Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.06.21

Andrea Rotstein, The Idea of Iambos.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010.  Pp. xvii, 388.  ISBN 9780199286270.  $135.00.  

Reviewed by Chris Eckerman, University of Oregon (


The categorization of iambos as a literary genre has never been a clear-cut task. For example, does iambos refer to a metrical structure, such as, most obviously, the iambic trimeter? Is it, then, possible that a poem composed in dactylic hexameters could be called iambos? What about subject matter: is iambos synonymous with invective? And performance context: is iambos recoverable and definable based on its place of performance, mode of performance, and social function, as recent trends in criticism have suggested? Would we be able to define the iambic genre more clearly if we had a larger corpus? As Rotstein points out (p. 15), having more iambos would not make the categorization any easier since we would still be well within the same hermeneutic circle, albeit with a larger corpus. Thus, facile categorization of iambos is a dangerous, foolhardy task. The main reason for this is because iambos was always usable with two discrete, yet regularly overlapping, meanings: both a metrical/rhythmical one and a generic one. Well aware of the problems inherent in a prescriptive definition of iambos, Rotstein offers a historiography of the reception and interpretation of archaic iambos well into the Hellenistic age, with the occasional glimpse into later authors. This is an impeccably researched book that makes a thoughtful contribution to the histoire des mentalités. It should be of interest not only to scholars of iambos, but also to anyone interested in genre studies and literary historiography.

Part 1 ("Greek Iambos (7th- 4th cent. BCE): Genre and Corpus") lays the foundations for the rest of the book by theorizing genre and by delineating the corpus of authors that Rotstein accepts. In her first chapter, "Approaching Genre", Rotstein begins by problematizing concepts of genre, pointing out that traditional conceptions of genre are based on rigid categorization: for a work to fit into a specific genre, it must fit, like a peg in its hole, its prerequisite categorical requirements. The problem, of course, is that such "classical" genre theory has the deleterious effect of marginalizing "fuzzy areas." Recognizing the need for a dynamic approach to genre, Rotstein introduces key terms that she finds helpful when thinking about genre. These include: family resemblance (i.e. network of crisscrossing similarities); the prototype (e.g. Homer = epic); dominant features (e.g. blame in iambos); chunking (individual conceptualization and simplification of a phenomenon for the sake of convenience); embodiment (how the body interacts with genre in its performative context, e.g. a hymenaios at a wedding); scripts ('background for the interpretation of poetry').

In chapter two, The Corpus of Iambic Poets, Rotstein weighs the evidence for and against considering individual poets as composers of iambos (what Rotstein calls the 'received iambos').1 Importantly, Rotstein concludes that iambos was a vibrant genre not only in the archaic and early classical periods but that it also flourished well into the late classical period before the re-flourishing of iambos and iambic themes in the Hellenistic age. Iambos, then, had much more temporal continuity than is generally recognized. To a certain degree, many scholars still follow a flawed Aristotelian teleological notion of seeing iambos as a genre in decline with the rise of comedy (p. 88), but the historical testimonies belie this assumption.

In "Part II: Ways of Seeing", Rotstein begins (ch. 3) by examining Aristotle's corpus and concludes that Aristotle uses iambos in relation to rhythm, genre, and also as a performed genre. Several detailed arguments follow. One of the more interesting points that Rotstein develops is the idea that the absence of iambos in the first chapters of Aristotle's Poetics has nothing to do with iambos qua poetry but rather with the fact that iambos does not provide a suitable data set for Aristotle's interpretive method. Moreover, Rotstein examines Aristotle's use of psogos in relation to iambos and concludes that the terms are not synonyms; thereafter, she addresses Aristotle's famous iambike idea phrase and concludes that it refers to "the lack of universal, organic plot." Chapter three, then, deals with the way that Aristotle conceptualized iambos, a conceptualization that would have a wide impact on later theorists' approach to the genre.

In chapter 4, "Ancient Theories of Iambos", Rotstein begins by adumbrating late Classical and Hellenistic scholarly interest in the iambographers; this is to point out that "ancient scholars considered iambic poems as belonging to the corpus of great texts that were worthy of preservation, transmission, and interpretation" (p. 116). Thereafter, Rotstein turns to consider the etymology of iambos proposed both by ancient and modern scholars. Modern stabs at this etymology are bogglingly numerous, while ancients typically derived the noun from the denominative verb iambizein or from "eponymous heroes" such as Iambe, famed from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.2 Of course, the ancient etymologies are interesting because they tell us how the ancients themselves thought of iambos , but they do put the cart before the horse.

