Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.02.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.02.43

Xavier Riu, Jaume Pòrtulas (ed.), Approaches to Archaic Greek Poetry. Orione, 5.   Messina:  Dipartimento di scienze dell’antichità, 2012.  Pp. xiv, 294.  ISBN 9788882680305.  €48.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Vayos Liapis, Open University of Cyprus (


This volume originates in a conference on Archaic Greek poetry held in Barcelona in November 2009. No doubt due to its origins, the volume is to an extent a miscellany, with very little by way of a common theme or unifying strand. Textual criticism, Quellenforschung, cultural anthropology, performance, and reception are only some of the approaches and methodologies represented.

Antonio Aloni investigates the manipulation of myth for political purposes in archaic poetry, a topic long familiar to students of myth. His case study is the myth about the gifts (a necklace or horses) given to Ganymede’s father as a recompense for his son’s abduction by Zeus. Rival variants of the story seek to legitimize the colonial presence of a number of communities (Athens, Lesbos, Miletus, Paros) in the Troad, Mysia, and Thrace. The paper remains largely descriptive and does not consider the numerous ramifications its basic premise involves. Apart from the general question of how mythic variants that evidently started off as local versions worked their way into Panhellenic texts such as the Homeric epics, there are also specific questions that remain unanswered. For instance, if the Iliadic story of how the horses gifted to Ganymede’s father were guilefully appropriated by Anchises is meant to legitimize the rule of the Aineiadai in the Troad, is it not surprising that in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, usually assumed to glorify the Aineiadai, the horses remain the property of the Priamids?

Maria Cannatà Fera discusses a generally accepted supplement in Alcaeus fr. 38a Voigt. The text of line 7 as usually printed (ἀλλὰ καὶ πολύιδρις ἔων ὐπὰ κᾶρι [δὶς] | διννάεντ’ Ἀχέροντ’ ἐπέραισε) conforms with the familiar version of the Sisyphus myth (he went down to Hades twice). Still, the author argues, apart from the syntactic difficulties involved in the accepted supplement, the idea strikes a discordant note in the fragment’s sympotic context, in which the point is that death is final, and there is no return from Hades. Cannatà Fera offers a new supplement (ὐπὰ κᾶρι [δαμάσθεις] or [δάμεις κάκαι]), and scans line 7 as a glyconic with triple dactylic expansion. This is all argued with due rigor (though there is the minor problem that the triple dactylic expansion is attested for pherecrateans but not for glyconics), and the author also provides a useful overview of aspects of the Sisyphus myth both before and after Alcaeus.

Claude Calame explores lyric poetry, especially Sappho’s songs, as performative acts, in which the lyric “I” constructs (through various deictic gestures and enunciations) a spatial and temporal framework for the song being performed, and establishes a nexus of relations with the mythic space and time of the narrative. The construction of the mythic past through the medium of ritualized performance contributes to the affirmation of the community’s cultural and ritual identity, which is preserved in the collective memory strengthened by the cyclic recurrence of ritual. Thus, collective memory not only reactivates the mythic past but also shapes the communal here and now. Calame applies this model to four Sappho fragments (17, 16, 96, 58 Voigt) with stimulating results. I single out his treatment of fr. 16, in which the famous opening priamel, with its contrast between anonymous “others” and the persona loquens, is supplemented by a reference to the Helen myth, in which a Helen who is forgetful of her family is opposed to the persona loquens, who remembers and evokes the absent Anactoria. The latter appears both as the object (in the here-and-now of the song’s performance) and as the subject (in the remote locality to which she has been physically removed) of erotic desire. Anactoria’s evocation through the medium of poetic commemoration, which includes the integration of the mythic past, is paradigmatic of the power of song to channel what is spatially and temporally distant into the lived experience of the song act.

Fabienne Blaise discusses the image of Solon as a wolf beleaguered by dogs in fr. 36 West. A crucial passage in her analysis is 36.15–17: “I achieved these things with my power (κράτει), joining together force (βίην) and justice (δίκην)”. Solon, Blaise argues, appropriates here the attributes of Zeus in the Theogony: father of Dike (902) but also associated with κράτος (647) and βίη (496). In seeking to establish written laws applicable to one and all, Solon adopts the persona of a central law-giving authority, both removed from and in control of the community, who is obliged to use both force and justice in order to remove the old order of injustice. In this context, Solon’s self-presentation as a wolf may appear puzzling: in Greek thought, wolves are generally rapacious, and pervert communality to serve their greed. However, Blaise suggests that Solon exploits the traditional image of the wolf as the adversary in blame poetry, in order to turn his poem, partly, into a piece of invective, directed not only to his adversaries but also to himself. The language of (self-)blame indicates Solon’s awareness of a crucial fact, namely that he occupies an interstitial position “entre Zeus et loup”. His Zeus-like authority is necessary for his legislation to take effect but also risks reducing him to the wolf-like status of an adversary of the community, since his reforms risk incurring the hostility of some of his fellow citizens.

Ewen Bowie argues that the latter part (ll. 255–1220) of “Book One” of the Theognidea emerged largely from an anthology of early elegiac poetry that was compiled in late-fifth-century Athens. His use of traditional Quellenforschung leads Bowie to the intriguing hypothesis that this anthology was the work of Euenus of Paros, who compiled it for the education of his pupils. The date proposed for Euenus’ work (end of fifth century) tallies nicely with Barns’ old hypothesis (not mentioned by Bowie) that the anthologic genre per se originated with the Greek sophists.1 Euenus’ anthology, in Bowie’s words, “combined the light and metasympotic with the politically and morally improving” (p. 131); but one would like to hear more about political and moral edification through the (meta)sympotic, rather than along with it, especially in view of recent research on the educative role of the Greek symposium.2 A question that remains unexplored is how Euenus’ putative collection, intended for ‘private’ use by fee-paying pupils, subsequently entered the public domain.

