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.

9. The Attic Skolia, Theognis, and Riddles

By pairing the so-called “Attic skolia” preserved for us by Athenaeus (694c–695f = PMG 884–908) with Theognis, I have in mind to demonstrate that the form of both sets of poetry as we have them reflects, at least in part, an improvisational heritage. Both Athenaeus’ collection of skolia and the doublets in Theognis give evidence of being performance variations, recorded for posterity or possibly for sympotic performers themselves. We have already examined in some detail the dynamics of sympotic performance and applied those dynamics to certain texts. Now we shall work in the reverse direction, from text to performance, to explore the ways in which sympotic poetry reflects the competitive gaming.

As Lambin has shown, [4] two stanzas of the four from the so-called Harmodius song offer a parallel opening couplet, yet with different options for closure (PMG 893.1–2 = 895.1–2):

ἐν μύρτου κλαδὶ τὸ ξίφος φορήσω
     ὥσπερ ῾Αρμόδιος καὶ ᾽Αριστογείτων

I will carry my sword in a myrtle branch
     like Harmodius and Aristogeiton.

To this one may add either (PMG 893.3–4):

ὅτε τὸν τύραννον κτανέτην
     ἰσονόμους τ᾽ ᾽Αθήνας ἐποιησάτην.

when they both killed the tyrant
     and made Athens a city of equal rights.

Or equally successfully one might add (PMG 895.3–4):

ὅτ᾽ ᾽Αθηναίης ἐν θυσίαις
     ἄνδρα τύραννον Ἵππαρχον ἐκαινέτην.

when at the feast of Athena
     they both killed a tyrant, Hipparchus.

The parallel opening couplets of these stanzas offer almost certain proof that they were standardized introductions that could be enjambed with endings that highlighted different dimensions of the famous assassination. [
5] The first couplet ending emphasizes the murder of the tyrant, Hipparchus, although he is not named, and finishes with a description of a politically changed Athens in the aftermath. The second ending stresses the venue of the assassination, the Panathenaia of 514, yet denotes Hipparchus as a man, a tyrant, which has suggested to some critics that the origin of this ending was produced closer to the assassination itself. [6] Apart from the historical reference, we can interpret these endings as options or variations of capping for the skolion game. Both endings obviously refer to Hipparchus. But the greater generalizing force produced by the lack of an article in the second couplet could be taken to mean that Hipparchus was one from among other tyrants who was killed, or who deserved to be killed.

More variations along the same lines are also observable. The final couplet of PMG 893 has another incarnation, in PMG 896:

αἰεὶ σφῶιν κλέος ἔσσεται κατ᾽ αἶαν,
φίλταθ᾽ ῾Αρμόδιε καὶ ᾽Αριστόγειτον,
ὅτι τὸν τύραννου κταυέτηυ
ἰσονόμους τ᾽ ᾽Αθήνας ἐποιησάτην.

Their fame will always exist over the earth
dearest Harmodius and Aristogeiton,
because both killed the tyrant
and made Athens a city of equal rights.

Except for the change from ὅτε to ὅτι, which offers a nice causal or temporal variation, the basic repetition argues for its independence as a cap in the same way that the beginning couplet of PMG 893 and 895 must itself represent an independent opening.

The first couplet of PMG 896 (above) situates the deeds of Harmodius and Aristogeiton in the context of the heroic world with its emphasis on κλέος ‘glory’. And thus we should not be surprised to find that in PMG 894 this same impulse has been elaborated to include mention of specific Homeric heroes:

Φίλταθ᾽ ῾Αρμόδι᾽, οὔ τί πω τέθνηκας,
νήσοις δ’ ἐν μακάρων σέ φασιν εἶναι,
ἵνα περ ποδώκης ᾽Αχιλευς
Τυδεΐδην τέ ✝φασιν τὸν ἐσθλὸν✝ Διομήδεα.

Dearest Harmodius, you never died,
but they say you are in the isles of the blessed,
where swift-footed Achilles is,
and, they say, Diomedes son of Tydeus.

We may first note the equivalence of the vocative address φίλταθ᾽ ῾Αρμόδιε “dearest Harmodius” here with PMG 896.2. Whether this address proves that this skolion is “reine, unpolitische Liebespoesie” [7] is less important for our purposes than recognizing that this opening hemistich could be a prelude to poetic variation. The existence of such variations may indeed be alluded to in the expression τὰ φίλταθ᾽ ῾Αρμοδίου “the dearest Harmodius [songs]” at Aristophanes, Acharnians 1093, rather than it being a “parody” of the Harmodius skolia. Despite the textual problems of the last line in PMG 894, the desire to situate Harmodius alone among the blessed heroes of epic, presumably because he was the ἐρώμενος ‘beloved’ and the object of the controversy that sparked the assassination, [8] shows a deliberate effort to elaborate the heroic theme that we see introduced by only the first line in PMG 896. Of course we cannot, nor need we, say for certain whether PMG 894 is an improvised elaboration of 896 or vice versa, since both might have an earlier existence as skolia. PMG 896 might be the product of a centripetal impulse, a composite of heroic and more strictly historical matter taken from other skolia. Be that as it may, the important point is that the variations emerge out of a gaming context with limited but communally understood parameters (roughly speaking, that there is an appropriate and honorable way to sing of the tyrannicides). But these communal parameters do not remain the same over time, and as they change the same skolia are reinvested with new and, to say the least, less than heroic meanings. The law of 336/335 against slandering the tyrannicides (Hypereides, Against Philippides 3) gives us a terminus ante que m that the contextual meaning of the skolia had shifted. We shall consider some of these shifted meanings in a moment. For now, let us turn to the poetry of Theognis, whose verses show similar evidence of sympotic variation.

