Tag Archives: the bacchae

Violence in Literature

The death of Pentheus on an Attic red figure kylix, c. 480 BC

Not too long ago, I was reading a historical novel and wondering if it would be a good present for someone I know. My one concern was the violence — this was a novel about the Roman army, and there were a few battle scenes. And then, maybe the next day (?), I was reading the Aeneid, which includes such passages as this:

Tarquitius next set himself in the path of Aeneas’ fury.
Born to a nymph, Dryope, and fathered by Faunus, the woodlands’
God, he was prancing, proud in his blazing armour. Aeneas,
Hefting a spear, pinned the massive weight of his shield to his breastplate.
As the man begged in vain and prepared to keep pleading, Aeneas
Slashed off his head. When it fell to the ground, he rolled over the headless,
Still warm trunk with his feet… -Aeneid 10.550-556, trans. Ahl

This, I concede, is probably not the most violent scene in the Aeneid, but I hope it suffices as an example. This poem is violent, filled with many grim deaths. But overall, it is worth reading — the violence is part of the story, part of the art, and contributes to the bigger themes I discussed when recommending that you read this epic.

The Aeneid is not the grimmest of Latin epics when it comes to violence. From what I have read so far, that goes to Lucan’s Civil War:

One of the twins dared grab a Roman vessel
from his Greek stern when oars were interlocked
in slanting comb; but a heavy blow from above cut off
his hand, which clung there still, such was the pressure of its grasp
and, holding on with tightened muscles, it grew stiff in death.
In adversity his courage grew: mutilated, his noble wrath
increases and with strong left hand he renews the battle
and leans across the waters to seize his own right hand:
but this hand too with all the arm is severed.
Now without his shield and weapons, he is not hidden deep
inside the ship but exposed, and as he protects with naked breast
his brother’s shield, he stands firm, though pierced by many a spear,
and in a death already well earned he receives the weapons which
in their fall would have killed many of his own people. Then he gathered
into his tired frame the life that was departing by many wounds
and braced his limbs with all the blood remaining
and, though his muscles were failing in their strength, he leaped
on to the enemy ship, to damage it by his weight alone.
-Civil War 3.609-626, trans. Braund

Not the most gruesome death, but possibly one of the most bizarre as Braund observes. This death, which continues on the blood-soaked ship until it sinks, like the others in Lucan, highlights the monstrosity of civil war. There are no heroic deaths here, for the order of the world has been cast awry.

One more example from Latin epic, the death of Pentheus in Ovid, Metamorphoses 3:

… The whole mad throng
Rush at him, all united, and pursue
Their frightened quarry, frightened now for sure,
Now using less fierce language, blaming now
Himself, admitting now that he’s done wrong.
Wounded, he cries, ‘Help, Aunt Autonoe!
Mercy! Actaeon’s ghost should move your mercy!’
Actaeon’s name’s unknown. She tore away
His outstretched hand, and Ino seized and wrenched
The other off. With no hands left to stretch
Out to his mother, ‘Look, mother!’ he cried,
And showed the severed stumps. And at the sight
Agave howled and tossed her head and hair,
Her streaming hair, and tore his head right off,
And, as her bloody fingers clutched it, cried,
‘Hurrah for victory! The triumph’s mine!’
-Trans. A. D. Melville

The Expendables films having nothing on Ovid.

Each of these poems has its violent moments. But each also has wider themes — love, destiny, the wrath of the gods, freedom, glory, right behaviour. The violence and death are not there to be glorified or revelled in. They are subservient to the wider purpose of great poetry. And, whether you like them or not, these three are consummate poets.

Turning back, then, to a modern historical novel, the question should be the same, even if the artistry is not Virgilian, Ovidian, or Lucanian. What does the violence do? Does it propel the plot? Does it deepen a character? Does it expand a theme? Or is it merely titillation for the violent side of males who live in a society that prevents most of them from being legitimately violent?

Once these questions are answered, the rest should fall into place.

