Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.10.27

Janet Watson (ed.), Speaking Volumes: Orality and Literacy in the Greek and Roman World. Mnemosyne Supplement 218.   Leiden:  Brill, 2001.  Pp. xvi, 236.  ISBN 90-04-12049-1.  $97.00.  

Contributors: Egbert J. Bakker, Elizabeth Minchin, Mary Sale, M.D. Usher, André Lardinois, Ruth Scodel, Robert Hannah, Patricia A. Hannah, Stephen A. Nimis, Margaret Imber

Reviewed by Allen J. Romano, Stanford University (
Word count: 3294 words

The editor characterizes this volume as "a cross-section of current research in this wide-ranging field of enquiry [i.e. orality and literacy]" which "in drawing together its disparate facets...leads the way forward towards building a comprehensive picture of so complex a whole" (xvi). Her description of the collection as a "cross-section" is particularly apt, and the book succeeds in this respect. It is less successful at making the case for relevance or shedding new light on old debates; judging the crucial questions of "Why does this matter?" and "How is this new?" seems to depend on the reader's expertise and knowledge of particular fields. Experts are likely to find their own areas rather familiar. Though Homerists and Hellenists will feel most at home, the wide-ranging selection holds the greatest benefit for the general reader who will be exposed to a range of work in digestible slices. Spanning the archaic period to the fifth century CE, the essays are overwhelmingly Hellenocentric. More than half incline towards early Greece (in part or in whole) and, in one way or another, towards Homer. This is understandable given the privileged and foundational role that the Homeric poems have played in formulating basic questions about "orality" in relation to "literacy" and vice-versa. As might be expected in a collection assembled under such a broad banner, the coverage is neither uniform nor compendious, and unity is sometimes strained. It seems like "orality and literacy" provides the pretext for study rather than the focus. This turns out to be for the best, however, as the most valuable parts of Speaking Volumes develop more through attention to specifics of performance, text, and context than through meditation on the abstract qualities of "orality and literacy." While many of the large-scale conclusions and assumptions urge skepticism, it is in the accumulation of details about moments of performance and context where chapters are most effective (especially Bakker, Scodel, Lardinois, and P. Hannah) and where the book moves closest to the ultimate (though probably unreachable) goal of "building a comprehensive picture."

A bit of background. The essays were selected from papers delivered at the 1998 "Epos and Logos" conference at Victoria University and are the third collection in a series of publications stemming from the biennial Orality and Literacy conferences begun in 1994. This iteration is preceded by Voice into Text,: Orality and Literacy in Ancient Greece, ed. Ian Worthington (Leiden 1995) and Signs of Orality: Oral Tradition and its Influence in the Greek and Roman World, ed. E. Anne Mackay (Leiden, 1999)1 and followed by the recently published Epea and Grammata: Oral and Written Communication in Ancient Greece, eds. Ian Worthington and John Miles Foley (Leiden 2002). Many of the present authors will be familiar from their other contributions to this proliferating series. As conference volumes go, these tend to be minimalist, with a brief overview of the papers and little exegesis to highlight and develop arguments bridging various contributions. The present book is no different, and the essays are easy to excerpt; but, even for those investigating a single reference, some of the most interesting aspects lie in the specific combination of articles.2

Turning to the details, Watson's "Introduction" briefly summarizes each chapter. This section is useful for its clear exposition of individual contributions, especially since some essays are significantly more explicit about their goals than others.

In the first chapter, "Similes, Augment, and the Language of Immediacy," Egbert J. Bakker looks at the relative abundance of augmented aorists in Homeric similes. Bakker's argument depends on the notion that "verbal augment originally was a deictic suffix marking an event as 'near' with respect to the speaker's present and immediate situation" (15). In Homeric poetry, the augment was part of the system of deictic demonstratives and particles which made up what B. calls "the language of immediacy." Arguing against the traditional view that augmented aorists provide evidence for the late development of similes, Bakker suggests that "there is a narrative, semantic motivation for the use, or omission, of the augment" (2). In a methodological move repeated by other contributors (and very productive in Homeric studies generally), Bakker takes what has traditionally been read in top-down, etic terms of diachronic progression and argues instead for a highly contextualized, emic model of qualitative differences active at any moment of performance. Bakker's central insight that augments mark near vs. far (rather than early vs. late) allows him to reject the category of "gnomic" aorists. Rather than indicating timeless and common knowledge, augmented "gnomic" aorists mark relevance and nearness to the speaker. Similes, known to be high in augmentation, should thus be seen in terms of their high degree of "immediacy" and "presence" (18-22). The essay provides an accessible introduction to Bakker's work and a convenient case study in his methods.3 Bakker makes passing reference on page 7 to a larger body of evidence and its future publication elsewhere; his contribution here whets the appetite for a more extensive treatment.

