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.

21. Conclusions and Prospects

Nearly fifty years ago Raphael Sealey cautioned his readers that in regard to the Homeridae, the fifth-century clan from Chios who at one time claimed exclusive descent from Homer:

the distinction that has been drawn … between a poet and a mere reciter is one that must be handled with care; doubtless there were men at some time in Greece who did both things. They composed poems of their own and they recited poems that they had learned from other poets; as reciters they may have modified the poems that they learned by introducing much of their own. Nevertheless it is possible to identify the extremes of the distinction. [1]

For Sealey, and many before and after him, Phemius and Demodocus in the Odyssey represent the poets (aoidoi) who compose while they perform, while Ion, the rhapsode (rhapsôidos) featured in Plato’s dialogue by that name, represents the opposite extreme of the largely recitational performer. The case for creativity among rhapsodes has not been made easier by the prejudices of Plato (as evidenced in the Ion) and Xenophon, who ranks them among the stupidest of men (Symposium 3.6, Memorabilia 4.2.10). For Plato and Xenophon, although rhapsodes may recite Homer’s words correctly, they simply do not know what they mean.

Even in the largely defamatory treatment of rhapsodes in Plato’s dialogue Ion, however, we may detect a hint of the importance of improvisation in the performance of Homeric poetry. When Ion boasts of his victory at a rhapsodic contest at Epidauros, he says:

Καὶ μὴν ἄξιόν γε ἀκοῦσαι, ὦ Σώκρατες, ὡς εὖ κεκόσμηκα τὸν ῞Ομηρον· ὥστε οἶμαι ὑπὸ ῾Ομηριδῶν ἄξιος εἶναι χρυσῷ στεφάνῳ στεφανωθῆναι.

And indeed it is worth hearing, Socrates, how well Ι have embellished Homer; so that I think that I am worthy of being crowned with a golden crown by the Homeridae.

Plato, Ion 530d6–9

The verb κοσμεῖν ‘embellish, adorn’, as others have noted, [
2] elsewhere in the Ion refers to adornment with regard to clothing (530b5, 535d1), and in itself cannot be translated as ‘improvise’. However, given the improvisational skills of rhapsodes that we have seen, I suggest that Ion’s “embellishment” of Homer be interpreted broadly to include the range of rhapsodic performance techniques: mimetic and gestural elements, vocal range, and especially improvisation and modification of verses. Verbal improvisation against tradition was integral, if admittedly not exclusive, to the popular appeal of rhapsodic competition in performance, and we must see that such competition was essentially a poetic game. The master of that game, like Ion, was the one who most deftly displayed his rhapsodic abilities in live performance.


[ back ] 1. Sealey 1957:315.

[ back ] 2. Boyd 1994:116.

[ back ] 3. Xenophon, Symposium 3.6.

[ back ] 4. Murray 1996:129. In the Ion, Ion is sharply ridiculed for his claim that by knowing from Homer the sort of speech appropriate to a general, he could in fact become a general (Ion 540d–541c), on which see Stehle 1997:16. The same point is similarly explored in Xenophon, Symposium 4.6–9. For more on the διάνοια ‘thought’ of Homer, see Nagy 1999:143 (no. 4).

[ back ] 5. Badly-written poetry could spell the undoing of rhapsodic performance, however. Dionysius I of Syracuse sent rhapsodes to perform his own poetry at the Olympic games in 388 BCE. At first the rhapsodes impressed the crowd, but subsequently the badness (κακία) of Dionysius’ poetry was such as to cause the audience openly to ridicule him and his rhapsodes (Diodorus Siculus 14.109).

[ back ] 6. On the audience’s influence on the judges of drama, see Pickard-Cambridge 1953:98-99. Cf. Plato’s attack on the audience as judge of musical contests in Sicily and Italy at Laws 659a–c. Giving the greatest pleasure to the greatest number of people in the audience is assumed to be the basis for victory at Laws 657e.

[ back ] 7. Nagy’s 1996:7–38 discussion is essential here.

[ back ] 8. Cf. Labarbe 1949:425, who subordinates the verses attributed to rhapsodes to the génie of Homer.

[ back ] 9. Similarly, Isocrates’ negative mention of rhapsodes who perform Homer and Hesiod at the Lyceum (Panathenaicus 18 and 33) should not be taken to reflect a rhapsode’s verbal artistry. For the most part, the attacks of Plato, Xenophon, and, indirectly, Isocrates, are limited to a rhapsode’s ability to understand and interpret Homer; on which, see Murray 1996:20–21.