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.

11. Xenophanes

Elsewhere the traditional content of epic is more explicitly rejected by Xenophanes as an unsuitable theme for the symposium. For him the after-dinner poetic performances—in other words, those contained in the symposium proper—must concern themes appropriate to the symposium as a festive and at the same time harmonious occasion, with due reverence for divine sanction. [5] We have already seen what a typical program for the symposium looks like, and it accords only in relative terms with Xenophanes’ view that poetic performance should proceed from a proper state of mind (B 1.13–24 West = 21 B 1 DK = Athenaeus 462c–f):

          χρὴ δὲ πρῶτον μὲν θεὸν ὑμνεῖν εὔφρονας ἄνδρας
               εὐφήμοις μύθοις καὶ καθαροῖσι λόγοις·
15    σπείσαντάς τε καὶ εὐξαμένους τὰ δίκαια δύνασθαι
             πρήσσειν· ταῦτα γὰρ ὦν ἐστι προχειρότερον
          οὐγ ὕβρεις· πίνειν ὁπόσον κεν ἔχων ἀφίκοιο
             οἴκαδ᾽ ἄνευ προπόλου μὴ πάνυ γηραλέος
          ἀνδρῶν δ᾽ αἰνεῖν τοῦτον ὃς ἐσθλὰ πιὼν ἀναφαίνει,
20         ὥς ἦι μνημοσύνη καὶ τόνος ἀμφ᾽ ἀρετῆς,
          οὔ τι μάχας διέπειν Τιτήνων οὐδὲ Γιγάντων
             οὐδέ <τι> Κενταύρων, πλάσμα<τα> τῶν προτέρων.
          ἢ στάσιας σφεδανάς, τοῖς οὐδὲν χρηστὸν ἔνεστι,
             θεῶν <δὲ> προμηθείην αἰὲν ἔχειν ἀγαθήν.

20 ἦι emend. West, ᾖ Ahrens, η A; τόνος emend. Koraes: τὸν ὃς codd. 22 τι add. Meineke; πλάσμα<τα> corr. Schweighäuser: πλασμάτων προτέρων AE. 24 δὲ add. Camerarius.

Not having symposia at all was not an option, of course, since these occasions had long been the preserve of aristocratic groups and subgroups of aristocrats based on perceived affinities, whether familial, social, political, or other. [8] As Wolfgang Rösler has argued, such groupings were not fortuitous: individuals “met together at the symposion precisely because they had common aims and interests outside it.” [9] Symposia must take place, and for Xenophanes harmony obtains so long as the drinking leads men to discourse properly on the gods and to display noble thoughts. Proper discourse for Xenophanes explicitly means not only choosing suitable topics for poetry, but more importantly restraining oneself from discoursing at all on certain poetic themes, especially those involving strife among the gods or heroes (21–22, above) or strife within the polis (line 23, above). [10] Topics to be avoided, as Xenophanes illustrates in the passage already quoted, are those from Hesiod’s Theogony and the Odyssey. Xenophanes himself can even wittily summarize his desire by stressing respect, or forethought (προμηθείη), for the gods in a reference to the hybristic Prometheus himself. [11] Provided the goal of poetic performance and philosophical discussion is the recalling and striving for virtue (ἀρετή), the symposium will remain within socially productive bounds. But for Xenophanes, social productivity excludes physical competition, which can be taken as an analogue to his resistance to the physical excesses that may result from too much drinking. Even if a man were to win at the Olympian games in the most prestigious athletic event, chariot racing, says Xenophanes (B 2.11–14 West):

οὐκ ἐὼν ἄξιος ὥσπερ ἐγώ· ῥώμης γὰρ ἀμείνων
    ἀνδρῶν ἠδ᾽ ἵππων ἡμετέρη σοφίη.
ἀλλ᾽ εἰκῆι μάλα τοῦτο νομίζεται, οὐδὲ δίκαιον
    προκρίνειν ῥώμην τῆς ἀγαθῆς σοφίης.

