Ancient Classics Early modern Europe Literature

Translating the Canon

By Contributing Writer Julian Koch

Unless we are unashamed linguistic chauvinists, some, maybe most, of the works of literature we consider to be part of any form of literary canon are inevitably written in languages we do not understand, and we read them in translation. Thus, a notion of translation tacitly underlies any notion of canonicity. Yet, our understanding of translation and its place in our thinking—and consequently its bearing on our conception of the canon—has undergone a remarkable but relatively unnoticed change between the Latin Middle Ages and our present day. Today, in English, we take the word translation inevitably to mean the transfer of a work from one language to another. What is translated how, when, and where is fundamental to whether a work can receive admission into the canon.

But this notion of translation as a cross-linguistic transfer is a relatively recent one. It was preceded by a notion of translation that we only rarely stumble upon today: the transfer of something from one place or time to another. The Latin translatio simply means “to carry over,” and in the Latin Middle Ages the term was used accordingly broadly—as the Latin term for metaphor or as the ceremonial transfer of a saint’s relics from one place to another, among many other meanings. The most relevant use of translatio for the notion of canon in the Latin Middle Ages, however, was the idea of a translatio studii et imperii as a spatio-temporal transfer of learning and power. This idea was used by European kings to legitimize their hold on power or by institutions of learning to establish intellectual pedigree. For instance, Chrétien de Troyes writes in his Prologue to Cligès:

Our books taught us Greece was extolled


for learning and for chivalry.

Then chivalry came next to Rome;

now all that knowledge has come home

to France, where, if God has ordained,

God grant that it may be retained.

(ll. 25-42)

Frenchmen drew on the theme of the translatio studii in order to establish the Université de Paris as the center of learning by evoking a temporal continuity between the university and the ancient centres of learning (cf. Jeauneau, Translatio studii, 24-36). If such a historical and locational transfer from venerable ancient institutions was perceived to be successful by enough scholars, legitimacy was bestowed upon the institution that so claimed its lineage.

Similarly, Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire, better known as Barbarossa, legitimated his power by tracing it, in an act of translatio imperii, to Charlemagne’s which, in turn, was understood to have renewed—and therefore received its legitimacy from—the Roman Empire (Curtius, European Literature, 29). Certainly, such claims of translatio studii or translatio imperii were not uncontested by other centers of learning (especially Oxford and Cambridge) or other emperors. Yet, such rivalries shared the core idea that legitimacy was derived from translatio studii et imperii. Whoever established themselves as the translator of knowledge and empire, so to speak, would occupy (or at least claim to) center stage in Christendom and would trace their lineage back to the ancients. The notion of time, which is at the heart of this spatio-temporal translation, was understood to be continuous and linear (Le Goff, Medieval Civilization, 165). Likewise, the spatial horizon implied in the translatio studii et imperii is a universal, not national, one (Curtius, European Literature, 29; on medieval space cf. Le Goff, Medieval Civilization, 138, 165).

This notion of spatio-temporal translation was fundamental to the understanding of canonicity in the Latin Middle Ages. The canon was universal and eternal, irrespective of the fact that the works thought to be comprised within it differed depending on whom was asked.

While spatio-temporal translation was central, cross-linguistic translation played no role in this understanding of canonicity. Even though canonical texts—first and foremost the Old Testament—were often read in (cross-linguistic) translation, this was not acknowledged. In fact, the Church actively suppressed any notion of the Vulgate being a translation of the (mostly Hebrew) Old Testament (Weissbort and Eysteinsson, Translation, 100), and interdicted any translation of it into other languages.

How we view canonicity along the lines of languages as well as time and space changed considerably with Dante’s Convivio and De vulgari et eloquentia (both written in the first decade of 1300). Dante made the canon malleable by language and thereby gave the canon spatial and temporal specificity. Certainly, in his Convivio, written in vernacular, Dante holds that: “Latin is eternal and incorruptible, while the vernacular is unstable and corruptible” (Book 1, Chapt 5). Yet, despite the eternal status of Latin, Dante writes most of his works in (Tuscan) vernacular. Dante’s conflicting relationship with the vernacular is perhaps most apparent when his De vulgari et eloquentia emphatically communicates the possibility of a vernacular aesthetics rivaling that of Latin, despite the work itself being written in Latin. His Magnum Opus the Divina Commedia, of course, is written in vernacular. The Commedia’s reception into the canon inevitably introduced the vectors of time and space into the notion of canonicity, since  “our [vernacular] language can be neither durable nor consistent with itself; but […] it must vary according to distances of space and time” (De vulgari et eloquentia, Book 1, Chapt 9). Despite these developments, the crucial role of translation in creating the canon was still awaiting full acknowledgement.