Elizabeth Minchin attacks the Homeric simile with a different set of tools in her chapter, "Similes in Homer: Image, Mind's Eye, and Memory". She argues that visual memory rather than verbal memory plays a primary role in storing and producing similes. Minchin bases her analysis on evidence drawn from studies of memory in the cognitive sciences and specifically on the "dual-coding" model promoted by Allan Paivio.4 She suggests that "the expression of a simile, which is verbal, is triggered by an image which has sprung to mind" (48). She goes on to look at expansion and contraction of similes and imagines how "as the poet accesses imagery, he calls up also the relevant scripts from episodic memory, where his experience of event-sequences is recorded in minute detail" (38). Thus the poet generates similes by accessing not a verbal storehouse but images and scripts which are efficiently and copiously remembered. In performance, these resources of memory make the performer's job easier and account for distinctive features and complexities of Homeric similes.5 The explication of Homeric poetry in terms of visual memory or the mind's eye seems to speak to a loaded question which obsesses moderns: how were the Homeric poems produced without literacy? While Minchin's theory may speak to this sort of question, the interpretive payoff seems overstated.

The first two chapters study the resources of the Homeric poet in performance and the effects of this style for the audience. Mary Sale's chapter "The Oral-Formulaic Theory Today" tackles another aspect of the poet's communicative resources. She revisits some central aspects of Parry's analysis of noun-epithet formulae in Homer. After a few qualifications and two crucial revisions of Parry's theory (one clarifying the nature of "essential ideas" and the other rejecting the notion that all formulaic systems facilitate versification), Sale presents her analysis through a detailed exposition of "regularly-employed multi-purposed formulae" or RMPF. RMPF are noun-phrase formulae that are repeated frequently and are "context-free" (i.e. usable anywhere in the poem as for example, πόδας ὠκύς or πολύτλας δῖος Ὀδυσσεύς). The middle part of the essay elaborates the various effects of formulaic repetition, illustrating how "context-free" formulae express "essential ideas" (in a slightly different sense from Parry) and highlighting the similarity between repetition in ritual and in the Homeric poems. The essay concludes with a statistical analysis of RMPF in oral and literate poems that demonstrates how oral poets make much greater use of RMPF than literate poets. The essay is quite useful as a corrective to Parry and for its solid statistical analysis; it is also a valuable addition to recent work on the aesthetic effects of formulae in Homeric poetry. One caveat: as with many of the essays in this volume, the reader quickly gets the feeling that there is much that has been compressed or left unsaid due to space constraints. For Homerists, this leaves open the possibility to build on this base. Sale mentions additional data that has not been included in the essay (77n34), and this could be a good start for others pursuing these questions. For those less embedded in Homeric debates, Sale's argument is more difficult to unpack than most in this volume, and the demands on the reader are somewhat higher.

In "Variations: On the Text of Homer", M.D. Usher deals with a similar issue to that faced by Sale. Where Sale distinguished the ability for oral composition from literate composition by using Parry, Usher's poles of orality and literacy are established by Nagy and Janko's debate over text fixation. Backing "the principle behind Nagy's position" (82), Usher offers an "infusion of new evidence" (81) in the form of the Homeric Centos of Eudocia, a biblical "pastiche poem" of the fifth century CE. Analysis of the Centos focuses on a central issue in the Homeric debates between Nagy and Janko (that of the antiquity of textual variation within the tradition) and compares variation in Eudocia with that in Homer. Usher argues against Janko's use of repetition as a sign of dictation, suggesting in his analysis of repetition in the Centos that "Eudocia has internalized an important feature of the Homeric langue" (84). For Usher, "the Centos provide perhaps a middle ground [between Nagy and Janko], for they attest to the fruitful interaction between written and oral at a time when there is no doubt that the text had become fixed and circulated primarily -- if not exclusively -- in manuscript form" (88). What this says for Homeric poetry is not as clear as Usher would imply, but his argument provides an interesting complement to the modern comparative evidence.6

