Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.03.34

I. Kantzios, The Trajectory of Archaic Greek Trimeters. Mnemosyne Supplement, 265.   Leiden:  Brill, 2005.  Pp. 208.  ISBN 90-04-14536-2.  €112.00.  

Reviewed by Liana Lomiento, University of Urbino (
Word count: 2728 words

The book under review is a revised version of Kantzios' (K) doctoral dissertation (Bryn Mawr College 1996). In five chapters K tries to outline the evolution of the iambic trimeter -- a widespread literary genre in antiquity, from the seventh century to the fifth -- and of its own metrical form. Four authors are essentially considered, Archilochus, Semonides (the "first generation"), then Solon (the "second generation") and Hipponax (the "last generation").

Though its characteristics are usually considered "static", K claims that this "monolithic" view is unfounded, sees definite patterns of change (affecting content, diction and modes of presentation) and proposes an explanation of this evolution.

In K's study, archaic literary iambus represents a body of poetry unified by context of performance, means of presentation and meter (but independently of the content), and as such it is treated holistically as an entity in its own right. Although the most fundamental change of function in iambus occurs with the transition from cult song to sympotic poetry (before Archilochus and Semonides), K argues that the overall identity of iambus undergoes an important evolution through changes in its thematic motifs and in the reorientation of its rhetorical style.

It has to be said that underlining the thematic width of iambic genre is one of the great merits of K's research. The emphasis is laid on trimeters, which are the only iambic form appearing in all three generations of the poets under consideration and which thus provide a tolerable corpus of comparanda. It is in the last chapter that the key question ("Why was the genre substantially devoid of "elegiac" elements from the last third of the sixth century?") arises, together with K's effort to find a connection to explain both "the rise of tragedy and the disappearance of serious iambus".

The first chapter illustrates the wide range of subject matter exhibited by iambus, even more than by elegy. An interesting question is whether this genre is characterised by meter alone or by content. Beginning with the famous passage in Archilochus 215 West, K revisits what the ancient authors had to say on the subject and then looks at modern attempts at defining iambus.

After Herodotus 1.12.2, where one cannot tell whether meter alone is meant, or meter and content together,1 the sources tend to emphasize the abusive aspects of iambus. The verb iambizein appears for the first time in Aristotle's statement in Poet. 48b32, where a correlation is found between the iambic meter and psogoi, and the implied assumption is that the iambic meter received its name from the type of content that appeared in it (ibid. 48b24-26; cf. also ibid. 49b7).

As K rightly points out, the psogos which Aristotle mentions is not always strictly abusive, and the term encompasses a wide range of nuances, from an intensely hostile confrontation to a more humorous critique or merely the description of laughable matters. Furthermore, even if the term 'iambus' was so often associated with abuse after the fourth century, the iambic metrical corpus is not without unambiguous examples of serious trimeters and (trochaic) tetrameters.

It is well known that, from earliest times, iambus seems to designate iambic trimeters and trochaic tetrameters (including their choliambic variants, and with the subsequent addition of the epodes and the asynarteta). However, even if the term iambus could be used by scholars of late antiquity to indicate non-abusive poems in iambic meter, what is significant, as K rightly emphasizes, is that it is never applied to abusive poems in meters other than iambic (as defined above), which seems to suggest that meter does matter, and content is not the determining factor.2

But as far as our topic is concerned, the themes of iambus -- much as those of elegy3 -- range widely right up to the time of Hipponax and include political and philosophical subjects, not only abuse. It is only from the middle of the sixth century onwards that iambus becomes chiefly associated with insult and invective, and this could have led later authors to imagine it had been always been thus.

What K rightly reassesses here is that blame poetry is a cross form, belonging to more than one literary genre and that if invective content alone is not enough to separate the iambus from other genres, we must look for further criteria.

A particularly prominent question is that of the context of iambic performance, and K considers two different hypotheses. The ritual model considers iambic poetry an entirely humorous, irreverent and obscene kind connected with the worship of Demeter and Dionysus, depicting it in the context of a religious festival represented, it has also been inferred, by choruses made up primarily of satyrs or animals, with dialogues, and occasionally acted out by actors as well.4 Hence, as the mockeries of Iambe are considered the prototype of iambus performed in a religious context, the large portion of metrically iambic poetry which contains no obscenity or abuse could not be truly iambic, inasmuch as it does not meet that description. The secular or sympotic model assumes that by the time of Archilochus there was already a distinction between the poetry executed at religious festivals, and literary iambic poetry such as that of Archilochus and Semonides. The iambic poetry of Archilochus should accordingly be viewed as sympotic. The exhibition in front of a group of friends would thus have been monodic, even if the first person cannot always be taken as referring to the poet himself. K seems more persuaded by this reconstruction of archaic literary iambus as a non-cultic kind of monodic poetry, whose performance setting would have been the symposium.

