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Revenge (associated verb revenge ) is an act intended to compensate for an injustice that has previously been alleged or actually suffered . In terms of its intention, it is to inflict harm on one or more people who are said to have committed the wrong. Often revenge is an act of physical or psychological violence . In archaic law, it is differentiated from crime by legality.


Revenge (Old High German râhha , Old Saxon wrâka, Anglo-Saxon wraec , Icelandic ræki , "drive, hunt, pursue; retaliate, punish, avenge") is not a well-defined legal term, except in Nordic sources. It is therefore avoided by legal historians oriented towards Roman law . In contrast, Greek legal history attests to a surprisingly legal concept of revenge. The political decisions and acts of violence by figures like Menelaus, Odysseus or Orestes show less an archaic willingness to use violence than a compulsion to revenge by the law itself - with fixed legal rules and guidelines for the correct "measure of revenge" (analogous to today's penalty). In German legal history, the term is mostly used in connection with the feud . It is an old common Germanic legal term, which designated the "setting outside the land law, and the expulsion from the country as a result of an attack on the peace in the country". It was the milder, because not dishonorable, punishment, as opposed to the condemnation of an outlaw existence ( ostracism ).

In some societies, those obliged to take revenge are cursed if they fail to take revenge.

In the current German-speaking world, revenge is seen as an emotionally controlled act that contradicts the legal system if it denies the state's monopoly of force . In archaic society, on the other hand, revenge was a means of enforcing justice and restoring social peace. Vengeance did not violate the legal system, but the law was partly dependent on the avenger in order to be able to punish at all.

Legal history

Pre-Christian time

There are two theses for the origin: One says that originally only revenge prevailed and that individuals or communities ( clans ) took their rights for themselves. The state later restricted this vigilante justice. The other thesis says that vengeance, as a means of legal protection recognized in society, already presupposes the legal community. It should be noted that a social situation in which there was a complete lack of a general sense of justice cannot be historically established. Just the fact that revenge presupposes an injury, the injustice of which is also felt by the offending perpetrator in principle (although not necessarily in relation to the injured person), presupposes a rudimentary overarching sense of justice. In archaic society, the right to revenge on the other side corresponds to the loss of any legal protection. This loss comes automatically with the wrongdoing that leads to vengeance. There is no need for a judgment of any kind. The problem was immediately that the avenger determined his entitlement to revenge and its scope himself. This led to progressive regulation.


In early Greek antiquity, revenge did not describe a basic drive to violence, but a compulsion to implement laws. The existence of the blood revenge cannot be proven at the time the Homeric epics were written. It was only with the draontic law that blood law was introduced in Athens. Before that, it was common practice to redeem rights of vengeance and violence from the respective owner through ransom, goods or gold. Residuals hibernate in an attempt to appease Achilles' grudges with precious mares and women. The trade in rights of revenge is apparently severely restricted by the influence of legal scholars from Delphi in Greece. Interesting features of the obligation to use force and downright trade bans with rights of revenge can be shown. In the legal development, Greek law initially obliges to use violence instead of - as is commonly assumed - to domesticate it. Previously, material values ​​could be used as compensation. Greco-Roman antiquity viewed revenge as an act of reciprocity (morality of reciprocity). Do good to those who do you good, harm those who harm you. There was the sacred duty of revenge for certain groups of people who were particularly close to the injured party, for example through relatives, friendship or hospitality . The duty to revenge was hereditary. Often children were expressly conceived only to pursue the father's vengeance, which could also turn the children into victims of vengeance. "A fool is the one who kills the father and lets the sons get away." As a rule, it also triggered a counter-revenge, so that it lasted for generations.

The active solidarity of those obliged to revenge corresponded to the passive solidarity of the wrongdoer's family. Only when the guilty parted with his bandage could he spare them revenge. The driving motive was not the damage itself, but the loss of honor . The violation was also an offense that generated the anger, the furor , ira . Honor was to be restored through the act of revenge, which was important for social position.

There was also a tendency towards excessive revenge in ancient Greece. The first written regulation and containment came about in 621 BC. Chr. Drakon of Athens. To what extent Drakon might represent an intensification of revenge against the legal status in the epics is controversial. With the increasing writing of the law from the 7th century BC Vengeance was increasingly regulated, for example in the designation of the groups committed to vengeance. In addition, the criminal process became a means of regulating revenge, but by no means replaced it. So one could take revenge in the Roman quaestion process at the forum . Even Augustus called his victory over the Caesar's murderers Cassius and Brutus as revenge for Caesar . He dedicated a temple to Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger). It was only through the centralization of power in the principate era that vengeance was decisively suppressed. A special form of vengeance was the prayer of vengeance, mainly in early antiquity. The dead could also take revenge on themselves. The athlete Theagenes of Thasos took revenge on an offender after his death by crushing him under his bronze statue.

