BMCR 2004.09.44

Oral Performance and Its Context. Mnemosyne Suppl. 248

, Oral performance and its context. Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava. Supplementum, 248. Leiden: Brill, 2004. viii, 208 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9004136800 $107.00.

Oral Performance and Its Context features a selection of the papers delivered at the fifth biennial conference on Orality and Literacy in Ancient Greece held at the University of Melbourne in July 2002. As previous conferences, this too had its particular focus, but readers of earlier volumes from the same series1 will recognize common themes, areas of interest, and even some of the contributors.

In his preface the editor C.J. Mackie boasts of a collection generous in the diversity of the interests and approaches of its contributors. His claim seems justified. As one might expect from the nature of the topic, most of the papers (all but one) focus on ancient Greece, but their range is satisfyingly broad: two on Homer, two on Pindar, one on Thucydides, one on Aristotle, two on Demosthenes, one on closure in the ancient novel, and one on early Ptolemaic papyri. The lone non-Hellenic exception features the staging of literacy in Plautus. Together they demonstrate the continuing vitality of interdisciplinary research into the nature and degree of literacy in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Although there is no attempt to present any sort of synthetic view or develop an overarching argument (cross-references are few and limited), the collective impact of distinct topics and complementary approaches proves the need of a richly nuanced view of the various contexts of orality and literacy for a right understanding of the cultural production of the classical world. Mackie does not provide an introduction to the topic of the conference nor an assessment of the papers he has selected for publication, leaving each author to voice his or her argument without editorial context or commentary.

In the first chapter, “The Modesty of Homer,” Ruth Scodel turns on its head the common approach to Homeric poetry as a rival to other traditions of oral poetry, emphasizing instead those comments scattered throughout the poems that show “respect” or deference towards heroes from other sagas. Where some scholars (including this reviewer) take “Homer” as shorthand for the system of Homeric poetry, Scodel is self-consciously thinking of a single poet who “almost announces the inferiority of his own subjects relative to others” (1) through characters who own their inferiority vis-à-vis earlier heroes. Scodel, who does not deny the importance to archaic poetry of an agonistic attitude, views her argument as a way to redress an imbalance: an overemphasis by earlier scholars on one epic poem’s subtle polemics with rival compositions. Her model highlights the simultaneously “competitive and symbiotic” stance of epic poems (17) towards the wider tradition. By acknowledging the ‘greatness’ (variously conceived) of heroes from other sagas, characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey become mouthpieces of the poet as he situates his own compositions in the larger song culture as worthy of renown by virtue of their own peculiar excellence, which can only be understood against the foil of its rivals.

In “Rhythm and Regularity in Homeric Composition: Questions in the Odyssey,” Elizabeth Minchin studies what she identifies as 176 (strings of) questions in the Odyssey (conveniently listed in an appendix) for regular patterns that may have facilitated composition in performance. Taking the exchange between two speakers (the “adjacency pair”) as the basic unit of conversation — a unit that varies from the regularity of the well-phrased, artful dialog of theater and novel to the untidiness of ordinary unscripted talk — Minchin predictably situates Homeric question-and-answer pairs somewhere in between, “to some extent a stylization of everyday talk” (28). This rather modest assertion gives way to the real strength of the paper, a survey of the various types of questions from the point of view of their structural and verbal patterns. An explicit attempt to compare Homer to Plato (to whose literary habits Minchin repeatedly alludes) might have sharpened her analysis further. If her methodology is to have true explanatory power, it should be able clearly to pinpoint formal differences between questions from a performance-based genre and those from a genre that she claims is grounded in habits of written literacy.

