be interested in the blog, I invite you to take a look at it. Here’s the link again: https://the-art-of-reading-slowly.com.
water is best,
although gold is like fire blazing in the night:
it stands out, the most eye-catching of great-man wealth.
but if you wish to sing of the athletic games,
my dear heart, look no further than the sun for a more warming star
shining in the day through the lonely aether,
and let us not proclaim a contest greater than Olympia.
it is from there comes the famous ode encircling
the thoughts of the skillful artists
who have come to praise the son of Kronos
at the rich blessed hearth of Hieron,
the man who wields the scepter of law in sheep-rich Sicily,
plucking the best of every excellent thing,
and as such he delights in the best of music,
such as we men often play
around his welcoming table.
take the Dorian lyre from the peg
if the beauty of Pisa and Pherenicus
placed your mind under the sweetest musings
when his horse rushed along the Alpheus
giving itself to the race without need of the spur,
and it wedded victory to its master,
the horse-loving king of Syracuse!
fame shines for him in the populous colony of Lydian Pelops,
he for whom mighty Earth-bearer Poseidon lusted
when Klotho lifted him from the immaculate cauldron,
his shoulder, fitted with ivory, gleaming.
true, there are many wonders;
yet it cannot be doubted
what men say is also,
to some degree,
beyond the factual account.
stories embroidered with intricately woven falsehoods deceive.
but grace, which presents all things to mortals as pleasant,
by bestowing honor oftentimes makes even the unreliable become the trusted thing.
but, the days to come are the wisest witnesses.
it is proper for a man to speak well of the gods
as it lessens their negative judgment.
but son of Tantalus, contrary to my predecessors, I will tell you:
when your father summoned to that well-ordered feast and to dear Sipylus,
offering the gods a meal in return for theirs,
it was then that Radiant-Trident grabbed you,
overwhelmed by his soul’s desire
to carry you off on golden horses
up to the loftiest home of widely honored Zeus.
there, at a later time,
Ganymede also went to Zeus
for the same purpose.
but when you disappeared,
and the men searching hard did not fetch you to your mother,
one of the envious neighbors at once whispered
that with a knife they cut you limb from limb
into water at boil on the fire,
and around the tables,
for the last course,
they divided and ate your flesh.
impossible—for me to call any of the blessed ones gluttonous!
I will stay away from that.
privation often makes off with slanderous men.
if indeed the keepers of Olympus
honored any mortal man, it was this Tantalus.
but as he was unable to stomach his great good fortune,
for his insolence a punishment seized on the overweening man
in the form of a huge stone which his father hung over him.
always needing to swat it away from his head,
he was banished from joy.
he bore this unmanageable, ever-distressing life with its three labors—
and a fourth: for stealing from the immortals nectar and ambrosia
with which they had made him deathless,
and which he gave to his drinking companions.
if any man supposes he conceals what he’s doing from the gods,
this is why the immortals sent his son back
among the short-lived race of men again.
when nearing the age of youth’s blossoming,
the first showings of a beard covering his chin with black,
he, the son, pondered how to win marriage–
already planned by her Pisan father–
to famous Hippodameia.
drawing near the grey sea,
alone in the dark of night,
he called out to the loud-roaring Trident-Bearing One,
who then appeared, right by his foot.
he said to him: “if the beloved gifts of Cypris
end in any gratitude, Poseidon, come!
stay Oinomaos’s bronze spear;
carry me into Elis in the swiftest chariots;
and draw me close to victory.
seeing that he’s killed thirteen men (the suitors),
he’s putting off his daughter’s marriage.
the great undertaking does not possess a weak man.
but since to die is destiny for men,
why would one nurse an undistinguished old age,
idling in the shadow lacking purpose,
having no share in all that is noble?
no, this struggle will be my future.
bestow on me a pleasing success!”
thus he spoke and had not fixed on fruitless words.
indeed, honoring him,
the god bestowed a golden chariot
and untiring winged horses as well.
and so he defeated strong Oinomaos
and took the maiden as his consort.
he fathered sons striving for glory;
first in rank among men.
and now he is included in the splendid blood rites
as he reclines by the stream of the Alpheus.
his well-attended tomb is beside the altar most often visited by strangers.
the glory of Pelops shine from afar
in the racecourses of the Olympic festivals
where there are contests in swiftness of foot
and grueling efforts of strength.
for the remainder of his life the winner of the contests has sweet tranquility,
as far as games can provide.
in contrast, the highest blessing comes to all men,
all of the time in the daily course of things.
still, I’m obliged to crown that man
with the equine tune in Aeolian song.