André Lardinois' piece on "The Wisdom and Wit of Many: The Orality of Greek Proverbial Expressions" argues that there is a formulaic system of proverbial expressions and "a special diction which enables a speaker to create a gnomic saying in performance" (95). Lardinois provides a brief taxonomy of proverbs and illustrates his points with well chosen examples. Largely through the analysis of three proverbs in the first book of the Iliad, Lardinois shows how specific "structural features and lexical elements...constitute a distinct language that helps the speaker to create a gnomic saying extemporaneously and the listener to identify the expression as gnomic" (97-98). The argument is compelling and informative. More importantly, Lardinois' work provides insights crucial for understanding proverbs in a wide variety of Greek texts. It feels compressed and, like Bakker's essay, seems to invite further investigation into Lardinois' other treatments of the subject.7 In the context of orality and literacy, the most immediate extension of this work might lie in broadening the chronological range to see whether there are any significant differences between proverbial expressions found in "literate" works and those found in "oral" works (along the lines of Usher's analysis of Eudocia). In "Poetic Authority and Oral Tradition in Hesiod and Pindar", Ruth Scodel extends her previously published analysis of social context and performance rhetoric in Homer8 to Hesiod and Pindar. In one of the best contributions to the collection, Scodel focuses on the poet's self-presentation and social context to show the complex ways in which "there are radically different rhetorical approaches available to Greek poets for managing the problem of poetry as public discourse and establishing poetic authority" (111). Her opening analysis of Hesiod's Theogony proem rejects the idea that Hesiod contrasts his own "true" poetry with Homer's poetry or didactic with epic. She goes on to attack Nagy's model of panhellenism which tends to equate "true" poetry with panhellenic and "false" with local. In place of panhellenic and local, Scodel substitutes an opposition between self-interested and disinterested. "The inviting the listener to be aware that false tradition exists, demands more attention to the social relevance of the performance... If the song has been so adapted to its performance occasion that it flatters local interests or particular patrons, it cannot be true" (121). Turning to Pindar, she shows how "Pindar makes the reliability of his poetry dependent on his own ethos" (133). With Hecataeus as a bridge, Scodel ends by tracing how the intermingling of oral and written modes of communication relates to the rhetorical strategies developed by Pindar and Hesiod in the face of "multiple and contradictory versions" handed down by tradition. In its emphasis on the immediacy of performance and the importance of distinguishing near vs. far, Scodel's argument fits nicely with Bakker's -- what Bakker sees in linguistic details, Scodel demonstrates in the larger scale of performance.

The first six essays fall on the side of orality, dealing for the most part with the resources and techniques of oral poetry. The remaining essays in the collection are situated more in the ambiguous territory where the degree of orality and literacy and the relative effects of either mode of communication tends to be mixed in complex and interesting ways. Robert Hannah's chapter, "From Orality to Literacy? The Case of the Parapegma" turns to the long-debated question about the connection between literacy and abstract thinking. Hannah brings to bear on this question evidence with which most classicists may not be intimately familiar: the star calendar, or parapegma. He sets out to examine "what relationship, if any, existed between the development of the calendar and the growth of literacy" (139). After surveying the first attestations for chronometric use of stars, Hannah turns to the star calendar of Euctemon in the fifth century BC. He very clearly lays out two questions for his investigation: first, "was the production of Euctemon's parapegma dependant upon literacy?" and second, "Was it intended for a public context? What was its purpose? Who were the intended audience recipients/readers?" (147ff) Building on Goody, Havelock, et al. and focusing on the importance of literacy for constructing lists, Hannah concludes that Euctemon needed to be literate in order to manipulate and develop new ideas from the calendar. Further, he suggests that "writing enabled the Greeks to realize that they could separate those observations from their original context and place them in other quite abstract contexts" (158-9) eventually allowing them to develop better solar calendars and a better understanding of the sun. The major advantage of Hannah's argument lies in its application of novel evidence to an old debate. Some may quibble with the conclusions or debate the validity of broad categories like "abstract thought" and "literacy." In the movement from Hesiod to Euctemon, more discussion of how qualitative differences like genre, preservation, and social context might complicate the "rise" of literacy could help overcome such objections.