Five-hundred years later, it was Goethe who went beyond the mere inadvertent admission of the canon’s changeability because it now comprised works written in languages reflecting the spatio-temporal vicissitudes of daily life. Goethe rethought the notion of canonicity altogether. Goethe’s canon—his Weltliteratur (world literature)—comes into being through a different notion of translation. Whereas the Latin Canon relies on the mechanism of historical transfer with implicit claims to universal validity in its translatio studii et imperii situating the canon in a realm beyond time and space, Goethe’s world literatureis characterised by a geographical and temporal concurrency enabled by cross-language translation.

Goethe envisions a highly unusual notion of cross-language translation, as he explains in his notes to the West-Eastern Divan. He believes that there are three successive epochs of translation, and in the third, most radical epoch, the translation takes the original’s place and assumes its identity (258; for this interpretation see also Olschner 153). We could not imagine a more decisive departure, at least in theory, from the principles of the medieval canon which was thought to comprise timeless and placeless original works. As we saw, even if the Vulgate Bible was a translation, its canonical status was possible only by the Church’s rigorous exorcising of the notion that it was not an original. Goethe, however, believes that, at least in the third, most mature, epoch of translation, the duality of the original and its translation is transcended (256).

Unfortunately, Goethe remained famously opaque on how these epochs are reached, and it is unclear exactly what transcending the duality of translation and original means for translation in practical terms. Furthermore, Goethe did not always practice what he preached. Indeed in some of his musings on the German language, Goethe seems to attempt a form of translatio studii when he claims that the German language is the true inheritor of Greek and Latin (Krobb, “Priapean Pursuits,” 6).

Goethe’s flaws in formulating notwithstanding, his message of the age of world literature enabled by translation gained currency. Perhaps surprisingly, given that he was later ennobled, Goethe’s message resonated with two figures who sought to fundamentally transform European politics: Marx and Engels. Perhaps the most radical pronunciation and enactment of world literature by cross-linguistic translation is found in their Communist Manifesto (published anonymously). The Manifesto embraces world literature and in so doing its perspective is decidedly geopolitical and contemporaneous. All trace of translatio studii et imperii is gone. Rather, the Manifesto’s purpose was to spread the idea of Communism presently and as far as possible—a task only achievable through translation.

Thus, in order to facilitate translations, it seems that Marx and Engels resorted to a remarkable ploy: they concealed the Manifesto’s original language. Consequently, we have the curious situation that the authors call for the Manifesto to be published in—and thus translated into—a variety of languages without giving any indication of the original language (Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution, 51). In accordance with such ideas of linguistic and translational relativity, the Manifesto was, at times, even translated from translations (Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution 53).

Endowing translation with such importance may seem exaggerated, especially given that translations only make up 3% of the UK and US book market. However, a look at canons tells a different story. Harold Bloom’s The Western Canonlists Henryk Ibsen, among 13 other non-English authors (out of a total of 26), whose original works would be intelligible only to Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish speakers—a group comprising only about 20 million people. Broader and more multicultural, the recent Norton Anthology of World Literature consists almost entirely of translated works. Cross-language translation is so prominent in canons that they do not exist without it. Given the near-universal presence of (cross-language) translation in canons, we are well into Goethe’s third epoch and the real issue is to remain aware that many, probably most, of “our” canonical works are only accessible to us as translations.

Julian Koch is a German and Translation Studies Teaching Fellow at the University of Warwick. His research interests include Translation, Post-WWII German and French poetry, narratology, documentaries on genocide, analytical approaches to continental philosophy (esp. Kant), and philosophical notions of the imagination (18-19th century).

Ancient Classics empire history of science Mediterranean Political history

Divi filius: The Comet of 44 BCE and the Politics of Late Republican Rome

By guest contributor Dora Gao

Celestial objects and events have appeared in the historical record for a myriad of reasons, serving as portents of either fortune or doom or asserting the divine authority of a ruler. The comet of 44 BCE is one example of the way in which astronomy played a role in political narratives, given its use to legitimate the young Octavian (later known as Augustus) as a significant and serious figure in the politics of the late Roman Republic. We can look at the fact of this comet’s occurrence and its interpretation as a case study to examine the use of celestial phenomena as a sociopolitical tool.

