Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.10.13

Victoria Jennings, Andrea Katsaros (ed.), The World of Ion of Chios. Mnemosyne Supplementa, 288. Monographs on Greek and Roman Language and Literature.   Leiden:  Brill, 2007.  Pp. xiv, 449.  ISBN 978-90-04-16045-3.  $139.00.  

Reviewed by Hakan Tell, Dartmouth College (
Word count: 3475 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Ion of Chios is an intriguing figure, known in antiquity for his literary diversity (polyeideia), as invoked by Callimachus in his thirteenth Iambus. His literary production spanned genres as varied as tragedy, satyr-play, elegy, lyric, dithyrambs, paeans, scholia, epigrams, philosophy, biography/memoir, and local history. It is thus particularly distressing that so little is preserved of his writings -- 136 fragments excluding spurious ascriptions have been collected and edited most recently by Leurini.1 Little scholarly work has been done on the fragmentary material we do have.2 Except for occasional short treatments, Ion has for a long time resided mostly in the shadowy world of footnotes. This gloomy existence is now changing through the contribution of the edited volume The World of Ion of Chios. The editors Victoria Jennings and Andrea Katsaros have undertaken this work with the aim of moving Ion "beyond the footnotes" to offer "original contextualizations through which our sensitivity to Ion, his works and his world can be advanced" (p. 1 and 13). Their volume comes from two conferences held in Australia in 2003 and 2004, and has since been complemented by additional contributions: an introduction by the editors, sixteen chapters divided into five parts (Survival, Ion Sungrapheos, Ion the Poet, Ion the Tragedian, and Ion the Philosopher), an excellent bibliography, a concordance to the fragments, an index locorum, and a general index.

The World of Ion of Chios offers a valuable resource for anyone interested in Ion and his contribution to Greek literature, but I suspect that the volume will speak more to the specialist than to a broader academic readership. For one thing, the book is difficult to read, since there is little methodological cohesion among the contributions. In addition, given that this is an edited book and that there is no overarching argument that ties together the individual pieces, the only structure provided are the five, mainly genre-specific divisions according to which the chapters are organized. But this structure seems particularly infelicitous, given the editors' stated goal of "challenging 'rigid, genre-based classifications'" (p. 13). This criticism is anticipated and addressed in the introduction, but the organization of the book still seems at odds with the editors' intellectual objective.

The volume could have benefited from a general introduction to Ion that helps orient a non-specialist to the ins and outs of "Ionic" scholarship, especially since the primary texts are fragmentary and the scholarship spread over several disciplines (literature, philosophy, and history, for example). Also, the contributions might have benefited from being better cross-referenced. One occasionally gets the impression that the authors talk past each other, for example when addressing Ion's literary originality or attitudes vis-à-vis Athens. These topics crop up in several pieces, but the discussions are not always coordinated. Finally, at times I found myself frustrated by what seemed like an eagerness among some contributors to raise questions rather than attempt to address them. For example, I counted some forty rhetorical questions in the main text of Katsaros' twenty-four page chapter. Perhaps this should rather be construed positively, as a conscientious attempt on the part of the authors to engage the reader in the larger interpretive issues.

Despite these drawbacks, the volume contains some excellent papers, especially the contributions of Christopher Pelling and Timothy Power. In addition, Andrea Katsaros' exploration of voices of dissent and subversion in Ion's writing introduces a fresh approach to the material that places new emphasis on Ion's Chian identity -- an approach shared by other contributors like Alastair Blanshard. Victoria Jennings, too, manages to reach new conclusions on Ion's Hymn to Kairos, even though only its title is preserved. Some pieces, though well-written and thoroughly researched, seem more to rehearse the known facts than offer original interpretations on the material.

All in all, The World of Ion of Chios will be most valuable as a reference work that offers a reliable and extensive resource on "Ionic" scholarship. In what follows I will provide a summary of the individual contributions to the book and offer some points for discussion.

