Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.03.46 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.03.46

Peter Gainsford, Early Greek Hexameter Poetry. Greece & Rome. New surveys in the classics. 43.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press (published for the Classical Association), 2015.  Pp. x, 150.  ISBN 9781316608883.  $29.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Xavier Gheerbrant, Université Lille 3 – UMR STL​ (

Table of Contents

This book aims at making early Greek hexameter poetry accessible to both novice and expert readers. Greek texts are provided with English translations. The translations and numbering of the fragments are those of the Loeb editions when available (West for the Hymns and the fragments of Epic, Most for Hesiod) — when not, the author provides his own translations (oracles, Orphic poems, inscriptions, etc.). The bibliography counts more than 300 entries (studies and editions), and the notes give useful suggestions for further reading. Two accurate and helpful indexes (ancient texts and general) and a list of the major editions for each author are also provided. The book tries not to overlap with Rutherford’s book on Homer in the same series.1

The introduction presents the issues related to authorship in archaic poetry. A discussion of ancient and modern biographical approaches concludes that ‘Homer’ and ‘Hesiod’ were personas that could be adopted by later poets.

Chapter 1 presents the poems: the Works and Days, the Theogony, the Catalogue of Women, the Shield, the Homeric Hymns, the Epic Cycle, the Chresmologoi, and epigraphic evidence. An introduction presents the criteria put forward to date the poems, highlighting their limits: intertextual evidence, stylometry, references to material culture or datable events. There follows an overview of each poem’s content, structure (with a helpful two-page overview for the Catalogue of Women), sources or earlier tradition (e.g. Eastern literature for the Theogony, wisdom poetry for the Works and Days); a more developed discussion of dating, a few elements of general interpretation from recent scholarship, and hints at the style and poetics of the poems (e.g. personification and accumulation in the Shield). Lastly, the longstanding hermeneutical problems are outlined, including issues of authenticity.

The section on the Works and Days, for example, addresses how the poem relates to the ‘real’ economy and society, and presents it as a manual on ‘how to experience farming’ rather than on ‘how to do farming’, highlighting the interdependency of ethics and work. The section on the Chresmologoi deals with their content, transmission and reception (especially in the 5th century BCE) and their poetic features (metonymy, animal imagery, etc.), with two examples (Herodotus 8.20 and IG II2, 4968.15–21). The section on epigraphy presents a chronological catalogue of the inscriptions with references from Hansen and Wachter, with a few words on the differences in alphabet and contexts, and some examples.

Chapter 2 (‘Genre’) studies the compositional elements of early Greek hexameter poetry, stressing the porosity of the boundaries between heroic epic, wisdom poetry, etc. The chapter distinguishes between large-scale (heroic narrative, wisdom poetry, cosmogony), medium-scale (hymn or hymnic prelude, type scenes, genealogy, catalogue) and small-scale themes or structural features (proem and invocation to the Muse(s), two types of knowledge (truth vs. report), simile, other features such as route descriptions, ekphrasis, sphragis, parataxis, ring and spiral composition, parallelisms. In each case, a brief definition is followed by examples.

The category of ‘genre’ is not fully relevant to all this material and a student may not understand why typical parts of a poem, elements of poetical technique and views on the reliability of poetic discourse are treated at the same level of analysis. A distinction of nature would have been more helpful to structure a beginner’s views: elements of poetic technique (formulae, themes, type scenes), modes of organisation of the material (ring composition, spiral composition, parallelisms), typical parts of a poem (proem, narratives, catalogues), and transversal motifs.

Chapter 3 deals with the epic tradition before and after Homer. The first section (‘Unrecorded traditions’) presents the diachronic evolution of performance models (from recomposition to recitation) and stresses that a reference to a myth is not necessarily a reference to a given poem (with parallels from iconography). Then, a presentation of the formula in its relationship with meter underscores the system’s flexibility, by hinting at its diachronic evolution. Finally, the diffusion and phase models (coexistence of Ionic and Aeolic vs. succession from Aeolic to Ionic) are explained, with a special emphasis on Aeolism (its role in formulae, the possible substitutions of Ionic to Aeolic when the meter permits) and a discussion of the role of the vocalisation of r. The role of the a-stem genitives in the phase model is accounted for, as a ‘taster’ for further reading. Discussions on the origin of the hexameter are also outlined.

Chapter 4 deals with music and performance. Its first three sections (musical instruments, rhythm, pitch and melody) present the issues in interpreting ancient evidence. The section on performance is very clear and the different contexts are analysed (rhapsodic contests, agonistic performance, court and symposium). A student would consider the first three- quarters of this chapter to be the most challenging part of the book: the issues are admittedly not easy, and the chapter’s structure makes no clear distinction between the presentation of the problems, the synchronic and diachronic data from ancient sources, and modern interpretations. It takes several readings to reach a clear overview.

Chapter 5 deals with approaching fragmentary evidence and is “an introduction to fragments targeted at the lay reader or apprentice classicist” (v). Four types of ‘fragments’ are distinguished: testimonies, quotations, papyrus and ‘vestigial fragments’ (when a fragment cannot be tied to a given poem). The chapter presents the structure of an edition (examples from the Little Iliad and Catalogue of Women) and provides hints to make sense of the structure of fragmentary works (on the basis of the Catalogue of Women). Practical issues in discussing the attribution of vestigial fragments are studied through examples from the Epic Cycle.