The following two papers, both on Pindaric epinician poetry, are perhaps the most successful of the collection because of their vigorous interaction with earlier literature on the subject and their mutually complementary nature. In “Reperformance Scenarios for Pindar’s Odes” Bruno Currie broadens the old debate of choral-versus-monodic performance of Pindar’s odes to the whole range of possible reperformance scenarios that might have assured the undying fame the odes claimed for the laudandus. Currie considers “continual reperformance” the key, not “the survival of any written text” (50). He structures his analysis around informal, semi-formal, and formal reperformance scenarios. The informal include oral diffusion by anonymous travelers present at the first performance, written diffusion (there is here a cross-reference to Hubbard’s paper in this volume), schools, and the symposium. These settings, uninterested in the laudandus per se, would have prized the poetic/musical qualities of the compositions and their gnomic and ethical sections. Semi-formal contexts involve the family of the laudandus at events that would have had both private and public dimensions (e.g. a privately trained chorus at a festival performance). The formal consist in choral reperformances organized by the polis, whose motivation would have been the inherently public nature of epinician poetry insofar as it concerned the glory of the entire community. These three scenarios — not exhaustive, as the author admits — are explored through sensitive readings of the odes and their cultural context, rendering the possibility of choral reperformance plausible.

Thomas K. Hubbard’s “The Dissemination of Epinician Lyric: Pan-Hellenism, Reperformance, Written Texts” focuses on the possible contribution of written texts to the survival and afterlife of Pindaric odes. He too sets out to explore the tension intrinsic to what is, on its face, occasional poetry, apparently intended for local performance in response to a particular event, which nevertheless boasts of enduring glory, thus necessarily claiming the interest of posterity. Hubbard explains that the very design of the ode is panhellenic, and he accompanies his thesis with a model for the diffusion of the poetry that is strongly text-based. For Hubbard the panhellenic design flows from the odes’ explicit claims and their effort to elevate local myth to panhellenic status. Their susceptibility to function as “public relations’ advertisements” (74) would have motivated their diffusion: patrons would have produced multiple written copies to be distributed throughout Greece, perhaps by the hand of their proxenoi in each city. Such elite panhellenic networks would have encouraged a limited informal circulation of the odes and constituted a precedent for the more popular book market that followed. Both Hubbard and Currie struggle with justifying Pindar’s apparent certainty when he claims for his odes everlasting panhellenic glory. Both, in largely complementary ways, seek to motivate their eventual transmission and preservation by postulating the involvement of agents that would have been personally or collectively invested in their reperformance and diffusion. Reading both essays together provides a fairly comprehensive review of the thorny matter of epinician (re)performance.

The next article considers Thucydides’ claims that his own account in the History is truthful, accurate, and, where it takes issue with others, superior to them. James V. Morrison, in “Memory, Time, and Writing: Oral and Literary Aspects of Thucydides’ History,” asks himself the following question: “To what extent do these claims derive from the History‘s status as a written document?” (96) It is not clear to me, however, that he makes a case one way or the other. His article is valuable for its analysis of Thucydides’ methodology (the testing of sources, the fallibility of memory, etc.), but there is little here that directly addresses the question above. We come closest to an argument when, after commenting on Nicias’ motivation for writing a letter to the Athenians from Sicily in 414 (7.8.2), Morrison (following Harris in Ancient Literacy) suggests ascribing the same motivation to Thucydides: a manuscript would not be affected by the verbal skill, memory, or subjectivity of the transmitter. Further support is sought in the historian’s repeated use of xunegrapsen, which Morrison reads not only as an expression of authorship but as highlighting that the work “is a written document” (103). The later analysis of the History along the lines of Ong’s “psychodynamics of oral discourse” (or the author’s alternative categories of “stance, reminder, and promise,” 111) is not strictly relevant, since the question is not what sort of document the History is, but whether its author thought that his accuracy, truthfulness, and superiority hinged on its written character. One would have to prove that Thucydides chose to write in order to take advantage of “a newly emerging appreciation of the potential of the written text” (112). Even though the question the paper opens with remains unanswered, Morrison’s survey of the historian’s attitude towards oral and written sources, memory, autopsy, etc. is by no means without value in thinking of Thucydides as a possibly transitional figure in the evolution of Greece from oral to written cultural habits.

