NACHE 2022 Conference Papers and Presentations

Victoria Pichugina and Andrej Mozhajsky, “Sex and the City: Visualizing Emotions in the ‘Oresteia’ by Aeschylus

This paper was prepared for the biennial Conference:

A methodology for ancient emotions

Caroline Richard 

Emotions do not really exist as such in ancient languages. Indeed, as far as emotional issues are concerned, ancient authors deal with passions more than emotions. This conception is influenced by a philosophical purpose, according to which the emotion is a hazardous power which is bodily anchored, thus in contradiction with Reason.[1] However, emotions is an important concern in ancient Literature. They were involved in rhetorical, political and literary reflections in Greek and Latin texts, which suggests that the authors were aware of their abilities and that they had a real place in the society. Nevertheless, it is not sure that ancient people understood emotion as passions, at least not exclusively. So, using only philosophical concepts and representations is irrelevant to build a history and ancient emotions. The research’s aim is thus to find a way to explore emotions through an anthropological approach to understand their values. Then, how could we know the reality of the emotions experienced by individuals in ancient societies, while ancient authors are generally not concerned by the problem of the self? 

I would like to propose a study of ancient emotions which is not limited to a literary field, even if it is based on literary studies. The stake is not only to uncover all the secrets of a specific literary work, but to look at them as openings onto a given society and eventually to build a history of ancient emotions thanks to them. Any text is necessarily anchored in a context and the expression of emotion is bound to that context. Thus, we can try to grasp the text mechanisms in order to understand the issues that surround it. In this respect, the text can be used as material in a historical perspective for the study of civilizations. 

First, I will deal with general concerns and explain the method to analyze emotions in ancient texts. This global reflection that leads my research could be applicable to any definite corpus of texts. Then, I will demonstrate how this method can be effective and I will present a case study which focuses on The Argonautica, a Latin epic written in the post 69 civil war period in Rome. 

  1. Methods and theoretical approach: 
  1. Literal interpretation and data collection. 

While we try to account for ancient emotions, it is necessary to question the literary and intellectual context in which they are represented. Above all, this implies a clear understanding of the context in which emotions appear in the text, because concept words in ancient languages often cover more complex realities than a simple translation can suggest. Some researchers have already worked on those questions, such as JF Thomas. His considerations about shame[2], and then about fear[3], show us how it is possible to have a very precise picture of what an emotion is and how it is represented through different texts. His lemmatical study leads to the construction of schemes which represents the various implication of the words of emotion, questioning the motive, the situation, the kind of people involved, or the concrete consequences. From the precise study of words and context, we can figure clearly what is an emotion, without referring to the theoretical speeches about it as a basis. Besides, the studies of D. Kaster[4] about restraint highlight the importance of the context to understand the meaning of emotions for they necessarily involve collective behaviors and interactions. These two studies systematically put the words into their context and compare them in order to build schemes which clarifies the emotion’s meaning. They allow us to perceive ancient emotions in a system in its own right, without seeking to copy our modern references on realities that have nothing to do with them. However, they are focused on specifics emotions, which have very explicit social implication, therefore are explicitly linked with the representations of the roman society[5].

This systematic method seems to be very efficient at the scale of a single emotion (or a group of relative emotion). However, we aim at understanding emotions in general and particularly at figuring out the links between them, the network them together. Therefore, we have to study emotions first in a specific text. To do so, we have to undertake a systematic study of the occurrences of an emotion in a text and to confront the different types of manifestation encountered. This process begins with a lexical study that implies identifying the words used to describe emotions and understanding their precise meaning, without seeking to translate them or to provide systematic equivalents for each term. Indeed, one word can have many different emotional realities, so it is difficult to translate it by the exact same word each time. That is why, after having collected the datas, we must reflect on all the implications of an emotion: its cause, its manifestations, its consequence and its moral and psychological impacts. We have to find out recurring elements, to classify them, and to build trees or diagrams reflecting the complexity of the stakes of the emotion, and figure out the emotional system of the text. Then, it would be interesting to compare this system to the representations given by philosophers, such as Aristotle and Cicero, among others. This method allows us to better understand the way emotions were figured in Antiquity and to reflect their presence and representation in a text with more accuracy.   

