Master of the Game: Competition and Performance in Greek Poetry

  Collins, Derek. 2004. Master of the Game: Competition and Performance in Greek Poetry. Hellenic Studies Series 7. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

10. Symposiasts versus Rhapsodes

In Part III we shall see how rhapsodes performing at a major public festival like the Panathenaia were capable of improvising in the course of reciting memorized verses. Memorized lines of Homeric poetry furnish the basis for modifications in sense or embellishment, in other words improvisation, as each competing rhapsode contributes to the larger performance demand of interweaving passages or episodes of Homer. What is important is that each rhapsode pays careful attention to the performance of his competitor(s) and the audience reactions to it. Only by doing so can he effectively gauge the nature of his challenges both with respect to the mood of his audience and to the skill of his adversary. As we have just seen, all of these features are regularly employed in the context of sympotic verse competition.

These formal similarities between sympotic and rhapsodic performance seem to contradict what is often perceived as a main impetus for the very singing of poetry at symposia, especially in the late archaic period. A variety of poetic testimony establishes that poetic performance and the expression of philosophical idealism at the symposium were conceived in direct opposition to the performance tradition of rhapsodes. This opposition operates on two levels, which we might call formal and philosophical. The first, formal opposition is metrical: the lyric and elegiac meters that we find in sympotic poetry contrast themselves with the epic hexameter, even if they do not altogether reject it. The use of lyric meters makes the most fundamental, yet still only formal, break, especially when we witness poets like Stesichorus (e.g. Geryoneis, frr. S7–87 Davies) and Ibycus (S151 Davies) in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE treating epic and mythological themes in choral lyrics and with triadic—strophic, antistrophic, and epodic—struc- tures. Indeed some critics have argued that the centralized, public performances of rhapsodes were developed specifically in reaction to the types of heroic poetry composed by Stesichorus. [1] However, this is a different line of inquiry from the one that we now need to pursue, which is to outline the perceived tension between rhapsodic and sympotic performance in the sixth century and thereafter.

Let us begin with the hexameter. The hexametric line in elegy is closely related to, but developed independently of the epic hexameter, as the research of Nathan Greenberg has shown. [2] Greek elegists, unlike their Roman counterparts, do not explicitly claim that their pentameter serves to reject the hexameter. Yet at a more subtle level there is some evidence that this metrical contrast was nevertheless meaningfully felt. I have in mind the scrap of evidence concerning Pigres of Halicarnassus, who dates to sometime in the second or first century BCE. [3] According to the Suda, it was Pigres (West):

Despite the clear antagonism between the pentameters and hexameters in these examples, we simply do not have enough evidence to know to what extent Theognis or Pigres, or their symposiastic audiences, thought of this kind of elegiac composition in terms of “subverting” the hexameter, and with it the themes and rhapsodic performance of Homeric poetry.

Still, we are justified in pressing this line of thought because such a standpoint does emerge sparklingly in the Amores of Ovid, whose first elegy of book 1 expresses both the metrical and thematic antithesis only hinted at in Pigres:

Arma graui numero uiolentaque bella parabam
     edere, materia conveniente modis.
par erat inferior uersus; risisse Cupido
     dicitur atque unum surripuisse pedem.

I was preparing to sing about arms and violent wars in heroic measure,
     with material suitable to the mode.
The second verse was equal; but Cupid is said to have laughed
     and to have stolen a foot.

(Ovid, Amores 1.1.1–4 Kenney)

Here the point is made directly that the patron god of elegy, Cupid, is himself responsible for modifying the hexameter and thereby upsetting the heroic agenda begun by the first line. The voice of the poet further describes the metrical and thematic lightness that the presence of the pentameter gives to his verses (1.1.17–20):

cum bene surrexit uersu noua pagina primo,
     attenuat neruos proximus ille meos.
nec mihi materia est numeris leuioribus apta,
     aut puer aut longas compta puella comas.

When a new page rose up well with the first verse,
     that second one weakened my strength.
My subject is not suitable for lighter measures,
     neither a boy nor a girl adorned with long hair.

At the end of the poem, the persona of the poet has resigned himself both to a changed meter and to new themes, not to mention a change of costume (1.1.27–30):

sex mihi surgat opus numeris, in quinque residat;
     ferrea cum uestris bella ualete modis.
cingere litorea flauentia tempora myrto,
     Musa per undenos emodulanda pedes.

