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seminars > spring 2014 schedule > seminar: Revenge and Vengeance in the Ancient World


Honors Seminars Spring 2014

Revenge and Vengeance in the Ancient World

HON 290 Sec:002  
3 hours  
GEP Category:
Humanities (History)  
HVC Conference Room  
Dr. Molly M. Pryzwansky

This seminar explores the morals and ethics of revenge and vengeance in Greco-Roman antiquity. First, we define our terms by asking what the difference is between revenge, vengeance and vendetta, and how our modern, western culture views such acts. Next, we examine a range of examples from the ancient world, drawing on epic, tragedy, law, mythology and history. Among the questions our seminar will debate is when, if ever, revenge, vengeance and vendetta are approved of in the ancient world, and when, if ever, such acts are met with disapproval. Do the Greeks and Romans think the same way we do about the morals and ethics of revenge, vengeance and vendetta? Is there even a modern American consensus to compare to the ancient world? Is there a difference between Greek and Roman thoughts about revenge, vengeance and vendetta?

We begin by reading about the exploits of the Trojan War heroes in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in order to ask how revenge, vengeance and vendetta fit into their concept of justice and how such themes relate to the workings of the gods. We will then compare these Greek heroes and gods to the Roman ones in Vergil’s Aeneid and we will discover that like his Greek counterparts, Aeneas will also kill in the name of vengeance and the gods will also help and hinder him along the way, sometimes motived by revenge.

Having laid the basis of our topic in these epic tales, we will turn to other examples of revenge and vengeance from tragedy, mythology, history and law. In tragedy and mythology there are many tales of scorned women (such as Medea, Clytemnestra and Juno) who use revenge and vengeance to get back at the men who wronged them or their families. We will ask how these examples of revenge and vengeance compare to those we saw involving men and war in the epics to inquire if gender has any effect on the morals and ethics of revenge and vengeance. “Real life” acts of revenge and vengeance may be drawn from history; for example, in 1st-cent. B.C. Rome Octavian justified civil war against Brutus, Cassius and their faction by saying that he was seeking vengeance for his murdered adoptive father, Julius Caesar. It is illuminating to compare these literary and historical examples to Greek and Roman law in order to ask what is permitted under the law and how far one is allowed to go to seek justice oneself through revenge, vengeance and vendetta.

In the first half of the semester, there will be three short response papers (3 pp. each) that will teach the mechanics of critical reading and writing. In the second half of the semester, each student will produce a research paper on a topic of his/her choice (10 pp.) using primary and secondary sources. The final paper will be written in stages so as to emphasize the process of research and revision. There will be no formal tests, but there will be two short quizzes (25 min.) to test knowledge of the readings. Active, informed seminar participation will be emphasized and will make up 20% of the final grade.