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.

Part II. Sporting at Symposia: Verse and Skolia Competitions

’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be play’d on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.

Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii

6. Play and the Seriousness of Sympotic Poetry Games

In contrast to the rather severe traditional concerns of figures like Xenophanes that symposia should encompass order and a type of moral edification that other performance genres, such as that of rhapsodes, is incapable of delivering, we find a self-described notion of play (παίζειν) that characterizes poetic performance at symposia. Sympotic play is ultimately competitive in nature, insofar as symposia are venues for the agonistic display of learning and non-professional poetic talent. However, they are also venues for the teasing and cajoling of peers. Rather than being incidental, this kind of activity appears to be a central feature of sympotic gaming and poetic performance. Symposiasts never recited or improvised poetry just to hear themselves. Recitation and performance were always, at least ideally, in the service of the greater communal good, while the attention drawn to oneself in the process remained subordinated to collective self-recognition. At least this was the ideal. In reality, as will emerge in the course of this Part, competitive sympotic performance also lent itself to the expression of personal ambition and private gain, at times with ruthless consequences.

One striking thing about sympotic poetry games is that they bear structural similarities to features of stichomythia outlined in Part I, and of rhapsodic performance as it will be outlined in Part III. With respect to rhapsodic performance in particular, whereas élite critics took rhapsodes to task for their potentially harmful subject matter at the level of content, at the level of form these same critics appear to have embraced a comparable, if scaled-down, manner of poetic performance. The second half of this Part will trace the development of this line of criticism from Xenophanes to Anacreon.

We may compare the associations of drinking, playing, and song with another elegy of Ion, where the elements of drinking and playing remain the same, while those of song and dance are transposed into that of thinking well. After addressing Dionysus as “leader of cheerful symposia” (εὐθύμων συμποσίων πρύτανι, line 14), he further exhorts him (fr. 26.15–16 West):

χαῖρε· δίδου δ’ αἰῶνα καλῶν ἐπιήρανε ἔργων
πίνειν και παίζειν καὶ τὰ δίκαια φρονεῖν.

rejoice; grant a long life, ruler of fair deeds,
to drink, to play and to think just things.

Well-ordered and duly pious symposia therefore depend on moderate drinking, playing, and song, provided they lead to the recognition and expression of right thinking. In the tradition of Xenophanes, right thinking refers to the “reverent speeches and pure tales” (εὐφήμοις μύθοις καὶ καθαροῖσι λόγοις, fr. Β 1.14 West) of gods and heroes that men ought to recite, but unlike Xenophanes, for Ion the atmosphere need not be so solemn.

Finally, a more comprehensive note is struck in an anonymous elegiac fragment where the ideas of play, laughter, and teasing are brought together in the service of noble thought and virtue (ad. eleg. 27 West): [4]

χαίρετε συμπόται ὁμ[ήλικες· ἐ]ξ ἀγαθοῦ γὰρ
     ἀρξάμενος τελέω τὸν λόγον [ε]ἰς ἀγα[θό]ν.
χρὴ δ’, ὅταν εἰς τοιοῦτο συνέλθωμεν φίλοι ἄνδρες
     πρᾶγμα, γελᾶν παίζειν χρησαμένους ἀρετῆι,
ἥδεσθαί τε συνόντας, ἐς ἀλλήλους τε φ[λ]υαρεῖν
     καὶ σκώπτειν τοιαῦθ’ οἶα γέλωτα φέρειν.
ἡ δὲ σπουδὴ ἑπέσθω, ἀκούωμέν [τε λ]εγόντων
     ἐν μέρει· ἥδ’ ἀρετὴ συμποσίου πέλεται.
τοῦ δὲ ποταρχοῦντος πειθώμεθα· ταῦτα γάρ ἐστιν
     ἔργ᾽ ἀνδρῶν ἀγαθῶν, εὐλογίαν τε φέρειν.

Welcome symposiasts, agemates; for having begun from the good
     I shall end a speech for the good.
And whenever we friends come together for such an
     affair, we must laugh and play virtuously,
enjoy being together, jest at one another
     and mock at such things as bring laughter.
And let seriousness attend, and let us listen to those speaking
     in turn: this is the virtue of the symposium.
Let us obey the symposiarch; for these are
     the deeds of good men and this brings praise.

However, let us pursue the idea of winning here a little further. Communal competitions of this sort, especially those that involve verbal contests, create opportunities for “real” social hierarchies that exist outside the gaming context to be both dissolved and recreated. We shall see this being done at one level in the symposium with the ad hoc creation of a symposiarch who presides over the occasion. Within the context of the verbal games as well, social status becomes fluid and continually fluctuates as players win or lose individual verbal matches, whether we are speaking of formalized ridicule in the form of verse or something like the skolion game (discussed below). A politically powerful aristocrat might not be challenged publicly in the council in the way that he can be through a capping or verbal contest game at the symposium, as we find for example parodied in Aristophanes’ Wasps 1222–49 (discussed below) and again at 1299–1325, and in a similar but not equivalent way in the attack on political figures generally in Old Comedy. [9] Decisions about victory, which is potentially and repeatedly available in principle to all participants depending on their gaming competence, almost always rest with the group or audience observing the contests. This is why the Theocritus material examined earlier poses important questions about who holds the right of judgment for victory. By removing the audience and relegating the judgment of victory to judges whose decisions are often obscure, Theocritus’ Idylls challenge the traditional basis on which victory in poetic competitions was decided. In the case of both symposium and public festival, the burden rests with the audiences (differently understood) who may exult in temporarily stripping public figures, or ritualized representations of public figures, of their social status, only to reacknowledge it once the gaming is finished. For symposiastic participants in particular, they “win” only in the sense that participation in the gaming reaffirms their aristocratic social affiliation, while at the level of the gaming itself participation depends on their social status being fluid and available for readjustment.

