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Images of violence in the Ancient World

The celebration of frenzy

Munich, 09/30/2013

Flaying, violation, torture and impalement: Artworks and texts from the Ancient World often depict acts of shocking cruelty. Historian Martin Zimmermann explains the rationale behind the aesthetic portrayal of extreme violence.

(Photo: akg-images)
Photo: akg-images

Again the executioner prepares to strike a lethal blow. Decapitated bodies lie about him, but the Roman troops have rounded up still more captives who must be dispatched. Elsewhere, soldiers are dragging women off. Their children cling desperately to them, but the fate that awaits these women is not in doubt. - These bloody images depict the barbaric cruelty of a war of annihilation in which no quarter is given. But they don’t condemn it. On the contrary, they revel in it. This is a public celebration of frenzy. The atrocities depicted in the frieze decorate a pillar set up by order of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius to commemorate his military victories.

Marcus Aurelius ruled from 161 to 180 AD, and is not generally remembered as a bloodthirsty slaughterer. Indeed, he assiduously cultivated an image of himself as a philosopher-king and, under the emperors, Rome experienced relatively long periods of peace and economic prosperity. However, this does not mean that, on the far-flung borders of the Empire, Roman soldiers donned kid-gloves when faced with opposition.

Public displays of savage cruelty
Nevertheless, Martin Zimmermann finds it “surprising” that such shocking images should appear in the city of Rome “in a period when its inhabitants had no direct experience of war”. Trajan’s Column, erected in the early 2nd century AD, also bears many disturbing scenes, including reliefs that show soldiers presenting the heads of their vanquished opponents to the Emperor.

Yet Zimmermann does have a plausible explanation for the frequent exhibition of graphic depictions of merciless cruelty on monuments and public buildings – a practice which seems so incongruous to us. “Even in peacetime, these violent scenes helped to maintain public order because they implicitly conveyed an assurance of internal security and stability. The images demonstrated that the Empire’s pledge to crush its external enemies, in other words, the barbarians living beyond its borders, was no empty promise. Militarized terror was part of the social contract.”

Defining the contours of society
For the past 10 years or so Martin Zimmermann has combed texts and contemplated works of art and architecture from the ancient world in search of portrayals of barbaric acts. The upshot of these endeavors is not a history of violence as such, but rather an outline of how violence was depicted in these societies, and what functions these representations were intended to serve. In his new monograph, Zimmermann states that it is not his intention “to strip away the shimmering classicist and humanist surface of an idealized historical epoch in order to reveal the true physiognomy of the age,” as “that has already been done and does not need repeating.”

Zimmermann is interested in what he calls “communication through violence”, which he regards as “one of the keys to a better understanding of the cultures of Antiquity”. Texts and imagery reflect social, political and cultural attitudes, which are expressed in depictions of violence that are intended “to define ethical and moral contours for society”. These images do not tell us anything about real acts of criminal violence. Instead, they must be seen as part of an effort to achieve “a consensus regarding the rules that govern community life”.

An affirmation of group identity
The graphic and gory nature of these images and imaginings always served to reaffirm the collective identity of those for whom they were created. Take the Assyrian kings in the last pre-Christian millennium, for instance. Their incessant bragging about massacres, torture and fiendishly ingenious torments, and their “ostentatious celebration” of the brutality meted out to all enemies of the realm, were part and parcel of their role model. These boasts even turn up in official proclamations. But, according to Zimmermann, their overbearing tone was not meant to evoke helpless fear of the despot’s power. Instead, it assured the ruler of “the unconditional loyalty of all his subjects”, and it communicated a feeling of security to a civil society that was not at all obsessed with such dark terrors.

The art of the Ancient Greeks is also rich in disturbingly detailed descriptions of acts of extreme violence. Homer’s Iliad, the literary epitome of the entire epoch, consists in large part of battle scenes, with meticulous descriptions of the encounters between heroic warriors and their often ignominious deaths. In the face of ever-present military threats, Homer’s distressing depictions provided examples of “heroic fighting spirit, which his audience could strive to imitate,” Zimmermann says. These scenes proclaim the virtues of the good soldier – fearlessness and steadfastness – as standards worthy of emulation, although they are set in a context that was already remote from the listeners’ world. And indeed, many aristocrats constructed fictitious genealogies connecting their lineages to the poem’s heroes, in an effort to justify their claims to the leadership of their societies, as Zimmermann points out.

The view from the hill
Accounts of violent excesses in Ancient Greece generally serve to reinforce the existing social order, by depicting actions that “overstep the limits that define the community”. The question of the proper place of physical violence in the world order and in human societies is also at the heart of the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles und Euripides. Their dramatis personae are drawn from the epics and, by focusing on the human conflicts and intensifying their mythical, supernatural contexts, the plays deal with the issue on a more elevated plane.

The transition from the mythological to the historical occurs in the works of Herodotus and Thucydides, written in the fifth century BC. Herodotus uses rich, often garish tones to paint a panoramic portrait of the Persian wars as orgies of violence. His stories of atrocities are politically slanted, and he depicts the Persians as grotesque barbarians. Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian wars, on the other hand, is military history written from the generals’ perspective. He provides few explicit descriptions of carnage, using them to illustrate the pathologies of war. However, apart from such transgressions, Thucydides views the use of military force in a positive light.

We are left with the question that Martin Zimmermann has repeatedly asked himself and his students: Was the ancient world more violent than ours? Certainly not, he answers. The exaggerated depictions in the ancient sources cannot be taken at face value: “We simply cannot discern what actually took place,” he says. And anyway, he adds, many people - not unjustifiably - would situate the most egregious instances of state-sanctioned cruelty squarely in the 20th century.

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