Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.12.16

S.R. Slings, Symposium: Speech and Ideology. Two hermeneutical issues in early Greek lyric, with special reference to Mimnermus. Mededelingen van de Afdeling Letterkunde, Nieuwe Reeks, Deel 63 no. 1.   Amsterdam:  Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, 2000.  Pp. 33.  ISBN 90-6984-277-7.  NLG 25.  

Reviewed by Douglas E. Gerber, University of Western Ontario (
Word count: 583 words

Roughly the first half of Slings' pamphlet is devoted to "the history of scholarship with regard to elegy," with special attention to the views of such scholars as Reitzenstein, Wilamowitz, Jaeger, Snell and Fränkel. In this survey he rightly rejects interpretations of early Greek lyric which most critics today also reject, interpretations such as those which are highly biographical, which treat lyric as "an identifiable stage in the development of the Greek mind," and which claim that in the lyric poets we find for the first time an awakening of the individual self. Useful though it is to be reminded of such views and of the reasons for discarding them, there is scarcely anything new here, and the real meat of the pamphlet lies in the second half.

In this section he begins with a text and translation of frr.1 and 2 of Mimnermus, together with a commentary on selected passages. The most controversial passage is fr. 2.4-5 and I think Slings is right not to treat kakon and agathon as simply "a polar expression, in which only the first alternative is relevant." As he demonstrates, "it will rarely do to ignore completely one of two alternatives that are presented in a particular situation." In the present case, "young men are not aware of misery (because they have not experienced it) any more than of happiness (because they have only experienced happiness)." In what immediately follows, Mimnermus states that the Kêres stand by, one bringing old age and the other death. Critics generally gloss over what is meant by the latter, but Slings acutely observes that "the Kêr bringing death here must be bringing an early death, without the misery of old age."

Slings next provides a good analysis of the structure of the two fragments, with special reference to enjambment which he divides into "syntactic-semantic and pragmatic." He rightly emphasizes that we should approach archaic lyric as speech rather than as text and that by doing so we can explain various inconcinnities of style and structure.

Now we come to the symposium, the occasion for the performance of most archaic elegy. Slings notes the frequency with which the young are either addressed or are "an implied audience." In his view this should not be treated as an indication that such elegies were directed toward a specific age-category. Rather, "revellers at the symposium are young by definition, no matter what their actual age was, and they defined themselves as 'young men.'" This interpretation, he argues, "also explains the homoerotic symposium poetry performed before an audience of neoi: we are all young men, because we are still sexually active." Slings adduces Theognis 1319-22 as confirmation, but is παῖ the same as νέοι? In addition, ἐμὴν χάριν (1321) is not "my attractiveness," but "per riguardo a me" (so Vetta in his commentary on Book Two). Nevertheless, I would agree that the members of the symposium considered themselves "young men" regardless of their actual age and also that Mimnermus is not expressing "personal sentiments," but is voicing "the views of the symposium." The latter is probably typical of archaic elegy, although I find it hard to believe that this could be true of Arch. fr.5.

In conclusion, a number of the points Slings makes are problematic, such as his assumption that Solon must have been eighty when in fr.20 he responded to Mimnermus' wish to die at sixty, but on the whole this pamphlet is more valuable than many books containing hundreds of pages.

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