In “Orality and Aristotle’s Aesthetics and Methods; Take #2” Daniel F. Melia builds on an earlier paper, where he had argued that Aristotle was affected by “a kind of ‘intellectual hangover’ from the aesthetic norms of an oral culture” (118). He now considers how such an ‘oral hangover’ may have shaped Aristotle’s explication of the method of invention in rhetoric. His Rhetoric, Melia claims, does not teach how to compose a written speech in advance, but how to access material already in one’s head when it is necessary and appropriate. A point of contact between bards and rhetors would be the use of “scripts” (in Rubin’s sense, elaborated in Memory in Oral Traditions): a story pattern for the former, an enthymeme for the latter. The ‘necessary themes’ of the bard would correspond to the orator’s suitable topoi. Perhaps. But I find the correspondence loose and insufficiently developed to be really convincing. Not that I deny that Aristotle’s Rhetoric is in certain ways transitional and incorporates what we might call ‘oral attitudes’, but the author’s suggestive thesis calls for a more detailed and controlled treatment. The latter part of his article daringly uses the modern scholar Marcel Jousse in a heuristic fashion to improve the understanding of what seem puzzling or contradictory matters in Aristotle.

Ian Worthington, in “Oral Performance in the Athenian Assembly and the Demosthenic Prooemia,” turns to the often neglected rhetorical prooemia included in the Demosthenic corpus for insight into the “relationship of the public speaker to his audience” (133). Worthington strongly supports the view that these prooemia are not merely exemplary but real preludes to speeches (extant or not), which serve to illustrate the Athenians’ attitude towards their democracy as well as the reactions and expectations of the people at their assemblies. Worthington’s prudent reading (though complicated by the possible slippage between the speech actually delivered and its written record) results in common-sense assertions that are neither striking nor surprising (e.g. “the people wanted short speeches and grew bored,” 138), and his survey confirms what might otherwise be thought obvious: that the audience reacted not only to the content of a speech but to the speaker’s manner of delivery.

Acknowledging the widely agreed continuity between acting and oratorical performance in classical Athens, “Demosthenes Actor on the Political and Forensic Stage,” by Craig Cooper, seeks to “explore the ways Demosthenes exploited … histrionic devices and suggest that … the written style of his speeches changed to accommodate and enhance his delivery,” so as to keep pace with the orator’s growing mastery. The author does not, however, carry out a first-hand analysis of Demosthenic passages. He merely cites ancient and modern commentators who noted an evolution in the orator’s delivery and style: from “long periods and excessively tortured arguments” (152, Plutarch, Dem. 6.3) to the rhetorical force and clarity that went under the term deinotes that ultimately made him famous. Cooper couples Demosthenes’ growth in clarity and force with Demetrius’ (of Phalerum) negative remark that his delivery was intricate, over-done, not simple and refined but weak and ignoble. There is no contradiction between ‘clear’ and ‘intricate’ or ‘not simple’, Cooper says, for Demetrius’ judgment reflects his low view of the orator’s histrionics and refers to Demosthenes’ mature delivery. But deinos does not seem so easily reconcilable with weakness and ignobility, and actual examples that make clear how both views are compatible would have improved the argument. Producing such examples should be possible if indeed the style changed to suit an increasingly histrionic delivery. The same can be said of Cooper’s mention of passages of “remarkable tour de force… only possible as he became a more accomplished actor” (151). A fact so obviously supportive of his main thesis might have deserved more than a simple reference to an article by another scholar.

“Staging Literacy in Plautus” is an enjoyable exposé by Niall W. Slater of the various ways in which Plautus played with the notion of literacy in his comedies. Slater’s goal, elegantly executed, is to show that Plautus’ plays implied an audience familiar with but suspicious of literacy and that the playwright incorporated this suspicion as a part of his main compositional strategy, namely the “Saturnalian inversion of the ordinary strictures of Roman life” (163). Slater develops his thesis through readings of individual passages. Some of them feature complex, multi-layered humor that caters to “all tastes and skills” (164), where literacy appears at more than one level. Slater’s opinions whether a given element in the play reflects a Greek original or represents a Roman innovation seem unobjectionable and judicious. And not only does he consider passages that turn in one way or another on literacy; he also studies the wider functions of literacy as an element of plot construction (e.g. to stage the presence of an absent character). Here, Slater writes, the Roman comedian takes to new creative heights plot devices pioneered by Euripides through his use of letters in his plays.

