BMCR 2005.05.18

Master of the Game: Competition and Performance in Greek Poetry. Center for Hellenic Studies/Hellenic Studies, 7

, Master of the game : competition and performance in Greek poetry. Hellenic studies ; 7. Cambridge, MA: Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2004. xii, 267 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0674016440 $19.95 (pb).

Master of the Game, unlike Collins’ (hereafter C.) previous book,1 is not aimed at one genre, but deals with a wide range of authors, texts, genres and epochs. By means of examples taken from Homer, Theognis, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Theocritus and others, he defines, explores and consolidates his main argument that in order to understand a Greek text it is often indispensable to take into account the competitive performance of Greek poetry. As the central concept of his analysis, C. chooses capping, a structure that is defined by him as follows: “usually between two but sometimes more speakers or singers, one participant sets a topic or theme in speech or verse to which another responds by varying, punning, riddling, or cleverly modifying” (p. ix). This performance technique is discussed in tragic and comic stichomythia, Platonic dialogue, sympotic performance of elegy, skolia and related verse games, and rhapsodic performance of epic. Though C. does not ignore the historical and cultural background of the texts he examines, he is mainly interested in a formal principle. One of the merits of this book then is to amplify the discussion about the way an audience would judge a poetic performance from the late archaic to the classical period.2

Given the scope of the book, it could have easily fallen into one of two traps: to exhibit a wide range of passages only to exemplify an argument, without contributing to the understanding of the texts; or to present a thorough discussion of every chosen passage with so many details that it becomes too painful or boring to go through the whole book for a reader looking for something pertinent to the genre in which he/she is interested. C. achieves a midway point that makes his book useful for anyone interested in almost any genre of Greek literature, graduate students and scholars alike. C. combines the discussion of more general arguments with a careful analysis of some isolated passages, without filling the text with obvious or marginal comments. Some may detect an exaggerated amount of subtlety here and there, but as a rule the author avoids going too far in the quest for hidden meanings. As for his methodology, following scholars like Gregory Nagy and Richard Martin, C. supplements or tries to clarify his Greek material with studies aimed at other cultures, without involving anachronisms or anatopisms, and never losing focus on his main subject.

The book has two appendixes: one briefly discusses the verbal structures of ritual αἰσχρολογία; the other summarizes three comparative typologies of the discourse of disputations. In a book with a wide scope, the two indexes — general and of sources — are indispensable. C.’ bibliography is well chosen and not excessive. Moreover, he facilitates the task of his reader by translating not only all the Greek, but also any quotation in a foreign language. There are hardly any misprints: a lack of an initial kappa in ατακτανών (p. 24); period after τηαλαττίων (p. 51) and after κύων (p. 52).

The book is divided into three parts, each one concerned with one of the three major genres: dramatic (‘Dramatic representations of verse competition’); lyric (‘Sporting at symposia: verse and skolia competitions’); and epic (‘Epic competition in performance: Homer and rhapsodes’). However, right from the start C. reminds us that he is most of all interested in what such genres have in common in so far as they all belong to a culture pervaded by poetical performances.

In the first part, the author is not interested in such structures as strophic/antistrophic responsion of choral odes, but on “linking and responsion strategies between smaller units of verse, between individual verses, and within single verses themselves as defined by metrical periods” (p. x). The largest section concentrates on stichomythia. By his approach, C. contributes to the discussion about the poetic origins of tragedy, whose landmark is still Herington’s Poetry into drama. 3 He argues strongly for the presence, in tragic and comic texts, of verbal games whose interest lies in themselves, a phenomenon that is more evident in sympotic poetry. Centering on passages from Aeschylus, C. proposes an analysis of the stichomythia as a form of capping, paying attention to the practice of riddling, common in Greek poetry. Less concerned with the poetic or ritual origins of stichomythia, C. is careful about drawing strict conclusions, preferring to identify a common structure in many oral performances, poetic or not (oracles, for instance). Stichomythia turns out to be especially ironic or mocking, in so far as it has more than one level of understanding; characters and audience, for instance, don’t need to apprehend the same meaning. But is it not so that not only the style of the stichomythia displays “multiple layers of meaning” (23), but the tragic discourse as a whole is constituted exactly by and in this strategy?

In the next section, C. develops a quite new approach to a much disputed passage, Frogs 1198-1248. Starting with the argument that antilabê (the division of a line between two speakers) and stichomythia are interconnected, he shows that our understanding of the passage is improved if we pay attention to the metrical structure shared by the verses that end with the tag lêkuthion apôlesen and the antilabai. C.’s interpretation not only reinforces his broader argument about the association between tragic — and comic — diction and other discourses via the capping technique, but, in my opinion, weakens the interpretations fixed on the phallic innuendos of the lêkuthos and refines the ones concerned with the poetic overtones of the passage.

