BMCR 2021.09.29

Lyric poetry and social identity in archaic Greece

, Lyric poetry and social identity in archaic Greece. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020. Pp. xii, 252. ISBN 9780472131853 $75.00.


Over the past decade, the study of the symposion has established its centrality in the social dynamics of archaic Greece.[1] Particular attention has been paid to its importance as a venue for individuals to perform and assert their identities as elites. Lyric Poetry and Social Identity in Archaic Greece contributes to this evolving field by showing how symposiasts’ poetic performances also served to define group identities.

Romney’s argument is in two parts. First, she catalogues the strategies poets used to strike the delicate balance of establishing their own authority while respecting the egalitarian ethos of their audience. Critical discourse analysis and sociolinguistics inform her analysis of each of these strategies. The approachable introduction to these methodologies and their later marriage with more traditional philological techniques are among the book’s great strengths.  Second, she identifies three ways poets who applied these techniques could shape group identity. Devoting a chapter to each, she shows how poets mitigated past shortcomings, established norms, and set political agendas. Sympotic poetry thus had the power to define a group’s past, present, and future, as she demonstrates in a series of close readings of poems from throughout the extant corpus.

Romney’s view of the symposion emphasizes the cohesion of the sympotic group. This view manifests itself in two premises. First, poets always aim to unite the group and never risk dividing it. Second, and more fundamentally, a symposiast’s presence is enough to ensure his acceptance as a full member of the sympotic group (11). In this, she departs from the more competitive picture of some recent studies, where an individual might fail to convince their audience that they belong.[2] I find both premises unduly limiting. The latter in particular places the most fundamental act of group definition—deciding who belongs in the group—outside of the scope of the symposion. Nonetheless, where consistent with her picture of the symposion Romney convincingly elucidates the subtle ways poets defined the identities and values of their audience.

The book’s outline is as follows. The introduction clearly and concisely lays out the social history of symposia, the sympotic nature of lyric poetry, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, and identity theory. The first chapter identifies the strategies authors use to claim authority over and shape their group. The next three chapters each explore different ways sympotic poetry shaped group identity with an extended reading of two poems by a single poet and a survey of relevant passages from other poets. In the second chapter, Romney studies the dynamics of group identity creation in martial lyric with an analysis of Tyrtaeus fragments 11 and 12.[3] The third chapter examines how Alcaeus’ fragments 129 and 130b mitigate the threats that exile and betrayal present to the group. The fourth chapter uses Solon fragments 4 and 33 to show how authors create a persuasive identity in political poetry. Finally, there is a brief conclusion.

The first chapter lays the groundwork for the rest of the book by setting forth the strategies that sympotic poets used to establish their authority and shape the values of their group. Because these strategies serve as the foundation of the arguments made in subsequent chapters, they call for discussion at length.

Poets used four strategies to establish their authority: 1) they claimed privileged knowledge, 2) adopted a didactic tone, 3) composed poems with a strong “I”, and 4) made claims to the control of poetic memory.

In her discussion of these strategies, Romney pays particular attention to the poet’s dependence on his audience as guarantors of his authority. The first, privileged knowledge, granted the poet power over the audience as gatekeeper, but the poet only derived authority when sharing that privileged information. The audience’s necessity thus granted them a measure of power. The second, the didactic pose, also intimately involved the audience by dividing them into those who teach by silently assenting to the performance and those who are taught. By involving the audience in his lesson, the poet gains their implicit endorsement of his authority. Third, the use of a strong “I” subtly assimilated the “we” of the sympotic group to the “I” of the poet. This strategy embraced two subtypes: a “riskier” (23) stance that forces the audience to side with or against the poet, and one that merely assumes agreement. The first opens the possibility that the poet may have purposefully created division among the sympotic group, but in keeping with Romney’s cohesive view of the symposion this possibility goes largely undiscussed in the examples studied. The final strategy lays claim to the poet’s ability to memorialize, which depends on the poetry’s worthiness of reperformance in the eyes of the audience. In each case, the poet’s tools are only as effective as the audience allows.

In addition to the four strategies that established authority, five strategies used that authority to define the group: 1) the fiction of sameness, 2) direct address, 3) commands, 4) shared history, and 5) juxtaposition with out-groups. These strategies unite the group within the identity put forward by the poet and spur them on to his preferred action.

