Sunday, February 22, 2015


Ruth Scodel (ed.), Between Orality and Literacy: Communication and Adaptation in Antiquity. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin Language and Literature, 367. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2014. Pp. ix, 387. ISBN 9789004269125. €134.00.

Reviewed by Minna Skafte Jensen, University of Southern Denmark (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The volume, number 10 in the respected series "Orality and Literacy in the Ancient World", contains 17 papers by 18 authors and goes back to a conference at the University of Michigan in June 2012. Authors and titles are listed at the end of the preview. It is a rich collection, offering a wealth of material for thought. Many of the contributions present sources not often studied from the point of view of orality and literacy, and most of them underline that the ways of communication in antiquity were multifarious. The charm of the volume lies in the broad variety of topics treated rather than in any deeper coherence among them. In her introduction, the editor tries to group the articles under a small selection of headings, but nevertheless she has chosen to present them chronologically, from Homer and Hesiod to Gaius' Institutes, and that works out well.

Most of the contributions are of good quality. Some are solid and learned without making striking new points. For instance, nobody would be shocked to learn that similes work differently in the Aeneid and in the Iliad; still, Deborah Beck's careful description of precisely how the two systems differ is valuable. In a similar way I found Mathilde Cambron-Goulet's examination of orality in philosophical epistles and Elizabeth Minchin's reflections on strategies of composition in Homer and Virgil worthwhile. They are articles that I should have liked to read with students if I had still been teaching.

Some of the essays are excellent, and in the following I shall focus on them.

Ruth Scodel's own contribution, "Prophetic Hesiod" is one of those. Scodel points out that among the many passages in the Hesiodic poems that reveal Near Eastern influence, two are special, Works and Days 327–34 and 180–201, a set of admonitions and a prophecy of doom, since they did not become part and parcel of the Greek view of the world. This fact, she argues, makes it likely that they were not already a familiar part of the tradition when Hesiod composed his poem, and she suggests that he may have met his source at the funeral games of Amphidamas in Euboea. Considering how little we have left of the archaic epic tradition, this seems to me a risky argument. What is enjoyable, however, is the way in which Scodel analyses similarities and differences between Hesiod and his Near Eastern parallels. The breakdown of social ties and predictions that the wickedness of men will lead to their destruction have parallels in much earlier Egyptian texts, as well as in the prophets Isaiah, Amos, and Micah. Hesiod, however, does not predict that a better era will follow the destruction; instead he hopes that people will listen to his advice and return to justice. Scodel points out that in a way Hesiod is profoundly unprophetic, because he promises worldly success to those who follow his advice: "with favourable gods, you will buy others' land and not have to sell your own" (72). Furthermore, Hesiod is much more down-to-earth: "It is impossible to imagine that Amos or Micah would advise on how to construct a plow or whom to invite to a dinner, or that an Egyptian book of "instructions" would include a vivid description of the nastiness of the month of Lenaeon" (59). (Walter Burkert is a strange omission from Scodel's bibliography.)

Margalit Finkelberg's "Boreas and Oreithyia: A Case-Study in Multichannel Transmission of Myth" is a miracle of clarity and learning. Finkelberg's analysis builds on a broad variety of sources and the dichotomies oral/written, spoken/visual, professional/uneducated, and local/Panhellenic. In this way she reveals how myths lived not just in literature but in ritual, cult, storytelling, landscape and topography, and how their transmission spanned the full social scale from state authorities to nurses and children. Instead of the one-dimensional impression a modern reader of classical literature tends to have, she opens a window to a wealth of "channels" for such stories. However, these channels are open only so long as a myth is an active part of the local community, whereas transmission tends to become more unified when local myths are incorporated into Panhellenic texts. This is a brilliant article, in which a case study opens wide perspectives on the functions of myths in general.

