GREEK ELEGY AND IAMBUS: A Selection

William Allan (editor)

CUP (2019) p/b 254pp £21.59 (ISBN 9781107559974)

This welcome ‘Green and Yellow’ selection offers extracts from ten early poets (if that term can be applied to Hipponax), six elegiac, two iambic (but Hipponax wrote in a version of iambic known as choliambic or scazon), and two who composed in both genres. A.’s text is his own, but is based on the OCT of West (1989-92), whose numeration is also used; there are no Testimonia, but there is a thin apparatus criticus, which your reviewer occasionally found obscure. Many of the extracts are, as A. points out, quotations from Athenaeus or Stobaeus (but there are others), and we are therefore dependent upon the quality of their manuscripts and the memory of those offering the citations for the accuracy of what has come down to us. Where papyri are involved, different criteria apply.

A.’s Introduction, in six parts, deals with:

(a) Elegy and Iambus as Poetic Forms: he justifiably points out that the ‘mourning’ aspect of elegy is a much later development, and that iambus was by no means always used for invective. A. refers to work by 18 scholars, working singly or as a pair, on the general topic, but might have added Rotstein, The Idea of Iambus (2010). 

(b) Performance and Mobility: the most important vehicles were symposia and festivals, while A. points out that poems could ‘migrate’ from one performance context to another; interestingly, sympotic groups can sometimes (notably in Theognis) identify themselves as agathoi: exclusive and upper-class.

(c) Poets and Personae: the uniting factor here is the world of the speaker, via the creation of a suitable persona—and a single poet can deploy a range of personae: Archilochus and Hipponax are examples. 

(d) Society and Culture; the absence of prose authors for this time (from the 7th C BC) gives added importance to the works as historical sources: A. considers contact with foreign cultures, social and political revolution, and sexuality and gender. 

(e) Language, Style, Metre: both elegy and iambus originated in Ionia, and poems were composed in Ionic. A. lists the range of poetic techniques employed (notably simile); he describes the metres, including the choliambic and the trochaic tetrameter. Iambics were ideal for philosophising and ‘political’ poetry, but it also suited the ‘earthy’ qualities needed for poems involving invective, or relating to sexual matters: it might have been helpful to define ‘colon’, when describing the metre of epodes. 

(f) Transmission: Athenaeus and Stobaeus have already been mentioned (they supply 21 out of the 71 items published here, with 14 more coming from papyri; Theognis (or ‘Theognis’ ) alone survives in manuscript. Inevitably, this implies that our extracts have been chosen for a reason, not purely for their poetic quality: the papyri extracts are a different matter, but they often have to be supplemented by conjecture. This Introduction, dealt with here all too briefly, is admirably complete within a compass of acceptable length.

In offering a Commentary, A. faces little if any competition (has there been anything since Hudson-Williams on Theognis [1910], not listed in the Bibliography?), and gives us full measure. Each poem is put in context, and its source is given, together with what, if anything, is known about the poet: there is also bibliography where relevant. Commentary is detailed (32 pages of text are backed by 200 pages of commentary), where necessary going down as far (for example) as explaining that a verbal form is an ‘aorist optative’ or a ‘middle imperative’, or a ‘2nd singular aorist subjunctive’. Translation of difficult words or phrases is supplied. 

Understandably, A. pays particular attention to Archilochus’s ‘Telephus’ elegy (first published 2008) and the Cologne epode (1972); both passages are found in papyri, with the second needing more supplementation than the first (and also, doubtless owing to its sexual content, receiving a remarkable amount of scholarly attention). Solon (probably c.640-560 BC), as a figure of immense importance in the early history of Athens, is rightly given detailed consideration, and while the same is true of the discontented aristocrat Theognis, A. reminds us that, of the near 1400 lines that survive, only a modest, and uncertain, percentage can be ascribed to Theognis with any confidence, the so-called ‘seal’—i.e. the addresses to Kyrnos—being all too liable to being copied. 

One of the best known poems is assuredly that of Semonides 7, in his tirade against women; at 118 lines, it is the longest non-hexameter poem to have survived from before the 5th C BC. Patriarchal Greek thought, says A., framed women as closer to animals and nature than the human ideal of the adult male. Despite some mitigating lines in the poem, ‘The dehumanizing of women ultimately reinforces male superiority and solidarity’: it is not hard to guess how this poem, or lecturing on it, would be received in a university today. In the handling of both Archilochus and that unlovely person Hipponax, the editor does not hold back in describing sexual detail: but he, like everyone else, is floored by the final lines of the Cologne epode—which is, one may hazard, what Archilochus intended. The most important poet in this commentary, other than Archilochus, is Simonides, and the reviewer recommends the long and full introduction to him provided by the editor. It is a pity that the papyrus of Simonides 11 has to be so generously supplemented, mainly by West and Parsons.

The publisher tells us that this commentary (which assuredly helps to fill a gap) will ‘be of interest to “upper-level” undergraduates and graduate students’. The term of art ‘upper-level’ is new to this reviewer, but even such a student might feel the need, from time to time, of a translation: it is somewhat surprising that there appears to be no reference, even in the (full) Bibliography, to the two volumes on Elegy and Iambus prepared for the Loeb Library by Douglas E. Gerber (1999). The preferred source for Greek syntax is Goodwin’s Moods and Tenses (1889), which would be unlikely to be a student’s choice nowadays. There is an Index.

Colin Leach

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