Jesús Carruesco examines Stesichorus’ Palinode as a work that advances the new claims of chorality in competition to epic, all the while drawing on and setting itself against the authority of epic tradition. A figure of central importance here is Helen. As has long been recognized (most notably by Clader in a seminal book3 not mentioned by Carruesco), Helen is acknowledged already in epic as an exemplary performer of narrative both verbal and visual (the former in the Teichoskopia, the latter in the form of the textile she weaves in Il. 3. 121–45). Carruesco rightly detects associations between Helen and chorality: for instance, her mimetic voice impersonating other people’s voices (Od. 4. 277–9) is reminiscent of the chorus of Delian Maidens in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (156–64). Carruesco’s pertinent remark that Helen is “the paradigm of the chorus leader (chorēgos” (p. 163) ought to have been discussed in connection with Ar. Lys. 1308–15 and Theocr. 18. 35–7. The successive manipulations of the Helen story in Stesichorus’ Palinode(s), Carruesco argues, deny the earlier version of Helen the adulteress but still recall it and thus refrain from canceling it altogether. Thus, Stesichorus both claims authority for the new medium of choral poetry as against epic tradition and adapts the Helen song to different performance contexts (Panhellenic as well as epichoric, e.g. Spartan).

Lucia Athanassaki shows how epinician poetry, like communal (esp. processional) ritual, focuses the emotions of the audience during victory celebrations into an experience that is to be shared and remembered. The epinician enhances the reciprocal emotional experience of the victory for victor and celebrants alike; it also shapes and conditions the appropriate emotional reactions to victory. Again like communal ritual, epinician celebration articulates both the cohesion of the group and the danger of disruption. Among many cases in point, Athanassaki examines Pindar’s Tenth Olympian, where the reconstruction of the archetypal Olympic games articulates a fine balance between the tension resulting from the competitive nature of the games and the responses of communal and harmonious delight that victory celebrations are expected to generate. Athanassaki also explores the ways in which epinician song draws attention to the negative emotions of fear and envy that athletic victory may elicit in competitors and celebrants. To exorcise these emotions, the epinician poet praises the fearlessness of the victorious athlete in the face of danger and invites responses of χάρις (gratitude, favor, reciprocal gratification) and wonder on the celebrants’ part.

Jaume Pòrtulas deals with a topic (“Cult Poetry in Archaic Greece”) that is too large for the space allocated; consequently, his paper is highly elliptical. He starts by identifying a recurring pattern in tales about Greek poets: a famous poet performs his songs at a Panhellenic or local festival where he is confronted with venerable local traditions of song, often in the form of an earlier composition “deeply ingrained in the place” (p. 223). Ritual occasions, Pòrtulas suggests, were appropriated by eponymous poets, whose novel compositions went on to acquire authoritative status, thereby renewing the traditional character of the relevant performance occasion under a new format. In this context of multiple interactions between the Panhellenism of the great eponymous poets and the traditions of epichoric poetry, the familiar distinction between the Panhellenic and the epichoric needs to be redefined.

Finally, Xavier Riu explores an aspect of the reception of Archilochus and of invective in antiquity. Starting in the first century BC, the obscene language of iambus and comedy is problematized and eventually classified as the third and lowliest part of the tripartite hierarchy of styles. This problematization, Riu argues, results from the gradual blurring of the distinction between obscenity in ritual and poetry (where it is acceptable as a nomimon) and obscenity in everyday life (where it is condemnable). It makes no sense, Riu argues, to ask whether invective is appropriate or inappropriate per se, but whether it is appropriate or inappropriate for this or that specific occasion — usually a ritual, festival etc. There is little that is startling here, but Riu bolsters his thesis with a thorough and solid analysis of crucial Greek prose texts, including Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, and (at length) Critias.

Much as one may quibble over individual points, the papers included in this volume are invariably of a satisfactory scholarly quality, although as pointed out at the beginning one would wish for greater thematic focus. I have found the papers by Calame, Blaise, Carruesco, and Athanassaki particularly rewarding. There is, however, a rather high number of typos,4 and papers in English by non-native speakers would have benefited from more rigorous language editing.


1.   See J. Barns, “A New Gnomologium: With Some Remarks on Gnomic Anthologies, II”, CQ n.s. 1 (1951), 1–19 (at 2–8).
2.   See most recently F. Hobden, The Symposion in Ancient Greek Society and Thought (Cambridge, 2013).
3.   L. L. Clader, Helen: The Evolution from Divine to Heroic in Greek Epic Tradition (Leiden, 1976). See also M. Mueller, “Helen’s Hands: Weaving for Kleos in the Odyssey”, Helios 37 (2010), 1–21 (again not cited by Carruesco).
4.   Here is a selection: “βλεμεαίων” (for “βλεμεαίνων”, p. 104 n. 19); “central section of book, one in which” (for “central section of ‘Book One’, in which”, p. 144); “unproblematic ally” (for “unproblematically”, p. 151); “an alētheia who” (for “an alētheia which”, p. 166); “renoun” (for “renown”, p. 214); “σχεδιάΣ” (for “σχεδιάζειν”?, p. 229); “cultual” (for “cultic”, p. 239); “acceptation” (for “acceptance”, p. 256).

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