My absolute favourite is Jasper Gaunt's "The Poet and the Painter: A Hymn to Zeus on a Cup by the Brygos Painter". Actually the article presents two cups decorated with youths celebrating a god with song, but what is really exciting is the discussion leading up to these two new 'texts'. Gaunt surveys a corpus of Athenian verse inscriptions c. 530–400 from funerary monuments, votive offerings, and vases. They are hardly ever quotations from known literature, but Gaunt emphasises that they very often contain syntagms known from epic or elegy. His opinion is that both such inscriptions and what we think of as literature build on a common store of ritual formulas. He points to the importance of memory in children's education and imagines that, having been heavily trained at an early age in learning poetry by heart, adults were in a position to both recite and improvise verse, a faculty much called for in sympotic contexts. He argues that even quite brief inscriptions such as ou dynamai, soi kai emoi, or ei moi genoito, are readable as verse incantations, suggesting sympotic singing. The essay conveys an impression of a milieu characterised by a wealth of oral poetry, both professional and amateur, far surpassing what is known through written transmission. In this way Gaunt continues Barbara Kowalzig's efforts "to set the Greek world singing and dancing". 1

Greta Hawes analyses Palaephatus' On Unbelievable Tales as a document allowing us a glimpse into the cultural revolution of Athens in the second half of the fourth century B.C. with its book-trade, philosophical schools, and education based on written literature. Belonging somewhere in the peripatetic milieu, Palaephatus interprets a selection of mythic tales, points out their absurdity, and offers an explanation of how they can have come about by some real event having been misunderstood. Hawes underlines that literacy in itself did not mean the end of the flexibility of myth, and that even written literature was often orally performed. Still, Palaephatus differs from both traditional myth and the other early mythographers in the hermeneutic consistency of his approach. Besides, whereas traditional oral myths constituted a network of interlinked stories of importance to cult and state, Palaephatus decontextualizes them. He isolates 45 tales, each in just one version and all fetched from canonical literature, and treats them as narrative artefacts which can be manipulated at will. This is a subtle reading of a seemingly not very interesting work.

In "Look and Listen: History Performed and Inscribed", Rachel Zelnick-Abramovitz concentrates on the oral side of ancient Greek historiography. She takes her point of departure in the honorary decrees with which Hellenistic poleis often celebrated local historians, and develops her theme to comprise more or less the whole of antiquity. She describes how historians, just like rhapsodes and other performers, used to travel around the Greek world in order to perform suitable passages of their works. Such a combination of oral and written was particularly striking for local history, often gathered from oral sources such as eye-witnesses or compiled from other compositions, then written down on papyrus, next performed to audiences, and finally perhaps again recorded in writing, this time on stone.

With Jay Fisher the scene moves to Italy. "Spoken Prayers and Written Instructions in the Central Italian Cultural Koinê and Beyond" draws attention to the fact that from the seventh to the fourth century B.C. the cultures of Etruria, Latium and Campania shared many characteristics across ethnic and linguistic borders. Fisher focuses on ritual documents containing instructions for actions to perform and texts of prayers, analysing them as "an intense dialogue between written ritual instructions and spoken prayer" (198), and he adduces material composed in Faliscan, Umbrian, Etruscan and Latin, from inscriptions and literature. A very learned and elegant contribution.

In "Oral Textuality as a Language of Exclusive Communication in Terence's Prologues" Sophia Papaioannou takes up the lead from S. M. Goldberg and C. W. Marshall and asserts that a main difference between Plautus and Terence lies in their attitude towards writing: whereas Plautus allowed the actors to improvise, Terence insisted on their reproducing his written text. On this basis she analyses the prologues of the six comedies, alleging that the poet took care to please both his noisy, low-class audience with good entertainment, and a refined elite able to enjoy elegant intertextual allusions. The present reader is not quite convinced; the problematic points are what exactly is meant by furtum, and whether the Paulli and their entourage were capable of understanding the kind of play Papaioannou finds. After all, Rome at the time was not Alexandria, and Terence could hardly suffer from an anxiety similar to that of Callimachus. Still, this is an ambitious contribution arguing its point with consistency, and a new reading of texts as well-known and often discussed as Terence's prologues is in itself enjoyable.

Niall W. Slater turns to Suetonius for information on graffiti culture in Rome and argues that graffiti are a written symptom of a tradition of oral lampoons. First, however, he draws attention to passages in which a practice of similar popular attacks is mentioned for Republican times. Slater carefully describes the technical terms used, questions of anonymity or attribution of false authorship, the problem of how such songs and inscriptions reached Suetonius, as well as the potential force of ridiculing authority. In some cases real inscriptions and coins can be brought in to confirm Suetonius' stories. Slater offers a particularly delightful interpretation of a Greek verse mocking Nero after his murder of Agrippina: he underlines the bicultural character of the Greek joke as based on the Roman system of tria nomina + cognomen: "Instead of C. Cornelius Scipio Africanus, he is Nero Orestes Alcmaeon Motherkiller" (300).