I’m sure there isn’t some other host
experienced in noble things
and more distinguished in power (today at any rate)
to embroider in the splendid folds of hymns.
a god, being a guardian,
attends to your ambitions, Hieron.
this he has as a concern.
if, as I hope, he does not depart in a rush,
I expect to celebrate your even sweeter ambition with the swift chariot,
finding the road an ally of words as I come to the sunny hill of Kronos.
although the Muse jealously guards a most potent dart for me,
and different people are great at different things,
it is with kings the peak caps itself!
look no further.
may you walk your time on high
and may I consort with victors just as long,
far-famed for wisdom among the Hellenes everywhere.
LarryBenn as a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.
Looking at the Reception of a Greek Myth in Edith Wharton’sNovel
Edith Wharton’s second novel, The House of Mirth, was published in 1905 and portrays New York high society in America’s Gilded Age. It focuses on the beautiful Lily Bart, a woman of birth but no money, who has been brought up by her mother to value luxury and to believe that her looks will make her fortune.
The novel takes place in her 29th year, and it becomes clear early on that she has balked at the chances of great marriages that have come her way in the past and now needs to take the plunge or face sliding into a ‘dingy’ spinsterhood. She is thwarted – or perhaps saved – in this by a chance meeting with Lawrence Selden at Grand Central Station.
As the novel progresses, her slender grasp on high society fails and she ends up destitute and lonely, dying from an overdose of chloral, but with her personal integrity in tact. Through Lily Bart’s story, Wharton explores, amongst other things, themes of love and marriage, gender, the individual and society and class. It is a powerful and heartbreakingly tragic read.
Well – what had brought him there but the quest of her? It was her element, not his. But he would lift her out of it, take her beyond. That Beyond! on her letter was like a cry for rescue. He knew that Perseus’s task is not done when he has loosed Andromeda’s chains, for her limbs are numb with bondage, and she cannot rise and walk, but clings to him with dragging arms as he beats back to land with his burden. Well, he had the strength for both – it has her weakness which had put the strength in him. It was not, alas, a clean rush of waves they had to win through, but a clogging morass of old associations and habits, and for the moment its vapours were in his throat. But he would see clearer, breathe freer in her presence: she was at once the dead weight at his breast and the spar which should float them to safety.
As Lawrence Selden resolves to marry Lily Bart, he pictures himself as the classical hero, Perseus, on a ‘quest’ and Lily as Andromeda, chained to a rock in the sea. As he perceives Lily, she is chained, by her upbringing, to the fate of marrying the highest bidder and living high in the shallow and corrupt world of New York’s one hundred families. This undoubtedly speaks to his masculine ideas of heroism and female vulnerability, but it is revealing to consider why Wharton reached for Perseus and Andromeda at this point, rather than any other classical couple. In this, my primary source is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Andromeda plays of Sophocles and Euripides being lost.
Wharton establishes the trope of Lily as damsel in distress and Selden as her heroic rescuer from the very start of The House of Mirth, albeit in a gently ironic way. As Lily hails Selden at the station she says, ‘How nice of you to come to my rescue’, although he was unsure ‘what form the rescue was to take’. At this stage, the gallant hero merely has to provide cooler air, tea and a distraction for a while as Lily waits for her next train, but as Selden looks at Lily’s bracelets during that first encounter, it seems that the idea of Andromeda is already in his mind. Just as Ovid’s Perseus (and Euripides’s before him, as the fragments suggest) first perceives Andromeda as a statue until he notices the breeze in her hair, so Selden watches Lily’s hand, ‘polished as a bit of old ivory’.
Alongside this, he sees ‘the links of her bracelet’ as ‘manacles chaining her to her fate’, so much ‘a victim of the civilization which had produced her’ is she. Here the novel bears out her similarity with Andromeda: Andromeda is chained to the rock as a sacrifice, necessary because of ‘her mother’s tongue’ (Illic inmeritam maternae penderae linguae…) in boasting that Andromeda’s beauty outshone the Nereids’. Lily too is the victim of her mother’s belief in her beauty. After Mr. Bart’s bankruptcy and death, Mrs. Bart fetishizes Lily’s beauty, studying it ‘with a passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance.’ She sees it as the means by which their fortunes would be rebuilt and inculcates Lily not only with her own horror of ‘dinginess’, but also with the belief that ‘only stupidity’ could induce anyone to marry for love, where there is no financial advantage. So, we might see Lily as ‘chained’ to this ambitious matrimonial path by her mother’s pride in her beauty.
As Lily and Selden’s relationship develops, Lily notices her chains to some degree. Though, when Selden arrives at Bellomont, Lily still means to marry Percy Gryce, Selden’s presence causes her to reevaluate the people around her and she becomes aware that this society represents a ‘great gilt cage… as she heard its door clang on her!’ Her stolen walk with Selden, on Sunday, is littered with the words ‘freedom’ and ‘emancipation’, as she rebels against the social expectations of ‘a jeune fille à marier’, and in Selden’s explanation of ‘the republic of the spirit’, she catches the glimpse of an alternate life which will change her view of the world forever.
