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.

17. From Written to Oral

Milman Parry and his students have shown in detail how poet-singers compose while they perform, and perform while they compose epic poetry. However, we have yet to apply the valuable insights gained from their research to later stages of a poetic tradition, particularly after the poetic “texts” are written down, while live performances of these “texts” continue. The time has now come for such an application, provided that we make several qualifications. For one, performance tradition that takes place against a body of fixed texts is governed by different rules than one that is still in a more fluid, purely oral stage. Audience expectations will be different, and greater allusive precision may be achieved by live performers who modify and improvise known textual elements to surprise, shock, or delight their audiences. Finally, a fixed text need not be an impediment, and indeed it may be an impetus, to the contingent and improvisational demands of live poetic performance.

We know, for example, that improvisation and innovation within the tradition is attested for rhapsodes as early as the mention of Cynaethus, sometime in the late sixth century BCE, apart from the etymological evidence for the term ῥαψῳδός, which may imply an improvisational capacity even earlier. [6] We have evidence of a variety of rhapsodic games, which can be used to argue that rhapsodes were competent at many levels of poetic performance: they could, for instance, competitively recite memorized verses, spontaneously improvise verses anew for elaboration or embellishment, and take up and leave off the narrative of Homer wherever they saw fit, all the while setting metrical and thematic challenges for their adversaries and attempting to win the audience over by their performance. These performance tactics comport in many respects with what we know about the quadrennial, greater Panathenaia, which unlike any other festival furnishes us with actual “rules” for rhapsodic performances. Moreover, the sophist Alcidamas, who elsewhere shows an interest in rhapsodic performances (On Sophists 14), illustrates several types of rhapsodic improvisation in his Certamen Homeri et Hesiodi or some earlier version of the same, no doubt garnered from his experience viewing rhapsodic contests. [7] The Certamen as we have it in manuscript form dates to the Antonine period, although much of the content including the contest proper was probably contained in Alcidamas’ Mouseion. [8] As I will show, in the “epic” part of the Certamen (107–37) Alcidamas represents a hexameter dueling game that highlights the importance of enjambement as a connective technique, which can be compared to examples of enjambement found in Homeric poetry itself. At a later stage of the Homeric performance tradition, rhapsodes and, possibly, homêristai continue to display improvisational skills during performances that may be reflected in the “eccentric” Ptolemaic papyri of Homer.


[ back ] 1. For a general overview of rhapsodes, see Aly 1920, Pfeiffer 1968:8–12, and Ford 1988:300–307. Although not primarily concerned with rhapsodes, Else’s 1957 article (esp. 26–34) offers several ideas that prefigure my own model of rhapsodic performance.

[ back ] 2. See e.g. Pelliccia 2003, Collins 2001a and 2001b, Martin 2000, and Nagy 1999.

[ back ] 3. A point emphasized by Herington 1985:167; see his discussion of rhapsodes on pp. 10–15 and his partial collection of testimonia in Appendix II.

[ back ] 4. Pavese 1998:64, and Nagy 1990a:42, 1996:113 remain opponents (persuasively in my view) of the excessively rigid distinction between a “creative” aoidos and “reduplicate rhapsôidos. Such a distinction still finds favor with some critics, however, e.g. Powell 2000:118–19.

[ back ] 5. See again Griffith 1990.

[ back ] 6. McLeod 1961:323 compares the improvisation of rhapsodes with the formulaic nature of oracles after 400 BCE.

[ back ] 7. Rhapsodic contests were frequent and widespread enough that we may safely assume that Alcidamas, like thousands of other Greeks, had seen them. Cf. again Xenophon, Symposium 3.6, where Niceratus says that he sees rhapsodes reciting “nearly every day.”

[ back ] 8. See Certamen 33 and 240, and the testimonia collected in Allen 1912:218-20. Background on Alcidamas’ Mouseion and the relationship of the Certamen to the Michigan papyrus 2754 can be conveniently found in Richardson 1981 and West 1967.

[ back ] 9. I leave open the question of when the Homeric texts were first written down, because the issue does not bear directly on the nature of rhapsodic performance as presented here. While I do not think there is decisive evidence for an “Attic” or “Peisistratean recension,” for example, as Merkelbach 1952:30–1, 33 has argued, rhapsodic improvisation is more understandable against the background of relatively fixed texts. See Janko 1992:29–32 for a review of the primary testimonia relating to the Peisistratean question. For the role that sixth-century, Panathenaic canonization might have taken in the fixation of the Homeric poems (a point already conjectured by Merkelbach 1952:40), see Nagy 1996:110 and 2001. A similar view is taken by Finkelberg 2000:9. It is important to stress with Kotsidu 1991:188n56, however, that the question of Homeric recension and the Panathenaic rule for rhapsodic performance need not be connected in any direct way. Along these lines Pelliccia 2003:113–16 argues that the fixation of the Homeric poems took place independently of Panathenaic performance. For the view that Homeric text fixation occurred in the eighth century through oral-dictation, see Janko 1992:37–8 and 1998. Janko’s views are not fundamentally incompatible with the model of rhapsodic performance presented here.