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 a topic that has been treated in many different ways in the history of western thought. Fiona McHardy deals with revenge conceptually and philosophically and poses several interesting questions: the different forms revenge took, its place in Greek culture, its motivations, and the significance of its action. By exploring these questions, McHardy presents new perspectives on revenge in classical literature, especially in the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles.
In the introduction the author states that the topic she is going to approach has long been at the center of academic debate. She starts by justifying some of her choices, such as why include the Homeric texts? Her answer is that the connection between the tragic writers of the classical period and the heroic age is undeniable. However, the author resorts to historical, anthropological, and psychological studies to highlight the differences between myths and the reality of the Athenian classical period. Her main focus, however, is on '… how revenge is represented in various literary genres and whether revenge was suppressed in Athenian society or whether it openly flourished' (p. 1). McHardy clearly states that she will analyse the Iliad and Odyssey to show what the different forms of revenge were in Homeric society, what the motivations of the protagonists of the actions were, and the significance revenge had for ancient Greek culture. When taken together with the treatment of revenge by the Classical writers of tragedy, the author is able to reveal a hidden side of daily life in Athenian society that casts significant light on the administration of justice in the classical period.
McHardy points out that the generalization of the topic from the literary, historical, and legal evidence, is extremely problematic:
'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' (p. 21).She takes a risk in considering revenge in all these areas but she has the complexity of the situation clearly in mind:
'It is not possible to generalize about revenge saying that it was popular ethic applauded by all or an evil force in society which was universally rejected. Instead it is necessary to scrutinize each example carefully' (p. 1)Another controversial question is the definition of revenge in these contexts. McHardy makes the classical distinction between the private and the public senses of the word, in which where 'revenge' turns into 'punishment'. The author also points out the association between revenge and violence. 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). The authors investigated by McHardy, ' . . . most frequently associate revenge with violent responses . . . ' (p. 1), and the author extends the notion of revenge to cover a wide range of behaviours ' . . . other types of response are also categorised here as 'revenge' where they can be shown to be vengeful in spirit' (p. 1).
A prominent topic in the book is revenge expressed through murder. The author states, that although murder was undertaken as the natural vengeance on behalf of a loved one, there were also often economic and political motivations for these actions. In the end, the author holds that people naturally calculated the risks before taking action. Vindictive actions were more suitable in times of war but in times of peace there were other alternatives like exile, monetary compensation, and alliances through marriage, depending on the calculation of the costs and the benefits of the action. Nevertheless, the shedding of blood constitutes an important symbol in Classical literature, and justice is often translated into the taking of life for life, as opposed to the written laws of the time, which laid down penalties of exile and of monetary compensation when the family of the victim demanded justice at court. Obviously, the desire to give fair treatment to such claims resulted in problematic situations for the judges.
Without legal support, the logic of revenge rules. And here gender is of utmost importance. The male members of the family are the natural agents of revenge. Women who do not have men in their family to take revenge on their behalf, are in trouble. Furthermore, having sons assured women of revenge. Consequently male offspring were of vital importantce in ancient Greek society. When a son dies, the family line dies. In the story of Hecuba, Polymestor is an example: 'While the eyes are symbolic 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' (p. 44).
Throughout the book McHardy argues that the most important motivation of men in protecting women was that they thereby maintained control of female reproduction. The stories of Penelope, Chryseis, Briseis, Helena, are all instances of male attempts to protect female reproduction. McHardy comments: '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). The logic of women in seeking revenge is different from that of men. Women seek revenge by asking men to perform it for them. Persuasion, seduction, deception are their weapons. McHardy suggests that in Classical Greece women exploited their reproductive capacity in taking revenge -- even against the members of their own family, whereas men avoided such situations in order to mitigate kinship conflict. In Greek texts women such as Electra, Althaea, Alcmena, and Hecuba are presented as more bloodthirsty than men. As McHardy notes: '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). Medea's case is a particularly violent example that McHardy analyzes in depth.
McHardy goes on to develop her argument to cover the need to protect property, honor, and status. Finally, she closes with the last chapter dedicated to Orestes's motivations. Here the figure of Orestes enables McHardy to link her exposition of revenge from the heroic age through to the classical period of the tragic writers and the laws of Attica, in a painful sort of melody that blends fact and fiction, literature and politics, in which no one knows where one starts and the other ends.