In the first part, "Survival," John Henderson, Guy Olding, and Nikos Haviaras discuss Ion's Nachleben, mainly as an encyclopedic entry; their aim is to show how this format has come to shape our understanding of him. After reviewing the typology of the dictionary entries on Ion (especially in the Oxford Classical Dictionary), Henderson points to the Pinakes of Callimachus as their ultimate source. It was Callimachus, Henderson argues, who stressed the literary diversity of Ion and thus came to shape all subsequent entries about Ion as a literary figure. Only by being aware of the "lost vantage points that generated the ancient entries" (p. 18) can critical thinking about Ion progress. It is ironic, Henderson remarks, that the original entry was composed when access to Ion's works was still available -- indeed, it was composed precisely to help the reader navigate the large collection in the great Library of Alexandria -- but "the catalogue outlived the library" (p. 18) and it is now our only available basis for knowledge about the missing works.

In the first of two contributions, Guy Olding uses Ion as a point of departure to discuss the "process of canon formation" (p. 45). He singles out "on-going cultural relevance" (p. 63) as the crucial factor in the survival of any ancient author. By this he means the ability of a given work to appeal to contemporary literary aesthetics or intellectual needs. This model, he suggests, might help explain why we don't have more of Ion's writings in the first place as well as the distribution of the fragments that have been preserved. The continued interest in Greek tragedy in later antiquity helped preserve Ion's tragic works, while his sympotic and prose works fell victim to changing tastes and later critical hostility to earlier experimental literary forms.

In a short piece, Nikos Haviaras, a Chian himself, comments on the close association of Ion with his home place and the strong links that Ion attempted to establish in his writings between Chios and Athens. Haviaras also laments the contemporary neglect of one of his island's most famous sons. This is most amply illustrated by the fact that his only public modern recognition is a 60 meter dead-end street named in his honor. Chrisopher Pelling opens the second part of the book "Ion Sungrapheos" with a discussion of Ion's Epidemiai. This piece is one of the highlights of the volume. Pelling questions the "back to front" approach to Ion; that is, the attempt to reconstruct Ion's works based upon quotations from later authors, when those quotations seem to reflect the specific interest of later authors rather than provide a balanced view of Ion's works. He also questions our presumed knowledge about the period in which Ion lived: "[T]here is a real sense in which we understand the intellectual (perhaps even the political) life of second century AD Greece better than the middle fifty years of the fifth century BC, and know more about the Second Sophistic than the First" (p. 75). Given these two restrictions, how can we assess Ion's impact on his contemporary society? While later writers were impressed with Ion's literary versatility, would Ion himself have characterized his work in such terms? Pelling draws compelling parallels between Ion's diverse literary production and the broad literary range of other Greek writers like Pindar, Simonides, Aeschylus, Euripides, and even Hippias and Plato. This raises the question of genre, which, Pelling argues, was a more fluid and provisional concept in Ion's time, especially in regard to prose works. What then to make of Ion's Epidemiai? Pelling argues against the trend of juxtaposing biography to history and instead suggests that "we should see 'the biographic' as a strand -- along with local history, fable, epic and others --that fifth century historiography not merely draws on, but also defines itself against" (pp. 85-6).

Pelling's approach seems exemplary in its attempt to contextualize Ion's literary diversity by juxtaposing him to contemporary figures with similarly broad literary range. Reading Ion this way can perhaps shed new light on how literary genres were envisaged in the fifth century BCE, and how the process of canon formation in late antiquity came to eclipse that tradition.