What has been less emphasized in these accounts is a fuller appreciation for the degree to which the sympotic demands of improvisation and creative rearrangement can explain the variations. [13] In order to make this argument, I must first make the prior claim that the variations that we will examine in the Theognidea, like those of the Harmodius skolia, derive from the anonymous heritage of sympotic tradition, no doubt well into the Roman imperial period, rather than from Theognis himself. [14] The repetitions themselves show that we are dealing with amalgamated and accumulated tradition, rather than the fleeting ipsissima verba of the Megarian aristocrat. Secondly, we find structural parallels for variation in Theognis that compare with what we observed in the Attic skolia. These variations are better explained as intentional rather than due to the vagaries of memory. Chronologically, of course, the Theognidea precede the Attica skolia, but by treating the latter first where we were given a more explicit sympotic context and description (both by Athenaeus) for how the skolion game was played, it allowed us a point of entry for explaining the peculiar verse arrangements. Similar peculiarities in Theognis, then, should be explicable in the same way, despite the fact that our earliest explicit representation of how to play the skolion game is in Aristophanes. [15] And we may further minimize the hypothesis of scribal error as responsible for the variations insofar as we will be examining material from lines 1–1220, which appear to have stood independently in the medieval tradition. [16] Thus the variations were transmitted through the medieval tradition, at least, as integral to Theognis. Since the little papyrological evidence to survive for Theognis does not bear at all on the variations to be examined, [17] we simply cannot know for certain whether or to what extent they existed in antiquity.

Let us now review the major types of variation to be found within the doublets. First, minor variation within distichs is quite common and shows evidence of subtle, if not always terribly creative, elaboration. For example, we may pair lines 209–10: [18]

οὐδείς τοι φεύγοντι φίλος καὶ πιστὸς ἑταῖρος·
     τῆς δὲ φυγῆς ἐστιν τοῦτ᾽ ἀνιηρότερον.

Surely, no one is a friend and faithful companion to a man in exile;
     and this is more grievous than exile.

with their counterparts, lines 332a–b:

οὐκ ἔστιν φεύγοντι φίλος καὶ πιστὸς ἑταῖρος·
     τῆς δὲ φυγῆς ἐστιν τοῦτ᾽ ἀνιηρότατον.
There is no friend and faithful companion to a man in exile;
     and this is the most grievous thing of exile.

Or again, for an equally flat shift of perspective, consider verses 211–12:

οἶνόν τοι πίνειν πουλὺν κακόν· ἢυ δέ τις αὐτὸν
     πίνηι ἐπισταμένως, οὐ κακὸς ἀλλ᾽ ἀγαθός.

Surely to drink much wine is bad; but if one
     drinks it knowledgeably, wine is not bad but good.

with their counterparts, verses 509–10:

οἶνος πινόμενος πουλὺς κακόν· ἢν δέ τις αὐτὸν
     πίνηι ἐπισταμένως, οὐ κακὸν άλλ᾽ ἀγαθόν.

Much wine being drunk is a bad thing; but if one
     drinks it knowledgeably, wine is not a bad but a good thing.

The modest changes in these verses are comparable to the shift from ὅτε to ὅτι that we observed at the start of the final couplet in the skolia PMG 893 and 896. [
19] These changes represent subtle shifts in sense whose aesthetic principles are difficult to discern. Yet we ought not to impose our own notions of economy on the repetitions as a basis for judgment. The numerous repetitions of sentiment in Theognis, as in this last example, argue for a strongly conventional view of what were suitable topics for symposia; the repetitions also suggest that a sharp divergence in meaning was not desired. It is prizing our own interpretations too highly to argue that one doublet is “inferior” or “superior” to another based on individual standards of coherence; [20] their value lies in just those minute changes that distinguish them. The same was true with the Harmodius skolia, whose sentiments could remain fairly standard while the changes, though noticeable, often seemed trivial. These variations stemmed not from professional performers such as rhapsodes, actors, or famous elegists like Simonides, whose deliberate as well as inadvertent improvisations are recorded often because they were thought clever or redounded to some consequence, but from aristocrats with less poetic acumen. Their variations were found interesting and different enough to find a place in the sylloge, either because they were improvised in performance and were thought worthy of recording, or because they were composed with a view to being used in future performances as variations. [21] A performance context such as the symposium, rather than a solitary editorial one, gives meaning to variations that otherwise seem negligible or uninteresting.

Occasionally we find minor variations within verses that actually lead to rather clever divergences in meaning. Such is apparent in the following distich (409–10):

οὐδένα θησαυρὸν παισὶν καταθήσηι ἀμείνω
     αἰδοῦς, ἥ τ᾽ ἀγαθοῖς ἀνδράσι Κύρν᾽ ἕπεται.

You shall lay up no better treasure for children
     than respect, which attends noble men, Cyrnus.

The sentiment seems straightforward and archaic enough. Despite the textual difficulties, when this couplet is compared to its counterpart below what results is better interpreted as a different performance option rather than as the casualty of textual transmission (1161–62):

οὐδένα θησαυρὸν παισὶν καταθήσειν ἄμεινον·
     αἰτοῦσιν δ᾽ ἀγαθοῖσ᾽ ἀνδράσι, Κύρνε, δίδου.

