Thursday, September 22, 2016


Helen Van Noorden, Playing Hesiod: The 'Myth of the Races' in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge Classical Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. x, 350. ISBN 9780521760812. $110.00.

Reviewed by Rachel Loer, Rutgers University (

Version at BMCR home site


The ancient Nachleben of Hesiod, as recently as 2006, could be characterized as a "vast, complex, and very under-researched area". 1 In the past few years, however, the trend has begun to be reversed with an influx of studies on Hesiodic reception. Scholarly attention has been paid to the more general picture of Hesiod's reception over time, as well as to particular authors and particular Hesiodic texts.2 Playing Hesiod joins this number, yet offers a fresh perspective by focusing on "readings and rereadings" of a single myth in its original context.

Van Noorden approaches Hesiodic reception in later Greek and Roman authors through the treatment of a famous passage from the Works and Days: the "myth of the races" (WD 106-201). More narrowly, she proposes to focus her discussion on the intermediate races and small variations of detail, showing that nuanced responses to these aspects of Hesiod's text not only reveal the multiplicity of possible "Hesiodic voices" in antiquity but also contribute meaningfully to the later texts themselves. She achieves this admirably through detailed case studies of works by Plato, Aratus, Ovid, pseudo-Seneca, and Juvenal. A summary and review of the book's content will be followed by a brief consideration of presentation.

The opening two chapters provide necessary background, including methods of identifying a Hesiodic project, considerations of terminology and narrative form, and a close reading of the myth of races within its original context. Emphasis is placed on the framing of the races narrative as an "alternative" account and Hesiodic didaxis. Although a fundamental part of Van Noorden's underlying thesis is that there exists a "continuing relationship between the 'myth of the races' and the didactic mode of its first extant context" (42), she has chosen later texts for analysis that are specifically not considered didactic (with the exception of Aratus' Phaenomena). This seemingly unusual choice of texts contributes greatly to the originality of the project, as well as amply demonstrating the wide scope of possible responses to the races narrative by moving beyond what might be expected (i.e. analysis of Virgil or Lucretius).

The third chapter presents Plato as the first case study. Van Noorden traces Plato's reception of Hesiod's races through their repetition and variation in three key dialogues: the Protagoras, Republic, and Statesman. She demonstrates how each dialogue appropriates and transforms aspects of not only the content of the myth, but also the framing of the material and the didactic voice of the narrator. It is this last feature that receives the most attention, as she identifies as crucial to Plato's reading of Hesiod "a speaker who brings together multiple discursive modes and perspectives in persuading diverse audiences towards the upright life" (93). The main takeaway is that Plato's dialogues reveal a specifically philosophical reconstruction of the text and argument of the Works and Days, opening the door for varied ancient responses to Hesiod, which are the focus of the later chapters.

The case study on Aratus' Phaenomena, the subject of chapter four, fulfills a different function from the other studies in this volume. Rather than establishing the importance of Aratus in the legacy of Hesiod, already widely accepted, this chapter seeks to emphasize the often ignored complexity of Aratus' "reading" of Hesiod's races narrative. Van Noorden focuses largely on the Maiden passage (Ph. 96-136), considering it key to Aratus' handling of Hesiod throughout the Phaenomena. Among other issues, she explores how unique features of the Maiden narrative raise and clarify two key concerns of the larger work: the problem of interpretation and the role of the observer in creating meaning. In this way, rather than eclipsing the Works and Days entirely for later Roman authors, Aratus is revealed to have instead paved the way for and encouraged them to reinterpret Hesiod for themselves.

Chapter 5 introduces Ovid as the first Roman author to be considered in the study, whose Metamorphoses contain the second longest version of the myth of the races after Hesiod (Met. 1.89-150). The possible relationship between Ovid and Hesiod in the Metamorphoses has become a rather fashionable topic as of late,3 but as Van Noorden points out, there remains much more to say about the Works and Days specifically and its influence on the Metamorphoses. Her argument for its importance is structured around three main considerations of what Ovid adapts from Hesiod: the process of periodization, alternate perspectives, and a voice that is both universalizing and self-conscious. The chapter advertises that it is based upon two sections of the Metamorphoses, the metallic myth in Book 1 and Pythagoras' speech in Book 15; in the end, however, there was very little concerning Pythagoras, and a more in-depth discussion of this particular passage would have been welcome.

The sixth and final chapter does begin with a slightly fuller exploration of Ovid's Pythagoras speech, "as an anticipation of the breakdown of speaker-audience relations dramatized in the development of the races theme in Roman drama and satire" (260). But the bulk of the chapter is devoted to ps.-Seneca's Octavia and Juvenal's Satire 6, and their exploration of the potential failure of the didactic pupil and speaker, respectively. This is an intriguing twist on the earlier chapters, which argued for more positive potentialities exposed in responses to Hesiodic didaxis. It functions extremely well as a concluding chapter, by emphasizing the range of possible readings and responses to Hesiod's myth of ages.

Each chapter is divided into multiple subsections, most including summaries of what came before and anticipating the next section. As such, key points of discussion are necessarily repeated and rephrased multiple times throughout the text. This strategy provides a very clear map of the course of the arguments and makes the text more accessible to the general reader. At times, however, the amount of subdivision becomes excessive: for instance, in the third chapter the instances of four different levels of division (i.e. section 3.3diii) has the unfortunate effect of fragmenting the overall argument and causing this reader, at least, to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Overall, I noticed few spelling and grammatical errors, and they did not detract from the argument.

One potential drawback to the case study approach taken by the book is that the sheer number of authors and texts discussed can leave the audience feeling both overwhelmed and, at the same time, wishing for more in each instance. That is "a natural consequence of the road taken and of the importance and interest of the material",4 and in the case of this project, a certain sign of success. Van Noorden has more than fulfilled her stated goal of revealing "the diversity of the intellectual traditions that stem from these readings of Hesiod, as the best possible argument for the significance of Hesiod's races narrative in Classical antiquity and beyond." (42). In addition, she has laid the groundwork for further in-depth studies of Hesiodic reception in previously unsuspected authors and genres. Playing Hesiod is a fast- paced, comprehensive, and certainly welcome addition to the field of Hesiodic reception.


1.   G. Most, Hesiod: Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA, 2006), 1. lxiii.
2.   Examples include: G. Rosati, "The Latin Reception of Hesiod", in Brill's Companion to Hesiod (Leiden 2009); H. Koning, Hesiod: The Other Poet (Leiden 2010); G. Boys-Stones and J. Haubold, Plato and Hesiod (Oxford 2010); I. Ziogas, Ovid and Hesiod (Cambridge 2013); R. Hunter, Hesiodic Voices (Cambridge 2014).
3.   Often in terms of the Catalogue of Women, such as in R. Fletcher, "Or such as Ovid's Metamorphoses…" in The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women: Constructions and Reconstructions (Cambridge 2005); Ziogas 2013.
4.   H. Koning, BMCR 2014.10.08, on Hunter 2014, which takes a very similar approach.

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