You are here

Unwelcome Guest: Envy, Shame, and Materiality in an Ancient Greek House

Andrew Scholtz

Binghamton University

Visitors entering a third-century CE house at Skala, on the island of Cephalonia, would have been greeted by a ghastly image: that of a young man choking himself while being gored by beasts. Who is the young man and why is this happening? The accompanying poem tells us that he is Envy (Φθόνος), punished thus for casting his malign gaze upon human prosperity (SEG 19 145/46 no. 409). The point of the image would, then, appear to be apotropaic, just as numerous studies have argued. Yet scholars, though they shed light on iconography connecting the mosaic to other, similarly apotropaic objects (Neira Jiménez; Dasen; Dunbabin and Dickie; Mañas Romero; Osbourne), say little about the elegiac distichs accompanying the image. With attention to that poem and its details, I argue that the assemblage as a whole materializes envy as actor in a drama celebrating the householder’s success, yet exposing the envious to envy’s social as well as physical costs.

Among other things overlooked in study of the Skala mosaic has been envy as emotion, and it is from there that I start. In so doing, I follow the lead of Sanders and Kaster, who demonstrate both the social embeddedness and the complexity of envy “scripts” in ancient evidence. One recurrent motif in those scripts is the shame associated with being envious (Sanders 17); I maintain that text and image working in tandem leverage shame to script social exclusion into the affective experience of envious visitors to the house. Note how the poem, even as it highlights envy as emotion, excludes him/it from honored company (“not because you are honored among men has the artist pictured your [Envy’s] destructive φρήν/‘passion’ ”; cf. LSJ s.v. φρήν I.2.). As for the “vile mark of wasting suffered by the envious” (τηκεδόνος φθονερῶν δεῖγμα … στύγιον), that seems to invoke physical harm as a deterrent (envy, wasting, apotropaia: Dunbabin and Dickie 15–17). Yet the poem also bids Envy and, by extension, the envious, to stand bearing this “vile mark” before the withering “gaze of all” (ἕστ[αθ]ι δ[ὴ] πάντεσσιν ἐνώπιος). Thus it would seem to add disgrace to whatever other harm it conjures up.

Still, shame may not have sufficed to deal with baskania, Envy’s evil eye, threatening the householder’s success (θνητῶν ὄλβοις βασκαίνων, “evilly eyeing human prosperity”; baskania as externally harmful: Dunbabin and Dickie 10–11). Here, the mosaic’s strategic placement (entry hall) comes into play. Not only will visitors have viewed the artwork; they will have had to step on it. Thus it functions as a kind of cognitive-magical “speed bump.” Speed bumps, notes Latour, transform what is for many a more abstract goal, that of protecting pedestrians, into a more immediate one, that of not damaging one’s car (38–40). Just so, image and poem warn the envious not to traverse the mosaic lest they trigger harms targeting persons such as themselves. Here, physical contact with the youth, his agonies, and the poem describing them matters. Compare a fourth-century CE mosaic from Sheik Zoued in Egypt (Dickie 239). Seeking to ward off envy (φθόνον) and the evil eye (ὄμματα βασκανίης), the accompanying poem begs viewers, “If you love me, … tread rejoicing on the threshold, delighting your soul with its workmanship.” At Skala, one assumes that visitors are similarly invited to admire nonthreateningly the house and its occupants (note, e.g., the interior mosaic with text paying tribute to the householder’s piety and that of his son: Neira Jiménez 79). Those of an envious disposition should, however, back off lest they share in the agonies, both social and physical, afflicting the pictured youth. Thus the assemblage scripts a drama whose outcome depends not only on how visitors materialize inner emotion, but on how that drama’s notional audience, the “eyes of all,” react.

Session/Panel Title

Materiality and Literary Culture

Session/Paper Number

75.3

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy