Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.09.31

Günther Wille, Akroasis. Der akustische Sinnesbereich in der griechischen Literatur bis zum Ende der klassischen Zeit. Tübinger Phänomenologische Bibliothek.   Tübingen:  Attempto, 2001.  Pp. 1177.  ISBN 3-89308-314-6.  €98.00.  

Reviewed by Astrid Lindenlauf, German Archaeological Institute, Athens (
Word count: 3164 words

This massive volume on Akroasis (Hearing/Listening) by G. Wille is the first extensive study of the perception and representation of the acoustic sense in different literary genres from Homer to the end of the Classical period. Written as the author's habilitation in 1958, it has only now been published posthumously as part of a series of studies on phenomenological issues and philosophical contributions to phenomenology. Akroasis clearly belongs to the former group, since it approaches acoustic phenomena from the position that the sense of hearing is a key feature of being, disclosing the inner and outer realms (2). W. seems indebted to Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of perception, in that he explores the sense of hearing, the experience of acoustic phenomena as a function of the body and attempts to extract the essential features of the hearing experience for the ancient Greeks. In keeping with his phenomenological approach and his interest in ancient music and language, W. conceives of akroasis as, on the one hand, an ability/capacity that enabled the ancient Greeks to engage and to communicate with the world of objects, people and gods and, on the other, as a consciousness of this sense of perception and an understanding of how it functions. The latter allows W. to cover areas that are not normally associated with investigations of the acoustic realm: the creation of sound, i.e. the counterpart of hearing. These phenomena include: the creation of acoustical effects and imagery in speeches and drama, ways of addressing the audience in stage performances, forensic speeches, and the aesthetics of music.

W.'s two-volume study is clearly structured. It consists of 14 chapters and 4 useful appendices (bibliography, subject index, index of ancient Greek names, index of passages). The study begins with a brief introductory chapter that sets out, among other things, W.'s thoughts on the conceptualisation, classification and representation of the sense of hearing; it ends with a long conclusion. Most of the 12 remaining chapters are devoted to the various literary genres in chronological order. Chapter 4 tackles Greek lyrics, chapter 5 tragedies, chapter 6 comedies, chapter 7 the pre-Socratics, chapter 8 Hippocratic medical texts, chapter 9 historiography, chapter 10 the military texts of Xenophon and Aineias, and chapter 13 forensic speeches. Chapters 2 and 3, in which W. discusses the Iliad on the one hand, and the Odyssey and the Homeric hymns, non-Homeric epics, Hesiod and epic fragments on the other, constitute exceptions. The same is true for chapters 11 and 12, each being devoted to a single philosopher, Plato and Aristotle respectively. These exceptions allow W. to broaden his analytic parameter of literary genres to include themes, time (chapters 2 and 3) and what he calls 'authorship' (chapters 11 and 12). The chapters vary in length, although most are between 50 and 70 pages long. The Homeric epics, the tragedies and the philosophical texts are, however, more extensively discussed.

W.'s book thus covers all literary genres until the end of the Classical period as well as a number of perspectives, including the medical, philosophical and military, although not the ritual. The perception and significance of acoustic phenomena in dreams were omitted due to the time frame of the study, as were the scientific texts on acoustics that occur only from the Hellenistic period. Later and earlier literary sources are rarely incorporated into the main text, but are listed in footnotes and the summary. The similarities and differences W. appears to be most interested in indicating to the reader are those between the Greek and the Roman worlds, the world as depicted in the Old Testament, and 18th-century 'Germany'. His comparative material derives from Latin sources and passages from the Old Testament, Hegel, Goethe and Schiller. There is one ancient Greek writer whom W. should perhaps have considered at least within the footnotes of chapter 7, in which Pythagoras and the Pythagorean acoustic theories are discussed. This is Aristoxenus of Taranto, who explored mathematical, physical and acoustical aspects of music with reference to Pythagoras (cf. 1099). The combination of genre and perspective works well in most chapters. It is only with the military perspective that the use of instruments and their sounds in warfare and their changing connotation are not fully explored and only a very limited number of literary sources are taken into account. The aulos would have been a good choice, since its military function and the new perception of it in Athens during and after the Peloponnesian War are well-attested in literary sources (although primarily in post-Classical and archaeological sources). This would also have complemented Plato's aesthetic and ethic consideration of aulos music nicely.