In this respect, sympotic communal competition can be differentiated from the musical and rhapsodic contests that took place at festivals. In the first place, performer and audience can be the same, and there is no rigid professional or technical divide between them. In the second, during public competitions, as we shall see, individuals, guilds, age-sets, φυλαί ‘social tribes’, and so on are highlighted in victory, often more than one of these at the same time. Yet in the symposium victory belongs to the entire self-selected social and aristocratic group rather than to some subset, and members of this group are moreover required to participate in the exchange. Here it is worth citing an excerpt of Polybius’ description of Arcadian symposia (4.20.10):

ὁμοίως γε μὴν καὶ παρ’ ὅλον τὸν βίον τὰς ἀγωγὰς τὰς ἐν ταῖς συνουσίαις οὐχ οὕτως ποιοῦνται διὰ τῶν ἐπεισάκτων ἀκροαμάτων ὡς δι’ αὑτῶν, ἀνὰ μέρος ᾄδειν ἀλλήλοις προστάττοντες.

Similarly throughout their whole lives they do not so much create music in their banquets by bringing in outside singers as through their own efforts, requiring one another to sing in turn/successively.

At one level this kind of requirement for each symposiast to perform in turn is both a matter of rivalry (φιλοτιμία) and shame (αἰσχρόν), with refusal to perform not being an option for the Arcadians in this account since they were all similarly educated through poetry. Communality, therefore, is continually recreated through these poetic contests. While there may be more of an emphasis here placed on original poetic creation than we have seen, especially given the contrast with bringing in outside singers, such creation is undoubtedly structured according to traditional themes and topics. Through symposia, then, the common poetic heritage of the Arcadians is repeatedly ratified and renewed in performance. At the same time, this process can be thought of as a form of socialization for Arcadian men that ultimately tests and confirms for them an array of ethnic, social, and gender identities (further discussion of this passage in chapter 19).

The same point can also be made of literary depictions of symposia, as in Plato, Xenophon, Athenaeus, Plutarch, and others, where a similar socialization occurs at the level of content and the competitive display of reasoning. There are traditional topics considered suitable for symposia—questions of virtue, the good, loyalty, the meaning of love—which can be expressed through philosophical discussion or poetic games, in a kind of collective affirmation of what identifies the participants as members of a social group. The intellectual exchange at the level of discourse and dialogue—the logos sympotikos—is consistently conceived in the sources in terms of turn-taking and competition. [10] Thus after Eryximachus’ speech in Platos Symposium, Socrates remarks that καλῶς γὰρ αὐτὸς ἠγώνισαι you yourself have competed well” (194a). This comment refers to his contribution to the sympotic discourse but might equally well have applied to a poetic performance. For Plato more generally, [11] and the same may be said of his later imitators, sympotic activity as a whole is brought under the rubric of play (παιδιά) [12] which is fundamentally competitive. Ezio Pellizer has nicely brought together the discursive and the poetic modes of exchange at the symposium, while stressing the communal nature of the enterprise:

Yet if pretense was taken for granted at symposia, then there was always a calculated degree of risk involved in exchanging thoughts over cups with other guests. Not least important in this respect was that one’s self-image could become exposed for the construction that it was. Pellizer offers the following assessment:

Thus symposiastic performances were both concealing and revealing at the same time. The trick was to accomplish both rather than too much of one or the other. We shall examine in a moment how a given poetry game could lead to the revelation of hidden, ill, or inappropriate intentions, thus dissolving a symposiast’s self-image. For the present, it is important to remark that the greater the intake of wine, the closer a symposiast came to παρρησία ‘free speech/outspokenness’, [
20] itself a potentially dangerous stage to achieve because of how easily the requisite jesting and raillery could lead to insult.

For just as a balance had to be struck between too little and too much drinking, so a similar one had to be sought between convivial jesting and seriousness on one hand (the tradition of σπουδογέλοιον ‘blending mockery with seriousness’), [21] raillery and insult on the other. [22] These are pervasive themes in literary representations of the symposium, but the latter—raillery or insult, frequently expressed by the verbs σκώπτειν ‘mock at’ and λοιδορεῖν or λοιδορεῖσθαι ‘abuse’—was the more important and was often mentioned in sympotic poetry itself (e.g. as in the above cited ad. eleg. 27.6 West, σκώπτειν). Moderate drinking fueled and energized the competitive spirit at symposia, but excessive drinking could push the teasing beyond what was tolerable; it then gave offense, and when attempts at reconciliation failed to appease tempers, the situation degenerated into violence, brawling, and, in some cases, murder. Even among young men at symposia, deliberate, rather than incidental, provocation was an essential part of the poetic gaming. For example, in an often-cited passage from the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (54–56) we read:

     θεὸς δ’ ὑπὸ καλὸν ἄειδεν
ἐξ αὐτοσχεδίης πειρώμενος, ἠΰτε κοῦροι
ἡβηταὶ θαλίῃσι παραιβόλα κερτομέουσιν.

and the god [Hermes] sang beautifully
in accompaniment trying out the lyre by improvisation, just as young
men at feasts incite each other through taunts.

