Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.12.38

Andreas Willi, Sikelismos. Sprache, Literatur und Gesellschaft im griechischen Sizilien (8.-5. Jh. v. Chr.). Biblioteca Helvetica Romana XXIX.   Basel:  Schwabe Verlag, 2008.  Pp. xvii, 477.  ISBN 9783796522550.  €47.50.  

Reviewed by Susana Mimbrera Olarte, Cambridge/Madrid (
Word count: 2695 words

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

This is the most recent book by Professor Willi, his Habilitationsschrift for the Faculty of Classics in Basel, which is devoted to the language, literature and culture of Greek Sicily from the 8th to the 5th century B.C. The author studies Stesichorus, Epicharmus, Empedocles, Gorgias and the inscriptional evidence down to the 5th century, when Athens became the cultural and political hub of the Greek world. As such, it will be of great interest to those concerned with the pre-Greek languages in Sicily, the Greek language (epichoric dialects and literary languages), Greek literature (choral lyric, comedy, rhetoric, philosophy) and, more generally, the cultural history of Sicily.

The most remarkable thing about this excellent and beautiful work is that it combines a philological, linguistic, literary and cultural approach, all fields in which the author displays an astonishing expertise. Indeed this combination of perspectives characterizes his research, as the readers of The languages of Aristophanes will know. At the centre of this book is the issue of how colonization shaped Sicily's cultural production, not only because of the colonists' contact with the indigenous population, but also due to the need to acquire an independent identity with respect to their mother-cities. This is, I think, the only work to present a truly holistic study of the language and literature of ancient Sicily.

He takes several hypotheses as his starting point (chapter one): the fact that Greeks met indigenous people when they settled in Sicily must have sharpened their linguistic awareness, which inspired them to creative experimentation (Hybridisierung) in order to acquire an independent identity and to make a new centre from what was originally a cultural periphery.

In chapter two the author takes a sociolinguistic approach to the relationship between Greek and the indigenous languages of Sicily and the phenomena that arose from it: interference (as a result of which Sicilian Greek had a characteristic accent that distinguished it from other types of Greek), loans and hybrid formations. He also discusses the typology of linguistic contact between Greek and the indigenous languages of Sicily and the disappearance of the latter. After this, he addresses the internal dynamics of Greek in Sicily, where an international form of Doric predominated, centred on the dialect of Syracuse. The result was that Greek Sicily gradually became a Kulturregion, with its Greek being innovative due to the mixture of diverse elements, centrifugal with respect to continental Greek, centripetal or integrative in Sicily due to koineization, and dominant, with the eventual death of the indigenous languages. All these features contributed to the creation of a Sicilian identity.

In chapter three, the author studies the language of Stesichorus from a phonological, morphological, syntactic and lexical viewpoint. The author rejects the usual view that Stesichorus essentially uses the language of epic, with a superficial dialectal colouring. Instead, he convincingly argues that his language is typical of Doric lyric, although it is relexified (its vocabulary and diction are not Doric, but Epic). He also discusses the issue of Stesichorus' performance, and thinks it possible that his poems were sung by a choir, as was the case with choral lyric. According to Willi, Stesichorus' originality lies in the fact that he rethematizes the lyrical form with themes from Epic poetry. The fact that Stesichorus, who comes from a Chalcidian (Ionic) colony, adopts the genre and dialect of Doric choral lyric, is another instance of what Willi calls "hybridization". Therefore Stesichorus can be considered a literary exponent of Vallet's cultural koiné, which is confirmed by the fact that the poet shows his preference for the mythical themes that had a special importance in the colonial environment and also by the fact that the reception of his work in the Ionic colonies is well-documented. Summing up, his poetry is the proof that a new common identity had arisen in Sicily.

