BMCR 2020.12.09

Aspects of orality and Greek literature in the Roman Empire

, Aspects of orality and Greek literature in the Roman Empire. Pierides studies in Greek and Latin literature, volume VIII. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2020. Pp. 405. ISBN 9781527538115 ÂŁ76.99.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

A great deal of the charm of this rich collection lies in the wide range of sources included: inscriptions of many kinds, papyri, literature—mainly novels, Plutarch, Pausanias, and Lucian—and material objects. Since Greek literature from the imperial period has been much less studied than that of earlier times, and since the focus of the volume is on oral genres, from formal public speeches to anecdotes, jokes, and folktales, the result is an important supplement to the more traditional histories of literature of this period. The book originates in an international conference held in Murcia in May 2014.

The title is slightly bewildering since orality and literature are not equal terms; furthermore, the term orality remains vague. It is stated that it has three aspects, orality of origin, representation, and dissemination, that it is the ‘product’ of literary creation, that it was the backbone of ancient Greek culture, that it was complemented by the visual, etc., but it is never properly defined. However, on p. 31 the editor describes the book as follows: “We have collected here some case studies of Greek epigraphical and literary texts in their relationship to orality from diverse perspectives, such as rhetoric, language and speech, performance and aurality, narrative-representation, audience, material culture, transmission, and interaction with other cultures,” and the collection as such is actually highly interesting.

Consuelo Ruiz-Montero’s introduction is brilliant. She concentrates mainly on performance, and discussing public and private occasions, various places for performance, as well as different forms of the dissemination of texts, she covers a vast area, supplying full and learned notes. Women’s contributions are regularly mentioned.

In a superb and learned study, Angelos Chaniotis writes about official memory in the Greek cities, drawing attention to the wealth of information provided by epigraphic material. The political asymmetry between the Greek cities and their Roman superiors called for encomiastic oratory in which the city’s history was celebrated, to Roman as well as to local audiences, and the occasions for such oratory were many and varied. The public space of the city states was full of oral literature.

As sources for ex tempore performance, Ewen Bowie analyzes an exciting selection of inscriptions, especially victor lists—one of them not hitherto published—as well as other texts related to public contests, all printed in full and with English translation added. Even though these texts “have only a precarious claim to be oral” (49), they offer much information about what was expected of a performance, what types of performance were most admired, and in general, the broad variety of occasions for oral performance. Paradoxically enough, Chaniotis and Bowie between them demonstrate how writing on stone, this most sternly non-oral “performance”, offers many glimpses into the oral culture of the city states.

JosĂ©-Antonio FernĂĄndez Delgado moves to the private sphere, analyzing Plutarch’s description of The Banquet of the Seven Sages. He emphasizes the lively tone of the dialogue, the close connection with the practice of rhetorical training, and the ethopoiia in the characterization of the speakers.

Harold Tarrant singles out Plutarch’s De genio Socratis and Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon for an examination of variations of register.

With Consuelo Ruiz-Montero‘s chapter we enter the world of folklore. She writes of oral tales as represented in literature, and, at least to the present reader, it is overwhelming how much she has found. Her main sources are Xenophon of Ephesus and Achilles Tatius, but many others are included, as well as visual representations. She dwells on recurring characters such as the old woman or the old man as narrator, and reveals narrative patterns, type stories and common themes. We learn that Phoenicia was famous not only for the alphabet, but also for obscene stories, and we hear of various narrating communities. Much of the analysis is concerned with purely literary topics, such as the use of Homer and Plato as hypotexts for storytelling. Learning and enthusiasm together make for pleasant reading.

Loreto NĂșnez’ chapter is about Apuleius’ Metamorphoses and Florida, “treated as two complementary examples by the same author, through which one may examine the issue of orality from various angles” (153). NĂșnez’ strength is her application of refined literary methodology to these ancient narratives, but since Apuleius writes in Latin her chapter does not really contribute to the common topic, Greek imperial literature.

In her subtle analysis of Lucian, Francesca Mestre refers to a long list of this author’s works. Her point of departure is that imperial Greece is “a book-oriented society in which, however, the oral remains preeminent” (185). Lucian lived in the age of the Second Sophistic, but does not easily fit into the characteristics of the movement, Mestre maintains. Three aspects of his use of public speech show the importance everything oral had for Lucian: the incorporation of oral tales within his narratives, his focus on hypercorrect speech, and the importance he attributed to oral performances for the cultural interaction with their audience of Ă©lite pepaideumenoi. The paper is clear and well argued, and the reader feels almost invited into the ancient author’s head to share his desire for being heard. For Lucian, “culture is Greek and in Greek” (202), but it is as if this wonderful medium were beset on all sides by dangerous misuse. Convincingly, Mestre sees a connection between Lucian’s obsession with linguistic propriety and the fact that he was a not a native speaker of Greek.

Antonio Stramaglia draws attention to two illustrated papyri, fragments of different copies of one and the same book, and claims that Greeks and Romans were familiar with ‘comic books’. He also considers what kinds of readership such books may have had and underlines the fact that they do not appear to be school books. Various details suggest “readers who might well have been eager, but who were not especially well-educated” (211).

Philogelos is the only jest book which has survived even though other such books are known to have existed. Mario Andreassi’s chapter is a study of the compiler, since his social and cultural provenance must have played a crucial role in the transition of the jokes from a mainly oral tradition to a written form. Andreassi argues that he belongs to a school milieu, and that the fact that the grammatikos or scholastikos is regularly derided is to be understood as umorismo autodelatorio.