Germanic culture

The Talion principle was also completely unknown to Germanic law, in that it no longer had any influence on the behavior of the avenger when a wrongdoer was expelled from the legal association. Only in the Jónsbók is the excess of vengeance punished with half penance. This provision was taken from the Landslov of Norway, where the legal development had already advanced.

The first rule was that vengeance could not be done through a secret act. Rather, the avenger had to make his act of revenge publicly known immediately. Otherwise it was murder. This ensured that the legality of the revenge could be determined afterwards. The old Norse, pre-Christian law provided two ways for this: The avenger could let the relatives of the dead man bring a lawsuit for manslaughter and assert the right to revenge as an objection or he could also bring the "lawsuit against the dead man" himself is also provided for in the Sachsenspiegel . This lawsuit was known as the “unholy lawsuit”. It was used to establish that the man who had been killed had lost his “ male holiness ”. In this case, therefore, one speaks of the fact that “revenge was, so to speak, an execution before the judgment”. This possibility of retrospectively examining the right of revenge placed the avenging party at risk that his right of revenge was not subsequently recognized.

The authority to take revenge was also limited to certain acts: These included manslaughter, adultery, whereby the rival fell victim to revenge, and insults, for example in the form of sodomy . In some pieces of legislation there is also an offense of theft in the act. The injured party himself was called to vengeance and, in the case of manslaughter, his rightful blood avenger . According to the Gulathingslov , a man had to take revenge in sex crimes for his wife, mother, daughter, sister, stepmother, sister-in-law and daughter-in-law, and according to other laws, sometimes also for other people. Everyone was entitled to revenge in the event of looting in their own country. The right to revenge was also limited in time: in Iceland it could only lawfully be exercised until the next Althing . There was also the idea that the slain himself had the possibility of revenge, and he was feared as a revenant and a werewolf .

The endeavor to tame vengeance also led to the alternative of penance through Wergeld .

Jewish-Christian culture

In the Old Testament, vengeance is treated in two directions: on the one hand, in the Lamech song, where Lamech boasts to his wives that he will avenge every injury seventy-seven times (= excessive) ( 1 Mos 4:24  EU ). The historical background is controversial. For your own national comrades, however, the following applies: You should not take vengeance, nor hold a grudge against the children of your people, but you should love your neighbor as yourself! Because I am the Lord ( Lev 19,18  EU ). The canonization of these rules and the swearing in of the entire people of Israel took place after 458 BC. By Ezra . In the Old Testament God is admitted as avenger: "The Lord is a zealous God and an avenger, yes, an avenger is the Lord and angry ...".

In Christianity the exercise of vengeance is forbidden, e.g. B. Mt 18.22  EU . Nonetheless, the early church struggled with Christians, priests, and even bishops who used the weapon of the curse of excommunication for personal vengeance. In the Middle Ages, action against an evildoer, particularly by the highest divine judge, was viewed as revenge. This is expressed in the translations from the Old Testament, which speak of divine penal judgments. Then the punitive behavior of people with divine approval was called revenge. There is talk of the "vengeance of the law".

Renunciation of vengeance is considered a virtue of the high (as " generosity "), also as a Christian virtue ( long-suffering , mercy ).

Friedrich Nietzsche interpretedretribution ” as a natural human response to good and bad. So active gratitude for him is “the good vengeance” ( Dawn 138). If there is no answer, resentment develops .

Sociological aspect

The unavenged suffering reduces the injured person's social esteem. Hence, it has been and still happens that people are pressured into revenge who are not motivated to do so by themselves.

In sociological or social anthropological terms, revenge serves to restore injured honor , if it does not find satisfaction otherwise . They can be as "negative transfer " understand that a "negative transfer" answers ( see. Exchange (sociology) ) - to that extent there is a structural similarity of "revenge" for "gratitude". Both have in common that they are automatically triggered with the "giving act". There is no need for any preceding legal act. Depending on the culture, both are bound by certain rules.

Forms of revenge are common in the absence of a social monopoly of force . It is a social institution in communities or segmental societies , in which offenses within subgroups (segments) are officially not allowed to occur and cannot be remedied in any other way. In this context, “blind vengeance” is unusual: possible avengers and victims are relatively firmly regulated by custom .