In her following chapter Anne Geddes treats Ion as a source contemporary with the changes in Athens' system of government that occurred between the end of the Persian War and the beginning of the Peloponnesian War; that is, the transition from the "moderately oligarchic system of Cleisthenes" to the "democratic system of Pericles" (p. 110). Examining Ion's portraits of Cimon, Sophocles, and Pericles in the Epidemiai, Geddes suggests a political undercurrent in Ion's seemingly apolitical and personal characterizations. According to this reading, Ion's disparaging remarks on Pericles are a reflection of Ion's world-view and socio-economic position: living under oligarchic rule in Chios and belonging to the aristocracy, Ion was Panhellenic in outlook and subscribed to the values of aristocratic cosmopolitanism, as represented by Cimon. At the same time he was deeply critical of the democratic and nationalistic policies championed by Pericles. Geddes argues that Ion's criticism of Pericles should be understood as an expression of an oligarchic disenchantment with the inward-looking democratic radicalization under Pericles' rule. In his second contribution to the volume, Guy Olding deftly explores Ion's manipulation of myth in the Foundation of Chios. Olding endeavors to tease out the literary, political, and social implications of Ion's mythological allusions. The literary strategies at work imply a somewhat systematic "political use of the medium of myth" (p. 146), especially in establishing links between Chios and Athens. An example of this is the unconventional connection that Ion establishes by making the early Athenian king Theseus the father of Oinopion, Chios' founder. Olding suggests that Ion's penchant for unorthodox mythological rearrangements could have been motivated by political interests, as a poetic expression of "[p]arochial self-assertion" (p. 164) that sought to boost Chios' position among the rivalries within the Delian League.

In the last piece of part two, Alastair Blanshard sets out to challenge "historical literary criticism" by de-emphasizing its claim of the mimetic quality of literature, and its assumption of the stability of ideological structures. Drawing on the recent work of Carol Dougherty and Leslie Kurke,3 Blanshard argues that literature should be understood as "claims by agents operating in a maelstrom of competing and complementary forces" (p. 156). Adopting this approach, Blanshard explores "the methods by which Ion is able to establish a way of being" by locating his "work within a network of social, political and economic forces" (p. 156 and 157). Specifically, Blanshard argues that we should not be taken in by Ion's self-professed status of being a disinterested observer, but instead understand this as a strategic posture that enabled him to navigate the cultural tensions that he confronted -- many not sufficiently acknowledged -- among different factions in Chios over the relationship with the "hegemonic power" of Athens (p. 158). This complicated "cohabitation" (p. 168) with Athens and its ensuing tensions constitute the historical background against which we need to understand Ion's development of a literary strategy of "resistive accommodation" (p. 158). Blanshard explores how Ion makes choices both on the level of language, substance, and performance context (symposium) through which "he is able to carve out for himself a place that allows him a space to criticize in safety" (p. 158).

The first article in part three of the book, entitled "Ion the Poet," is one of the volume's more exciting pieces. Timothy Power -- building on Peter Wilson's work on the cultural politics of Greek music -- turns his attention to the cultural significance of Ion's endorsement of the eleven-stringed lyre in fragment 93 (Leurini). Pursuing a sociology of musical instruments, Power asserts that aesthetic comments are overdetermined and carry political weight. Indeed, discourses about musical instrument are discourses about "cultural power, social formation, political order and identity" (p. 180). Power interprets Ion's approval of the eleven-stringed lyre in light of "its intellectual, anti-popular snob appeal" (p. 188). This flies in the face of traditional interpretations that understand Ion's poem in relation to the eleven-stringed lyre's connection with New Music and radical democracy, especially as promoted by Timotheus of Miletus. Power explains that Ion's poem is anything but democratic or approving of the popularization of elite aesthetics; it is instead to be read as a re-validation of elite string culture and "as a politicized response to the banalization of sympotic culture" (p. 202). By reading fragment 93 in conjunction with the shifting social and cultural position of the lyre in late fifth century BCE, Power skillfully sheds new light on Ion's aesthetics and his position in fifth century sympotic culture.

In the second contribution to part three, Michael Clarke investigates the "communicative strategies" of Ion's use of metaphors by surveying "examples of deliberate and self-conscious strategies for poetic expression, involving the startling or anti-traditional matching of words to referents to which they do not conventionally belong" (p. 206). Clarke discovers a verbal strategy at work in Ion's poetry that centers around a self-conscious play with traditional imageries. This strategy has the effect of creating unsettling effects in the audience by challenging their "received assumptions about language" (p. 215). But this playfulness has its limits; it offers a "semantic puzzle" (p. 215) to the audience which, once correctly decoded, is solved. What at first might appear as novel and strange use of language is thus revealed as deeply traditional.