The comet of 44 allegedly appeared in the sky over the funeral games that Octavian had put on for his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, in July of that year. As Octavian himself would later write in his Memoirs, “On the very days of my games, a comet (sidus crinitum) was visible over the course of seven days, in the northern region of the heavens (= near Ursa Major). It rose at about the eleventh hour of the day (= ~5 – 6:15 PM) and was bright and plainly seen from all lands” (Memoirs, fr. 6 [Malcovtai], translation and interpretation by Ramsey and Licht). According to Octavian’s testimony, “the common people believed the comet to signify that the soul of Caesar had been received among the spirits of the immortal gods” (Memoirsfr. 6 (Malcovtai)).

The comet and its interpretation had significant ramifications given the political climate of the late Roman Republic. With a growing schism between the conservative senatorial faction and popular politicians that culminated in the assassination of Caesar and threatened open civil war, the Roman Senate was facing a leadership vacuum. Though Caesar had named Octavian as his son in his will, Octavian was only eighteen years old with no political or military experience at the time, and had been adopted by Caesar only months before. There was no reason for the Roman Senate to view him as a legitimate contender for leadership. The fortuitous appearance of the comet in July, then, presented an opportunity for Octavian to distinguish himself. 

In order to examine the role that the comet of 44 played in Roman politics, it is first necessary to evaluate whether there was any comet at all. Though some may argue that the existence of the comet is secondary to its impact on Roman history, it is important, for our purposes, to question whether the comet’s existence in Augustan imagery may have been prompted by an actual celestial event. Such an inquiry is necessary to distinguish whether political messages were created in response to astronomical phenomena, or whether existing methods of discourse regarding heavenly bodies alone shaped the form of propaganda. The case for the comet certainly appears suspect, given that the first attestation of its existence is from Octavian’s own Memoirs. Astronomers, furthermore, would ideally verify any comet with six unique parameters and then use the information to cross reference with a catalogued comet, but the paucity of rigorous astronomical data on this comet from our ancient sources makes it impossible to verify its existence under these standards.

Despite these problems, we cannot  say conclusively that the comet did not exist. First, the Romans were not particularly disciplined about their stargazing at this time; thus, the lack of any astronomical records is not indicative of the lack of astronomical events. Second, the fact that the comet cannot be identified in our existing catalogue does not necessarily mean that it did not appear over Rome. The best orbital reconstruction scholars have managed given available data indicates that the comet likely would have had an unstable orbit that takes several hundred years to complete. As such, it likely would have been thrown off course before it returned to Earth to be catalogued during a second viewing (Ramsey and Licht, The Comet of 44 B.C. and Caesar’s Funeral Games, 124-5). 

So scholars cannot rule out the existence of the comet from incomplete evidence. Furthermore, historical context and Roman attitudes towards celestial phenomena provide a compelling case  for its occurrence . The Romans, up to Octavian’s time, had viewed comets as bearers of misfortune and did not often receive them with optimism (e.g. Cicero, De Divinatione If there had in fact been a comet, one can imagine that Octavian might have felt the need for an interpretation advantageous to himself—or, at the very least, as something less ominous than usual readings of a comet, especially in light of the political situation at Rome. If there had been no comet, however, Octavian would have picked a surprisingly inconvenient object to construct in his favor. In addition to the traditional stigma attached to comets, a bright object that allegedly could have been seen from all lands and that remained in the sky for seven days would have by no means been an easy event to fake. More likely than not, then, the appearance of a comet in Octavian’s earliest messaging was due to a real, unexpected celestial phenomenon.

If the evidence suggests that the comet of 44 did indeed exist, the next question we must ask is how did Octavian deal with this phenomenon? Interestingly, the appearance of the comet in Octavian’s early political imagery was not the result of existing Roman discourse regarding the positive significance of comets. Instead, it was a response to a natural event of ominous nature which was then reinterpreted and redefined within a new and specific political context. By claiming the comet to be a sign of Julius Caesar’s deification, Octavian was also asserting himself as a divi filius, the son of a god. Such a statement had two immediately advantageous effects for the eighteen year-old: first, it established a clear legitimizing link between himself and his adoptive father; and second, it allowed him to showcase his commitment to filial and religious piety. 