It is when on this walk too that Lily starts to analyze her relationship with Selden and in this, her chains begin to be reconfigured. She says, ‘The peculiar charm of her feeling for Selden was that she understood it; she could put her finger on every link of the chain that was drawing them together.’ This comparison of the chains fettering the maiden, to the chains joining lovers, is one that again harks back to Ovid’s Perseus who exclaims on seeing Andromeda, ‘O fairest! whom these chains become not so, / But worthy are for links that lovers bind’ (Ut stetit, “o” dixit “non istis digna catenis / sed quibus inter se cupidi iunguntur amantes…”).
The power relationship implied by such chains is not one explored explicitly by either Ovid or Wharton although it is explored implicitly by both. Though we hear that Perseus’s wings almost ‘forgot to wave’ (paene suas quatere est oblitus in aere pennas), so enamored was he of Andromeda’s beauty, we do not hear how Andromeda responded to him at all. Indeed, all she can do at this point is cry, and her marriage to Perseus is all fixed up with her parents before he goes on to fight the monster. After the rescue, she is referred to, unnamed, as his pretium, meaning reward, with all of its financial connotations, a gesture which dehumanizes her.
Though Wharton’s treatment of the power relationship between Lily and Selden is more detailed and complex, Lily, as a single woman in late nineteenth-century high society, is also entirely vulnerable. Her beauty gives her a certain power over men, and over Selden specifically, but she quickly realizes its limits as her integrity begins to be questioned. Indeed, Selden himself cannot forgive her for what he is quick to perceive as her immoral relationship with Gus Trenor. As Mrs. Peniston’s free indirect narrative suggests, ‘however unfounded the charges’ against a young girl being ‘talked about’ by society, ‘she must be to blame for their having been made.’ This exemplifies women’s powerlessness and the need always for their behavior to be beyond reproach, particularly where there is no man, or no parent to defend their honor. Though Lily knows herself to have been compromised by her transaction with Trenor, and she is though innocent of the grosser charges, Wharton underlines the impossibly high and, simultaneously, morally corrupt standards governing women’s behavior in the scathing irony of such statements as Mrs. Peniston’s above, but also in the barefaced hypocrisy of married women like Bertha Dorset, whom society will not condemn for her ruinous affairs as long as her husband looks the other way. In this sense, Lily has almost as little power in her relationship with Selden, as Andromeda in hers with Perseus.
And so to Selden’s heroism. Both Ovid and Wharton portray their heroes with ambivalence. Although in the action of the rescue, Ovid’s description of Perseus slaying of the dragon is described in more conventionally heroic terms, there are suggestions elsewhere that he is less than heroic. When he first sees Andromeda and is captivated by her beauty, as she stands chained to the rock, he does not dive down immediately to rescue her, but first announces himself to her parents in boastful terms.
In the translation, Perseus repeats the word ‘I’, followed by the facts of his greatness, while in the Latin, he repeats his name: ‘I, who am the son of Regal Jove / And her whom he embraced in showers of gold … I, Perseus, who destroyed the Gorgon … I, who dared on waving wings / To cleave ethereal air’ (Hanc ego si peterem Perseus Iove natus … Gorgonis anguicomae Perseus superator et alis / aerias ausus iactatis ire per auras). This repetition together with the recital of his achievements, particularly at this time, augurs of something egotistical, even if it is done with the purpose of winning Andromeda’s hand in marriage. One might question, as Sarah Annes Brown does, why, when ‘Time waits / for tears, but flies the moment of our need’ (Lacrimarum longa manere / tempora vos poterunt), Perseus wastes it in ‘boasting of his manly prowess instead of getting on with the rescue’!
Similarly, in telling of his conquest of Medusa, Perseus seems oblivious to the tragedy of her story – details of which are thought to have been introduced by Ovid himself – her beauty which induced Poseidon to rape her in Athena’s temple, and Athena’s subsequent anger, not with Poseidon but with Medusa, which resulted in her metamorphosis to a gorgon. The ambiguity around Perseus’ heroism is something which has been portrayed in other depictions too, which might have influenced Wharton’s exploration of heroism. Burne-Jones’s The Rock of Doom, part of his Perseus series, was begun in 1875 and never finished, and while it is unknown whether Wharton saw the painting, it undoubtedly bears a resemblance to her representation of Lily and Selden.
In it, Perseus is an effeminate figure; though he is not as vulnerable and submissive as Andromeda, who is naked, his armor seems molded to his body, revealing every muscle of his androgynous body. Just as Andromeda’s head tilts bashfully in towards the rock, as she peers up at him, so Perseus peeks shyly around the side of the rock, looking at her out of the corners of his eyes. Though his hero’s sword is draped visibly at his front, his stance is scarcely one of strength: he is leaning on the rock with one hand while balanced on one leg, made buoyant by his winged feet, but in a position that denotes hesitancy or timidity. Similarly, when depicted fighting the monster in The Doom Fulfilled, he seems entangled in the monster’s serpentine tail. As I suggested in the last paragraph, about the power dynamic between the pair, it is complex, but Lily’s vulnerability, explored above, is mirrored in Andromeda’s nakedness. Chained and naked, her only power is in her beauty.
