Richard Hunter, Hesiodic Voices: Studies in the Ancient Reception of Hesiod's Works and Days. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. viii, 338. ISBN 9781107046900. $99.00.
Reviewed by Hugo Koning, Leiden University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Version at BMCR home site
Much like the Works and Days (WD) itself, Richard Hunter's Hesiodic Voices is a varied, rich and rewarding book that offers much to 'store up in our spirit'. Both readers of Hesiod and scholars interested in reception will benefit greatly from Hunter's guided tour through some of the most intriguing fields of the ancient reception of the WD. Six case studies, all focusing on different aspects of Hesiod's literary Nachleben, abound with subtle readings that lay bare the often intricate connections between texts that could be very far apart in both space and time. Hunter provides us with many new observations, strung together in careful arguments. Hesiodic Voices, it can safely be said, easily fulfills the author's hope to show 'how the varied riches of the WD provoked a matchingly rich ancient response, both at the level of explicit interpretation and of creative imitation' (39).
Unsurprisingly, a book of this kind, with its extraordinary scope and case study approach, runs some serious risks. Two of these are mentioned by Hunter himself. One, of course, is its incompleteness, which can hardly be avoided and is amply compensated by the material that is discussed. The other is a 'sort of pan-Hesiodism' (35), a curious mental affliction causing a scholar to see references to the WD everywhere; as Hunter warns us, not every uphill climb in Greek literature has an Hesiodic antecedent. It surely is fair to point out this problem – but I believe that Hunter throughout the book is far too careful and sensible to fall into this trap. A third risk of his approach has not, in my view, been wholly avoided: Hunter's pace through the literary labyrinth is brisk and sure, but makes the reader (this one, in any case) occasionally lose his sense of direction and (especially) proportion. It is natural for case studies to have a more or less narrow focus, but Hunter nonetheless covers so much ground that I have often wondered to what degree his conclusions on specific passages have a more general value and application. The use of the reception of the Theogony or of Homer as foils could have been very instructive in this respect. Also, more brief summaries such as those offered at the end of Chapter 2 would have been most welcome.
I will now discuss the six chapters of the book. The first, 'Reading Hesiod', is as introductory and general as the title suggests, and is perhaps the finest chapter in the book. It is programmatic in the sense that it shows the multiple ways and forms of (Hesiodic) reception, and emblematic in that it displays Hunter's overview of Hesiodic texts and his mastery in connecting them. The chapter reads almost as a mini-handbook of ancient reception, bringing together some of its most important characteristics: it demonstrates, for instance, how the ancients often quoted out of context and sometimes even against the original context, how easily hallowed poems (such as those of Homer and Hesiod) could be updated by recipients, and how ancient interpretation often focused on verses or passages rather than overall structures. At the same time, there are valuable observations on the reception of Hesiod, or even more specifically, the WD. Very intriguing is Hunter's suggestion that interpretations of WD-verses are connected unusually firmly (when compared to the ancient practice generally) to a sense of the nature of the work as a whole – in his view, it is the exceptionally strong authoritative voice of the 'didactic' Hesiod that causes it. It is the same quality that makes the 'Hesiodic' voice so easily recognizable for ancient Greeks: even texts without direct references can be 'Hesiodic' by their didacticism and morality.
The second chapter, on Hesiod´s place in the didactic tradition, is by far the largest of the book. We should be grateful to Hunter for taking on a subject this difficult; for all the scholarly debate concerning 'didactic' or 'didactic epic', the matter is still very elusive. Hunter's main argument, that it is first and foremost Hesiod's knowledge that gives him the authority so thoroughly connected to the (reception of the) WD, is illustrated with examples from many sources; discussions of Xenophon and Callimachus stand out. Naturally, there are cases where one could quibble about the exact 'closeness' of a given passage and an Hesiodic antecedent, but this is unavoidable and Hunter's cumulative argument is strong throughout. Moreover, there are many new and rewarding insights offered along the way, for instance on the WD's suitability for gnomic anthology, Hesiod's connection to polymathia, Hesiod's association with the Platonic Socrates, and a striking observation on the recitals in the Certamen Homeri et Hesiodi. Naturally, Hunter does not offer the final solution to the 'riddle' of the didactic genre, but there is much help in his hypothesis that 'later didactic is a systematisation and generalisation of Hesiodic practice itself' (54).