In each case, the realities of performance ensure the strategies’ effectiveness. First, the egalitarian rituals of the symposion reinforced the fiction of sameness, which in turn reinforced group cohesion. Next, Romney argues that the fact of the symposiasts’ presence means that every address, no matter how specific, is actually addressed to the group as a whole. This is the only catalogued strategy that I do not find convincing, as it overlooks the possibility that other symposiasts may be conceptualized as acceptable eavesdroppers of a direct address rather than implied addressees themselves. Third, commands directly urge the audience to adopt the poet’s desired behavior. When they concern actions beyond the symposion, these commands reinforce cohesion by inviting the group to imagine themselves collectively carrying them out. Fourth, the creation of a shared history is partly dictated by the realities of the past but can nonetheless be shaped by a skillful poet who could make use of the shared space of the present symposion to evoke a shared past. Finally, the threat of out-groups enhanced the togetherness of the sympotic group. Beyond simply binding the in-group, a poet could attribute certain values to out-groups to discourage symposiasts from adopting them. Explicit contrasts between in-groups and out-groups are rare, however, and Romney speculates that this may reflect a desire to exclude the negativity of the outside world from the symposion.

In the second chapter, Romney shows how martial lyric used these strategies to create a consistent identity around the possession of a shield and the courage never to yield ground in battle. Furthermore, she argues that polis ideology took these ideals over from martial lyric rather than vice versa. Balance is again key: the diversity of the hoplite phalanx prompted martial lyric to accommodate both elite feeling and the need to unite the whole phalanx. A persuasive reading of Tyrtaeus 12 demonstrates how the aner agathos is deceptively redefined as an ideal achievable by all: one need only hold one’s ground in battle and be willing to die. In reality, this is an “illusion of egalitarianism” (78) because only elites in the full panoplia would stand as forefighters and be given the opportunity to display these virtues. Romney’s analysis of Tyrtaeus 11 shows how the poet unites the diverse syssition audience with commands that manipulate their perspective with shifts in person and number to form a common identity inhabitable by all.

In the third chapter, Romney studies how sympotic poetry confronted and mitigated the constant threat of dissolution from external forces such as exile and internal forces such as betrayal. In an extended reading of Alcaeus fragment 129 (one of the best in the book), Romney shows how the poet used shifting tenses to create a poetic in-between time and space for the sympotic group to inhabit in the face of exile, while taking advantage of the shared physical space to reinforce the contrast between the good group (the hetaireia) and the bad individual (Pittacus). Moreover, Alcaeus precluded challenges to the group’s cohesion by editing history to frame Pittacus as an oath breaker from the very beginning. The third chapter also discusses other poets’ responses to similar threats. Particular attention is paid to Theognis, who frequently complained about betrayal, false friendship, and exile. These complaints often seem to be directed at fellow symposiasts, and Romney’s attempts to incorporate them into her schema of mitigation are uncharacteristically unconvincing. Romney argues that Theognis’ complaints could not have targeted the symposiasts present because to do so would undermine the group bond (122). Allegedly, the targets are unnamed false friends outside the symposion rather than the participants inside. It would be interesting to see Romney weigh her argument against couplets such as Theognis 115-116 and 643-644, in which the trustworthiness of sympotic companions specifically is called into question.

The fourth chapter focuses on sympotic poetry’s ability to create a shared political identity constructed by the individual poet. Particular attention is paid to how Solon presents his values, and by implication himself, as the solution to the problems facing the polis. In her reading of fragment 4, Romney shows how Solon creates an out-group so large that it demands unity among the in-group. Because the out-group is defined by its lack of moderation, the in-group is motivated to adhere in the present symposion to the restraint Solon advocates. Romney emphasizes the importance of the poet’s manipulation of pronouns: the almost startling “we” that begins the poem is eventually subsumed into the poet’s “I.” That same process of assimilation also takes place at the end of the poem, where Solon reframes his own solution to the political problems (which, importantly, he alone can identify) as a divinity, Eunomiē. The combined forces of these rhetorical moves lead the audience to line up behind Solon.

As the conclusion reiterates, the process of identity construction never ends. Instead, the poems studied here would have been reperformed widely. Romney acknowledges this element of the poems’ reception, but only in terms of the original poets’ ability to manipulate it. Such sociohistorical specificity is understandable given the book’s focus on the poets’ use of specific strategies but leaves subsequent performers’ ability to repurpose the poetry creatively for their own rhetorical circumstances unexplored.

This book is an important resource for those interested in understanding the strategies that poets used to assert authority and build consensus within their sympotic group. While I do not share Romney’s conviction that cohesion was the overriding goal—let alone the uniform result—of sympotic performances, I have no doubt that poets could have used the tools Romney has so skillfully described even in symposia more competitive than she allows for. Lyric Poetry and Social Identity in Archaic Greece is a thought-provoking contribution to the study of the dynamics of elite archaic symposia.


[1] See in particular: F. Hobden, 2013. The Symposion in Ancient Greek Society and Thought. Cambridge; and M. Węcowski, 2014. The Rise of the Greek Aristocratic Banquet. Oxford.

[2] N.b. Hobden 2013, 57-65 and Węcowksi 2014, 55. Romney’s picture does closely align, however, with that painted in S. Caciagli, 2018. L’eteria arcaica e classica. Bologna.

[3] All fragment numbers are from West’s Oxford edition.