BMCR 2006.09.13

Response: Beall on Mariaud on Carol Thomas, Finding People in Early Greece

Response to 2006.07.63

Response by

Olivier Mariaud is mildly critical of one of the case studies in Carol Thomas’s Finding People in Early Greece, noting that her matching of material in the Hesiodic poems with archaeology proves little in itself, but nonetheless says she is persuasive that the narrative persona described in the poems possibly existed, if not that he actually did. But although possibility is all she says at first she wants to show (p. 91), at the end she claims actuality (126-27). Without judging the value of her other case study, that of Jason and the Argo, if showing possibility were the only goal her study would achieve nothing new, as some of the readings to which she responds grant it. And to show actuality she would have to account for arguments against a certain view of one of the texts itself that underlies her case. In fact she all but ignores these arguments, as Mariaud does not note.

As to possibility, T. says a “process of deconstruction” has produced a view that the name Hesiod was “a fictitious construct of every-poet who sang or wrote didactic poetry akin to Works and Days and Theogony” (p. 90), and this is the notion she wishes to refute. The problem is that it merges two issues best discussed separately: (1) whether the poems as we have them developed in a fashion sufficiently well defined to speak of a single author of either or of both; and (2) if so, whether or not the personae given in the poems accurately depict their author. (In principle there is a third issue: whether or not the authors of the two poems were the same person, but it can be ignored here since in practice it is largely the authorship of W & D that T. examines.) The hypothesis of diffuse authorship of the dactylic hexameter poems, associated especially with Gregory Nagy, of course would deny possibility, but may have waned in influence lately.1 The still prevalent position that the personae depicted in our poems, particularly W & D’s nominal narrator, his brother Perses, and their father are literary in character is held by some with not particularly avant garde critical sensibility, notwithstanding T.’s emphasis here and in her earlier theoretical chapter, and this work generally acknowledges that the poet’s model could have been himself.2

But to the crux of the matter, T.’s view of W & D, which is at least part of the basis of her conclusion that “Hesiod” existed, may be obsolete. She states baldly that it is “didactic in intent : a farmer’s manual” (p. 89, emphasis added). From there, despite claiming reasons beyond the “necessity of instructions on farming” (125-26), her conclusion is unsurprising. For if the poem is a lesson to Perses how can he not be real? And if he is, so is Hesiod. But while that traditional concept of the poem retains influence, in part because of its essential endorsement in West’s (now quarter-century old) commentary, the categorization of the (agricultural portion of the) poem as a manual was refuted long ago, while more generally, an increasing number of scholars say that its intent is not necessarily dictated by its form. And of course if it is actually a work of literature there is no particular reason to believe that its characters were real people. But notwithstanding T.’s promise that “philology . . . must be used” in the argument (91), she acknowledges almost nothing of this scholarship, let alone respond to it.3 Indeed, it is easy to find examples in her detailed statements about the poem where this neglect has misled her.4

The phenomenon of making shaky historical inferences from this text has a long history itself.5 The claim by T. and many before her that its narrative persona was its true author constitutes an example.


1. On this point, T. (p. 94 n. 10) and her source Tandy may be right that Janko’s relative dating of the epics by the incidence of linguistic archaism has been generally accepted. Still, W. Blümer, Interpretation archaischer Dichtung, 2 vols. (Münster 2001), Vol. 1, 130-38, has now attacked his conclusions in some detail, and may deserve more of a response than the two sentences devoted to the issue in Fowler’s review, CR 53 (2003) 7-9.

2. In particular, in affirming the literary character of the personae, Griffith’s article in CA 2 (1983) 37-65, at 48-49, denies that the Muses telling both lies and truth means language itself is ambiguous, as the Derridean analysis of Pucci holds. Even West’s traditionalist commentary acknowledges Perses’s personality changing to suit circumstances.

3. Considering only fairly prominent works published well before the 2002 lectures on which T.’s book is based, she ignores Verdenius’s 1985 commentary on vv. 1-382, generally recognized as an essential supplement to West on that part of the poem. It is still rather literalist, but does bring out the poem’s affinity to epic on a line-by-line basis more than does West, and this affinity undermines any assumption that the poem’s author was a farmer who only incidentally learned to versify in a certain meter in his spare time. T. cites Hamilton’s detailed 1989 argument that the poems are highly structured (as one would not expect of wisdom literature) only for a single, and relatively minor point: that W & D goes from larger time units to smaller ones as it proceeds (p. 93). She ignores Rosen’s article in CA 9 (1990) 88-113, which suggests that that poem makes use of tropes. The only representative of the new scholarship that she acknowledges to any degree (114) is Nelson’s 1998 denial of the “farmer’s manual” thesis, and here she does not argue against this rejection but only notes that Nelson thinks the author was probably a farmer nonetheless. Against the “manual,” see already Rand in AJP 32 (1911) 152.

4.E.g., T.’s view that the aphorisms of vv. 300-72 are part of the “farmer’s almanac” (p. 101) might be considered a possible, albeit eccentric reading if she actually argued for it, but it flies in the face of the consensus that they are generally ethical in thrust, applicable in all walks of life.

5.Sometimes this happens in spite of nominal recognition that the poem is not a documentary record; for a recent case, see my article in TAPA 135 (2005), at 232 n. 5 with 237.