BMCR 2006.02.60

Ancient Greek Literature

, Ancient Greek literature. Cultural history of literature. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004. viii, 284 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0745627919 $25.95 (pb).

It is old news nowadays when a teacher brings the lyrics to a popular song into class and subjects them to the same kind of reading that he or she uses for poetry. “You see,” the trendy teacher says to students, “your music is really literature; and literature is just like your music.” Students who haven’t already been exposed to the well-worn trick are often sceptical. The music in their headphones, they know, does something in the world. Literature, they are equally certain, does not.

The texts of ancient Greece acted in the public world of agora, theater, and symposium. Tim Whitmarsh distinguishes these public texts from literature in the modern West, “a sophisticated pastime undertaken by the cultivated in evenings, on weekends, on holiday; in bed, on the sofa, on trains or in a deck-chair” (p. 4). He recognizes that his title contains at least two problematic concepts: literature, and Greek literature. To his intended audience of Greekless, non-specialist readers, “literature” will suggest something very different from what it may have meant in ancient Greek culture. Some surviving texts from ancient Greece, also, count as something called “Greek literature.” Others do not. Why? The processes that led to the creation and population of this category, Whitmarsh argues, belong in the foreground of a cultural history of Greek literature. Cultural history sees ancient texts, not only in their original contexts but also in their later interpretation and reception, as public enactments of ideologies and relationships of power; furthermore, Whitmarsh’s brand of cultural history reads against the grain to challenge self-evident, dominant perspectives and recover marginalized voices.

Instead, then, of the old grand narrative of literary history, in which the epic age of Homer and Hesiod gives way to the individual voice of Archilochus and lyric, which leads to a golden age of classical perfection, then to the archness and allusion of Hellenistic poetry, and then to decline under the Romans in, as Wilamowitz put it, an age of “whited sepulchres,” Whitmarsh divides his book into “Concepts,” “Contexts,” and “Conflicts.” One fascination in reading this stimulating book is to see the old ghost of the grand narrative try to re-emerge, despite Whitmarsh’s best efforts to pour his libations somewhere else.

The section called “Contexts,” which opens with chapters on “Festival,” “Symposium,” and “Theatre,” most nearly resembles a narrative history of literature. The order seems conventional, but Whitmarsh puts epic first not because it is chronologically prior to other forms but because it is, as he puts it, a “rhetoric of origins” used to create, affirm, and authorize theological and political structures of power. Not surprisingly, Hesiod has equal status with Homer in this scheme; indeed, Whitmarsh argues (p. 24) that the Iliad was not the first work of European literature but became such in fifth- and fourth-century Athens, when the concept of “Europe” came into being for the first time. The Theogony shares pride of place with the Iliad in this scheme because both treat power in crisis.

The Iliad, Whitmarsh pronounces (p. 39), was written down “probably in the sixth century.” As this example shows, he is not afraid to declare his views on controversial questions in conventional classical studies, but unwary readers need to be cautioned that his footnotes usually direct them to discussions that support rather than question; in the case of the Iliad, someone wondering about that sixth-century date for its transcription will find references only to the second edition (2000) of Singer of Tales and Gregory Nagy’s Greek Mythology and Poetics (1990). To be sure, with a little digging one might get a sense that not everyone believes that Homer did not exist in written form before the sixth century, but surely there should be room in Whitmarsh’s bibliography of accessible works in English for something like Barry Powell’s Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (1996), or even for M. L. West’s Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad (2001).

“Lyric” has always been a slippery category. To speak of sympotic literature seems to me in many ways preferable to trying to make “lyric” fit the whole range of monodic and choral song. The category “sympotic” allows synchronic juxtaposition of Athenaeus and Plutarch with Theognis and Archilochus, and it allows Whitmarsh to highlight the tensions in the literature of the symposium, as well as in the event itself, between order and disorder, elite and masses, and masculinity and feminity. The ghost of literary history will not be denied, however, and Pindar and Bacchylides make a necessary appearance on p. 56, even though they fit awkwardly into Whitmarsh’s “sympotic” category. They then disappear until Pindar resurfaces, alone, as an example of the Greek concern for genealogy (pp. 171-172).

Because Attic drama, on the other hand, is almost synonomous with what happens in the public space of theatre, and because the surviving, complete examples are both few and well known, Whitmarsh’s chapter on the drama could easily have become something very like conventional literary history. But instead of sections on the three tragedians, we have subtitles like “Theatre and State Ideology” or “Nature and Culture.” (Comedy and satyrs are, as always, unruly; they are tucked away at the end of the chapter in brief sections of their own.)

Whitmarsh sees the principal role of the Athenian theatre as the “making, unmaking, and remaking of the citizen body” (p. 86), and he has little to say about plot, character, and other staples of conventional literary history. But convention demands its due, and Whitmarsh touches on these matters—perhaps too briefly. Tragedy, he believes, has “no positive means of dealing with emotion: repression and expression are equally destructive” (p. 81). In the play that best exemplifies this dichotomy, Phaedra reveals her emotions, Hippolytus conceals his, and both are destroyed. Hippolytus represents “the adolescent’s puerile desire for an infinite period sporting with his male companions, and his corresponding fear of the unknown (the female, sexuality)” (p. 82). This simplistic, psychologizing reading of the Hippolytus is an exception to the general rule that when Whitmarsh leaves general principles and social structures behind, his close readings of texts nearly always offer something new and interesting to support his analysis of how literature worked in Greek society.