Rotstein opens chapter 5, in Part III ("Iambos and Iambeion: A Study of Terms in Context"), looking at iambos in Archilochus (fr. 215W) and rightly concludes that iambos refers to poetic output within the context of pleasures (terpolai) that generally arise at festive occasions. In chapter 6, Rotstein examines the famed story of Iambe in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, its connection to aetiological aischrologia, and the story of Baubo. She rightly concludes that the story of Iambe need not tell us anything about the origins of iambos, but that it shows us what was associated with iambos in the 7th and 6th century: the type of cheerful jokes and mockery that is able to rescue Demeter from her overwhelming sorrow.

In ch. 7, "Iambos and Iambeion in the Classical Period", Rotstein addresses iambos as a rhythmic term in the works of Damon of Oa and Plato, argues in favor of accepting the paradosis at Herodotus 1.12, notes that Aristophanes uses iambos in the Frogs (l. 661) in reference to a poem rather than metrical structure, shows that Plato uses iambos in reference to a performed genre, points out that iambeionrefers to iambic rhythm rather than iambic (i.e. generic) subject matter, and concludes that Aristoxenus of Selinus and his relation to iambos remain problematic. Ch. 7, then, is something of a hodgepodge of classical references to iambos.

Part IV ("The Performance of Iambos") was for me the most interesting section of the book. In ch. 8, "Musical Performance of Iamboi", Rotstein teases out the possibilities that iambos may very well have been sung regularly, occasionally with musical accompaniment, in addition to being recited. Here Rotstein productively rethinks the opinio communis, which views iambos as a recitative genre. To do this, Rotstein examines testimonia that link Archilochus with musical innovation, iamb- words that are connected with music (iambis, pariambis, and iambyke), and the rhythmical section known as iambos in the Pythian nomos. As Rotstein herself points out, none of this evidence taken individually links iambos closely with singing, but she is right to note that the several suggestive phenomena that link iambos and song should not be overlooked.

In ch. 9, "Public Performance of Iamboi", Rotstein moves away from linking iambos exclusively with the symposium; once again, she provides us with a valuable discussion regarding performance. She points out that musical contests and religious festivals were venues for iambos and notes that professional performers (Iambistai, Iamboi) akin to, say, the Homeridai, performed and reperformed iambos and iambic-themed poetry. We should thank the author that it may now seem well passé for anyone to say that iambos was recited, not sung, at symposia, as an acceptable answer for a full understanding of the performance context of iambos. I wonder how long it will be until the casual stroll in the agora between friends may be suggested as a performance context for iambos. That is to say, to the contests and festivals that Rotstein stresses as important venues for performance, as well as the previously well-accepted symposia, should probably be added the transitory performance of iambos during a walk or chat among friends at any place.

In Part V ("Perceptions of Iambos") Rotstein begins (ch. 10) by looking at Archilochus as the prototype for the development of iambos. Rotstein rightly points out that Archilochus' oeuvre contained much more than invective, and she notes that Archilochus' name had rather wide connotations in the 5th and 4th century; Archilochus could even be associated with praise poetry if we are to follow Pindar (O. 9.5) when he speaks of Archilochus' victory song sung at Olympia in response to athletic competition. In her final chapter, "Invective as the Dominant Feature", Rotstein argues that the meaning of iambos narrowed considerably from the archaic and early classical age to the late classical and Hellenistic age. Starting with Plato, we see a simplification of the genre so that it becomes more and more associated with invective while other features of iambos are marginalized. A brief final remarks section brings together the conclusions drawn from individual chapters.

This is a conservative book, having little in it that will make one's blood boil. This is partially due to the nature of the book that Rotstein has chosen to write: by focusing on the reception of iambos in later Greek thought, her project is more descriptive than argumentative. When Rotstein argues in favor of an interpretation, she does so with full control of the primary materials and quickly wins over her reader. The book is extraordinarily well produced and nearly typo-free. An index locorum and general index are provided.


1.   The included/excluded/and inconclusively categorized poets and works break down as follows. Archilochus, Hipponax, Semonides, Ananius, Scythinus, Moschina, Aeschrion, Solon, Anacreon, Susarion, Hermippus of Athens, Diphilus, and Eucleides are included. Sappho, Aristoxenus of Selinus, Xenophanes of Colophon, the Margites, Timocreon of Rhodes, Euenus of Paros, Asopodorus of Phlius, and Pherecrates are excluded. Anacreon, Eucleides of Athens, and Simonides of Carystus or Eretria are undecided based on lack of conclusive evidence.
2.   Rotstein also addresses in detail the etymologies and definitions of iambos as provided by Diomedes and Proclus, and considers en passant Hellenistic alternatives (e.g. Stoic and Epicurean) to Aristotle's theoretical conceptualization of genre.

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