To understand precisely what an emotion is, we have to collect each occurrence of the word, and gather them in a database. For each one, we must check at the direct context of the word and thus have a clear idea of the emotion meanings and manifestations. Then we have to do so for each emotion in the text so as to compare them and to understand how the author perceive the self and feelings in a general way. We have to relate emotions to bring out a coherent system of representations in the text, if possible. From we can build a typology of emotions thanks to which we can figure out their representation’s mechanisms.  Indeed, the aim is not only to analyze the representation of emotions, but to understand exactly what “feelings” mean in Antiquity. The database allows us to draw parallels between the different situations in which the emotion is present, therefore, we can see the link that exists between some kind of events and a specific emotion, or some emotions and behaviors, etc. Then, we can picture why the author will use one emotion instead of another, and what are the specific features of each one. 

Then, the aim is to consider a text from a macroscopic point of view, and this method can be extended to a corpus of several texts in a diachronic or synchronic perspective. Through a precise survey and a systematic study of the context, it is possible to understand the stakes of an emotion at the scale of a work, an author, a period. Understanding an emotion means understanding what it represents, but also its issues. Though we must be rigorous and attentive to the scale of the study, it can be particularly relevant for us to have this large scope to build a coherent broad representation of emotions and a real history of emotions. 

  • Emotion as a communication tool: symbolism and community.

Besides, we must not forget that emotion is above all a communication tool on an interdiegetic and extradiegetic level. Thus, in the interpretation of the texts studied, it is necessary to consider how the characters relate to each other, but also how the author positions his reader in relation to them. Therefore, the narrative guides the reader’s understanding and reactions. The recurrent use of emotions appeals the reader’s empathy and compassion. We must therefore distinguish two forms of involvement of the reader: on the one hand, the narrator captures the reader’s attention through emotions, because they are elements of pathos essential to the effectiveness of a literary text; on the other hand, the characters are judged, evaluated by these appreciative adjectives that characterize them so their representation is not neutral and it serves the relationship maintained with the readers. These ambiguous emotions thus seem to work as the fundamental element of communities. But the ambivalent value of emotions I mentioned above implies that the reader is involved in this community and is invited to share the moral values conveyed by emotions. This large community is the place in which ideals, emotional regimes and antimodels are transmitted. Thus, the interest of the representation of emotions is twofold and participates in the socio-cultural construction of the readership. 

The emotional system of a work builds a global representation of an emotion which is not neutral, it involves symbolical elements and creates new ones. Indeed, the moral connotation, the adjectives used to characterize these emotions, the metaphors, the descriptions of the characters, or any other literary effects add new aspects to the emotion itself. This is not necessarily linked with the situation or the motive of the emotion, but it can be. The point here is that the literary representation changes the perception of emotion by the reader. From then, a literary analysis is important, not to define the feeling, but to understand the way the author figures it, and the image he conveys in his text. This is important to know what value is attributed to each kind of feeling. From then, we could draw a picture of the emotions’ value from the text, the same way Domicele Jonauskaite and Christine Mohr[6] did by trying to associate colors with emotions. We would follow the same method, wondering in the text studied if there is a color, a sensitive element, a metaphor, an adjective, a positive or negative value, associated with each emotion. A large survey and a massive share of datas involving a broad corpus of texts is a way to build a history of the representation of emotion. Besides, neither the reader nor the writer is neutral:  they have read, others works have been written and the text and the emotions take place in a particular imagination field. This is why we must have a comparative point of view towards these datas. To draw parallels between works (whatever their literary genre is) enables us to figure out how ancient people represented emotions (from literary, political, philosophical, rhetorical points of view). This can be completed by non-literary elements, as epigraphical or artistical resources. As far as epigraphical and archeological material is concern, it would be interesting to compare the representations given in texts with those coming from realia. Then, a multidisciplinary[7] approach is necessary to understand the symbolisms that surround emotions. A shared database would be an effective way to share these information in order to build a complete history of ancient emotion. Indeed, the association of all these approaches enables each researcher to have a better understanding of the text studied.