14 ἠγαθέης Ε.

He is not worthy like me; for my poetic skill is better than
    the strength of men or horses.
But this is quite randomly esteemed, and it is not right
    to prefer strength to good poetic skill.

For Xenophanes the display of poetic expertise and the recalling and striving for virtue through poetic performance are meant to reinforce the distinctly ethical aims of the symposium. It is foremost in this respect that Xenophanes parts philosophical company with rhapsodes. Rhapsodes, Xenophanes implies, recite poetry without regard for its possible negative influence on the behavior of the audience, while poetic performance in the symposium, by avoiding themes having to do with civil strife and warfare, is intended to edify and instruct its participants, indeed to intensify social cohesion. Doth Xenophanes protest too much?


[ back ] 1. Diogenes Laertius 9.18: ἀλλὰ καὶ αὐτὸς ἐρραψώιδει τὰ ἑαυτοῦ “But also he himself performed his own poetry rhapsodically.” Rudberg 1972[ 1948]:282 argues that Xenophanes was not a rhapsode “[i]m gewöhnlichen Sinn des Wortes” (“in the usual sense of the word”) because of his view of Homeric poetry, but this is too narrow a criterion by which to define a rhapsode or the ability to perform rhapsodically.

[ back ] 2. So Reitzenstein 1893:50.

[ back ] 3. E.g. Homeric Hymns to Demeter 495, Apollo 546, Hermes 580, 6.21 (Aphrodite), 9.9 (Artemis), 10.6 (Aphrodite), 19.49 (Pan), 25.7 (Muses and Apollo), 27.22 (Artemis), 28.18 (Athena), 29.14 (Hestia), 30.19 (), 33.19 (Dioscuri).

[ back ] 4. Cf. Ford 1992:115n31 on the verb λήγω ‘leave off’ as the technical expression by which a rhapsode signaled the end of a performance. The competitive context of hymnic perfofmance is expressly stated at Homeric Hymn 6.19–20. For the view that the expression άλλου ές ϋμνου means “to the rect of the song” rather than “to another song,” see Nagy 2002:73 with his bibliography.

[ back ] 5. Vetta 1983:XLIX.

[ back ] 6. The importance of this concept, with due awareness of the textual difficulties, is discussed , in Rösler 1990.

[ back ] 7. Slater 1990:213.

[ back ] 8. A broad conception of the symposium as social institution is discussed by Murray 1983a and 1983b.

[ back ] 9. Rösler 1990:233.

[ back ] 10. Rösler 1990:231. In this respect it is pertinent to compare Ibycus (fr. S151 Davies), who similarly rejects the themes of epic at the beginning of the second strophe, while claiming that they are the preserve of the Heliconian Muses at the beginning of the third, even as he invokes them (without sublinear dots): νῦ]ν δέ μοι οὔτε ξειναπάτ[α]ν Π[άρι]ν | . . | ἐπιθύμιον οὔτε τανί[σφ]υρ[ον | ὑμ]νῆν Κασσάνδραν | Πρι]άμοιό τε παίδας ἄλλου[ς “but now it is neither my wish to hymn cheater-of-hosts Paris nor slender-ankled Cassandra and Priam’s other children (fr. S151.10–13 Davies);’’ and καὶ τὰ μὲ[ν ἂν] Μοίσαι σεσοφ[ισμ]έναι | εὖ Ἑλικωνίδ[ες] ἐμβαίεν ✝λoγω[ι ·| Θνατ[ὸ]ς✝ δ᾽ οὔ κ[ε]ν ἀνὴρ | διερὸς τὰ ἕκαστα εἴποι “the skilled Heliconian Muses might embark on the story, but no mortal man alive could tell the details (fr. S151.23–26 Davies).” Brief discussion of these lines in Vetta 1983:LI–LII.

[ back ] 11. We have already seen that such double entendres are characteristic of poetic performance at symposia.

[ back ] 12. Martin 1998.

[ back ] 13. Cf. Certamen 170–71.