The methodological overview here is succinct and normative, even for an introduction. The author states that “if [a papyrus] overlaps with a quotation in a surviving ancient author, gaps can be filled with certainty” (89). But this ignores the fact that some authors introduced variations within traditional formulae, others within repeated lines in their own corpus (e.g. Empedocles), and that sometimes the transmission of a given passage shows uariae lectiones antiquae. There are also some lexical inconsistencies: ‘fragment’ is used as a generic term for any testimony or quotation or vestigial fragment (88) but two pages later it becomes synonymous with ‘quotation’ (as opposed to testimonies, 90). A clear definition of ‘context’ (i.e. the passage from the source that introduces the quotation) is not provided. The critical distance necessary in approaching the complex relationship between testimony or contexts and fragments could have been more vividly stressed.

Chapter 6 deals with the relationships between poems, within different epic traditions and in later editorial practices. Neoanalysis and its methods and limits are presented in detail; the account of opposite views underscores, from a literary point of view, the complementarity between poems. The second part gathers evidence on ancient editorial manipulation: between the Theogony and Catalogue of Women, Catalogue of Women and Shield, Catalogue of Womenand Cypria, Works and Days and Ornithomancy, the Hymn to Apollo (on its own), the Thebaid and Epigony, and in the Epic Cycle. This last part provides a clear comparison between Proclus’s summary and the discussion on how and to what extent the poems overlapped on each other.

The overall standard of the book is very high, the language clear, the discussion balanced, and the ratio between theory and examples from various passages of early Greek hexameter poetry is apt. Especially useful are the sections about the criteria usually put forward in order to take a stance in matters of authorship or dating, and their limits, as well as those on linguistics and on the relationships between poems. The account of why epic poets retained some Aeolic formulae is very clear (67).

The intended novice reader is (in my view) a student who is already familiar with Homer and with notions of historical linguistics and metrics, and who wishes to further their knowledge of early Greek hexameter poetry. The book would also succeed in stimulating a less advanced student’s interest in reading the poems and would give them a good overview of the issues. All this is a worthy accomplishment. A specialist of a related field may find the general section on the poems’ structure and dating beneficial when approaching the corpus, as well as a few detailed analyses, the bibliographical section on the editions, and the references to recent bibliography.

Some sections require more scholarly background than others; in Chapter 3, for example, ‘Indo-European’, ‘Mycenaean’, and symbols such as * or < are not defined, although a student would get the gist. The section on metrics and formulae may however seem esoteric: how to distinguish a long syllable from a short one is not explained, numbering hemipedes (– or uu = 1) makes the discussion needlessly obscure (e.g., “some common divisions (sc. into cola) are 2 + 6 + 4, 3 + 2½ + 6½”, p. 64), and this section provides too few examples (the first example illustrates another layer in the explanation, i.e. that formulae can be slotted into these cola).

The book is very helpful in mapping recent views on major issues in early Greek hexameter poetry but of less use for grasping the history of the problems: the traditional discussion between Unitarians and Analysts is not mentioned although it sheds light on Neoanalysis and on its discussions. In Chapter 3, it would have been useful to remind students of Parry’s definition of formula (“an expression regularly used, under the same metrical conditions, to express an essential idea”), of his principle of economy, and of how his works contributed to a change of paradigm in approaching Homer and early Greek hexameter poetry by treating repetitions not as a sign of interpolation but as a token of compositional technique.

The book is also more concerned with introducing readers to questions of authorship, dating, composition, etc., than with hermeneutical issues. The longstanding issues of the WD are addressed in general terms, with few bibliographical references (7–8). Pandora is treated at greater length, but the author takes skewed positions that he successfully avoids elsewhere: “for the narrator, all women are lazy consumers […]. <He> is deeply and viciously misogynistic” (7–8). Scholarly discussion has stressed that Pandora also has a positive role in making humankind immortal by lineage, which is their only compensation for the loss of (actual) immortality, and that she only embodies one aspect of archaic femininity. 2 A useful addition to the section on catalogues would have been an explanation of how the list is a projection and an interpretation of reality; that would help a student to make sense of this (seemingly) bare list of names. There also are a few thematic blind spots: for example, the Theban cycle is distinguished from the Epic Cycle in Chapter 1 and is not presented in detail before the last chapter.

The bibliography is centred on English-speaking scholarship (21 entries in German, 7 in Italian, 5 in French). J. Herington’s Poetry into Drama (University of California Press, 1985), which gathers mentions of aedic/rhapsodic contests in ancient sources with English translations, is not mentioned. The list of editions is not always up to date: the editio maior of the new fragments of Empedocles on the Strasbourg papyrus by A. Martin and O. Primavesi (De Gruyter, 1999) is not mentioned, and the author refers to Inwood’s 1992 edition of Empedocles instead of the 2001 revised edition.

These few limitations in terms of clarity, hermeneutical focus, and bibliography do not detract from the quality of the whole. The book is an excellent introduction to issues of dating, authorship, and linguistics of early Greek hexameter poetry, and it is laudable that a book accessible to students does not fall into the usual biographical simplifications about the narrators of the Theogony (in the proem) and the Works, while regularly putting emphasis on the literary or aesthetic consistency of a given poem. ​


1.   R. B. Rutherford, Homer, Cambridge, 2013 (Greece and Rome. New Surveys in the Classics. 41).
2.   V. Sébillotte Cuchet, “Régimes de genre et antiquité grecque classique”, Annales (HSS) 67.3 (2012), 573–603. ​

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010