The Archaic Greek Poet as a professional or as a non-professional: five problematic cases

The Archaic Greek Poet as a professional or as a non-professional: five problematic cases

2023.06.06 | By Gregory Nagy

This essay is a rewritten online version of a paper I presented at the 7th Open International Conference of the Network for the Study of Archaic and Classical Greek Song, <<The Figure of the Poet in Archaic and Classical Greece>>, organized by Xavier Riu, July 3–5, 2023, Barcelona. The link to this online version is indicated in the Bibliography under the entry Nagy 2023.06.06

Attic red-figure cup by Oltos, ca. 510 BCE. Detail of exterior: Anacreon (named, ANAKΡΕΟΝ) with lyre and plectrum. British Museum, inv. no. 1836,0224.145 (Vases E18). Image © The Trustees of the British Museum, used under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

§0. Abstract. The names of the five poets I have in mind are: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho, Theognis, Corinna. It is commonly assumed that all five of these figures—let us continue to call them poets—were non-professional in the sense that there seems to be no trace of professionalism in what is said about these five in the surviving texts of the actual poetry or songmaking that is attributed to them. In this essay, however, I will argue in general that the transmission and the reception of the verbal art recorded in these surviving texts did involve—and in some cases did require—the professionalism of performance by professional performers at public events. If my general argument holds, then I would go on to argue more specifically that even the original poems or songs attributed to these poets—though their own compositions would have been non-professional—could have been composed only for performance and perhaps even in performance. Further, any case of composition-in-performance would not necessarily require the technology of writing either for the composition itself or for the reception of such composition by way of reading a written text. To say it another way, such composition-in-performance could be explained in terms of oral poetics.

Keywords, listed in a sequence that approximates, though only roughly, the sequence of first mentions: poets, verbal art as poetry or songmaking, Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho, Theognis, Corinna, professional, non-professional, Anacreon, composition-in-performance, transmission, reception, reception-by-audience, creation by way of writing, reception by way of reading, oral traditions, public events, festivals, Panathenaia, City Dionysia

§1. More needs to be said about transmission and reception in terms of oral traditions. I summarize my overall views by epitomizing what I wrote in an earlier essay about a subject that is not directly related to the subject of my essay here. That indirectly related subject is the transmission and reception of Hesiodic poetry (Nagy 2009a:282–283):

§1.1. In any oral tradition, the process of composition is linked to the process of performance, and any given composition can be recomposed each time it is performed. The performer who recomposes the composition in performance may be the same performer who composed it earlier, or it may be a new performer, even a succession of new performers. The point is, such recomposition-in-performance is the essence of transmission in oral traditions.

§1.2. This kind of transmission is the key to a broader understanding of reception. Unlike what happens in written literature, where reception by the public happens only after a piece of literature is transmitted, reception in oral traditions happens during as well as after transmission. That is because the process of composition in oral traditions allows for recomposition on each new occasion of performance for a public that sees and hears the performer. In oral traditions, there is an organic link between reception and performance, since no performance can succeed without a successful reception by the public that sees and hears the performer or performers.

§1.3. The link between reception and performance affects the actual content of the composition performed before a given public. That is because the performance of a given composition can speak about itself. For example, the performance can say things about the context of performance or even about the performer or performers. What is said, however, will be subject to change from performance to performance, and such change can actually affect the content of the composition by way of recomposition-in-performance.

§1.4. Extensive documentation: Nagy 1996:207–225. For an improved rewriting of the basic argument: Nagy 2021.10.11 at §33.

§2. In the first paragraph of my essay, at §0, I spoke of professionalism. I have in mind the basic idea that poets could be compensated materially for the creation of their verbal art—or let us say it in a way that conveys more directly the idea of materialism, for the production of their verbal art, whether the compensation was monetary or premonetary. In the case of a historically attested poet like Pindar, for example, Classicists can think of him as a professional, since the content of his victory odes, to cite the most obvious example, makes frequent references to compensation—some would go so far as to say that such compensation takes the form of taking a fee in return for the verbal art that is being produced, whether such a fee is envisaged as premonetary or monetary.

§3. As for the five poets I have highlighted, however—Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho, Theognis, Corinna—I see in each case no evidence for such ‘professionalism’—but only if I consider simply the forms of verbal art that are attributed to them. On the other hand, there is solid evidence, I argue, for professionalism in the transmission of their verbal art by way of performance, and such transmission depends on the reception of such performance in times and even places that go well beyond any original time and place of composition. As I have argued in a variety of previous publications, the verbal arts in the Preclassical era of Greek history need to be viewed in the four contexts that I have already highlighted at §1: composition, performance, reception, transmission. I must emphasize at this point that I see no proof for linking the first of these four contexts, composition, with the technology of writing in the Preclassical or “Archaic” era of ancient Greek history. So, in terms of my argumentation, reception and transmission need to be viewed in terms of performance, not composition.