We shall see this passage later in connection with improvisation. For the moment I underscore the description of young men at feasts mocking at or deliberately inciting (κερτομέω) each other through extemporaneous performances. The semantics of kertomeô in archaic Greek poetry have recently been reevaluated. In the formulation of Jenny Strauss Clay, for example, she offers two definitions of its meaning: 1) to provoke or goad someone indirectly into doing something, and 2) intentionally to try to elicit a response that one expects, anticipates, or desires. [
23] While following Clay on some but not all points, Michael Clarke offers the more general view that ‘“heart-dividing talk’ defines or labels a distinct genre of speaking among Homeric characters, centring around a browbeating and manipulative social strategy that aims to discomfit or humiliate the person addressed.” [24] These definitions dovetail exceedingly well with what we find in the symposium and in other gatherings of a sympotic character.

Elsewhere we find the difficulty of modulating between mocking (σκώπτειν) and insult (λοιδορεῖσθαι), [25] upon the failure of which follows the inevitable lack of restraint among symposiasts, a theme for Middle Comedy, as in this passage from Alexis (fr. 160 K-A) quoted by Athenaeus (421 a–b):

     φιλεῖ γὰρ ἡ μακρὰ συνουσία καὶ τὰ συμπόσια τὰ πολλὰ καὶ καθ᾽ ἡμέραν ποιεῖν σκῶψιν, ἡ σκῶψις δὲ λυπεῖ πλεῖον ἢ τέρπει πολύ. τοῦ κακῶς λέγειν γὰρ ἀρχὴ γίνετ’· ἂν δ’ εἴπῃς ἅπαξ, εὐθὺς ἀντήκουσας· ἤδη λοιδορεῖσθαι λείπεται, εἶτα τύπτεσθαι δέδεικται καὶ παροινεῖν. ταῦτα γὰρ κατὰ φύσιν πέφυκεν οὕτως· καὶ τί μάντεως ἔδει;

     For the long gathering and the many symposia day after day are wont to produce mockery. But mockery gives more harm than pleasure by far. For this is the beginning of abuse; and once you speak thus, immediately you are abused in turn; by this time abuse is left, then it comes to blows and brawling. These things happen naturally like this; why was there need of a prophet?

Wine and brawling at symposia had long been a theme for Old Comedy and satyr plays. [
26] Similarly another stock theme was the jokes that could, if excessive and told at the wrong moment, get the offender thrown out of doors, [27] while if good and told at the right moment could exculpate him from a more serious charge. [28] But the point I wish to stress is that the formalized taunting through poetry that we find, as Pellizer observed earlier, stands as a test of character and image as much as of verbal skill, especially when fueled by alcoholic enthusiasms. In this there is also, I think, a peculiarly Greek understanding of character as weakly resistant even in the face of formalized, rather than directly personal, mockery. The temptation to goad was institutionalized and irresistible, and it created somewhat of a paradox if only because the eruption of interpersonal strife due to insult remained a constant threat.

The question that has not been definitively answered is how exactly formalized mockery leads to insult. The Greek material is never explicit about this, even if the problem is often thematized, but there are enough examples both historical and literary to suggest some clear inferences. In more formal terms, we might ask what rules of sympotic gaming are violated such that mockery becomes abuse, and simultaneously, what allows a potentially abusive situation to be depersonalized so as to return to mockery. In phrasing these questions this way I have deliberately incorporated language from a model of ritual insult established by the pioneer American sociolinguist, William Labov, [29] along with an important modification of Labov’s theory by Thomas Kochman. [30] Labov’s research on ritual insults among black inner-city youth in major American urban centers is, admittedly, an unlikely source to find support for what we observe in fifth-century Greece. [31] Nevertheless, a few pertinent comparisons can be made, with due allowance for the socially and legally more complex state of affairs obtaining in Greece. Labov argued that a defining rule of the verbal dueling game typically called “playing the dozens” or “sounding” required that the insults remain impersonal and stereotyped. The counterpoint of sounding sequences creates a field that allows for the creation of what he called a “symbolic distance,” which insulates the players from personal attack. Yet when a sound was plausible—and equally importantly, when an attendant audience perceived such a sound to be plausible—the symbolic distance was lost and the target of the attack would feel personally abused. The target of the now perceived abuse would likely not immediately resort to another sound, but to the defense of his reputation. Indeed, Labov thought it was possible to detect when mockery became personal as soon as an opponent departed from the sounding sequence to defend himself. And if the situation was not quickly depersonalized either by one of the participants or a member of the audience, it could degenerate into violence. [32]

Thomas Kochman offers the compelling modification that the rules for sounding, in fact, do not require that insults have to remain impersonal: significantly, insults can and often do contain material that is not only plausible but in part true. [33] The consequences of this modification bear directly upon which player holds responsibility for the shift. Labov thought it rested with the player who issued the personalized insult, but in Kochman’s view, “the responsibility for determining whether the play frame shall be maintained or not belongs with the recipient.” [34] Kochman’s thesis has the advantage of preserving the independent will of the recipient to acknowledge or conceal whether he takes an insult personally. Moreover, much in terms of reputation and skill may rest on a recipient’s ability not to defend himself. Self-defense suggests self-incrimination, and the game becomes a test of which player has the most tolerance and endurance to withstand progressively more provocative insults. Further, the provocation is sharpened precisely to the degree that true material is added. Of course what is considered provocative in this respect varies across cultures and traditions. As we shall see in a moment, regular participation in ritualized insult traditions like those at Greek symposia—especially given their educative function for Greek men—suggests that players develop relatively high degrees of tolerance for such insults, despite the frequent claim that Greeks (esp. Athenians) are “honor-sensitive.” Such characterizations have to be viewed in relative terms in a culture that institutionalizes personal insult in so many centralized ways.

