The Culture of Kitharôidia

  Power, Timothy. 2010. The Culture of Kitharôidia. Hellenic Studies Series 15. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.


This book examines the origins, development, and elaboration of kitharôidia in its social and political contexts and in its relation to other poetic, musical, and discursive forms and practices. It is thus, in part, an archaeology of a performative practice (singing to the kithara) and a song genre, the citharodic nomos; a social history of the production and consumption of professional agonistic music in ancient Greece and Rome; and a consideration of the cultural politics of kitharôidia: how different regions, cities, and individuals competed to “possess” this prestigious musical medium, and what role it was seen to play in the life of the communities in which it was cultivated. What I think will emerge is an appropriately nuanced picture of the aesthetic and sociopolitical complexity and dynamism of kitharôidia. And by retraining a spotlight on the citharode, I hope to reconfigure the traditional scholarly staging of Archaic and Classical Greek song culture (and its Hellenistic and Imperial legacies), showing that kitharôidia acts alongside better-studied genres, epic, lyric, and dramatic, in one mutually antagonistic and promiscuous performance ensemble. Far from being a minor player, it deserves to take a place at center stage.

If, as one student of Greek song has memorably put it, dithyramb is the “ugly sister of the Dionysian family”—tragedy and comedy are the belles of the ball—then kitharôidia has been treated like an often forgotten, rarely spoken of, and indeed rather mysterious uncle in the family of lyric, or, to be more widely inclusive, melic poetry. [1] The favorite sons of this family are sympotic monody (e.g. most of Alcaeus, Sappho, Anacreon) and the narrative, cultic, and epinician choral melic performed on festive and ceremonial public occasions (most of Alcman, Simonides, Stesichorus, Ibycus, Pindar, and Bacchylides). These deprecating familial metaphors are of course meaningful only in terms of the interests and prejudices of modern scholarship, for both the choral, aulodic dithyramb and the solo song of the competitive kithara-singer had a prominence in Greek and Greco-Roman antiquity that is completely disproportionate to the scant attention they have received from historians of the poetry of these eras. Indeed, both forms enjoyed a vigorous longevity that attests to their persistent relevance. Dithyramb was performed at least as early as the seventh century BCE and was still going strong throughout the Hellenistic and Roman Imperial periods. The case is even more striking with kitharôidia: citharodic performance was formally instituted in Sparta in the first half of the seventh century BCE and continued to be featured, in the same basic form, as the main attraction at Panhellenic and local festival musical contests, not to mention in non-competitive concerts, well into the late Empire. Part I of the present book examines the career of the most famous Imperial citharode, the Emperor Nero; his was a bizarrely singular career to be sure, a product of its time, yet one that consciously and creatively drew upon persistent musical, mythical, and political themes and models running through the entire history of the medium, going back to the Archaic period. Kitharôidia was arguably the musico-poetic performance genre that was enjoyed by the greatest number of people in the greatest number of places over the greatest length of time in the ancient Mediterranean world. If nowadays it is treated like a minor form, an antiquarian curiosity, relegated to cursory discussions in the handbooks of ancient literary and musical history, the reality in Greek and Roman antiquity was radically different.

In terms of genre and occasion, kitharôidia was intermediately positioned, and so has tended to get lost in the interstices between the specialized areas of scholarship on Greek song culture. [2] It falls in between two melic macrogenres, private lyric monody and public choral song. Like the former, it was solo song accompanied by stringed instrument; like the latter, it was generally performed out of doors, before the scrutiny of a large festival audience, and often in a competitive setting. Unlike both, it was mostly performed by individual professionals, a fact that brings it closer to rhapsôidia, which also shared with kitharôidia the musical contest as its primary occasion, not to mention, at least at an early stage, a good deal of common form and content. Plato in fact groups kitharôidia and rhapsôidia together under the rubric of solo song, monôidia, in his discussion of competitive festival music performance in Laws 764d–e. Of course, poets such as Sappho and Alcaeus could and did compose choral songs, Pindar and Bacchylides composed solo skolia, and the choral songs of a Simonides, for instance, could be reperformed solo by individual symposiasts (e.g. Aristophanes Clouds 1354–1357). [3] But it is crucial to note: not one of the nine canonical melic poets was a practicing citharode, nor is there any testimony that indicates any one of them composed citharodic nomoi or indeed any solo pieces intended for public performance on the concert kithara. Kitharôidia cleaved more closely to the generally inclusive civic ideology of choral song, and, as we will see again and again in accounts of citharodic performance, it carried much the same charge of maintaining kosmos, musical and political order, in the community. Yet kitharôidia differed greatly from choral melic in its overall disposition. It was more secular than religious, more thoroughly professional than amateur, more a demonstration of personal skill, charisma, and the individual performer’s body than of corporate solidarity and the “body politic,” more Panhellenic than epichoric, less an expression of the community than entertainment and edification for it.

Much less survives of Archaic and early Classical citharodic song. We have only a handful of fragments of poetry, none more than two lines, attributed to Terpander, whom the ancient sources generally concur in regarding as the founder of the “classical” citharodic practice that predated Timotheus. Antonietta Gostoli (1990) has assembled these fragments with commentary, along with the ancient testimonia relevant to the life and work of Terpander. As we will see in Part III, it is in fact the latter that are more valuable for understanding the history of kitharôidia than the former. Indeed, as if to balance out our lack of citharodic texts, we have a relative abundance of literary and visual testimonia. Citharodes—unsurprisingly, given their cultural centrality—are everywhere: in drama, history, philosophy, oratory, and above all in a rich tradition of popular anecdote recorded by the antiquarians; they are painted on Attic pots of all sizes and shapes; their victories are commemorated on numerous inscribed dedications. From these sources we may extract some sense of what the citharodes were singing; this is a main focus of Part II. But, more broadly, they reflect how the culture of kitharôidia was imagined by both the citharodes and the various strata of their Greek and Roman audiences, from high to low, across time and space. Indeed, we have as much ancient testimony about kitharôidia as we have about drama or rhapsodic epic poetry, though much of it has not yet been organized, analyzed, and contextualized in the manner it deserves. This study aims to do just that. It is, however, necessarily selective in nature. I see it as a first step toward understanding kitharôidia within its broader social and cultural contexts. My hope is that future work on the subject by myself and others will fill in the outlines I am sketching out here.

A brief note on the structure and organization of the book. It is divided into four main parts (designated by upper-case Roman numerals), each of which is divided into sections (designated by Arabic numerals); some of the longer sections are further divided into subsections (designated by lower-case Roman numerals). Because I treat a number of the same figures, texts, and themes from different perspectives in different parts of the book, a fair amount of internal cross-referencing has been unavoidable. A reference such as III.3, for instance, indicates Part III, Section 3; II.9.i indicates Part II, Section 9, subsection i. The running heads, with part number on the left-hand page and section number on the right-hand page will, I hope, assist the reader in quickly navigating these internal references.


[ back ] 1. Wilson 2003a: “Ugly sister” (164).

[ back ] 2. Herington 1985 represents a significant exception to this tendency.

[ back ] 3. On the performative and occasional mutability of Archaic monody and choral melic, see Davies 1988; Cingano 2003.

[ back ] 4. Wilamowitz produced the first edition in 1903, with an exegesis of the text and a discussion of kitharôidia, which remains still the most engaging treatment of the subject. The last decade has seen the publication of a new edition of Persians and the other, shorter citharodic (and dithyrambic) fragments of Timotheus (Hordern 2002), which includes a helpful philological commentary. An earlier commentary by Janssen (1984) delves more deeply into the sociohistorical context of Persians.