Tuesday, March 10, 2015


I. N. Perysinakes, Αρχαϊκή λυρική ποίηση: Ηθικές αξίες και πολιτική συμπεριφορά στην αρχαία ελληνική λογοτεχνία: Προβλήματα ερμηνείας και μετάφρασης: Μια ερμηνευτική προσέγγιση: Ανθολογία αρχαϊκής λυρικής ποίησης με βάση την αρετή και τον αγαθόν. Athens: Εκδόσεις Δημ. Ν. Παπαδήμα, 2012. Pp. 758. ISBN 9789602065952. €85.20.

Reviewed by Andreas Markantonatos, University of the Peloponnese (b1938@otenet.gr)

Version at BMCR home site

It was nearly impossible for Greek students of the Classics in the 1980s to miss one annotated anthology of archaic lyric poetry which stood out for its richness of detail and meticulousness of interpretation—a true oasis in what was then a vast and arid plain as regards archaic lyric poetry studies written in the vernacular. This was Aristoxenos D. Skiadas' two-volume companion to the Greek lyric poets.1 Happily since then a number of helpful annotated collections of emblematic archaic lyric poems have come to the aid of the diligent Greek student and the lay public, not only offering valuable guidance in such demanding philological matters as textual criticism and metrical analysis, but also including Modern Greek translations which are noteworthy for lucidity and closeness to the original, together with authoritative and wide-ranging introductions surveying the scholarly tradition and considering alternative interpretative approaches to a host of difficult subjects.2 The latest addition to this series of annotated anthologies is Perysinakes' hefty collection of an extensive variety of Greek lyric poets ranging from Archilochus, Callinus, and Tyrtaeus to Sappho, Alcaeus, Pindar, and Bacchylides, to name but a few.

In his Preface, Perysinakes explains the origin and methodology of his 758-page book, which started off as a series of talks delivered over many years in the lecture theatre at the University of Ioannina, to develop later into a full-blown commentary. In the same Preface he pays tribute to those few Greek scholars who against all the odds have intrepidly carried forward the teaching of archaic lyric poetry in secondary and tertiary education, thereby securing the continuation of a significant critical tradition that was tremendously enhanced by Skiadas' admirable efforts and in its most accomplished form succeeded in placing the masterworks of Greek lyric poets in their historical contexts and providing them with good annotation, thus making them useful resources for specialists and non-specialists alike.

In his first chapter the author sets his sights on offering a broader interpretative method largely based on A. W. H. Adkins' pioneering research on Greek ethics, especially his concept of such value-terms as aretê and agathos; in fact, he argues that his comprehensive exploration of archaic lyric poetry, based on Adkinsian premises about the complicated Greek evaluative vocabulary, is but a telling illustration of the possibility of an ethically informed, theoretically sensitive explication of the whole ancient Greek literary tradition. This emphasis on Adkins' influential theory, which was first shaped in the 1960s and 1970s but since then has been vigorously contested as a rather rigid and reductive take on ancient patterns of behaviour, may strike one as unwarranted, especially in light of recent advances in our investigation of Greek belief systems and world views, which are now seen as more co-operative and less developmental.3 Nonetheless, in the second chapter, which in its own right serves as a highly illuminating introduction to archaic lyric poetry, Perysinakes is more than justified in drawing attention to the astringently realistic nature of ancient Greek lyric, which with its readiness to confront and acknowledge the deficiencies of social and political institutions may have been powerful enough to refine and recalibrate its audience's moral beliefs and certainties.