Denarius minted by Augustus depicting himself on the obverse, the comet of 44 and divus Iulius (the divine Julius) on the reverse, c. 19-18 BCE (

Octavian’s bond with his adoptive father was tenuous compared to Caesar’s long-time relationships with his trusted generals and advisors. The teenage Octavian’s only legitimizing quality lay in his adoption by Caesar, and he thus would have benefited greatly from creating additional connections. Octavian had already begun to strengthen the relationship through the funeral games, themselves a public display of Octavian’s filial piety towards his late father. His declaration of Caesar’s apotheosis during those games would have further validated the association, since Caesar’s soul was rising to heaven during the time at which his son chose to honor him. 

Given the love for Caesar that the people of Rome held at this time, this ostentatious display of the link between Octavian and his adoptive father led both the general public and Caesar’s troops to view the former in favorable light and as a worthy successor to their beloved Caesar. This one claim would have been key in helping Octavian win the support he needed from the people and the legions, both vital constituencies for gaining political footing in Rome (Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, 34).

The comet, as a symbol of Julius Caesar’s divinity, furthermore, granted Octavian the occasion to display both filial and religious piety and portray himself as a responsible youth dedicated to the moral traditions of the Republic. This in turn helped Octavian win the trust of the Senate and his first military command, aiding Decimus Brutus, upon whom Antony was laying siege at Mutina in 43. Indeed, the orator Cicero, who had been unwaveringly suspicious of Octavian only months before, wrote a letter to one of his confidants announcing his support of the protective force (praesidium) that the outstanding youth (puer egregious) had raised for the res publica (Cicero, Fam. XII 25.4). In a political landscape where Octavian needed to build his moral credibility over more seasoned politicians and generals, the comet provided him a way to capitalize upon an astronomical event and demonstrate his commitment to the Republic.

While we certainly cannot go so far as to say that the comet alone catalyzed Octavian’s rise within Roman politics, we can draw a clear narrative line between the fortuitous appearance of a celestial event and its appearance within the early self-fashioning of Rome’s first emperor. Though Roman political discourse had previously incorporated other celestial events, the use of comets as a symbol of divinity was a precedent set by Octavian through the comet of 44. For example, Suetonius writes that Vespasian famously joked, upon seeing a comet on his deathbed, “Woe’s me. Methinks I’m turning into a god” (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian 23.4). His interpretation of this phenomenon and the ways in which he used its appearance for his own political gain demonstrate both the role that astronomy played in the political life of Rome as well as its potential to shape the way in which Romans conceived of imperial legitimacy.

Dora Gao is an MA student in the Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies department at the University of British Columbia. She is interested in the mythology and cult worship of Diana/Artemis and the ways in which they inform the construction of identity for various groups under the Roman Empire.

Ancient art history Book reviews Classics

On Lately Looking Into Twombly’s Homer

By Contributing Writer Jeremy Glazier

When John Keats first looked into George Chapman’s rendition of Homer in 1816, he stayed up all night reading the two-hundred-year-old translation with his friend Charles Cowden Clarke and left us with a brief but white-hot record of that transformative encounter: a sonnet, composed on the two-mile walk home from his friend’s house in the wee hours. He was twenty-one years old, with four years left to live and nearly all of his important works yet to come. Cy Twombly (1928-2011) was also in his twenties when he discovered Homer, perhaps at Washington and Lee in 1949, or the following year at Black Mountain College under the tutelage of the poet Charles Olson. In any case, Twombly’s own artistic response to Homer would take longer to germinate than Keats’s—but when it did, it resulted in one of the most extraordinary works of art in the twentieth century: an epic ten-painting sequence, Fifty Days at Iliam.

Two recent books on Twombly offer new insights into a sequence that Carlos Basualdo calls “one of Twombly’s most ambitious and successful works of art” (167). Basualdo is the Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Curator of Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the paintings have been housed since 1989, and the editor of the museum’s new catalogue, Cy Twombly: Fifty Days at Iliam (Yale UP, 2018). The book not only presents large, full-color prints of the sequence and many related works in the museum’s collection, it also gathers critical appraisals and commentary from art historians, classical scholars, and others. Twombly started work on the sequence in 1977 at the villa he had bought and restored in Bassano, Italy; he was fifty years old. Photographs of the house and Twombly’s studio, taken during this time, help to situate the paintings—which are also shown in their context on the museum’s walls—in the milieu that inspired them. As Joshua Rivkin has noted in another new book—published, coincidentally, the same day as the museum’s catalogue—these works “were as influenced by the interior spaces of Bassano” as they were by the Iliad (216).

