BMCR 2015.07.06

The Many-Headed Muse: Tradition and Innovation in Late Classical Greek Lyric Poetry

, The Many-Headed Muse: Tradition and Innovation in Late Classical Greek Lyric Poetry. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. x, 377. ISBN 9781107018532. $99.00.


Pauline LeVen establishes three goals in her introduction: to gather together the evidence for nondramatic Greek lyric poetry from 430 BCE through 323 BCE, to establish the central characteristics of that poetry, and to explain the various reasons that poetry has been ignored or condemned since antiquity. She accomplishes each of these goals admirably, and in doing so she does more than any other scholar has to move this important corpus of verse beyond the stereotypes that have plagued it since it was first parodied in Old Comedy.

LeVen’s introduction continues by noting that while it has been associated with the New Music, late classical lyric does not come out of the blue, but is a product of tradition and innovation like the rest of Greek poetry. She then provides what she calls an “archaeology” of late classical lyric, noting the filters we must get through in order to appreciate it: the paucity of the fragments, the association ancient authors made between the New Music and decline, the false assumptions authors made about the historical and biographical background of the poems, and the overwhelming hostility to late classical lyric of ancient literary criticism.

Chapter one provides a priceless accounting of the relevant evidence for late classical lyric, including papyri, quotations in later authors, and inscriptions. LeVen’s charts of late classical musicians in literary and epigraphic sources, of the epigraphic record for dithyrambic victors, of hymns surviving in epigraphic form, and of the literary record of late classical lyric poets and fragments will be useful tools for all working on this area in the future. The survey leads LeVen to a number of valuable conclusions surrounding the essential fact that the eccentric superstars of New Music who dominate the literary record are only the tip of the iceberg. She notes the wide generic diversity of late classical lyric, in which dithyramb, which dominates the literary sources, plays only one part. She finds poets and musicians throughout the Greek world, refuting the Athenocentric bias of the literary sources. She notes that 87% of the quotations of these poets preserved in literary sources come from just three authors, Athenaeus, Plutarch, and Stobaeus, so our perception of the poets is heavily skewed to match their interests. Hence, for example, the large number of literary fragments dealing with food, a major topic of Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae. Countering traditional views of the transition from orality to literacy in the late classical period, she notes the multiplicity of oral and written channels through which poetry was produced and handed down. In concluding the chapter, LeVen states her own aim of combining and transcending what she sees as the three primary approaches used thus far in approaching this corpus: generic criticism (analysis in terms of song types), text-based cultural history (consideration of the performance contexts of texts, especially dithyrambs, paeans, and the symposium), and material-based cultural history (understanding of texts as part of socio-political discourse).

In chapter two, “New Music and its myths,” LeVen notes that since antiquity New Music has been viewed through three frameworks: as a set of stylistic and musical traits established by parodies in Old Comedy, as a product of moral and social changes, and as a reflection of the growing importance of the aulos. Each of these frameworks, LeVen rightly observes, brings significant limitations. She proposes instead to evaluate how the proponents of New Music represented themselves. In fact, she argues, poets such as Timotheus, Melanippides, and Philoxenus staged their own reception, emphasizing in their own pronouncements a set of features that differ in important ways from their representation in Aristophanes and his successors. Most importantly, LeVen demonstrates that, contrary to what Old Comedy suggests, the poets associated with the New Music did not reject the traditional, but rather approached innovation cautiously and placed themselves in a tradition that went back to Orpheus.

In chapter three, “New Music live: poetics of Philoxenia(na),” LeVen examines the biographical traditions surrounding Philoxenus, building on approaches to ancient biographies of poets by earlier scholars such as Mary Lefkowitz and Glenn Most. 1 LeVen makes a number of fascinating suggestions about how anecdotes surrounding Philoxenus reflect neither historical truth nor arbitrary fantasy, but rather respond to a combination of concerns surrounding poetics, politics and morality. The tale that Philoxenus was punished for his unwise frankness when asked about Dionysius of Syracuse’s poetry, for example, reveals anxiety about the value and danger of parrhēsia.

In chapter four, “The language of the New Music,” LeVen takes on the most pervasive and damning negative stereotype about the authors of late classical lyric: the view, begun in Aristophanes’ parodies, that those authors used words solely for adornment, piling on vacuous phrases with no concern for anything beyond superficial effects. LeVen proposes, and demonstrates through close reading of several passages of Timotheus’ Persians, a number of ways in which late classical lyric’s approach to language, while distinct from most of what came before, is far more than empty ornament. First she proposes that there is not, contrary to the common stereotype, a significant difference between the approach to language in dithyramb and that in other genres such as nomes. She then establishes a set of linguistic and stylistic features used in both dithyrambs and other genres of the period. Borrowing from Ezra Pound, she proposes that while the comic poets caricature the language of the New Music as merely “elevated” (made to sound higher than everyday language only for the sake of sounding more impressive), it is in fact “heightened” (in Pound’s words, “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree”2). The poets achieve this heightening through sophisticated use of compounds and periphrasis, intense intertextuality, close attention to the literal meanings of words, thematic use of stylistic features, and daring metaphors and images. Timotheus and his contemporaries shared with the sophists an acute sense of language’s ability to relay truth, and they discovered new ways of involving their readers/hearers in their texts, engaging all their senses.