Selden, like Burne-Jones’s Perseus, is not domineeringly masculine or conventionally heroic. Early in the novel, the two of them teeter on the edge of commitment, one taking a step forward only for the other to draw back and vice versa, both afraid of the changes such a commitment would mean for the course of their lives, and each too proud to let the other see the depth of their feelings. At Bellomont, they accuse each other of cowardice in not wanting to go further and at the end of their walk, Selden judges Lily negatively when she reacts self-consciously to a passing car, knowing that she is worried her deception of Percy might be discovered, even though he has freely admitted that he has ‘nothing to give [her] instead.’ This is the pattern which continues throughout the novel: Selden pulls back from proposing to Lily after seeing her leaving the Trenors’, jumping to conclusions about her life without giving her the chance to explain; similarly, when he speaks with her after the crisis with the Dorsets, he knows that he has not supported her and that his ‘miserable silence’ speaks only of judgement but he feels the full weight of suspicion and cannot bring himself to speak.
Lily’s pride also holds her back, for example, when Selden visits her at the Emporium to try to persuade her to leave Mrs Hatch, she admits to herself that ‘she would rather persist in darkness than owe her enlightenment to Selden’ even though she knows that he is right. However, Selden is too forgiving of himself and perhaps Wharton is too forgiving of him too. At the very ending, in what is perhaps Selden’s free indirect narrative, or perhaps the narrative voice of the novel, Wharton writes that
It was this moment of love, this fleeting victory over themselves, which had kept them from atrophy and extinction; which, in her, had reached out to him in every struggle against the influence of her surroundings, and in him, had kept alive the faith that now drew him penitent and reconciled to her side.
According to this romantic vision of this victory of their love, Lily’s attempts to be worthy of his love are one with his dormant and now awakened belief in her. And yet, that ‘dormant belief’ caused him to condemn her and shun her, along with the rest of society, while she lost everything and died a miserable, lonely death, in poverty! When I read that he is ‘too honest to disown his cowardice now’, I cannot help feeling that this is too little too late.
Finally, it remains to deal with the matter of rescue – rescue from what? and in what sense we might speak of ‘rescue’ at all. While in all the previous depictions of Perseus and Andromeda, Perseus has had to fight a sea monster, in the quotation at the start of this post, Selden merely imagines battling the sea, and not a ‘clean rush of waves’ but a ‘morass’, or swamp, of social ties and expectations. Lily is united with him in seeing the sea as her enemy, with images of turbulent water and rising tides used at every moment of distress. Early on, dinginess is the foe and she pictures herself ‘dragging herself up again and again above its flood till she gained the bright pinnacles of success’, while after meeting Trenor, the enemy becomes her own guilty conscience as ‘Over and over her the sea of humiliation broke – wave crashing on wave so close that the mortal shame was one with the physical dread’.
On her last evening too, Lily reflects on the feeling of ‘being rootless and ephemeral … without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them’, while after death, the tumult is pacified and Selden feels himself ‘drawn down into the strange mysterious depths of her tranquility.’ However, though Selden imagines himself as the active rescuer as he prepares to propose to Lily, removing her from the social ‘morass’ which is dragging her down, Lily looks to Selden for a more spiritual and less practical rescue. Even at the moment, when still reeling from the shame of her meeting with Trenor, she questions ‘Was there not a promise of rescue in his love?’ and brings herself to the brink of accepting his expected proposal, she also knows, ‘even in the full storm of her misery, that Selden’s love could not be her ultimate refuge’, and that she needs to find the means within herself to escape.
Like in The Age of Innocence, where Wharton makes it clear that the love between Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer is a product of the romantic need in each of them and could never work in reality, so, in The House of Mirth, even though the tragedy rests on Lily and Selden’s failure to realize in time the extent of their love for each other, we are made to question whether such a union was ever a real possibility. What is clear, is that Selden’s love, even in the past tense, represents a way for Lily to retain her integrity until the last. In her final meeting she says to him that the things he said to her at Bellomont ‘kept [her] from really becoming what many people have thought [her].’ And though he replies that this ‘difference’ came from her and not from him, she insists that ‘[she] needed the help of [his] belief in [her]’. So it is that though Selden does not provide much tangible help in his rescue of Lily – he does not stab and plunge his sword into the monster’s back and entrails like Ovid’s Perseus – it is the idea of him, the idea of his love and of the way in which he once saw her, that gives Lily the freedom to stay true to herself in the face of society’s temptations, even when confronted by the prospect of a fortune as vast as Rosedale’s. In another version of the Andromeda myth, she sees herself ‘chained’ to another, ‘abhorrent’, version of herself, instead of a rock, and Selden’s love gives her the strength to stop this other self from dragging her under. As she walks away from his flat for the last time, she feels herself ‘buoyant’ again, the same word used as when she is drawn towards him (and away from Gryce and church) at Bellomont, at the start of the novel.