Rivkin, Joshua (C) Mary Burge
Caption and credit for the headshot of Rivkin:
Joshua Rivkin Photo: ©  Mary Burge

Rivkin has written a compelling biography/memoir, Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly (Melville House, 2018), which weaves together the familiar elements of biography—the letters, journals, and ephemera that make up a life, compiled over the course of a decade—with Rivkin’s own metanarrative: his personal encounters with the paintings and with the people who guard Twombly’s legacy. Rivkin too has been to Bassano, accompanied by Twombly’s son Alessandro, to absorb the spirit of the place. Interspersed with his insightful commentary is another story, that of the writer chasing the shadow of his inspiration, trying to grasp the intangibles, make sense of something—call it genius—that’s not quite rational. In that sense, Rivkin is not unlike a translator: Pope or Chapman, seeking to transform one thing into another so as to be newly perceptible.

Rivkin, a poet, former Fulbright Scholar, and Stegner Fellow, takes a characteristically readerly approach to Twombly’s paintings: the canvases are texts to be read, texts that are themselves readings of Pope’s Iliad, which of course is a reading of Homer’s Iliad, which is a reading of one of the foundational myths of Western civilization. But “Twombly’s work resists an easy reading” (88), and Rivkin’s method, at once impressionistic and sharply focused, is not without its pitfalls: “in Twombly’s hand, one word can become another, and even scholars who spend hours looking mistake dreams for alarms, mistake one meaning for another” (89). The process of interpreting art, like the process of creating it, often isn’t rational. “Instead,” Rivkin explains, “I let myself experience them without trying to impose a narrative.” (80)

Yet narratives sometimes emerge anyway. The “cloud-like” red, blue, and white figures of Shades of Achilles, Patroclus, and Hector, the centerpiece of the sequence, “represent the dead heroes—these fuzzy ghosts, these spirits made flesh” (218). This painting—the one facing the visitor when first stepping through the gallery door—is for Rivkin the series’ emotional apex: “Death, these cloudbursts say, is waiting.” Other apexes appear in the form of the Greek letter delta (Δ), in red, which Twombly uses for the “A” in names like Achilles and Achaeans. Rivkin sees these not just as “triangles and names and phallic figures” but also as warriors “charging around the viewer in a frenzied rush” (217). There are no color plates in Chalk, unfortunately, but Rivkin’s readings of the canvases provides as intimate encounter with the paintings as can be hoped for in print—and a valuable supplement to the catalogue (or, better yet, to a visit to the museum).

In her essay “Adapting Homer Via Pope” in the museum’s catalogue, Emily Greenwood argues that Fifty Days at Iliam is “an important intervention in the history of Homeric translation and adaptation in the twentieth century” (73). As Olena Chervonik points out in “Study for the Presence of a Myth,” “Twombly’s artistic engagement with the ancient epic is not that of an illustrator, elucidating the twists and turns of a well-defined story” (90). Instead, he uses Homer’s “text as a springboard to dive into the complex history of the Trojan War.” Another word for that kind of springboard or intervention is ekphrasis. Usually we think of ekphrasis as a written, poetic description of a work of visual art, such as W. H. Auden’s famous “Musée des Beaux Arts,” with its comment on Breugel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. The classic example comes from Homer himself: the description of Achilles’s shield in Book 18 of the Iliad. But in the broader sense ekphrasis is the rendering of one art form into another, a sort of alchemy in which a work is transmuted from one medium into another.

In fact, The Shield of Achilles is the first painting of Twombly’s sequence, located just outside the main room in the Philadelphia museum where the others are essentially lined up for battle, Trojans on one side, Achaeans on the other. Twombly’s depiction of the shield represents a kind of meta-ekphrasis: it is a rendition on canvas of Homer’s famous depiction of the shield—though Rivkin argues that Twombly’s picture “is closer to Auden’s dark poem [with] its scenes of violence and nightmare, ‘barbed wire’ and ‘a sky like lead’” (217): in any case, a painting about a poem about a shield forged by a god as a cosmological map of the world. It’s practically a nesting doll of meaning, an omphalos awaiting skepsis. “In a way,” Rivkin muses, “Twombly always wants it both ways—to be figurative, calling forth the past, an invocation of a lost world and to have the gesture mean gesture. The line is the line.” (229)