Language, LeVen argues, was not the only way the proponents of New Music found to engage their audience. In chapter five, “Narrativity and subjectivity: mimēsis and theater music,” she argues through more close reading that both Timotheus in his Persians and Philoxenus in his Cyclops use novel ways of making their fictional world present. She notes, for example, how Timotheus’ manipulation of tenses, direct speech, his narrator’s voice, ekphrasis, intertextuality, and “jump cuts” brings a kind of vividness to his account of the battle of Salamis not seen in previous texts; and how Philoxenus’ Cyclops represents a new mixture of the romantic and the dramatic typical of late classical lyric. Her important conclusion to this chapter will need to be reckoned with in all future histories of Greek poetry: “the principal innovation of late classical lyric is a change in artistic mimēsis and the construction of a new type of audience subjectivity” (242).

The mimetic world of late classical lyric continues to interest LeVen in chapter six, “Sympotic mix: genre, voice, and contexts,” in which she examines Philoxenus’ Dinner Party, Aristotle’s “Hymn to Virtue,” and Ariphron’s “Hymn to Health.” She notes the impressive detail with which Philoxenus describes a symposium and proposes that Dinner Party is a dithyramb. Many have assumed that this poem and similar variation found in other late classical accounts of symposia, such as dinner parties described in Aristophanes, reflect chronological changes in how symposia were conducted. LeVen argues that in fact different approaches to symposia coexisted in classical Athens. Likewise Aristotle’s “Hymn to Virtue,” dismissed by earlier scholars as a kind of monstrous hybrid, in fact shows “a rich process of exchange and cross-pollination among symposium, festival, and theater” (277). LeVen dates Ariphron’s paean to the fourth century BCE and suggests that it shows how religious notions of reciprocity with divinity can be included in a sympotic context.

Chapter seven, “A canon set in stone? Inscriptions, performance, and ritual in late classical hymns,” addresses a set of inscribed texts usually ignored by literary critics: Erythraean paeans to Apollo and Asclepius, Aristonous’ Delphic Hymns, Philodamus’ paean to Dionysus, and Isyllus’ paean to Asclepius. Again, close reading of the texts is LeVen’s mode, and it leads her to some interesting conclusions about how these inscriptions mix the oral and the written, the traditional and the innovative, and the religious and the political. LeVen shows that these inscribed hymns, thought by some to be simply traditional hymns that have been “automized,” in fact create a context in which the ritual surrounding the hymn can be continually renewed in dynamic and significant ways.

In a brief epilogue LeVen concludes intriguingly that the new ways in which late classical lyric calls upon its audience to help construct meaning is a symptom of new democratic attitudes in the cities where it was performed.

LeVen has done a great service. She has opened doors to a poetic world previously dismissed or neglected, has made a persuasive case for why that world is worthy of investigation, and has laid the foundation for much future work. I conclude with two areas in which I think others might build on that foundation.

One is genre. LeVen argues throughout that an appreciation of the fluidity of performative, literary, and social contexts should replace overly rigid notions of genre. She is certainly right that attempts to pigeonhole the works she discusses—or other Greek verse, for that matter—can obfuscate rather than clarify, and concepts of genre mixing can only take us so far. Nevertheless, various generic expectations existed by the time of the late classical poets, and it will be useful now for others to refine LeVen’s arguments about fluidity to account more thoroughly for those expectations.

A second is performance. LeVen does well to concentrate on the texts, countering the assumption of some that the New Music was all about performance, and that the words were merely manipulated to increase performance effects. LeVen is also very good at keeping track of how the context of performance helped determine the nature of the texts she studies. Useful would be some more attention to the practicalities of performance. In discussing the various meters of Isyllus’ paean, for example, LeVen concludes without discussion that the trochaic tetrameters in the poem were spoken rather than sung. The question of how trochaic tetrameters were performed is in fact a vexed one, and their utterance may well have been something in between speech and song, or even something we would define as song. And, while LeVen has demonstrated persuasively that language is not simply a slave to musical concerns in the New Music, it is hoped that future works can now return to the relationship of words and music in late classical lyric, building on LeVen’s work as they ponder just what the interplay of music and language might have been like.

Anyone with a serious interest in Greek poetry of the classical or Hellenistic period should read this book.


1. M.R. Lefkowitz, The lives of the Greek poets (London, 1981); G.W. Most, “Reflecting Sappho,” BICS 40 (1995): 15-38.

2. Quoted in M. Silk, “The language of Greek poetry,” in A Companion to the ancient Greek Language, ed. E. Bakker (Malden, MA, 2010), p. 436.