Wharton’s reception of the myth of Perseus and Andromeda and its various literary and pictorial depictions – only very few of which I have explored here – open doors to thinking about women’s agency and late nineteenth-century masculinity as represented in The House of Mirth. This particular myth seems to resonate more, perhaps, than others because of the equivocal portrayal of Perseus in other classical and Victorian versions, and because Andromeda’s chains allow Wharton to reflect on the variety of ways in which women were constrained in high society at that time. Finally, the fact that Selden casts himself as the classical hero and Lily as the submissive damsel in need of his rescue speaks volumes.
Primarily, The House of Mirth is centred around Lily, the narrative closely focused around her consciousness, but it begins and ends with Selden’s perceptions of her, perceptions which surface at various points in between. Such narrative construction reminds us that though Wharton is presenting us with a novel about a single woman in late nineteenth-century America, such a woman could not exist independently, without being ‘read’ and construed by the male gaze. And as we read Selden, reading Lily, betraying his own limitations, prejudices and vanities, so we might consider what our own construction of her may reveal.
As you can see from the above conclusion, this mode of using classical reception in literary analysis is revealing of much more than an author’s, or character’s, interest in mythology; indeed, Selden’s slightly self-congratulatory bookishness in the face of society’s resolute ignorance is something I have not even addressed here! In a longer piece, I would have liked also to have explored Ovid’s Perseus, as a hero, in the context of the epic tradition, alongside Aeneas or Achilles, and to think about Selden and Lily too in the context of nineteenth-century novelistic heroes and heroines. Even as it stands though, the study of Perseus and Andromeda, for me, opens up the themes of masculinity and femininity in the novel, and offers a means to understand the characters and their tangled relationship, in a way that I had not before. This piece actually stands as a companion piece to one on Lily’s relationship with the Furies, and the reception of the Oresteia in the novel (published in the English and Media Centre magazine, emag, in December 2020), which, similarly, opens up themes of fate and free will and a more nuanced and multi-dimensional understanding of these.
This kind of reading is important to my high school English teaching, in which the exam criteria for students requires them to use the contexts of their texts in order to add depth to their interpretations. Frequently, socio-historical detail, while important, can lead to socio-historical, rather than literary, essays but using literary context requires students to focus further into the details of the text, rather than around it. Reception was also central to my own PhD thesis on memory and ancient Greek literature, in which literary memory – which might otherwise be understood as intertextuality – formed an important strand, in terms of casting new light on old debates.
Sophie Raudnitz teaches English at Oundle School in the UK. She has a degree in English and a PhD in Classics. Her thesis used modern memory theory to explore ancient Greek epic, tragedy and philosophy. Twitter @seraudnitz
 I am using the Brookes More translation on The Perseus Project website.
 As an aside, it is explored in Connie Rosen’s poem, ‘Andromeda’, in which she invites the reader to ‘consider the problem of chains’, and imagines the chains binding the woman to the rock disintegrating as a new chain between Andromeda and Perseus is forged.
 This is an interesting contrast to Euripides’ play in which Andromeda’s father, Cepheus, is against her marriage to Perseus. There, her duty as a daughter is pitted against her will to marry the hero.
 Sarah Annes Brown, Ovid: Myth and Metamorphosis (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2005), p.34.
“Everything else is complete—but we need a penis.”
καὶ τἄλλ᾿ ἁπαξάπαντα· τοῦ πέους δὲ δεῖ.
Halfway through my 306th performance of my one-man folk opera retelling of Homer’s Odyssey in song, something happened that had never happened in the previous 305 performances.
An audience member drew a penis on the screen.
That’s right. An audience member drew a penis on the screen and that penis was visible to the 75 other people who had logged in to Zoom to watch my very first ever virtual Odyssey performance.
Perhaps I should backtrack a bit and contextualize this particular penis because there is a clear hazard in leaving an uncontextualized penis out there.
A (not so) quick summary of how we got here: I graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 90’s with a Bachelor’s Degree in Classics. Not long after I graduated I composed a 35 minute continuous one-man musical folk opera retelling of Homer’s Odyssey consisting of 24 first-person songs inspired by the characters and events of the epic poem.
Since writing that article, my reputation and calendar have grown and earlier this year I celebrated my 300th performance (which occurred in Arlington, Texas, at UTA) and performances in my 40th (Hawaii) and 41st (Wyoming) states.
2020 was supposed to be a banner year for me and my Classics-related music. By working really hard on booking, I started the year within shouting distance of getting shows scheduled in the remaining 9 states I needed to complete my goal of performing in all 50 states. A month-long Odyssey tour of Europe in October and November was confirmed with dates in the UK, Ireland, Sweden, The Netherlands, Italy, and Greece.
