When I was teaching Intro to Greek Literature, it was sometimes easy to tell the students who had lived a life of privilege, of safety. They were the ones who kept suggesting ways Oedipus could have averted his fate, bootstrap his way out of catastrophe if only he read the signs carefully enough. Not the ones who hated or judged Oedipus, but the ones who were genuinely confused, who kept earnestly suggesting better possible responses to the prophecy and all the devastation that would follow.
I imagine that some of these students might have the same deep bewilderment to see me now. Exactly one year ago, I was at the height of my fledgling career in Classics: I had just passed my penultimate PhD exam, founded the Sportula, and was heading down to San Diego to accept not one but two major awards for this work at the SCS/AIA Annual Meeting. More precious to me than both those awards was my hard won stability after a lifetime of mental illness. On the road trip down I sent a long euphoric email to a former undergraduate mentor: “Two of my grad friends from Berkeley invited me on a road trip there!” I wrote. “This is also so meaningful because….they’re the kinda ppl who i feel never would have invited the crazy/unpredictable me of three years ago to be in a car with them for many hours/days—so I feel like I’m finally gaining some trust from these years of good behavior.”
The very next day, my co-founder would be racially profiled and Sportula embroiled in “political scandal” and deluged by racist trolls. The very next day, I would write to that same undergraduate mentor: “Again, we’ll never be believed bc I didn’t catch the worst of it on video and god knows the word of two psychiatrically disabled POC isn’t enough for credibility…I’m killing myself on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall anyway.”
I would spend the next six months destroying my relationships with my Sportula co-founder, that mentor, and everyone else around me. On the 50th anniversary of Stonewall that June, I would be publicly wrestled to the ground and thrown into psychiatric restraints in front of several fellow grad students, after the person I had road tripped to the SCS with called the cops on me and told them I was a danger to myself.
This sounds awfully sordid and dramatic, but really, the details are mundane. Mental illness runs on both sides of my family. I was going to Break the Cycle, go to therapy, get on meds. I pursued all that, but even as I say it to myself I’m struck with a memory of both my parents mouthing the same thing.
Isn’t that why I fell so hard for Classics to begin with? In a cultural moment of the new, the innovative, a hyper-individualistic notion of “choice” and “the self-made man” within neoliberalism, it was the old poems that spoke to me. The ones that acknowledged that we are who we are only in the context of community, lineage, the heavy weight of both personal and collective histories. How sometimes, we lose: profoundly and without recourse.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.