Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.05.38

Maarit Kivilo, Early Greek Poets’ Lives: The Shaping of the Tradition. Mnemosyne Supplements 322.   Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2010.  Pp. xii, 270.  ISBN 9789004186156.  $147.00.  

Reviewed by Mary R. Lefkowitz, Wellesley College (

Table of Contents

In ancient Greece poets, like statesmen and generals, were considered important enough to have biographers. Stories about the archaic poets were in circulation in written form at least as early as the sixth century, but many of their biographies survive now only in fragments, and most of the longer extant Lives were compiled in Hellenistic times or later. Information about dating and lists of the poets’ works were based on other types of sources, such as didaskaliai and librarians’ catalogues. Other testimonia come from a wide variety of disparate sources, such as brief notices in the Suda, miscellaneous anecdotes or occasional observations by later writers. In Early Greek Poets’ Lives (based on her Oxford D.Phil.) Maarit Kivilo provides a comprehensive and accurate overview of the surviving biographical data for the poets Hesiod, Stesichorus, Archilochus, Hipponax, Terpander, and Sappho. She aims to approach the material with “a critical mind and balanced judgment,” and to demonstrate that in most cases the biographical tradition antedates the earliest surviving written information. Anyone who wishes to study the lives of these particular poets will want to begin their work by consulting this book, even if their own analysis of the evidence may in some cases lead to different conclusions. Kivilo’s coverage of the testimonia is unparalleled elsewhere, and her discussion of issues of dating is particularly informative.

In successive chapters Kivilo provides a narrative summary of the surviving biographical information about each of the six poets, with detailed discussion of how the evidence (such as it is) might be interpreted. She lists information about ancient cults and monuments for each poet, and appends catalogues of the works that were attributed to them in antiquity. She maintains that the biographies of poets (as well as those of seers, sages, tyrants, and heroes) contain “formulaic themes,” which presumably also originated in the oral tradition. She catalogues these themes in detailed tables at the end of the book, under such rubrics as “pupil,” “exile,” “cult” “kills a close relative.”

The chapter on Hesiod provides a valuable treatment of the several conflicting traditions about the poet, including the complex genealogies devised by later writers linking him to mythological figures such as Orpheus or Atlas. Kivilo rightly observes that most of the material about Hesiod’s life is based on his own poetry, including the story of the poetic competition between Homer and Hesiod described in the Hadrianic Certamen. The sources of that work date back at least to the late fifth-early fourth-century orator Alcidamas, and may even be earlier. Kivilo suggests that the story of Hesiod’s death had its origin in a Locrian legend (he was said to have been murdered by two brothers who believed that he had seduced their sister). She offers a full analysis of the curious tradition that Hesiod was twice young and buried twice, which may date back to the fifth century, and (as so often in ancient biography) could either be a means of accommodating differing dates, or an indication that he had acquired heroic status.

Kivilo’s treatments of the other poets are equally thorough, but necessarily less extensive, because the works of these poets survive mostly in fragments, and fewer data are preserved about their lives. She develops the idea (originally proposed by Wilamowitz) that Stesichorus’ biography was based on two distinct traditions, Sicilian and Italian, which link him to different cities (Himera and Epizephyrean Locri) and parents. She discusses the origin and meaning of the story of the Palinode, and the question of whether or not Stesichorus composed choral or monodic poetry (or both), concluding that we cannot know for sure on the basis of such the evidence as we now possess. She suggests that there are links in his biography to Pythagoreanism. She does not discuss the pseudo-correspondence between Stesichorus and Phalaris, even though in late Hellenistic times it may have served as a more important memorial to the poet than anything he himself had written.

In her discussion of Archilochus Kivilo provides a comprehensive summary of modern scholarship, but does not try to decide whether the story of Lycambes’ daughters derives from history or ritual. She does not think that it is possible to conclude that Archilochus was a hereditary priest of either Dionysus or Demeter, as has recently been suggested. Most of our biographical information is connected to his poetry, because “...there is no sign that [ancient writers] ever doubted the autobiographical character of his verses.” Nonetheless, she believes that Archilochus’ Hellenistic biographers, the third-century Mnesipes and second-century Sosthenes, recorded “local Parian” lore on the inscriptions that they put up in Archilochus’ heroon. That is of course possible, but attributions such as “what was transmitted to us by the ancients” (παραδέδοταί τε ἡμῖν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀρχαίων) and “they say” (λέγουσιν) do not indicate that these biographers were relying specifically on oral tradition. Sosthenes in particular says he is relying on the historian Demeas, who in turn appears to have derived most of his information about Archilochus’ from Archilochus’ own verses.

Hipponax’ biography contains “formulaic” themes such as exile and a violent form of death. But even though his poetry refers to them, the themes sex, adultery, and physical deformity do not occur in any surviving biographical materials about him. Kivilo does not speculate why, but perhaps the ways in which these issues were described in his poetry did not appear to be literally autobiographical. The relation between poetry and biography is even less clear in the case of Terpander, because only a few lines of his works have survived. Terpander’s biography includes the themes of exile and murder, and the manner of his death, choking on a fig, has parallels in stories about the deaths of Anacreon (a grape seed) and Sophocles (an unripe grape).