In chapter four Professor Willi analyzes the Geryoneis and the Lille papyrus and concludes that Stesichorus portrays his characters from a psychological and individualized point of view through the words and speeches that they utter, in a different way from Epos. Another crucial aspect of Stesichorus's work, admirably explored in Willi's discussion of the Lille papyrus, is the recurring theme of the relationship between language and reality. A recurring motif in many other fragments of Stesichorus is the concept of Sprachrelativismus (the tenet that linguistic expressions can be independent from external realities and in this way can be relative), when, for example, he depicts the speaker fearing that his words are not going to be taken seriously or believed. In this way the action is more complex from a psychological or dramatic viewpoint. Willi shows that this can be translated or transferred into the sphere of the art of poetry, which means that even the words of a recognised poet can lead astray. We see this most clearly in the Palinody, where the Homeric and Hesiodic version of the myth of Helen is reappraised and condemned as a fiction, and is rejected in favour of an alternative one, bringing about Stesichorus' healing. Therefore Epic poets are not maîtres de vérité; only the Muse is. In this way, Stesichorus overthrows the old traditions. Colonial myths are as valued as the myths coming from the mother cities, and the canonical texts containing these are now considered pure fiction, their account being replaced by a different version. Therefore Stesichorus is not only the poet of colonial unity, but also the poet of colonial emancipation. The question of the relationship between word and reality is a leitmotiv in Stesichorus and soon becomes a central issue of Greek thought in the Western colonies, e.g. in Gorgias, Epicharmus and Empedocles.

In chapter five Professor Willi turns to Epicharmus, whose language he analyses from every possible perspective. The conclusion is that his language is representative of everyday Syracusan, since there is very little polymorphy and the little that there is can be explained in terms of synchronic variation. Also, Epicharmus uses specifically local features in terms of vocabulary, idioms and morphological and derivational formations. Whenever Epicharmus deviates from this everyday Syracusan, it is for comical-satirical purposes. The language of Epicharmus has a colloquial foundation and sometimes shows vulgarisms, as does Aristophanes. Stylistically Epicharmus is also very close to Aristophanes. An interesting difference is that in Sicily there was no tragedy, so it is very remarkable that, for the first time in the Greek world, we find an open genre that claims literary status without a Kunstsprache. This markedly colonial language is intended for a public for whom there was no literature before. That the raising of everyday Sicilian to a literary language has taken place precisely in Sicily is understandable, if we take into account that Epicharmus' goal was not only to contrast popular with elitist literature, but also Sicilian literature with foreign literature.

Chapter six focuses on the question of how Epicharmus deals with the Sprachkultur of his time, especially with Epos and rhetoric. Despite the brevity of his fragments, we can glimpse that his comedy was highly developed both in literary technique and with regard to the topics discussed. Epicharmus' literature is democratic, in that he places a positive value on colloquial language, critizises Xenophanes' intellectualism, makes fun of Aeschylus' language, mistrusts professionalised rhetoric and overthrows epic heroes. Epicharmus also questions canonical values, and that is the reason why he attacks epic and myth, which were the cultural property of wide swathes of the population. To value traditional and accepted things in a different way is a necessary act for a colonial author, who tries to create something new and different from what we find in the Greek mother cities, and for a comic author.

Chapter seven is devoted to Empedocles, who is different from the philosophers of nature before him and from his contemporaries. Instead he appears as an innovator, both with respect to the signifier and with respect to the signified. Professor Willi discusses in detail the lexical, morphological and syntactic innovations, with which the philosopher tries to achieve a distinct poetic style and tries to distance himself both from the language of Epic and from normal language. He also deals with a very important component of Empedocles' style: metaphors and paretymology (by which a word takes on a new meaning as the result of an innovative association with a phonetically similar word). Therefore the public must intuitively understand the lexeme. The effect can be named studied ambiguity (Kahn). The result of all this is that an unequivocal interpretation of Empedocles is not possible. Empedocles' work seems to have been conceived as an oracle or an initiation enigma.