§3.1. I have just referred to publications of mine where I have made relevant arguments. In the bibliography for this essay, I have listed a mass of references to these arguments, but I must emphasize that my readers, many of whom are attending the conference where I am presenting this essay, will want to track a mass of further relevant arguments, many of which differ from mine, and such arguments will I am sure enhance the conversation. With this emphasis in mind, I refer to a scenario of online annotations that the organizers of Classical Continuum can make available for the possibility of open peer review: Nagy, G. 2021.10.26. “About online annotation as an academic genre designed to track ongoing research.”

[[Two annotations that I already add, in my rewriting as of 2023.06.06:

(1) I have already incorporated a reference to the important work of Cecilia Nobili 2021 on the topic of public performances of poetry composed in elegiac meter.

(2) I note with interest a passage cited by Emily Hauser 2023.06.05 in the context of the paper she presented at the conference. The citation comes from Aristotle’s Rhetoric 1398b11–14 where he remarks, in an offhand way, that the people of Paros gave tīmē ‘honor’ for Archilochus even though he was blasphēmos ‘irreverent’, and so also the people of Chios gave ‘honor’ for Homer even though he was not politikos, that is, concerned with the affairs of a generic polis, and, thirdly, so also the people of Mytilene gave ‘honor’ for Sappho even though she was a woman. I see here a reference, however imprecise, to a special kind of reception accorded to poets, that is, where they were worshipped as cult heroes. For more on this kind of reception, in the specific case of Archilochus, I cite this essay: Nagy 2022.01.10.]]

§3.2. That said, I proceed to review the formal categories of verbal art that are linked with the five poets I have named, Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho, Theognis, Corinna. The sequence in which I have initially listed them corresponds to conventional criteria for dating the lives and times of the figures behind these names. But I find such chronological sequencing not all that useful, since the criteria for dating boil down to reductive applications of the principle of terminus post quem, as in the case of the reference in Archilochus F 122.2–4 (ed. West) to an eclipse of the sun, which is conventionally matched with either 6 April 648 BCE or 27 June 660 BCE. But who is to say, I ask myself, whether lost songs of Alcaeus or Sappho, for example, did not also refer to the same eclipse, whenever it took place?

§4. For purposes of this essay, in any case, I find it more useful to begin with Alcaeus and Sappho, since the reception of songs attributed to them can be dated to an earlier period than the reception of poetry attributed to Archilochus. Up to now, my fullest treatment of such early reception is an essay I originally published in a book edited by Toni Bierl, Nagy 2007, “Did Sappho and Alcaeus ever meet?”. Moreover, I see in the case of Sappho in particular the clearest examples of early reception by way of professional performers. I have in mind here the figure of Anacreon, and I present the relevant argument in an essay originally published in Classical Inquiries, Nagy 2021.02.06.

§5. A comparable example, I think, of early reception by way of professional performers is the so-called Plataea Elegy of Simonides, F 11 (ed. 2 West). Here I epitomize what I said about this composition in an essay I wrote about the reception of the “Lyric Canon” in Athens (Nagy 2020:104–106, online version in Nagy 2021.11.29 §§34–38):

§5.1 [§34]. At a conference of the Network for the Study of Archaic and Classical Greek Song held in the summer of 2012 in Washington, DC, I proposed that the Plataea Elegy of Simonides (F 11 West), celebrating the victory of the Hellenes who fought the forces of the Persian Empire at the battle of Plataea in 479 BCE, had become part of the repertoire of the “Lyric Canon”—not originally, I must emphasize, but eventually. In support of my proposal, I cited the work of Ewen Bowie (1986) on the performative traditions of archaic Greek elegy, expressing my agreement with his view that (1) elegiac compositions in the archaic and classical periods were conventionally sung to the accompaniment of the aulos ‘reed’, and (2) there were two basic social contexts for the singing of elegy by men, namely, performances by non-professionals at symposia and performances by professionals at public festivals (Nagy 2010:38; also to be cited is a pertinent essay by Cecilia Nobili 2011). Accordingly, I argued that the performing of elegy at the festival of the Great Panathenaia belonged to competitions among professional singers in the category of aulōidiā ‘singing to the accompaniment of the aulos’.

§5.2 [§35]. This is not at all to say, however, that elegy was the only form of aulōidiā to be performed at the Panathenaia. Besides the stichic form of elegy, I leave room for the possibility that non-stichic forms of aulōidiā also existed in at least the earlier phases of the Panathenaia, just as I leave room for non-stichic forms of kitharōidiā ‘singing to the accompaniment of the kitharā’, which would be the primary medium for composing songs such as those attributed to Sappho in Scroll 1 of the Alexandrian edition.

