The rhetoric of literature in the shaping of the lives of poets

2024.05.15, transferred from Classical Inquiries 2015.12.18,  | By Gregory Nagy and Olga M. Davidson.

In the transferred version of this co-authored set of essays here, the wording of the overall title has been revised: “rhetoric of literature” instead of “rhetoric of national literature.”

The combined research of Nagy and Davidson on ancient “Life of Homer” and medieval “Life of Ferdowsi” narratives respectively has shown that the traditional “biographies” about these two poets, as transmitted by a vast variety of communities, can be studied as sources of historical information about the reception of Homer and Ferdowsi. Even though the stories about these poets’ lives are myths, the actual uses of the various different myths of various different communities are a matter of historical reality and can be studied objectively by historians and literary historians.

“Homer dictating to a scribe,” Rembrandt  (1606–1669) [Public domain], Nationalmuseum, via Wikimedia Commons

These video recordings were originally shown at an international conference held at Baku, 27–28 November 2015. The title of the conference was Müqayisəli ədəbiyyat və mədəniyyət: Ədəbiyyatın və mədəniyyətin başlanğıc meyarları, Comparative Literature and Culture: Starting points of national literature and culture. Special thanks go to Rahilya Geybullayeva and Sevinj Bakhyshova for making it possible for Gregory Nagy and Olga Davidson to post the video recordings.

Thanks go also to Claudia Filos for her expert videography.

Gregory Nagy | Life of Homer myths as evidence for the reception of Homer

Abstract: There are eleven versions of the Life of Homer that have survived from the ancient Greek world.[1] Two Lives stand out in my analysis. One of them is Vita 1, sometimes known as the Herodotean Life, and the other is Vita 2, the Contest of Homer and Hesiod, which is sometimes called the Certamen for short.[2]

The evidence of these Life of Homer traditions reveals traces of earlier as well as later concepts of Homer. While the later concepts correspond closely to the Homer of the Iliadand Odyssey, as performed at the festival of the Panathenaia in Athens, the earlier concepts predate this Homer of the Athenians. In effect, the Lives of Homer can be read as sources of information about the reception of both the earlier Homer and the later Panathenaic Homer. The information is varied and layered, requiring a combination of synchronic and diachronic analysis. In the end, such a combined analysis yields a prehistory and history of Homeric reception from the Dark Age onward.

The Life of Homer traditions represent the reception of Homeric poetry by narrating a series of events featuring purportedly live performances by Homer himself. In the narratives of the Lives, Homeric composition is consistently being situated in contexts of Homeric performance. In effect, the Lives explore the shaping power of positive and even negative responses by the audiences of Homeric poetry in ad hoc situations of performance. To put it another way, the narrative strategy of the Lives is a staging of Homer’s reception.

My describing the Life of Homer traditions as a staging converges with my aim to show that the narratives of these Lives are myths, not historical facts, about Homer. To say that we are dealing with myths, however, is not at all to say that there is no history to be learned from the Lives. Even though the various Homers of the various Lives are evidently mythical constructs, the actual constructing of myths about Homer can be seen as historical fact.[3] These myths about Homer in the Lives can be analyzed as evidence for the various different ways in which Homeric poetry was appropriated by various different cultural and political centers throughout the ancient Greek-speaking world. And these myths, in all their varieties, have basically one thing in common: Homeric poetry is pictured as a medium of performance, featuring Homer himself as the master performer.

The full paper can be read in Classical Continuum 2024.05.16:

Olga M. Davidson | Life of Ferdowsi myths as evidence for the reception of Ferdowsi

Abstract: There are four main versions of the Life of Ferdowsi that have survived in the medieval Persian manuscript tradition.[1] In a previous study, I argued that the historicized narrative of the so-called Older Preface to the Shahnama of Ferdowsi is strikingly parallel to Ferdowsi’s own poeticized narrative concerning the genesis of the Book of Kings.[2] In another study, which is forthcoming, I make a parallel argument with regard to the Bâysonghori Preface.[3]

In the current study, I offer a synthesis of research on all four Lives.

In various manuscripts of Ferdowsi’s Shahnama, the actual poetry is preceded by various prose prefaces, which served to contextualize (1) the poet Ferdowsi himself and (2) the poetry in its historicized setting (which is not to say that such a setting needs to be truly “historical”). The poet was contextualized through the narration of his life and times, with a focus on this question: how could it happen that this one man, known by his poetic name Ferdowsi, came to compose such a monumental poem about the sum total of Iranian civilization, visualized as a Book of Kings? The different versions of the “Life of Ferdowsi,” as reflected in these different prefaces and as supplemented by still other versions as reflected in other prose works, can be analyzed as representing a traditional Iranian literary form in its own right—a prose tradition complementing the poetic tradition that culminated in the Shahnama of Ferdowsi. Moreover, despite their prosaic exterior, these “Life of Ferdowsi” narratives can be analyzed as poetic agenda.

In analyzing the prosaic “Life of Ferdowsi” traditions as parallel to the poetic traditions of Ferdowsi’s Shahnama itself, I apply diachronic as well synchronic perspectives. In using these terms, I follow the definitions of Ferdinand de Saussure, with reference to language as a structure. Saussure notes that the synchronic approach concerns a current state of a structure while the diachronic approach examines different phases in the evolution of that given structure.