In a dense and suggestive piece, Andrea Katsaros finds a different strategy at work in Ion's use of imagery and metaphor. She proposes a new approach to Ion by proposing a close reading of Ion's sympotic fragments that is "receptive to suggestions of dissent, disenchantment and difference" (p. 218). At the core of Katsaros' interpretation is her questioning of traditional assumptions about Ion's presumed attachment to Athens. Once we allow for other priorities to shine through in Ion's work -- his status as a citizen of Chios and his concomitant concern for its well-being, for example -- then, Katsaros argues, we may pursue a reading that is sensitive to subversive nuances -- that is, to voices that appear to say one thing but in reality say the opposite. She goes on to provide interpretations of Ion's work where the subtext -- in sharp opposition to the prima facie jovial and trivial tone of the poem -- should be understood as Ion's latent critique of, among other things, Athens and its relationship with Chios in terms of its cultural superiority and power.

Alexander Stevens opens part four of the book, which deals with Ion's tragic fragments, by discussing Ion's victory in the dramatic competition in Athens. Starting out from the biographical story that Ion celebrated his poetic success by distributing wine to the Athenians, Steven stresses the "symbolic value" of this exchange -- wine, after all, was Chios' most famous product -- "which proffers a distinctive gloss on the symbolic operations of the Athenian tragic festivals" (p. 245 and 246). Stevens proceeds to explore Ion's tragic fragments with a special emphasis on the Phrouroi, and calls attention to the strong presence of Homeric vocabulary in Ion's poetry. This, he argues, locates Ion in the fifth century trend of interpreting Homeric language and makes him part of a "larger cultural project of reacting to and rewriting his Greek epic heritage" (p. 261). Ion should thus not be understood necessarily as a foreign presence at Athens composing "metic" tragedy, but rather as participating in a "larger project of competitive panhellenic poetic production" (p. 262). This project, of course, was linked to Ion's birthplace, as Homer was considered the island's most famous son.

In a short and descriptive piece, Judith Maitland examines overlaps between Ion and Sophocles. The main portion of her argument deals with similarities in how Ion and Sophocles treat the Oechalian legend, which chronicles Heracles' servitude to queen Omphale of Lydia. This comparison leads her to conclude that Sophocles and Ion "drew upon a common stock for the account of Heracles' servitude" (p. 281), and she additionally suggests that Ion's satyr-play Omphale "would have gained in humour had it been written after, and thus been compared with, Sophocles' Trachiniae" (p. 281).

Pat Easterling continues the discussion of Omphale by asking what we know about the play. She lists the known facts, and then attempts to further our knowledge through a fourfold exploration: Can we learn more about the plot from the mythological tradition? Is it possible to identify the dramatis personae? What can we learn from intertextual references? Can later reception shed new light on the play? What follows is a thorough discussion of each heading, but the conclusion is depressingly inconclusive. Easterling leaves off on a note of hope that more material will eventual show up that can help us better understand the Omphale.

Han Baltussen opens the fourth and last part of the book, which is devoted to the philosophical writings of Ion, by asking whether Ion was a philosopher, what his relationship was with Pythagoreanism, and what to make of Ion's philosophical work Triagmos. Agreeing with Dover,4 Baltussen argues that Ion should be classified as a philosopher. After all, his one preserved philosophical work "fits the style of early cosmological explanations" (p. 300). As for Ion's Pythagorean influences, Baltussen points out that his use of the number three certainly supports such a view with the modification that "for Ion, Pythagoreanism is more a source of inspiration than a matter of strict allegiance" (p. 310). Finally, Baltussen considers the title of Ion's philosophical work, Triagmos, and suggests that the uniqueness of this title might support us in tracing it back to Ion himself, given his well-documented penchant for originality in the use of language.

