Friday, July 21, 2017


Niall W. Slater (ed.), Voice and Voices in Antiquity. Orality and Literacy in the Ancient World, 11; Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 396. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017. Pp. xi, 444. ISBN 9789004327306. $180.00.

Reviewed by Hannah Silverblank, Haverford College (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

When Homer's Sirens sing their legendary song to Odysseus in Book XII of the Odyssey, they invite the hero to listen to their voices and thereby become a wiser man (Od. 12.184–91). Their song proposes a deferred auditory experience, through which knowledge and contentment can be gained. But this proffered song remains unheard, at least within Odysseus' retelling of the encounter to the Phaeacians. Whether the Sirens' song in its entirety is a false invitation to hear more, or whether Odysseus only recounts the prelude to a longer song, the hero never clarifies for his audience.

This encounter aptly characterizes the relationship between Classicists and the voices that call out to us from antiquity. Just as the Sirens' invitation to Odysseus creates a desire for a voice that can never be fully heard (and survived), the voices of ancient singers and poets resound within the literary record, yet deny a complete listening experience to modern ears. Niall Slater's edited volume Voice and Voices in Antiquity considers the simultaneously present and absent sonority of the voices of antiquity, and it probes the relationship between orality, vocality, and text. The book emerges during a vibrant moment for voice studies in Classics, and functions as the eleventh installment in the thriving biennial conference series "Orality and Literacy in the Ancient World," whose first volume/conference tackled the theme "Voice into Text." Each of the chapters in this volume contains nuanced and sophisticated readings in a wide range of genres, periods, and cultural traditions.

The essays in the first section, "Epic Voices," all make significant contributions to the study of Greek epic. These chapters are united by an interest in a long-standing notion of vocality that emphasizes message over medium and sense over sound. Each of these chapters engages with the idea of utterance: who speaks when, and how, in Greek epic. The contributions in this section engage in coherent dialogue with one another, insofar as they all discuss special modes of vocal performance — bardic performance, messenger speech, didacticism, and prophecy. Elizabeth Minchin's chapter, "Voice and Voices: Homer and the Stewardship of Memory," considers the Homeric bard's use of memory as a resource through which he delivers and organizes oral performance. Minchin also discusses the ways in which the Homeric poet speaks in the voice of his characters and "interleaves" the accounts of heroic nostoi: the poet assumes the voices of his heroes in order to avoid the confusion or inference of details within their respective stories.

In "The Voice of the Seer in the Iliad and the Odyssey," Deborah Beck argues that the words that are used to describe prophecy (θεοπροπ-, μαντ-) reveal character responses to those prophecies. Beck engages with voice not merely as a vessel of ideas and messages, but also as a mode of utterance that provokes emotional responses in its hearers. Because conflicts within the Homeric epics, Beck argues, are often mapped onto responses to the seer and the prophecy, the prophetic voice and the responses it incites may be read as integral components of the larger plots and moments of tension within Homeric epic.

The essays in "Part II: Lyric and Dramatic Voices" exemplify rich and refreshing dispositions with which classicists might approach vocality within ancient texts. The first essay, written by Claas Lattmann and entitled "Pindar's Voice(s): The Epinician Persona Reconsidered" follows the line of thought established in Ruth Scodel's chapter ("The Individual Voice in Works and Days"): both Lattmann and Scodel pursue the question of what we as readers are seeking when we try to characterize the "voice" of an ancient poet. Whereas Scodel identifies an individual Hesiodic voice in the Works and Days through the narrator's distinctive tendency toward caution and the scope of the narrator's advice, Lattmann argues that "there is no Pindar in Pindar" (124). He concludes that the epinician odes were not sung at the games themselves, but rather during processions at the victors' homecoming. Lattmann argues for a fresh reading of the voice behind the "I" in Pindar's epinician odes: Pindar's "I" implies the identity of an "idealized komast" (140) rather than the identity of one historical, professional poet.

Margaret Foster's chapter, "Poeta Loquens: Poetic Voices in Pindar's Paean 6 and Horace's Odes 4.6," also engages with the question of Pindar's narrative persona(e). Foster argues that Paean 6 acts as a model for Horace's Odes 4.6 because of Pindar's presentation of the effects of the poetic voice not only to resolve certain thematic tensions but also to reveal "the Apollo-backed power to lift Rome out of its brutal past and introduce[d] it to its prosperous Augustan present" (163). Foster's chapter engages with the volume's larger theme of considering "voice" as a poetic identity that comes across in the poet's words and expression. In considering the force of poetic vocality, Foster also introduces another theme, sustained elsewhere in the volume (and circulating in other classicists' work within voice studies): the ability of the voice to do things, i.e., the power of the poetic voice itself.

