BMCR 2005.04.21

Poetische Argumentation: Die Funktion der Gnomik in den Epinikien des Bakchylides

, Poetische Argumentation : die Funktion der Gnomik in den Epinikien des Bakchylides. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 2004. 1 online resource (xi, 383 pages).. ISBN 9783110204780 €98.00.

This book seeks to demonstrate that Bacchylidean gnomes have more than a purely formal and structural function, but make an important contribution to the meaning and unity of the odes. Stenger claims that both individual gnomes and gnomic clusters are an integral part of each song, and that each ode is constructed as an argument that locates the immediate occasion in an ethical context through which the poem transcends its occasion. Formalism in the study of Pindar and Bacchylides, a development from Bundy’s rhetorical approach, has sometimes taken an extreme and reductive form, in which general reflections appear to be merely a way to move from one segment to the next and their content is almost irrelevant. For S., in contrast, gnomai are important guides to the audience in how to understand the songs. The book convinces on this main point. Even if the reader does not agree with every interpretation of the sequence of thought in which a particular gnome is embedded, the close readings demonstrate that different odes coherently develop particular and appropriate ethical arguments. The great strength of the book lies in its insistence on reading the gnomes in context and in succession, so that the different nuances of apparently synonymous terms and statements become clear. S. also makes a valid general point that Bacchylidean gnomic shows two distinct techniques. In some songs, the gnomic material forms a “net” that binds different segments together, while in others, such as 10, general reflections appear in extended series and develop by antithesis.

The book has a clear if unexciting organization. A first section discusses gnomai in other genres and in rhetorical theory before defining the questions the main body of the book will ask. This section serves primarily to introduce a discussion of poetic authority near the end of the book; I found it dull and ultimately unhelpful, because choral lyric has its own conventions. The second chapter treats individual odes. Each poem receives an introductory section and a “Zusammenschau” at the end (but I doubt that the summaries will be very meaningful to anyone who has not read through the discussion). This is the best part of the book. The third section examines the political/ethical implications of gnomai. Here, after a (reductive) summary of the Greek aristocracy’s relation to the polis, S. discusses whether Bacchylidean victory songs seek to reintegrate the victor into the community, concluding that the songs for Hieron dramatically separate the tyrant from the rest of humanity and make almost no attempt to present his successes and merits as linked to Syracuse or as models for others, while 10, for an Athenian, democratizes the victory, and those for victors from Aegina or Keos fall in between. S. then concludes that there is no ground for seeking a coherent Bacchylidean ethical position since he modifies his views to fit the needs of the commission. Finally, S. turns to the relation of gnomai to poetic authority.

Unfortunately, the book’s own structure and argument are heavy-handed, it is prone to push its arguments too far, and its treatment of context can be narrow. So, for example, its view of the audience is confined to the audience of the original performance. Although the last section refers to tension between the audience of the performance and later audiences, in practice the interpretation is entirely focussed on the first audience, and its treatment of that audience is not as nuanced as it could be. It is very much a German dissertation, longer than it needs to be and sometimes slow going. S. sometimes argues at length points few will dispute and jumps quickly to conclusions others may challenge.

S. tends to reify rhetorical forms, as if the priamel had some absolute existence instead of functioning pragmatically in actual, flexible discourse; I see little value in debating where we should place the “Gipfel der Gedankenkette” in 3.87-92, for example. Similarly, sometimes S. assumes that the audience has more precise expectations than the variety of rhetorical turns typical of the genre would encourage. So, for example, on 10.47-48 (238-39, 245-46), S. sees the reflections of the preceding priamel as so clearly moving towards a praise of athletic glory that the actual climax, which is still framed in completely general terms, is a complete surprise. Yet S. also shows (p. 254) that Bacchylides uses a similar technique in 14. We may therefore wonder if the audience would not have been prepared to be surprised. Now and then the argument seems arbitrary. On 3.76-84, (pp. 88-96), S. announces, for no real reason that I can see, other than the interpreter’s convenience, that Apollo’s advice to Admetus must precede the Alcestis-story and that the passage anticipates Apollo’s postponement of Admetus’ death without in any way evoking the ambiguities this intervention causes in Euripides’ play. The poem throughout thus promises Hieron some kind of escape from ordinary mortality. I remain skeptical. On 5, S. (pp. 154-57) assumes that if the audience remembers the bad outcome of Heracles’ marriage to Deianeira, the hearer must also remember the apotheosis. It is not that S. is wrong here, but the poem is more complicated that this reading acknowledges and may not offer as tidy a moral as S. suggests.

