CJ Online Review: Fletcher, Performing Oaths in Classical Greek Drama

posted with permission:

Performing Oaths in Classical Greek Drama. By Judith Fletcher. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xi + 277. Hardcover, £60.00/$99.00. ISBN 978-0-521-76273-1.

Reviewed by Edwin Carawan, Missouri State University (ECarawan).

“Speech acts” are familiar in many areas of classical studies, but there has been no systematic work in the arena where they loom largest, Greek drama. Judith Fletcher’s book fills a big part of that gap. The focus is not performance in the usual sense but oaths as “performatives.” As J. L. Austin defined them in his lectures of 1955, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge, 1962), these are sayings that enact the very actions they proclaim, as when one says “I do” (or the like) at a marriage, or “I give and bequeath” in leaving a legacy. Oaths and curses are perhaps the most potent of these performatives. An oath-taker swears to do thus and such or suffer the consequences, and the very pronouncement makes that pattern of action a reality. Of course much depends on circumstances: does the speaker follow an accepted procedure, correctly and completely? Is he (or she) properly qualified, and is the speech act made with the clear commitment to carry it out, not as a joke or ploy? Violating any of these conditions renders the performative “infelicitous,” not necessarily void but dubious. This framework is essential to Fletcher’s approach. For much of ancient drama seems to revolve around oaths that are infelicitous in that Austinian sense: the (per)formative declarations of young men coming of age, the oaths sworn or invoked by designing women, the ploys of cheats and conniving servants.

For background and comparative material Fletcher draws upon the Nottingham Oath Project and the volume of conference papers, Horkos, that she co-edited with Alan Sommerstein (Exeter, 2007). She begins with an introduction to the archaic paradigm, focusing on the oaths that frame the Iliad. For Achilles is fully qualified and committed to his vows, and the main action of the epic follows that program. From the Oresteia to Lysistrata, the oaths of drama also drive the plot, but the circumstances prove rather less felicitous.

Oath-taking is a gesture of gender and authority. A man swears upon his standing in the group and the favor of god, and he wagers his very genos. The “cut pieces” of the sacrificial victim may have included the testicles, and the oath-taker who stands in this bloody mess is reminded of what is at risk (46–7). The tale of Glaucus, who asked the oracle if he might falsely swear to be rid of a debt, brings home the implication (Hdt. 6.86): the Pythia warned that the offspring of such an oath is nameless and limbless but snatches up the whole house. Glaucus abandoned his scam but the very idea doomed his progeny.

Tragedy often turns upon infelicities that create suspense but end well enough. Thus in the Oresteia (Ch. 1), the young man, scarcely his own master, has sworn to Apollo to avenge his father, but he has a moment of hesitation (Choe. 899). The doubtful commitment frames the plot that defines the character. That success of the oath, as the ephebe becomes anēr, also defines Hyllus in Sophocles’ Trachiniae and Neoptolemos in Philoctetes (Ch. 2).

Euripides mastered a different kind of plot, weaving doubtful oaths into disaster (Ch. 6). In Medea, after all, the complication builds upon the oath that Jason has already forsworn, and the peripety comes with the oath that Medea demands of Aegeus, when she recognizes in him the plight of a man without sons. Hippolytus similarly turns upon an oath solicited by a conniving woman (the nurse), all the more infelicitous as it is sworn by a celibate nothos who promptly reconsiders. Fletcher’s analysis of the plot (190–4) is intriguing and suggests how the peripety was staged: if Phaedra is indeed at hand to hear Hippolytus compromise his vow of silence before the chorus, it makes the unraveling all the more inevitable and ironic. This self-righteous youth would never violate his oath, but, like Glaucus, he damns himself by the mere suggestion.

Comedy similarly builds upon performatives, and the parallel plot device opens the stage to intertextual gags. Here Fletcher’s findings are especially insightful. Thus in Thesmophoriazusae (Ch. 7), the point of the parody is not that Euripides disrespects the gods but that he builds his plots around outrageous infelicities. The action of Clouds also revolves around oaths perversely rendered (Ch. 5). But Aristophanes’ masterpiece oath-play is Lysistrata (Ch. 8); for the women’s pledge in the prologue guides the plot to the end, where the men negotiate over naked Reconciliation and then must plight their troth to recover the “hostages.”

