A few weeks ago I heard Stanley Lombardo read from his translation of the Odyssey. He accompanied himself on a small drum. As he read, the drumbeats became more insistent, or less. When they fell silent, the audience listened with fresh intensity, and words acquired new emphasis. Silence is not simply the absence of speech but an aspect of performance against which speech takes shape. Rests are part of music.
“Experiences that are normally silent for us,” Silvia Montiglio observes (p. 3), “were normally vocal for a Greek.” In this richly argued book, she explores the actions of silence and its relation to speech in the land where prayer and poetry, grief and anger, were public, uttered experience. Most of her evidence comes from archaic and classical Greek literature, chiefly Homer, Pindar, the tragedians, and the orators, although she pays attention to texts like the Hippocratic Corpus (pp. 228-232). Her work extends and supplements recent attention to gesture and non-verbal communication in the ancient world.1 This book is less an argument than a series of cogent observations on what silence does. Cumulatively, they establish that silence in Greek literature retains always, as Montiglio puts it, its “fearsome thickness” (p. 289). It is marked, meaningful behavior, not merely the absence of words. Greek silence carries with it the possibility of danger. When Telemachus asks about the uncanny light that flickers over the walls and furniture of the megaron at Ithaca, Odysseus tells him, “Hush, and keep it in your own mind, and do not ask questions. / For this is the very way of the gods, who hold Olympus” ( Odyssey 19, 42-43, tr. Lattimore). Too much language and too many questions might put the divine favor in jeopardy.
Montiglio’s first chapter, “Religious Silence without an Ineffable God,” underscores the difference between silence in the Judeo-Christian tradition and silence in polytheistic, anthropomorphic Hellenism. Silent prayer in Greek ritual is shameful or fearful, as it seems to have been on the central day of the Anthesteria, when Athenians gathered in their homes to drink in silence at individual tables, commemorating, as they believed, the reception of Orestes, polluted by matricide. Public silence does not represent individual, private communication with a personal god, but rather, as at the Eleusinian mysteries, reverent inhibition and the existence of something to be known by all but uttered by no one. Ritual silence is often marked by the voice of the herald; “the Greeks experience ritual silence first and foremost as a resonant imposition” (p. 14).
No wonder, then, that in the world of heroic poetry, the ability to silence another person is a mark of status; Agamemnon’s failure to do so at the beginning of the Iliad reveals his weakness as high king. Chapter Two, “A Silent Body in a Sonorous World: Silence and Heroic Values in the Iliad,” examines heroic silences and the behavior denoted by
Like the other chapters, this one offers, usually in the notes, many specific interpretations of individual lines and passages, often running against conventional wisdom. Some are debatable; like Montiglio’s contention that
In Chapter Three, “The Poet’s Voice against Silence,” Montiglio takes her departure from Marcel Detienne’s observation that “silence, for archaic poetry, is the equivalent to oblivion and blame” (p. 82). Her concern is with Pindar’s working out of this equivalency. Pindar’s reticence about some aspects of traditional myth (e.g. Olympian 9.35-42, Nemean 5.14-18) highlights his insistence that true poetry of praise is resonant, far-reaching, and discriminating in its choice of appropriate subject. Pindar’s silences articulate a poetics of the ideal, and of caution in the face of ever-lurking jealousies. The poetics of blame are different. “Abusive Archilochus stuffing himself with odious words” ( Pythian 2.55-56) lacks the selective, clear-voiced inspiration of the praise-poet who both glorifies and is glorified by his subject matter.
Montiglio’s fourth chapter, “‘I Will Be Silent’: Figures of Silence and Representations of Speaking in Athenian Oratory,” illustrates the way in which this book is not really about silence. After observing that civic exclusion,
The next four chapters (“Words Staging Silence,” “Silence and Tragic Destiny,” “Silence, a Herald of Death,” and “Silence, Ruse, and Endurance: Odysseus and Beyond,”) form the heart of the book. They explore the place of silence and silences in Athenian tragedy. This drama is a storm of words, structured by dramatic convention, removed from quotidian language by heightened diction, and occupying a civic space not far removed from the agora in which the orators announced silence, but were not silent, to declare their place in the polis. In tragedy, Montiglio argues, there were no long silences. Silence itself is rare, but declarations of silence are not. They can mark a character’s imminent death and removal from this theatrical civic space. Montiglio is especially effective in the third of these chapters, where she explores the silences of female characters—Cassandra in the Agamemnon, for example, or Phaedra—and relates their silences to the normative silence of women in Athenian society. Silence can also mark thematic transition or a contrast in rhythm, tone, or music (p. 158). One of the strengths of this book, in fact, is Montiglio’s willingness to explore the possibility that indications of silence can provide clues to performance, whether in Pindar (p. 113) or in the dramatists. Finally, Montiglio explores the role of silence as a marker of cleverness, complicity, and cunning. This aspect of silence is especially notable in the relationships between female characters and female choruses in tragedy.
This wide-ranging book has not been easy to review, and more than once it sent me back to texts that I thought I knew well. That is one sign of a book worth reading. Another is that it makes a reader think of other books that might be written. Who will now undertake a study of silences and refusals to speak at Rome—Cicero’s construction of Catiline’s, for example, or Aeneas’ progressive withdrawal into grimly terse speech?2
1. E.g. D. Lateiner, Sardonic Smile: Nonverbal Behaviors in Homeric Epic (Ann Arbor, 1995); A. Boegehold, When a Gesture was Expected (Princeton, 1999).
2. Gilbert Highet, “Speech and Narrative in the Aeneid“, HSCPh 78(1974), 189-229 = The Classical Papers of Gilbert Highet, ed. Robert J. Ball (New York, 1983), 125-162.