παισὶν καταθήσειν Α· παισὶν καταθήσει coni. alii.

It is better to lay up no treasure for children;
     but give, Cyrnus, to noble men who ask.

Sometimes within the distich we find occasional variation of the pentameter, which can show enough freedom of variation to include a diametrically opposed sentiment. We may compare lines 39–40:

Κύρνε, κύει πόλις ἥδε, δέδοικα δὲ μὴ τέκηι ἄνδρα
     εὐθυντῆρα κακῆς ὕβριος ἡμετέρης.

Cyrnus, this polis is pregnant, and I fear it may give birth to a
     man, a straightener of our base insolence

with their counterparts, lines 1081–82:

Κύρνε, κύει πόλις ἥδε, δέδοικα δὲ μὴ τέκηι ἄνδρα
     ὑβριστήν, χαλεπῆς ἡγεμόνα στάσιος.

Cyrnus, this polis is pregnant, and I fear it may give birth to a
     man, an insolent man, leader of harsh discord.

Both of these distichs are followed by another one (41–2 = 1082a–b):

ἀστοὶ μὲν γὰρ ἔθ᾽ οἵδε σαόφρονες, ἡγεμόνες δὲ
     τετράφαται πολλὴν εἰς κακότητα πεσεῖν.

For these citizens are still prudent, but the leaders
     are poised to fall into great wickedness.

This distich concludes lines 1080–1082b, which stand as a whole, while after 42 some editors (e.g. West) add lines 43–52, which continue to comment upon the evils of morally degenerate men. Yet accepting this interpretation is again to fall prey to the temptation to reconstruct an “original” elegy that has been “deformed” by transmission. Rather, what is to be observed is that two different, but equally cautious and plausible, statements can be made about the vicissitudes of a polis. In the first (39–40), the desire for a man strong enough to solve the social discord is expressed through a fear clause. This is a theme that can be found in the first of the Attic skolia as they are transmitted to us by Athenaeus. [23] In the second distich (1081–82) the same fear culminates in the rise of a man embodying that discord. In the context of these two passages, moreover, it is not clear that one outcome is presented as preferable to the other, especially if the “straightener” straightens by means that are adjudged base. [24] Either way, we can see how the distich, which remains the basic building block of elegy, can admit of variation through its pentameter, which should recall the game attributed to Pigres of inserting a line of pentameter between hexameter lines of Homer (see pp. 136–37). [25] It is not quite possible to say whether one of the distichs above presupposes and elaborates the other; instead, we can say that both reflect mutually-felt impulses for variation within a tradition, accomplished by means of the innovative use of known material.

Whole distichs can also find themselves both standing independently and at the same time incorporated into longer elegies in the Theognidea. This pattern demonstrates creative change taking place at yet another level: it can be characterized simply as an additive phenomenon that is allowable because of the conventional nature of the thoughts expressed as well as because of their gnomic character. [26] By the same token, since we cannot pinpoint origin and development of these distichs, we also cannot exclude a subtractive process either, whereby distichs are extracted from longer elegies because of their internal coherence. In both cases intimate knowledge of given distichs seems to be assumed as a basis for the changes, not unlike the formulaic lines of Homer transplanted in the Ptolemaic papyri that we shall consider in Part III. As an example of a subtractive process, we may compare lines 1184a–b: [27]

ἀστῶν δ᾽ οὐ δύναμαι γνῶναι νόον ὅντιν᾽ ἔχουσιν·
     οὔτε γὰρ εὖ ἔρδων ἁνδάνω οὔτε κακῶς.

I cannot interpret the disposition that the citizens have;
     for I please them neither by doing well or badly.

with their counterparts, lines 367–70, which have been thematically expanded:

οὐ δύναμαι γνῶναι νόον ἀστῶν ὅντιν᾽ ἔχουσιν·
     οὔτε γὰρ εὖ ἔρδων ἁνδάνω οὔτε κακῶς.
μωμεῦνται δέ με πολλοί, ὁμῶς κακοὶ ἠδὲ καὶ ἐσθλοί·
     μιμεῖσθαι δ᾽ οὐδεὶς τῶν ἀσόφων δύναται.

I cannot interpret the disposition that the citizens have;
     for I please them neither by doing well or badly.
and many people blame me, both base and noble alike;
     but no one unskilled can imitate me.

The second distich adds nothing integral to the sense of the first, but it adds another potentially related idea, while at the same time expressing the traditional archaic poetic conceit that the skilled (σοφοί) have access to a privileged realm of performance. For our purposes the salient point is to observe the ease with which distichs can be elaborated and contracted. At the same time, possibilities of recombination are continually created because the gnomic character of each distich allows them to stand independently, as the first one above (1184a–b) does.

Another passage of three distichs shows alternation in the final one, and also incorporates modest variations within verses of the first two distichs themselves. We may pair lines 87–92:

μή μ᾽ ἔπεσιν μὲν στέργε, νόον δ᾽ ἔχε καὶ φρένας ἄλληι,
     εἴ με φιλεῖς καί σοι πιστὸς ἔνεστι νόος.
ἤ με φίλει καθαρὸν θέμενος νόον, ἤ μ᾽ ἀποειπὼν
     ἔχθαιρ᾽ ἀμφαδίην νεῖκος ἀειράμενος.
ὃς δὲ μιῆι γλώσσηι δίχ᾽ ἔχει νόον. οὖτος ἑταῖρος
     δεινὸς Κύρν᾽· ἐχθρὸς βέλτερος ἢ φίλος ὤν.