It is for this reason that, although I think the insights of Labov and Kochman can be applied with some success to the Greek symposium, important qualifications must first be made. The most obvious is that the formalized mockery of American youth is not comparable in its political and social dimensions to the sympotic gaming of powerful Greek aristocrats. There are simply no political or legal consequences that ensue upon relentlessly effective sounding by one youth against another, unless or until life-threatening violence erupts. In Greece, of course, there were legal remedies that one could seek in the event of actual slander or libel, [35] but, as others have emphasized, the line between harmless mockery and slander was often evanescent and subjective. [36] In Solon’s day the laws against slander did not pertain to intention; [37] rather, according to Plutarch, the laws centered around speaking ill of the dead or speaking ill of the living in certain hallowed places: temples, law courts, public offices, and festivals were the proscribed venues. [38] But by the fifth century and thereafter, a definition of abuse had developed that incorporated a notion of malicious intent, [39] as well as had a catalogue of ἀπόρρητα ‘things not to be spoken’ that were libelous if said in any context. [40] Thus Plato, for example, in his ideal state opted to draw a distinction between abuse (λοιδορία) executed with or without seriousness and passion (θυμῷ or ἄνευ θυμοῦ), [41] which is in many ways a more subtle distinction than we find in Labov’s material. The former would be subject to penalties (banishment, fines), while the latter would not, and it is noteworthy that Plato had public dramatic competitions especially in mind. [42]

A further difficulty in drawing upon the theory of Labov and Kochman is that the mockery that we find in the symposium was institutionalized in Old Comedy, and for that matter in Old Comic representations of the symposium. Old Comic poets, although using tactics of abuse that did not substantially differ from those of public speakers, nevertheless enjoyed a degree of immunity that rankled the likes of the Old Oligarch, Plato (above), and Aristotle, who argued that both abuse (λοιδορεῖν) and mockery (σκώπτειν)—again with Old Comedy in mind—should have been forbidden by law. [43] Athenian law was not consistent with regard to limiting satire in Old Comedy, but it did briefly proscribe personal abuse in a decree in 440/39, only to have the law annulled in 437/6. [44] The efforts of the politician Syracosius appear to have introduced new restrictions against satirizing individuals by name (ὀνομαστὶ κωμωιδεῖυ) before 414. [45] The reality of this decree has most recently and cogently been challenged by Stephen Halliwell, who concludes that no such restriction could have been passed by Athenians “tout court.” [46] In any case, the relative rarity of such decrees suggests not only that the public enjoyed comedic satire, [47] but also that determining the intention behind abuse was no easy task in reality. Related to this is the view that Old Comedy was inherently impotent to exert significant influence on practical affairs: not only were abusive personalized remarks made by characters within a dramatic setting, but the festival context of Old Comedy along with its possible ritualized inheritance from ceremonial αἰσχρολογία ‘obscenity’, would have further neutralized the legal actionability of any satire presented on stage. [48] Thus, unlike Labov and Kochman’s material on sounding, the status of ridicule was, at least in theory, a serious problem for the Athenian state that did not, and most importantly could not, admit of easy solution. This difficulty is reflected in Plato’s idealized attempt to determine what constitutes abuse in public performances: he actually sidesteps the whole problem by entrusting the process to a minister, charged with supervising the general education of the youth, who would have absolute authority to decide what was appropriate. [49]

By the era of Plutarch, matters become more complicated and mockery and abuse in the context of the symposium could become completely inverted, owing to an anatomy of humor that incorporates elements of Plato’s conception of insult motivated by anger:

τοῖς δὲ σκώμμασιν ἔστιν ὅτε μᾶλλον ἢ ταῖς λοιδορίαις ἐκκινούμεθα, τὸ μὲν ὑπ᾽ ὀργῆς πολλάκις ἀβουλήτως ὁρῶντες γιγνόμενον, τὸ δ᾽ ώς οὐκ ἀναγκαῖον ἀλλ᾽ ἕργον ὕβρεως καὶ κακοηθείας προβαλλόμενοι.

At times we are moved more by mockery than by abuse, for many times we see abuse unintentionally arising from anger, while we consider mockery the unnecessary result of insolence and bad character.

(Convivial Questions 631c)

It would take us beyond the reach of our immediate concerns to outline the philosophical and cultural developments that now make mockery a token of poor character and abuse an inadvertent and excusable outburst. These historical shifts remind us that the generalizing tendencies of our sources must not be allowed to overshadow the historical context that gives them significance. At the same time, while mockery and abuse are somewhat distorted in this passage, Plutarch does retain a sense of their meaning in the classical period.

Despite the discrepancies that we have outlined between Labov and Kochman’s theses and the Greek data, I do think their theses hold some explanatory value both for the classical period and later. Outside the confines of democratic law, let alone during public festivals like the Great Dionysia or Lenaia in which the ridicule of public figures had an established place, [52] standards based largely on individual sensibility were applied in symposiastic settings to determine when mockery devolved into slander. These standards bear a striking resemblance to some examples in Labov and Kochman’s material. A Greek verse recited at the wrong time and in the wrong way could become a deadly thing, as the story of King Lysimachus’ lieutenant, Telesphorus—to take one of numerous possibilities—illustrates. [53] Telesphorus famously mocked at the king’s wife, Arsinoe, in respect of her tendency to vomit. He is reported to have recited the following iambic at a symposium: [54] κακῶν κατάρχεις τήνδ᾽ ἐμοῦσαν εἰσάγων “You are starting troubles by bringing in τήνδ᾽ ἐμοῦσαν.” The pun lies in observing either the hepthemimeral caesura and pronouncing the noun phrase τήνδε Μοῦσαν ‘this Muse’, or in observing the penthemimeral caesura and pronouncing the phrase τήνδ᾽ ἐμοῦσαν ‘this vomiting woman’ with no pause. This joke drew the king’s outrage, for which Telesphorus was caged and treated like an animal until he died.

