With only a few exceptions, ancient literary biographies tell us little or nothing about the poets they purport to describe. But although they are disappointing as history, they are worth studying as a form of mythology. In the The Lives of the Greek Poets I had suggested that poets were portrayed as heroes, who after being praised and valued by their societies are later isolated from them and exiled, to die in disgrace or obscurity. In Victim of the Muses Todd Compton seeks to discover in the lives evidence of the ritual and mythology of the scapegoat or pharmakos, who is driven out in order to purify the community.
Compton defines the notion of poet broadly, expanding it to include non-poets and certain mythical figures. He begins the first section of his book with a discussion of the fictional life of the fictional Aesop, who in many ways is the best illustration of the pharmakos pattern. Ugly and deformed, Aesop is accused of impiety by the people of Delphi, and put to death, only to be honored afterwards as a hero. At the end of this first section, Compton makes the interesting suggestion that there are affinities between the fate of Aesop and that of Socrates. Here (as Plato shapes the narrative) there are some striking similarities in their fate: both are accused of impiety and executed, but then their executioners soon regret what they have done. Is it merely coincidence that on the last day of his life Socrates had been putting Aesop’s fables into verse?
The lives of other ancient Greek literary figures appear to follow the pharmakos pattern, at least in some respects. Many share with Aesop and Socrates an ability to speak out forcibly against other people, and it is their invective skill that gets them into trouble. In the biographical tradition Archilochus, Hipponax, Homer, and Theognis are all exiled; Hesiod is murdered, Simonides is almost killed, Sappho jumps to a scapegoat’s death from a cliff on the island of Leukas, far from her home in Lesbos. Tyrtaeus, another exile, is lame. Aeschylus is said to have died in Sicily. Euripides, attacked by the Athenians for his immorality, is torn to pieces by dogs in Macedonia.
Then there are the poetic pharmakoi of myth: Marsyas, who was flayed alive by Apollo, and Thamyris and Demodocus, who are blinded by the Muses; Orpheus, murdered either by Zeus or by women, and the mysterious Cretan Epimenides, who shared with Orpheus special shamanic powers, and who was worshiped as a hero after his death. Achilles, the only singing hero in the Iliad, dies twice (the first time metaphorically through the proxy of Patroclus) and finally receives heroic honors like the mythic pharmakoi.
In the second part of the book Compton presents examples of similar patterns in other Indo-European mythologies, Irish, Celtic, and Indic: poet-heroes are first persecuted and then honored by the gods with heroic cults. Some of the poets are warriors, some ugly, some susceptible to bouts of madness. The life of Heracles, although his connection with music is (as Compton observes) “problematic,” has noticeable affinities with this pattern.
Thus broadly defined, the poetic pharmakos seems to be present also in the lives of Roman poets, the subject of the third section of Compton’s long and detailed survey. Writers themselves often seek to portray themselves as isolated, or surrounded by enemies. Satire can prove dangerous to its writers as well as to its targets: examples here are Naevius, Cicero, Ovid, as well as Phaedrus (like Aesop a writer of fables), Seneca, Petronius, Lucan, and (if only in the biographical tradition) Juvenal.
In a final chapter, Compton describes some of the ways in which the tradition of persecution continues up to the present day. Brief appendices explore possible connections between aggression, ritual, and satire. Analogues with animal behavior help to explain the process of exclusion in human communities. It also might have been helpful to have given some consideration to the role played in human life by envy ( phthonos). Famous writers are resented, not only by their contemporaries, but by posterity. Ancient literary biographers tend to treat their subjects with condescension and even contempt, more so, it seems, as time goes on.
In fact, in the biographies of most poets the enemies are other mortals, not the gods. The book’s title (reinforced by photograph of Marsyas on the cover) seems misleading. It is only characters in myth, like Marsyas, Thamyris, or Aeneas’ hapless comrade Misenus who get into trouble for being foolhardy enough to challenge the gods, since (as the mortals ought to have known) the gods punish mortals who refuse to honor them. Non-mythical poets do not compare themselves to the gods, but pay due respect to them in their poetry. Poets can be considered victims of the Muses only because the Muses gave them the gift of song, an honor that set them apart from their fellows, and made them the targets of mortal phthonos.
A final appendix provides an outline of the pharmakos theme in all its Protean manifestations. This schematic overview provides a useful summary; at the same time it suggests how far we must stand outside the ancient texts in order to see how they may conform (more or less) to the pattern that Compton wants to find. The ancient narratives, as they have come down to us, are more complex, or (as in the case of the Euripides vita) just plain confusing.
In seeking to discern a scapegoat pattern in the more fragmentary lives, Compton sometimes is led to make connections between events that may not have had any direct relation to one another, even in myth. A considerable stretch of the imagination is required in order to suppose that the nasty lines that Sappho wrote about Doricha and others or her own “rivals” had anything directly to do with the strange story of her death. When we privilege particular scraps of information, we run the risk of imposing new mythologies of our own.
Compton also seems curiously reluctant to accord a determining role to history. Although the facts of Ovid’s life bear some similarity to the scapegoat pattern, the poet wound up in Tomi because he offended the wrong person(s) in power. In retrospect he may look like a scapegoat, but certainly, the primary motive in the minds of his persecutors was not re-enactment of the ancient scapegoat ritual.
In real life writers who criticize powerful people or speak out against a prevailing orthodoxy tend to get into trouble. Socrates would have been executed by the Athenian demos whether or not he bore some superficial resemblance to Aesop. Roman poets like Horace and Virgil may have described themselves as poet-prophets vates, but they did not end up as scapegoats because they wisely chose not to offend the people who had the power to send them into exile.
Once we start out by looking for a particular pattern, we are inclined to find it. If the only information we had about the life of the English poet Shelley was a brief entry in the Suda, we might suppose that he went into exile in Italy because he was rejected by his critics (rather than eager to avoid his former in-laws and his creditors). His death by drowning off the coast of Livorno might then appear to have been the result of a flight from persecution, and not (as it was in reality) the inevitable outcome of his own caprice and inexperience.
Although Compton helps us to see how the pharmakos myth might have played a role in shaping the narratives about some ancient writers, as he observes, it does not and cannot tell the whole story. Some writers are simply not pharmakoi. In his biography Sophocles never went into exile, but was honored with a hero cult after his death. Apollonius supposedly left Alexandria in disgrace, only to be honored in Rhodes, or to return to Alexandria, become Librarian, and be honored in death by being buried next to Callimachus.
Mythology played a large role in the case of ancient Greek poets and pre-Socratic philosophers because records were not kept, and such information as there was survived only so long as contemporary memory. Often all biographers had on hand were the writers’ ipsissima verba. In Satyrus’ Life of Euripides the characters use lines from his dramas and scenes from Attic comedy to reconstruct the poet’s “life.”
If in the absence of historical information biographers sought to use myth as the framework of their narratives, it was to give those stories enduring shape and meaning. They seem to have believed that myth gave a truer account of human experience than history, as Aristotle implies in the Poetics (1451b 5-7). What remains unclear, even after a review of all the disparate evidence that Compton has assembled, is why a basically demeaning narrative pattern was used to describe poets and singers. Aggression, ambivalence, envy, are all involved, but we do not yet know enough about the mythologizing process to come up with anything like a definite answer.
[For a response to this review by Todd Compton, please see BMCR 2007.07.30.]