Of course, it was Pope’s lines that Twombly’s work traces. As Greenwood notes, “Twombly ostensibly starts with a line of Homer, Englished by Pope […] and then in a process that both departs radically from and is consistent with the highly visual imagination of Homer’s traditional oral poetics, starts putting abstract lines to the war” (82). (Twombly owned a gorgeous copy of Pope’s translation, she relates in a note: an octavo second edition from 1720.) He also, according to Chernovik, “read and reread Homer in renditions from Roman times by Virgil and Apollodorus” and was familiar with Constantine Cavafy’s interpolations of Homer’s stories (89-90). Many of the twentieth century’s greatest masters turned to mythological themes for their muse—but few of them seem to have absorbed Homer’s text as fully as Cy Twombly did, particularly in Fifty Days at Iliam.

Cy Twombly: Fifty Days at Iliam and Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly (photo by the author for JHIBlog)

The two books taken together, then, present something like a master class in reading Twombly’s masterpiece: text, context, subtext, paratext. As Rivkin notes, “They are paintings to be seen all together, the drama of the whole, and to be observed one at a time” (216). Seeing the complete sequence in Basualdo’s catalogue’s high-quality reproductions is perhaps the next best thing to seeing them in sitio. The paintings and their provenance only make up a small portion of Chalk, but their story is at the very center—both literally and figuratively—of Rivkin’s indispensable book. Ultimately, he insists, the paintings represent “not Homer or Pope’s Trojan War but Twombly’s” (216). And thanks to these two very different but complementary studies, it’s now ours too, to read, to translate, to look at and into—perhaps with that same “wild surmise” Keats felt on first looking into Chapman’s Homer.

Jeremy Glazier is a poet, an essayist, and a two-time recipient of the Ohio Arts Council’s Individual Excellence Award in Criticism. You can read his essays on Alex Dimitrov, Don Share, Stéphane Mallarmé, and others in The Los Angeles Review of Books. His poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Antioch Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and many other journals. He lives in Columbus, Ohio and is Associate Professor of English at Ohio Dominican University. Email him at

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A ‘Rape’ by Any Other Name: Against Teaching ‘Abductions’ in Greek Art

By Contributing Writer Rebecca Levitan

When I began studying ancient Greek art as an undergraduate student, I was initially disturbed by the detailed depictions of violence against women. I was also confused that some of the most graphic of these images occurred in the art of the Classical period, which had been introduced to me as the apogee of democracy and reason. Yet, satyrs on vases grasped at fleeing maenads (in the new technology of red figure!). A temple dedicated to a god who had saved the local population from plague was adorned with images of both men on horseback and centaurs attacking women, some of whom clung to cult statues, praying (unsuccessfully) for sanctuary from violation (Figure 1). The shield of the statue of Athena Parthenos, a female deity and the patron goddess of democratic Athens, was similarly decorated with violent scenes of heroic Greek men attacking female figures.

Women with cult statue of Artemis being accosted by centaur
Figure 1: Two women have sought sanctuary at the temple. The woman on the left supplicates to the goddess for safety, while the other – on the right – clings to a wooden cult statue. Their pleas, however, are ignored, by the attacking centaur. Scene from the frieze of the temple of Apollo at Bassae, late 5th century B.C.  

My freshman art historical anxieties were quickly quelled by some iconographical clarification. As my professor explained:

Yes, we do sometimes call these images where women are grabbed or carried off by strange men and hybrid monsters “rapes,” but this is a quirk of translation, coming from the Latin/Italian rapere/rapina, which means “seizure” or “robbery.”

My eighteen-year-old brain did not think to ask what the terms for “rape” would be, which, of course, are also rapere/rapina.

The explanation continued:

Those women being speared and trampled on in the 101 lecture slides? They aren’t normal women, but mythological Amazons. See how their dress is different than the upright maidens of the Erechtheion–how they wear short costumes and ride horses themselves? These aren’t real ladies.

Subtext: They are as abstract as the [female] sphinxes and sirens and gorgons that Greek heroes had every right to cut down.  

My professor also explained that depictions of violence against Persians, Giants, Amazons, and Centaurs were probably understood in much the same way for an ancient Greek viewer, despite the fact that some of these opponents were mythological while others were inspired by real life enemies of the Greeks (see the metopes of the Parthenon for an example). Modes of classification within the field of Classical Art History have maintained this ancient outlook.