In the next two sections, C. briefly discusses not only dramatic ( Cyclops and Wealth) but also lyric ( Idylls 5, 6, and 8 of Theocritus) and philosophical texts (Plato’s Euthydemus), where stichomythia is adapted to set a verbal game in which one part demonstrates his superiority over the other. Theocritus’ idylls are used to mention that public judgement by an audience is fundamental to this kind of game, a performance element that is of great importance in the genres examined in the next two parts of the book.

In the second part, C. investigates the symposium, especially the sympotic poetry games, held in an atmosphere whose nature, between serious and playful, could vary not only because of wine drinking but also because of political competition between élite aristocrats. The two main topics of this part are 1) the relationship between the purposes and the meanings of a symposium and the way verses were performed there; and 2) the ideological differences that set apart the performances of symposiasts and rhapsodes.

By examining a large amount of textual evidence, C. attempts to reconstruct the skills needed for a symposiast of the sixth and fifth centuries: how much knowledge he would have to have of different kinds of song and poetry; how far each performance would be composed by repetition of familiar verses and themes; how much improvisation would be possible; and how far the performance would be merely a game played for fun and how far it could convey political implications.

Starting with contemporary comparative material and an episode from Plutarch’s Alexander, C. tries to establish the rules and the exceptions for a kind of verbal play that, even if performed in a very specific milieu, partook of elements from performances quite alien to it, like the rhapsodic. Through his fine analysis of the skolia performed in a much disputed passage of Aristophanes ( Wasps 1222-49), C. gives a solid base to his argument about the knowledge and subtlety that would be displayed by the participants of a symposium seeking to elicit the hidden political agenda of another by scrutinizing him.

Next, by pairing the Attic skolia cited by Athenaeus and the doublets found in the Theognidea, C. contributes to the discussion about the performance and transmission of Theognis’ verses, positing a degree of creative rearrangement and improvisation at the bottom of the variations transmitted. This is part of the game, and it has precise pragmatic functions that can not always be fully traced by modern readers. Putting performance and transmission in this perspective makes it less important that the modern critic identifies the “original” Theognis and, as in the case of the Ptolemaic papyri discussed by C. in part three, revaluates the task of the performer, who, very often, was not making mistakes vis-à-vis some “original” poem but creatively improving on it, in the context of a particular performance.

Finally, by discussing passages from Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Solon and Anacreon, C. exemplifies his argument about the ideological differences that set the poetic manifestations of an élite taking part in a symposium apart from the public and popular performances of hexametric poetry by rhapsodes often commissioned by tyrants. Even if textual evidence continues to be slight, C., taking the necessary precautions, contributes to an understanding of the development of elegy and epic in the sixth and fifth centuries.

In the third and last part of his book, C. turns to rhapsodic performances and enlarges the discussion of the previous part, centering now on some formal similarities between the two kinds of performances. First of all, responsion, by which the author means “the ability of one performer to sequence his poetry with that of his competitor in a live performance” (p. 162). C. tries to show that not only aoidoi are represented in the Homeric poems but there is at least one clue as to how the poems were performed by rhapsodes: the Muses that sing ἀμειβόμεναι ὀπὶ καλῇ. In my opinion, however, the meaning of the passages enlisted to support the sense “competitive exchange” attributed to the participle is highly disputable. Next, verse enjambement and improvisation, “which refers both to the coining of ‘new’ poetic expression from scratch and of refashioning traditional poetic material in a novel way” (pp. 162-3). Here, by focusing on the etymology of ῥαψῳδός and passages of the Certamen Homeri et Hesiodi, C. develops the argument that rhapsodes did not only perform memorized texts but, given the competitive nature of their performances, improvised too.

In my opinion, the most interesting section of the third part is the last one, which deals with the Homeric papyri from the Ptolemaic period. By analysing the text of some papyri, C. contributes decisively to the argument that “the divergences simply show too intimate a knowledge of the Homeric texts to be ‘error’ in the usual sense, and are more readily understandable as the product of a still lively poetic tradition” (p. 203). In fact, their clever improvisation shows an admirable subtlety that would possibly not be a characteristic of all the rhapsodes, but only of the best. Similarly, as in the genres discussed in the other two parts, the rhapsodes would demand of the public a great knowledge of the texts being varied to fully understand the quality of what is being performed.

To sum up, Master of the Game has a unity not easily obtained in such a survey, and so it should be interesting to researchers concerned with different themes. C.’s defence of a reading preoccupied with the performance contexts of Greek literature allows him to present us a quite vivid picture of it, something unfortunately missing in many interpretative books on classical texts.


1. D. Collins, Immortal Armor: The Concept of Alkê in Archaic Geek Poetry, Lanham, 1998.

2. It should be read, for example, with A. Ford, The Origins of Criticism: Literary Culture and Poetic Theory in Classical Greece, Princeton, 2002.

3. H. Herington, Poetry into Drama: Early Tragedy and the Greek Poetic Tradition, Berkeley, 1985.