BMCR 2010.01.55

Wandering Poets in Ancient Greek Culture: Travel, Locality and Pan-Hellenism

, , Wandering Poets in Ancient Greek Culture: Travel, Locality and Pan-Hellenism. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xiv, 313. ISBN 9780521898782. $99.00.

Table of Contents

In Ancient times, it was very common that poets and performers were great travellers. This is a theme still overlooked, according to Richard Hunter and Ian Rutherford, the editors of the book under review here. It is a collection of papers formerly presented in April 2005, in a colloquium at the University of Cambridge in which the main questions were why poets travelled and how the skills of these outsiders were used by the local communities for their own purposes. In the Introduction, Hunter and Rutherford present the volume, asserting that “travel and wandering are persistent elements in both the reality and imaginaire of Greek poetry, and intellectual and cultural life more generally, from the earliest days” (p. 1). Orpheus was the first wandering poet and even a professional of the word like Empedocles of Acragas is a good example of the truth of this statement. But not only the poet could be a traveller. The public also could make a journey by attending or reading a text. And even more, a poem could travel and spread the fame of both poet and patron. Names like Theognis and Pindar are examples of that. And there’s still another possibility of travel in the act of composing or enacting a poem. This also can be seen as a kind of journey and the Argonautica, by Apollonius Rhodius, must be cited in this context.

It was very common that poets and performers travelled to receive honors like the proxenia but also to get payment, like the epinician composers and the Artists of Dionysus. This kind of activity continued into Hellenistic times and even into the Roman period, as the example of Archias, the poet defended by Cicero, shows. So, there were a munber of motivations that led to poetic mobility. Another one was the desire to receive commissions for celebrating the antiquities ( patria), buildings and local worthies of particular towns. Thus the most common forms of performance were the encomia of the host city and its traditions.

Travels could lead to different kinds of innovations producing an ‘internationalization’ in the Archaic period. We have many notices of poets working far away from their homeland in those times, like Thaletas of Cretan Gortyna and Alcman (from Sparta or Lydian Sardis?). It could be important for a powerful ruler to draw in skilled poets: Polycrates of Samos attracted Ibycus from Rhegium and Anacreon from Teos; Periander of Corinth brought to his court Arion, from Lesbian Methymna; Peisistratus took Homer’s poetry to Athens and latter Anacreon and Simonides of Ceos spent some time there, before going to courts in Thessaly (the Tean) and in Sicily (the Cean). So, in Ancient times, a poet would take all the chances he had at hand to profit from his art (cf. Theocritus 16.34-47, cited p. 28).

But this phenomenon was not particular to Greece alone. As the editors say (p. 14), “singers and poets travel in many societies, perhaps most”. In Japan, in late medieval Europe, in medieval India, in Western Africa singers travelled to where they could find employment, and the best singers migrated to where they would be paid most. And to consider this comparative evidence can be useful in helping us to understand the ways poetic itinerancy developed in Ancient Greece.

Concluding their Introduction, the editors say (p.17) that poets travel to perform, but this does not exhaust the issue. It’s very import also to say that poets, local and foreign, played a role in celebrating local traditions. “One of the main functions of the shared cultural tradition was to provide an ideological fabric connecting the different Greek cities” (p. 20). So poets, when wandering, were reinforcing local traditions but also making Hellenic identity.

In the second chapter, ‘Hittite and Greek perspectives on travelling poets, texts and festivals’, Mary R. Bacharova starts by asserting that the mechanism by which literature from the Near East reached Greece has not been well studied. She argues that there was contact at an early stage between Pre-Greek and Anatolian poetic traditions. According to her, transmission of cultural practices via Anatolia during the Mycenean period should be given serious consideration. She examines the mechanisms by which second-millenium Anatolian singers and other ‘masters of the word’ made their way from one location to another. The focus is particularly on two related settings: the worship of an imported god and festivals. In analysing the texts, she presents phraseological correspondences that she claims to be “good indirect evidence of the contact between wordsmiths through whom the phrasing crossed langages” (p. 29). In conclusion, Bacharova asserts that festivals from Anatolia and other parts of the Near East shared much in common with Greek festivals of the first millenium.