Thereupon, we can replace the emotional system of a text in the imagination field of its time and of its reader to have a better understanding of the work itself. Indeed, we want to bring out what an emotion is, what they represent in Antiquity. Thanks to the database in which emotions are gathered and analyzed, we can understand in what kind of situations the emotions are mentioned, and why. Thus, we can rebuild the ancient emotives of the civilization studied. I use here a concept forged by William Reddy in Navigation of feelings[8] that is very effective as far as Antiquity is concerned, because it is based on different speeches’ study and it links them to a historical issue and interpretation. Reddy distinguishes the emotions, which are the feelings in itself and the emotives. Emoives are the expressions of feelings through language, which describes the feeling and modifies it at the same time, because it reimposes an image carried by the language on the feeling. The method we propose aims at bringing out the emotives and at studying how the mechanism of representation works. As a result, the analysis of the collection of datas shows us how emotions are used and helps us to understand what they tell about the state of mind of the character and the way the word impacts the history of the feeling itself.

  • The characters’ emotions: moral and anthropological interpretation. 

By understanding the emotions of a text, we can also understand their stake. First of all, it is difficult to detach works from their intellectual and moral context, so emotions are attached to moral values, which depend on the writer and their time. Thus, after having identified a clear emotional system in the text, we can study its meaning and identify the issues of a specific period and the place of emotions in it. Thanks to the emotional system and the emotives’ study, we aim to figure out the social, cultural and political issues of the time. 

As W. Reddy puts it, an emotion is a “goal relevant activations of thought material that exceed the translating capacity of attention within a short time horizon”[9]. From then, thanks to the emotion’s study, we can understand the perception of events, and the goals and way of thinking of the individuals or the groups who feel it. Emotion thus implies a moral and ethical position and reveals the reality of a certain number of representations at the scale of a literary work. The text, thanks to the emotion’s representation, gives us access to what is important for the group who feels them (the relevant goals). Moreover, emotions reveal significant problematics of its time, literary problematics that refer to socio-political issues. Indeed, rejection, fear, love, curiosity, hope, anger, joy are emotions that do not have the same importance and place in literary works depending on the type of text and the public it is written for. Their place in the text and what they involve in the narrative reveals which values are important in a society that is always defining itself. The relative construction of the moral landmark shows that emotion is a great resource. Consequently, from the precise and rigorous study of the work, it is possible to investigate sociological and political issues. 

Eventually, I would like to take up the concept of “emotional community”, forged by Barbara Rosenwein[10]. Indeed, in a corpus, it is a question not only of determining the stakes of emotions, but also of evaluating how the characters position themselves in relation to each other. Indeed, emotions can thus provide a very effective interpretative grid and can organize the work according to emotional communities, that is to say to groups who feel the same emotions in front of the same situations. It must therefore be assumed that the presence of an emotion at a given moment of a text is neither a chance nor a simple stylistic effect: it is there because the author sought a particular effect and it reveals contemporary ways of thinking. Emotions sort characters and behaviors, determine an emotional regime and disqualify some behaviors: these are marks for the readers, thus hints for the researcher who wants to understand what are the ways of thinking of a period. 