§5.3 [§36]. I must also note here the possibility that aulodic performances could be interchangeable with citharodic performances, as well as the other way around. A case in point is Aristophanes’ comedy Women at the Thesmophoria. Here the tragic poet Agathon is depicted as wearing a turban and a woman’s khitōn—costuming that matches the costume of the lyric poet Anacreon as depicted by the Cleophrades Painter (Copenhagen MN 13365; Price 1990:169, with bibliography). In the comedy of Aristophanes, the stage-Agathon even says that his self-staging replicates the monodic stagings of Ibycus, Anacreon, and Alcaeus (verses 159–163). This reference suggests, I argue, that Agathon as a master of tragic poetry was strongly influenced by the monodic performance traditions of lyric song, both citharodic and aulodic, as performed at the Panathenaia (Nagy 2007:245–246, following Bierl 2001:160–163; on Agathon as a stage-Anacreon, see Bierl 2001:158 [n137], 165).

§5.4 [§37]. I should emphasize in this context the fact that aulodic compositions were appropriate not only for performance at the competitions of aulodes at the Panathenaia but also for the competitions of choruses who were singing and dancing in the dramas of Athenian State Theater at the City Dionysia and at other dramatic festivals, since the singing and dancing of the songs of drama were conventionally sustained by the accompaniment of a single aulos. So, my point about Agathon is that he was experimenting with compositions in his dramas that would have sounded like aulodic performances by professional aulodes competing with each other at the Panathenaia. And, going even further, Agathon experimented even with citharodic compositions in his dramas.

§5.5 [§38]. In short, I argue that the compositions of poets like Simonides were suitable for re-performances by professionals competing in separate citharodic and aulodic competitions among citharodes and aulodes respectively in at least the earlier phases of the Panathenaia. In my essay “On the Shaping of the Lyric Canon in Athens” (Nagy 2020), I made similar arguments about “lyric” compositions attributed not only to Simonides but also to all the other canonical nine poets of the “Lyric Canon” in Athens: so, my argumentation in that essay included, besides Simonides, also Bacchylides and Pindar, also Ibycus and Anacreon, also Sappho and Alcaeus, also Stesichorus and Alcman. I have just now listed here these “Lyric Nine” in reverse chronological order—at least approximately—for reasons I try to explain more fully in that same essay. Relevant here is the problem of establishing a date for Corinna, another one of the five poets I have highlighted in the present essay. In this case, as I argue (again, Nagy 2020; also Nagy 2022.05.09), the songs of Corinna failed to achieve canonical status in the Classical era of Athens simply because they were not performed at the Panathenaia in that era.

§6. In my present essay, however, I concentrate not on the canon formation of the “Lyric Nine” in Athens but on problems associated with my use here of the term “lyric”—which must be contrasted with forms of verbal art that go beyond the repertoire of the “Lyric Nine.” In my list of poets selected for special consideration in my essay here, the two relevant names are Theognis and Archilochus.

§7. I start with the texts attributed to Theognis, which are all composed in a meter known as the elegiac couplet. This simple fact leads me to compare elegiac compositions attributed to Theognis with the Plataea Elegy of Simonides. Following up on what I said in §5, I now argue that the elegiac compositions attributed to Theognis—as also elegiac compositions attributed to Solon, could have been performed by professional aulodes at the aulodic competitions of the Panathenaia—not only by non-professionals who were singing for each other at symposia.. As background for this argument, I cite an essay that has been published online in a pre-edited and pre-printed version, where I concentrate on non-professional aulodic performances of elegiac poetry at symposia (Nagy 2022.12.31). By extension, I argue that professional aulodic performances of such poetry would have been appropriate for competitions in aulody at the Panathenaia.

§8. That said, I come to the fifth of the five names of poets whose verbal art was transmitted, as I argue in my present essay, by professional performers. That poet is Archilochus, most of whose attested compositions belong to a category of poetry that Classicists would conventionally describe, purely on the basis of their metrical form, as “iambic” and “elegiac.” As for the other names besides Theognis—that is, Alcaeus, Sappho, and Corinna—these three belong to a category of poetry—or, better, of songmaking—that that I have already called “lyric” or, I could have said, “melic,” featuring a vast variety of different meters. As I near the end of my essay here, I will for the sake of convenience continue to use the less specific word, “lyric,” even though this category includes performances accompanied on the wind-instrument of the aulos or ‘reed’, not only on the string-instrument of the kitharā or ‘cithara’ as also on other variants of the generic instrument called the “lyre,” such as the barbitos. But my point for now is different, since I am concentrating here on our fifth problematic poet, Archilochus, whose compositions take the form of decidedly non-“lyric” meters, and these include not only “elegiac” and “iambic” but also what is conventionally described as the “trochaic tetrameter catalectic.” What is most noteworthy about all these meters of Archilochus, for purposes of my argument here, is that we do have information in this case about the medium of transmission by professional performers. As I have pointed out in my book Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music: The Poetics of the Panathenaic Festival in Classical Athens (ed. 3, Nagy 2021.10.01), the professional performers who competed in performing the poetry of Archilochus were rhapsōidoi ‘rhapsodes’, as we see from a passing reference in Plato’s Ion. I epitomize here what I argued in Plato’s Rhapsody (ed. 3 pp. 55–56 = 2§§34–35):