Do not love me with words, yet have a mind and feelings else-
     where, if you love me and have a faithful mind.
Either love me with a pure mind, or denounce me and
     hate me in an open quarrel.
Whoever is of two minds with one tongue, this companion
     is clever, Cyrnus, better as an enemy than a friend.

with their modified counterparts, lines 1082c–84:

μή μ᾽ ἔπεσιν μὲν στέργε, νόον δ᾽ ἔχε καὶ φρένας ἄλλας,
     εἴ με φιλεῖς καί σοι πιστὸς ἔνεστι νόος,
ἀλλὰ φίλει καθαρὸν θέμενος νόον, ἤ μ᾽ ἀποειπὼν
     ἔχθαιρ᾽ ἐμφανέως νεῖκος ἀειράμενος.
οὕτω χρὴ τόν γ᾽ ἐσθλὸν ἐπιστρέψαντα νόημα
     ἔμπεδον αἰὲν ἔχειν ἐς τέλος ἀνδρὶ φίλωι.

Do not love me with words, yet have a mind and different thoughts,
     if you love me and have a faithful mind,
but love with a pure mind, or denounce and
     hate me in an open quarrel.
Thus is it necessary for a noble man to direct his thought
     and always keep it steadfast to the end for his friend.

In neither of these passages is the final distich essential to the thought of the preceding two. Such a discrepancy shows how distichs that are internally coherent and can stand alone offer a great deal of flexibility as possible performance options. The final distichs in both passages pick up the theme of deception, but the first stresses the detection of disloyalty among friends while the second stresses the need for loyalty among the nobility. Again the single distich in Theognis is more often the basic building block than an individual verse, although sometimes as in the passages above a sequence of two or more distichs go together. But we must still be careful not to employ modern standards of “coherence” or felicity too rigidly to these texts. [

A closer parallel to the paired skolia PMG 900–1 can be observed in the following pair of Hellenistic epigrams, which conforms to the same pattern of projecting desiring selves (Greek Anthology 5.83–84):

εἴθ᾽ ἄνεμος γενόμην, σὺ δὲ <δὴ> στείχουσα παρ᾽ αὐγὰς
     στήθεα γυμνώσαις καί με πνέοντα λάβοις.
εἴθε ῥόδον γενόμην ὑποπόρφυρον, ὄφρα με χερσὶν
     ἀραμένη χαρίσῃ στήθεσι χιονέοις.

Would that I became the wind, while you, heading toward the
     rays, might bare your breast and take hold of me breathing.
Would that I became a purplish rose, so that lifting me in your
     hands you might gratify me with your snowy breasts.

Now Liapis has attempted to show that PMG 900 and 901, which as we have observed share parallels in structure and diction with distichs in Theognis and epigram, actually hint at homosexual and heterosexual sentiment respectively. [37] According to Liapis, a double entendre lies hidden in the words χρυσίον and ἄπυρον of PMG 901, suggesting the sexual connotations of “female genitals” and “as yet sexually unaroused.” The desire in PMG 901, then, is for a man to become a female sexual organ and to be possessed by a beautiful and chaste woman. However, to reach the pun we have first to connect χρυσός ‘gold’ with κυσός ‘female genitals’, [38] which although not impossible, seems strained in this context. In PMG 900, Liapis argues that the expression Διονύσιον ἐς χορόν ‘to a chorus of Dionysus’ creates an unexpected and humorous afterthought for the speaker’s desire to be a λύρα καλή ‘beautiful lyre’, because Dionysiac choruses employed the αὐλός ‘reed’, not the lyre. The joke would inhere in the double entendre of αὐλός, which admittedly is not in the text of the skolion, because this was a comic euphemism for the phallus. [39] PMG 900 then is a paederastic skolion in which the speaker desires to become a beautiful boy’s phallus. But here again I think Liapis’ interpretation goes awry. The expression Διονύσιον ἐς χορόν need not be taken to refer literally to the performance of Dionysiac choruses, [40] because already in Plato mature symposiasts (men over thirty but not yet sixty) can be referred to as a Διονύσου χορός ‘chorus of Dionysus’ (Laws 664d, 665b, 666b). [41] Since we do not know the date of PMG 900, it may well be that this expression is used in the plain sense of attending a symposium, in which case the speaker’s desire is to be transformed into a lyre and brought to the symposium by beautiful boys. In both skolia the speaker desires to be carried along or worn (φέροιεν ~ φοροίη), while the contrasting gender of the bearers forms a conceptual complement. There need not be anything further at issue here.

The search for double entendres has found clearer success in several other Attic skolia, however, especially those associated with Harmodius and Aristogeiton examined earlier in a different context. As others have shown, [42] in the expression ἐν μύρτου κλαδὶ τὸ ξίφος φορήσω (PMG 893.1, 895.1; cf. Aristophanes, Lysistrata 632) there is an obscene play on both μύρτος, which can here mean ‘female genitalia’ [43] and ξίφος, which can mean ‘male member’, [44] as well as the “iterative, intensive’’ aspect of φορήσω. [45] The sexual innuendo of course refers to the relationship between Harmodius and Aristogeiton, and the skolion offers a good example of the type of slander—in this case through slanderous double entendre—against the tyrannicides that the law of 336/335 was meant to proscribe (Hypereides, Against Philippides 3). This kind of sexual punning is at home in sympotic poetry generally, and it may be compared with Theognis’ usage of πηδάλιον ‘rudder’ as a pun on an old man’s sexual organ that fails to keep his younger wife in his own, as opposed to another’s, harbor (458). Several of the Attic skolia, moreover, touch on explicitly sexual themes, such as PMG 904 and especially 905, which runs:

πόρνη καὶ βαλανεὺς τωὐτὸν ἔχουσ᾽ ἐμπεδέως ἔθος·
     ἐν ταὐτᾶι πυέλωι τόν τ᾽ ἀγαθόν τόν τε κακὸν λόει.