Anton Bierl's chapter, "Melizein Pathe or the Tonal Dimension in Aeschylus' Agamemnon: Voice, Song, and Choreia as Leitmotifs and Metatragic Signals for Expressing Suffering," stands out as the contribution that is most thoroughly engaged with the sonority and musicality of voice. Bierl observes that music is not simply a theme in Agamemnon, but rather one of the central ways in which pathos and audience reception are directed. Bierl's chapter thus offers a reading of the soundscape in Agamemnon, demonstrating awareness that his object of study emerges from a musical genre of poetry whose precise tones are largely missing but not completely lost. Bierl's close reading of metatragic discussions of music and chorality in the Agamemnon sets the bar for how to "read voice" in a way that allows us to hear the Aeschylean soundscape more fully.

In "Daphnis' Folksong: The Euphonist's Effect on the Creation of a Textual Performance," Naomi Kaloudis argues that the Alexandrians should be recognized for their ability to listen to the soundscapes of language. Kaloudis demonstrates how Theocritus' Idyll 1 engages with folksong performance and euphonist theory, in her readings of the textual sounds that evoke environmental soundscapes. Kaloudis thus models how we might read poetic language in a sonic register, with the aid of euphonist discussions of sounds and their effects.

Part III ("From Singing to Narrative Voice") is the least cohesive in the volume. Nevertheless, its individual chapters make important contributions to an impressively broad range of subjects. This section opens with Andreas Willi's chapter, "Towards a Grammar of Narrative Voice: From Homeric Pragmatics to Hellenistic Stylistics." Here Willi notes the absence of a grammar of narrative voice and focuses his analysis on the question of the absence of the historical present in Homer. Willi addresses the oddness that emerges from the fact that the historical present seems to evoke a sense of oral poetry—despite the fact that it is not regularly featured in Homeric poetry. Willi's study sets the groundwork for future studies that might allow us to more sensitively hear the connotations of grammatical constructions in prose texts; in this sense, Willi's chapter issues an important call to philologists to open our ears to the tones inscribed in language but unheard without a grammar of narrative voice. Geoffrey Bakewell's chapter, "The Voice of Aeschylus in Plato's Republic," works to address the contradiction that emerges between Plato's views about the dangers of tragedy and his regular quotation of Aeschylus' tragedies in his Republic. Bakewell draws attention to the polyvocality of the Republic and argues that we should not frame the question in terms of Plato's use of Aeschylus generally, but rather in terms of the specific tragic character and moment he quotes. Bakewell notes that Plato appropriates moments of Aeschylean tragedy that have civic merit, and this gesture harmonizes with Plato's claims in Book 10 (607a2-4) that hymnody and sung praise of good people serve a healthy social purpose. Bakewell concludes that Plato's quotation of Aeschylus serves not as a contradiction, but as an exemplification of how tragedy might be redeemed to take on a socially productive role within the polis.

In "Part IV: Voices of Prose," the chapters by Athena Kirk and Amy Koenig stand out most for their contributions to voice studies. Kirk's chapter, "Λόγος and φωνή in Odyssey 10 and Plutarch's Gryllus," builds upon and moves beyond the Aristotelian link between vocalization and ontology. Kirk argues that the representation of animal speech and thought varies from Homer to Plutarch, concluding that Plutarch's Gryllus challenges the supremacy of human (over animal) morality. By suggesting not only that animals are endowed with internal λόγος but that their morality is not dependent on an ability to speak, Plutarch allows the possibility that although extralinguistic animal sounds can in fact be communicative, animals seem not to require speech to manifest their λόγος in the way that humans do. Amy Koenig's chapter, "The Fragrance of the Rose: An Image of the Voice in Achilles Tatius," closes the volume by drawing attention to the intersections between sound and other senses. In a synaesthetic reading of Achilles Tatius' novel Leucippe and Clitophon, Koenig draws the reader's attention to the ways in which the novel portrays the senses and sensory experience in an erotic yet mediated register. This is a powerful note on which to end the volume, since it draws our attention to one of the goals of studies of the voice in antiquity: to hear in new ways, to bring sound to what has long been perceived as silent, and to always grapple with the layers of mediation and polyvocality that bring the voices of antiquity to our ears today.

