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date: 18 October 2019


The Oxford Classical Dictionary
Angelos ChaniotisAngelos Chaniotis


Although generated by neurobiological processes, emotions (pathe, affectus) also consist in a process of appraisal and individual judgement, which depends on social and cultural norms and individual proclivities. As they heavily influence social relations and the behaviour of individuals and groups, emotions are socially relevant and, consequently, subject to scrutiny, judgement, and normative intervention. They fulfil social functions and follow social rules. Hence, they are potentially subject to change and are shaped by the society in which they operate. Although it can be argued that emotions are a universal phenomenon, they do have a history and are a very important subject of historical research. This applies both to emotions closely connected with socio-cultural norms (e.g. friendship, pity, honour, shame, pride) and to ‘basic emotions’ (e.g. fear, hope, joy, grief, disgust, despair, love, lust, envy).

In Classics, the study of emotions is a multidisciplinary task that profits from the findings of the neurosciences, exploits the evidence in a large variety of sources, and takes into consideration diverse parameters (aesthetic, social, and cultural). Classicists and ancient historians can study filtered representations of and reflections on emotions as well as the parameters which explain why a feeling is represented in a particular manner in ancient texts and images. A variety of factors influence the manifestation of emotions: the display of emotions as a persuasion strategy (e.g. in oratory, petitions, prayers); dramatizations and aesthetics; the influence of norms, especially of norms that aimed at restraining emotional display; gender roles; the character of the audience; linguistic usage. Although Greek and Latin terms designating emotions usually correspond to modern categories, the overlap varies, and there are nuances which can be understood only if the cultural context and the language of emotion is taken into consideration.

Much emphasis has been placed on the representation of emotions in literature (tragedy, lyric poetry, historiography) and on the perception of emotions in moral philosophy. Systematic studies have been devoted to the representation and perception of emotions in Greek literature, philosophy, and medicine, and to individual emotions, such as anger, greed and generosity, courage, friendship, honour and shame, pity, envy and jealousy, love and desire. See love and friendship. As regards the representation of emotions in art, special emphasis has been placed on gestures and body language as reflections of emotions.

Most (if not all) textual and pictorial sources at our disposal are directly or indirectly generated by emotions, display emotions or aim to arouse emotions. Admittedly, the emotional background is more evident and significant in some sources than in others (e.g. in tragedy, oratory, novels, and historiography more than in laws or in cooking recipes); the realistic expectation to understand the emotional background is higher in some sources (e.g. private letters, letters of consolation, petitions, funerary reliefs, curses) than in others (deeds of sale or loomweights). But even as technical a work as Aeneas Tacticus’ treatise How to Endure a Siege often clarifies which emotions can be helpful (loyalty, zeal), and which should be taken into consideration (mistrust) and explains the means by which certain emotions can be provoked and others avoided. Exactly because emotions have shaped the Greek and Roman source material, their study is of great significance for the understanding of history, literature, art, and culture.

Emotions are important both as subject and as background of textual sources. The early epic is dominated by emotions: the wrath of Achilles, Odysseus’ wish for return, the revenge of Poseidon, Penelope's affectionate faith towards her husband, the suitors’ ambitions and greed, the sailors’ fear of the unknown, a dog's love. Lyric poetry in Archaic Greece (e.g. Archilochus and Sappho) and love poetry in Rome (e.g. Catullus, Propertius, Ovid) purport to be describing the poet's emotions. Emotions are the background of drama and are addressed by Aristotle in his definition of tragedy (eleos and phobos). Thucydides(1), the most influential among Greek historians, regarded emotions such as greed, anger, envy, and honour as motors of historical processes; Tacitus claimed to have banned emotions influencing his historical narrative (Ann. 1.1.3: sine ira et studio). Pothos (‘desire’, ‘longing’) was often used by our sources in connection with decisions of Alexander (3) the Great which seemed hard to explain or even irrational. The manipulation of audiences’ emotions was the subject of law-court performances in Classical Athens, epideictic orations in the Roman Empire, and rhetorical handbooks. Moral philosophers, with Aristotle as their most influential representative, and physicians reflected on the nature of emotions. Emotional display can also be observed in private letters (e.g. Cicero) and novels.

Although emotions have primarily been studied in connection with literary sources and with the history of literature and philosophy, documentary sources (inscriptions and papyri) also display, express, arouse, and at times aim to control emotions. These sources clearly reveal the importance of emotions in the study of political history, law, religion, culture, and society beyond the world of literary fiction and philosophical theorizing. The documentary sources exceed the thematic range and the geographical, chronological, and sociological background of literary sources. Inscriptions (e.g. epitaphs, acclamations, decrees, honorary inscriptions, oracular enquiries, confession inscriptions, dedications, curses, graffiti) and papyri (e.g. letters, petitions, testaments, contracts, letters of consolation) have been found beyond the major urban centres; they were sometimes composed by individuals who belong to low social strata and come from bilingual or multicultural backgrounds; women are more strongly represented in the documentary than in the literary sources. See bilingualism; epigraphy, greek; epigraphy, latin; papyrology, greek; papyrology, latin.

Emotions, both in their pre-verbal manifestations and in the way they have been expressed in text and image, have been shaped to a great extent by specific features of Greek and Roman society and culture. For instance, responses to death depend on such diverse factors as eschatological beliefs, philosophical ideas about life and the human condition, rituals, normative restrictions on mourning and the display of grief, concepts of self-sacrifice, and military training. See death, attitudes to. Consequently, they may range from grief and hope for life after death to pride in self-sacrifice and relief at the escape from the pains of life. Love and sexual desire were strongly influenced by social conditions and cultural norms (e.g., the social position of women, marriage practices and family law, education) and consequently they were subject to changes that are sometimes reflected by changes in the meaning of words (e.g. in Greek, phileō, eraō, stergō, agapaō).

As historical factors emotions are important inter alia for the justification of political decisions; the transformation of social norms; the understanding of groups as ‘emotional communities’; the interaction between groups, particularly in multicultural environments; the interaction between different genders, age-classes, and social groups; education; the understanding of ethnic stereotyping; and the construction of divine power.


E. Champlin, Final Judgements (1991);Find this resource:

D. L. Cairns, Aidos: The Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature (1993);Find this resource:

P. Ekman and R. J. Davidson (eds.), The Nature of Emotion (1994);Find this resource:

J. Sihvola and T. Engberg-Pedersen (eds.), The Emotions in Hellenistic Philosophy (1998);Find this resource:

W. V. Harris, Restraining Rage (2001);Find this resource:

D. Konstan, Pity Transformed (2001);Find this resource:

S. Braund and G. W. Most (eds.), Ancient Anger. Perspectives from Homer to Galen (2004);Find this resource:

R. A. Kaster, Emotion, Restraint and Community in Ancient Rome (2005);Find this resource:

N. Sojc, Trauer auf attischen Grabreliefs. Frauendarstellungen zwischen Ideal und Wirklichkeit (2005);Find this resource:

D. M. Gross, The Secret History of Emotion (2006);Find this resource:

D. Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks (2006);Find this resource:

A. Chaniotis (ed.), Unveiling Emotions (forthcoming).Find this resource:

Angelos Chaniotis