And thus, I learned to label all sorts of attacks within the broader lexicon of Greek violence. Just as the battles of the Olympian gods against the Titans became the “Gigantomachy,” the aggression of heroic nude Greek men against these short-skirted women became “Amazonomachy.” Without a knowledge or vocabulary of “othering,” my freshman-self found this distancing terminology all very comforting. The same went for scenes of individual women being seized. I even remember as an upperclassman confidently reassuring a younger student not to be alarmed by the presence of the word “rape” on a lecture handout. “It means something different here, just abduction.” I happily consumed this terminological Kool Aid well into my graduate studies in Greek and Roman art. I believe there are two reasons why.

The first is the complexity of classical visual narrative. When it comes to Greek iconography – and the larger visual tradition that it inspired – images are usually coded with secondary meanings. Once trained, we can read these attributes/signs and then piece together the ancient narrative, usually familiar from mythology or epic. The process of close looking, and associated terminology that we employ in this practice, prioritize zooming in – searching for the minuscule and then categorizing it. Learning this visual code is part of the reason that the study of these objects requires significant art historical training, and why the endeavor is worth it. To search for these clues and then recognize a scene can be very rewarding.

However, close looking can come at the expense of the bigger picture questions: what do these scenes signify, and why were they appealing to ancient viewers and consumers? We have built such a deliberate disciplinary focus on detail that the larger context of viewing in the ancient world is often neglected. An exception to this might be the viewing context of the Athenian symposium, or all male drinking party, which is well documented in both the literature (think Plato) and material evidence (lots of the painted pottery that survives from antiquity). But participation in the symposium was limited to a small, male, cross-section of society.

The second, related, impediment to a big-picture analysis of ancient images of violence comes from the fact that Greek imagery of rape does not directly depict the forced sex act itself. Instead, we are often shown the moments just before, when the victims – usually women but sometimes girls and boys – are seized unwillingly. Explicit depictions of penetration do occur in Greek Art, but are usually reserved for other (non-mythological) contexts, such as depictions of sex which occurred in the sphere of the aforementioned symposium, or in grotesque scenes of satyrs.

Some have interpreted this  as evidence that ancient authors and artists did not have a concept of rape and therefore the term abduction is more appropriate. I beg to differ. Who actually believes that grabbing and carrying off is where things end? We only need to look so far as the Homeric heroes, the good guys, and their treatment of captive figures like Briseis and Cassandra for a not-so-good clue (Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2: Homeric hero Ajax the Lesser and Trojan Princess Cassandra (central figures), in front of the Palladion (cult statue of Athena), 6th century B.C.

Figure 3: Another scene of Ajax and Cassandra, painted about a century later than Fig 2, and in the red figure technique. Although the violence and nudity is less graphic, the coded meaning is the same.

Many classicists, archaeologists, and art historians have also been happy to accept the caprice of rapes that involve trickery as somehow being something more palatable. As classicist Mary Lefkowitz has written

In the case of myths involving the unions of gods and goddesses with mortal men and women, we should talk about abduction or seduction rather than rape, because the gods see to it that the experience, however transient, is pleasant for the mortals. Moreover, the consequences of these unions are usually glorious for the families of the mortals involved, despite and even because of the suffering that the individual members of the family may undergo. (17)

Those teaching the visual representations of such scenes seem to be in agreement. If there isn’t a fitting term for the events when one of the participants is a swan, or a shower or gold, or a bull, or an eagle, then it’s just an embrace or a visit from Zeus… right? Perhaps part of the reason that many academics have accepted and employed alternative terms such as abduction or seduction instead of rape is that the alternative experience for the scholar is pretty unsavory. A literal description of the events underlines the fact that these are not images made for equal enjoyment by all ancient viewers. An explicit label of rape in the classroom would demand that we confront the inherent violence, misogyny, and alarming nature of these images, an act that may be triggering both for students and instructors.

