The Nron gang

In ancient times, mythological or historical criminals were not necessarily inhuman. They show us that our evidence is in no way universal, especially when it concerns categories as essential as good and evil.

Our fascination with evil and bad guys who embody it has provided the material for countless fictions, but also historical or psychological studies. Caroline Petit's book is in this vein, with the ambition of moving the investigation into Greek and Roman Antiquity dear to the publishing house of Belles Lettres.

publisher specializing in the publication of ancient texts and reference for all French-speaking research, the publishing house publishes Bookmarks since 2007. This collection intended for the general public aims to bring together and comment on extracts from ancient texts, translated into French, around a theme modern such as the environment, the paranormal, leisure, humor or, here, evil.

This approach tick as anthropologists say, is based on the categories of the observer (here, the modern reader) and not on those of the observed, the authors of these texts and their contemporaries. The objective is not to offer a scholarly study of the concept in an ancient context; the bibliography therefore refers the reader to as many specialized works.

It is rather a question of confronting our modern category with those of the Greeks and Romans, whose conceptions often diverged from ours, but not always. Measuring the gap between our vision and that of the Ancients, to better reflect on their relevance, this is the ambitious program that the collection has set itself. Bookmarks.

Villains of yesterday and today

Professor-researcher in ancient history at the University of Warwick, Caroline Petit signs the latest addition to this collection and dedicates it to those she calls the sceleratia Latin term modestly chosen to designate bad guys.

Like all volumes of Bookmarks, it starts with an interview. The author interviews Daniel Mendelsohn, professor of classical literature, literary critic and specialist in the tragedies of Euripides, but also writer and author of Missing (2006), essay on his family murdered by the Nazis. Caroline Petit and Daniel Mendelsohn attempt to circumscribe the subject, from ancient literary figures such as the infanticide Medea of ​​Euripides, to the genocidaires of the XXe century, passing through tyrants, massacrers and murderers, whether historical, fictional or both.

More than answers, they pose questions to ancient texts: do evil people choose to be evil, or are they persuaded to do good?? Why are they so often defeated in fiction, but not in history?? Why are women and foreigners so often associated with evil? What roles do villains play in fiction, from tragic tyrants to the Lannisters of Game Of Thrones? And what can ancient texts teach us about the ills of today??

The evil in us

The definition of evil and the wicked questioned the ancient philosophers. They agreed on a point that the Stoic Sencus summarizes in Ier century of our era: evil comes from anger and the inability to control oneself. Galen, Roman physician IIe century AD, saw it as an illness that could be cured by temperance, or even self-flagellation. But his diagnosis was terrible: from the master who needlessly hits his slaves to the crowd who massacres in a wave of indignation, we are all potential villains.

Therefore, the great mythical criminals were not absolute inhumanes. On the contrary, they were subjects of empathy and reflection: useful counter-models, because they had unwittingly fallen into evil. The Homeric hero Ajax, blinded by anger, massacred a herd of oxen, believing he was killing his rivals, before committing suicide out of shame. The infamous Mede, an infanticidal mother, was presented by Seneca as a woman betrayed, deceived, wounded and prey to doubt. Madame Clytemnestra, wife and murderer of King Agamemnon, oscillated in Euripides' tragedies between an absolute monster, doomed to death by her own son Orestes, and an ordinary woman, a bruised mother rightly mourning her daughter Iphignia.

This omnipresence of evil gave it a thousand faces, even those of its declared enemies. Philosophers, who claimed to seek the good, did not escape the accusation of hypocrisy, notably from the satirist Lucien, enemy of the cynics (among others) in the IIe century of our era. Greedy, charlatans and incapable, like the ancient doctors, who were suspected of thriving on the misfortune of the sick, even of committing nefarious crimes: poisoning and vivisection, the era of the first anatomical features.

An adjunct to anger, power was also suspected of leading to evil. The Ancients denounced these incarnations of an evil that had become absolute, from the mythical king Atre, who killed his brother's children and served them to him at table, to the Roman emperors as cruel as they were crazy, like Nero, Commodus or Heliogabalus, decked out in every known vice. .

Evil is other people

Nevertheless, the other was always more suspected of carrying evil within him. Women were the victims, from Pandora on, the first of them whom the Greeks considered responsible for all evils, including the most varied historical examples.

Roxane, wife of Alexander the Great, played the jealous woman ready to assassinate her rivals. Xanthippe, wife of Socrates, became the proverbial nun, daily poison to her husband. Fulvia, who married Marc Antony, was accused of dominating him in such a way as to insult both spouses at the same time. Agrippina, wife and murderer of the emperor Claudius, then mother, guardian and victim of Nero, brought to the heights the feminine exercise of power and evil. Caroline Petit does not forget to recall that these portraits fueled a misogynistic discourse which justified the social inferiority of women and which was produced by men, like all ancient literature.

The other and therefore evil were also, for the Greeks and then the Romans, the barbarian, the foreigner. To the Persians returned the cruelty and refined tortures that the historian Plutarch liked to recount in IIe century of our era. For the Celts, brutality and sacrilege, even human sacrifice, went so far as to justify the massacres committed by Julius Caesar during the Gallic War. To the Carthaginians, mortal enemies of Rome, contempt for the laws, honor and respect for the gods, that is to say the cardinal Roman values.

Otherness and associated evil could still lurk within the sexual walls. Adultery, free sexuality, pedophilia and zoophilia were combined in a common disapproval by philosophers, who nevertheless seemed little listened to by their contemporaries on this point. But among biographers like Sutone, or orators like Cicron, the debauchery trial was also a weapon to smear a bad emperor, a political rival and of course a woman, whose sexual freedom was even more reprehensible, since it was deemed contrary to her nature. submitted.

The innovations of Christianity

With the emergence of Christianity at the end of Antiquity, evil took on a name: Satan. He seeks to intrude into everyone and everywhere, including where the Greeks and Romans would never have suspected it: even in their own literary, philosophical and artistic culture, which Saint Jerome admires, but which he swears to renounce as evil, calling on all Christians limit. The accusation of barbarism then turns against this culture, now classic, in the name of which emperors and polytheist apologists call to fight Christians.

But Christian innovation has its limits. The first suspects remain suspects, and she replaces Pandora as the mother of all evil and justification for the submission of her descendants. The thorny question of the just punishment of the wicked extends further than it breaks with classical thought. For Plato, evil was its own punishment and the villain suffered from his crime even more than his victim. For Plutarch, a Platonic historian and philosopher, the ultimate responsibility for sanctioning evil fell to the gods, whose justice could be awaited, sometimes until the death of the wicked, or even in their following lives. For Christians, it will be in the afterlife that the wicked will finally be unmasked and punished for their misdeeds.

Caroline Petit does not offer a systematic and exhaustive study, but rather an anthology of ancient reflections on evil and its scelerati. So much food for thought for the modern reader, invited to put his categories and his certainties into perspective. It thus offers an example of what Greco-Roman Antiquity is for us today.

No longer just one miracle, as Renan said, for whom almost everything that would make Western culture was already in germ in the Athens of Pricles. But also another civilization, as shown by Jean-Pierre Vernant and as anthropologists understand it: a mirror in which to observe ourselves, and to note that our evidence has nothing universal, even (or especially?) when they touch on categories as essential as good and evil.