In the next chapter, "ΤΟΝ ΑΘΕΝΕΘΕΝ ΑΘΛΟΝ: A Case Study in the History of a Label", Patricia A. Hannah traces the development of inscriptions on Panathenaic prize amphorae. The importance of this chapter lies in the attention to detail as Hannah traces the form, function, audience, and context of these prize amphorae over some 400 years. Hannah demonstrates how "for perhaps the greater part of its life within this 'predominantly oral culture,' the official inscription on the Panathenaic prizes was supplementary to the carefully constructed and telling artistic program of the whole amphora" (184) or, as Watson refers to it in her introduction, to "the brand image" (xv). Like R. Hannah's chapter, P. Hannah's data directs attention to the complexities of literacy in the context of different levels of reading and writing skills among various segments of the population.

In "Cycles and Sequence in Longus' Daphnis and Chloe", Stephen Nimis focuses on ring-patterns, extending his work on the Iliad9 to the data set provided by Longus' novel. He argues that the elements which mark ring-patterns and "have been read as 'structural' devices or thematic elements" should instead be read "as elements our author [Longus] invokes and manipulates to manage the flow of the story on a local level, part of the micro-management of individual scenes" (189). Like Scodel and Bakker, Nimis argues for the importance of presence, relying on a reading of text as discourse that de-emphasizes the effects of literacy. "Despite this novel's status as a is best understood as an articulatory process that unfolds linearly, rather than an object that can be properly understood only when grasped as a whole" (185). Using methods of discourse analysis and setting out to find analogs in Longus to the "directional arrows" Mabel Lang recognized in Herodotus,10 Nimis does an excellent job of showing how Longus' novel guides the reader by means of a variety of temporal cues, inset stories, and prompts. He concludes that "the prose novel is a discourse organized less around the activity of a performer than around the interpretive activity of a reader" (197). The great strength of Nimis' contribution, like Usher's analysis of Eudocia's Centos, lies in the negotiation of the categories of orality and literacy. By suggesting that obviously "literate" works share properties with "oral" poetry (or more importantly, with speech) these essays, more than any others in this volume, urge a reevaluation of the terms of the debate.

The final chapter, "Practised Speech: Oral and Written Conventions in Roman Declamation" by Margaret Imber, is the only essay on a specifically Roman subject. Imber argues that we can gain a better understanding of declamatory texts by viewing them alongside declamatory practices. Taking declamatory texts as "written evidence of an enduring oral practice and tradition" (199) and controversiae as the record of the practice of declamation, she argues that the fantastic stories in controversiae were known by the audience beforehand and thus indicate the presence of an oral tradition. For Imber, controversiae are problems intended to prompt oral performance. In their cultural context, controversiae "ensured that [young boys]...would become Roman" (207) and "declamatory pedagogy made a Roman boy a vir bonus" (207-8). Because declamation preserves Roman values through the oral tradition, details may be lost but the narrative patterns of social importance remain (208), in turn explaining the perseverance of declamation in Roman education. Imber rightly puts emphasis on the need to study declamation as text and practice. Where many of the other essays make texts relevant to questions of orality and literacy, Imber's contribution takes orality and literacy to the study of declamation. However, there is a tendency to exaggerate the role of "oral tradition" in preserving "archetypal figures of declamation" (209). The argument risks unintentionally typecasting oral tradition as the mythic and timeless mode of discourse in contrast to a "new" literacy that is constantly dynamic and shifting. With this reservation, the chapter otherwise provides a good perspective from which to approach declamatory texts, especially to those who may not be familiar with the field.

