Promethean Emotions in Greco-Roman Competition for Attention

face of a prisoner

In competition for attention in the Greco-Roman world, representations of Prometheus became more emotionally labile. Writing in the first-century CE, Dio Chrysostom, a Greek public officeholder, described Prometheus as “a sort of sophist … being destroyed by popular opinion.”^ A Prometheus fragment from the Roman tragedian Lucius Accius ironically questions Prometheus’s suffering, perhaps in the context of impressive sophistic capabilities of speech: “Surely then / No eagle has riven his breast as these propound?”^ Prometheus had long been associated with sacrilegious ambition. Competition for attention increased the emotional dynamics of Prometheus’s ambition: “for his liver swelled and grew whenever he was praised and shrivelled again when he was censured.”^ Rather than an eagle tearing it anew every other day, Prometheus’s liver wound became an emotional wound in verbal competition. The pain of wounding became mixed with pride and joy in others’ praise.

The Roman-era tragedy Hercules Oetaeus, attributed to Seneca the Younger, similarly gives a Promethean figure a wide emotional ambit. In Hercules Oetaeus, the mad Hercules intends to assault the heaven and attack “my unnatural father’s unbridled rule.” He declares, “Let the Titans in rage prepare war {against heaven} under my leadership.” One of those Titans is Tityos. Tityos, like Prometheus, had been punished by having vultures continually tearing his liver. In Hercules Oetaeus, Tityos joins Hercules’s imagined attack on heaven: “Tityos has escaped the underworld, and stands so close to heaven, his chest all torn and empty!”^ Promethean suffering is thus united with triumphal revenge.

Varro’s Prometheus Freed, written about 70 BCE^, apparently had extraordinary emotional range. Varro was a Roman renowned for vast learning. Varro’s Prometheus Freed powerfully communicates emotions of Prometheus, suffering in punishment. Here are surviving fragments in tragic verse:

I, unfortunate one, why couldn’t I defend myself from attack and throw my enemy to hellish punishment? In vain I repeatedly try to tear away the shackles from my hands

then like high bark or the top of an oak tree dying of thirst

limbs bloodless from pain, the color fades

no one hears me, but an engulfing view of inhospitable Scythian desert

my boiling mind never dreams, my eyes are not shaded with sleep

Prometheus Freed also conveys, in prose, sophisticated thinking highly abstracted from bodily feelings:

for knowledge, hear and understand what you say is false; that is, a person who has eyes doesn’t need them

Moving to yet another emotional register, Prometheus Freed uses the body as an object for scatological humor:

for shit to flow out, I made in the behind a valley

And also romantic humor:

Golden-sandal orders for himself a mistress of milk and Taretine honey-wax, which Milesian bees have sipped from all the flowers, a mistress without bones or gristle, without leathery skin, without a beard, pure, clean, tall, white, tender, beautiful

There’s also biting harangue:

They live in darkness, in a pig-pen; indeed, the Forum is a pigsty, and most men today act like pigs.^ ^ ^

While only fragments of it have survived, Varro’s Prometheus Freed surely had much different emotional characteristics than did Prometheus Bound. Prometheus Freed stimulated a wide range of emotions that changed quickly across short passages of reading.

Prometheus Freed itself suggests effects of competition for attention. Varro seems to have been:

a professional writer, worried about literary fame, not achieving the respect of his audience, and depicting paradoxically both the effort of his production and the erudition that lies behind it^

A fragment of Prometheus Freed points to the effects of symbolic competition:

emulates and a critic of that art, from which he realized no profit for several years

This difficult fragment plausibly describes work like Prometheus Bound failing in popular competition with newer styles of symbolic work.^ Prometheus Freed and other works in Varro’s Menippean Satires contain obscure vocabulary, arcane knowledge, and difficult rhetoric. Varro’s Menippean Satires seem not to have been written for popular success and have survived only in fragments despite Varro’s contemporary renown. Their literary form and emotional dynamics probably mocked other first-century works that were successful in competition for attention.

The emotional work of Prometheus Bound in fifth-century Athens provided material for literary satire in the Greco-Roman world. The circumstances of symbolic competition changed from competition for acclaim to competition for attention from fifth-century Athens to the Greco-Roman world of the third century and later. The emotional dynamics that the Greco-Roman world highly valued, and the symbolic work that was successful, featured much more labile emotions.

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