Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Vanessa Cazzato, Dirk Obbink, Enrico Emanuele Prodi (ed.), The Cup of Song: Studies on Poetry and the Symposion. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xvii, 329. ISBN 9780199687688. $125.00.

Reviewed by Max Leventhal, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (ml649@cam.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site


[The reviewer apologises for the lateness of this review.]

Communal dining informs the makeup of many cultures. In Ancient Greece—at least, in the elite sources—the close-knit all-male institution of the symposion has for over 30 years been seen as a central concept informing everything from politics to philosophy and cosmology, thanks to Oswyn Murray's foundational 1990 Sympotica. The present volume, conscious of its epigonal status, focuses more specifically on poetry in relation to the symposion. The Introduction addresses 'the sweep of the continuous development of sympotic poetic discourse' (p. 2) rather than articulating a set of research questions. Yet the editors do frame the volume's contribution to scholarship: 'it illuminates the symposion's unique significance to Greek poetic history in its dual role as formative context for the production, reception, and criticism of poetry on the one hand, and on the other hand as a place of the imagination and a determinant for modes of discourse which continues to be reworked even after the symposion has ceased to be a significant social institution' (p. 2). The volume's twelve contributions live up to that remit.

The first three contributions tackle broad issues about the nature of poetic performance at the symposion. Oswyn Murray summarises a lifetime of scholarship, sketching out the evidence for, and debate surrounding, sympotic entertainment originating in the 'East'. Ewen Bowie addresses the substantive but elusive question of how long on average poetic pieces at the symposion would have been. Gauthier Liberman addresses an equally thorny issue: the rituals and habits governing the order and form of poetic performance.

The subsequent two chapters form a complementary pair, with Giovan Battista D'Alessio discussing what we can glean from Bacchylides' banquet songs and Lucia Athanassaki considering Pindar's political deployment of sympotic imagery. Likewise, Guy Hedreen's analysis of so-called self-portraits on Attic pottery and Ralph M. Rosen's discussion of the symposion described in Aristophanes' Wasps consider from two diverse angles the nature of satiric and iambic performance and self-presentation at the symposion.

The following four chapters explore the presence of sympotic imagery in a range of poetic genres and schemes: Deborah T. Steiner considers Aeschylus' Agamemnon and its echoing of sympotic protocol; Vanessa Cazzato discusses how sympotic poetry evokes other contexts beyond the symposion; Renaud Gagné studies closely characterisations of cups as the indexical gateway through which sympotic themes bleed into other contexts; Alexander Sens traces the complex generic interactions between the sepulchral and the sympotic in Hellenistic epigram. The volume concludes with a tabulation of themes indicating hierarchy at symposia by Gregory Hutchinson.

Here, I select a number of contributions for discussion. Lucia Athanassaki's chapter considers Pindar's epinicians, building on recent scholarship that has attempted to discern their probable performance context as well as the context the poems themselves describe. The critical advance she makes is to compare the metaphors and similes in the epinicians with the political and social characterisations of banquets and symposia within the texts. Her case-studies of both metaphors and depicted contexts are drawn from all four books of odes. What her analysis reveals is the extent of Pindar's strategic deployment of sympotic themes and in particular of imagined sympotic contexts. Regardless of one's commitments to actual performance contexts for the epinicians, Athanassaki shows how Pindar tailors his image of the symposion for individual honorands based on their local political context, including whether they were tyrants or aristocrats. This is an important reminder of just how much rhetoric stands behind representation.

Guy Hedreen returns to a fascinating paradox in Athenian vase-painting: there supposedly survive depictions of the vase- painter Smikros on pottery. Is this a 'working class' inserting itself into the aristocratic sphere? On Hedreen's account, something more remarkable is at work: the figure of Smikros is no self-portrait, but a fiction that exposes a complex discourse of identity and performance at the symposion. He ties together speaking names and playful inscriptions on vases and sympotic poetry's array of fictional narrators, in revealing how both participate in a culture of iambic exchange at the symposion, and a culture which derides especially artists.

Deborah T. Steiner's chapter, by comparison, traces out the sympotic resonances in Aeschylus' Agamemnon. She explores in detail the pivotal moment at which Clytemnestra strikes down Agamemnon: its evocation of libations that traditionally opened symposia, Clytemnestra's mention of a 'mixing-bowl of evils', and the drops of blood compared to wine-lees thrown in a game of kottabos. This close analysis leads onto a broader vista of just how politically unsettling it might have been for the contemporary audience to conceptualise and to visualise the sympotic, but also markedly aristocratic, nature of this gruesome slaughter.

Together, these two studies provide an important lesson on modern scholarship and disciplinary divides: the one draws from Archaic poetry in explaining Greek pottery, the other draws on Greek pottery in explaining a central text of Classical poetry. They put into practice what is usually only theorised, namely, that the Ancient Greek experience was inherently multimedia, and so multiple methods and disciplines are required to explain it. Nowhere is this putting of theory into practice more pressing than in the study of the symposion, and these two chapters exemplify the interpretative pay-off of reaching across media.

