Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.35

Alberto Cavarzere, Antonio Aloni, Alessandro Barchiesi, Iambic Ideas: Essays on a Poetic Tradition from Archaic Greece to the Late Roman Empire.   Lanham, MD:  Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.  Pp. xiv + 263.  ISBN 0-7425-0817-X.  $26.95.  

Contributors: Gianfranco Agosti, Antonio Aloni, Angela M. Andrisano, Alessandro Barchiesi, Ewen Bowie, Alberto Cavarzere, Lowell Edmunds, Stephen J. Harrison, Stephen J. Heyworth, Alessandro Russo, Lindsay C. Watson, Giuseppe Zanetto

Reviewed by Catherine Keane, Washington University in St. Louis (
Word count: 2188 words

Iambic Ideas is the latest addition to the series Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches, and is based on papers from a 1998 conference held in Trento. The authors consider aspects of the creation and interpretation of iambic poetry in antiquity. A collection of twelve essays allows for broad coverage, as the book's subtitle suggests, although there are gaps. As the editors recognize (xiv), Hipponax and Callimachus are not quite as well represented as Archilochus and Horace; Herodas and Martial are invoked once or twice, and there are only a couple of tantalizing references to the eponymous figure Iambe, an important construction of the ancient interpretive tradition. Only the last two essays deal with the practice and reception of iambic poetry after Horace (both offer intriguing glimpses at ancient literary theory and practice). Despite this, the collection is strong and provocative in both its breadth and its depth. It is clear that the contributors drew on one another's essays in between the original conference and the volume's production. Since many of them engage with the same authors, programmatic declarations, and testimonia, the cross-referencing is appropriate and welcome.

It is useful to begin at the beginning with comments by the series editor, Gregory Nagy:

[In this book] the idea of iambic is examined across time, through a wide variety of cultural settings. What emerges most clearly from these studies is that the "iambic idea" is impossible to define in absolute terms: rather, the form (the lowercase is intentional) of iambic keeps on varying in response to a vast variety of historical contingencies. The variation is evident in such critical terms as the 'iambic tendency' in Sappho, the 'reusing of iambi' for Roman epodes, and even the instances of 'iambic absence' in comedy and other related forms. In the end, what is most characteristic about the 'iambic' is its own inherent variability (ix).

As one interested in a cousin-genre of iambus, satire, which some would describe as "inherently variable" as well, I would like to develop Nagy's comments to take in some of the more iambus-specific conclusions offered in this volume. Interestingly, the above description of iambus -- resisting absolute definition, responding to historical contingencies -- echoes material from Barchiesi's contribution, on Horace. In his literary-critical Epistles, Horace (like Nagy) animates iambus, creating a narrative of its development in which it acts and reacts as a living entity with a personality and an agenda. It's in recognizing how creative and tendentious this kind of literary history is that we can appreciate the significance of iambus as an ideal, a theme, even a foil.

Many of the essays in this volume handle the "iambic idea" in just this fashion, examining the persistent and plural associations of the term iambus. Some contributors consider whether texts traditionally labeled "iambic" live up to our evolving understanding of that form; others try to get at what certain authors mean when they use the term iambus, and/or iambic meter, and/or invective. The term itself can evoke a particular group of meters, or a poetry that centers on humorous abuse, or a persona that recalls the specific models of Archilochus, Hipponax, and Semonides. But, as the authors demonstrate, not every work that is called iambic has all of these features; nor are these features restricted to that group of texts. The first four essays, which concern the evolving and performance-centered iambus of archaic and classical Greece, explore these problems. Bowie, whose essay begins the volume, surveys archaic iambic poetry for recurrent features and suggests that narrative (whether abuse-oriented or not) is as definitive an element in the group of forms called iambic as invective has always been assumed to be. He thus views the form as having originally been associated with an "a\ la carte menu" of elements, the manipulations of which by each author may never be completely clear to us. Continuing with archaic material, but in a format that is unique among the essays in this volume, Aloni and Andrisano each conduct close readings of texts not usually labeled iambic (Sappho fr. 31 V and Alcaeus 130b V, respectively). They demonstrate that the poetic "I" in each text engages in an allusion-packed, audience-invoking, persona-tweaking, ironic performance. These examples illuminate archaic performance strategies in general, and so give us better tools for reading the more commonly referenced iambic fragments.