In each chapter W. explores a basic set of aspects of akroasis. The first aspect comprises what W. calls the function of the acoustic sense and addresses issues such as the way in which it was employed in ancient Greek literature so as to add structure and convey meaning (1070). This aspect may include sound effects, the acoustic representation of events, the structure of speeches, the significance and consequences of not listening to other individuals in drama, the impact of noise and silence on humans, and the symbolism of sounds. The final aspect in each chapter illuminates the relationship between the optical and acoustic senses. Yet, at the core of W.'s exploration of akroasis are the essential aspects of science -- the physiology of acoustics and the psychology of sound. In terms of the science or physics of acoustics (1083, 1088), W. discusses the way ancient Greeks believed sound to be transmitted, its intersection with time, and the relationship between acoustics and harmony. In terms of physiological acoustics, W. discusses the significance of the ear and theories of the creation and processing of sounds. As the psychology of sound, he treats associations of sound and noise with notions of acuteness, density, sharpness, weight, brightness, taste, and their volume (e.g. little/much), as well as how sound diffuses in space (e.g. piling up, pouring out).

This innovative sequence of topics bears the hallmark of W.'s research interests. For W., a musician and philologist by training, music and language are comparable phenomena as regards their rhythm and structure, hence his interest in sound and language and in sound and literature. W.'s philological education enabled him to consider ancient Greek sources that had not yet been translated, including fragments, and probably also led him to quote the relevant original texts in the footnotes. This allows the reader to evaluate W.'s understanding and interpretation of the sources under discussion critically. W. is known not only for his influential publications on the history of music but also for his study on light.1 His discussion of the perception of the optical and acoustic senses reflects these combined interests.

W.'s 'holistic' approach sheds light on many important and intriguing aspects of the acoustic realm, making this a fascinating study to read. Occasionally, however, W. also takes the reader far beyond the already broad boundaries of his subject, and it is here -- where aspects that are not directly related to his investigation are discussed -- that the study might have benefited from some restraint. The collection of references to the "ear", in which W. lists all passages in which the ear occurs, regardless as to whether it is associated with the process of hearing or not, could have been condensed. Instead, one might have wished for a more systematic discussion of the spectrum and classification of sounds in a study of ancient Greek experiences of hearing as reflected in the literary sources, and the ways in which sound was used to modulate speeches and theatrical performances. This would have shed light on the structure and understanding of the hearing experience. In particular, it is disappointing that the only ancient classification of sounds discussed by W. is Plato's (689-696), while earlier ones are neglected.2 Consequently, the reader is required to follow W.'s modern classification of sounds.

The conclusions in W.'s final chapter follow the same structure of basic aspects that is adopted throughout the book. A summary of each aspect and sub-aspect is given, thus making the concluding chapter quite repetitive if read in full. The contention that Homer understood sounds as signs, for instance is made twice (1074, 1076) and the well-known fact that Plato disapproved of loud noises is noted no fewer then four times (1073, 1075, 1078, 1083). This rigid structure makes it easy to find the conclusions distilled from the study of each basic aspect and sub-aspect. But it also means that the reader interested in the analytic parameters of genre, time and author must read the entire concluding chapter (about 40 pages).

W.'s conclusions are of varying interest. In terms of his analytic parameter of literary genre, some of his results are pedestrian. It is, for example, hardly surprising that Hippocratic texts conceived of bodily sounds as diagnostics and not as signs (1075, 1080), that military texts are mainly interested in acoustic phenomena as regards to tactics and deception (1077) and that pre-Socratic treatments that are well known for their tendency to give causal explanations do not understand sounds as symbols (1077). If W. had explicitly evaluated his literary genres and their scope in his introduction, these comments would have been superfluous. Other comments are interesting, but their significance for the study is not made explicit. Thus, the reader is informed that lightning always comes before thunder in the comedies, whereas the sequence of their occurrence is reversed in pre-Socratic works (1077). Of similar ambiguous significance is the statement that bird song was perceived of as music in lyric poetry but as non-music in the Homeric epics (1076). More fascinating are W's insights into the perceptual qualities of the acoustic and the optical senses (1102, 1103). He demonstrates convincingly that one sense was sometimes regarded as sufficient to understand the world, whilst on other occasions both senses are deemed to complement each other. His statistical analysis reveals that whenever both senses are mentioned, the optical realm is accorded greater significance and mentioned before the acoustic. Both senses have in common that they were conceived of as receptive and passive capacities and thus stand in sharp contrast to, for instance, actions and the act of speaking. Finally, his observation that a noisy army signifies a lack of discipline and order whereas one that is quiet and thus ready to listen and to obey is a positive example of order (1070-1071, 1073, 1082) is of particular interest to archaeologists. Such assertions are to be found in the literary works of Homer and the historians, but can also be inferred from vase-paintings, such as the depiction of an army marching at the same pace to the sound of flutes on the so-called Chigi vase.