The thematic elements are pointed out in the second chapter. As an evaluation criterion K considers that the more widespread a thematic element appears diachronically (shared by at least two of the poets considered), the stronger the suggestion that it is one of the established conventions of the genre. K observes that some early thematic elements are recurrent only in the first generation poets, such as animal fable (K argues from the sporadic testimonies in Archilochus and Semonides that they made extensive use of this theme), while others occur only in the first two generations, such as military references (but trimeters seem on the whole to be a non-military genre).

K then identifies the permanent thematic elements occurring in all three generations: food/eating (one of the major subjects by the third quarter of the 6th century), wine drinking (unexpectedly a marginal theme, which seems to challenge the symposium hypothesis), invective (a crucial thematic feature of trimeters, responsible for their perception as a fully abusive kind of poetry), then what K calls serious reflection, which brings iambus close to elegy, like priorities in life, civil strife/war, the nature of pleasure, the vulnerability of the human condition, the nature of woman, old age, the acquisition of virtue, socio-political order (it is of note that the rare references in Hipponax to such themes seem to be part of his strategies of abuse, while in Semonides these themes are used abundantly); narrative (a prominent element in Hipponax).

The permanent thematic elements recurring in three of the poets (Solon excluded) are sexual themes, low social class, mythological references (in general a rare theme); in two of them (Archilochus, Hipponax): prayer-theme and (though a secondary one) topography and the distant land. While there are two sides, abusive and serious, to the trimeters of Archilochus, Semonides and Solon, the poetry of Hipponax is abusive alone. With the abandonment of their serious aspects, the trimeters become narrower and more predictable in terms of subject matter.

In the third chapter K investigates the morphological and lexical levels. What emerges is that the thematic differences between Hipponax and his predecessors are reflected in the morphology of his language, vocabulary and narrative devices. As far as character and identity are concerned, K's survey shows that while Archilochus, Semonides and perhaps Solon often use the first person (singular and/or plural) as the main agent of action, Hipponax uses it sparingly; and while the earlier poets use the third person either very seldom (Archilochus) or impersonally (Semonides, Solon), Hipponax sets it up as the major agent of action, almost always employing it with specificity.

In the use of diction, especially verbs and nouns, K observes that the poets of the first generation and (to a lesser extent) Solon emphasize verbs of emotive or mental activity, while Hipponax makes very limited use of them. On the other hand Hipponax contains very many verbs of physical action. This could suggest that while in the early stages of archaic iambus the poets tend to emphasize the mental and emotional aspects of their characters and make them express their own thoughts, perceptions and attitudes, later there is a shift towards staging of physical action, reaching its highest expression in Hipponax. It is thus hardly surprising that there are far fewer nouns signifying abstractions, political or social conditions, forces and mental processes in Hipponax than in the poets of the first generation, but many more man made (artifactual) nouns.

A comparison of trimeters and elegy (by "elegy" K means the poems in elegiac metre by Archilochus, Solon, Callinus, Tyrtaeus, Mimnermus, and Theognis) is made in the fourth chapter. The claim is that while in the early period the two genres overlap extensively in subject matter, as elegy concerns themes observable in trimeters as well, later, by the time of Hipponax, they seem to have little in common, given the exclusion of themes once shared with elegy. The similarities between elegy and the early trimeters extend to the use of personal pronouns and to the qualities of diction (nouns and verbs) as well. The trimeters in general reveal a stronger tendency to have the "I" as subject of the verb than the elegies which, despite their thematic diversity, are more likely to be generalizations in the third person. Hipponax, with his concentration on the third person, would seem to be nearest to the elegiac patterns in this respect; the difference is that he uses the third person with a concreteness that bears little resemblance to the generalizing pronouncements of the other poets.

Regarding the traits of diction, elegy and the early trimeters are very similar since they present a rather abstract reality: the amount of verbs of feeling, attitude, perception and cognition, and of intangible nouns, that are used is much higher than in Hipponax, who depicts the world with an unusual concreteness.

A relevant difference between the two genres is that the second person plural is absent in the trimeters of the first two generations, while in elegy it is always abstract, though K does not devote enough attention to it and seems more concerned with the correspondences between them and with the idiosyncrasies of Hipponax's poetry.

In chapter five, in order to give a better account of the evolution of iambic genre, K looks at the archaic metric epitaphs and dedications and the poets after Hipponax. The data show that in the earlier part of the sixth century iambic inscriptions are used more than later. K notes that certain iambic themes are discarded in the 530's and concludes that around the middle of the sixth century an important change takes place in the use of iambic inscriptions: an awareness of the inappropriateness of iambic meter to express the spirit of epitaphs and dedications. Interestingly, three of the four epitaphs from after 525 considered by K are iambic only as signatures (for instance: "X made this"), which could in fact be consistent with the greater concreteness of the iambic style from the time of Hipponax, though K does not say this. The main vehicle for this kind of poetry is now the elegiac couplet, according to K.

An "anomalous" excess of iambics in the years between 500 and 475 is characterized by K as an "accident of preservation". One could remark here that the ratio should have been worked out differently; dedications and epitaphs could have been reckoned separately. In that case the ratio of iambic dedications would in fact be slightly higher in 500/475 (2.8%) than in 525/500 (2.1%), but much lower than in 550-525 (3.7%), while the ratio of the iambic epitaphs would have increased much more (500-475: 11.4%), not only with respect to the previous period (525-500: 2.8%), but also in total. At any rate it seems methodologically unconvincing to speak of an "accident of preservation", which could apply to all the ratios under consideration.