“Bacchus who sets us free”

Thus writes Robert Fagles at Aeneid 4.73.  Although Virgil’s Latin (at 4.58) merely says, “patrique Lyaeo” — “and to Father Lyaeus”, one of the names of Dionysus — this phrase makes me ponder, “How does Bacchus set us free?”  Could one, perhaps, through an examination of ancient texts, produce a Dionysian Liberation Theology?*

Bacchus (or Dionysus), if you were wondering, is the god of the ancient pantheon associated with ekstasis — standing outside of oneself — which takes madness as one of its main forms, as we see in Fagles’ translation of Aen. 4.300ff (his 4.373):*

She rages in helpless frenzy, blazing through
the entire city, raving like some Maenad
driven wild when the women shake the sacred emblems,
when the cyclic orgy, shouts of “Bacchus!” fire her on
and Cithaeron echoes round with maddened midnight cries.

Bacchus sets us free.  Dido “rages in helpless frenzy” (my trans.).  And then she “bacchatur” through the whole city (4.301).  What is there of freedom in someone who rages, is helpless, raves, is driven wild, whose actions madden Mt. Cithaeron?

Consider, if you will, the life of an upper-class woman in the Graeco-Roman world.  She sits in the back row at the amphitheatre.  She spends most of her life indoors doing as little work as possible.  She shrouds her head in public.  Her first marriage is probably arranged by her father or some other powerful male relative.  She also has access to education, parties, chariot races, the right to divorce her husband, exotic foods, alcohol in moderation, and so forth.

However, in a world of clearly defined roles and strong, sturdy ideals of pietas — duty to the gods, duty to the family, duty to the country, duty to one’s honour — for both men and women, how does madness not set people free?

A Bacchante, as seen in The Bacchae by Euripides, has the opportunity to dance like a wild woman, to shake the thyrsus (Bacchus’ holy staff), to shake her wild her, to abandon the city and dance on the hills.  She is freed from the need to be decorous, she can live by the motto “Dignity Is for Chumps” as a Bacchante, she is freed from the inhibitions placed on her by herself and her society.  For a time, she is freed from her womanly duties and responsibilities without becoming impia.

Bacchus sets us free.  Father Liber (another name; this one is Roman) is also the god of wine, a substance that has its own dis-inhibiting effect upon people, making it similar to madness.  And since Liber is, himself a lover — “he himself is warmed” by the flame of love (Ovid, Ars Amatoria 1.525) — he helps lovers in their quest for the beloved.  I reckon Ovid recommends the use of wine in the pursuit of one’s beloved, and that Bacchus who sets us free will join in the fight.  It’s not necessarily advice I would give, but there it is in one of our texts.  We are set free by wine — by Father Liber — to find somebody to love.  And since scholars think that Bacchus was originally a fertility god, this only makes sense.

Bacchus sets us free.  Dionysus is also the god of the theatre — hence the City Dionysia in Athens, the great theatre festival whence we gain Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes.  In the theatre, you are freed from your very self.  Standing on the stage, looking out in the crowd of thousands of people, you are not Thespis anymore.  With the mask covering your face, you are an ancient hero, or a slave, or a god, or an aristocratic lady.  You can take the words of the playwright, words wrought to make people think about current affairs, words brought to bring about catharsis, and you can speak them into peoples souls from behind that mask.  And it is not Thespis speaking but another.  You, Thespis, are free, for you are not Thespis.

For us in the modern world, there is much to be liberated from.  And while Bacchus was fake at best and a demon at worst (to take the ancient Christian take on pagan gods), a bit of the Dionysian spirit should hopefully be good for us and set us free.  Freedom from inhibitions.  Freedom from feeling constrained by the necessities of life around us.  Freedom from decorum.  Freedom from lovelessness.  Freedom to be a little crazy.

To quote a non-classical source, “A little madness in the spring is healthy even for the king.” (Emily Dickinson)

*The ancient texts will serve, to some degree, a similar role to that of the Bible in Christian Liberation Theology.