Chronologically, W. is keen to pin down the possible starting points of certain phenomena, such as the concern for 'the question of sense and expression' (1079), that he sees fully developed in the Platonic treatments, but already tackled in the tragedies. He also notes long-term processes, such as the development from unrestrained and loud emotional expression in the Homeric epics to later philosophical-educational prohibitions regulating emotional expression (1074). Unfortunately, he does not attempt to explain these processes and leaves it to the reader to connect the increasing concern for controlling loud emotional expression with an increasing significance of self-restraint and sophrosyne. Nor does W. discuss how far his statement that expressions were loud in comedies (1074-5) whereas Plato in general disapproved of (loud) noises (1075) might affect his previous chronological construct. More specifically, he does not discuss how far his understanding of the socially accepted volume of emotional expression of feelings may be dependent upon literary genres and individual views.

In terms of differences between authors, W. stresses that there were a variety of opinions on the same acoustic phenomenon. Sneezing, for instance, was regarded as a sign (Zeichen) by Homer, Xenophon and the comic poets, whereas Plato and Thucydides adopted the Hippocratic view. This observation is, however, spread over a couple of pages (1077, 1078, 1079, 1080, 1085) and no attempt is made to explain these different views or to contextualise them. W. also notes differences between authors of the same genre. He observes that sounds and music are embedded in the works of the historians in different ways (1073, 1077). Herodotos, with his ethnographic interest, refers to sounds when discussing various languages and landscapes. Thucydides composes (realistic) sound images of battles and focuses only on real sounds that were of historic significance, while Xenophon describes the "soundscape" of hunting and foreign music. Some of the differences noted by W. in the works of Plato and Aristotle could have been omitted as they are well known, such as that Plato in contrast to Aristotle prefers dialogic structures (1073) and that he also rejects instrumental music more forcefully than Aristotle (1078, 1097). As with most of his concluding remarks, W. rarely goes beyond descriptive statements. His attempt to explain Aristotle's proposals aiming at a reduction of noise from his audience in terms of the philosopher's far more practical approach to Plato (1075) is a rare example of a more sophisticated conclusion.

This study purports to make a contribution to basic research (VII). And it does indeed deserve this label, since it is an analysis of a rich body of primary sources that are often cited in full in the footnotes and adds a new body of knowledge with the potential for broad application. Its rigid structure and the extensive subject index make it a perfect research tool for specific perspectives and aspects of this topic, including mourning, echo and paeans. However, it represents the state of research in 1958, when W.'s habilitation was completed. Whereas the main text was revised for a wider audience by W.'s family and friends after his death in 1996, new editions of the comic and tragic fragments were ignored and the bibliography was not updated. Some of the sections could have been reduced, including discussions on comedy, tragedy, philosophy and on silence, which is now covered in the monograph by Silvia Montiglio, Silence in the land of logos published in 2000.