  1. Case study 

As far as Roman Literature is concerned, emotions are often left behind because they are associated with madness by ancient philosophers. Even if these texts influenced the authors, we can also bring a new interest on the Latin emotions, which focuses on the text. To show the efficiency of the method I described in the first part of this paper, I chose to study The Argonautica which was written by VF in the 1st c. AD.: The Argonautica, by Valerius Flaccus. Written a few years after the 69 AD Roman Civil for the Empire’s succession, the poem tells the well-known story of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. In this epic, the group of Argonauts handle a lot of trials and feel all kinds of emotion. I will show how this method helps a better understanding of the stake of the epic and the times. As it was written just after a traumatic civil war, the epic represents many scenes which are civil war motives, and shows many images of communities’ self-destruction. However, paradoxically, the emotions represented tend to underline the necessity of a reconstruction of the community.

  1. Pity and the necessity of the community

Pity is not a very frequent emotion at that time, it has been developed under Christian influence. However we find some occurrences of it in The Argonautica. Through a strict analysis of the context, we find that pity is aroused towards someone who is endangered or weakened unfairly. The scheme is always the same: miser and its relatives are always used in the same kinds of narrative context. It is associated with some typical behaviors, as tears or prayers (from the pitied characters). First, we can notice that the feeling of empathy or pity is associated to a moral question, which can define if the situation is fair or not. This feeling also involves also a physical link between the characters: we can find for example embraces, or the hand held to the other[11]. These are symbolical manifestations of a feeling which create communities, even in a world where destruction is everywhere. Moreover, the embrace and the hand are signs of affection, love or friendship in the whole epic, within communities that are officially settled as such. This is a manifestation that is normally associated with other feelings than pity, which takes place between people who are almost strangers to one another. So, we can conclude that pity is an emotion which is able to raise across different groups, and that affection is not a necessary condition of it. 

Besides, pity and empathy are associated with very positive descriptions, and on the contrary the lack of pity, such as the tyrant behaviors, are depicted as anormal, cruel and inhuman. For example, the Argonauts pitied Phinea[12], a stranger condemned by Jupiter, whereas Amycus, a tyrant, is not able to pity anyone and is insensible to tears and prayers[13]. The text explicitly points out the characters who are not capable of empathy or pity, and these characters are described as dangerous or amoral ones. Thus, the lack of pity is seen as a default in the text. Pity and empathy are connected, thanks to the words used, to other positives emotions, such as love and friendship, even if pity does not take place in these relationships. The moral interpretation discriminates two behaviors and clearly enhances one[14].

This representation of pity indicates some of the goals of the post-civil war time. This is a time where even the most obvious communities, such as families, are broken (as Tacitus tells us in the Histories). Valerius Flaccus wrote in a time of reconstruction, when the Flavian dynasty have to instore peace again and when everyone tries to forget the traumatic war. This is why the very positive value given to pity is very interesting: it stands as if the author wanted to show a normal behavior, and at the same time the danger caused by the lack of empathy. The presence of the miser adjective, which means “capable of rising pity”, involves both the characters of the epic and the readers, who are invited to take part to the community in which pity is valued[15]. The very insistence on the empathetical reactions highlights the necessity of this attitude and its ability to create new communities, even if the current one is broken or weakened. 

Here, from the study of pity in context, and a comparison with other emotions, we can find out what the feeling truly means in the epic. Then, we are able to understand the stake the author deals with, that is to say the risk of destruction of community and peace. Pity however does not function alone, as Valerius Flaccus uses another emotion as a counterpart of pity: horror.  

  • Horror 

If pity is the empathy in front of a weakness, horror on the contrary is felt in front of a bad behavior or situation. The words of the family of horror refer to an association of fear and rejection, sometimes associated with paralysis, and it is most often an emotion felt collectively. We can see that horror is a collective emotion, recurrent in the face of strong, serious, often destructive events (human or not), and that it provokes an effective dramatization effect. But we have to go beyond the strictly literary dimension and to consider broader issues. 