With her choice of The Book of Revelation for analysis, Lourdes García Uren᷉a has selected a work particularly well suited for the context, since St. John is explicit about the fact that the text was written and meant to be read aloud to an audience. Nevertheless, García Uren᷉a argues that the style of the book is close to the style of oral poetry. Referring to Egbert Bakker and Wallace Chaffe she sets out to describe the characteristics of this style, offering a careful and precise analysis. She first gives a general definition of her term 'formula' and next describes four different types, followed by discussions of additive structures and narrator's comments. Behind this is, of course, Parry and Lord's oral-formulaic theory; however, while in their work the formulaic style was explained by the poet's demands, García Uren᷉a understands this author's oral style as necessitated by the needs of the listeners. Considering how often scholars have to guess about the status of a text as having been composed either orally or in writing, it is refreshing for once to concentrate on a work which describes its status in so many words. Even so, it might be argued that St. John is just a scribe, taking down God's spoken words from dictation, an aspect García Uren᷉a does not touch upon.

The volume has much more to offer, and other readers might have emphasised other contributions. I have selected papers which either analyse well-known texts in new ways, bring attention to little read works, or make sources of various type cooperate; besides, such essays as have wider perspectives beyond the examples discussed.

To end on a critical note: Most of the contributors come from the USA or closely related areas such as Israel or Australia, whereas only three authors are from Europe. It seems strange that important scholarship in the field, especially from Germany and Italy, is not represented. (One author refers to an edition of the Homeric epics by mentioning "the OCT of Monro and Allen" (249), as if the excellent editions of Helmut van Thiel (Odyssey 1991, Iliad 1996) had not yet crossed the Atlantic.)

Finally, the book suffers from sloppy proofreading. In the "Notes on Contributors" one author is mentioned twice, another is missing, and for some the information given is defective. Throughout the volume there are many typos, some of them such as to disturb the sense, e.g. ritus for ruit (258). Nor am I impressed by the performance of the printing press: in the copy I received the first sheets were loose – astonishingly bad handicraft from such a well-reputed house as Brill.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Ruth Scodel
Controlling the Web: Hypertextuality, the Iliad, and the Crimes of Previous Generations, James O'Maley
Omens and Messages in the Iliad and Odyssey: A Study in Transmission, Jonathan L. Ready
Prophetic Hesiod, Ruth Scodel
Λάβε τὸ βυβλίον: Orality and Literacy in Aristophanes, Carl Anderson and Keith Dix
Boreas and Oreithyia: A Case-Study in Multichannel Transmission of Myth, Margalit Finkelberg
The Poet and the Painter: A Hymn to Zeus on a Cup by the Brygos Painter, Jasper Gaunt
Story Time at the Library: Palaephatus and the Emergence of Highly Literate Mythology, Greta Hawes
Orality in Philosophical Epistles, Mathilde Cambron-Goulet
Look and Listen: History Performed and Inscribed, Rachel Zelnick-Abramovitz
Spoken Prayers and Written Instructions in the Central Italian Cultural Koinê and Beyond, Jay Fisher
Oral Textuality as a Language of Exclusive Communication in Terence's Prologues, Sophia Papaioannou
Simile Structure in Homeric Epic and Vergil's Aeneid, Deborah Beck
Poet, Audience, Time, and Text: Reflections on Medium and Mode in Homer and Virgil, Elizabeth Minchin
Speaking Verse to Power: Circulation of Oral and Written Critique in the Lives of the Caesars, Niall Slater
The Book of Revelation: A Written Text Towards the Oral Performance, Lourdes García Ureña
The End of Orality: Transmission of Gospel Tradition in the Second and Third Centuries, S.D. Charlesworth
Transmitting Legal Knowledge: From Question-and-Answer Format to Handbook in Gaius'Institutes, Matthijs Wibier


1.   Barbara Kowalzig, Singing for the Gods: Performances of Myth and Ritual in Archaic and Classical Greece. (Oxford Classical Monographs.) Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007.

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