The wide variety of subjects seems well-suited to a reader with broad interests; but such a reader must constantly shift from one (possibly unfamiliar) area to another, and it would have been helpful to have better indications of where exactly orality and literacy (or epos and logos) reside. Some contributors engage more explicitly with orality and literacy than others; more importantly, arguments about basic categories and shared concerns take place between the lines. However, it is in the debate about oral and literate communication that the collection (potentially) has the most to say. The volume would greatly profit from better explication of the shared terms, concepts, and debates under discussion, thus providing a base from which to approach each chapter. More radically, given the way that many of the arguments are so embedded in developments in other subfields, the type of contributions in this volume might be well-served by electronic publication. A tighter thematic focus for the published volume, accompanied by the presentation of the abstracts or papers online, could be mutually reinforcing.

In short, Speaking Volumes is a valuable addition to the series and to ongoing debates about orality and literacy, requiring healthy skepticism at times. For those even minimally invested in the specific subjects treated in the volume (especially those interested in Homer or archaic poetry), these essays can be consulted profitably.


1.   Reviewed in BMCR 1999.05.07.
2.   Further, the ten or so articles selected from each conference are usually only a small subsection of those presented. The reader begins to feel that there is quite a bit of material which lurks between the lines of what is printed and that a much more profitable reading of the articles could be undertaken with some of the related publications in hand (more than is usually the case for conference proceedings). There is an official page for the 1996 conference, Via Electronic Antiquity, the 2002 list of speakers and titles, and the 1994 list of speakers are available.
3.   For similar work by Bakker along these lines, see "Discourse and Performance: Involvement, Visualization and 'Presence' in Homeric Poetry" Classical Antiquity 12.1 (1993): 1-29; Poetry into Speech: Orality and Homeric Discourse. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997; "Homeric ΟΥΤΟΣ and the Poetics of Deixis" Classical Philology 94 (1999): 1-19; and "Pointing to the Past: Verbal Augment and Temporal Deixis in Homer" in Euphrosyne: Studies in Ancient Epic and its Legacy in Honor of Dimitris N. Maronitis, ed. J.N. Kazazis and A. Rengakos. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1999.
4.   Paivio, A. "The Mind's Eye in Arts and Science," Poetics 12 (1983): 1-18 and Mental Representations: A Dual Coding Approach. (1986). Minchin notes assessments of Paivio at p. 27n12. In light of debates over the many theories of memory within cognitive science (and in the parent disciplines of psychology, linguistics, anthropology, computer science, et al.) it may be worth asking what the difference would be if we used an alternative model of memory. Paivio's brand of cognitive science lends itself to appropriation in literary and cultural studies; other models of memory do not facilitate similar treatment. A stronger argument needs to be made that preference of this particular model of memory offers a significant advantage over the insights provided by the experimental data as comparative evidence. Using the model is perhaps less significant than importing the data upon which such models have been built.
5.   Minchin's essay is printed with some changes as chapter 4 in her recent book, Homer and the Resources of Memory: Some Applications of Cognitive Theory to the Iliad and the Odyssey (Oxford 2001) [reviewed in BMCR 2001.12.09]. Rabel in his review questions whether the case for the mind's eye as the crucial component producing verbal codes may be overstated. I share his reservations and wonder whether greater stress should be laid on the role of scripts and schema (concepts discussed in more detail in Homer and the Resources of Memory).
6.   Besides Usher's Teubner edition of the Homerocentos, the reader should consult his full-scale study of Eudocia, Homeric Stitchings: The Homeric Centos of the Empress Eudocia. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.
7.   Lardinois, A. "Wisdom in Context: The Use of Gnomic Statements in Archaic Greek Poetry" Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1995. See Lardinois' "Modern Paroemiology and the Use of Gnomai in Homer's Iliad" Classical Philology 92 (1997): 213-34, which contains much of the same material as the present essay but provides more context for the investigation.
8.   "Bardic Performance and the Oral Tradition in Homer", AJP 119 (1998): 171-94.
9.   Nimis, S. Narrative Semiotics in the Epic Tradition. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987.
10.   Lang, M. Herodotean Discourse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

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