Monday, April 13, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
E. Anne Mackay (ed.), Orality, Literacy, Memory in the Ancient Greek and Roman World (Orality and Literacy in Ancient Greece, Volume 7). Mnemosyne Supplementa 298. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2008. Pp. vi, 281 p., [8] p. of plates. ISBN 9789004169913. $158.00.
Reviewed by Maria Chiara Scappaticcio, Istituto Italiano di Scienze Umane, Napoli

In July 1994 an International Conference on orality and literacy in the ancient Greek and Roman World was organized by Ian Worthington and held in Tasmania; two years later, some papers were published in one of the Supplements of Mnemosyne, borrowing the title from the conference itself: "Voice Into Text". Since then, the same conference has taken place every two years, moving from Australia to Africa and from New Zealand to America, and has always focused on some particular aspects of the link between orality and literacy into the Classical World.1

This volume edited by Anne Mackay with the assistance of Miriam Bisset, collects some of the papers from the seventh biennial International Conference hosted by the University of Auckland (New Zealand, July 2006), whose title "Orality, Literacy, Memory" has partially given the name to the book itself.

The studies here collected are presented in a chronological order and are divided in two categories (p. 2): the cognitive analyses--that is, the way in which memory works--and the observation of what it remembers.

A summary of the volume contents will follow. For each paper the key concepts and the criteria followed by the authors will be underlined. Each paper is followed by a bibliography, while a rich overall index is at the end of the book.

In the introduction (pp. 1-7) Mackay discusses the criteria she adopted in assembling the twelve papers and notes that the papers are written by scholars working in different fields and so have different scientific objectives; nevertheless she can identify a common thread in all the papers--the importance given to the utterance, to the spoken word and to the identification of memory with something which has to be remembered.

Ch. 1: In "Spatial Memory and the Composition of the Iliad" (pp. 9-34) written by Elisabeth Minchin, the focus is the meaning and the functions of the spatial memory, which is often neglected when talking about visual imagery in the oldest Greek oral epic. Homer's epic system suggests to the audience of his time real images and ideas through both actions and words while movement itself from a location to another has a leading role. Looking at the way in which the movement from one place to another is the basis of the structure of the pikono tales of the Duna people in Papua New Guinea and of the songs connected with the Djanggawul-myth from Arnhem Land in Northen Australia, which create a deep link between the singer and his audience, Minchin makes an attractive parallel with the Odyssey and Iliad. In particular, she analyses the first and the last books of the Iliad and the movement which is hidden behind an apparent static way of being and shows how the poet gave great emphasis to location, which she argues is an "indicator of a memory-based strategy developed for sustained oral performance" (p. 23). Moving from the landmarks in the Iliad to the role of spatial memory in the Catalogue of the Ships, she points out that Homer used location to prompt memory and make up the scenes of his verses: space created the events. This paper is completed by three tables: two trace physical movement in Iliad 1 and 24, through the mention of Homeric places, while the third has a "horizontal axis" concerning the setting of the Iliad, in which are listed elements concerning both the city and the ships.

Ch. 2: Beginning with the definition of a discourse marker, in "Memory and Visualization in Homeric Discourse Markers" (pp. 35-64) Anna Bonifazi outlines how some ancient Greek particles, as well as adverbs and adverbials, fit the definition. The author summarises the main concepts concerning Homeric discourse. She shows how discourse markers have both a narrative and a visual function and how each function can model itself on the other, like in a mirror. She concentrates on discourse markers beginning with au (αὐτάρ; αὖτε; αὖ; αὖτις; αὐτίκα; αὐτοῦ) and, through key passages, identifies them as long-shot, mid-shot and close-up shifts, zooms in, and flashes. All these elements also show the viewing and experiencing "I": this is the "performative continuity" (p. 60), as Bonifazi observes.

Ch. 3: Egbert J. Bakker's paper, "Epic Remembering" (pp. 65-77), also concerns Homeric epic. He wants to stress the importance of the epic remembering as "remembering within epic" (p. 67) and the role it played in a society in which memory had a central position and was not simply considered something for replacing writing. He makes a deep analysis of the verb μιμνῄσκομαι and the idea of embodiment implied in its semantics. Through some verses from Iliad and Odyssey, he shows how remembering is something physical, too: remembering is epic, epic is singing, singing means having strong lungs.

Ch. 4: By a keen reading of fragments 55, 193, 96, 94 and hinting at others, without denying that Sappho used to record verses through writing, in "Someone, I say, will remember us: oral memory in Sappho's poetry" (pp. 79-96), André Lardinois argues that Sappho's main interest was to know of the performance of her poetry in the future and to imagine herself to be a singer-poet after death; in particular, he concentrates his attention on the Cologne papyrus, of which Hardie's and West's reconstructions (the last one preferred) are both given, and shows the way of remembering Sappho in the Underworld.

Ch. 5: Alexandra Pappas' "Remember to Cry Wolf: Visual and Verbal Declarations of LYKOS KALOS" (pp. 97-114) is a skilful work which joins visual art and literature and explores the Greek superstition that one could became mute if seen by a wild animal. She analyses the parts of the Republic in which, talking about justice, Socrates tells Thrasymachos that if he had looked at him, he wouldn't have been able to speak, and Kyniska's silence in Theocritus's Idyll 14. She then creates a strong parallel with Onesimos' red-figure cup and its phrase Lykos kalos. This superstition is, in fact, linked to the symposion and Onesimos' cup shows, through its play with the proverb, how the proverb involved both sight and word dimensions.