I recently listened to a report by a scholar at an archaeological site in which the presenter explained that the Greeks were capable of portraying consent (or lack thereof) in their art, a helpful first step in moving away from the seduction paradigm. He cited the spectacular painting from a Macedonian tomb, where Persephone looks absolutely terrified and resists Hades as he drags her down into the underworld (Figure 4). The presenter was absolutely right to point out that this is not an image of healthy consent. But he also neglected to mention that the visible lack thereof was probably part of the larger appeal of the scene for male viewers: it was a turn on. The erotic aspect of Persephone’s resistance was resonant nineteen centuries later, when the scene was taken up by Bernini in Rome, creating perhaps the most compelling passage in marble ever carved. The same phenomenon of visual consumption seems to have persisted even into the notoriously stuffy Victorian period, when classicism served as a guise and pretext for the consumption of texts and display of images that would never otherwise have been acceptable, as evidenced by the popularity of sculptures like Hiram Powers Greek Slave or paintings like Solomon J. Solomon’s Ajax and Cassandra.

Figure 4: A wall painting from a Hellenistic tomb depicting the ‘Rape/Abduction of Persephone’: Hades, a mature god (center right), forcibly captures Persephone, a maiden goddess. Although she resists, he has dragged her onto her his chariot, which races down to the Underworld, where she will become his wife. Her mother, the goddess Demeter (rightmost), looks on in horror. Vergina, 4th century B.C.

I am not advocating that we avoid teaching with the images because they are uncomfortable. Even without the rosy glow of the minimizing terminology of abduction, I still think these are important works of art, deserving of study and contextualization in their own time. But rather, I hope that as instructors we can only agree to teach them if we are prepared to confront what is really happening and reflect on what that says about ancient viewers and ourselves. Moralizing won’t do much to change the reality of the situation. As a survey of some mainstream contemporary porn websites or the popularity of television shows like Game of Thrones can attest, the ancient people commissioning, making, and enjoying this ancient media weren’t so different from us. Depictions of sex and violence created for entertainment’s sake still sell, and the fascination they provoke is likely simply part of the human condition. However, the nature of representations of sexual violence, along with the context in which they are viewed and the words used to describe them, are mirrors that reflect the viewers and patrons of this type of imagery and the societies that they inhabit.

In the meantime, as scholars and educators, we can at least take a tiny step to correct the linguistic distancing so common in our teaching: let’s be explicit in the terminology we use to describe these scenes and explain to our students and readers why. Yes, these figures in Greek art are mythological and can be categorized; they are Lapiths, and Amazons, and war captives, and Nymphs. But they are also women and young men being raped, the action is simply shown using an implicit visual alphabet. These are not rapes because of some quirk of transliteration, nor are they abductions. These are coded representations of the act that we have been sidestepping and ignoring. Sugarcoating what we see in Greek Art or hiding behind arcane terminology does no favors to those who are interested in history, classical material culture, or sexuality.

Furthermore, let’s be honest about the context of these images. They were ubiquitous enough to appear in both sacred and profane contexts, in the home and in public, and in objects used by the living and dedicated to the dead. Perhaps more uncomfortably, the images were likely so popular because of their ability to titillate and excite the typical ancient audience for art – namely male viewers. And the consumption of these types of images did not end with the ancients. Rather, the perceived authority and purity associated with the Classical world allowed for their perpetuation throughout the history of Western Art.

These images depict rapes in every sense of the word. To state this aloud may rub against modern sensibilities, yes, but it does not mean that these images are not beautifully rendered, or important. How instructors should deal with this fact in the age of #metoo and trigger warnings is debatable. But it’s truth is not.

Calling out the act we see so often in Greek art (without quotations or caveats) will inevitably change the set of conversations around the images, but this change is necessary and overdue, and I hope that scholars will embrace the discomfort that comes with an honest assessment of this genre of classical iconography. After all, language choices make a difference in our own learning, published scholarship and teaching. The effects of these choices may be lingering, not only in our own work, but the way our students process images, as I hope my own experience as an undergraduate student illustrates.

Enough with abductions. In our teaching and in our scholarship, let’s call a spade a spade and a rape a rape.

With many thanks to M. Glennon, J. Stager, and D. O’Leary for their comments and insights.

Rebecca Levitan is a PhD candidate in Art History. She has been studying the material culture of classical antiquity in the classroom, museum, and on site for about ten years. In 2018 she was the recipient of a graduate student teaching award from UC Berkeley.


Classics Conferences JHI

May 3, 2019 Lovejoy Lecture (Philadelphia)

For those in Philadelphia on May 3rd, feel warmly welcome to attend the 2019 Lovejoy Lecture, sponsored by the JHI. Professor Joy Connolly will discuss “Agency and Imagination in the Making of Classical Canons,” harmonizing with the theme of the JHI Graduate Symposium taking place that day.