BMCR 2022.04.24

Acusilaus of Argos’ Rhapsody in prose: introduction, text, and commentary

, Acusilaus of Argos' Rhapsody in prose: introduction, text, and commentary. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, volume 70. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. Pp. xvi, 186. ISBN 9783110616958 €109,95.

It is often said that the success of an ancient author in their own time can be determined by how thoroughly they annihilated their predecessors. If this is true, we might reasonably say that Herodotus was one of the most successful authors from antiquity. Indeed, the corpora of his forerunners were often reduced to little more than compilations of single-line (or even word!) quotes by ancient scholars or scholiasts, whose use is often relegated to pedantic semantics; extended quotes or narratives from these figures are exceedingly rare. For these reasons, Ilaria Andolfi’s new text and commentary on the fragments of Acusilaus of Argos sheds invaluable light on the world of pre-Herodotean historical and mythographic inquiry and the Argive logographer’s place in it.

A revision of the second half of her doctoral dissertation from the University of Rome, Andolfi’s commentary begins with an introduction to Acusilaus which is highly valuable not only for its systematic exploration of the shadowy figure and his work’s contents, but its careful consideration of early Greek mythography and historiography generally.[1] In particular, Andolfi’s analysis of the transformation of genealogies from the epic tradition, evinced especially by the Hesiodic poems, to prose narratives is especially valuable for contextualizing the fragments in the larger literary and intellectual milieu of the late archaic period. Yet, this is also where the commentary struggles most.

Immediately, a fundamental difficulty to Andolfi’s project presents itself in the author’s definition of rhapsode. Looking to the performative element of the poetry, Andolfi rightly observes: “The age of composition and the topic itself of Acusilaus’ book (theogony and heroic genealogies) make it plausible to envisage some manner of public lectures.”[2] But, given the limitations on our understanding of publication and composition in the late 6th century, should we expect that public performance was an activity that immediately marked a performer out as poetic or rhapsodic? Particularly when Herodotus’ text composed nearly a century after Acusilaus’ offers considerable evidence that epideictic performance was still a part of the prose author’s craft.[3] Further, Andolfi sees in the fragment’s impersonal narration an additional parallel to rhapsody: “the impersonality that Acusilaus (but also Pherecydes of Athens) adopted in narrating resembles that of the rhapsodes, who speak about themselves only in extraordinary circumstances (see the famous case of the “blind man from Chios” in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo).” Here again, this is not an unreasonable inference, but the profoundly short fragments offer little in the way of continuous narrative to accurately assess the claim. And finally, Andolfi treats exegesis and explication as a largely rhapsodic activity: “Moreover, in the manner of a rhapsode, who was expected to clarify what was no longer fully intelligible to his audience, Acusilaus seems to have offered instances of poetic exegesis.” While I leave it to other readers to determine how convincing they find the soundness of this definition, more importantly, we may ask what we gain from seeing Acusilaus as a later-day rhapsode.

While few, indeed, would deny the narrative parallels between early historiography and epic poetry, we may wonder why we should value the activity and status of the epic singer over the literary genealogist in the late archaic period, a time when the profession of bard was under fire by Ionian intellectuals and lyric poets alike.[4] Put another way, we might easily say the reason such similarities exist is that both sets of authors were fundamentally concerned with similar activities: the preservation of historical—especially local historical—events. But we have long been aware of the anachronisms imposed on the Homeric corpus by seeing “Homer” as a poetic historian attempting to break free of the restrictions of his medium. So why should we treat Acusilaus analogously, by seeing him as a literary figure who looks back and largely avoids the intellectual trends of his own time?

This issue is particularly troubling when we observe the paucity of the fragments and the historical and intellectual context of the Ionian intellectual revolution. If, for instance, only Xenophanes’ description of the chariot of the Muses survived, we should struggle to see him as little more than just another lyric poet. Yet, it is in the passages that follow where the personality and character of his intellectual project emerges. On the basis of our evidence, then, why should we see Acusilaus as a prose rhapsode, and not, for instance, a historical natural philosopher using the sources he had at his disposal? To be sure, Andolfi is right in observing that Acusilaus does not look as robustly pre-Socratic as the narrative persona we can observe in frg. 1 of Hecataeus of Miletus, but would Hecataeus look so radical if the entirety of his proem failed to survive, as Acusilaus’ has? Furthermore, the literary exegesis Andolfi marshals as evidence for rhapsodic parallels is well shared with the natural philosophers, who regularly highlight, criticize, or even savage the inconsistencies, vagaries, or patent falsehoods of the poets.[5] This is not to suggest that Andolfi’s view on parallels with the rhapsodes is incorrect; rather, upon analyzing her commitment to the notion that Acusilaus must be seen as a prose rhapsode and exploration of  that hypothesis exclusio alterius, the reader is struck with the feeling that something more interesting and productive could have been done by expanding the view a bit more.

I must emphasize that these observations should in no way be taken as a repudiation of Andolfi’s project. Instead, these questions, generated by reading Andolfi’s thoughtful introduction and commentary should serve to highlight how much we gain from the project itself! Indeed, there is a great deal to praise here. Andolfi’s presentation of the text and immediate commentary directly under the Greek offers an especially thorough approach to probing the paltry fragments. And Andolfi’s expansive discussion of contexts of quotations, parallels in other historical or mythological content, and especially linguistic irregularities in the surviving text, is especially impressive and deserves special praise.

The commentary is a true accomplishment which should sit on the shelf of everyone interested in Herodotus, early Greek historiography, mythography, or lyric poetry, and Andolfi has done the field a great service by shedding precious light on the murky figure of Acusilaus of Argos.


[1] Andolfi 2019, IX.

[2] Andolfi 2019, 29.

[3] For instance, Herodotus’ introduction to the famous “constitutional debate” (Hdt.3.82.1) presupposes audience interaction and engagement with the text he is about to present.

[4] Xenophanes, frg.7 is a case in point.

[5] Andolfi, 2019, 31 rightly acknowledges the revisionist tendencies of not only the Ionian sources, but even poets themselves. Pindar’s treatment of Pelops’ ivory shoulder (O.1.35-55) is a prime example.