Equally instructive is the version of the death of Alexander’s commander, Cleitus, told by Plutarch (Alexander 50–51). The context for this story is a dinner hosted by Alexander during the campaign at Samarkand in 328 BCE. Although military dinners, more formally known as συσσίτια, [55] are different from symposia proper, they are structurally similar to symposia and in any event appear to be reflections of the same ritualized archaic institution of a commensal δεῖπνον ‘meal’ followed by drinking and poetry. [56] As the story goes, Alexander called upon Cleitus to dine with him after a particularly robust offering of Greek fruit had been brought to the king by some seafarers. After dining with Alexander:

πότου δὲ νεανικοῦ συρραγέντος ᾔδετο ποιήματα Πρανίχου τινός, ὡς δέ φασιν ἔνιοι, Πιερίωνος, εἰς τοὺς στρατηγοὺς πεποιημέυα τοὺς ἔναγχος ἡττημένους ὑπὸ τῶν βαρβάρων ἐπ᾽ αἰσχύνῃ καὶ γέλωτι. τῶν δὲ πρεσβυτέρων δυσχεραινόντων καὶ λοιδορούντων τόν τε ποιητὴν καὶ τὸν ᾄδοντα, τοῦ δὲ ᾽Αλεξάνδρου καὶ τῶν περὶ αὐτὸν ἡδέως ἀκροωμένων καὶ λέγειν κελευόντων.

When a high-spirited drinking-bout broke out, poems composed by a certain Pranichus, or as some say, Pierio, were sung to shame and ridicule the generals who had just been defeated by the barbarians. The older men became annoyed and rebuked the poet and the singer, but Alexander and those around him listened with pleasure and bade the singer continue.

Plutarch, Alexander 50.4–5

I note first of all the familiar feature that poems of a scurrilous nature—probably iambics, [57] the traditional medium of invective—are sung by Alexander’s soldiers to ridicule their own fellow commanders who recently fell in battle. Not atypically, the sympotic character of the setting leads us to expect this kind of internecine and topical sarcasm, yet it also allows us see how it might be carried too far in the opinion of some listeners. With Labov, I suggest that not enough symbolic distance is created in this exchange, and with Kochman, I suggest that the older soldiers make a choice to be personally offended by the ridicule, perhaps because the insults actually have too much truth in them. The displeasure created in the older soldiers leads them to rebuke or abuse (λοιδορεῖν) both the composer of the songs and the singer, but it is Alexander’s apparent insensitivity to the slander of his own commanders (or is it Alexander’s gamesmanship?) that invites Cleitus to reproach the king. Cleitus, perhaps implicating himself in the truth of the claims, declares that it is not seemly (οὐ καλῶς) to scandalize (ὑβρίζεσθαι) the misfortune of the Macedonians who were killed, to which Alexander retorts that they suffered not from misfortune, but cowardice (δειλία). Then it was his cowardice (δειλία), replies Cleitus, that saved Alexander as he was about to be killed by Spithridates, since Cleitus had saved Alexander before Spithridates fatally struck him (Alexander 16.5). At this, Alexander accuses Cleitus of factionalism.

Next Plutarch, in language that is thoroughly sympotic, describes how those favorable to Alexander rebuke (λοιδορεῖν) Cleitus for his free speech (verb παρρησιάζομαι) in an attempt to quell the rising turbulence (θόρυβος). Alexander then makes a side remark about uppity Greeks who disrespect Macedonians, at which point Cleitus challenges the king either to speak his feelings openly to the group (εἰς μέσον) or not to invite free men who speak freely (παρρησία) to dine with him. It comes to blows: Alexander hits Cleitus with an apple and then reaches for his sword, only to be temporarily thwarted by one of his own bodyguards who had removed it. But the dénouement is what draws our attention: Cleitus, having been pushed out of the banquet hall by his friends, repeatedly tries to reenter and is eventually able to find another door. While trying to enter through this way, he contemptuously (ὀλιγώρως) recites an iambic trimeter from Euripides’ Andromache (693 Diggle): οἴμοι, καθ᾽ Ἑλλάδ᾽ ὡς κακῶς νομίζεται “Oh, how strange is the custom in Greece!” At this insolence, Alexander, in a paroxysm of anger, runs Cleitus through with a sword taken from one of his guards. What is left out of this account but would have been known to every educated Greek or Macedonian present during the affair, as well as to Plutarch’s readers many centuries later, is that this line in Euripides’ play begins a diatribe by Peleus (directed at Menelaus) against the self-aggrandizement of military generals. It is they, Peleus claims, who take the credit for the accomplishments of their army, when actually they do no more than anyone else (694–98).

So much for Cleitus’ contempt of Alexander. But we are still left to ask why Alexander became so incensed at the recitation of this line. Part of the explanation certainly lies in Alexander’s reputation for drunkenness, as it does in his drunken state the night of the murder, while Cleitus’ alcoholically-fueled arrogance that night also played a role. [58] But I would like to offer a different explanation as well, in light of both Greek and comparative material. Alexander had a reputation for taking a keen interest in poetry—an interest he shared with his tutor, Aristotle—which perhaps began with his education and is reflected in his lifelong interest in Homer (especially the Iliad) and fascination with Achilles. [59] Throughout his life he enjoyed instituting music and poetry contests, including those between tragic poets, reed- and lyre-players, as well as rhapsodes and dithyrambic choruses. [60] He was also quite capable of reciting an apt line from epic or tragedy as a comment on or criticism of a situation, at times with the contemptuous verve of Cleitus. [61] A well-improvised verse was not overlooked by Alexander either: when Lycon of Sarapheia was acting a comedy for him and improvised a line requesting ten talents, the king is said to have laughed and given it to him. [62] Alexander could also appreciate finely delivered scorn, as the famous anecdote about Diogenes of Sinope suggests. While in Corinth Alexander visited Diogenes as he was lying in the sun, ostensibly to inquire why he had not yet come like other philosophers to offer the king support for his expedition against Persia. When Alexander asked Diogenes if he needed anything, the latter only requested that Alexander move out of the way of the sun. Alexander was so taken with this reply and with Diogenes’ disdain (ὑπεροψία) for him, that he is said to have remarked that were he not Alexander, he would be Diogenes. [63]