Ch. 6: In "Social Memory in Aeschylus' Oresteia" (pp. 115-141), Ruth Scodel's aim is to outline the process of social memory in the Oresteia and the value assumed in this work by the Thyestean banquet and the murder of Ephialtes: her work is very rich in analysing parts of the play and showing how, through referring to some of the main events in the Greek history, it is concerned with social memory. But in the last play of the trilogy there is even an intervention in it: Eumenides, in fact, indulges in the kind of manipulation of social memory, looking at a remote past to give emphasis to some events which had to be considered enlightening for the present, too.

Ch. 7: Geoffrey Bakewell's study of the Athenian Naval Catalogue, a list of the crews of eight Athenian triremes, "Trierarchs' Records and the Athenian Naval Catalogue (IG i3 1032)" (pp. 143-162), points out that it has an honorific more than a administrative function since it includes references to ages which were too far separated to fit the usual administrative formulas and that the different trierarchs' accounts give importance to the non-citizens (metics and slaves), who worked side by side with the citizens to benefit Athens..

Ch. 8: After having talked about the inscription containing the so called Lygdamis decree, concerning a meeting of Halikarnassians and Salmakians and Ligdamis, and having traced the history of the studies concerning it, in "What the Mnemones Know" (pp. 163-184), Edwin Carawan concentrates on the mnemones and their role as official "remembers", comparing this inscription with others. In the Lygdamis decree mnemones are involved as official partners in transactions of properties which were abandoned by their owners because of the civil conflict. Against the common opinion that they had an extensive oral record which was supported by written copies, Carawan suggests that, at first, mnemones had to make face-to-face recognitions in legal contests and had to acknowledge parties, properties or payments involved, without memorizing them but through a well encoded memory.

Ch. 9: Demosthenes' symbouletic speeches, Against Androtion, his speeches of the embassy trial in 343 BC. and, more specifically, his On the Crown against Aeschines' Against Ctesiphon are the focus of the Thomas Hubbard's paper, "Getting the Last Word: Publication of Political Oratory as an Instrument of Historical Revisionism" (pp. 185-202). They can be seen as an anticipation of the defence arguments: the speeches made during the trials were different from those edited later, because the final versions often referred to the hostile speeches. Moreover, the published forensic speeches had a different audience from the original ones: the new audience is interested in rhetoric.

Ch. 10: What Han Baltussen wants to outline in "Dialectic in Dialogue: The Message of Plato's Protagoras and Aristotle's Topics" (pp. 203-225) is that Plato's Protagoras can be explained by understanding how its debating technique makes the role-reversal and the un-Socratic being of Socrates clear: the dialogue has to be considered as the recording of oral debating techniques. After having described the main theme of the Protagoras, Baltussen describes the dialectical theory of Aristotle's Topics to show how its eight books are a serious account of what the Protagoras used as comic strategy. This could mean that in Athens oral discussion practice was alive and touched the Academy too; Plato hints at a new orality in the ethical debate, while Aristotle's work marked the transition from orality to literacy.

Ch. 11: What did copies mean to Greeks and Romans? In "Visual Copies and Memory" (pp. 227-251), Jocelyn Penny Small goes through the passages of ancient texts, such as Cicero, Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, and examples both from antiquity and from actual events (for instance, TV Guide) to analyze the value of recognition memory in classical copies of classical paintings. She considers the two Roman wall paintings of Perseus and Andromeda from Pompeii and Boscotrecase and the Alexander mosaic from Pompeii to discuss the relativity of the concept of perfection of copies in antiquity: a copy did not have to be identical, it simply had to be equivalent, and this is a reflection of what the human mind had made up in a world in which orality was still very important.

Ch. 12: Augustus' autobiographical ambitions are the focus of Niall W. Slater's "Orality and Autobiography: The Case of the Res Gestae" (pp. 253-273). Before analysing the Res Gestae, he looks at what Augustus wrote about the Cantabrian War, which he suggests we call, rather than Autobiography, Commentaries, a title which links this work with the Julius Caesar's earlier text, the Commentaries on the Gallic War. The Res Gestae, even if a resolutely written act of communication in the third person which had to stay on bronze tablets before Augustus' Mausoleum and speak with Romans with their divine value, are the mirror of Augustus' desire for eternity and legibility, but they are also the sui generis result of something which had a performance context too.

Slater's is the only paper concerning Roman culture and consequently it signals a remarkable gap. Although each work is rich in information and deep analysis, there is a visible imbalance as regards contents and periods: 25% is occupied by Homeric epics and nearly 60% is made up of papers concerning a period between VI and IV B.C. while the last 15% is constituted by a more general work about arts and copies and the one about Augustan age. Looking at the thirty six conference papers listed at the end of the book, you can see that a much fuller picture: there were papers about Egyptian folktales, Ovid, Seneca, the Prophet Balaam, Apollonius and the New Testament as well. On the other hand, the chronological gap is offset by the gathering of so many kinds of evidence--inscriptions, papyri, painting, statues, lyrics, epics, oratory--to show how orality is a complex and rich matter which involves all the components of the ancient world.


1.   In the introduction (p. 1), Anne Mackay announces that the next conference, in 2010, will take place at the Australian National University in Canberra ACT. The previous one was hosted by Radboud University, Netherlands, in July 2008.

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