Chapter 3, 'Hesiod and the symposium', is a well-rounded discussion of the sympotic or lyric reception of Hesiod. Hunter demonstrates the broad use of Hesiod by poets like Alcaeus (using Hesiod in ironic fashion), Archilochus ('parodic subversion'), Pindar (where pan-Hesiodism lurks close) and Simonides (who is even granted an 'Alexandrian' footnote). Once again, plenty of suggestive observations here, for instance on a passage from the WD as an authorising model for parts of the bucolic tradition, the Hesiodic nature of sophrosyne, and the suitability of archaic elegy for Hesiodic reception. What I particularly liked is the suggestion that references to Homer work differently than those to Hesiod – one tantalising example (Theognis 1123-8, on the author 'suffering as did Odysseus') is given, and this is one of the places where one would have wanted Hunter to elaborate further, before pursuing another Hesiodic trace.
Chapter 4 (Plutarch's Works and Days, and Proclus', and Hesiod's) offers a view into some material presumably less well-known: Plutarch's and Proclus' commentary on the WD. The commentary-tradition is a very intriguing aspect of Hesiodic reception and it is most fortunate that Hunter devotes an entire chapter to it. Naturally, it is not always easy to find Plutarch's original comments and observations in the Proclean context they are part of, but Hunter's nuanced reading keeps away from over-interpretation. This chapter amply shows that Hesiod was not only seen as a transmitter of factual knowledge, but also as a teacher who instructs his readers in the correct moral frame of mind to make use of those facts. I suspect that Hunter's discussion may at times be a bit too detailed for the average reader (if there is a steep climb in the book, it is this chapter), but it is worth our while, if only for the consoling truth that 'the ancient struggle to understand Hesiodic rhetoric once again foreshadows modern concerns' (200).
Chapter 5 turns to the subject of Hesiod's status as a writer of fables, earned, of course, by his brief tale on the nightingale and the hawk (WD 202-212). Hunter sets out to investigate the connection between Hesiod and Aesop, finding interesting points of contrast (such as Hesiod's association with the 'big' and Aesop's with the 'little' tradition) and comparison (such as the uniting themes of reciprocity and its failure). This chapter shows (as do others) how reception models or reframes the original text, which is a common strategy of reception but interesting nonetheless: in this case, the 'fable tradition retrospectively constructs much of the WD as (…) built out of fables' (246), a remark that gains interest in the light of the rather 'loose' structure of the WD. What we can also see quite clearly in this chapter (perhaps more so than in others) is Hunter's primary concern to pursue clues, unveil modes of reception, and present hitherto undiscovered connections between texts – he is 'exploring some links', as he himself says (229); but what this reader misses, is the big wrap-up at the end.
Chapter 6 is in some ways the great finale of the book, a chapter on (the reception of) Hesiod's style. This is tremendously interesting material, and it is handled with the required subtlety and a great command of the primary sources. This chapter is a revised and expanded version of an article published in 2009,1 which filled a large gap in Hesiodic scholarship at the time. Perhaps its greatest strength is that Hunter not only examines Hesiodic reception in a strict sense, but also tries to give a place to Hesiod´s own influence, i.e. the programmatic interpretation of his own verses. I suppose it is perhaps this chapter that will itself enjoy the richest Nachleben, since it offers much material for further discussion. It would be worthwhile, for instance, to test Hunter's main thesis that it is mostly his other poems and not the WD that have informed ancient ideas on Hesiod's so-called 'middle' style. He makes a strong case, but it is interesting that one of his first sources, Quintilian 12.10.60, also mentions 'digressions' and sententiae as characteristics of the middle style. Furthermore, the WD, as Hunter acknowledges later on (314), was obviously felt as the most characteristically 'Hesiodic' of Hesiod's poems, also in terms of style, when compared to Homer.
Hesiodic Voices is a most valuable book. It abounds with fresh insights and intriguing suggestions, offering much that is new in a field that has recently received a lot of scholarly attention.2 A book of this kind cannot be (and does not aim to be) complete, and so the focus on particular themes and passages sometimes says tantalisingly little about the bigger picture – but that is a natural consequence of the road taken and of the importance and interest of the material. I am sure that readers will find so much food for thought here that they will be convinced that, as Hunter hopes, in this case the 'half is more than the whole'.
1. 'Hesiod's style: toward an ancient analysis', in F. Montanari, A. Rengakos and C. Tsagalis, Brill's Companion to Hesiod, Leiden 2009, pp. 253-69.
2. For instance, G. Boys-Stones and J. Haubold, Plato and Hesiod (Oxford 2010); H. Koning, Hesiod: The Other Poet (Leiden 2010); I. Ziogas, Ovid and Hesiod (Cambridge 2013).