In general, this book is written in a clear manner. Yet, it is impossible to say to what extent this is W.'s own achievement or that of the editors who revised his handwritten text for a wider audience. This also applies to the minor and major flaws and weaknesses in the argumentation. To begin with, the sources and the methodology are not always clearly assessed. This becomes evident when, for example, he does not clarify which layer of time (Bronze Age, 8th century, amalgamation) W. believes the Homeric epics describe and when he fails to discuss critically whether he believes that the avoidance of odd noises at sacrifices is typical for sacrifices conducted in tragedies or indeed for all fifth-century sacrifices (277). It is irritating to see specific statements repeated within a chapter and in a number of chapters, when it would have sufficed to state them once, as part of a larger argument.3 Apart from repetitions, the discussion is not always as explicit and elaborate as one might hope. At times, this is only a matter of a missing introductory sentence, e.g. for the different kinds of acoustics in the introduction (11-12), whose significance as aspects in the further discussion should have been clarified. In other cases, remarks hidden in footnotes would have been more helpful in the main text (e.g. 1039 n. 386, 1042 n. 410). More serious are those cases where the reader has to relate apparently contradictory statements to each other, for instance, why the sounds made by a tree-oracle in Dodona could be interpreted both subjectively (6) and objectively (309). There are also cases where the reader has to figure out how an original statement can be related to the subsequent discussion, for instance, when W. concludes that tragic writers for the first time associated acoustic phenomena with the notion of time and optical phenomena with that of space (291, cf. 578) and, in the next paragraph, that in the tragedies acoustical phenomena occur in both space and time (292).

In some cases W.'s paratactic, non-explicit style of writing undermines the conclusiveness of an entire argument. For example, while W. provides some individual statements on the perception of the senses of hearing and seeing and their relationship to ἀκοή (thing heard/tidings) and αὐτοψία (seeing with one's own eye) in historiography, he does not attempt to relate these to each other. More specifically, W. argues that Herodotos favours autopsia over akoe due to his preference of the acoustic realm over the visual (598) and not of information gathered by oneself to information provided by someone else. This sense-related explanation goes well with W.'s observation that historians conceived of the optical sense as being more reliable than the acoustic one (596). However, it does not go quite as well with his earlier observation that Herodotos used visual observation in describing events that also involve sounds (594-595), since this allows for a broader understanding of autopsia as a procedure to gather acoustic and optical information for oneself (as opposed to relying on other people's perception). In his discussion on Thucydides (605), W. states more convincingly that Thucydides trusts akoe as second-hand information less than the insights he gained from his own eyes (Augenzeugnis) and his own ears (Ohrenzeugnis). With Thucydides, W. only seems to confound ear-witness with akoe in his discussion on the siege at fort Lekythos near Torone (passage 4,115,3, here pages 602-3), in which some Athenian soldiers rely on their own sense of hearing.

The main text and the indexes were quite carefully edited, although some punctuation errors, spacing mistakes and inconsistencies in capitalisation occur. By contrast, the final editing of the over 9,500 footnotes overlooked all kinds of mistakes and inconsistencies, including incorrect font size, spacing, punctuation, repetitions and omissions. There are very few language-related mistakes (e.g. 639 n. 69), and the German language is often creatively and carefully employed to match the original Greek texts (e.g. "nach Rache schreien" on page 238, "Ins-Ohr-Tragen" on page 295, "Ohrenzeugnis" on page 1104).

In conclusion, W. demonstrates that the acoustic sense permeated the whole fabric of Greek life and culture from the Homeric to the Classical periods. Discussing a diverse body of literary sources and understanding akroasis in the widest sense possible, his investigation is a comprehensive survey of the sense of hearing in ancient Greece and, as the author hoped (3), will be of interest to historians, archaeologists, philologists, philosophers, physicists, physicians, psychologists, psychotherapists, musicians, musicologists, music educators, and musicotherapists. This study is best used as a source book and reference work, since it contains excellent, comprehensive collections of primary material in ancient Greek and vast amounts of well structured and thus easily accessible information on numerous aspects of akroasis, albeit presented in a descriptive rather than interpretative and explanatory manner. It will remain an indispensable tool for further research into the field of the ancient Greek sense of hearing and soundscape.


1.   Bibliography in the necrology by M. von Albert and Ch. Walde, Gnomon 3, 1998, 477-9.
2.   For possible classifications in the Homeric epics, cf. M. Weber 1968. Musik und Tanz, ArchHom, 3, U2, U29, U 35.
3.   Repetitions within chapters occur, for instance, on pages 238 and 257 (birds and sea), 235 and 266 (perception of voices by blind people), 278 and 279 (propagation of sound in tragedies), and 280 and 283 (movements). Repetitions across chapters occur, for instance, on pages 10, 309, 638, 647, 704-705, 1082 (conceptualisation of the Socratic daimonion as a mantic acoustical sign).

Read Latest
Index for 2005
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:30:25, Friday, 03 April 2009