Thus my answer to why Alexander murdered Cleitus over one verse of poetry is that this was a king who knew from personal experience the impact that poetry could have if it was executed too well, too scornfully, and too publicly, among members of the same group. The insights from Labov and Kochman’s research also comparatively support the observation that Alexander felt Cleitus’ stinging ridicule came too close to home, was too plausible and relevant in the face of his underlings no less—although their reactions are not reported—and that he chose the option of murder as a defensive (and offensive) maneuver. What we cannot know is how many of Cleitus’ insults were really true, although Alexander’s reaction suggests that he thought too many of them were.

Now there may be good reasons, actually, to doubt the accuracy of Plutarch’s account, especially in its details. For example, the version of Cleitus’ death told by Arrian (Anabasis 4.8) makes no mention of men ridiculing their fellow commanders in song, nor is Cleitus there said to have contemptuously recited Euripides. Plutarch and Arrian do agree that there was heavy drinking, that Cleitus belittled Alexanders achievements, and that Alexander regretted the murder afterwards. However, we should not let questions of specific historical accuracy distort the fact that Plutarch has given an account of sympotic teasing and ridicule that comports with what we know from elsewhere as common practice. Some of the coloring in Plutarch’s version may be invented, but the sympotic spirit of it is accurate: cohorts were routinely lambasted in song and verse, yet, when energized by too much wine and when the attacks were perceived to be too relevant to present circumstances, provocation could lead to insult and to violence. We must keep in mind that this story, even given its fictional coloring, was also meant to appeal to Plutarch’s contemporaries, who still identified with the mobilizing and socially consequential force of sympotic poetry. As a result, as Plato and Xenophanes before him well knew, the most important needs at symposia were always order and self-control: [64] the symposium was a dangerous institution that could and did give rise to violent passions in men, even when the ground rules for the poetic games played were understood by all.


[ back ] 1. All text citations of Pindar are taken from Snell-Maehler 1987.

[ back ] 2. Morgan 1993:3, who draws upon Gerber 1982:38. Morgan 1993:3–4, with further bibliography, notes a similar contrast between epinician and informal poetry with the mention of the Archilochus-song opening Olympian 9, and somewhat differently at Nemean 4.1–8.

[ back ] 3. West 1971:80 ad 5, following Bergk, notes the completely spondaic meter of this line, which thereby highlights the solemnity of libation-offering.

[ back ] 4. The fragment is dated to the fifth century by Gentili-Prato 1985:130 ad 12.

[ back ] 5. For Plato, ideally the symposium should be aimed at paideia and sophrosyne (Laws 642a, 643a, etc. on which see Tecuşan 1990:235–56), but real symposia were often less than ideal.

[ back ] 6. Schmitt-Pantel 1990:24.

[ back ] 7. Murray 1983a:197 and Schmitt-Pantel 1990:24.

[ back ] 8. Bowie 1993, esp. 365–66 discusses some agonistic elements of sympotic song, but without any development of what “victory” means in such a context.

[ back ] 9. This is of course because drama only represents gaming and verbal attack, rather than being a forum for verbal contests among real participants.

[ back ] 10. E.g. fr. ad. eleg. 27.7–8 West (discussed above) and Plato Laws 671 c, Protagoras 347d.

[ back ] 11. E.g. Laws 666b and 671e, but in a negative sense at 673e.

[ back ] 12. Cf. Xenophon, Symposium 1.1, 2.26.

[ back ] 13. Pellizer 1990:179.

[ back ] 14. Remarks deprecating the present state of the symposium are routine from the classical period (e.g. Plato, Laws 671a and e) to the Second Sophistic (Athenaeus 420e–f).

[ back ] 15. The increasing turbulence (θόρυβος) of symposiasts as the drinking proceeds is noted by Plato, Laws 671a and 640c, whence the need for a sober symposiarch. See further Davidson 1997:43–52 and Tecuşan 1990:250.

[ back ] 16. Tecuşan 1990:256.

[ back ] 17. E.g. Theognis 91–92, 363–64, 575–76, 641–42; Pindar, Pythian 2.83–85.

[ back ] 18. This is reported in Athenaeus 427f. Cf. Aeschylus, fr. 393 (= Athenaeus 427f κάτοπτροv εἴδους χαλκός ἐστ᾽, οἶνος δὲ νοῦ “bronze is the mirror of the outward form, but wine is that of the mind.”

[ back ] 19. Pellizer 1990:183.

[ back ] 20. This is stressed for example by Plutarch, Convivial Questions 707e.

[ back ] 21. Noted at Aristophanes’ Frogs 389–93; Plato, Symposium 197e; Xenophon, Symposium 4.28. The same was true of the Spartans, who customarily engaged in jesting and ribaldry with one another up to but not beyond the point of offense (Plutarch, Lycurgus 12.6; Convivial Questions 631f). On the Spartans and sympotic festivity, see also Halliwell 1991a:291–92.

[ back ] 22. Reitzenstein 1893:26n2, West 1974:16, and Slater 1990:214.

[ back ] 23. Clay 1999:618–19. She mentions the Homeric Hymn to Hermes on p. 621n11.