A prostitute and bath-man have the same steadfast custom:
     in the same tub s/he bathes a good and a bad man.

Here the pun is on πύελος, which although not attested as such, surely suggests the same kind of pun that is found in Old Comic usage of terms such as τρύβλιον ‘cup’ or λοπάς ‘dish’. [
46] Both the prostitute and the bath-man have “tubs,” in other words, in which their clients “bathe.”

The larger context into which all of this sexual punning fits is the established tradition of telling riddles (γρῖγοι, αἰνίγματα) at symposia, especially riddles that depend upon homonymy for their effect. [47] Riddles and riddling have an early place in the Greek philosophical (e.g. the Seven Sages [48] ) and oracular tradition (e.g. Delphic oracles [49] ), both of which involve poetry (especially hexameter [50] ) and its virtuoso performance. Furthermore, we have already noted that dramatized philosophical contests, such as that between Calchas and Mopsus, [51] in which logical problems are set as challenges, have direct connections with later rhapsodic contests insofar as both contests depend upon the mastery of hexametric verse. [52] In the world of the symposium, riddles can already be found in Theognis (e.g. 257–60, 1229–30), while they become hallmarks of amusement at symposia by the fifth century. [53] In the fourth century, Plato could complain about the banqueters who ask ambiguous questions at dinner parties and compares them to philosophical puzzles that deal with the changing nature of material objects. [54] The Attic skolia also draw upon the riddle tradition, which we have already seen in part in the examples where the speaker imagines himself as a beautiful lyre (PMG 900) or a piece of golden jewelry (PMG 901). Other skolia draw more directly upon the ancestor and handmaiden of the riddle, the αἶνος ‘riddling fable’, especially in the form of the animal tale, as in this example below (PMG 892):

ὁ δὲ καρκίνος ὦδ᾽ ἔφα
     χαλᾶι τὸν ὄφιν λαβών·
εὐθὺν χρὴ τὸν ἑταῖρον ἔμ-
     μεν καὶ μὴ σκολιὰ φρονεῖν.

After taking the snake in its claw,
     the crab spoke thus:
a comrade must be true
     and not think crooked thoughts.

The improvisation or recitation of hexameter verses seems to have long been a mainstay at symposia. Already in Plato’s Symposium, for example, both Agathon and Diotima improvise hexameter verses that have Homeric coloring, but instead are extempore creations suitable for the rhetorical points each is trying to make. This is related to, but different from, actual quotations of Homeric poetry that are also a standard feature of the Symposium (e.g. 174c–d, 178b, 183e, 195d, etc.). So for example, while musing about Eros, the poet Agathon is moved to compose these verses to express how Eros makes (197c):

εἰρήνην μὲν ἐν ἀνθρώποις, πελάγει δὲ γαλήνην
     νηνεμίαν, ἀνέμων κοίτην ὕπνον τ᾽ ἐνὶ κήδει.

Peace among men, and calm, stillness in the sea.
     Rest for winds and sleep amid pain.

These verses may be compared with Odyssey 5.391–92, but I think it would be mistaken to see an instance of modeling or even allusion here. The display of improvisational skills in poetry is as characteristic of the symposium as recitations of poetry from memory. That the improvisation of hexametric poetry should incorporate Homeric diction is natural enough, given its pervasiveness throughout Athenian culture, but what the example above shows is that Agathon is an accomplished poet who can improvise on demand and contribute to the sympotic discourse.

Similarly when Diotima is discoursing on the irrepressible urge for fame among men, she too improvises a line of hexameter that again has Homeric coloring. Men, she says, are singularly preoccupied with winning a name (208c):

καὶ κλέος εἰς τὸν ἀεὶ χρόνον ἀθάνατον καταθέσθαι
and laying up for themselves immortal glory for all time.

In the case of both Agathon and Diotima, Homeric poetry serves as a springboard to spontaneous creation, except that in Plato’s Symposium the skill of improvising hexameters is not so much highlighted in itself, as it will be in later centuries, as it is for offering the speakers another rhetorical mode of expression. Still, in addition to what we have examined with regard to skolia, we gain another glimpse of how integral the ability for élites to improvise poetry in different meters was for sympotic performance. It was certainly not the case that everyone could improvise hexameters as skillfully as an Agathon or Diotima. This is one reason why the recitation of iambics was equally as popular and why the skolia have much simpler metrical shapes. But in the classical period improvisational ability was not merely a mark of education or of philosophical sophistication. It was an acknowledged prerequisite to successful participation, with its concomitant demand for verbal dexterity, at sympotic gatherings.

