Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.03.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.03.31

Elizabeth Minchin (ed.), Orality, Literacy and Performance in the Ancient World. Orality and literacy in the ancient world, vol. 9; Mnemosyne Supplements. Monographs on Greek and Roman Language and Literature, 335.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2012.  Pp. xviii, 268.  ISBN 9789004217744.  $148.00.  

Reviewed by Athena Kirk, Washington and Lee University (


In 1996, Brill’s Mnemosyne Supplements published selected papers from the international orality and literacy conference series that Ian Worthington began in 1994 as “Voice into Text,” and which has reconvened every two years since. The current volume contains papers from the ninth iteration of the conference, “Orality and Literacy in the Ancient Greek and Roman World: Composition and Performance,” held at the Australian National University in Canberra in 2010.

Minchin points out in the introduction that previous conferences and publications in the series have treated both broader thematic areas related to literacy and orality studies (such as memory) and more specific focuses (e.g. politics, religion). In her view, this volume takes up another broad area, composition-in-performance, and “allows scholars half a century later to reconsider” themes first introduced in the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord (xi- xii). Accordingly, Orality, Literacy, and Performance in the Ancient World gives significant attention to the works of Homer and Hesiod, on which five of the eleven papers focus. The remaining ones treat varied source material ranging from Plato and Isocrates to Petronius and a Sanskrit Puranic text. The collection will be of interest both to specialists in the target authors or texts and to those working on literacy or performance studies. It also provides a useful overview of some current approaches to performance in certain genres. I will comment on the individual chapters in the order in which they appear and close with a more general discussion.

The eleven contributions, arranged roughly chronologically, are divided into two parts. The first, “Poetry in Performance,” deals with aspects of epic composition and presentation in Homer and Hesiod, with comparisons to modern epic traditions, while the second, “Literacy and Orality,” treats a more eclectic group of texts and authors. As a result, the five chapters of Part I form a more cohesive whole than do those of the latter ones. These papers study the precise and diverse workings of oral performance in archaic epic and, taken together, are especially valuable in that they enrich our understanding of the ancient listener’s experience and remind us how greatly performance context informs oral composition. Kelly’s “The Audience Expects: Penelope and Odysseus” presents a reading of the poet and/or performer’s use of parallel structures in Odyssey 22 and 23 to create suspense. While the argument may not convince the non-oralist or prove Book 23’s authenticity to the skeptic, it shows clearly the interplay between performance and composition in the recognition sequence. In “The Presentation of Song in Homer’s Odyssey,” an effective application of speech act theory and narratology, Beck argues that the songs of poets in the Odyssey are denoted with free indirect speech “to mark [them] out as a unique and somehow privileged kind of speech” (51), citing examples from the description of the bard Demodocus. Her conclusion raises the intriguing question: from what motivations does this marking occur? While she ultimately asserts that the answer is impossible to determine, the problem may be a valuable one to pursue. Ready’s “Comparative Perspectives on the Composition of the Homeric Simile” and Bonifazi and Elmer’s “Composing Lines, Performing Acts” both present insightful and original comparative studies of non-Greek epic traditions and Homer. Ready persuasively adduces Yugoslav and Bedouin epic material to conclude that Homeric poets, like these sources, employ simile variants to show their competence as performers. Through a case study of a South Slavic epic performance in the Parry Collection, Bonifazi and Elmer conclude that in Greek epic, too, one should attend to discourse-level and extra- syntactic cues, not just clause structure. These pieces are especially valuable for modeling the ways in which outside material can illuminate and enliven even seemingly-belabored features of Homer. In the final essay of Part I, Scodel imagines the performance setting of Hesiod’s Works and Days, a task that ends up revealing the shifting and often conflicting narrative voices and genres at play in the poem, which the listener can never “unite…into a workable story” (114).

Scodel’s conclusion that “WD is in part a representation of a man who is speaking in the theater of the mind” (125) introduces the idea of a historical poet figure rather than a tradition. In doing so, it provides an appropriate segue to Part II of the volume, which addresses later and better-documented individual performers, authors, and contexts. Readers may be surprised to see that the first essay, Taylor’s “Empowering the Sacred”, treats a 2009 oral recitation of the Vedic devotional text to Krishna, the Bhāgavatapurāṇa, in Uttarakhand. While this study, Minchin observes, “offers us a living example of the kind of interaction that may have taken place in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds” (xv), it was perhaps better contextualized at the original conference (which included more cross- cultural studies) and here seems rather out of place. It also feels abrupt to proceed from it to Collins’ “Prompts for Participation in Early Philosophical Texts,” arguably the most theoretically ambitious contribution. Collins argues for a “more open view of textuality” (151) in Plato and Isocrates. The idea that we should see these authors’ work as inciting audience dialogue, not as unidirectional performances, is a novel and useful shift in our understanding of public intellectual engagement, and one that could be applied to other genres of ancient literature as well.