While emotion has no moral value in itself, as suggested by the wide variety of contexts in which it appears (in front of gods, people, at home, abroad, toward someone known or unknown…), we argue that horror always seems to be a reaction to a threat, whatever its nature. But it is not a simple threat to physical integrity, or at least not only: we rather interpret this emotion as a reaction to an attack on the essence of the individuals (or the community) who feel it. All the manifestations of horror that we have collected refer to fear in the face of superior forces that the characters cannot control. The fact that the emotion is often plural, which implies that it is shared, suggests that it is an identity mark. Moreover, the manifestation of this emotion also seems to be the result of an “emotional regime”[16], that is to say a normative emotion, and to respond to an expectation in front of some kinds of events[17]. Thus, it is from this shared awareness of what endangers the integrity and the landmarks of a group that it is possible to generate a group consciousness through its fragility, since it is threatened by many elements. Here, horror is an expected normal reaction, which gives us a clue of the scheme of thought that is expected when a community is in danger.

Besides, horror may also construct a moral reference point for the group, if we consider that the group defines itself and can be identified according to what it abhors, what it is afraid of or not. Horror actually defines values in negative terms: to feel it is to identify what is different from oneself, what does not correspond to our representation of the world, what does not fit our perception of the people or behaviors. This is why, for example, all the Argonauts feel horror in front of the tyrant’s home, or in front of a terrible behaviors that is the opposite of their moral values. Horror is thus able to build or reinforce a community, even if it is fragile or broken. We can relate this to the stakes of a post-civil period, where every landmarks are broken: the rejection of violence and tyrannical behaviors is a good basis for the construction of community. The fact that the words used are ambivalent (horrificus, horrendus concern both characters and readers) involves strongly the reader and invites him to adhere to the community created around this emotion. Emotions are here capable of building a community, they are the first common point between people, especially as far as their integrity is concerned. 

In spite of the differences and divergences, pity, or even terror, impose themselves and must do so on everyone.


As we saw for the Argonautica, emotions are vectors of moral significance. Their precise study allows us to understand exactly the implication of such emotions, but also to understand why and how they are used in a speech. A systematical study can build a whole system which brings out the stakes of an emotion. Therefore, they are the ground of the relationships between characters, thus the major stake of a narrative. Questioning emotions is questioning the representation of communities and relationships, involving characters, authors, and readers, in order to figure out the stakes of the text and of the period. 

Emotions have a strong potential in the anthropological study; their study thus requires a triple attention: first a systematic and rigorous identification of the presence of emotions in the text, then a work of reflection on the symbolic value of these emotions and finally a study of emotions as a vector of communication between reader and characters, allowing a questioning on contemporary society. These elements are different steps of a big project concerning the history of ancient emotions. It would be necessary to build a global database, gathering datas of many literary works, in order to both build an anthropological, moral and social study of a period, and to build a history of ancient emotion. Gathering the literary emotions’ analysis is a way to compare the representations and to confront geographical areas and periods of time. This allows us to see how the representations evolve through time, and if they are impacted by political or historical events. History of ancient emotions starts from a literary study, but has to be a multidisciplinary concern, because emotions are too complex, and were involved in too many different fields to be explained by only one approach. 

Bibliography : 

A. Chaniotis et P. Ducrey, éd., Unveiling emotions II: emotions in Greece and Rome: texts, images, material culture, Alte Geschichte, Band 55, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 9, 2013

J. Dion, Les passions dans l’œuvre de Virgile, Presses universitaires de Nancy, Nancy, Travaux et Mémoires, études anciennes 8, 1993

D.Jonauskaite, C.A. Parraga, M. Quiblier, C. Mohr. Feeling blue or seeing red? Similar patterns of emotion associations with colour patches and colour terms. i-Perception, 11, 2020

R-A. Kaster, Emotion, restraint, and community in ancient Rome, Oxford, England ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2005

D. Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature, Canada, Toronto : University of Toronto, Robson Classical Lectures Press, 2007

D. Lacourse Munteanu, « Qualis Tandem Misericordia in Rebus Fictis? Aesthetic and Ordinary Emotion”, HELIOS, vol. 36 no. 2, Texas Tech University Press 2009

W. M. Reddy, The navigation of feeling: a framework for the history of emotions, Cambridge, U.K. ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2001. 