§8.1 [2§34]. In Plato’s Ion: we see a dramatization of a rhapsōidos ‘rhapsode’ by the name of Ion, who is preparing to compete in performing the epic poetry of Homer at the rhapsodic competitions of the Panathenaia (530b). But it is noted in this context that our rhapsode is potentially a grand master in performing Hesiod and even Archilochus, not just Homer (531a); he tells Socrates that he specializes in Homer only because Homer is the best poet and, by implication, the only poet whose poetry is performed by rhapsodes at the Panathenaia (531a-532c). The rhapsode is a master performer—without musical accompaniment (533b5–7)—of dactylic hexameter, which is of course the medium of Homer and Hesiod, as also of elegiac and iambic meters, both of which meters were primary compositional media of Archilochus. From such formal parallelisms, we can see that the poetic medium of Solon—elegiac and iambic meters—is appropriate to the performance repertoire of rhapsodes. Solon’s poetry is rhapsodic poetry. But is this poetry appropriate for rhapsodic performance at the Panathenaia?

§8.2 [2§35]. In Plato’s Timaeus, it is implied that the rhapsodic poetry of Solon could have replaced the rhapsodic poetry of Homer at the Panathenaia, if only the great Athenian statesman had found the leisure time to finish composing his unfinished poem about Atlantis and Athens (21c–d). By further implication, the rhapsodic tale told here by Critias could have become the poetic centerpiece of the Panathenaia. But Solon did not complete his rhapsodic masterpiece—just as Plato did not complete his trilogy of Timaeus, Critias, and Hermocrates.

§9. As I went on to argue in my Plato’s Rhapsody, this state of incompleteness is expressed by Plato in a nostalgically playful way, and the playfulness cleverly mimics the childish mentality of a ten-year-old boy playing at a game of rhapsodes, where the object of the game was to win celebrity status as the star rhapsode of the Panathenaia. I skip the argument in my essay here, except for pointing out that Critias looks back at those early days when he and the other children playing rhapsode had not yet become eligible to enter the “real” world of grownups. Now, in the Timaeus and the Critias, we find the grandson Critias still at it—playing rhapsode on the occasion of the Panathenaia. Plato’s wording of Critias’ reminiscences leaves the impression that Critias’ game is still in some ways a children’s game.

§10. My argument for now, however, centers not on Solon, whose elegiac compositions did not become the repertoire for rhapsodic competitions at the Panathenaia, but on Archilochus. The point is, the elegiac compositions that are attributed to Archilochus, as well his other poems composed in other meters like iambic trimeter and trochaic tetrameter catalectic, were performed by professional performers in rhapsodic competitions, yes, but these performances were not Panathenaic. Rhapsodic, yes, but not Panathenaic—at least, not in the Classical period. This much we know from the passing reference in Plato’s Ion (531a, 532a) to the exclusively Homeric repertoire of the rhapsode Ion whenever he competes at the Panathenaia. And we find also other relevant sources, as reported in Athenaeus 14.620b-c, the reportage of which I analyze at length in my Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond (Nagy 1996:157–164). With that reference in place, I drew to a close the live presentation of my essay, but not without paying special tribute to a relevant article by my colleague Xavier Riu (2012) on Archilochus and iambic poetry, published in a book co-edited by him with another pioneer in the study of archaic and classical verbal art, Jaume Pòrtulas.

§11. In the current rewritten version, I need to make a further remark in the light of lively debates that took place after my live presentation at the original conference as described at the beginning. First and foremost, I withdraw my original use of the word “amateur” in referring to non-professional performances of verbal art, as for example in the context of symposia. My use of that word had led to the assumption, on the part of some of my hearers, that I think of a hard-and-fast “dichotomy” between non-professional and professional performances as I have surveyed them here. On the contrary, my intent had been to show that each one of the five figures who were the primary points of interest in my essay were “problematic” precisely because none of these figures, in terms of their reception, could be shoehorned into a neat dichotomy as suggested by the overly romanticized term “amateur”—that is why I had originally applied “scare quotes” to that term, as distinct from the unromantic connotations of the term “non-professional.”



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