And there was also new Classics-related music to start sharing in addition to my Odyssey.
The first week of March, just before the full-on coronavirus crisis began manifesting, I premiered a new cycle of songs called “The Blues of Achilles”, a reframing of Homer’s Iliad, as part of a wonderful program called Conversations with Homer at San Francisco State University. Samples of this performance can be viewed here, here, and here.
The rest of the spring was to include three weeks of shows in Ohio, New York, Vermont, New Jersey, Michigan, Maryland, and Illinois, some Odyssey shows, some Blues of Achilles shows, an artist-in-residence opportunity, and a chance to perform Blues of Achilles songs as part of a program that brings classics to the incarcerated population.
But of course by the second week of March I could see none of these shows were going to happen. Campuses began to shut down and move online, travel became unwise, and by the third week of March my entire spring schedule, some 20 gigs, was gone, and the rest of my year’s touring (including Europe) was in doubt.
I should interject here that I feel extremely lucky that I do not rely entirely upon performing music for my living. These cancellations have resulted in a sizable loss of income, but I also have a guitar teaching practice (not to mention a partner with a job) to fall back on, so while these losses hurt (many of which I do hope to reschedule and all of which were done with compassion and understanding by understandably freaked and stressed out teachers and administrators), the pain was more from a standpoint of planning and momentum than the dire financial situation that many performing musicians have suddenly found themselves in.
Then last week something interesting happened: I got a DM on Twitter from a high school Latin teacher in Pennsylvania who wondered if I might try performing my Odyssey online through Zoom for some of her students. The sudden shift to online learning had left teachers scrambling to find activities and material with which to engage students. This teacher had seen me perform at the PAJCL convention in 2017 and thought my program would make for a good online event.
I initially recoiled: so much of what I love about my Odyssey performances is wrapped up in the magic of the interaction between me and an in-person audience. How would this online thing work? How could I truly encounter my audience if they were hundreds of miles away watching not me but 1s and 0s that represent me, listening not to my actual voice but to my voice as compressed through their computer speakers or earbuds, taking it in not as a group in the same room but in separate isolated spaces?
But as I gave it more thought, I saw reasons to give it a shot.
Some were practical, as in “this is the way the world is working now so you might as well try to adapt if you want gigs” and “if this format does work what kind of additional markets and opportunities might it open up for you.”
Some were artistic and intellectual as in “can I make these songs work in a new medium?” and “what might it illuminate for me as a classicist/Homerist about oral performance?”
So I decided to go forward with it. My contact and I had a conference call with a very patient and generous tech support guru from her district and we settled on using Zoom as the best platform to both accommodate both my performance needs and also comply with some of the privacy issues associated with educational institutions.
We gave Zoom a trial run with a couple of students and teachers and it seemed to work well. We could mute all the cameras and microphones of the attendees and I could share my screen which would contain a powerpoint of the lyrics of my songs so the audience could follow along as I sang (I do this in every in-person show as well).
I was nervous as I sat in my office with my wife sitting just out of the webcam shot to advance the powerpoint. I could see the online audience grow to 75 and after an introduction from the teacher, I was off and singing.
It began well enough. My voice felt good and the teacher was texting my wife some feedback on the sound which seemed to be coming through fine. I was just starting to settle in when suddenly some lines started popping up on my screen. Scribbled lines as if someone was able to draw on his or her iPad.
Clearly we hadn’t quite gotten the settings right and the audience members had the capability to write things on the shared screen for all to see.
It was a little distracting to me and (I assumed) the audience but I pushed on. I was on song 6 of my 24 when the scribbling became written words. I stopped singing and announced that if the scribbling continued, I’d have to stop the performance.
This seemed to work for another 6 songs but just as I finished singing the song in which Odysseus finally lands on Ithaka in book 13, there is was:
That hastily drawn penis on the screen right next to my lyrics.
Some quick observations: First, though in the moment I was not particularly thrilled with the phantom penis, it should be noted that the Greeks and Romans loved penises and were happy to have them in their art and theatre. One need look no further than the #phallusthursday hashtag on Twitter for ample evidence of this.
Second, I feel fairly confident that this penis was drawn by an adolescent male and the reason I feel fairly confident in this conclusion is that I myself was once (and sometimes still am) an adolescent male in whose life and psyche penis-related jokes and pranks figured prominently. To wit (and I believe the statute of limitations on this crime has expired), my senior year of high school the entire bass and tenor sections of our choir conspired to, in our performance of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, replace the word “truth” with the word “penis.”
How disruptive could this be? you ask. Well, at one point in the arrangement the basses and tenors sing the phrase “truth is marching” over and over, something like 12 times in a row. Perhaps now you can imagine our confused choir director searching around the room for why things didn’t sound quite right (sorry Mr. Hayes) as a group of 15 adolescent males melodically chanted the phrase “penis is marching” over and over.