In later authors we continue to hear about the spontaneous recitation of Homer at symposia—this time of memorized lines of Homer derived from texts rather than hexametric creations. At times, as in some examples from Plutarch and Lucian, [62] the apt or inapt recitation of Homeric verses is itself a topic for sympotic discourse, while the original recitation might have taken place at some other venue. But a more complex set of examples comes to us from Athenaeus, who also includes the invaluable testimony of Clearchus, from his book On Proverbs (fr. 63 Wehrli = Athenaeus 457c–458a), on the significantly more detailed manner in which Homeric verses were recited. After noting that the solution of riddles is related to philosophy, Clearchus observes that the custom of reciting riddles in his day is quite unlike what οἱ παλαιοί ‘the ancients’ used to do. Today, Clearchus says, symposiasts ask things like what is the best form of sexual experience or which fish has the best flavor and so forth. [63] But among the ancients such problems as these were preferred (fr. 63 Wehrli):

τῷ πρώτῳ ἔπος <ἢ> ἰαμβεῖον εἰπόντι τὸ ἐχόμενον ἕκαστον λέγειν καὶ τῷ κεφάλαιον εἰπόντι ἀντειπεῖν τὸ ἑτέρου ποιητοῦ τινος, <ὅτι> εἰς τὴν αὐτὴν εἶπε γνώμην· ἔτι δὲ λέγειν ἕκαστον ἰαμβεῖον. πρός τε τούτοις ἕκαστον εἰπεῖν ὅσων ἂν προσταχθῇ συλλαβῶν ἔμμετρον, καὶ ὅσα [ἀπὸ] τῆς τῶν γραμμάτων καὶ συλλαβῶν ἔχεται θεωρίας.

To the first one speaking an epic or iambic verse each man capped it with the next verse, and to one who recited the gist of a passage the next man responded with something from some other poet because he had spoken to the same effect. Further, each man would recite an iambic verse. In addition to these each man spoke a metrical line containing however many syllables was required, and as many as pertained to the theory of letters and syllables.

Clearchus continues by noting a series of other games that demand knowledge of Homeric epic or of geography. So, for example, another type of competitive response involves naming each of the Greek leaders against Troy, or each of the Trojan leaders, or naming a city in Asia, provided it begins with a prescribed letter. The next man would then name a city in Europe or Asia that begins with the same letter, and so on (fr. 63 Wehrli). For Clearchus, all of these games give evidence of his own rather idealized philosophical perspective on the symposium, which he reveals when he writes that they are structured (fr. 63 Wehrli):

ὥστε τὴν παιδιὰν μὴ ἄσκεπτον οὖσαν μηνύματα γίνεσθαι τῆς ἑκαστου πρὸς παιδείαν οἰκειότητος. ἐφ᾽ οἶς ἆθλον ὲτίθεσαν στέφανον καὶ εὐφημίαν, οἶς μάλιστα γλυκαίνεται τὸ φιλεῖν ἀλλήλους.

παιδιὰν Muret· παιδείαν cod.

So that the play, since it was not unreflective, gave indications of each man’s familiarity with culture; for which they set a crown and acclamation as a prize, by means of which mutual friendship is best sweetened.

Iambic verses could be recited in the same way, not altogether to the detriment of their meaning, as in this example that must begin and end with η, which once again touches on the surety of friendship:

τῶν φίλων σοι πίστις ἔστω κεκριμένη
Let the faithfulness of your friends be firmly decided

fr. adesp. 121.5 K-A

Athenaeus offers numerous examples of both Homeric and iambic verses that begin and end with several other letters, both vowels and consonants. Homeric verses that lacked a sigma could also be recited, and this skill has some precedent: Clearchus reports that Pindar composed a poem asigmatically, while later poets such as Lasus of Hermione composed hymns and other songs also without sigmas (fr. 88 Wehrli). More complicated demands include reciting a Homeric verse whose first and last syllables compose a proper name, such as:

ητῆρ᾽ ἀγαθώ, Ποδαλείριος ἠδὲ Μαχάων
The two noble physicians, Podaleirius and Machaon

Iliad 2.732

This verse gives the name Ἴων (Ion). The same principle could be followed to produce the name of kitchen utensils, instruments, or food as well. For example, one could recite:

ἀργυρόπεζα Θέτις θυγάτηρ ἁλίοιο γέροντος
Silver-sandaled Thetis, daughter of the old man of the sea

Iliad 1.538

This gives ἄρτος ‘bread’. Athenaeus adds many further illustrations, but these examples show clearly enough that more than a passing knowledge of Homer was required to succeed. [
66] It may not be impertinent to note that Athenaeus concludes this section, which itself ends book 10, by telling the penalty that followed upon failing to solve the riddle: guests were obliged to “drink the cup” (πίνειν τὸ ποτήριον, Athenaeus 448e), as he says earlier, which means to drink wine mixed with brine without stopping to breathe (458f–459a).

In summarizing this section there are a few central points that can be made. The most important one speaks to how poetic texts are reused in sympotic performance, and in turn how such poetry can be analyzed to recover a hypothetical performance context. We began this section by considering how the Attic skolia and some of the doublets in Theognis contain built-in performance options. Of course we cannot establish whether given verses arose from an improvised performance and were later recorded, or whether they were composed for performance in the state in which we presently find them. What I think we can say with some certainty, however, is that there are enough parallels between the multiplicity of performance demands on symposiasts, attested from Aristophanes through Athenaeus, to allow us reasonably to hypothesize how this poetry was performed. Given the sympotic tradition of competitive improvisation and recitation, riddling, punning, and double-entendre, it seems that this best explains what was done with the skolia and some of the doublets in Theognis. But I should stress that such an argument is not meant entirely to explain the textual tradition of something like the Theognidea, which have certainly been altered by later hands. Some distichs in Theognis, for example 571–2 with 1104a–b or 853–4 with 1038a–b, are repeated without change, which suggests that they have to be accounted for in a different way. Also, we have only considered examples within the fairly coherent section of lines 1–1220; further examples of similar distich expansion can be found in lines after these. [67] My point, however, is that even if this poetry has been altered by later hands, it ought not to be condemned on that account because it may still provide access to genuine sympotic performances, if only we are prepared to recognize them as such.


