Theses Doctoral

Kindred Killers: Intrafamilial Murders in Archaic and Classical Greek Art

Dimitropoulos, Maria

Greek literature is infamous for its fondness of narrating in horrific detail the violent plots of man versus man, man versus beast, and even man versus god, encompassing conflicts that range from individual vendettas to large-scale warfare. The extant stories of Greek epic and drama preserve merely a snippet of the ancient audience’s fascination with violence in all its forms. Depicted among these bloody confrontations is a subject that seems taboo even to modern viewers—kin murders. Epic conceals the most brutal violations of kinship ties, preferring a more nuanced approach to such horrors. Tragedy, in contrast, relishes translating these particular crimes onto the public stage. However, in dramatic performance the violent acts themselves are only either described in words or alluded to; they are always completed off-stage, and audience members must rely on their imaginations to recreate the most offensive parts of an episode. There is a similar hesitation in visualizing these gruesome stories of parents slaying children, wives murdering husbands, brothers turning against each other, or sons slaughtering mothers in Greek art. In contrast, there are numerous portrayals of lethal violence in other contexts that are unabashedly explicit and shockingly gory. For example, images of quarrels between political rivals or cultural others enjoyed popularity from the earliest periods of Greek art. But depictions of sanctioned violence in the military sphere occupy a different realm than the rare illustrations of the most sinister of transgressions—the murder of one’s own kin.

The tantalizing few examples of this exceptional category of violence prompt further study, yet there has never been a comprehensive investigation on portrayals of intrafamilial murder in in the visual repertoire. In Kindred Killers: Intrafamilial Murders in Archaic and Classical Greek Art, I bring together and examine for the first time the evidence for murder against kin in Greek art from the seventh to the fourth centuries BCE. I assemble a catalog of 202 images related to four types of intrafamilial murder within the nuclear family unit: filicide, spousal homicide, parricide, and fratricide. Geographically, the material spans from mainland Greece, including Attica, Corinth, and the Peloponnese, to East Greece, and to South Italy and Sicily; the objects range from pottery, shield bands, seals, and other representatives of the so-called minor arts, to statue groups, temple architecture, and lost monumental wall paintings. I investigate the iconographic patterns of the four typologies, tracing their changes through time, medium, and area of production, while also considering factors, such as manner, intent, and motivation, in order to establish a visual language for “intrafamilial murder.” I frame the images within broader, shifting cultural notions of violence and explore how the various scenes of kinship murder challenge and solidify social norms, negotiate interpersonal power, and express the tensions brought about by ever-changing family dynamics.

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2028-03-15.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Classical Studies
Thesis Advisors
Mylonopoulos, Ioannis
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 29, 2023