Structural violence

Violence is commonly understood to comprise actions that threaten or cause injury or death. This works well as a succinct definition of ‘direct violence’, which includes suicide, homicide, mass killings, child abuse, terrorism, rape, domestic abuse, etc. Most of these categories can be identified in the Roman world, appearing in a range of texts. We might begin by exploring the terms used to describe violence and violent acts, in Greek βία and in Latin vis, which can both also mean bodily strength and force, and proceed to their antitheses, the broad categories of peace (εἰρήνη) and love (ἀγάπη), which were foundational tenets of political-religious institutions that both mitigated and justified violence. One must accumulate and analyze abundant empirical evidence, such as anecdotes from ancient biographies and histories, saints’ lives and chronicles, or spells and remedies from magical and medical treatises. One might then attempt to estimate the valorization of violence in the construction of gender, the social experience and effects of direct violence, such as crime in a town or village, and concurrently explore violent sanctions and punishments enshrined in law, for example the healing function of legal punishments (ἐπιτίμια ἰατρευτικά), what we might today call rehabilitation, rather than their punitive quality per se (κολαστικά). A recent study of conjugal violence has highlighted a circle of violent actions, whereby violence by men inspired spiritual or magical violence by women, casting spells on men to cause impotence, which occasioned a physically violent response. These are fascinating themes, but they comprise only a segment of the domain of violence in the Roman world, which is largely lost to us.[i]            

Approaching violence through the material record, one might choose to start with evidence for direct violence caused by tools and weapons. Of course weapons were made and used throughout the Roman period in all regions to injure and kill, and this can be seen in a range of written records, in art and the visual record, in the survival of weapons themselves and armor to protect against weapons, and in the archaeological record, including the bioarchaeological record. Injuries caused by sharp or pointed weapons, by swords and spears, but also lead shot for example, can be identified and in cemetery contexts quantified.

An accumulation of violent acts built from the bottom up, of wounds that maimed or killed, of things that caused those wounds, will always be incomplete. It may be representative of direct violence, but will comprises only a fraction of the ‘structural violence’ in a given society, meaning the conditions that result in the premature deaths of or injury to its people. These conditions derive from the social, political and economic structures that define a culture, and the environmental factors by which these are constrained and sustained.

Histria on the Black Sea coast, close to Rome’s lower Danuber frontier, offers insights and illustrations from one modest settlement. Skeletons exhumed from the city’s late Roman graveyard displayed signs of hard, repetitive labour, poor diet and personal hygiene, infection, trauma and chronic pain. A young woman, perhaps as young as 24, was buried with an infant who died at around three months. Despite her youth, the woman displayed signs of severe joint degeneration, and appears to have died with, and perhaps as the result of, a wound to her right leg. She had earlier suffered a wound to her pelvis and a blow to the head with a blunt object, both healed without signs of infection. Another woman, buried in an adjacent grave, died between the ages of 33 and 46. At the time she would have been suffering from both acute and chronic pain. She had lost a tooth, and had dental caries in two more and four abscesses. Her remaining teeth, molars, canines and incisors, were all heavily or abnormally worn. Her back and limbs showed signs of osteoarthritis and degeneration, and her right hand would have appeared deformed from damage and wear. She would have walked hunched over, although once stood 1.59m (5’2”) tall. The man buried next to her was around the same age at death and 1.71m (5’7”) tall. He had lost ten teeth and had caries in four more. He suffered from severe osteoarthritis and eleven of his vertebrae were fused.[ii]

We might then consider environmental violence, the violence done to the natural world, to flora and fauna, including humans, by human behavior and activities. Clearly, this is a vast topic and one that demands circumscribed points of entry and paths through massive bodies of data, written, material and scientific. Devastating Beauty will adopt works of art as those points of entry.

[i] Messis and Kaldellis 2016

[ii] C. Radu et al., ‘Bioanthropological data for a skeletal sample retrieved from the extra-mural necropolises at Histria’), in Histria: histoire et archéologie en Mer Noire, Pontica 47, supplementum III (Constanța, 2014), pp. 283-97.