(Paper given at the Ancient History Seminar, London, January 21st, 2010. Brief report by Gillian Bentley.)
‘Moving Stones’: The Study of Emotions in Greek Inscriptions
In this seminar, Angelos Chaniotis discussed the pertinence of epigraphic evidence in the study of the history of emotions, particularly in view of his current research project: “Social and Cultural Construction of Emotions” in the Greek world (c. 800 BCE-c. 500 CE) at the University of Oxford.
Chaniotis stressed that inscriptions are texts, subject to the same questions of composition and authorship as any other kind of text. They are a form of communication with a specific target audience representing conscious action, selection, and composition. Chaniotis suggested that inscriptions make excellent material for the study of emotional display. Literary texts place emotions within a context, but inscriptions may be more representative due to the sheer amount and heterogeneity of the evidence.
According to Chaniotis, emotions are crucial for social, political, and cultural life. They have shaped our source material and are themselves shaped by society. For all their importance, it simply isn’t possible to study what people really felt. However, we can study the process of selection and filtering as well as the external stimuli of emotions. Chaniotis provided a range of examples of the various ways emotions are displayed, restrained, manipulated, represented/described, and provoked.
An Olbian honorary decree c. 200 BCE recounts the munificence of a wealthy citizen. The inscription relates the fear and anxiety experienced by the Olbians at the anger (ὀργή) of king Saitaphernes. The decree goes on at length to describe an earlier event in which the Olbians felt similar fear, recalling the past event in great detail. There are repeated references to the senses– what the Olbians saw and heard. Chaniotis took this as an example of enargeia, transporting the audience back to the emotions experienced in the past.
Expression of anger in inscriptions
Chaniotis said that in his study thus far, he had observed that anger was expressed only by hierarchical superiors of the subjects at which the anger was aimed. For instance, in curse tablets, the authors attempt to incite anger in the gods, rather than expressing their own anger at whomever has wronged them. Chaniotis used this observation to suggest that in the Olbian inscription, the Olbians acknowledge the authority of Saitaphernes by mentioning his anger. (In reply to a question at the end of his lecture, Chaniotis asserted that anger can be expressed between people who disagree over the hierarchical structure of their relationship, such as husband and wife.)
Dealing with death
Chaniotis discussed the various ways that death and grief are treated in inscriptions. Emotions were regulated through decrees that outline the ways in which mourning can be expressed, i.e. forbidding excessive mourning. Funerary inscriptions represent a variety of emotions: affection for the deceased, fear of neglect of the responsibility and the displeasure of the dead, as well as enduring grief.
Real world of ritual
Inscriptions listing regulations for religious rituals and processions give an idea of the earthly elements at work: women pushing each other and wearing flashy clothing, people gossiping about their neighbours, prostitutes on display, thieves ready to take advantage of the attendant chaos.
Graffiti and Obscene language
In his final examples, Chaniotis discussed the various ways to interpret graffiti. Obscene language could teach us about sexual preferences, or it could be a verbal power play, a way to humiliate a competitor. In battle, a defeated party could be described as the passive participant in sexual intercourse—the same vocabulary could be at work in graffiti. Chaniotis also suggested that the use of the word ‘I’ in graffiti suggested that the author was accompanied by friends—witnesses of his words. Graffiti could express friendship, power relations, or a joke.
Chaniotis concluded by suggesting further questions to be addressed, such as the relationship between emotions and status, the influence of cultural/societal norms on emotion, and the media through which communities regulated emotions. He suggested that further research into the history of emotions could lead to a reevaluation of certain ideas that have been taken for granted, such as emotional control as a modern invention.