Anger and the ancient Greeks

“Wrath—sing, goddess, of the ruinous wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles,
that inflicted woes without number upon the Achaeans,
hurled forth to Hades many strong souls of warriors
and rendered their bodies prey for the dogs,
for all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished;
sing from when they two first stood in conflict—
Atreus’ son, lord of men, and godlike Achilles.” (Caroline Alexander translation)

The first word of the Iliad is μηνιν (ménis), alternately translated as “anger,” “wrath,” and “rage.” According to William Harris’ Restraining Rage, a study of anger in ancient Greek and Roman texts, none of these fully captures the Greek ménis, which implies a god-like anger of considerable duration.

Harris parses the many words the Greeks had for anger-like emotions. He reviews philosophical perspectives, analyzes artistic depictions, and examines cultural underpinnings. Guiding his study is the question, why were Greek and Roman philosophers, poets, and thinkers so preoccupied with anger control?

I haven’t reached the end of the study yet, but it’s not hard to understand why the Greeks and Romans were so concerned with differentiating among forms of anger, especially between channeling anger productively and being channeled by it destructively. It’s right there in the first stanza of the Iliad: Achilles’ divine anger effectively becomes a character in the story, driving the action forward.

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