The final four essays in the collection treat primarily imperial authors and together raise facets of their reception of archaic and classical literature and art. While Johnson’s Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire (Oxford 2010), likely unavailable to the contributors before the volume went to press, also engages with many of the issues and texts raised here, the group nonetheless provides several complementary explorations. Marzillo’s “Performing an Academic Talk” returns us tangentially to Hesiod, arguing for Proclus’ commentary on the Works and Days as an “oral lesson.” Her conclusion that for Neoplatonists in general “orality became a complementary tool to teaching and propaganda” (197) as opposed to a default medium is both provocative and worthy of extension to other traditions as well. The extent to which sources exploit the oral and written media consciously—and to what ends—is a question that ought to inform our readings of more texts throughout antiquity, and Cambron-Goulet aims to take it up for philosophy from Plato to late antiquity in her essay “The Criticism—and the Practice—of Literacy in the Ancient Philosophical Tradition.” While some further engagement with other models of Greek literacy 1 might have enriched this study, it nonetheless shows great range and contains valuable ideas (e.g. “the practice of reading [for Hellenistic philosophers] is accepted insofar as it constitutes a mimesis of an oral context”), such as might provoke deeper theoretical work on the discourse surrounding literacy. In “Reading Books, Talking Culture” Lauwers offers original insights into the culture of Second Sophistic pepaideumenoi informed in part by Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read, which asks whether “the actual practice of reading is not irrelevant as soon as one makes a book into a performance by talking about it” (230). Lauwers casts those who perform paideia by talking of their intellectual accomplishments as taking part in an established social and intellectual practice, not merely masking their undereducation as has been previously presumed. Slater’s “Eumolpus Poeta at Work” also addresses the theme of status and performance, treating the poet Eumolpus, who pre-composes his ekphraseis and Milesian tales in Petronius’ Satyricon but delivers them as if they were spontaneous. This complex play-acting, Slater suggests, reflects the tensions faced by poets embedded within Neronian performance culture.

The volume contains many useful and thoughtful studies, along with some interpretive gems. It is laudably concise and, despite the inevitable inconsistencies of citation and register among authors, remarkably free of jarring editorial errors and dramatic vicissitudes of style. Its limitations stem mainly from the irregular representation of primary sources: conspicuously absent, for instance, are treatments of drama or historiography, both of which were represented at the Canberra conference. One can certainly imagine good reasons to shift the focus of a collection away from classical, Hellenistic, and republican material, and it would be interesting and helpful to know more explicitly the motivations for doing so here. The published volume based (ironically) on spoken-word conference proceedings may not be the ideal means by which to gain a comprehensive sense of the relationship between literacy and performance, but rather offers glimpses of its protean nature. As so often occurs, chapters that stand out on their own lack cohesion with each another, and without the full range of the original conference papers the collection in some senses amounts to less than the sum of its parts.

Nonetheless, the book ultimately succeeds in several important ways. First, the studies of Part I present fresh and exciting approaches to performance in epic, proving that it is worth devoting further attention to that topic, well- worn as it may seem. Second, the papers that treat later texts bring new material to the discussion that one hopes will lead to a better holistic view of the role of orality in periods of comparatively well-established literacy. Finally, the reader willing to connect his or her own dots, as it were, will discover all manner of provocative and satisfying intertextual relationships between contributions. One might, for instance, fruitfully juxtapose Scodel’s idea that the Works and Days shifts from one genre to another and “presents itself as spontaneous” (116) with both Collins’ work on audience participation and Slater’s characterization of Eumolpus. Slater’s study of how Petronius presents Eumolpus also echoes Beck’s analysis of bards embedded within Homeric narrative. Through Ready’s and Bonifazi and Elmer’s cross-cultural work, we might see how to connect Taylor’s Sanskrit exemplum to Homer. Likewise the participants Taylor describes, listening to an exposition of a centuries-old cultural master-text, may share affinities with the audience which Marzillo envisions for Proclus. The opportunities for dialogue emerge as numerous and exciting, as do reasons to promote further discussion across sub-disciplines, periods, and genres, and more explicit links in publications: there, in the opinion of this reviewer, lies the path to the future of literacy, orality, and performance studies.


1.   e.g. Thomas, R. (1992), Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece, Cambridge; Harris, W. V. (1991), Ancient Literacy, Cambridge, MA; Johnson, W. and H. Parker (2009), Ancient Literacies, Oxford.

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