BMCR 2024.05.18

A companion to Greek lyric

, A companion to Greek lyric. Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell, 2022. Pp. 608. ISBN 9781119122623.


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


This voluminous companion has a dual purpose. Firstly, it serves as a guide for those new to the field, providing a comprehensive overview of the contexts, themes, and techniques involved in dealing with ancient Greek lyric, particularly given its fragmentary state. Secondly, it presents the current state of research and the recently expanded range of methodological approaches to these texts. After abbreviations, author biographies, and the preface, the main part consists of four well-organised sections, comprising a total of 35 chapters written by renowned experts in their respective fields. A ‘further reading’ section in each chapter, a thorough overall bibliography, and a useful index complete the volume.


Section 1: Contexts

The first section lays the groundwork for entering into the archaic Greek mindset and contexts of lyric production. Athanassaki deals with the ‘business’ of lyric choruses and public performance practice; her depictions of the roles of choreuts and chorodidaskaloi are illuminating, especially the twofold position of the chorodidaskalos towards the chorus (p. 12f. and 17): the chorodidaskalos actively leads the chorus as ‘pupils’ in singing the inspired poetry while passively led by it as a ‘Muse’ to new poetic inspiration.[1] Furley then examines the interplay of the abstract literary artistry of lyric prayers and an actual living belief in the gods. The interesting relationship and mutual enrichment of the two main poetic genres of the time, epic and lyric, is then expounded by Kelly. He points out commonalities and differences and elucidates the subtleties of their sometimes blurry genre boundaries, giving examples such as Stesichorus’ extensive epic songs. This is followed by the broad field of poetry related to athletic competition, and its significance for social advancement and prestige (Nicholson); the realm of symposia as crucial locations for lyric performance, and the query of how accurately phrases such as ‘aristocracy’ depict sections of ancient society (Węcowski); and last the political circumstances and social upheavals between individuals and rising institutions, tyrannies and emerging democracies (Hall).


Section 2: Methodologies and Techniques

As stated in the preface, some of these technical essays require more prior knowledge of Greek than most of the other chapters. For students unfamiliar with papyrology, Sampson offers an ideal, ‘demystifying’ (91) introduction: structured, illuminating, and up-to-date on digital resources. The images of papyri, ample exemplary transcripts, and the final paragraph on ‘papyrological ethics’ are particularly noteworthy. Phillips elucidates the indirect transmission of lyric through citation and scholia, especially in Pindar’s case. D’Angour then provides a clear overview of lyric meter (first in general, then archaic, then classic meter), garnished with enjoyable mnemonics. The ‘Lyric Dialects’ chapter by de Kreij covers the language of all nine canonical lyricists one by one, each with a concise list of general features followed by the respective poet’s particular phonology and morphology, presented in bullet points with numerous examples.

The remaining chapters of this section move away from the hands-on technical equipment into the field of (new) theoretical constructs underlying the interpretation of lyric, such as pragmatics (deixis: van Emde Boas) and, exemplified by Sappho fr. 2 (inviting Aphrodite into her enchanting locus amoenus), and the ‘spatial turn’ (Giesecke), which opens up a new ‘space’ for lively hypotheses and creative contemporary viewpoints but whose benefit for the understanding of the poem’s inherent information and layers of meaning will be judged divergently.

Montgomery Griffiths’ essay brings an element of surprise to this volume. Being an intriguing and profoundly personal report of her own production and performance of a Sappho piece, it seems a bit out of place in the otherwise sober and impartial section on methods and techniques. As a postmodern example of artistic treatment of an ancient subject, it would make a suitable closing chapter of the ‘Receptions’ section.


Section 3: Authors and Forms

Of the fourteen essays, three deal with lyric sub-genres (iambos, elegy, and dramatic lyric); nine on individual poets; one concentrates on the phenomenon of Athenian ‘New Music’ in the late 5th and early 4th century, and one on the later development in Hellenistic poetry. The chapters on Iambos (Lennartz) and Elegy (Bartol) present the characteristics, contexts, and historical development; in addition, they introduce several significant representatives of these genres. The following nine chapters on particular poets almost correspond to the Greek lyric canon, but Ibycus and Anacreon are treated together in one essay (Cingano) and leave room for two more: Solon and Theognis (Bowie).