So as I promised I would, I stopped the performance. The teacher had determined the only way to fix the problem was by ending the Zoom session, creating a new one with the correct (non-screen writing) settings, and letting everyone log back in.
So that’s what we did: for the first time in 306 performances, I took an intermission. Almost everyone came back online to the new session and I finished the performance without further incident, singing the remaining 12 songs that chronicle Odysseus’ reintegration into his home on Ithaka.
Afterwards, I read and responded to audience questions from a Google docs as well as questions texted to me by the teacher. And then it was over.
Very suddenly, it was over.
In a regular performance, I’m used to a much more gradual ending. Members of the audience often make their way to the stage to chat with me while I pack up my guitar. Faculty introduce themselves. There’s almost always a meal or a drink with a host or a group to get feedback and continue discussion.
But with my virtual performance, none of that.
Until I looked at my phone and saw social media messages and emails from some of the audience members. Videos and pictures showing students glued to their computer screens watching me perform. Notes from teachers thanking me for giving them and their students something to break up the days stuck at home.
Suddenly the penis didn’t matter so much and I saw a number of truths about this unique moment both in history and for me as a modern bard.
First, everyone is trying really hard to do their best in a tough situation. Teachers are trying to teach, parents are trying to parent, students are trying to be students, all in a largely new environment. There are going to be bumps and difficult moments and it’s going to take some time to figure out what works and what doesn’t but in general folks are trying so hard and succeeding.
Second, this quick change to fully virtual learning is putting incredible forced stress on the people involved but from incredible forced stress sometimes comes innovation. I would never have even attempted a virtual performance without these extenuating circumstances and outside pressures, but now because I have I am excited to develop it as a complement to what I do with in person performances and ultimately as a chance to reach more people with my music and the experience of hearing Odysseus’ story sung by a bard. I’m thinking in particular of places and schools that don’t have the budget to bring me in for an in-person performance but might be able to facilitate an online performance.
Third, for all my preciousness about my in-person Odyssey performances and how they recreate the original oral environment, this virtual performance embodies all the same concepts I detailed in my Eidolon article with some unique and beautiful twists. I’m always fascinated with how performance space impacts audience perception and therefore meaning, and in this case there were actually 75 different performance spaces, all acting upon the listeners and resulting in different experiences and meanings. The teacher who initially reached out to me said that while she enjoyed my performance at PAJCL (which was for an audience of 400), she liked the online performance even more because it felt like I was singing directly to her. For all my misgivings about the technological distance, there was actually something more intimate about my online performance.
Fourth, my online performance is yet another example of how enduring, adaptable, and resilient myths and oral tradition are. For as different as my performance looked from Phemios’ in book 1 or Demodokos’ in book 8, it was essentially the same as what bards have been doing for three millennia or more: singing stories to groups of people. My guess is that if you offered a Homeric bard the chance to do a performance from the comfort of his home, he would have jumped at it before you finished telling him he might have to endure interruption by phantom penis drawing.
As Joel added in the comments when he so graciously edited this piece: “Antinoos would totally have drawn a penis on his screen if he had a screen.”
In the end, perhaps it’s best to think that my virtual performance relates to my in-person performances in the way that the text we have today relates to a Homeric performance. They are related, connected at some point, but ultimately different ways to communicate and pass on stories. It’s not a choice of either but rather an embrace of both, and this embrace ensures that the names and stories will continue to echo through history for new audiences in new times.
You might even say that “time is marching” but that is dangerously close to the phrase “truth is marching” and… well, you remember where that road leads.
We are happy to have new contributions from the Fabulous Dr. Amy Coker. She shares a certain scatalogical interest, but brings considerable expertise to the matter.
This latest word is not to do with sex, but rather with another bodily action which is often a source of taboo words, excretion. More specifically, this post is about words I have been affectionately characterising as denoting ‘solid waste’ (or ‘poo’, ‘faeces’, etc.). One of the words in ancient Greek for the noun ‘poo’ is κόπρος (ko-pross), the word which gives us English scientific words beginning with ‘copro-‘ such as ‘coprolite’ – fossilised faeces – coined in the early nineteenth century.
Despite the unpleasantness of the substance κόπρος indicates, the word itself is not really ‘taboo’ or offensive, and is found in a range of Classical works from Homer’s epics to medical works in the Hippocratic corpus: κόπρος is milder in tone than the English four-letter word, ‘sh*t’. What sparked this post is an example in our ancient texts of a word similar to κόπρος – κόπριον (ko-pree-on). In technical parlance, this word is the stem κοπρ- plus the diminutive suffix -ιον (-ee-on): this last part is a segment which makes a word meaning the same thing as the stem, or a smaller version of it, or indicates affection from the speaker to the object (a bit like English ‘toe’, diminutive ‘toe-sie’).
