Bloomsbury (2021) h/b 245pp £85 (ISBN 9781350153714)
Based on a Michigan doctoral dissertation, this monograph by Katherine Lu Hsu focuses on representations of the hero Heracles in ancient Greek literature and their connection to violence. L.H. systematically devotes each chapter to a different ancient genre. Alongside the essentially summative introduction and conclusion, we are taken through Homeric and Hesiodic epic in chapter 1, the lyric poetry of Pindar and Stesichorus in chapter 2, Sophocles’ Trachiniae and Euripides’ Heracles in chapters 3 and 4 respectively, and finally the portrayal of Heracles in satyr play, tragicomedy (Euripides’ Alcestis) and comedy in chapter 5. Each chapter is very much text-driven: secondary literature and theoretical debates are used sparingly in favour of reiterating the text’s plot and commenting on the different notions of violence that are to be found. This makes the book suitable for high school and undergraduate reading lists, but precludes the kind of synthetic discussion that would provide deeper insight into the issues under question.
From the very beginning of the book, violence as practiced by Heracles is represented as essentially ambivalent. It is either a necessary tool of Heracles as culture hero which ‘can bring about communal benefit, through the elimination of threats to safety and harmony’ (p. 1), or it is the weapon of Heracles as overpowering force that results in ‘grievous harm, through anti-social behavior or uncontrollable impulses that injure the innocent, create disorder, and transgress social norms’ (pp. 1-2). This corresponds to a theory of violence that oscillates between viewing violence as instrumental and therefore always basically aimed at some goal (drawn from Hannah Arendt) versus an idea of violence as a manifestation of some inner or outer disorder (drawn from Walter Benjamin).
Though this schema flattens out the depth to be found in these two authors, it forms a good basic dichotomy for exploring portrayals of violence. Nevertheless, it is not always commensurate to the complexity of Heracles’ textual representation and risks missing the very ambivalence it wishes to explore. Sophocles and Euripides, for example, within a genre that is already obsessed with violent acts and their consequences, are evidently critiquing a particular cultural myth that celebrates Heraclean violence by portraying the hero as perpetrator and victim of arbitrary violence within the structure of the family. Violence is not a thing-in-itself in these tragic texts but a mechanism of agency and action that is only one aspect of wider debates about fate and the gods, family and the state, contemporary Athens and the mythological past. L.H.’s close readings are good starting points for taking students through the different manifestations of Heracles in classical Greek literature, but they are only starting points.