[ back ] 1. Bowra 1961:373–403. Vetta 1983, who follows Bowra, seems unaware of Van der Valk’s 1974 criticism of Bowra’s overly historicizing approach.

[ back ] 2. Lambin 1992:266–307 passim. Despite my disagreements with Lambin on several points, his thorough discussion provides essential background on the Attic skolia.

[ back ] 3. Ehrenberg’s 1956:58 formulation, though made specifically with reference to the “Harmodius song” (skolia 10–13 = PMG 893–96), could equally well be said of all of them: “Bei unserer Untersuchung gehen wir also von der Voraussetzung aus, daß das Lied sich fortwährend veränderte und erneuerte, wie es sich aus der Art und Weise des von einem der Symposiasten zum anderen weitergegebenen und mindestens ursprünglich oft improvisierten Rundgesangs naturgemäß ergibt.” “In our investigation we thus assume that the song continually changed and renewed itself, as naturally results from the type and manner of the roundelay song [which was] passed on from one symposiast to another and, at least originally, often improvised.”

[ back ] 4. Lambin 1992:275–76.

[ back ] 5. The historical details are reported in Thucydides 6.56–57.

[ back ] 6. So Ehrenberg 1956:66.

[ back ] 7. The quote, “pure unpolitical love poetry,” is from Ehrenberg 1956:59 and is endorsed by Lambin 1992:277.

[ back ] 8. Ehrenberg 1956:59.

[ back ] 9. Nietzsche 1867. Of course the problem of the origin of Theognis’ elegies is much older. Welcker 1826:CXXI–CXXIV traces earlier scholarly views of how the elegies were composed from separate texts. As he points out (p. CXXII with n163), Richard Brunck (1784) gave the greatest impetus to this effort when he argued in the preface to his edition: Nempe Theognidis poesis, quae superest, non est continuum opus, sed ex fragmentis constat e variis illius hominis elegiis aut poematibus excerptis. “Without a doubt, the poetry of Theognis that survives is not a continuous work, but consists of fragments and various of his elegies or excerpted poems.” Brunck’s entire preface can be found at Welcker (1826: CXLI–CXLII), in the midst of several other invaluable prefaces from Renaissance to early nincteenth-century editors (ibid:CXXVII–CXLIV).

[ back ] 10. Steffen 1969/70.

[ back ] 11. West 1974:46.

[ back ] 12. Nietzsche 1867[1982]:15.

[ back ] 13. Vetta 1984, while not concentrating primarily on the doublets, makes an argument for improvisation in Theognis that is in agreement with my own. His treatment of lines 939–44 on his pp. 118–25 is exemplary. Cf. Nagy 1985:50, “I suggest, then, that the differences between doublets in attested Greek elegiac poetry reflect for the most part not editorial deterioration in one direction or another but formulaic versatility corresponding to different compositional needs.”

[ back ] 14. See West’s 1974:59 chart of the compositional history between the fourth century BCE and first century CE of the sylloge.

[ back ] 15. As argued earlier, however, this requires no leap of faith because the essential parameters of this kind of gaming are attested at least for the sixth century, but are almost certainly earlier.

[ back ] 16. According to West 1971:xii and ad Theognis 1220, the lost apograph designated o, dated to the end of the thirteenth or beginning of the fourteenth century, ended here (as attested in I). Manuscript A also observes the break after line 1220, and it offers lines 1231–1389 (immediately after 1220) under the title ἐλεγείων β.

[ back ] 17. West 1971 xiii lists P. Oxy. 2380 (second or third century CE, containing verses 254–78), and two ostraca P. Berol. 12310 (third century BCE, verses 434–38) and P. Berol. 12319 (third century BCE, verses 25–6), otherwise the textual evidence is medieval.

[ back ] 18. Except where noted, text citations of the Theognidea are taken from West 1971.

[ back ] 19. Similarly modest changes can be found, e.g. in Theognis 213–4/1071–2, 218–9/1073–4, 409–10/1161–2, 555–6/1178a–b, 619–20/1114a–b, 877–8/1070a–b, etc.

[ back ] 20. For more on this, see Nagy 1985:46–7.

[ back ] 21. See Vetta 1984:124–25.

[ back ] 22. Stobaeus 3.31.16 reports καταθήσεαι ἔνδον “you shall set [no better treasure] within.”

[ back ] 23. PMG 884 invokes Athena Polias and sets a political tone for the entire collection. Note again the idea of straightening the polis and its citizenry: Παλλὰς Τριτογένει᾽ ἄνασσ᾽ Ἀθηνᾶ, | ὄρθου τήνδε πόλιν τε καὶ πολίτας | ἄτερ ἀλγέων [τε] καὶ στάσεων | καὶ θανάτων ἀώρων, σύ τε καὶ πατήρ. “Pallas, Trito-born queen Athena, | straighten this city and its citizens | without pains and strife | and untimely deaths—you and your father.”