Slater indicates in his brief introduction that this volume was conceived with a dual purpose: to offer a response to the theme of the first volume in the series, elaborating on questions and ideas circulated at the 1994 conference and in the subsequent volumes; and to make a contribution to recent work in the field of voice studies. The volume accomplishes both; yet its contribution to the larger trends and questions posed by the series comes at a cost of more thorough engagement with some of the more recent provocations and challenges posed by other classicists working in voice studies.

The emphasis falls on Greek over Latin texts: only three essays (Foster's, Kenty's, and Fisher's) out of the eighteen give detailed attention to Latin, and two of the essays also explore Hebrew texts in dialogue with Greek texts (Person's and Buster's). This imbalance is relatively unsurprising due to certain elements of Greek literature that lend themselves to the nexus between orality and vocality, but as recent work by Shane Butler and Helen Kaufmann has shown, Latin literature offers tremendous potential for the relationship between voice and text.1

While Slater puts the various chapters in dialogue with eloquence and precision, further elaboration on the conference's and volume's specific aims and collective takeaways—particularly situated within the context of current research in voice studies—would have strengthened the volume's sense of cohesion. Since the volume itself seems to speak so vividly to its earlier counterparts, it would have been illuminating for Slater to chart thought patterns from 1994 to 2017. That said, Slater's overview of the individual essays reveals a deep consideration of the multifaceted ways in which this theme can be explored, and his introduction reveals how the individual papers speak to one another across languages, genres, eras, and methodologies.

Authors and Titles

Part 1. Epic Voices
Chapter 1. Introduction / Niall Slater
Chapter 2. Voice and Voices: Homer and the Stewardship of Memory / Elizabeth Minchin
Chapter 3. Which Limits for Speech Reporting? Messenger Scenes and Control of Repetition in the Iliad / Ombretta Cesca
Chapter 4. The Voice of the Seer in the Iliad and the Odyssey / Deborah Beck
Chapter 5. The Individual Voice in Works and Days / Ruth Scodel
Chapter 6. Nestor's Cup and Its Reception / Jasper Gaunt

Part 2. Lyric and Dramatic Voices
Chapter 7. Pindar's Voice(s): The Epinician Persona Reconsidered / Claas Lattmann
Chapter 8. Poeta Loquens: Poetic Voices in Pindar's Paean 6 and Horace's Odes 4.6 / Margaret Foster
Chapter 9. Melizein Pathe or the Final Dimension in Aeschylus' Agamemnon: Voice, Song, and Choreia as Leitmotifs and Metatragic Symbols for Expressing Suffering / Anton Bierl
Chapter 10. Daphnis' Folksong: The Euphonist's Effect on the Creation of a Textual Performance / Naomi Kaloudis

Part 3. From Singing to Narrative Voice
Chapter 11. Towards a Grammar of Narrative Voice: From Homeric Pragmatics to Hellenistic Stylistics / Andreas Willi
Chapter 12. The Voice of Aeschylus in Plato's Republic / Geoffrey W. Bakewell
Chapter 13. Character in Narrative Depictions of Composing Oral Epics and Reading Historiographies / Raymond F. Person, Jr.

Part 4. Voices of Prose
Chapter 14. Written Record and Membership in Persian Period Judah and Classical Athens / Aubrey E. Buster
Chapter 15. Voiced Mathematics: Orality and Numeracy / Tazuko Angela van Berkel
Chapter 16. Cicero's Representation of an Oral Community in De Oratore / Joanna Kenty
Chapter 17. Becoming Gallic: Orality, Voice and Identity in Roman Gaul / Jay Fisher
Chapter 18. Λόγος and φωνή in Odyssey 10 and Plutarch's Gryllus / Athena Kirk
Chapter 19. The Fragrance of the Rose: An Image of the Voice in Achilles Tatius / Amy Koenig


1.   Butler, Shane. 2015. The Ancient Phonograph. Brooklyn: Zone Books. Helen Kaufmann organized the conference "Voices in Late Latin Literature," held March 23-24, 2017, at the University of Oxford.

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