Descriptions of sanctuaries, mainly by Plutarch and Pausanias, are the object of Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis’ lively paper. She concentrates on Apollo’s sanctuary in Delphi where she exploits oral performance from many angles. Building on modern research on the senses in antiquity, she takes her readers on a pilgrimage in which she aims at “a re-tracing of the sensory experience of sacred travel” (240). She points to a passage in Heliodorus’ Aethiopica in which it is underlined how visual, acoustic, and oral elements of pilgrim experience are mixed. Straightforward performances of written poetry and prose, as well as more complex phenomena such as oracular encounters with the god became stone monuments which in turn gave rise to viewing, reading, discussion and exegesis as secondary oral events. (Here, Line Overmark Juul’s discussion of oracles as oral tradition would have been relevant.[1]) The materiality of the sanctuary was given oral life when visitors recited passages from select classics or discussed the meaning of votive offerings, while buildings and their decoration might be seen as embodiments of oral and written literature.

Jacqueline E. Jay discusses Egyptian oral tales from the first centuries A.D. She has chosen three different groups of fragmentary texts, two Egyptian and one Greek, and takes them as witnesses to the multiculturalism of imperial Egypt.

Ioannis M. Kostantakos closes the volume with a beautifully absurd episode from the Alexander Romance, using it to present what he calls “the archaeology of folk narratives” (281), the study of motifs, patterns of action, and types of tale known from folklore of more recent times, but also represented in antiquity. Already the fact that the Alexander Romanceis known in different versions, places it in the realm of orally transmitted literature, and the selected episode belongs to the category of wonder stories. This contribution opens up wide perspectives.

At the end, the volume has a full bibliography, common for all chapters, an index locorum, a general index, and an index of Greek words.

Since this is not only a stimulating and, in some respects, very modern book, but also a solidly researched work, it may seem unfair to point to missing references. Nevertheless, I wonder at some omissions. It is strange in particular that no mention is made of Parry and Lord’s oral-formulaic theory since after all, it is in Homeric scholarship that classicists have discussed the relation between orality and writing most insistently. Formulas and themes work differently in poetry and prose, and in various genres, but such differences might have been discussed. Furthermore, topics such as narrative patterns and type characters are discussed in this volume, and questions of genre, professionalism, ex tempore vs. memorized performance, etc., are also recurrent among Homeric scholars.

Next, many of the authors mention the problem that they have had to use written sources for finding information of oral texts, but few remarks are spent on the passage from oral to written text, i.e. the role of the scribe. Mario Andreassi’s focus on the compilator (= the scribe in the broader sense) is a pleasant exception. Here Steve Reece’s fundamental study of the general importance of mostly invisible scribes for Greek and Roman literature might have been helpful, but his book is probably too recent to have been used by Ruiz-Montero and her colleagues; my own study of the Homeric scribe has been accessible since 2011.[2]

Last, but not least, for the papers which move in the field of folklore the important work of anthropologists/folklorists would have been relevant. I think especially of Ruth Finnegan, who, among other things, was the first to make clear that poetry might be oral according to composition, transmission, or performance, Bengt Holbek, who introduced a new understanding of fairy tales, and Lauri Honko, who studied the working of oral composition in great depth.[3]

Authors and titles

Consuelo Ruiz-Montero: Introduction.
Angelos Chaniotis: The Oral Transmission of Memory in the Greek Cities of the Imperial Period.
Ewen Bowie: Poetic and Prose Oral Performance in the Greek World of the Roman Empire.
JosĂ©-Antonio FernĂĄndez Delgado: Writing, Orality and Paideia in Plutarch’s The Banquet of the Seven Sages.
Harold Tarrant: Plutarch and the Novel: Register and Embedded Narratives in the De genio Socratis and in Achilles Tatius.
Consuelo Ruiz-Montero: Oral Tales and Greek Fictional Narrative in Roman Imperial Prose.
Loreto NĂșnez: Embedded Orality in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses and Florida.
Francesca Mestre: The Spoken Word, or the Prestige of Orality in Lucian.
Antonio Stramaglia: ‘Comic Books’ in Greco-Roman Antiquity.
Mario Andreassi: Jokes between Orality and Writing: The Case of the Philogelos.
Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis: Oral and Material Aspects of Sanctuaries in Roman Greece: Delphi, Plutarch and Pausanias.
Jacqueline E. Jay: Egyptian Literature and Orality in the Roman Period.
Ioannis M. Konstantakos: The Island that was a Fish: An Ancient Folktale in the Alexander Romance and in Other Texts of Late Antiquity.


[1] Line Overmark Juul, Oracular Tales in Pausanias, Odense 2010.

[2] Steve Reece, Paul’s Large Letters: Paul’s Autographic Subscriptions in the Light of Ancient Epistolary Conventions, London 2017; Minna Skafte Jensen, Writing Homer: A Study Based on Results from Modern Fieldwork, Copenhagen 2011.

[3] Ruth Finnegan, Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance and Social Context, Cambridge 1977, the three aspects p. 17; Bengt Holbek, Interpretation of Fairy Tales, Helsinki 1987; Lauri Honko, Textualising the Siri Epic, Helsinki 1998.