In the last section of his research, K considers the features of iambic trimeters in the poets who came after Hipponax, and one may be surprised to find that Anacreon, Timocreon and Euenus figure among the "iambic" poets too. His point is that since fewer themes figure in Hipponax' poetry than in that of his predecessors (especially because it is free from serious subject matter), if the later poets also abstain from serious themes, "we can argue that the narrowing we observe in Hipponax is not simply a personal trait of the poet, but the reflection of a new phase in the development of iambus".

Surprisingly K does not consider the possible influence of Hipponax himself on contemporary or later poets. K reaches the conclusion that iambic poetry from Hipponax to the late fifth century treats themes most of which can be considered "narrowed iambus". Though a few fragments (Anacreon, Euenus, Scythinus) do still point to serious iambus (but are these genuine iambic texts?), it turns out that after the middle of the sixth century iambus loses the dual nature it has after the seventh.

To explain such a drastic change, says K, one should look for a literary development whose importance is sufficient to upset the well-established co-existence of the serious and non-serious elements. And he finds no event from this period adequate in magnitude except the invention of tragedy.

K claims that after the tragedians chose iambic trimeters and tetrameters for the spoken parts of their dramas, "the iambic poets felt that the space traditionally occupied by serious iambus was now taken by the new genre". Since the iambic poets were versed in scurrilous but also in contemplative, gnomic and philosophical discourses, those who remained faithful to the old iambic craft saw that the space available to them now was that which remained unused by tragedy: jocular, invective and coarse.

On the other hand, while the dialect of the spoken parts in tragedy does not point to the Ionian iambus, the structure of the verse has strong similarities with it (caesura within the second metron, restriction of resolution, observance of Porson's law). This suggests that tragic poets consciously used the contributions of their Ionian counterparts. But content changes unexpectedly, since the subject matter of existing tragedies tends to be heroic myths from Homer or the epic cycle, while good evidence of mythological themes in iambus is lacking.

One could then ask K how to situate in this reconstruction the iambic trimeters in comedy. If it is true that the structure of verse in comedy is much freer than in ancient iambic trimeters, as far as content is concerned one has to admit that the iambic tradition and especially the narrowed ("Hipponactean") iambus itself could have exerted a certain influence.

A few words about terminology to conclude. It seems likely that by "iambus" the ancient sources essentially meant the rhythmical diplasion genos (also known as "iambic genos"), whose typical features are iambic and trochaic meter, as opposed to rhythmical ison genos, represented by dactylic and anapestic meter. Ison genos (also called "dactylic genos") became the appropriate rhythm of laudatory discourse, like epic and heroic-mythological celebration. Iambic (and trochaic) meter seems on the other hand to have been the emblematic rhythm of everyday life, in contrast with the rhythm associated with the remote heroic past. The parodistic versification in Margites is paradigmatic; iambic trimeters, interspersed with epic dactylic hexameters, are introduced alongside the description of items of everyday life. Iambic trimeter (and trochaic tetrameter) as the form of dialogic meter in tragedy could then be understood as a way of giving the mythological theme -- so distant from actual life -- an air of concreteness through metrical form as well.

K's research is a very accurate5 and valuable investigation and collection of data -- which remains available for further assessment and application -- to be read by every scholar interested in the history of poetic forms.6


1.   Nor it is methodologically possible to deduce this -- as K. tries (5) -- from the fact that three of the (trochaic) tetrameters of Archilochus figure in other sources as en tois tetrametrois, while three others are identified as en iambôi, since each source, especially if they are so distant in space and time, could have used the technical vocabulary differently.
2.   Contrary to M. L. West's suggestion, Studies in Greek Elegy and Iambus, Berlin 1974, p. 25, that iambos does not necessarily imply a particular metrical type and iambic meter has its name from being particularly characteristic of iamboi and not the other way around.
3.   See on this topic also B. Gentili, "Epigramma ed elegia", Entretiens Hardt XIV, L'Épigramme grecque, Vandoeuvres - Genève 1968, pp. 39-81, especially P. 64 ff., not mentioned by K.
4.   West (above, n. 2), p. 36. See now also E. Suárez de la Torre, Yambógraphos griegos, Madrid 2002, p. 11 ff.
5.   A few misprints: p. 24, ἄιδων instead of ἄειδων; fn. 98 a space before n.1.; p. 26 "iambic meter" instead of "metric iambus"; p. 35, fn. 1, a round bracket missing after ἅτε; p. 64 "trimeters" instead of "triemeters"; pp. 136, 137, 138, 139: "elegiac" instead of "elegaic"; p. 141 "higher frequency" instead of "higher frequently"; "(12/200, that is 6.0)" instead of "(12/200, that is .06)".
6.   I am grateful to Alexander Afriat for his revision of the English text.

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