In a dense and at times unnecessarily theory-laden piece, Richard Fletcher considers the comment -- attributed to Ion by Diogenes Laertius -- that Socrates visited Samos with Archelaus as a young man. This statement stands in sharp contrast to Plato's Socrates, who never traveled except for military service. Plato also has little to say about Archelaus' influence over Socrates as a teacher. Later Hellenistic accounts, on the other hand, often mention Archelaus as Socrates' teacher, and these sources further establish this relationship as pivotal in the shift that occurred in philosophy from physics, as practiced by Archelaus, to the Socratic preoccupation with ethics. Fletcher links these observations with Dover's suggestion that Ion's Epidemiai anticipated the dialogue form later perfected by Plato, and asks if it is possible that the later Hellenistic accounts can be traced back "to a pre-Platonic portrait of Socrates as depicted in the Epidemiai" (p. 327). Fletcher makes the intriguing suggestion that Ion's (pre-Platonic) depiction of the philosophical relationship between Archelaus and Socrates (in a proto-dialogue form) might have anticipated later Hellenistic constructions of this relationship and the concomitant transition of philosophy from physics to ethics.

Moving away from the philosophical fragments proper, Victoria Jennings explores Ion's Hymn to Kairos, of which only the title survives. To offset this textual lacuna and offer a possible context for the work, Jennings considers the development of the term kairos in fifth century Greek culture. She outlines a variety of distinct, though often overlapping, uses: religious, athletic, intellectual/oratorical, philosophical, poetic, and intellectual. In her exploration of the all-but-lost Hymn to Kairos Jennings sees an opportunity to provide a "re-imagined topography" for the term with links to, among other things, Olympia, Gorgias, and Pythagoreanism. This intellectual topography "points to an intriguing 'mode of Greek thought' at work in the middle of the fifth century" (p. 345) -- an intellectual milieu of which Ion of Chios was an integral part.


Victoria Jennings and Andrea Katsaros. "Introduction." pp. 1-16.
John Henderson. "The Hocus of a Hedgehog: Ion's Versatility." pp. 17-44.
Guy Olding. "Shot from the Canon: Sources, Selections, Survival." pp. 45-63.
Nikos K. Haviaras. "The Poet and the Place: A Modern Chian Perspective on Ion of Chios and his Home Island." pp. 64-74.
Christopher Pelling. "Ion's Epidemiai and Plutarch's Ion." pp. 75-109.
Anne Geddes. "Ion of Chios and Politics." pp. 110-138.
Guy Olding. "Ion the Wineman: The Manipulation of Myth." pp. 139-154.
Alastair Blanshard. "Trapped between Athens and Chios: A Relationship in Fragments." pp. 155-178.
Timothy Power. "Ion of Chios and the Politics of Polychordia." pp. 179-205.
Michael Clarke. "Snowy Helen and Bull-Faced Wine: Ion and the Logic of Poetic Language." pp. 206-216.
Andrea Katsaros. "Staging Empire and Other in Ion's Sympotica." pp. 217-242.
Alexander Stevens. "Ion of Chios: Tragedy as Commodity at the Athenian Exchange." pp. 243-265.
Judith Maitland. "Ion of Chios, Sophocles, and Myth." pp. 266-281.
Pat Easterling. "Looking for Omphale. pp. 282-294.
Han Baltussen. "Playing the Pythagorean: Ion's Triagmos. pp. 295-318.
Richard Fletcher. "Legwork: Ion's Socrates." pp. 319-330.
Victoria Jennings. "Ion's Hymn to Kairos." pp. 331-346.


1.   Luigi Leurini, Ionis Chii Testimonia et Fragmenta (Classical and Byzantine Monographs 23), 2nd ed. Amsterdam. 2000.
2.   Some of the more important treatments are those of Albrecht von Blumenthal (Ion von Chios: die Reste seiner Werke, Stuttgart. 1939), Felix Jacoby ("Some remarks on Ion of Chios," CQ 41:1-17. 1947), Kenneth Dover ("Ion of Chios: his place in the history of Greek literature," in John Boardman and C. E. Vaphopoulou-Richardson (eds.), Chios: A conference at the Homereion in Chios 1984. Oxford. 1986: 27-37), and M. L. West ("Ion of Chios," BICS 32: 71-8. 1985.)
3.  Carol Dougherty and Leslie Kurke (eds.), The Cultures within Ancient Greek Culture: Contact, Conflict, Collaboration. Cambridge. 2003.
4.   See Dover (note 2 above).

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