Along the way there are a few disappointments. Performatives in tragedy make us ponder the puzzle of agency (111): do “speech acts cause action or reflect a more potent force?” Oedipus and Creon wrestle with that overdetermined reality, and we expect Fletcher (in Ch. 3) to explore their recognition, as they face the curses they called down in ignorance; but she barely hints at that arc from oath to anagnōrisis. In comedy, of course, we can dispense with determinism but we don’t want to miss the stage directions: so in the tease scene in Lysistrata, Myrrhine should be swearing to Kinesias (917–18) that “she cannot just <let him> lie on the ground”—woman on top (correcting p. 237). But, however we construe the infelicities, this book is an important contribution to the way we understand ancient Athens, as a culture defined by devices of discourse.

CJ Onlien Review: Star, The Empire of the Self

posted with permission:

The Empire of the Self: Self-Command and Political Speech in Seneca and Petronius. By Christopher Star. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. Pp. viii + 302. Hardcover, $65.00/£34.00. ISBN 978-1-4214-0674-9.

Reviewed by Gareth Williams, Columbia University

This book constitutes an important addition to the burgeoning body of scholarship on the self and on Roman attitudes/approaches to self-shaping and self-articulation in the early Imperial era. Star’s particular objective is to show how Seneca and Petronius “address the problems and possibilities of self-shaping and self-revelation in the new world of empire” (19). This broad theme is developed from varied angles of approach in six main chapters, all of which combine sensitive micro-analysis of individual passages and texts with the patient unfolding of Star’s macro-argument. Eschewing an approach which sets Petronius and Seneca against each other as philosophical and literary opposites (even opponents), Star sets the two in a dialogue of sorts, both of them contributing in complementary ways to the larger theorization of self-shaping that is constructed across the six chapters.

The book is in two movements: after an anchoring introduction, the focus in Part I (Chapters 1–3) is on “Soul-Shaping Speech,” in Part II (Chapters 4–6) on “Soul-Revealing Speech.” Star’s starting-point in Part I is the familiar idea that traditional modes of military and political command gave way in the early empire, amidst “the new problem of political autocracy” (3), to an internalizing tendency that prioritized self-empowerment and self-command (sibi imperare). In Chapter 1 Star focuses on Senecan self-apostrophe as a key mechanism by which self-command is asserted and inculcated—a mechanism already of wide rhetorical application, but Star nevertheless argues persuasively for Senecan improvisation: he “‘theorizes’ it, turning this literary and declamatory figure of speech into a philosophical concept” (59). In Chapter 2 Star turns to self-address in Senecan tragedy, demonstrating through the examples of Medea, Clytemnestra and Atreus how the therapeutic apparatus of self-apostrophe is reapplied to galvanizing effect as the tragic characters ready for heinous action. As in Chapter 1, Star boldly attributes considerable originality to Seneca (so, e.g., 73–4: “Seneca develops a portrayal of the passions and the psychology of vice that goes beyond basic Stoic theories of the passions as simply unstructured and inconstant: he develops a new image of the passions built around the Stoic ideal of constantia”); he also smoothly downplays tension between Seneca’s philosophical prose and the tragedies (“In his tragedies, Seneca is neither negating, inverting, nor denying his philosophical ideals; rather, he is expanding them,” p. 83; my emphasis), but (i) without quelling at least this reader’s disquiet at the troubling implications of Stoic constantia being reapplied in a context of evil, and (ii) without dwelling at greater length on the precise nature of Seneca’s tragic “expansion” of his philosophical ideas. In turning to Petronius in Chapter 3, Star continues indirectly to illuminate the function of self-apostrophe in Seneca through contrast with the different trajectory of self-address that he explores in the Satyricon: whereas Seneca focuses on interior self-shaping, Petronius “brings Senecan ‘command psychology’ down to the body” (111) in physicalized counterpoint to the “higher” mode of meditatio explored in Chapters 1 and 2.