[ back ] 24. Clarke 2001:335, 337. At p. 337n46, Clarke argues pointedly that the repetitions in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes of kertomeô (56, 300, 335, 338) “suggest that this word family may have had special significance in the context of that god’s association with tricky and wheedling language and behavior.”

[ back ] 25. The need to avoid λοιδορεῖσθαι is also emphasized at Xenophon, Symposium 6.8.

[ back ] 26. At Euripides, Cyclops 534, Odysseus states succinctly: πυγμὰς ὁ κῶμος λοίδορόν τ᾽ ἔριν φιλεῖ. “The revel loves blows and abusive strife.”

[ back ] 27. Eupolis, Flatterers fr. 172.12–15 K-A.: οὖ δεῖ χαρίεντα πολλὰ | τὸν κόλακ’ εὐθέως λέγειν, ἢ ᾽κφέρεται θὐραζε | . . . σκῶμμα γὰρ εἶπ’ ἀσελγές, εἶτ’ αὐτὸν ὁ παῖς θύραζε | ἐξαγαγὼν ἔχοντα κλοιὸν παρέδωκεν Οἰνεῖ. “where the flatterer must say pleasant things or be thrown out … for [Acestor] said something obscene and the servant after leading him out of doors, wearing a collar, gave him over to Oeneus.” On this passage, see the brief remarks of Bowie 1993:366.

[ back ] 28. Aristophanes, Wasps 1253–61. Note that, if done well, a joke from Aesop or about the Sybarites, even one learned at the symposium where one had done physical damage, could excuse the payment for the damages. Philocleon unsuccessfully tries such jokes at 1435–40 and 1446–48.

[ back ] 29. Labov 1972, an essay that is often reprinted, draws upon the earlier research of Abrahams 1962. A summary of Labov’s views can also be found in McDowell 1985:206.

[ back ] 30. Kochman 1983. In a postscript to Kochman’s article (p. 336), Labov says per litteras (n.d.) to Kochman that he agrees with his modification.

[ back ] 31. Some scholars have applied his insights to the insults found, for example, in Homeric poetry (notably Parks 1986 and 1990, and Martin 1989) and Old Comedy (Riu 1999:240).

[ back ] 32. See the rules for sounding given at Labov 1972:160, and an example that violates these rules at ibid:146–52.

[ back ] 33. Research in other ritualized insult traditions supports this, e.g. Edwards 1979:22.

[ back ] 34. Kochman 1983:333.

[ back ] 35. MacDowell 1978:126–29 and Lipsius 1905–12.III:646–51.

[ back ] 36. Henderson 1990:288, 300–1, in the context of Old Comedy. Cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1128a27–28: ἄλλο γὰρ ἄλλῳ μισητόν τε καὶ ἡδύ. “Something hateful to one man is amusing to another.”

[ back ] 37. Common expressions for slander include: κακηγορεῖν, κακηγορία, κακως λέγειν, κακῶς ἀγορεύειν, and more generally βλασφημεῖν, λοιδορεῖν/λοιδορεῖσθαι and κακολογεῖν. On these see Lipsius 1905-12.ΙΙΙ:649.

[ back ] 38. Plutarch, Solon 21.

[ back ] 39. Henderson 1990:300.

[ back ] 40. Lipsius 1905–12.III:648 citing Lysias, Against Theomnestus 1.2. See further Sommerstein 2002:129–30.

[ back ] 41. Laws 935d–936a.

[ back ] 42. Laws 935e is instructive: ποιητῇ δὴ κωμῳδίας ἤ τινος ἰάμβων ἢ Μουσῶν μελῳδίας μὴ ἐξέστω μήτε λόγῳ μήτε εἰκόνι μήτε θυμῷ μήτε ἄνευ θυμοῦ μηδαμῶς μηδένα τῶν πολιτῶν κωμῳδεῖν. “Let it be forbidden for a composer of comedy or of any iambics or lyrics to ridicule any of the citizens either in word or in mimicry, either with or without passion.”

[ back ] 43. On tactics of Old Comic poets: Halliwell 1991a:292–94, 1991b:67, and Henderson 1990:300. On rankling the Old Oligarch: [Xenophon], Constitution of the Athenians 2.18. At Nicomachean Ethics 1128a23–4, Aristotle says that Old Comedy achieves humor through ‘obscenity’ (αἰσχρολογία), while New Comedy does so through ‘innuendo’ (ὑπόνοια). His desire for legal prohibition of mockery is expressed at Nicomachean Ethics 1128a30–31: τὸ γὰρ σκῶμμα λοιδόρημά τι ἐστίν, οἱ δὲ νομοθέται ἔνια λοιδορεῖν κωλύουσιν· ἔδει δ’ ἴσως καὶ σκώπτειν. “For mockery is a form of abuse. The lawgivers forbid some types of abuse. They also probably ought to forbid mockery.”

[ back ] 44. See Sommerstcin 2002:131 and Henderson 1998:262.

[ back ] 45. MacDowell 1978:128–29 and Sommerstein 1986, who is followed by Henderson 1990:289 with his n58. Sommerstein 2002:133, in a recent reassessment of all the relevant evidence, now expresses stronger doubts about the nature of the Syracosian decree than he did in 1986. The testimonia are scholia ad Aristophanes, Acharnians 67 and Birds 1297. The latter scholia report that Eupolis (fr. 220 K-A.) ridiculed Syracosius by comparing him to watchdogs because he moved around and spoke as if he barked.

[ back ] 46. Halliwell 1991b, esp. 55–63. Henderson 1998:262–3 defends the decree’s historicity. But see now Sommerstein 2002:135–36, 145, who argues that, whatever the status of the Syracosian decree, Old Comedy was not exempt from laws against personal abuse of named individuals.

