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32 - Quo usque tandem? How long were Sympotic Songs? (2016)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 December 2021

Ewen Bowie
Affiliation:
University of Oxford
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Summary

In his Life of the honey-voiced sophist Hadrianus of Tyre (VS 2.10) Philostratus tells his readers about an institution created by Herodes Atticus to give his teaching an edge on that of his rivals – and no doubt to entitle him to charge his pupils higher fees. It is an institution about which Philostratus was silent in his Life of Herodes himself, doubtless because he already had copious material for that Life and much less for that of Hadrianus. The institution was called the Κλεψύδριον, ‘Little Water-clock’:

τὸ δὲ Κλεψύδριον ὧδε εἶχεν· τῶν τοῦ Ἡρώδου ἀκροατῶν δέκα οἱ ἀρετῆς ἀξιούμενοι ἐπεσιτίζοντο τῇ ἐς πάντας ἀκροάσει κλεψύδραν < ? > ξυμμεμετρημένην ἐς ἑκατὸν ἔπη, ἃ διήιει ἀποτάδην ὁ Ἡρώδης, παρηιτημένος τὸν ἐκ τῶν ἀκροατῶν ἔπαινον καὶ μόνου γεγονὼς τοῦ λέγειν.

The ‘little water-clock’ took this form: ten of Herodes’ pupils distinguished for their excellence would continue dining, after the lecture that was open to all, for the period of a water-clock that had been set for a hundred verses, which Herodes would go through exhaustively, declining any praise by his audience and entirely absorbed in what he was saying.1

Philostratus VS 2.10.585
This is a passage bound to catch the eye of historians of the symposium, since it seems to offer a rare indication bearing upon the matter of timing of sympotic activities, a subject on which we remain depressingly ill-informed. The combined evidence of texts, vase painting and the archaeology of private and public buildings has contributed greatly to our understanding of many material aspects of the symposium. But on the question of how long symposia lasted, and how much time any individual symposiast might expect to have to dance, to sing or simply to speak, the study of vase painting and archaeology cannot help, and we have to fall back on texts alone. I would take a bet against the discovery by archaeologists of a water-clock in an identifiably sympotic room with a dipinto or graffito explaining that it was for use in a symposium.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2021

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