Zanetto turns to Aristophanes to consider new ways of understanding Old Comedy's relationship to iambus.1 Zanetto focuses on riddling elements, namely the fable (αἶνος) and play with proper names, and contends that Aristophanes borrows these from archaic invective poetry in order to mimic the "ideology of exclusiveness" that is characteristic of blame poetry.2 Appealing to the audience as an exclusive, "clever" group creates an intimate atmosphere, as if the crowd were a group of the poet's friends. Zanetto stops short of arguing that this strategy in Aristophanes is an appeal to an existing, more competent segment of the audience. But, if he views the strategy as a rhetorical device and a generic marker instead, he also does not pursue what I think is the most interesting ramification of that conclusion. The comic poet who cultivates intimacy with his audience is shifting to audience members the burden of identifying themselves as either "in" or "out." Referring to two groups in the audience, learned and ignorant (as the initiate chorus does at Frogs 354-371), generates at least some level of interpretive activity and generic theorizing in the existing audience. This dynamic, I think, partially accounts for the energy devoted to theorizing about iambus throughout antiquity.

Nagy's comment that iambus "varies in response to historical circumstances" will serve to introduce the rest of the essays. One important circumstance that comes to mind is the rise of text-oriented as opposed to oral poetics in Hellenistic literary culture. According to Edmunds, Callimachus' response to the model of Hipponax in his fourth Iamb depends on this development. Callimachus styles the boorish laurel after Hipponax, and his critique (expressed through the opinions of the more refined olive) promotes an urbane, less directly referential blame-poetry. Callimachus' confrontation of Hipponax stems from his aggressive, Hipponactean poetic stance and is therefore double-edged (an irony that is "hard to deploy in performance and hard to grasp in listening"). Russo's essay on Ennius also relates to the Hellenistic construction of the character of iambus. Russo argues that in Saturae 7 V, which contains the phrase versus flammei, the Roman poet connects his satire to the iambic tradition via Hellenistic formulations of "iambic fire." Another particularly scholarly treatment of iambus is found in Horace's fourteenth Epode, which, Watson proposes, is not the uncouth, unpolished production that Horace suggests it is. Watson unpacks Horace's Callimachean art line by line. (Less persuasively, in my view, he considers it important to insist that Maecenas did really ask Horace to complete the Epodes book, though the dramatic scenario of the poem is highly conventional. That discussion hints that Horace uniquely "exploit[s] the poetic possibilities of the situation." [189]) Cavarzere takes us to the first century A.D. to read Phaedrus' programmatic declaration that he has transformed Aesop's fables into senarian verse. Readers unfamiliar with Phaedrus, but interested in the paradoxes involved when poets adapt "essentialized" poetic forms, will learn that this poet accomplishes a "philological recovery" of Aesop through the use of a conventionally humble form.

The "inherent variability" of iambus is reflected in other contexts besides the rise of textual poetics. The volume brings out the interesting fact that so many sources place iambus in some kind of negative theoretical formulation, making the term's clear definition seem both more crucial and more elusive. These references appear again and again throughout Iambic Ideas. The speaker of Archilochus fr. 215 W pushes his poetry away with the complaint "I have no interest in iamboi," Aristotle tells us that Crates abandoned the ἰαμβικὴ ἰδέα (Poetics 1449b6-8). Callimachus summons Hipponax, but not in his Bupalus-battling persona (Iamb 1, fr. 191.3-4 Pf). Catullus' puella makes a vow to the gods in the hope that the poet will cease hurling his fierce iambics (36.4-5). Horace claims to have brought "Parian iambi" to Latium, following Archilochus' "meters and passion" but not his "subject matter and the words that harass Lycambes" (Epistle 1.19.23-25). Iambus is so often figured as just out of reach, lost, or pushed away -- this particular aspect of its "variability" could be its most intriguing defining quality and is visibly thematized by authors in the tradition. This is evident in the essays by Heyworth, Harrison, Agosti, and Barchiesi, which highlight ways in which poets (Catullus, Horace, and a number of late antique authors with diverse agendas) assert that they are transforming iambus for their own purposes.

