In the second century, the travel writer Pausanias traced his way along the sanctuaries of the Acrocorinth, the rough, rocky mountain that rises abruptly to the south of the city of Corinth. According to Pausanias, as you hiked from the city up the Acrocorinth, where the cult of the city goddess Aphrodite long existed, you would pass several sacred sites. There were two precincts of Isis, two of Serapis, then altars to Helios, and then “a consecrated site (hieron) both to Anagkē and Bia [that is, Necessity and Violence], into which it is not customary to enter.” Above this, Pausanias wrote, was a temple to the mother of the gods and a throne, and then a temple of the Moirai, the Fates (Paus. Descr. 2.4.7). I want us to pause at Pausanias’s mention of “a hieron both to Necessity and Violence, into which it is not customary to enter.”
Thanks to books like Christopher Frilingos’s Spectacles of Empire: Monsters, Martyrs, and the Book of Revelation, we are well-schooled on violence in the Roman world. This is a world in which gruesome executions were not only conducted in public spaces but also fixed in representations, whether literary or in mosaics. Something we might call violence was publicly on display, or hidden in plain sight, or at least something to be acknowledged as you passed her hieron on the Acrocorinth. To give another example, in the theater at Hierapolis, in modern-day Turkey, carved reliefs tell the story of Niobe. She boasted that she was greater than Latona; Latona had two children, Artemis and Apollo. What are two children compared to her twelve? Niobe wondered. She had a point. To produce and raise twelve children you must have godlike strength. But she was punished for her hubris and the boast. In the carved marble frieze at Hierapolis you can see the twelve children tumbled, their carved bodies at the moment of or just before their deaths, the last breaths filling the bodies, expanding the smooth muscles limb over limb, the wind catching up the diaphanous robes, folds carefully windblown, unnatural to stone. Artemis and Apollo did them in. What would it mean to enact stories in the theater under this imagery? Was the violence bothersome? Tutelary? Not considered violence but divine justice? And what would it mean to carve the story? The strain of telling it in the stark sunlight, day after day through the sculptor’s work of point chisel, toothed scraper, rasp, hand-held drill. So many tools for the travertine. A long time to watch the story lift itself up from under your hands. The maker, the viewer, the performer, the audience might think through this enfolding of theology and violence: What could make us equal to the gods? Who can boast before the gods? What might the gods do to us?
In his prompt to the panelists, Professor Frilingos asked: “What is gained by including ‘representations of violence’ in the name of the section?” In my memory, this is a central issue debated by the steering committee in its planning sessions, in its evaluations, and the sessions themselves. What is gained or lost by laying violence alongside representations of violence? How much violence, and how real, is enough for consideration in our panels? Underlying this question, I think, is some ethical anxiety. If we focus primarily on representations of violence, might the program unit become ludic, even flip, in its consideration of violence? Might it lose its ethical center? The program unit was originally founded as a consultation in 2002, originating soon after 9/11 and was spearheaded by feminist scholars like Professor Shelly Matthews; its bones were knit together in a moment of crisis and its panelists have returned, at times, to a commitment to expose the intersections of religion and violence, no matter how difficult each term is to define. As I sifted through my memories, I realized that the thing that most troubled me in my years of co-chairing the steering committee was how we could cultivate this program unit’s commitment to ethics: to exposing and owning violence in the traditions we study, to thinking about how historical materials are good to think with as we face violence today.
In the program unit, scholars have struggled with the question of violence or representations of violence. We can see this in some titles of individual papers like William Gruen’s 2005 “Symbolic and Real Violence in Fourth-Century Alexandria” or Jennifer Knust’s 2007 “Sacred Text and Symbolic Violence in the Epistles of Ambrose of Milan.” In 2006 we organized an entire panel titled “Fantasies of Violence.” These papers and panels, gesturing at the complexity of the interplay between violence and its representations, can be contrasted with David Frankfurter’s 2009 title, “‘I’m Gonna Burn You Alive and Your God Gothos Too!’: Two Coptic Legends of Righteous Homicides by Monks and Their Interpretation,” and Steven Weitzman’s possibly more sober paper from 2011: “Can Scholarship Counter Violence: Seeking Answers a Decade after 9/11.”
I’d like to suggest, retrospectively and prospectively, that these questions of ethics and of the relation between violence and its representations should remain at the heart of the projects of Violence and Representations of Violence and that there is also a way to resolve it. How might we move past the binary of representation versus reality?
Bia in Antiquity
Pausanias’s mention of a hieron of Bia (Violence) on the Acrocorinth raises questions: Did a representation of Bia lie within this hallowed site? We know of depictions of her on ceramics of the classical period. What is the meaning and significance of some representation of her, whether personified or perhaps concealed within the hieron Pausanias mentions, in the Roman period?