Peter Wilson is the author of chapter 3, “Thamyris the Tracian: the archetypal wandering poet?”. The author notes that Thamyris may seem, at first glance, the perfect ‘wandering’ archetypal poet, but, in fact, he is a difficult role-model. He is a marginal figure in Greek myth and literature, even though an ancient and persistent presence. He comes from the margins of the Hellenic world. As Wilson argues, Thamyris is a useful model of opposition, a figurehead for a religious tradition that ran against Olympian religion and Homeric epic itself. Perhaps the most interesting contribution of this paper is the analysis made by Wilson of a number of Sophoclean fragments, specially those from the play Thamyras or Mousai. Thamyris was a kind of revolutionary poet who opposed the poetic status quo represented by the Homeric Muses. For this reason, his identification with the poets of the New Music of the second half of the fifth century was a natural development, as Wilson masterfully shows.

“Read on arrival” is the title of chapter 4, by Richard P. Martin. In this paper the author tries to make a diachronic examination of the strategies adopted by wandering poets and performers in order to delineate a typology. In doing that, he wants to explore the poetics of a number of genres related or not to the travelling poets. The strategies of the wandering poets are different from those of the metanastic figures (a term proposed by Martin in 1992)1 because these had a kind of one-way ticket, while the travelling poets had “the equivalent of a long-term Eurail pass” (p. 81). Based on this, Martin analyses Aristophanes’ Birds 904-57, where a parody is presented of a travelling poet’s arrival that can be viewed as representing the typical behavour of a poet seeking for a patron; Pindar’s Pythian 4, 275-280; Odyssey 17.382-6; Bacchylides’ 5.7-14 and 3.90-8; the Hymn to Apollo 166-75 and some other texts are used to establish the six gambits that form the handbook of strategies and rules for the wandering poet: 1. praise the place and let the people come later; 2. make yourself the voice of tradition; 3. for success, don’t dress; 4. inflate your worth; 5. handle many genres ( polueideia); and pratice, pratice, pratice. In conclusion, Martin says that “the successful roaming poet will be one who makes the memorized look spontaneous” (p. 103). In this context, the concept of re-performance is very important, because, as Martin argues (p. 103), there must have been a kind of temporary textualization of a repertoire that was ‘read’ in a type of composition-in-performance characteristic of oral tradition.

Ewen Bowie, in chapter 5, entitled “Wandering poets, archaic style”, studies archaic wandering poets’ representation in their poetry of themselves and of their performances. He is interested mainly in monodic lyric poetry down to 500 BC. According to Bowie, travelling poets can be divided in three categories: 1. the poet as a member of a group (Archilochus, Tyrtaeus, Mimnermus and maybe Anacreon; 2. Solitary travellers outside their polis who performed in a symposium and did not travel in order to sing (Semonides, Alcaeus and Solon); 3. Professional poets or ones who travelled in order to sing and to participate in symposia as guests (Ibycus [maybe] and Anacreon [maybe] and Simonides).

In Chapter 6, “Defining local identities in Greek lyric poetry”, Giovan Battista D’Alessio argues that in the formative period of the Greek poleis the construction of a local identity was often voiced by foreign poets. He explores some case studies of public poetic discourse as a means for defining and promoting civic identities in the archaic and classical periods, and of the different strategies by which such a poetic communal self-definition was constructed. D’Alessio studies the cases of Eumelus’ Delian Prosodion for the Messenians, refered to by Pausanias (4.4.1 and 4.33.2; see also PMG 696), and also the Delian Prosodia by Pronomus (for Chalcis; see Paus. 9.12.6) and Amphicles of Rheneia (for the Athenians; see ID 1497). Further on, the author dedicates some pages also to the Nephelokokkygia episode, in Aristophanes Birds (851-8; 863-904; 1318-22) and to the ‘choral’ elegy by Tyrtaeus (the poetic voice as a collective discourse) to understand the relevance and impact of lyric discourse as an important medium for expressing a communal image of the polis. The last case study analysed by D’Alessio is Pindar’s Paeans 2 and 4. In conclusion, the author says that “public poetic performance (…) was one of the privileged media for Greek cities to give voice to their ‘identities’ from the archaic age onward” (p. 166).