Alexander Sens' contribution deals with sympotic epigrams. It declines to study these epigrams within the re-constructed context of Hellenistic sympotic performance culture—a project which has hampered their full appreciation—and instead chooses to contrast epigrams on sympotic themes with sepulchral epigrams. He draws out the several manifestations of 'finality' and a focus on the brevity of life which informs both sympotic and sepulchral poetry. Since Hellenistic epigram inherits aspects of its form from sympotic elegy and inscribed epitaph, the central contribution of Sens' chapter is to show how epigrammatists variously respond to and critique the two-pronged literary history of their genre, and its polarising focus on life and death.

A number of other contributions, while providing ample interesting ideas, present certain issues. Gauthier Liberman addresses three topics in his chapter: the myrtle branch held during sympotic performance; the etymology of the sympotic song, the skolion; and the nature of chains or series of sympotic songs. He races through primary material and subordinates scholarly discussions to lengthy footnotes. To the mind of this reviewer, the evidence for these sympotic habits—notoriously problematic, spanning multiple centuries in texts with a variety of interests and commitments—requires deeper reflection and discussion, something quite possibly unachievable within the bounds of a volume chapter. What makes the contribution frustrating is that each section ends in a non liquet.

Giovan Battista D'Alessio, in his chapter, takes his impetus from recent interest in Pindar's relation to the symposion, but opts instead to open up the discussion of Bacchylides' banquet songs. Recovering some of Bacchylides' sympotic songs and their images, however, requires much text-critical spadework. This amounts to a number of forays into papyrology. Yet this obscures the more interesting aspects of Bacchylides' songs. What he succeeds in showing is just how cognizant Bacchylides was of earlier sympotic poetry and themes, and of Anacreon in particular. D'Alessio impressively produces two papers in one, a papyrological and poetic, but to my mind, it is the latter which is the chapter's major contribution, and it could have been more clearly flagged as such.

Vanessa Cazzato focusses on sympotic jeux d'esprit. What is a sympotic jeu d'esprit? Cazzato poses the question, but offers no answer, and I do not think it can be the OED's 'playful display of wit or cleverness, esp. in a work of literature; a witty or humorous trifle.' She starts not with a definition, but an example, the 'symposion at sea', describing the various configurations between vessel, liquid, and andrōn in poetry which could evoke sailing, with all its threats and camaraderie. This leads to another case of sympotic jeu d'esprit that is the focus of the chapter: the symposion en plein air, the notion of 'drinking outdoors among nature, reclining on the ground instead of on klinai' (p. 190). This is, Cazzato claims, a 'hitherto unrecognised' (p. 190) jeu d'esprit, and she proceeds to explore examples from the Second Sophistic back to Alcaeus.

The issue with this argument is two-fold. First, the importance of this newly-discovered jeu d'esprit is obscure since the nature of a jeu d'esprit is left undefined. If, as it seems, it is a new term, then that explains its being 'hitherto unrecognised'. Second, if the analogy with the 'symposion at sea' is that a jeu d'esprit is a poetic strategy which characterises the 'here and now' of the symposion through another frame of reference—e.g. andrōn as ship—then the symposion en plein air presents an intractable problem. Unlike evocations of the 'symposion at sea', in which poetry refers both to the symposion and the imagined 'other' scenario, overlaying one on the other, the passages provided regarding the the symposion en plein air do not evidence the same conception of the symposion overlaid with an imagined outdoors. This is not to say that sympotic poetry was not interested in the symposion en plein air; Cazzato's chapter amply proves that. Yet, and this is why I emphasise the point, the imaginative process looks entirely different: Alcaeus introduces outdoor drinking in a gnomic context and Polyphemus' symposion in the Cyclops really is rustic and primitive. There is no sense of here and now overlaid with another context. Nonetheless, Cazzato's discussion does raise two interesting points: the 'symposion at sea' may well, in fact, be a unique imagined 'other' scenario; and to judge by their poetry Greeks were sensitive to seasonal variations and their effect on the experience of dining.

So where is the study of the symposion now, 30 years after Sympotica? A major development has been a more sensitive integration of material and literary evidence; the analyses of Hedreen and Steiner demonstrate just what is possible and should spur on further juxtapositions across media. More crucially, however, the volume makes clear something which is often forgotten when studying the symposion: that, like any social practice, it is a mirage. There is no guarantee that Pindar, Euphronios, Aristophanes and Asclepiades are talking about the same institution. This is not to say that scholars working on the symposion are wasting their energy. In fact, quite the opposite. This volume reminds us of just how many angles there are to studying the symposion, just how many methodologies, just how many media, and just how many time periods. It will undoubtedly galvanise more nuanced future research which will takes up the challenge of working across disciplines.

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