The chapters on ‘New Music’ and ‘Dramatic Lyric’ are notable. LeVen discusses identifiable rhythmical, stylistic and other innovations of the ‘New Music’ period in Athens and provides an antenna for the nuances of their ancient perception and evaluation. She succeeds in grasping these vague and hardly classifiable phenomena and their complex socio-political implications. Swift further broadens the generic exploration area of Greek lyric: she promotes the highly elaborate (choral and later monodic) lyric parts of drama, inviting readers to read them ‘not only as drama, but also as song’ (388). Surely these passages should not be altogether wrested from their contexts, and the ancient readers and scholars who formed the canon of Greek lyric poets would probably not have thought of inserting full-blooded dramatists, but neither does the modern compartmentalization of research areas always do full justice to the texts. In addition to the kinship in vocabulary, imagery, and meter, the interaction of some choral passages with ‘pure’ lyric poetry can prove their close affinity. For instance, the strong reception of Anacreon in the second stasimon of Euripides’ Cyclops, called ‘Anacreontea avant la lettre’ by Peter Bing,[2]could be another illustrative argument in favour of Swift’s point.

Morrison closes the section with a prospect of later lyric production and its preceding and underlying transformative processes: the character of Hellenistic poetry compared to the archaic era, the changed circumstances, styles, and focuses, the influence of a growing book culture and rising scholarship. His essay constitutes a fitting point of connection with the ‘Receptions’ section.


Section 4: Receptions

This varied final section covers a broad range of areas and ways of reception. It goes from the ancient Roman imitatio and aemulatio[3] to German Pindar during the periods of the reformation, neoclassicism and beyond: Hamilton (447) quotes from Goethe’s passionate 1772 letter to Herder ‘Ich wohne jetzt in Pindar’ (one recalls Montgomery Griffiths’ Sappho). It further ranges from the American Anacreon (Rosenmeyer on the US National Anthem) to Simonides, Alcman, Sappho in Scotland (Allan); and from the feminist movement of the past and current century and the case of Anne Carson (Johnson and Silverblank) to translation theory in Brazil. Some exemplary chapters will be presented in more detail here.

Zanker explores the appropriation of Greek lyric in Horace under the three headlines of (I) ‘adjustment of Greek meters’ (less metrical variation in Horace’s Sapphic and Alcaic stanza), (II) the iambic and the lyric side of reception, and (III) the technique of ‘blending’ several threads into one. In Part II, Zanker gives the most common and obvious examples of Horatian imitatio, including the well-established theory of first motto verses. Part III shows how Horace blends (1) Greek with Roman culture and contexts; (2) the archaic with the Hellenistic lyric tradition (whose influence was formerly underestimated) ‒ one should add here Feeney’s most illuminative coinage of an archaic-Hellenistic ‘twin inheritance’;[4] (3) the genre blending, plausibly illustrated by means of the category theory (421). Epodes 11, 13 and 14 are mentioned as prime examples of audacious genre blending (lyric-elegiac content in a quintessentially iambic book); Epode 14 could be even more exploited for genre blend by pointing to the lyricist par excellence Anacreon (l. 9‒12), whose poetic production is best known for wine and love but encompasses harsh iambics, too. Horace’s probably conscious reception of the oldest Anacreontea alongside Anacreon would be another tangible example of Hellenistic and archaic blending.

Allendorf deals with the reception before and after Augustan poetry. His discussion of various Sappho 31 receptions and reminiscences (Catullus, Valerius Aedituus, Lucretius, Plautus) is convincing and engaging. An excursus concentrates on Ennius and Euripides, whereby it exemplifies the perception of choral parts in drama ‘as lyric poetry in their own right’ (Swift in ‘Dramatic Lyric’, 377f.). Laevius’ technopaegnia, inspired by Simmias of Rhodes, get surprisingly full treatment. They constitute the juncture to the second part (‘After the Augustans’), which begins with late antique Optatian and his extravagant geometric poems, which seem to be more influenced by Horace and Catullus than by Greek predecessors (rather vague receptions of Vestinus and Simmias are mentioned). Due to the technopaegnia juncture, the chronology is not observed when Seneca the Younger is discussed after Optatian. His reception of Pindar in Thyestes is interesting, but one would like to have more extensive quotations from the relevant passages for comparison. In the chapter introduction, Allendorf shows awareness for his ‘most obvious omissions’ (425): the rich material for Greek reception in Statius and Martial remains unexplored. In an introductory companion, the reader would perhaps prefer those to the rather special and somewhat remote case of Optatian, who depends on Latin poets more than on Greek lyric. Studies of Statius and Martial could be encouraged in the ‘further reading’ section.

At the end of the volume, de Brose presents the state of affairs in Brazil. He first summarises the history of Classics since the 16th century, then focuses on more recent direct translations of Greek lyric, mainly Pindar, into Brazilian Portuguese. His essay broadens the horizons of familiar reception areas. Although the study of Greek lyric in Brazil does not yet have a long and rich tradition, and therefore its artistic reception is even less established, de Brose conveys a valuable insight into the highly complex matter of adequate translations, inventive and intelligible use of the target language, and concepts such as ‘transcreative translation’.