Saussure’s definition makes it clear that diachrony is a matter of evolution, a concept directly relevant to my diachronic perspective on the “Life of Ferdowsi” traditions. Applying such a diachronic perspective, I have developed an evolutionary model for studying the poetic stratifications of Ferdowsi’s Shahnama.[4]

This model is based on both comparative and internal evidence. In terms of such a model, I argue that the evolution of the Shahnama helps explain the accretive and at the same time organic composition of this poetry. And I extend this argument from the poetry itself to the prose prefaces to that poetry.

The full paper can be read in Classical Continuum 2024.05.17:


Colbeaux, M. A. 2005. Raconter la vie d’Homère dans l’antiquité. Édition commentée du traité anonyme, “Au sujet d’Homère et d’Hésiode, de leurs origines et de leur joute,” et de la “Vie d’Homère” attribué à Hérodote. Dissertation, Université Charles de Gaulle-Lille III.

Davidson, O. M. 2001. “Some Iranian poetic tropes as reflected in the ‘Life of Ferdowsi’ traditions.” Philologica et Linguistica: Festschrift für Helmut Humbach (ed. M. G. Schmidt and W. Bisang) supplement: 1–12. Trier.

Nagy, G. 1999. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry (ed. 2. [ed. 1 1979] with new introduction). Baltimore MD.

Nagy, G. 2004. “L’aède épique en auteur: la tradition des Vies d’Homère.” Identités d’auteur dans l’Antiquité et la tradition européenne (ed. C. Calame, and R. Chartier) 41-67. Grenoble.

Nagy, G. 2010|2009. Homer the Preclassic. Printed | Online version. | Berkeley and Los Angeles.

West, M. L. 2003a. ed. / tr. Homeric Hymns. Homeric Apocrypha. Lives of Homer. Cambridge MA.

Notes to G. Nagy’s paper

[1] I offer the following system for referring to these Lives, with page numbers as printed by Allen 1912:

Vita 1              = Vita Herodotea, pp. 192–218

Vita 2              = Certamen, pp. 225–238

Vita 3a            = Plutarchean Vita, pp. 238–244

Vita 3b            = Plutarchean Vita, pp. 244–245

Vita 4              = Vita quarta, pp. 245–246

Vita 5              = Vita quinta, pp. 247–250

Vita 6              = Vita sexta (the “Roman Vita”), pp. 250–253

Vita 7              = Vita septima, by way of Eustathius, pp. 253–254

Vita 8              = Vita by way of Tzetzes, pp. 254–255

Vita 9              = Vita by way of Eustathius (on Iliad IV 17), p. 255

Vita 10            = Vita by way of the Suda, pp. 256–268

Vita 11            = Vita by way of Proclus, pp. 99–102

Also relevant is a detail in Michigan Papyrus 2754, originally published in Winter 1925, which supplements what we read in the Certamen about a universalized reception for Homer. There is now also another system for numbering the Lives, introduced by West 2003a. Wherever I cite his work, I will produce his numbering as well as the numbering that follows the system of Allen (1912). There is a new edition of Vita 1 and Vita 2 by Colbeaux 2005.

[2] There was evidently an intermediate phase that preceded the final phase of the text that has come down to us as the Certamen. The intermediate phase draws extensively from a lost work, the Mouseion of Alcidamas, who flourished in the first half of the fourth century BCE. For a sketch, see West 2003:298.

[3] I can make this point about Lives of Poets traditions in general: see Nagy 1999 Preface §7n (= p. ix) for further citations. For typological parallels in Iranian traditions, see Davidson 2001.

Notes to O. M. Davidson’s paper

[1] These four “Lives of Ferdowsi” are:

A) the so-called Older Preface, dated to the middle of 4th century A.H. The text has been edited by Qazvini, M. 1944. “Muqaddama-ye qadim-e Shâhnâma.” Hazâra-ye Ferdowsi 123-148. Tehran. Translation by Minorsky, V. 1964. “The Older Preface of the Shâh-nama.” Iranica, Twenty Articles (Publications of the University of Tehran 755) 260–274.

B) the preface of the Florence ms. of the Shahnama, dated 614 A.H. (supplemented by the preface of the Topkapi manuscript)

C) the 3rd or “intermediate” preface

D) the Bâysonghori preface, dated 829 A.H. The text of the Bâysonghori Preface has been edited by Mohammad Amin Riyahi, Sar-Chashma-ha-ye Ferdowsi Shenasi(1993 / 1372) 364–418.

[2] Olga M. Davidson, “Some Iranian poetic tropes as reflected in the ‘Life of Ferdowsi’ traditions,” in Philologica et Linguistica: Festschrift für Helmut Humbach (ed. M. G. Schmidt and W. Bisang; Trier 2001), supplement pp. 1–12. The text of the Older Preface has been edited by Qazvini (1944) and translated by Minorsky (1963).

[3] Olga M. Davidson, “The Testing of the Shâhnâma in the “Life of Ferdowsi” Narratives,” The Rhetoric of Biography: Narrating Lives in Persianate Societies (Louise Marlow, ed.; Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 2008) 11-20. Also Davidson,“Interweavings of book and performance in the making of the Shahnama of Ferdowsi: Extrapolations from the narrative of the Preface to the Bāysonghor manuscript,” Ferdowsi’s Shāhnāma: Millenial Perspectives (ed. Olga M. Davidson and Marianna Shreve Simpson; Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 2013) 1–11.

[4] In developing this model, I have followed some of the methods used by Nagy in his developing an evolutionary model for the making of Homeric poetry. See his “L’aède épique en auteur: la tradition des Vies d’Homère” (2004).

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