“Wandering poetry, ‘travelling’ music: Timotheus’ muse and some case-studies of shifting cultural identities” is the title of chapter 7, by Lucia Prauscello. The author investigates the ways the poetry of Timotheus of Miletus was exploited and re-interpreted in different moments and in different places of Ancient Greece. She says she is concerned with whether and to what extent re-performances and musical re-settings may have affected the generic definition of the text itself and its reception among the audience. In this context it is important to note that musical performance is a prominent feature in the rhetoric of self-construction of Greek cultural identities, in the poleis but also in broader geographical limits. Prauscello examines how the poetry of Timotheus was re-used and interpreted in Sparta (analysing the ‘forged’ Laconian decree transmitted by Boethius [ De inst. mus. 1.1]); in Arcadia (commenting on passages from Polybius [4.19-21], Plutarch [ Philop. 11] and Pausanias [8.50.3]; and in Crete (taking as points of departure the inscriptions ICret V.viii.11 [Knossos] and xxiv.1 [Priansos]). In conclusion, we could say that the interpretation and value of a text varies with time and withplace . A poem by Timotheus could be seen positively by the Arcadians, but could also be banished by the Spartans for different motives.

Andrej Petrovic is the author of chapter 8, entitled “Epigrammatic contests, poeti vaganti and local history”. He discusses the role of wandering poets as local historians. The focus is on texts dated up to the end of Hellenistic times written by wandering poets for public monuments. Petrovic is concerned with the fact that the composition of public epigrams in a number of cases was a task fulfilled by wandering poets. He is also interested on the procedure through which texts for public monuments were chosen and his response to this question is that the texts were chosen after contests that took place in public festivals and in the framework of public commissions. Petrovic argues also that these public epigrams had a supra-local reception, even though they were composed for local addressees. He sugests in the end that these poems were diffused through epigrammatic collections organized on the principle of interest in local history.

Chapter 9 is by Sophia Aneziri, who writes about “World travellers: the associations of Artists of Dionysus”. According to her, poets and musicians, in any time and in any society, have their mobility determined by three factors: first, by the features of the society they are operating in, along with conditions of travel and communication; second, the existence of opportunities for performance that might attract performers, such as festivals and competitions; and third, she asserts that it is important to know if the poets work by themselves or are organized in professional groups and if they stay at home or are continuously travelling. In her paper, she explores these three factors in relation to the Artists of Dionysus operating in the Mediterranean world during the Hellenistic and imperial periods. The volume of travel was very great in these periods because of the explosion in festival culture, but the pattern of movement of the Artists was very different in the two periods. In Hellenistic times artists of many places organized themselves in regional associations, but in the imperial period these regional associations lose their importance and the Association of the Artists of Dionysus achieves the status of an empire-wide network.

Ian Rutherford is the author of chapter 10, “Aristodama and the Aetolians: an itinerant poetess and her agenda”. Born most likely in the third quarter of the third century BCE in Smyrna, the poetess Aristodama is known to us only because around 220 BCE she travelled to central Greece and was honored by two cities due to the skill she demonstrated when presenting her poems there. Rutherford analyses two decrees, one of the city of Lamia (218/217 BCE, IG IX 2, 62 = Guarducci 17), the other from the Lokrian city of Khalaion ( FD 3.2.145 = G17*). He also compares the case of Aristodama with those of other poetesses and performers and examines what the relationship between Aristodama and those cities might be. Rutherford defends the hypothesis that the Aetolians engaged Aristodama to write about Aetolia and to create a sort of pan-Aetolian poetic tradition, forging in this way a political community through song. This is another example of how poetry can work as a mechanism that creates a political and cultural identity.

In the last chapter, “Travelling memories in the Hellenistic world”, Angelos Chaniotis starts his paper by analysing a document in which is narrated the visit of three citizens of the city of Kytenion in Doris to the city of Xanthos. The visitors wanted financial aid to help reconstruct the walls of their city and, in order to get that, they used many strategies to show that there was a kinship between Kytenion and Xanthos. Chaniotis is concerned with the impact cultural mobility had on the shaping of memory in the Hellenistic world. He is more interested in the contribution of orators, historians and envoys than in that of poets.

In conclusion, I want to say that this is a wonderful book. It deals with a matter whose importance is still underestimated. The authors of the different papers enter into a dialogue with each other and write in a way that is certain to inspire new research. The texts are very well edited and I have found only a few insignificant typos. All in all, this is an amazing collection.


1.Martin, R. ‘Hesiod’s Metanastic Poetics’, Ramus 21: 11-33.