Heyworth brings out significant patterns in Catullus' handling of iambus -- meaning the manner in which he combines or distributes iambic meters, invective content, and references to iambus throughout his poems. In this allusive generic play we find Catullus inching towards a broader definition of iambus that includes even hendecasyllables, epigrams, and non-invective poems. This is an illuminating case of a poet not simply applying the "iambic spirit" loosely, but setting up an essential iambic "ideal" while demonstrating its potential for expansion and change. Another such case is Horace's Epodes book as Harrison reads it; Horace experiments by transporting iambus from a free-speaking symposiastic context into a more uneven patronage scenario, by lightening and even parodying Archilochean vigor and by weaving in lyric and elegiac motifs in a generic mixture indebted to Alexandrian poetry. The contrast between the Archilochean and the Horatian iambic personae is also treated in Barchiesi's essay. Barchiesi argues that Horace thematizes his inadequacy and limitations in the project of reviving iambus. But the Epodes are designed to deviate from the tradition and essence of iambus that Horace himself tendentiously constructs, not from some pre-existing, empirically determined characterization of the form. Barchiesi, like many of his fellow contributors, reminds us that when an author imitates and modifies a form, he is simultaneously writing a history of the contrasting "traditional" form, in terms that suit his agenda. And so an alternative to our re-thinking and re-defining iambus carefully from the outside (de-capitalizing it, or creating delicate terms such as "iambic tendencies," "iambic motifs," "iambic patterns," "iambic presences" -- for which see the essay titles) is to consider how much of what we know was created from the inside by poets. The opening of Barchiesi's essay articulates what I see as the most significant and successful principle operating in this volume: "ideas about genre, tradition, imitation, and predecessors are dynamic factors more than pre-existing points of reference" (141).

In the collection's final essay, Agosti combines the themes of variability and interpretation, observing that iambic forms and motifs surface in various late antique writers. The piece is an illuminating introduction to the fate of iambus after its canonical performances. As in Horace, in this material we can see the practice of "essentializing iambus" combined with the exploration of new forms and contexts for the tradition. While there was an attempt to suppress the iambic "mood" and vulgar behavior in the Christian empire, iambic vocabulary and imagery served in polemic against religious enemies, whether Christian or pagan. Other cases reflect the late antique revival of interest in Aristophanes, by now considered a central figure in the iambic tradition.

Iambic Ideas is nicely produced (though there are typographical errors scattered through a few essays), organized, and balanced. A number of the essays (e.g. those of Bowie, Zanetto, Edmunds, Barchiesi, and Watson) begin with summaries of the state of scholarship on the text or question at hand, which is very useful when one is reading through a volume of such broad scope. The book has a selective but serviceable index locorum, and bibliographies appear separately rather than being combined at the end; this will be convenient for readers who wish to use only specific essays. Nevertheless, many will admire the collection as a whole; I would even say that the pieces work better together than they would separately. The editors' prefatory remarks indicate their genuine concern to bring together areas which would benefit from more cross-pollination (Greek/Roman, classical/late antique, textual/historical studies), and, as I have noted, the contributors cooperate with these aims by taking one another's readings into consideration. The iambic tradition is an excellent subject through which to forge connections between methodologies; in the editors' appropriately iambus-personifying words, "the genre, whatever its contours and transformations, appears to be constantly aware that poetry has functions and effects within society at large, and that the reception of individual authors is never a purely aesthetic issue" (xii). The insistence in many of the essays and throughout this review that we view poetic literary histories as constructed and subjective is meant to underscore, rather than to challenge, this point. Because iambic poets claim to have such meaningful interactions with their audiences and targets, they encourage us to ask larger questions that concern even their non-iambic colleagues. Perhaps the most important legacy of Archilochus, Hipponax, and Semonides (or, to follow Aristotle, of that original "low" creation, the Margites) is the continuing scholarly effort to understand the poet's function in his society.


1.   Zanetto uses as his starting point the works by Degani and Rosen on this topic: see E. Degani, "Giambo e commedia," in La polis e il suo teatro 2, ed. E. Corsini (Padova: Editoriale Programma, 1988) 157-159 and "Aristofane e la tradizione dell'invettiva personale in Grecia," in Aristophane, ed. E. Degani, J. M. Bremer, and E. W. Handley (Vandoeuvres and Genève: Fondation Hardt, 1993), 1-49, and R. Rosen, Old Comedy and the Iambographic Tradition (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988).
2.   This is Nagy's term in "Iambos: Typologies of Invective and Praise," Arethusa 9(1976): 196-98.

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