The basic elements of Sappho’s biography, like those of Archilochus’, bear a close relation to her poetry. Dialogues between her and the poets Alcaeus and Anacreon were invented later, and may have been chronologically impossible, according to some accounts of her dates. In her surviving poetry the first-person speaker makes frequent references to her old age, so it appears that the story of her death was apparently developed later and independently of her poetry. The idea that she jumped off a cliff on the island of Leucas because of her unrequited love for the Adonis-like ferryman Phaon appears have been invented by one of the fourth-century Athenian poets who wrote comedies about her and portrayed her as being involved in love affairs with men. Criticism of her homoeroticism may also date from this period. Kivilo outlines how Sappho’s life was characterized during Roman times, and how recent scholars have drawn on her poetry in order to describe her world.1

How and by whom were these biographies composed? In the fifth century and after writers drew much of their data from the poets’ own first-person statements, but their biographies were also influenced by folktale and mythology. Poets, like the famous heroes, experienced rejection and died remarkable deaths; prophecies are fulfilled and portents interpreted.2 Kivilo believes that before the fifth century biographies developed from collective traditions. Stories about the poets were transmitted orally, and that the traditions developed “generically.” Local legends supplemented information provided by each author’s poetry. By beginning each chapter with a comprehensive description of “the tradition” about each poet, Kivilo leaves the impression that there were pre-established narratives on which individual biographers might draw. But not even the longer surviving biographies (such as the Herodotean Life of Homer) offers such a complete overview of all available information about any poet as Kivilo herself provides. When we do know something about the actual process of composition, as in the cases of poets like Homer or Euripides, it is particular individuals and not traditions who wrote the biographies, and particular individuals who preserved the narratives by repetition and adumbration.

In their earliest versions, ancient biographies took the form of verse surrounded by prose exposition, as in the case of Alcidamas’ Mouseion (fr.27 Muir). Prose is closely linked to the poetry, which may indicate that at some early stage it too was committed to writing: we are, after all, talking about the transmission of narratives whose primary source materials were verses that had been preserved in written form. Since oral and literary transmissions can co-exist, we cannot exclude the possibility that at least some biographies were composed by individuals, and also in writing.3 In some cases biographies might have been maintained by the persons in charge of the poet’s hero cult, assuming that he had one.4 But others were created during the poet’s lifetimes, especially in the case of self-conscious poets who were concerned with making sure that they left a literary legacy, like Solon or Theognis.5 Localized biographies could have been created by schools of rhapsodes, such as the Homeridae in Chios. But since rhapsodes (like the poets themselves) tended to travel, in practice their localized versions would not have remained fixed in one place for very long.

Kivilo characterizes as “formulaic” the recurrent narrative themes in the biographies. In the case of earlier narratives, both biographical and mythological, these motifs may have been transmitted orally, but they turn up also in biographies which were almost certainly written down. In these later biographies, and even in some of the earlier ones, it might be more appropriate to speak of a process of imitation. For example, the theme “clairvoyance” occurs in stories about poets who lived in times when literature was written down: the fourth-century comic poet Philemon dreamt that he saw nine young women leaving the room, and realized that the Muses were deserting him. The theme of exile occurs in both Lives of Apollonius, who was said to have gone to Rhodes after his Argonautica was not well-received in Alexandria.

Kivilo rightly emphasizes that the poets’ Lives contain some historical elements, notably the data derived from didaskaliai. But ultimately they may be more useful to modern scholars as illustrations of ancient reception and literary criticism. Homer’s biography, as Barbara Graziosi has shown, reflects his wide popularity throughout the Greek world.6 Biographies also convey moral judgments. In Alcidamas’ Mouseion Hesiod won his contest against Homer, because he wrote about the works of peace; Athenian writers claimed that Tyrtaeus was an Athenian, on the grounds that Spartans did not write poetry; Athenian comic poets portrayed Sappho as a victim of unrequited heterosexual love. Were these idiosyncratic ideas generated by traditions, or individuals? The latter hypothesis seems more likely.


1.   See esp. D. Yatromanolakis, Sappho in the Making: The Early Reception (Cambridge MA, 2007).
2.   In general see J. Fairweather, “Fiction in the biographies of Ancient Writers,” Ancient Society 5 (1974) 231-75; M. R. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets (London/Baltimore, 1981).
3.   See (e.g.) R. Thomas. Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 1990) 40-51; R. L. Fowler, “Early Historiē and Literacy,” The Historian’s Craft in the Age of Herodotus, ed. N. Luraghi (Oxford, 2001) 115.
4.   G. Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans (Baltimore 1999) 304-305; D. Clay, Archilochus Heros: The Cult of Poets in the Greek Polis . (Cambridge MA, 2004).
5.   E. Irwin, Solon and Early Greek Poetry (Cambridge, 2005); “The Biographies of Poets: the Case of Solon,” The Limits of Ancient Biography, ed. B. McGing and J. Mossman (Swansea, 2006) 13-30.
6.   B. Graziosi, B. Inventing Homer: the Early Reception of Epic (Cambridge, 2002); also M. R. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets, Ed. 2.(Baltimore/London, forthcoming 2012).

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2011
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 07:03:06, Monday, 16 May 2011