[ back ] 24. This same kind of ambiguity is highlighted in Hesiod, Works and Days 270–72. Steffen 1969/70:5–7 sees no irony in Theognis’ terms, and thus he holds that line 40 must be genuine while 1082 is not, “vix enim credi potest accidere potuisse, ut ὐβριστὴς ὐβρίζοντας coercerer” “For it can scarcely be believed to have happened that an insolent man restrained the insolent (p. 7).” Line 1082, however, merely expresses the fear that a tyrant or some equally disagreeable figure will rise to power in the polis. Cf. Nagy 1985:46.

[ back ] 25. In the Theognidea individual hexameters (597/1243) or pentameters (540/554) are occasionally found in two different contexts, but this is rare.

[ back ] 26. For syntactical effects in the elegiac couplet induced by its gnomic character, see Greenberg 1985b:67.

[ back ] 27. I treat these verses as independent here, rather than attached to 1183–84 as West 1971 ad loc. conjectures in his edition.

[ back ] 28. As does Steffen 1969/70:9–10, who argues erroneously on largely aesthetic grounds that verses 87–90 are genuine while 1082c–f ought to be rejected as spurious. Such an approach, focused as it is on recovering the “original” words of Theognis, does not address the kinds of effects that are achieved by this poetry in performance.

[ back ] 29. Liapis 1996:114 with n19.

[ back ] 30. West 1971 ad loc. emends this, unnecessarily, to ἔχοντα.

[ back ] 31. Pellizer 1990:182n17 and Liapis 1996:113–14.

[ back ] 32. See Lambin 1992:302 for further examples.

[ back ] 33. Lambin 1992:302.

[ back ] 34. Henderson 1975:135.

[ back ] 35. Lambin 1992:266–307.

[ back ] 36. Liapis 1996.

[ back ] 37. Liapis 1996:112–14.

[ back ] 38. As at Aristophanes, Birds 670: Liapis 1996:112 following Henderson 1975:131.

[ back ] 39. Liapis 1996:113, citing Henderson 1975:184n129, who in turn cites LSJ s.v. 2, 3, 4 for the usage of αὐλός for body parts.

[ back ] 40. And thus in turn to generate the question of dating: Lambin 1992:303–4 thinks the mention of lyre rather than aulos must put PMG 900 in the late fifth or early fourth century when the new school of dithyrambists with different musical techniques emerges.

[ back ] 41. Cf. Ion of Chios fr. 26.1 West, where the self-designated χορός is a group of symposiasts to whom Dionysus gave wine.

[ back ] 42. Lambin 1992:280–85 has a detailed discussion.

[ back ] 43. See Henderson 1975:122.

[ back ] 44. Henderson 1975:122.

[ back ] 45. Lambin 1992:281.

[ back ] 46. Henderson 1975:143–44, with Lambin 1992:299–300. Cf. PMG 904 with its pun on βάλανος ‘acorn, penis’.

[ back ] 47. Athenaeus 448b–459b. According to Athenaeus 453b, homonymy is found in ancient riddles involving logical concepts, which are closest to the true nature of riddling.

[ back ] 48. Ohlert 1886:20 relates the sages’ contests to that of “Homer” and “Hesiod” in the Certamen. A more recent treatment of the sages as performers of wisdom can be found in Martin 1998.

[ back ] 49. See Maurizio 1997.

[ back ] 50. An especially good example is the tradition of Cleobulina, daughter of the sage Cleobulus of Lindus, who was noted for composing riddles in hexameters. Her testimonia can be conveniently found in West 1972.

[ back ] 51. Hesiod fr. 278 MW.

[ back ] 52. See Certamen 140–75 with 97–137 and the discussion below in Part III.

[ back ] 53. West 1996b.

[ back ] 54. Plato, Republic 479b with scholia ad loc. Cf. Athenaeus 452c–d.

[ back ] 55. Apart from skolia discussed earlier, cf. also in this respect PMG 889 and 908.

[ back ] 56. Lambin 1992:297–99.

[ back ] 57. Aristophanes, Peace 1083.

[ back ] 58. The proverb was known to Sophocles (fr. 37 Radt). Brief discussion at Lambin 1992:263–64.

[ back ] 59. E.g. PMG 889.4, 890.3; cf. 908.

[ back ] 60. E.g. Athenaeus 451b–c.

[ back ] 61. Athenaeus 579a.

[ back ] 62. Plutarch, Convivial Questions 736d–737c; Lucian, Symposium 12.

[ back ] 63. This is a typical format for sympotic questions. Cf. Certamen 76, 82, and “Hesiod’s” questions at 162–74.

[ back ] 64. Commentary ad Clearchus fr. 63, citing Aristotle fr. 13 Rose.

[ back ] 65. All text citations of Homer are taken from Monro and Allen 1920, and Allen 1917.

[ back ] 66. And where that failed, forcing the text would do: cf. Merkelbach’s 1956:123n65 and Erler’s 1986:88–89 arguments for Poseidippus’ rendering of Iliad 11.101: αὐτὰρ ὁ βή ῥ᾽ Ἶσόν τε καὶ Ἄντιφου ἐξεναρίξων. In place of the underscored words he substituted Βήρισον (Supplementum Hellenisticum 701), possibly in light of the sympotic game mentioned by Clearchus fr. 63 (Wehrli, see above).

[ back ] 67. E.g. 1278c–d/949–52, etc.