Chapter eight explores the three different facets of Empedocles, who appears sometimes as a teacher, sometimes as a prophet and sometimes as a god. Important in this connection is Empedocles' presupposition that there are two distinct languages: one language agrees with thémis and, therefore, is sanctioned by the divinity. The other language is human. His use of the divine language makes Empedocles appear as a mantis or a true god. That language is central for Empedocles is discussed at length by Willi, who argues that for Empedocles the spoken language is the basis of the Weltordnung. For Empedocles, only the person with a disposition to learn can acquire the knowledge of the mantis, so it seems that Empedocles' speech is aimed at an elite. However, each person has the power to develop the right disposition to learn (that is, to analyse Empedocles' words and to understand the logos), which constitutes a democratization of the elite. With this the rhetoric is expanded, as it incorporates the Sprachpsychologie. In all of these ways, Empedocles creates a poetry that moves away from Homer.

Chapter nine discusses the relationship between Gorgias' thought and that of Empedocles. On some points it seems that Gorgias accepts Empedoclean postulates: for example, when discussing sensory perception, where he says that language is an ainigma and it is the task of the hearer to decipher the logos, or when he maintains that human behaviour can be influenced by logoi. Also as in Empedocles, the power of a logos depends on the mental disposition of the hearer. Yet on a number of points Gorgias moves away from Empedocles. For example, for Empedocles it is sometimes arduous to persuade, whereas for Gorgias the logos that has peitho overcomes resistance, even if this resistance is rational. Gorgias and Empedocles also differ on the issue of absolute truth. For Gorgias truth is a relative thing, because, when two speakers have agreed to a common concept of truth and have established a convention, the truth or lack of truth of a statement can be measured. The truth is not defined in each communication act. That is why the first task of the orator is to assess the audience and the situation (kairos). Rhetoric for Gorgias must concentrate on the art of convincing, and the issue of truth is not central. Gorgias also criticises Epos (for example in the Helena, where he uses a logismos, rational thinking, or in Palamedes). Gorgias' rhetoric is democratic, because it allows anyone to master a technique that was previously the preserve of the few. Willi argues that it is also democratic in the sense that Gorgias adopts the Attic dialect, because he addresses his speeches to an Attic audience.

Chapter ten. In literature we have seen that Empedocles and Gorgias can be defined as democratic authors. As for Stesichorus and Epicharmus, they undermine the position of the epos as a canonical text. This chapter deals with possible parallels in Sicily for a "democratization of the authorised word" in the non-literary sphere. For example, Willi relates the emergence of rhetoric to the development in Sicily of democracy and egalitarian structures (the parity of men and women in some respects), although rhetoric must also have been boosted by the legal disputes concerning the possession of land which arose as a result of the frequent transfer of populations in Sicily. The publication of laws in Sicily also constitutes a democratic act, since it manifested the fact that everyone was subject to the same laws. Democratization is also apparent in the fact that, although magic must originally have been the preserve of specialists, in Sicily women and the lower strata of society wrote defixiones.

In chapter eleven the author summarizes his conclusions. Contact with the indigenous population increased the linguistic awareness of Sicilian Greeks, who tried to transform their cultural periphery into a new centre. Professor Willi shows how Sicilian Greek was innovative, centrifugal, integrative and dominant. He also points to the fact that similar phenomena to the ones we find in Sicily have arisen in modern postcolonial literatures. Many of the cultural developments that were to take place in Greece proper were first initiated in Sicily. Innovation, the critical questioning of authorities and relativism are key issues in sophistics, so it is correct to say that without Sicily there would have been no sophistics.

The book concludes with an appendix dedicated to the pre-Greek languages of Sicily.

