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  • Anger, Hatred, and Genocide in Ancient Greece
  • David Konstan (bio)

Today, the slaughter of whole populations is regarded as an offense against human rights and against the laws, or at least conventions, governing military conduct in war (the so-called ius in bello).1 Violations of human rights of course occur but are rarely acknowledged as such by the offending parties. From outside, they are judged as barbarous excesses, driven either by inhumane ideologies that demonize the other or else by emotions stirred up and released by the stress of battle.2 Sometimes such actions are attributed to ostensibly "tribal" attitudes, especially when they take place in underdeveloped areas or involve conflicts between ethnic or religious groups (as opposed to strictly political entities such as nation-states). The presumption is that decent, reasonable people—or peoples—do not commit such atrocities; hence, when such occur, they must represent atavistic behavior.

My purpose in examining ancient Greek attitudes toward the mass slaughter of noncombatant populations is to contrast the values and explanations offered [End Page 170] by writers then, when ideas of human rights and rules of war were either nonexistent or inchoate, to those that prevail now.3 In particular, I think it may be revealing and useful to evaluate the role of hostile emotions, especially anger and hatred, as catalysts of or excuses for such violence. I am not concerned here to judge these sentiments as such, although modern writers almost invariably classify them as negative in comparison with ostensibly positive emotions such as love and sympathy.4 Greek thinkers and writers of the classical period commonly assumed that hostile emotions might play a morally defensible role both in daily life and in time of war, although there was always a powerful current of thought that regarded the emotions in general, and rage in particular, with deep suspicion.5 Perhaps needless to say, I do not seek to resurrect ancient views as a model for modern international relations and the treatment of enemies.6 The Greeks' brutality in warfare and in the treatment of conquered populations was appalling, and their frankness in justifying such behavior may serve as a healthy corrective to the popular image of classical Greece as the crucible of civilized values. [End Page 171]

To take one example: at the beginning of Euripides' tragedy Hecuba, the city of Troy has been razed and the former queen, Hecuba, along with other Trojan women, are awaiting assignment to various Greek masters. In this moment of pathos, Odysseus coldly defends, before Hecuba herself, the propriety of sacrificing her daughter Polyxena to the shade of Achilles, on the grounds that honoring outstanding warriors is necessary to maintaining military morale (lines 303–20). Even the most hardheaded critics have supposed that Euripides meant Odysseus to be seen as unsympathetic, but I am not sure that an Athenian audience would have agreed.7 Still, the privilege of power was never so callously acknowledged that extreme violence did not call for a justification—in Odysseus' case, a pragmatic explanation rather than an argument from emotion.8

In the end, a comparison between our reigning paradigms and those of Greek antiquity may be most useful as a way of shedding oblique light on our own practices. While my object is to historicize the emotions that subtend enmity and genocidal violence, and to point up an important difference between ancient and modern attitudes, it is possible that this analysis may also contribute in some degree to an understanding of present-day situations in which hostilities seem especially brutal. [End Page 172]

In the seventh book of the Iliad, a poem with a reasonable claim to being the earliest work of literature in the so-called Western tradition, the Trojan hero Hector proposes to fight in single combat the greatest champion on the Greek side. After some hesitation, various Greeks volunteer to accept the challenge and the lot falls to Ajax. The two men fight until nightfall puts an end to the contest, at which point Hector makes this gracious proposition:

Come then, let us give each other glorious presents, so that any of the Achaians or Trojans may say of us: "These two fought each...


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pp. 170-187
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