[ back ] 47. Henderson 1990:289n58.

[ back ] 48. On inherent impotence: Halliwell 1984:8. For a different view, see Sommerstein 2002:136–37. On dramatic setting: Halliwell 1991b:53–4. On αἰσχρολογία ‘obscenity’, see the Appendix I with Halliwell 1991a:294–96, 1991b:69 with his n78. Further research is still needed here.

[ back ] 49. Laws 936a–b.

[ back ] 50. Slander under the influence of alcohol is parodied in Aristophanes, Wasps 1299–1325. Slander of magistrates was subject to a separate law (Lysias 9.6–10, Demosthenes 21.32–3); slander of the dead was still prohibited in the fourth century (Lysias 10), on which see MacDowell 1978:127–28. Cf. the remark of Halliwell 1991b:69n77 that “One feature of festivity which consorts with licensed abuse and ridicule is inebriation.”

[ back ] 51. Lipsius 1905–12.III:650, citing Lysias, Against Theomnestus 1.2.

[ back ] 52. See Rosen 1988:60, who with due account for earlier views stresses that the κωμῳδούμενοι ‘objects of ridicule’ of Old Comedy are too conventional to reflect merely personal attacks by the poets.

[ back ] 53. Consider the examples of humorous and offensive recitations of Homeric and Hesiodic verses recounted by Plutarch, Convivial Questions 736e–737c.

[ back ] 54. Fr. adesp. 395 + 184 TGF2 = Athenaeus 616c. Cf. different accounts of this same story in Plutarch, Convivial Questions 634e and Seneca, On Anger 3.17.

[ back ] 55. The terminology varies both among and within Greek poleis.

[ back ] 56. Murray 1983:196 and 1990:5–6. The Spartans enjoyed sympotic customs similar to the Athenians and Arcadians: according to Philochorus, after the Spartans had defeated the Messenians through the leadership of Tyrtaeus, they began a custom, after dinner and after singing a paean together, of singing in turn from Tyrtaeus. The polemarch acted as judge and awarded a prize of meat to the winner (FGH 328 F 216 = Athenaeus 630f), on which see Reitzenstein 1893:45. Bowie 1990:225–28 argues convincingly that this custom is related to the Spartan law enjoining the recitation of Tyrtaeus’ poetry during military campaigns (Lycurgus, Against Leocrates 107). On the egalitarian symbolism of meat-apportionment in the context of the Spartan custom recorded by Philochorus, see Nagy 1990a:269–75.

[ back ] 57. Cf. Cameron 1995:279.

[ back ] 58. Alexander’s reputation for drunkenness: Plutarch, Convivial Questions 623d–624a, Athenaeus 434a–435a. On the night in question, Plutarch (Alexander 50.1) and Arrian (Anabasis 4.9.1) agree on Alexander’s drunken state, as on Cleitus’ (Alexander 50.5; Anabasis 4.8.4–5).

[ back ] 59. See Plutarch, Alexander 8.2–3 and 26.1–2. When Alexander visited Ilium and the grave stele of Achilles, he was asked if he wanted to see the lyre of Paris, to which he replied that he would prefer to see that of Achilles, “with which he sang the glories and deeds of noble men” (ᾖ τὰ κλέα καὶ τὰς πράξεις ὕμνει τῶν ἀγαθῶν ἀνδρῶν ἐκεῖνος, Plutarch, Alexander 15.5). In other words, Alexander also appreciated Achilles for his poetic ability. According to Plutarch, on the authority of Heracleides (on the identity of whom, see Hamilton 1969 ad loc.), while Alexander was planning to found his eponymous city in Egypt, a man came to him in a dream and recited Odyssey 4.354–55, concerning the island of Pharos, which facilitated the choice of location for Alexandria (Alexander 26.2–3).

[ back ] 60. Plutarch, Alexander 4.6 and 29.1. The latter reference is to contests held in Phoenicia, after Alexander’s return from Egypt, in which he is said to have been personally interested in the victory of the celebrated actor, Athenodorus, who actually did not win. Yet when Athenodorus was fined by the Athenians for not performing as scheduled at their Dionysia, Alexander paid the fine from his own purse (29.2–3).

[ back ] 61. Plutarch, Alexander 10.4 and 28.2. The first example involves the death of Philip and the quarrel surrounding Philip’s proposed marriage to Cleopatra, niece of Attalus. Attalus brought on controversy by wishing that this second marriage, rather than the first between Philip and Olympias, Alexander’s mother, would produce a rightful heir to the throne. The rift between father and son over this second marriage never healed. After Pausanias murdered Philip, he approached Alexander for help and the latter is said to have recited an iambic from Euripides’ Medea (288 Diggle): τὸν δόντα καὶ γήμαντα καὶ γαμουμένην “he giver of the bride, the bridegroom, and the bride.” The context for this line is that Creon is exiling Medea from Corinth, in part because he has heard that she intends harm to the three individuals (himself, Jason, and Glauce, respectively) mentioned in the line. Alexander intended the line to refer to Attalus, Philip, and Cleopatra respectively. For the aftermath of this affair, cf. Pausanias 8.7.5.

[ back ] 62. Plutarch, Alexander 29.3.

[ back ] 63. Plutarch, Alexander 14.1–3. Though not the same in life, perhaps they were in death: Diogenes and Alexander were said to have died on the same day (Plutarch, Convivial Questions 717c).

[ back ] 64. Xenophanes B1 West (on which see below). Plato, Laws 673e–674c can be taken to summarize his later position on the entire institution, on which see Tecuşan 1990:244.