This is especially true of Archilochus, who takes pride of place in this anthology as the first Greek poet who not only gave expression to his personal concerns and fears, but also with his virulent invective and terse sententious statements developed a complex questioning of the processes of moral evaluation within the dominant and central Homeric tradition. Far from concluding that the Archilochean corpus is an uncomplicated story of twisting, ironic inversions of popular epic prototypes, Perysinakes outlines some of the problems involved in attempting to read a discourse of epic authority turned on its head in the surviving fragments—problems all too often unnoticed by scholars eager to understand the relationship of the artist with his many-sided cultural heritage as one of wide gaps and blank spaces, or worse still unsettling dislocations between heroic values and individualistic principles. No one can deny that Archilochus never feels impelled to bow in reverent obedience to an epic literary past, and constantly probes the obscurities and difficulties of Homeric morality, whilst infusing his poems with contemporary concerns and political attitudes that mostly echo the fierce class warfare of the seventh century BCE. More than this, his poetry enfolds particular instances of acute tensions and glaring paradoxes which despite the all-pervading atmosphere of heroic merit and shame-ethics in the archaic period may go so far as to encourage listeners to prize self-sacrificing boldness essentially as a cloak to be donned or doffed at the moment's convenience. On the other hand, it has been suggested that, far from constituting vestigial and unfinished anti-epics, his masterworks explore a wide variety of moral themes from the inward perspective of a long-lost iambic tradition. In the light of this discussion, Perysinakes offers an especially interesting set of Archilochean texts for study; in fact, he argues that understanding the deeper significance of the famous fragments 5 and 114 West is an important touchstone for critics aspiring to offer guidance on the reading of Archilochean poetry today. There is something clearly to be gained from the vision that emerges from this interpretation of the poet as juggling with multiple flows of influence over against the early Greek results-culture; and there is a refreshing sincerity to it all, as at this point Perysinakes casts aside all superfluous technical language to provide readers with a well-argued exegesis of the ways in which Archilochus carries out his broad-gauged revisiting of familiar political and social subjects without feeling intimidated by his larger-than- life forebears, be they Homer himself or a host of now nameless and vanished iambic poets forming what must have been a formidable poetic legacy in the eyes of any striving young poet.

In the following chapters, Perysinakes continues with a critical consideration of Callinus, Tyrtaeus, Mimnermus, Sappho, and Alcaeus, synthesizing what has previously been accomplished in this ever-evolving field, and indicating useful directions in which the examination of those poets' moral agendas might now proceed. In addition to prefacing the interpretative analysis of each poet's selected works with helpful biographical testimonia and related evidence about his life and work, Perysinakes offers in the guise of short essays a valuable compendium of what might be deemed the current scholarly opinio communis, as well as shedding light on the linkage between universal moral principles and the reciprocity of mutual benefits. For both upper-level students and scholars not fully au courant with the latest developments in Greek lyric studies these essays provide not only an accessible overview of the state of play but also a good basis for exploring a wide range of debated topics. Given the strongly ethical dimension of the investigation, it comes as no surprise that the longest chapter in the book is devoted to the study of Solon, laying great stress upon the emblematic elegy 4 West, which with its vehement advocacy against internecine rivalries and grievous strife adumbrates the important role of the orator in transforming moral beliefs and ideas into a communally momentous linguistic artefact. Although the exploration of Solon's surviving fragments takes the lion's share of the anthology, Perysinakes has also selected, translated, and annotated well-known works and striking sections drawn from longer poems by Theognis, Xenophanes, Simonides, Pindar, and Bacchylides, thereby enabling a greatly improved understanding not only of major archaic Greek lyricists, but also of ancient Greek culture in its never-ending flux. It should be noted that for the first time in Modern Greek scholarship an extensive discussion is devoted to explaining substantial parts of the New Simonides papyrus, while at the same time challenging readers to rethink their assumptions about Athenian socio- political mechanisms, value systems, and fabrics of human bonds, and thus to sharpen their critical responses to these newly discovered pieces of narrative and erotic elegy, especially Simonides' elegiac poem on the battle of Plataea.

To sum up: Written by a master of precision and common sense, and aiming well beyond the lecture theatre for use as a teaching aid among Hellenists of all levels of experience, as well as readers with a general interest in Greek lyric poetry, especially in view of its continuous emphasis on ever-burning questions concerning human morality to which there are no easy answers, this is a densely argued, clear-eyed annotated anthology that should remind a generation whose approaches to archaic lyric have become glutinous with anthropology and postmodernism, that Skiadas' deeply humanistic, yet intensely scholarly, tradition is very far from dead. Whether or not one agrees with the author's close dependence on Adkinsian theories about the development of Greek moral thinking, this is a book full of stimulus for classicists and non-classicists alike.


1.   A. D. Skiadas (ed. & comm.), Αρχαϊκός Λυρισμός, vols I–II (Athens, 1979–1981).
2.   See recently, e.g., D. I. Iakov (ed., trans., comm.), Πινδάρου Επίνικοι: τ. Α΄. Πυθιόνικοι (Thessaloniki, 2000), and I. N. Kazazis (ed., trans., comm.), Λυρική Ποίηση: Ο Αρχαϊκός Λυρισμός ως Μουσική Παιδεία (Thessaloniki, 2000).
3.   See C. Gill, Greek Thought (Oxford, 1995) 20–27 with further references.

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