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A SELECTION OF GREEK ELEGY AND IAMBUS - (W.) Allan (ed.) Greek Elegy and Iambus. A Selection. Pp. xvi + 254, map. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Paper, £23.99, US$31.99 (Cased, £74.99, US$99.99). ISBN: 978-1-107-55997-4 (978-1-107-12299-4 hbk).

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(W.) Allan (ed.) Greek Elegy and Iambus. A Selection. Pp. xvi + 254, map. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Paper, £23.99, US$31.99 (Cased, £74.99, US$99.99). ISBN: 978-1-107-55997-4 (978-1-107-12299-4 hbk).

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 April 2022

Francesca D'Alfonso*
Università degli Studi di Trieste
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Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association

This volume presents a selection of Greek elegy and iambus, and is intended for multiple different audiences: the choice is traditional, with some original attention to papyri discoveries (Arch. 175, 181, 96A; Hipp. 92, 115, 117; Simonides 10–14). The book opens with a brief preface, notes on the text, a list of abbreviations and two maps. In the preface (p. x) A. explains that his work was born to fill a gap in the study and teaching of Greek literature. Often we go directly from reading the Homeric poems to Greek tragedy, neglecting elegiac and iambic poetry. In addition to this shared aspiration, it is important that A. does not propose a simple selection of well-known texts, but, as he states in the preface, ‘I have relied on the standard editions in creating my own text and apparatus, and have inspected the papyri where possible and used photographs where not’ (p. ix). After a brief but exhaustive introduction, A. presents the texts of his choice of elegiac and iambic poets (Archilochus, Semonides, Callinus, Tyrtaeus, Mimnermus, Solon, Theognis, Xenophanes, Hipponax, Simonides); a long and accurate commentary follows, complemented by a list of the works cited and an index.

In the introduction, divided into six sections, A. examines all the problems concerning the poetics, performance, real and/or fictitious ego (first-person), style, language and transmission of these poems over time. It is relevant that A. focuses on the similarity of both genres, elegy and iambus, by emphasising how they were not restricted to a fixed topic or setting, and also how their performance and length were extremely heterogeneous (symposia, public festivals); the same we may infer for musical accompaniments (kithara and auloi). We can add that the same consideration is valid for all of old Greek lyric, because we can no longer assume a strict musical and performance distinction, even for choral and monodic poetry. Thus A.'s closing formula is to a great measure adoptable: both these genres had ‘a wide-ranging and flexible form’ (p. 5), also because Greek poetry ‘could migrate from one performance context to another and … this would affect how they were received’ (p. 8).

For this reason A. collects different genres (elegy and iambus) of the same poet, without dividing the book into two sections. This is the best known characteristic of Panhellenic cultural networks: as A. rightly underlines, this mobility promoted contacts with foreign people, became a source of knowledge and expanded Greek cultural horizons. Iambic and elegiac poetry were often re-performed in different poleis, with small changes in order to cater for the local audience, and this has created the well known difficulty in tracing back to the ‘original’ text. Finally, A. adds how these poems are a very important source for understanding how Greek people considered gender differences, female and male sexuality. The last three chapters of the introduction are devoted to linguistic features, metric analysis and transmission of the text. Every poem includes a brief but valuable commentary, with references to recent interpretations.

In section 3 of the introduction, ‘Poets and Personae’, A. deals with the much-discussed issue of the ‘“I” of the poem’. A. rightly distances himself from the romantic and auto-referential meaning of the first person and supports the fictional nature in Greek lyric both of the first-person and of people quoted in the poems: ‘In conclusion, the poetic “I” and its persona always track the needs of genre and occasion and are constructed to make the most compelling appeal to the audience’ (p. 10). This is an important element of A.'s hermeneutic method: I largely agree with this assumption, but I think that it is necessary to be more cautious and proceed on a case-by-case basis. I prefer to think of a fundamental ambiguity of Greek lyric and of the possibility that the poet is at the same time both himself and a fictional character. This ambiguity belongs to Archilochus, for example. In the well-known ‘Shield poem’ (fr. 5) the first person is not totally fictitious, suited to a symposium, because the Stimmung of Archilochus’ poetry plays precisely on this ambiguity: Archilochus was an experienced soldier, but he was also ready to break the most important military traditions: if already in Homer there was this ‘genuine battlefield dilemma’ (p. 60: see Hom. Il. 8.139ff.), it is likely that the poet-soldier could solve the dilemma suo more, by abandoning his shield to save himself. These remarks also apply to the so-called Telephus elegy (17A Swift: pp. 64ff.), where real and fictional experience could coexist.

The same ambiguity also belongs to the Cologne Papyrus (pp. 77ff.), with explicit and obscene references to Lycambes’ daughters. It is obvious that Lycambes could be a ‘speaking’ name, a synthesis of the well-known cunning of the wolf and the aggressive character of the iambus. However, these nicknames do not preclude the existence of a real person, as do nicknames today. The same applies to the names Bupalos and Athenis, fierce enemies of Hipponax (pp. 196–7). Moreover, in the commentary on the Telephus elegy A. states that ‘it is the only surviving poem of Archilochus that tells a story drawn from heroic myth’ (p. 64). There are, however, two other indirect references to the narrative presence in Archilochus’ poems: the story of Deianira and Nessos (maybe an obscene version: fr. 286 W.) and that of Lyncaeus and Hypermnestra (fr. 305 W.), with Danaus as paradigma of a father's perjury (see Lycambes). Moreover, there is one significant omission in the commentary on fr. 2: A. disregards the hypothesis of B. Gentili (widely accepted today) that the word ἐν δορὶ should be translated as ‘on the wood’, i.e. ‘on the ship’, and not as ‘on the sword’ (Riv. Fil. 93 [1965], 129–34). In effect, we can plausibly think of a symposium on the deck of a ship.

A. makes the interesting choice to publish fr. 1 by Semonides (pp. 86–90); this poem is often missing from anthologies and is not very popular among scholars. It is an iambic poem, but at the same time it is a long ‘elegiac’ and pessimistic meditation on human life. The usual ironic and/or aggressive character of iambic poems is completely absent. It is tempting to identify the same imprint in the famous ‘Iambus on Women’ (fr. 7), the most radical example of misogyny. It is surprising that the theriomorphic form of the woman was not represented in the usual iambic tone (as in Aristophanes, for instance): as A. rightly states, ‘its humour has a serious side’ (p. 92), probably because it was intended for an aristocratic audience.

A. also publishes the new elegy on the battle of Plataea by Simonides of Ceos, with a long commentary (pp. 219–31), by adopting the papyrus integrations of the first editors (P. Parsons and M.L. West). This is a particularly narrative elegy, both because ‘it represents a contemporary witness to the Persian Wars’ (p. 220) and because of a brief hymn (or invocation?) to Achilles preceding the usual invocation of Muses. The role of Achilles is disputed, but most likely the Greek hero is the paradigm of the leader of the Greek army, the Spartan king Pausanias. A. argues that the elegy was performed at a Panhellenic event, maybe in Plataea (‘plausible’: p. 222), but the original eulogistic link between Achilles and Pausanias paves the way to supposing that Sparta had commissioned this elegy and of course also its performance in loco.

This is an insightful and serious work, with a careful analysis of the different texts. In a short volume we find a large number of new interpretations, very useful both to students and to professional scholars.