Let my work rise up in six feet, and fall in five;
     farewell to cruel wars with your measures.
Surround the golden temples with shore-loving myrtle,
     Muse, who ought to be set to eleven feet.

Warfare and elegy never mix, at least ideally, and Ovid is giving form to a sympotic theme that began centuries earlier with Xenophanes (discussed below). The mention of myrtle of course recalls the myrtle branch typically passed around by guests at symposia, and is now intended to adorn the head of the sympotic Muse. But what draws our attention is whether the metrical, as opposed to the thematic, antithesis between the elegy and hexameter, which is so manifest in Ovid, remained fully implicit among the Greek elegists. Pigres and Theognis suggest that perhaps it did not.

The critique of rhapsodes by Plato (in the Ion) and Xenophon (esp. Symposium 3.6 and Memorabilia 4.2.10), which will be treated in detail in Part III, may briefly be brought into the argument at this point. Both critiques, it has been argued, are made from the superior vantage point of the symposium. [9] They derive their substance and point from an aristocratic disdain, still idealized in the fourth century, for the professional and technical skills of rhapsodes, who were perceived to lack genuine education. As Massimo Vetta has put it, sympotic poetry had to be parainetic and thus executed not by one who served as a vehicle of poetic form, but by one who actually lived the ideals of the group. [10] Rhapsodes, as Plato argues, lacked philosophical depth in their training, hence it would be absurd for them to claim (as they apparently did) knowledge of how to be a general based only on their ability to quote speeches of Agamemnon from the Iliad (Ion 540d–541c). In this respect, a rhapsode’s ability to play with poetic form is understood by Plato as indicative of his inability to act in public life. And while there was certainly playfulness in the informal recitation and improvisation at symposia—poetic games that might not otherwise seem serious in themselves—these were conducive to, rather than a substitute for, serious philosophical discussion, as the literary representations of symposia in Plato and Xenophon attest. The curious thing is that there is little evidence outside of Plato and Xenophon that rhapsodes ever made the types of interpretive claims attributed to them. Ion, the rhapsode in Plato’s dialogue of that name, is singular in this respect. Instead we are forced to assume, primarily by way of Plato’s Ion, that rhapsodes (e.g. the Homeridae) maintained control over the Homeric texts and, equally as importantly, that they maintained control or at least had significant influence over their interpretation through their performances. [11] If this is in fact the case then we can better understand why aristocrats, as oligarchic organs of political power and decision-making, often conceived of their occasional symposia as being in direct opposition to centralized rhapsodic performances. They would have resented the popularity, and thereby the communicative reach of rhapsodes, and hence have sought in their own informal groupings to oppose themselves performatively and ideologically to them.

We can take the aristocratic reaction against popular performances a step further. In his extended discussion of the institution of the symposium in Athenian society in the first two books of his Laws, [12] Plato offers a specific critique of public performances that extends beyond his general disdain for the multitude. In short, it is his view that public venues, such as those that furnish the occasion for choral performances, rather than venues like the symposium that comprise intimate friends, actually inhibit the performance of beautiful and beneficial songs. In his ideal polis, the souls of children are to be enchanted (ἐπᾴδειν) by songs that ingrain the choicest noble values (τὰ καλά), and this is to be accomplished through exposure to four groups of male citizens (664b–d). First, there is the Muses’ chorus of children, whose song will be characterized by the utmost vigor. Next there is the chorus of those under thirty years of age, dedicated to Apollo Paean, who will attest to the truth of what is said and be called upon to persuade the youth. Third, is the group aged between thirty and sixty, called the chorus of Dionysus because this reflects their right to drink and to participate in symposia. [13] This is “the best section of the polis” (τὸ ἄριστον τῆς πόλεως), which by reason of age and judgment has the highest capacity to sing the most beautiful and useful songs (665d). Fourth and last is the group no longer able to sing, who will contribute to the edification of the youth by employing moral stories and oracular speech (664d).