Only once, (p. 142) in discussing the break-off at 10.51-52 does S. refer to Carey’s “oral subterfuge.”1 He does not, for example, cite Andrew Miller’s related discussion of the speaker in Pindar.2 Yet in understanding victory songs as arguments, it is very helpful to appreciate that the poetic voice presents its song as thinking, and it seeks to convince its hearers by allowing them to follow the process. This is especially useful to remember in reading gnomic clusters.

In such close reading, there is, of course, abundant room for disagreement. On 1.178-184 (pp. 215-220), S. proceeds on the assumption that the contrast between the laboriousness of areta and the eternal glory it offers must stand in contrast with the “lightest concerns” of the person in the preceding condition, whose apodosis is unfortunately corrupt. S. collects the various attestations of the word κοῦφος in Pindar and Bacchylides. So he understands 179-81 to mean that the man who contents himself with easily-achieved ambitions achieves honor only in his lifetime, unlike the man who attempts something difficult, who can attain undying fame. I find this unsatisfying (would a Greek poet attribute even brief honor to someone whose goals are “lightweight”?) and wonder about the method. Sometimes, surely, particular terms have very precise associations within the genre, in a form of traditional referentiality. Sometimes, though, we might do better to consider such terms within their broader semantic field, and it might be worth going beyond κοῦφος itself, in one direction to all the terms that can modify μερίμνα and its near-synonyms in varying contexts and in the other to the connotations of the whole field of lightness. The lightness of these cares in 179-81 reminds me of the mental state of the man at P. 8.88-92, who, elated by success, flies (and so must be very “light”), “having a μερίμναν greater than wealth.” So I wonder whether the opposition is not between two different people with different ambitions but between the ambitions, which are “light” precisely because they are far from petty, and the hard work and luck required to fulfill them. In that case, Bacchylides means that a man who even attempts great things achieves honor in his lifetime, while success in them brings imperishable glory.

In the third chapter, S. demonstrates that 3 and 5, for Hieron, make very little effort to locate Hieron’s victories in a Syracusan context. But when S. claims that, because all the gnomic and mythic material applies to Hieron, it has little application to anyone else, I miss some attempt to understand how such poems would have done anything other than alienate their audiences. S. understates the sadness and pathos that run through both poems. S. leads me to think that they are aimed at a Panhellenic rather than a Syracusan audience (a victory ode was unlikely to change the opinion of anyone with real experience of Hieron’s rule). In 10.11-14, S. (p. 300) is too quick to say that ἀνθρώποισι in 12 means primarily “Athenians” It might indeed have contributed to the argument here to see this passage as a reflection of the characteristically Athenian view of themselves as universal benefactors. In general, I am not sure that S. has escaped circularity in connecting the odes to the constitutions of the cities from which the laudandi come. The final claim of this chapter, that Bacchylides’ adaptation to different clients means that we should not try to see Bacchylides’ ethical views as a whole, seems to me a non sequitur. Of course we should not ignore the differences among songs for different situations and we cannot assume that there is a consistent vision behind them all, but one may easily on different occasion emphasize different aspects of a coherent view of the human condition. It is another question that needs to be thought through and argued.

The last section, on poetic authority, deals in part with the issues raised by the ancient rhetorical tradition, as well as with how somebody who praises for money can present himself as entitled to pronounce general truths. The rhetorical tradition warns that gnomai are appropriate only for speakers of a certain age and standing; using them too freely is rustic. In my opinion, assuming that this view applies to high choral lyric generates a problem where none really exists. Gnomic speech is so much a part of Greek poetic style that it seems clear that these rules just do not apply. Since partheneia strongly characterize their singers as young women, yet allow these girls to indulge in a kind of gnomic reflection that would be singularly inappropriate for them in other situations, genre clearly changes the rules. Of course epinician poets have problems with their authority, but not because they are sententious, and I did not see how this discussion improved our understanding of the strategies Pindar and Bacchylides use to establish their credibility—much of this section is familiar. Indeed, S. seems to me to overstate the anxiety the epinician poets show about the fact that they compose for money. After all, they were actually far more independent, especially if the fee was negotiated in advance, than a poet who depended on a single patron, a Polycrates or Hipparchus.

Anyone who wants to understand Bacchylides’ epinicia should read Stenger’s discussion of the individual poems. Fewer will be likely to read the book through from beginning to end, but it is happily furnished with three indices (names/topics, passages cited, and Greek words) that should make it easy for readers to find what they need.


1. C. Carey, “Pindar and the Victory Ode,” in L. Ayres, ed. The Passionate Intellect. Essays on the Transformation of Classical Tradition Presented to Professor I. G. Kidd (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers 1995) 85-103; also (not cited by S.), A Commentary on Five Odes of Pindar (Salem, N.H.: Ayer, 1981) 5.

2. A. Miller, “Pindaric Mimesis: the Associative Mode,” CJ 89 (1993), 21-54.