Classics@11: The Rhetoric of Abuse in Greek Literature

Edited by Håkan Tell

This volume grew out of the frustration I encountered after talking to colleagues who were interested in exploring abuse in ancient Greek literature. Though we seemed to share similar perspectives on the importance of abuse in Greek literature, there didn’t seem to be a venue for us to engage in a collaborative project on this topic. Abuse has of course been widely studied, especially in relation to iambic poetry, Old Comedy, and the Greek orators. In the last few years, there has been a renewed interest in abuse as a broader cultural and literary phenomenon. To name only a few current contributions: Ralph Rosen’s Making Mockery (2007) takes as its subject matter the poetic traditions of both Greek and Roman literature; Nancy Worman casts her net wider in Abusive Mouths in Classical Athens (2008), in which she explores abusive language throughout Greek literature—poetry and prose combined; Stephen Halliwell, in Greek Laughter (2008), traces the interconnectedness of abuse and laughter in Greek culture as a whole. But there are reasonable restrictions on how these books cover abuse. Rosen, for example, concedes that abuse is not limited to poetry, but argues that its manifestation in prose texts is qualitatively different from poetic expressions and should thus be treated separately (p. 21). Worman, in turn, limits her exploration to expressions centered on the mouth, whereas Halliwell focuses on abuse only to the extent that it is a subsidiary feature of laughter.

One goal of this volume is to initiate a scholarly discussion that will allow greater heterogeneity in the material covered and in the theoretical models brought to bear on that material. Another is to encourage experimentation and collaborative exchange among scholars working in seemingly unconnected fields. Most importantly, perhaps, we would like to foster a deeper understanding of the role of abuse in all of Greek literature, across genres and time periods, through the kind of cumulative knowledge that comes from collaborative work in different fields.

This kind of project is what Classics@ aims to foster. Its on-line, work-in-progress format makes it possible to accept new submissions continuously—submissions that either draw on or respond to previously published pieces, or that extend the coverage into areas not previously treated. Since interaction and mutual influence is at the very core of this project, it is imperative that the individual contributions can change over time, and that the final format be determined by the dynamics of collaborative effort rather than by editorial decision. An additional benefit of such a theme-based approach is that it sets in clearer focus the operation of abuse in traditions that are typically not seen as “abusive,” such as philosophy, while it simultaneously makes possible a systematic exploration of abuse in other traditions, such as epic or Hellenistic poetry.

The stated theme of this volume is the rhetoric of abuse in Greek literature. By limiting the exploration of abuse to its rhetorical aspects, we hope to promote studies mainly—but not exclusively—from a literary perspective, which investigate and contrast the invective strategies in different genres without necessarily seeking to establish the historical veracity underlying these strategies. This approach should facilitate comparative work that might otherwise be difficult, especially in projects where historical specificity becomes an issue.

The three essays contained in this issue are exemplary of the kind of approaches we hope to promote. Leslie Kurke’s article explores how the Aesopic fable tradition serves as a model for the development of narrative prose in ancient Greece. She does this by way of a case study of the formula ὑπολαβὼν ἔφη, which frequently occurs in aggressive and competitive speech situations. This lexicographical survey leads up to a close reading of a key passage in Plato’s Euthydemus, which sheds new light not only on the abusive subtext of that exchange, but also on the stylistic traces of abuse in Greek prose more broadly.

Giuseppe Lentini, in turn, draws on research done in historical pragmatics and impoliteness studies to reevaluate both the dynamic of verbal abuse and the meta-language of abuse in the Homeric poems. Finally, I focus on how Socrates describes himself as a traditional figure of blame in the Apology as a way to better understand Plato’s invective strategies against Anytus in the Meno—an exchange that has long puzzled scholars.

This first batch of articles, then, is a sample of distinctive approaches to abuse in Greek literature, but it also constitutes an invitation to readers and colleagues to engage with this exploration. To that effect, we welcome submissions on a rolling deadline (please submit contributions to, so that the project can grow and morph as we see fit.

This is the kind of collaborative and exploratory project that Classics@ offers, and we are delighted that our contributions have found a home in the rich tradition of interdisciplinary dialogue that has become the hallmark of the Center for Hellenic Studies.

- Håkan Tell


Leslie Kurke, "Greek Ways of Speaking (Aggressively): The Case of ὑπολαβὼν ἔφη."

Giuseppe Lentini, "The Pragmatics of Verbal Abuse in Homer."

Håkan Tell, "Anytus and the Rhetoric of Abuse in Plato’s Apology and Meno."