Pausanias’s is not the only such reference to propitiations or depictions of a personified violence in antiquity. Hesiod’s Theogony describes Bia and Kratos, along with Zēlos (rivalry) and Nikē, as the daughters of Styx (Okeanos’s daughter) and Pallas. These are divinities who cozy up to the highest god: “These have no house apart from Zeus nor any seat, nor any path except that on which the god leads them, but they are always seated next to deep-thundering Zeus” (Hesiod 383; trans. Most [LCL]). In Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, Kratos and Bia are the first to appear, alongside Hephaistos, having dragged Prometheus to the rock on which he will be punished. The god Hephaistos hesitates and mourns the punishment, despite the fact that it is his gift, fire, that Prometheus stole and gave away. Power, Kratos, is in contrast relentless:
Strike harder, tighten it, leave no slack at all.
He’s clever at impossible escapes.
. . . Make him understand
that wise as he is, he’s dull compared to Zeus
. . . Now drive the unyielding wedge of adamant
right through his chest, pin him with all your strength.
Aah Prometheus, I’m sorry for what you suffer.
(Aeschylus Prometheus Bound 61-69 trans. Deborah Roberts)
If it is difficult to define the relation between religion and might, here at least we see Zeus, a god who demands violence and commands Hephaistos, Kratos, and Bia to punish Prometheus’ hubris; Hephaistos, a god regretting violence; and Kratos, accompanied by his sinisterly silent sidekick Bia. Elsewhere, Kratos insists, “Bind his legs round about with bia”—with violence (line 74). Throughout the play, Bia is ominously quiet. As E. V. Walter describes the scene: “If the content of Kratos’ speeches is examined, an answer emerges: the persuasive mission of Might is to manage the impression of irresistibility and to diminish resistance, no one can escape obedience and service; only Zeus is free. Resistance is foolish and dangerous. The message of Kratos is that one should learn endurance and resignation in the face of superior strength. Violence, the other instrument of tyrannical power, acts, but has nothing to say” (Walter, “Power and Violence,” 355).
Yet the power of Bia is clear, whether in the classical period Prometheus Bound or in fifth-century BCE binding commands (defixiones). In fact, her role may be precisely as one who binds. From the very same region where Pausanias found a hieron to Bia, Anagkē (Necessity), and others, we find a Greek curse against a thief, at the cemetery at Roman Kenchreai, that calls upon or at least names “Bia Moira Ananke”—Violence, Fate, and Necessity (for publication and analysis of the defixio, see Faraone and Rife, “A Greek Curse”; see also Wilburn, Magica Materia, 171). This lead defixio, which dates between the late first to the mid or late third century CE, was found in a tomb and curses the son (or perhaps freedman or slave) of Caecilius for stealing something. The power of Bia as a binding force is explicitly indicated in an unpublished lead curse tablet from Rhodes that “mentions how Kratos and Bia once bound Prometheus” (Faraone and Rife, “A Greek Curse,” 145). Another curse tablet from Corinth proper contains an injunction to the same divinities (Stroud, “Demeter and Kore,” 84). So Bia is a divinity and a binding force, to be invoked in curses, to be propitiated, perhaps, as one hikes and wends one’s way up the Acrocorinth to visit Aphrodite.
Bia and rhetoric
But Bia is also relevant to rhetoric. Here, then, we begin to see our binary of representation and reality collapsing: ancient writers contrast persuasion and violence, even as they show how persuasion through rhetoric does violence. In his Life of Themistokles, Plutarch draws from the stories of Herodotus to tell the story of Themistokles landing on the shore of the island Andros. Plutarch writes: “Herodotus says he [Themistokles] made a speech to them and got reply as follows: he said he came escorting two gods, Persuasion (Peithō) and Compulsion (Bia); and they replied that they already had two great gods, Poverty (Penia) and Difficulty (Aporia), who hindered them from giving him money” (57-59, modified trans. Most [LCL]). As Megan Foley puts it, “This story, recorded by Herodotus and later by Plutarch, sets out the paradoxical relation between bia and peitho, violence and rhetoric” (Foley, “Peitho and Bia,” 173). In the classical period, we find Lysias saying that “ “Our ancestors were the first…to establish a democracy….For they deemed that it was the way of wild beasts to be held subject to one another by force [bia], but the duty of men to delimit justice by law [and] to convince through persuasion [peisai]” (Lys. 2.18-9; cited in Foley, “Peitho and Bia,” 174). So too Foley points to “Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen, which compares ‘the influence of speech’ to being ‘ravished by the force of the mighty’ (1972, 52)” (Foley, “Peitho and Bia,” 174). As John T. Kirby (“Great Triangle,” 215) explains the typical axis of peithō and bia: “Typically this collocation of ideas is antithetical: I will try to persuade you, but, failing that, I will force you.” Yet the two stand so closely together that persuasion itself can even be a kind of violence, as in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (line 385), which states that “Persuasion the persistent overwhelms (biatai) him” (Kirby, “Great Triangle,” 220).