Psychological aspect

From a psychological point of view, revenge is no longer understood as an objectively necessary action to restore order, but as an evaluation-dependent emotion (depending on the emotional- theoretical point of view, the emotion already includes acts of revenge in the “emotion” concept or the emotion becomes such acts of revenge viewed as disposing), the quality and intensity of which depends on whether the perpetrator is assumed to be responsible and intentional.

The “greed for revenge” - the desire for revenge, if it cannot be satisfied: the “vengeance” - is based on social constellations, personal conditions and motives that may be inferred from depth psychology.

German law today

According to German law, revenge can represent a murder characteristic according to Section 211 (2) StGB in the form of a base motive if the vengeance is based on base motives. Anyone who kills a person for low motives is to be punished as a murderer - and not just as a manslaughter . He faces life imprisonment. For example, in case law, killing in revenge for a truthful charge for a criminal offense was considered murder.

Revenge is not congruent with the criminal law term " retribution ", since retribution has a clearer reference to justice, i. H. has a compensation function for injustice suffered.

Modern usage

Today the term revenge includes a "passionate and ignoble emotion in pursuing an injustice".

"Revenge, for example, is indisputably a base and even low affect"

- Friedrich Schiller : Historisch -kritische Ausgabe, Volume 10, P. 176.

In addition to the verb revenge, "take revenge on someone" or "... practice" is also used. The expressions “brood revenge” or “seek revenge”, “thirst for revenge”, “demand vengeance”, “swear vengeance”, “hot vengeance”, “vengeance ray”, the “vengeance comes upon someone” are common word combinations. The word also occurs in ironic expressions: "His revenge consisted in Wolthaten, which he turned to the children of his enemy". The disease ergotism was also referred to as "burning Raach" . There are now also idioms that completely ignore a previous injustice: “It takes revenge” for not having taken a precaution.

Vengeance in poetry

Vengeance - or the magnanimous renunciation of it - is one of the most common motifs in dramatic and epic literature:

See also

Wiktionary: revenge  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: avenge  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Revenge  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Specialist literature

Entertainment literature

  • Punisher, John: The Black Book of Vengeance , 2004 (Tales of Vengeance )


Individual evidence

  1. Kluge: Etymological dictionary of the German language .
  2. Kaufmann Sp. 126.
  3. Ruch (2017) p. 229 ff.
  4. Ruch (2017) p. 310 ff.
  5. Ruch (2017) p. 276.
  6. a b Grimm, vol. 14, col. 14.
  7. Speyer p. 1167. On the legal consequences of a refusal to revenge in early Greek law: Ruch p. 314 ff.
  8. Beck p. 47.
  9. Ruch (2017) p. 253 ff.
  10. Ruch (2017) p. 287 ff .; 304 ff.
  11. Ruch (2017) p. 299 ff.
  12. Ruch (2017) p. 300 ff.
  13. a b Gehrke (2001) col. 746.
  14. Aristotle, Rhetorica ad Alexandrum 1422a 36 ff. Xenophon, Memorabilia 2, 6, 35.
  15. a b Gaudemet Sp. 307.
  16. Procopé Sp. 683 with reference.
  17. Ruch (2017) p. 308.
  18. Gehrke (2001) Col. 747 with further references.
  19. Gehrke (2001) Col. 747.
  20. ^ Res gestae divi Augusti 2.
  21. Ovid fasti 5, 571-577.
  22. Didos prayer of vengeance against Aeneas : Virgil, Aeneis 4, 612; Speyer Sp. 1174.
  23. Pausanias 6, 11, 6 f. In this context lies the importance of the tradition that Caesar was stabbed to death at the feet of a bust of Pompey .
  24. Maurer p. 52.
  25. Maurer p. 56.
  26. Beck p. 46; Walter Baetke: The concept of "unholiness" in Old Norse law. In: Contributions to the history of the German language and literature, Vol. 66 (1942. pp. 1-54)
  27. Wilda p. 164; Mason p. 59.
  28. Maurer p. 60.
  29. Maurer p. 63.
  30. However, for a long time it was considered comparatively dishonorable to "carry your relatives in your bag".
  31. Nahum 1.2.
  32. Speyer, Sp. 1280, with references from early Christian texts.
  33. a b Grimm, vol. 14, col. 15.
  34. Gehrke Sp. 746.
  35. ^ Rengier, Criminal Law BT II, ​​10th edition, CH Beck, Munich 2009, § 4 Rn. 20th
  36. Fischer, StGB commentary, 57th edition, CH Beck, Munich 2009, § 211 Rn. 11.
  37. Beck p. 45.
  38. On the pathetic. in: Theoretische Schriften , at - accessed on April 28, 2014
  39. Quoted in Grimm, Vol. 14, Col. 17.
  40. Grimm, Vol. 14, Col. 17.