Near the end of a chapter on rhetoric (“The Power of Speech”), for example, Whitmarsh offers a close reading of Lysias 1 to flesh out his presentation of public oratory as a theater of power which affirmed and constructed democratic polities in both assembly and law courts by enacting crucial concepts like isonomia and parrhesia. If oratory is to do this job in a democracy, differences of power and expertise must be obscured. Whitmarsh shows how Lysias effaces his own role as hired speechwriter and his client’s wealth and status and through “double focalization” combines the points of view of naive cuckold and knowing narrator to create a winning, sympathetic character for Euphiletus. These few pages (99-102), like many of the close readings in this book, show that Whitmarsh is right to claim (p. 7) that cultural history cannot neglect philology: “A careful focus upon the texture of literary texts, sited in their historical and cultural context, will . . . reveal the assertions, silences, accommodations, and fudges at their heart.”

The last three chapters of “Contexts” explore the development and functioning of prose literature in fifth- and fourth-century Athens, the Hellenistic world, and Roman Greece. W. V. Harris may be right to see Aristotle as “the first truly bookish individual among the Greeks” ( Ancient Literacy [Cambridge, MA 1989], 85); if he is, then the progressive transfer of intellectual authority from the spoken to the written word and the impulse toward canonization, taxonomy, and stability can be summed up as a progressive development of an archival mentality. Whitmarsh’s “archive,” like Borges’s universal library, is more a mental construct than an actual place. The texts that embody it constitute a notional universe of discourse in which, as the Letter of Aristeas said of the Library at Alexandria, “all the books of the world” gather into an intellectual power plant.

“Inventing the Archive: Athens” treats the development of prose as “the distinctive voice of the archive” and a “strategic marker of distance between newer claims to ‘objective’, ‘scientific’ truth and older models of inspiration and regal authorization” (p. 108). Although signs of this new voice appear as early as the sixth century with Xenophanes (a “prose” author in some ways, despite his use of verse) and continue into the fifth with Herodotus and the earliest Hippocratic treatises, its developed form does not emerge, as Whitmarsh recognizes, until the fourth, with Isocrates as a crucial figure.

“Building the Archive: Hellenistic Alexandria” focuses on the third century. The fully literate poetry of Alexandria no longer constructs or affirms identity in its audience; instead, it challenges it. Readers, Whitmarsh suggests, can never be quite sure whether or not they are quite good enough or clever enough or learned enough to deserve membership in the club of readers implied by the allusiveness and technique of Callimachus or Theocritus.

Whitmarsh has distinguished himself as an important analyst of Greek literature written by Romans, and in “Reading from the Archive: Roman Greece” he begins with an intelligent analysis of the Roman appropriation of Greek culture. Captured Greece may have taken her savage captor captive, but in the end the captor had his way with her, and his way was to objectify what he had captured and thus to create classical Greece and the problematic categories with which Whitmarsh began: literature and Greek literature. Whitmarsh moves away from notions of derivative literature and emphasis on epideictic rhetoric to focus on three aspects of Roman Greek literature: paideia, travel writing, and the novel. This chapter will become essential reading for anyone who hopes to take the Second Sophistic seriously.

Whitmarsh’s final section, called “Conflicts,” is in many ways the most innovative of the three, and in it can be seen most clearly the successes and occasional failures of his approach to Greek literature. Good close readings, like that of Sappho fr. 31 on pp. 203-204, sit next to muddled pronouncements like “Infanticide is a particularly strong form of rebellion against anticipated gender roles” (p. 184, and said, as far as I can tell, in complete earnestness). The opening chapter, “Inventing the Greek: Cultural Identity,” returns to the problematic concepts with which the book began and argues that “Greek” and “Greek literature” were also problematic for the Greek themselves. Identities are fashioned from conflict and most sharply defined when challenged. Egypt, Persia, and Babylon, older empires and seemingly wiser civilizations, challenged Greeks to say what they were. From these conflicts and, Whitmarsh argues in the following chapters, from conflicts within their own culture they created Greek literature, “a vehicle not simply for the expression of an individual author, but also for the political identity of a community” (p. 173).

One of these defining internal conflicts, that between men and women, continues to draw attention, and talking about it is a good way to define oneself in or against culture, or (as we see in discussions about the position of women in Islamic societies) to define one’s culture in relation to others. Conflicting or conflicted ideas of human sexuality present another arena for self-definition. In two chapters, “A Woman’s Place” and “Sexing the Text,” Whitmarsh struggles to define what women meant for the public, political literature of ancient Greece and to discover how Greek literature constructs and manages erotic desire. Whitmarsh deserves praise for his willingness to ride straight at the hard jumps in these topics; at the same time, too often he shies away at the last moment, when going over on the line he has chosen might take him into hard country. Like all of us, he wants ancient Greece and its literature to be challenging, difficult, and beautiful. When it becomes all of these things and dangerous too, he balks.

Two apologetic paragraphs concluding a section on “Lesbians/lesbians” exemplify this tendency. In the previous pages, Whitmarsh argues (correctly, I think) that the differences between Sappho’s construction of same-sex female desire and modern understandings of lesbianism are so great that “it is preferable to find terms other than ‘lesbian’ to describe Lesbian Sappho” (p. 206). Suddenly he hesitates. His desire to deconstruct the “grand meta-narratives that link past and present” and to present a “fragmentary, anti-teleological cultural history,” he suddenly realizes, has led him to deny twenty-first century lesbians “the possibility of the prestigious, historically rooted identity that conventionally follows the adoption of classical precedent.” This makes him uneasy, because he does not want to seem to be implicated in the “silencing or suppression of female sexual expression.”

But even post-modern ideas have consequences, and, if we are to be believed when we maintain, as this book does, that Greek literature matters in the world and that it retains its power to move people and societies, then we must confront its refusal to align with our structures of ideology. Perhaps we are wrong. Perhaps they were, or no one is. We cannot, even so, throw up our hands in despair or refuse to make up our mind when the Greeks force us to ask hard questions. To do so is to end our long conversation with them.