B. H. Rosenwein, Emotional communities in the early Middle Ages, First printing, Cornell paperbacks, Ithaca, NY : Cornell Univ. Press, 2007

J-F. Thomas, Déshonneur et honte en latin: étude sémantique, Leuven ; Dudley, MA : Peeters, 2007 (Bibliothèque d’études classiques, 50), 476 p.

J-F. Thomas, « De terror à vereri : enquête lexicale sur des formes de peur et de crainte en latin », Revue de philologie, de littérature et d’histoire anciennes, Tome LXXXVI, no 2, 19 décembre 2014.

[1] D. Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature, Canada, Toronto : University of Toronto, Robson Classical Lectures Press, 2007

[2] J-F THOMAS, Déshonneur et honte en latin: étude sémantique, Leuven ; Dudley, MA : Peeters, 2007 (Bibliothèque d’études classiques, 50), 476 p.

[3] J-F THOMAS, « De terror à vereri : enquête lexicale sur des formes de peur et de crainte en latin », Revue de philologie, de littérature et d’histoire anciennes, Tome LXXXVI, no 2, 19 décembre 2014.

[4] R-A Kaster, Emotion, restraint, and community in ancient Rome, Oxford, England ; New York : Oxford University Press 2005

[5] We have to notice Jeanne Dion’ work, Les passions dans l’oeuvre de Virgile, (1993) which lists the occurrences of each emotion and define their representations’mechanisms. While this is a interesting work, it is strongly linked with philosophical purpose and focuses on moral stakes.  

[6] D. Jonauskaite, C.A. Parraga, M. Quiblier, C. Mohr. Feeling blue or seeing red? Similar patterns of emotion associations with colour patches and colour terms. i-Perception, 11, 2020

[7] We follow here the project lead by A. Chaniotis and Pierre Ducrey, which has to be expended and completed in a more systematic way. Angelos Chaniotis et Pierre Ducrey, éd., Unveiling emotions II: emotions in Greece and Rome: texts, images, material culture, Alte Geschichte, Band 55, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 9, 2013

[8] W. M. REDDY, The navigation of feeling: a framework for the history of emotions, Cambridge, U.K. ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2001. (p.171)

[9] Ibid.

[10] B. H. ROSENWEIN, Emotional communities in the early Middle Ages, First printing, Cornell paperbacks, Ithaca, NY : Cornell Univ. Press, 2007, p. 25 : Thus, emotional communities are in some ways that Foucault called a common discourse : shared vocabularies and ways of thinking that have a controlling function, a disciplining function. Emotion communities are similar as well to Bourdieu’s notion of habitus: internalized norms that determine how we think and act and that may be different in different groups.

[11] For example, in Book IV, Phinea is represented as supplex (imploring) 

[12] IV 485-6 : He said, and the whereas fates were falling, he moves them by the representation of his cruel punishment.

[13] IV,217-18 : No tears, don’t show me your prayers, any call for gods’sake can move my heart.  

[14] D. Lacourse Munteanu, « Qualis Tandem Misericordia in Rebus Fictis? Aesthetic and Ordinary Emotion”, HELIOS, vol. 36 no. 2, Texas Tech University Press 2009, (About Plato : “When audiences see that admirable characters display their grief without reluctance, they may consider those lamenting heroes to be valuable examples for social behavior and, therefore, find it permissible to unleash lamentations later in public”)

[15] In Book III, when Cyzicus dies, he is called miserandus by Jason, who cries a lot and holds him in his arms. He embodies the pitiable character victim of a blind civil war. 

[16] W. M. REDDY, The navigation of feeling: a framework for the history of emotions, Cambridge, U.K. ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2001. (p.171) 

[17] Ibid, Emotions are an important key of an community, and is, or has to be, controlled, guided. There are tacit emotional rules that precise what emotions are appropriate or not, and how one must behave. (p. 55 and 94)

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