In turning his focus to self-revelation in Part II, Star offers in Chapter 4 a penetrating analysis of De clementia, again with emphasis on the shaping of self. Here, however, the shaping process is external, in the sense that Seneca molds (the projection of) a merciful Nero, he prescribes the conduct to be expected of the young emperor, and he shapes “the populace’s capacity for critical judgment of Nero in order to determine whether he is a king or a tyrant” (118); De clementia offers, that is, a pattern and paradigm for Neronian self-revelation—a script for him to follow. In the Apocolocyntosis, by contrast, Seneca orchestrates self-revelation of a more sordid kind as the feeble Claudius struggles to breathe his last: in Chapter 5 Star predicates his impressive reading of the Apocolocyntosis on a two-fold system of comparison, first relating Claudius to Petronius’ Trimalchio and to the latter’s all too graphic account of his digestive problems (Sat. 47.1–7; cf. the excrement with which the dying Claudius dirties himself at Apoc. 4.3), and then exploring the Apocolocyntosis as a form of comic double to De clementia. Finally, in Chapter 6, “Trimalchio’s surprising usurpation of the name of Maecenas” (171; cf. Sat. 71.12) provides the departure-point for Star’s instructive treatment of Seneca’s Maecenas in Letter 114. If in De clementia Seneca “developed his position as Nero’s speech-writer in order to stress how the emperor’s language could both shape and reveal the mildness of his soul” (177), Seneca’s treatment of Maecenas’ literary style in Letter 114 (written after Seneca’s de facto retirement from the Neronian court in 62 ce) is very different in import: Maecenas’ style “reveals that his manner of living was incongruent with the imperial power he was granted” (177–8), to the effect that the positive shaping of self that takes place in De clementia now gives way to a negative paradigm.

This bare sketch can hardly do justice to the scope and richness of Star’s argument in each chapter, to the thoroughness with which he discusses his chosen texts, and to the creativity with which he exploits his simultaneous treatments of Seneca and Petronius. The writing is clear and uncluttered, his chains of reasoning are lucidly constructed, and there are few typographical errors of note (but read “smile” on p. 93: “all the faces that usually create a simile among lovers”). In sum, this book makes a major contribution to the modern bibliography on selfhood and self-formation in the early empire, and it will doubtless generate further debate in so vibrant an area of study.

CFP: Subversion and Censorship from Antiquity to the present

Seen on the Classicists list:


on the theme "Subversion and Censorship in Antiquity and After"

October 2-4, 2013

Papers are invited from scholars and researchers in the Humanities to explore important themes on the limitations of freedom of expression (in act, thought or speech). Although papers of the more traditional focus on censorship ‘from above’ are welcome, we especially invite papers dealing with the responses to repression—that is, any works or activities which aim at avoiding or circumventing censorship, whether through subversion, coded dissent and veiled criticism (i.e. forms of self-censorship).

The conference is organised by members of the Classics discipline at the University of Adelaide, South Australia (also the venue): Professor Han Baltussen, Associate Professor Peter Davis, and Dr Mark Davies (Postdoctoral Researcher) with a view to expanding the theme of their ARC funded project “The Dynamics of Censorship in Antiquity” (2011-2013/DP 110100915).

While the emphasis of the conference is on antiquity, we would like to explore opportunities to facilitate diachronic and interdisciplinary discussion. To that end, we envisage accommodating some panels for a range of other historical periods (one panel each for the medieval, early modern and modern) in subjects such as history, politics, music, literature in the 15thth-20th c., and modern debates in law and media.

Please send inquiries and abstracts (up to 150 words by March 15, 2013) to

Prof. Han Baltussen (Hughes Professor of Classics) (han.baltussen@ AT adelaide.edu.au)

Assoc. Prof. Peter J. Davis (Visiting Research Fellow) (peter.davis AT adelaide.edu.au)

Roman Bracelets from Gokyurt

Brief item from Hurriyet:

During works carried out in the Central Anatolian province of Konya, three glass bracelets from the early Roman era have been unearthed.

The excavations are being conducted in the Meram and Selçuklu districts of Konya, as well as in the Gökyurt village and the Kızılören neighborhood within the borders of the city. A number of Roman and Byzantine architectural works have been found in the excavations so far, as well as the three glass bracelets, according to officials.

The head of the excavations, Professor Ali Boran said they had found the bracelets inside a mound in Gökyurt. He said the bracelets were made of black opaque glass material and that similar examples showed that they were from 5th and 7th centuries. The bracelets have been delivered to the Konya Archaeology Museum.

… a photo of the bracelets accompanies the original article, but surely there must have been other things found?