The problem for Plato lies in the fact that, as men age they become reluctant to sing songs: indeed the older and more reasonable they become with age, the more ashamed they feel when compelled to sing (665d–e). The comparison made by the Athenian stranger is telling: Οὐκοῦν ἐν θεάτρῳ γε καὶ παντοίοις ἀνθρώποις ᾄδειν ἑστὼς ὀρθὸς ἔτι μᾶλλον αἰσχύνοιτ᾽ ἄν “Accordingly he would be especially ashamed to stand up and sing in the theatre (note γε) to all sorts of people (665e). ” Moreover the fasting and vocal training undertaken by competing choral groups would simply be unacceptable to older men (ibid.). A solution can be found for their reluctance, however, if a law were passed reorganizing the symposium—which is specifically constructed in Plato’s discourse here in opposition to the theatre—because this institution potentially offers the necessary intimacy and companionship for the expression of virtue. No children under eighteen would be allowed to drink, [14] men in their twenties and thirties could drink but would have to abstain from intoxication, while men upon reaching forty could regularly partake of the beneficial effects of intoxication of the symposium—precisely in the presence not of strangers but of intimates (οἰκεῖοι). Such a setting would conduce to the expression and exchange of noble values (666a–c and 671a). Significantly, if his laws were passed symposiasts would ideally leave a symposium as better friends than when they arrived and not, as in the current state of affairs, as enemies (671e).

Thus for Plato the symposium furnishes yet another oppositional value to public poetic performance: if conducted among close friends and intimates, the wine involved will act as a drug to rejuvenate the participants (666b), especially the older men whose wisdom and experience should entitle them to the expression of values beneficial to the polis. [15] Only under these convivial circumstances can a man approach the “best song” (ἡ καλλίστη ᾠδή, 665d, 666e), which, it might be added, cannot be achieved in choral song or in the theatres (667a–b). And while Plato does not mention rhapsodes in this context, he has in fact already mentioned them earlier in the same dialogue when he levels his attack against the subjectivity of judges at public competitions (658b). There the issue was that the best judge of μουσική would be the one who excelled in virtue (ἀρετή) and education (παιδεία) and could recognize a virtuoso performance, not one who allowed the audience to dictate his decision (658e–659c). The best judges in Plato’s view are of course the older and more judicious men (659d), [16] and he attacks the audience on two fronts. On one hand its views are unfairly allowed to predominate in public competitions, a situation which in turn places a premium on courage (ἀνδρεία) in judges to disagree with them (659a). On the other, as we have already seen, an audience of strangers fails to attract the older men who are in the best position to articulate virtue and socially beneficial thought. These arguments work together rather than at cross-purposes to emphasize the symposium as the ideal venue, both for its cohesion and intimate confines, for the communication of social values.

Such a claim was fiercely refuted by the Megareans, however, with whom Athens had fought for the control of Salamis, and Strabo reports that the Megareans had their own version of Iliad 2.557–58:

Αἴας δ᾽ ἐκ Σαλαμῖνος ἄγεν νέας ἔκ τε Πολίχνης
ἔκ τ᾽ Αἰγειρούσσης Νισαίης τε Τριπόδων τε

Ajax led ships from Salamis and Polichne
and from Aegeirousse, Nisaea, and the Tripodoi

Τhis geographically-reconfigured version locates the youths supposedly led by Ajax in Megarean-controlled territory. Yet these verses, if genuine, are not just an expression of local patriotism. [
20] Rather, we must consider whether they imply that the Megareans held their own rhapsodic performances, which were meant, at least as far as the two lines above were concerned, to rival the larger, more centralized performances and thus the political claims being made at Athens. The Homeridae were after all brought to Athens by Hipparchus, according to “Plato” (Hipparchus 228b–c). If viewed in political terms, Hipparchus’ action means that he financed the guild and could thereby use the Homeridae through their Homeric performances for the expression and maintenance of his own political agenda. Hipparchus was said to have brought the Homeridae to Athens furthermore as proof of his wisdom (σοφία). This tradition indicates quite clearly that his cultural prestige, or the prestige that he hoped to acquire, was heavily invested in these performers. [21] At the same time, this kind of tyrannical heavy-handedness and intellectual self-promotion must be viewed against the background of rhapsodic contests at the local level, which could be politically and ideologically positioned in opposition to the larger contests at Athens. In broader terms, it has been argued by others that virtually any local poetic performance of epic must be seen to stand opposed in some measure to the centralized Panhellenic and panathenian performances at Athens. [22] We also know that where localized rhapsodic performances expressed political views in disagreement with a ruler’s agenda, such as the contests in Sicyon, they could be banned, as the story about Cleisthenes attests. [23] Cleisthenes was struggling against powerful Argive aristocrats and the performances, perhaps featuring material from the Theban cycle, incited Argive patriotic fervor. Cleisthenes’ ban demonstrates the influence of rhapsodes on popular political opinion. Rhapsodes, it would seem, became dangerous political liabilities when their performances whipped up dissent among the populace.