A noteworthy feature of the volume is the repeated appearance of significant fragments of Greek lyric, particularly those of Sappho, in various contexts. This allows the reader to gradually become familiar with them from multiple perspectives. Two examples of Sappho beyond Lardinois’ essay: (1) Sappho’s Tithonus poem P.Köln 11.429 appears e.g. in Athanassaki (bitterness of old age); Furley (religion, immortality); Kelly (Tithonus between epic and lyric); Sampson (restorations of the first two verses). (2) Sappho 31 appears e.g. in D’Angour (Sapphic stanza); Boas (spatial deixis); Allendorf (Latin reception before the Augustans); Silverblank (Anne Carson’s translation in If Not, Winter). In comparison to Budelmann’s 2009 Cambridge Companion to Greek Lyric,[5] this volume has a clear advantage in Section 2. While Budelmann’s companion also includes ‘Language and pragmatics’ (with a helpful map of dialect areas on page 121, which would have suited de Kreij’s chapter, too) and ‘Metre and music’, it lacks, for instance, anything comparable to the invaluable introduction to papyrology.

This new companion provides a comprehensive survey of key information and perspectives on Greek lyric in an accessible language. In the discussions, excessively detailed and subtle scholarly questions are generally avoided, as is fitting for a companion. Its 35 knowledgeable chapters will meet the expectations and needs of Classics students who embark on an in-depth study of Greek lyric.


Authors and Titles

Section 1: Contexts

Lucia Athanassaki, ‘The Lyric Chorus’

William Furley, ‘Religion and Ritual in Early Greek Lyric’

Adrian Kelly, ‘Epic and Lyric’

Nigel Nicholson, ‘Commemorating the Athlete’

Marek Węcowski, ‘Aristocracy, Aristocratic Culture, and the Symposium’

Jonathan M. Hall, ‘Politics’


Section 2: Methodologies and Techniques

C. Michael Sampson, ‘Papyrology’

Tom Phillips, ‘Citation and Transmission’

Armand D’Angour, ‘Meter and Music’

Mark de Kreij, ‘The Lyric Dialects’

Evert van Emde Boas, ‘Deixis and World Building’

Annette Giesecke, ‘Lyric Space: Sappho and Aphrodite’s Sanctuary’

Jane Montgomery Griffiths, ‘Sappho, Performance, and Acting Fragments’


Section 3: Authors and Forms

Klaus Lennartz, ‘Iambos’

Krystyna Bartol, ‘Elegy’

P. J. Finglass, ‘Stesichorus’

Timothy Power, ‘Alcman’

André Lardinois, ‘Sappho’

Henry Spelman, ‘Alcaeus’

Ettore Cingano, ‘Ibycus and Anacreon’

Ewen Bowie, ‘Solon and Theognis’

Richard Rawles, ‘Simonides’

Christopher Brown, ‘Pindar’

David Fearn, ‘Bacchylides’

Pauline A. LeVen, ‘The New Music’

Laura Swift, ‘Dramatic Lyric’

A. D. Morrison, ‘The Lyres of Orpheus: The Transformations of Lyric in the Hellenistic Period’


Section 4: Receptions

Andreas T. Zanker, ‘Greek Iambic and Lyric in Horace’

Tobias Allendorf, ‘Greek Lyric at Rome: Before and After Augustan Poetry’

John T. Hamilton, ‘The Gift of Song: German Receptions of Pindar’

Patricia Rosenmeyer, ‘“Anacreon” in America’

William Allan, ‘Greek Lyric: A View from the North’

Marguerite Johnson, ‘Sappho and the Feminist Movement: Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries’

Hannah Silverblank, ‘Anne Carson’s Lyric Temporalities: Desire, Immortality, and Time in the Fragments of Sappho and Stesichorus’

Robert de Brose, ‘Greek Lyric and Pindar in Brazil’



[1] The reader might sometimes miss the Greek text of important fragments alongside the English translations, e.g. the fragments by Sappho, Alcman, and Pindar on pp. 6‒9.

[2] Bing, P.: ‘Anacreontea avant la lettre: Euripides’ Cyclops 495‒518’, in Baumbach, M. / Dümmler, N. (ed.): Imitate Anacreon! Mimesis, Poiesis and the Poetic Inspiration in the Carmina Anacreontea (Millennium Studies 46), Berlin 2014, 25‒45.

[3] The following pertinent monograph could be added to the bibliography: Mundt, F.: Römische Klassik und griechische Lyrik. Transformationen der Archaik in augusteischer Zeit (Zetemata 155), Munich 2018.

[4] Feeney, D.: ‘Horace and the Greek Lyric Poets’, in Rudd, N. (ed.): Horace 2000: A Celebration. Essays for the Bimillennium, London 1993, 41–63, 44.

[5] Budelmann, F. (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Greek Lyric, Cambridge 2009.