The example of κόπριον we are interested in comes from a papyrus letter written in Egypt in the late 2nd or 3rd century AD, known as P.Oxy. 1761. Greek was the dominant language of Egypt for around a thousand years from the conquest of Alexander the Greek to the Arab conquest in the mid 7th century AD, so that fact that this letter is written in Greek in Egypt is not unusual. This letter is in other respects too typical of those written in vast numbers by individuals about everyday matters; these people are otherwise lost to history, but their correspondence by chance survives. (See picture for an example of what a papyrus letter looks like).
It is lines 6-7 of P.Oxy. 1761 where the surprise lies: as Grenfell and Hunt put it in their edition in the early twentieth century, here ‘A very singular symptom of regret for an absent friend is specified’. Here is a full translation of the letter, as given by Montserrat’s Sex & Society in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1996, 8); the bold words are the ones which concerns us:
Callirhoë to her dear Sarapis, greetings. I say a prayer for you every day in the presence of the lord Sarapis. Since you have been away I go on the trail of your shit in my desire to see you. Greet Thermouthis and Helias and Ploution and Aphrodite and Nemesianus. Carabus and Harpocration greet you, and everyone at home. I pray for your health.
The Greek text which lies behind this ‘singular symptom of regret’ is: ἐπιζῃητοῦμέν σου τὰ κόπρια, literally, ‘I/we look for (or miss?) your κόπριον-s’ (κόπρια is the plural of κόπριον). There is no wandering about here, despite the impression the translation might give. A slightly more recent translation by Bagnall & Cribiore in their collection of women’s letters (2006, 392) renders these words as the striking ‘we are searching for your turds’.
Is Callirhoë really looking through the dunghill because she misses her friend? Even when we accept that ancient peoples did things differently, this seems a stretch. We could be tempted to think that this is an idiom peculiar to Egypt, perhaps stemming from a native expression, but there seems to be no obvious parallel (suggestions are welcome). I think rather the best explanation comes back to what κόπρος/κόπριον means.
Both these words are also used more broadly of ‘rubbish’, or things which can be taken away to be used as fertiliser: remember that most ancient waste was organic. κόπριον is found in this kind of sense in the Magical Papyri, an ancient collection of spells, where it is something picked up from the ground where a corpse has lain (PGM 4.1395-8, 4.1441-2). Dieter Betz translates this as ‘polluted dirt’, but the pollution comes only from the context of the spell.
I think here and in our letter we should rather take κόπρια as indicating ‘useless remains’ or ‘traces’, akin to English ‘crap’: note how ‘crap’ has just this double meaning of ‘excrement’ and ‘rubbish’ in contemporary UK English (e.g. ‘there is so much crap in my house’). The result is that Callirhoë is not looking for any particular bodily waste produced by her dear Sarapis, but rather for indications that she has been around: a rather loose translation of this sentiment might therefore be ‘I go through your crap wanting to find you there’.
Amy Coker has over the last decade held positions in Classics and Ancient History at the Universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol in the UK. After undergraduate studies in Classics at Downing College, Cambridge, and an MA in Linguistics at the University of Manchester, she was awarded funding from the Arts & Humanities Research Council to support her doctoral work on gender variation in Ancient Greek (2007-2009, PhD Manchester 2010). She later secured a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship (2013-2016) for a project on Greek sexual and scatological vocabulary, and ancient offensive language. She was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Classical Studies, University of London (2017-2018), and is now an Honorary Research Fellow of the University of Bristol (2018-), and teacher of Classics at Cheltenham Ladies College (2018-).
She has published work in the fields of historical linguistics, pragmatics, and classics, and has pieces about to appear on the treatment of obscene language in the most well-known lexicon of Ancient Greek, Liddell and Scott, and on a filthy joke told by Cleopatra involving a ladle.
She is a keen supporter of outreach and public engagement, and has worked with the UK charity Classics for All running projects to bring Latin and Greek teaching to schools which have no tradition of teaching these subjects. She can be found on Twitter at @AECoker.
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 Bustlearticle 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.”
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.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. 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.
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. 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.
My name is Idone Rhodes. I am an 18-year-old senior at Milton Academy. Feel free to contact me at email@example.com.
I would like to give acknowledgment and many thanks to @dreadfulprof for his guidance and editorial recommendations in the creation of this article.
 Nolder, Michelle J. “The Domestic Violence Dilemma: Private Action in Ancient Rome and America.” Boston University Law Review, vol. 81, 2001, pp. 1119–1147.
 “3. Causes and Complicating Factors.” SVAW – Domestic Violence: Explore the Issue, Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, 2003, hrlibrary.umn.edu/svaw/domestic/explore/3causes.htm.
 Llewellyn-Jones, Lloyd. “Domestic Abuse And Violence Against Women In Ancient Greece.” Sociable Man, 2011, pp. 231–266., doi:10.2307/j.ctvvn9fm.16.