Finally, rulers outside of Athens are attested to have had their own rhapsodes in their employ. This custom further suggests that rhapsodes formed the regular accoutrement of politically powerful courts. We shall note later how Dionysius I of Syracuse (Diodorus Siculus 14.109) and Ptolemy II Philadelphus (Plutarch, Convivial Questions 736e) used rhapsodes for their own glorification, the former having composed his own poetry for performance at the Olympic games, while the latter (whether by his own instigation we do not know) had his wedding, questionable as it was in the eyes of Greeks, praised by a rhapsode. In a slightly different way, I would also include among these descriptions the emendation to Odyssey 5.72: ἀμφὶ δὲ λειμῶνες μαλακοὶ ἴου ἠδὲ σελίνου | θήλεον “and the meadows around bloomed with violet and celery” by Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, [27] the pupil of Aristarchus. He is said to have written σίου instead of ἴου, on the grounds that water parsnips rather than violets grow with celery. Notwithstanding Ptolemy’s botanical expertise or lack thereof, what remains significant in my view is his desire to emend the Homeric text, which in turn reflects his desire to have his version publicly performed and thereby ratified. In sum, there is compelling evidence that rulers from Athens to Alexandria, from Peisistratus to Ptolemy Euergetes, sought either through the manipulation of centralized, localized, and private, rhapsodic performances, or through the emendation of the text of Homer itself, to exert or maintain their own political and cultural prestige.

The problem that rhapsodes posed for symposiasts, however, is more complicated than what I have indicated up to this point. For lyric performers at symposia, like rhapsodes, also had longstanding relationships with individual tyrants. When Hipparchus, for example, introduced the Homeridae into Athens, he also had Anacreon of Teos brought to Athens, [32] and was said to have kept Simonides of Ceos in his company ([Plato], Hipparchus 228c). There is no need here to insist on the well-known relationship of patronage between tyrants or royal houses and lyric poets such as Alcaeus, Ibycus, Pindar, Bacchylides, and others. We must also be careful to distinguish between lyric poets whose poetry was originally composed and performed at symposia and the reperformance of that poetry by later performers at other symposia. Instead, what requires explanation is why a philosophical opposition developed between symposiastic poets and rhapsodes in the first place, and then whether such an opposition can be found “materialized” in the formal features of their respective performance techniques. Some interpreters, for example, have used the attacks on rhapsodes by symposiasts to argue for a fundamental difference in conception between the technical, professional performance of rhapsodes and the more informal and improvisational performances of symposiasts. [33] But such a view neglects that there were significant ways in which competitive poetic performance at symposia actually paralleled rhapsodic performance. Thus the ideological opposition to rhapsodes that we are about to trace among symposiasts must be kept separate from their technical performance repertoire, which was partly shared by both of them.


[ back ] 1. Burkert 1987:52–3.

[ back ] 2. Greenberg 1985a, esp. 260 and 1985b.

[ back ] 3. For dating, the Suda attributes to Pigres the Margites and the Batrakhomyomakhia, which is dated to sometime in the second or first century BCE. See West 1971:96.

[ back ] 4. This usage of ἐλεγεῖον to mean ‘pentameter’ rather than ‘elegiac couplet’ reflects the habit of later grammarians, on which see West 1974:3–4.

[ back ] 5. Cf. Greenberg 1985a:256 on the elegiac hexameter: “Rather than end the thought with the hexameter, the hexameter line is used, often, to set the stage, to induce a set of expectations, which the pentameter line is designed to satisfy with closure of sense, with rhetorical point, wit, and contrast.”

[ back ] 6. Fr. 1 West. Cf. the irregular mixture of hexameters and iambic trimeters in “Homerus” fr. 7 West (= P. Oxy. 2309 Lobel), on which see Glei 1992:48n31.

[ back ] 7. Noted by West 1974:17.

[ back ] 8. [Plato], Hipparchus 228b–c, on which see Part III.

[ back ] 9. Vetta 1983:XLIX–LI and Zorzetti 1990:294 and 299.

[ back ] 10. See Vetta 1983:L, “La poesia di intrattenimento deve essere parenetica … e deve essere eseguita da chi non sia semplicemente veicolo di forme poetiche (il rapsodo tradizionale), ma da chi viva e pratichi gli ideali del gruppo. …” “The poetry of entertainment must be parainetic … and must be executed by one who is not simply a vehicle of poetic form (the traditional rhapsode), but by one who lives and practices the ideals of the group. …” This view needs some correction: rhapsodes were not mere vehicles of poetic form and sympotic poetry, as we have seen, was not always parainetic.

