IN THE ORBIT OF LOVE: Affection in Ancient Greece and Rome

David Konstan

OUP (2018) h/b 224pp £19.99 (ISBN 978019887872)

Love, as we all know, comes in a multitude of different forms, from the erotic and narcissistic to the altruistic and ‘Platonic’. It happens, though, that much of the publishing on classical love has focused on the erotic with far less attention paid to the myriad other ways in which love manifests itself. This is well up K.’s street. He is Professor of Classics at New York University and his previous books and papers include Friendship in the Classical World; Understanding Grief in Greece and Rome and Emotions.

This short book, then, is a welcome change because it deals with a range of ‘loves’ that does not include the erotic (erôs): instead K. treats us to an analysis of Greek and Roman love as it appears in love and friendship; loyalty; gratitude and liberality; grief and the self; love and the state—these being the five chapter headings which make up the book. They are all examples of philia, as opposed to eros, and it is philia which is the glue that holds this book together. 

In the Orbit of Love then is about love and affection within the family and between friends, about how love is expressed through loyalty, grief and in civic duty, how love is about generosity and gratitude as vehicles for love. Controversially, perhaps, the author defends the Greek notion that in true friendship the bond is so great that, by a kind of osmosis, the independent identities of friends ‘all but merge into one’. 

He argues that the other manifestations of love dealt with in the book are considered by the Greeks and Romans, and by us, in terms of reciprocity, assuming always some sort of egotistical payback. But K.’s belief is that there is also a strong element of altruism that gets scant recognition amongst scholars who take the reciprocity line. The author scrutinises these claims ‘to see to what extent love and reciprocity were conceived of as complementary dimensions of social life’, demonstrating how philia was implicated in the classical concepts of other values and sentiments ‘where its role has not been fully acknowledged by modern scholars’. 

The discussion on loyalty and love takes in the reasons why loyalty was never accorded the status of a virtue in classical thought, in contrast to dissimilar concepts such as wisdom, courage, moderation, justice and piety. To support his thesis regarding civic duty, the author cites Aristotle for whom philia or homonoia were the basis of civic harmony, and a major concept in classical conceptions of social relations. 

The book provides a welcome extension to currently available studies on love in the classical world, drawing as it does on a broader canvas and providing a refreshing reminder that other forms of love rather than the erotic were just as prominent and just as socially, politically and philosophically relevant. In so doing the author sheds light on some hitherto obscure features not just of ancient life but of modern life as well.

The book is not illustrated; there is an 8 page index, 16 pages of up to date bibliography, notes are conveniently given at the foot of each page.

Paul Chrystal, www.paul.chrystal.com 

Paul Chrystal is author of In Bed with the Greeks: Sex & Sexuality in Ancient Greece and In Bed with the Romans: Sex & Sexuality in Ancient Rome

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