Stephen A. Nimis’s “Oral and Written forms of closure in the Ancient Novel” is a stimulating study of the genesis of (narrative) closure in Greek literature, applied in particular to the ancient novel. Nimis starts by marking the difference between a ‘performative’ and a ‘narrative’ closure: the former would consist in “performative gestures and devices” used to bring a performance (and hence the narrative in progress) to a close; the ‘narrative’ would be inscribed in the text itself. Oversimplifying, we might say that a narrative closure would feel to the reader of a text as a more or less ‘natural’ end-point, whereas the performative would depend on extra-textual devices and might feel artificial or even arbitrary. (An example of the latter might be the singer who says, “That isn’t the end. I’ll rest a little,” 180.) A measure of subjectivity is unavoidable here, and perhaps more than a little deceptive when our modern tastes and notions about an acceptable or satisfying textual closure are applied to ancient epic, and it is in relation to Homer that Nimis’s statements are most vulnerable. But I believe that his overall argument is sound: “[N]arrative traditions that are not organized around a performer, such as the novel, will have to evolve more strictly narrative forms of closure that become part of the verbal portion of the story” (181). Analyzing Xenophon’s Ephesian Tale and Heliodorus’ Ethiopian Tale, Nimis uses his thesis to account both for ends that make reference to some kind of performance and for the use of secondary material deployed merely to lend coherence to the closure, even when this strategy involves lapses in plausibility.

The last paper in the collection (perhaps tangential to its overarching topic, but interesting and valuable nonetheless) is “Orality, Greek Literacy, and Early Ptolemaic Papyri,” by Trevor V. Evans. Limiting himself to the well defined corpus of the Zenon Archive, Evans tackles the complicated task of attempting to distinguish between an autograph and a document written by a scribe on behalf of the named author. His methodology calls for paleographic and stylistic judgments and plausible conjectures about the linguistic habits of individuals and social groups, and it involves him in a hermeneutical spiral of self-consistency that is not without probative value. Evans’s ultimate goal is to extract conclusions about existing levels of literacy, the role of scribes, and the oral element in written communications. But if nothing else, his careful work shows the difficulty of answering the deceptively simple question, ‘Who actually wrote this letter?’ The interposition of the professional scribe multiplies the arrangements in which differing degrees of literacy might coexist, and teasing out his impact is a necessary first step to any further study. Evans shows the way in which such an analysis might profitably proceed.

The price of Oral Performance and Its Context is excessive (unfortunately a common occurrence with Brill), but it is relatively free of typos. Some are trivial and none compromise the understanding of the text.2 I would have preferred the actual Greek for strings of more than two or three transliterated words: where transliteration includes the length of vowels I find that it is almost as prone to typographical errors as the Greek itself, and the reader might as well have the benefit of Greek typography. Given its price, few scholars will want to purchase a copy of this book for their personal libraries, but anyone who has consulted with profit earlier installments of the series, or even the non-specialist interested in the interplay between performances and texts and varying levels of literacy, will welcome Oral Performance and Its Context for its breadth and the stimulating arguments of its contributors.


1. See BMCR 1999.05.07 and BMCR 2002.10.27 for reviews of two earlier volumes.

2. Page 6, line 5 from the bottom, read “To” for “Too”; page 14, fourth and sixth paragraphs, and page 17, first line, read ” Odyssey” for ” Iliad“; page 19, line 23, suppress “than”; page 40, line 6 read “Penelope” for “Antikleia”; page 59, last line, read “Simonides” for “Simondes”; page 117, line 3, read “Xenophon” for “Xenaphon”; page 147, line 1, read “orthoepeia” for “orthopeia”; page 150, note 30, paraskeue lacks the macron; page 154, line 6 from the bottom, read “deliberative” for “deliberate”; same page, three lines later, read ” hopou” for ” opou“; page 169, line 18, something has dropped out after “contents.”