[ back ] 11. Cf. Pfeiffer 1968:8.

[ back ] 12. Detailed discussion of the symposium in Plato’s Laws can be found in Tecuşan 1990.

[ back ] 13. Although Plato will later specify that regular participation in sympoisa should happen at forty, while moderate drinking can begin at thirty (Laws 666a–b).

[ back ] 14. This was an old concern at symposia. Cf. Theognis 1351–52: ὦ παῖ, μὴ κώμαζε, γέροντι δὲ πείθεο ἀνδρί- | οὔτοι κωμάζειν σύμφορον ἀνδρὶ νέωι “Boy, do not revel, believe an old man: it doesn’t suit a young man to revel.”

[ back ] 15. This idea in fact was proverbial, as the following hexameter declares: οἶνος ἄνωγε γέροντα καί οὐκ ἐθέλοντα χορεύειν “wine bids an old man even against his will to dance (cited in Athenaeus 428a).”

[ back ] 16. Plato even goes so far as to say that, if given the freedom to do so, children would adjudge puppeteers victors, older boys would grant victory to writers of comedy, while educated women and young men would grant it to writers of tragedy. Older men, on the other band, would give victory to a rhapsode who beautifully recited the Iliad or Odyssey or something from Hesiod (Laws 658c–d).

[ back ] 17. See now e.g. IG II2 2311 (Athens, c. 380 BCE) and IG XII 9.189 (Euboea, c. 341/0 BCE) with Nagy 2002:38–40.

[ back ] 18. Diogenes Laertius 1.48, Plutarch, Solon 10, Quintilian 5.40.

[ back ] 19. Cicero, De oratore 3.137, with Nagy 1996:79.

[ back ] 20. As Ludwich 1898:165 claimed.

[ back ] 21. Hipparchus’ σοφία is further demonstrated in the elegies, both of others and of his own poetry, which he had inscribed on herms in the countryside ([Plato], Hipparchus 228d), on which see Nagy 1990b:161.

[ back ] 22. The pervasive significance of the contrast between local and Panhellenic performance has been discussed by Nagy 1990b:52–81, esp. 67 and 70–74.

[ back ] 23. Herodotus 5.67, with Cingano 1985.

[ back ] 24. Cf. the related version that Lycurgus acquired the Homeric poems from the descendants of Creophylus in Samos, in Plutarch, Lycurgus 4.4.

[ back ] 25. The central importance of Homeric performances at Athens is attested further in Isocrates, Panegyricus 159 and Lycurgus, Against Leocrates 102.

[ back ] 26. For the range of meanings of this term in the context of the Panathenaia, see Nagy 2002:38–42.

[ back ] 27. Athenaeus 61c = FGH 234 F 11. Cf. scholia to Theocritus 5.125.

[ back ] 28. Plato, Theaetetus 173d.

[ back ] 29. This is discussed in detail by Murray 1990c.

[ back ] 30. Aristotle, fr. 558 Rose. This uprising is reported to have begun when some Naxian youths while drunk reveled (ὑποπιόντες ἐκώμασαν) at the home of Telestagoras, a well-known and honored citizen, whom they assaulted along with his two daughters. Civil war broke out when other outraged Naxians attacked the youths in revenge.

[ back ] 31. For example, we have already mentioned the account of how the death of Cleitus at the hands of Alexander began after there was much drinking and songs were sung ridiculing Alexander’s own commanders (Plutarch, Alexander 50–1). In Corinth, the death of Actaeon, son of Melissus, resulted when his ἐραστής, Archias, approached his home in a revel (ἐπεκώμασεν) to take him by force. Not unlike the mythical character of the same name, this Actaeon was pulled to pieces by the revelers and his father’s friends and neighbors who sought to protect him (Plutarch, Moralia 772e–773b). In Rome, we might note the sympotic background to the legend of Lucretia (Livy 1.57), on which see Zorzetti 1990:301.

[ back ] 32. Before this, Anacreon had served in the employ of Polycrates, tyrant of Samos (Aelian, Varia Historia 9.4)

[ back ] 33. Zorzetti 1990:294. Not all symposiasts rejected rhapsodes either, if we may judge from Alcaeus’ rhapsodic adaptations (fr. 347 with Hesiod, Works and Days 582–88).