Fiona McHardy, Revenge in Athenian Culture. London: Duckworth, 2008. Pp. vii + 179. ISBN 978-07156-3569-8. UK£45.00.
Licenciada en Filosofía, Universidad Nacional de Rosario, Argentina
Revenge is one of those topics that have been treated in many different ways in the long history of the western thought. McHardy treats revenge not only conceptually and philosophically, but according to several interesting categories: its different forms, its place in culture, the reason for its occurrence, and its significance.
In the introduction (pp. 1-8), the author says that the topic that she is going to approach has been at the center of academic debate. Here the author justifies some of her choices; why look at the Homeric texts? Because the classic Greece is represented to herself. The connection between the tragic ones, classic period, and the heroic age is undeniable. However, the author is leaning on historical, anthropologic, psychological studies, she highlights the differences between stories and the Athenian reality of the classic period. Takes position depending on:
'… recent works to how revenge is represented in various literary genres and whether revenge was suppressed in Athenian society or whether it openly flourished. ' (p. 1)
This is the place, the introduction, to say that her work will have a different approach. It is that the author submerges in the heroic age, principally of Iliad and Odyssey, to show what form of revenge, what importance had the revenge in the heroic age, what were the motivations of the protagonists of the action, what significance to the heart of the culture of the ancient Greece. Along with the treatment that the tragic makes revenge of the classical period and looking up the author daily life in the Athenian society through historical evidence, through the laws and compliance, and the administration of justice in the classical period;
'However, there are considerable difficulties in understanding how the situation represented in the sources relates to reality. The prominence of political leaders and mythical characters in the examples skews the picture considerably and it is hard to deduce the behaviour of normal men who are largely ignored in the historical record.' (page 21)
However, McHardy is very careful to observe that the generalization of the topic from the literary, historical and legal evidence, would turn out to be extremely problematic. She takes a risk to consider revenge in all these areas but she has in view the complexity of the situation.
Another one of the controversial questions is to define revenge in these contexts. And she develops the question from the classic distinction between the private and the public, which when the context is legal the word 'revenge' disappears of the vocabulary and the word that appears in its place is 'punishment'.
As for the vocabulary, as for the languages, the author emphasizes the problematic of the topic. And it is one of her many successes. Because the concepts have history. In addition, and adds up to the complexity of the study that, we anticipate, the author develops with great knowledge, dialogs with several experts depending on determining the association between revenge and violence. It is that the author observes that one of her aims '… is to determine where violent responses are most prominent, where other types of response occur and where responses are averted or there is said to be not response at all.' (p. 1)
And it is that the authors investigated by McHardy, '… most frequently associate revenge with violent responses, … ' (p. 1), and the author extends the notion of revenge with the one that is going to be employed in this book, '…other types of response are also categorised here as 'revenge' where they can be shown to be vengeful in spirit.' (p. 1)
Chapter I treats the topic of the revenge in the murder cases. Importantly, the author argues, from the beginning of the book, although that was taken as the natural avenge of a loved one, also there were other motivations of economic, political type, etc; in the end, the author holds that the persons were calculating the risks before entering action. The vindictive action was fitting better in times of war; in times of peace there were other alternatives like the exile, the monetary compensation, the matrimonial alliances, depending on weighing costs and benefits of the action. In this way, it can be read in the literature, where the blood is constituted in an important symbol, the justice is translated in life to life, differently in the laws of the age, where there is written the topic of the exile and of the monetary compensation in the cases that the family of the attacked one was demanding justice in court. Obviously, the claims and wanting to give a fair treatment to the raised questions was preparing problematic situations for the judges. Without legal support, the logic of the revenge is the one that has the power. And here it performs the major importance the condition of genre. The men of the family are the natural carriers of the action. Who does not have men in the family to be avenged, is in problems. Even more, if of the situation having sons was assuring them the possibility of having avengers if it was the case. Throughout the book Mc Hardy indicates that the most important motivation of the men in the protection of the women is the maintenance of the female reproductive resources. For this reason, the action of the women in the avenging action is different from the masculine logic. The woman remains associated in the search of revenge in asking other men to do it for them: persuasion, seduction, deception. They are weak to support the masculine weapon, have their own ones. And if they have the reproductive resources, the author emphasizes that the women take revenge, in case, of the members of her own family; the men avoid such situations, it is strange that happens, the kinship mitigates the conflict between the men. In the Greek texts the women are presented like more bloodthirsty than the men: 'Although there are problems with the historicity of these tales, they attest to the tendency to associate women with brutal revenge acts against their enemies. ' (p. 39):
Electra; Althaea; Alcmena; Hecuba; etc. It is impossible to realize of the quantity of examples on which the author rests, but we want to emphasize, again, the beauty of her presentation. What to say of Homero! Nevertheless, Fiona Mc Hardy's reading embellishes many of his parts. For example, the treatment that the author gives to the topic of the hospitality in the Homeric times.
We said of the importance of the female reproductive resources; we said of the importance of the offspring. When a son dies, dies the family line. In Hecuba, Polymestor's example: here poetical flight acquires the metaphorical relation between the eye as symbol of the offspring, the blindness as the hopelessness, 'While the eyes are simbolic of offspring and the family line, his blind eyes in the play signify his lack of offspring and future hope. The Light of the house has been extinguished for him. '(p. 44)
McHardy at the time treats extensively the masculine situation at the protection towards the women, without stopping emphasizing that it is a very controversial topic, but she stands out, ' Both in mythical stories and in Attica law the most violent and deadly responses are associated with the protection of women and their reproductive resources.' (p. 45)
In general, the examples that happen are the evidence that the author shows: Penelope, Chryseis, Briseis, Helena, symbols of the vital masculine fight about protecting the female reproductive resources.
Medea's case is a particularly violent example that Mc Hardy analyzes in depth. The topic of the protection towards the women is associated with violent responses. Mc Hardy continues her developments approaching the problematic ones of the protection of the property, the insults, the honor, the status, associated also with the violent responses.
Finally, she closes (or rather she opens to the polemic) with the last chapter dedicated to Orestes's motivations, where Orestes's figure serves Mc Hardy to interconnect the whole previous development with regard to the revenge, the conductive thread that runs through the heroic age, follows the classical period, with the tragic, with the Laws Attica, in a painful sort of melody that blends fact and fiction, literature and politics, where no one knows where it starts and ends another.
In her investigation Fiona Mc Hardy discovers new perspectives on Classical literature. The extensive bibliography clarifies a lot of time of study that the author dedicated to these topics. Of note is the practical of the Index Locorum and General Index for a quick search of information. The notes, at the end of the book and numbered according to the chapters, open a vast spectrum to the readers abroad for further investigation.
The book is divided in chapters, that in turn divide in different sub-titles, which gives the work an interesting order that makes the reading bearable when, of not having been like that, could have fail because the author quotes profusely. Situation that comes out of triumphant, because it is really undeniable knowledge of the classic texts.