The concern underlying the phrase “representations of violence” in our program unit’s title may be that representations of violence in image and word are ephemeral, hard to prove violent, even “merely” rhetorical violence. Instead, we should be thinking about representations of violence as instantiations of violence, as possibly producing and constituting present and future violence. Are mere representations, ephemeral, somehow related to violence, perhaps even effecting it? Karen Barad offers a jeremiad against such binary thinking in her “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter” (2003). “It is possible,” she writes, “to develop coherent philosophical positions that deny that there are representations, on the one hand, and ontologically separate entities awaiting representation, on the other. A performative understanding, which shifts the focus from linguistic representations to discursive practices, is one such alternative” (p. 807, see also pp. 811ff). She continues: “The point is not merely that there are important material factors in addition to discursive ones; rather, the issue is the conjoined material-discursive nature of constraints, conditions, and practices” (p. 823). It is impossible, on Barad’s account, to divide the observed from the observer, and the reality from the perception and then representation of that reality. Peithō and Bia stand side by side, and other have material effects.
We cannot read the titles from this year’s joint session with Art and Religions of Antiquity without hearing possible resonances today. With Sarah Madole’s “A New View of the Rape of Persephone on Roman Sarcophagi” we recall the recent headlines regarding sexual assault and rape on college campuses. In Felicity Harley-McGowan’s title, “The Iconography of Beheading in Roman Imperial Art: Some Ramifications for Christianity in Its Representation of Suffering,” we think of the powerful impact of depictions by ISIS of beheadings, an initial horrific act that terrorizes through its the repetition of the act and the reiterations of its display in video. So too in hearing the title of John J. Herrmann’s and Annewies van den Hoek’s talk, “Mythical Parody and Gruesome Death: Representations of Executions in Late Antiquity,” we might think of the prison-industrial complex in the United States, or of how and whether the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddy Gray, Sandra Bland, among others, function as executions for being black.
How can Violence and Representations of Violence continue its work of rigorous historical investigation and also cultivate an ethical center? Let me offer one call and one possible strategy. My call is that this program unit live in the discomfort created by institutional divisions between theology and religious studies, and between scholarship and activism. I suggest that Violence and Representations take as its center the goal of being a laboratory to consider violence and a laboratory to interrogate and perhaps to collapse our false binary of rhetoric and the real. I suggest that the program unit leave room to experiment, to open up conversations on ethics and scholarly inquiry. The practical strategy I suggest is that within a session each year, the program unit allow space for scholarly reflections upon how that year’s papers resonate with the violent occurrences in the months before—because there will always be violent occurrences in the months before. Instead of or in addition to business meetings, could there be time to reflect upon the methodological problematics of looking at, defining violence, as we toggle between the ancient world and our own?
Violence and Representations of Violence has the potential to cultivate itself further as a place to theorize better our historiographical work and the relation between rhetoric and its material effects. It also has the potential to develop itself as a watchman upon a tower, exposing and analyzing ancient and current violence. This program unit can be a place in which historical documents provide the grounds for an analysis of past violence that opens new reflections on present violence—an intellectual home not only for autopsy of the past and present, but also to dare to enter the hieron of Violence, to use that space for mourning and for the careful and critical retrieval of hope and solutions.
Thanks to research assistant and doctoral candidate Sarah Porter for laying substantive groundwork for this piece, and for methodological discussions with doctoral candidate Tyler Schwaller about his dissertation, which form a helpful background to my writing of this piece. Thanks most of all to my long-suffering co-chair Christopher Frilingos, who made the work of organizing Violence and Representations of Violence a delight.
Laura Nasrallah, Harvard Divinity School
Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28.3 (2003): 801-831.
Faraone, Christopher A., and Joseph L. Rife. “A Greek Curse against a Thief from the Koutsongila Cemetery at Roman Kenchreai.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 160 (2007): 141–57.
Foley, Megan. “Peitho and Bia: The Force of Language.” Symploke 20.1 (2012): 173–81.
Kirby, John T. “The ‘Great Triangle’ in Early Greek Rhetoric and Poetics.” Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric 8.3 (1990): 213–28.
Roberts, Deborah, trans. Aeschylus Prometheus Bound. Indianopolis: Hackett, 2012.
Stroud, Ronald S. The Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore: The Inscriptions (Corinth XVIII.6). Princeton, NJ: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2013.
Walter, E. V. “Power and Violence.” The American Political Science Review 58.2 (1964): 350–60.
Wilburn, Andrew T. Magica Materia: The Archaeology of Magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus, and Spain. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2012.
Photo By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons