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Mythical Violence as Christian Violence in Nonnus’ Dionsysiaca

Nicholas Kauffman

Valparaiso University

Nonnus’ Dionysiaca is replete with violence more graphic and more ubiquitous than anywhere else in
the Greek epic tradition. Much of this violence is directed against the Indians, who are killed in
the name of, and often at the hands of, Dionysus himself. In this paper, I argue that Nonnus’
representation of this divinely-sanctioned slaughter should be seen as political rather than merely
literary, that it reflects on the Christian violence of the late-antique world in which Nonnus
lived. My approach (which develops an insight in Newbold 2003) accords with a strain of
contemporary Nonnian scholarship (e.g. Spanoudakis 2007 and 2012, Miguélez-Cavero 2013) in which
the epic’s mythical and exotic setting allows it to safely explore potentially controversial or
dangerous themes.
Scholars of Nonnus in recent years have highlighted the extent and subtlety of the Christian
resonances in the Dionysiaca (most notably Shorrock 2011, though cf. Miguélez-Cavero 2009). In
particular, parallels between Dionysus and Christ have often been noted (e.g. Liebeschutz 1995,
Hernández de la Fuente 2013), most obviously that both are sent by their fathers to ease the
sufferings of humankind, and that both use rituals involving wine in fulfilling their missions.
Also of note is the surprising pity that Nonnus’ Dionysus sometimes displays, both for humans in
general (12.171) and even for his enemies (e.g. at 14.411-17). This merciful, Christ-like aspect of
Dionysus would seem to stand in sharp contrast with his violent actions on the battlefield and his
explicit thirst for the blood of his enemies (17.91), but scholarship has seldom noted this
tension. Rather, it has downplayed the violence of the god, highlighting instead his more positive
aspects, even in the scenes of battle (Vian 1994, Frangoulis 2012).
In my reading, though, it is crucial and significant that Dionysus shows both pity and pitilessness
and offers both salvation and destruction, as this mirrors Christianity’s dual nature as a religion
of peace and also, increasingly, as an instigator of violence. Central to my argument is a series
of observations on the changing character of the violence in the epic. Scholars often note the
hyperbolic nature of Nonnian violence and mark its literary significance (as evidence of Nonnus’
aemulatio with Homer), but I trace a more complex dynamic in which the epic’s violence is not
uniformly excessive. The initial battles of the Indian War, in fact, are marked by restraint, pity,
and a desire to receive suppliants, but this changes as the war goes on, and the god and his
followers begin to strive for the total annihilation of the foe.
For Nonnus’ fifth-century audience, I suggest, this narrative of an initially peaceful and merciful
mission that becomes more and more violent would have had clear and uncomfortable resonances. In a
relatively short period of time, Christianity, a religion that once rejected violence and warfare
of any kind (Kalantzis 2012) had become deeply enmeshed with the Roman Empire, including its
military apparatus (Drake 2011), and acts of violence by Christians against opposing parties had
become relatively common, most notoriously, perhaps, in Egypt (Gaddis 2005, Watts 2006). The links
between epic violence and Christian violence are suggested not only by these broad narrative
parallels but also by the presence in Nonnus’ battle narratives of specifically Christian language.
Suppliants in the Indian       War, for instance, are described as taking the same posture as
converts to Christianity in Nonnus’ own Paraphrase of the gospel of John; and the enemies of
Dionysus are often designated by the term θεημάχος, which is unattested in Greek epic, but was used
often in Christian writings to describe heretics, Jews, and (notably) the foes conquered by
Constantine.
All this suggests that the extreme violence in the Dionysiaca responds to the present as well as
the literary tradition, sparking not only learned comparison with classical epic but also serious
reflection on
the very real phenomenon of religious violence.

Session/Panel Title

Violence and the Political in Greek Epic and Tragedy

Session/Paper Number

67.5

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