This is an extraordinary work and I fully endorse Willi's main theses. However, there are some minor and rather marginal details that I do not agree with. They are all linguistic issues. For example, as proof for the realization of aspirated plosives as unaspirated voiceless stops due to Sicel substrate influence, Willi includes the examples ἐντάδε and εχθός (which he considers hypercorrect). I'm not so sure that they are to be interpreted in this light, since they are also attested in other dialects where no such linguistic phenomenon (nor such substrate influence) is attested, which suggests that there must be another explanation for these forms: El. ἐνταῦτα, Argol. ἐντάδε, perhaps influenced by ταῦτα, τάδε.1 We also find Delph., Locr., Arg. ἐχθός (*ἐκσ-τός), where the aspiration is probably caused by the sibilant.2

Also, the author is perhaps too ready to accept Bartonek's theory of a Syracusan-based koina (pp. 45-47), which is more a theoretical and historical construct than something underpinned by the data: the only indication of dialect levelling according to Bartonek is the spreading of mitior vocalism to the Rhodian-Cretan colonies. However, it is possible that these colonies had mitior vocalism from the start3. Therefore, the presence of this feature in the Rhodian-Cretan colonies may not indicate dialect levelling at all. That there was a Syracusan-based koina in the 5th century is in itself a plausible idea, but mitior vocalism alone is not enough to prove it.

Finally, the author explains the presence of the athematic infinitive ending -μειν (typical of the Rhodian-Cretan colonies) in Epicharmus' Syracusan alongside the expected -μεν by claiming (following Cassio) that infinitives in -μειν were created independently in Syracusan, which seems possible but unlikely. It is easier to suppose that Epicharmus' -μειν is a Rhodian-Cretan feature present in Syracuse since 485 B.C., when part of Gela's population was transferred to Syracuse by Gelon. In fact even Willi does not wholly discard this possibility, which would not contradict his main thesis that Epicharmus' dialect is basically everyday Syracusan.

However, this is rather petty quibbling. This very valuable book is essential reading for anyone interested in Sicilian language and literature. Among its merits are the excellent examination of literary and non-literary sources, the new interpretation of some problematic texts (in particular the superb reconstruction and analysis of the Odysseus automolos), and the clarity of exposition (the author gives numerous tables) which will certainly be of help to those still grappling with their German.


1. Einleitung
2. Die Insel der Sprachen (Zur Soziolinguistik des antiken Sizilien)
3. Auf der Suche nach einer gemeinsamen Sprache (Stesichoros' neue Chorlyrik)
4. Die Wahrheit der Fiktion (Zu Stesichoros' Umgang mit dem Mythos)
5. Die Literarisierung des Alltags (Epicharms Komödie als paradigmatische Gattung)
6. Raffinierte Redner und feige Heroen (Themen und Parodien bei Epicharm)
7. Ein Epos der Verfremdung (Empedokles als Sprachschöpfer)
8. Dichtung zwischen Menschensprache und Göttersprache (Zur Sprachphilosophie des Empedokles)
9. Die Entdeckung der Kommunikation (Gorgias und die 'Erfindung' der Rhetorik)
10. Eine sizilische Aufklärung (Rhetorik, Magie und Gesetzgebung im kolonialen Raum)
11. SchlussbetrachtungAppendix: Die vorgriechischen Sprachen Siziliens


1.   Cf. Buck Greek Dialects, p. 60, paragraph 65.
2.   Cf. Buck op.cit., p. 60, paragraph 66, Lejeune Phonétique historique, p. 74, paragraph 62, n. 5.
3.   Cretan probably had mitior vocalism, cf. R.J.E. Thompson, "Long mid vowels in Attic-Ionic and Cretan", PCPS 52, 2006, 81-101. In fact, it is possible that all dialects once had mitior vocalism (with only some of them simplifying the vocalic system according to the Doris media or severior types); cf. G.A. Sheets (1979), "The dialectological implications of secondary mid-vowels in Greek: a clarification", AJPh 100, pp. 559-567, J. Méndez Dosuna (1985), Los dialectos dorios del Noroeste. Gramática y estudio dialectal, Madrid, pp. 275/6, M. del Barrio Vega (1998), "Vocalisme mitior, innovation ou archaïsme? État de la question", Mnemosyne 51, 257-281, esp. 272ff.

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