Friday, October 5, 2018


Riccardo Palmisciano, Dialoghi per voce sola: la cultura del lamento funebre nella Grecia antica. Quaderni dei Seminari romani di cultura greca, 22. Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 2017. Pp. ix, 410. ISBN 9788871407944. €31,00.

Reviewed by Alessandra Abbattista, University of Roehampton (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Palmisciano's book provides a new methodological approach to the investigation of funeral lament as a ritual expression and as a poetic form in ancient Greece. The concept of function, which Palmisciano defines as 'the purpose at which an expression aims according to the ritual strategy' (p. 6), is applied to interpret funeral laments from the Homeric Age to the Graeco-Roman period. By drawing on previous anthropological and philological studies of ritual lamentation,1 Palmisciano specifically identifies thirteen functions, namely the direct address to the dead, self-lamentation, the new status of being dead, the sharing of fate between the living and the dead, the wretched state of the dead's relatives, praise to the dead, affectionate expressions, unrealistic wishes, memories of the lost past, the claim of responsibility, the promise of revenge, sacrificial and lamenting offerings, and the invitation to raise the lament. On the basis of these functions, Palmisciano outlines and discusses the conventional features and the traces of innovation in the poetic tradition of ancient Greek laments.

Chapter 1 introduces the criterion of function to explore the representation of funeral rites and ritual lamentation in Homer; through analysis of the terms γόος and θρῆνος, it reconstructs the modality of performance of Homeric laments. Chapter 2 examines ancient forms of funeral lament and their connection with mythological figures, such as the manerôs, the linos, the ialemos, the lamenting songs for Adonis and the threnodic nomoi of Olympus. Chapter 3 shifts the focus from the anonymous and oral tradition of ritual lamentation to its codification as a literary genre, in order to investigate the peculiar features of funeral epigrams and the threnodic aspects of melic poetry. Chapter 4 is focused on the θρῆνοι Pindar and Simonides composed to celebrate the death of aristocratic family members with epic solemnity. Chapter 5 identifies relevant examples of ritual laments in Attic tragedy; it considers the central role of the chorus in the performance of the κομμός, and outlines the tragic repertoire of threnodic themes, motifs and expressions. Chapter 6 compares the genre of consolatio with the funeral laments written to express personal grief from the fourth century BC to the Roman period.

The functional methodology formulated by Palmisciano proves valid for interpreting the extant poetic evidence of ritual lamentation in ancient Greece. Its application leads towards an understanding of the dynamic cultural system in which ancient Greek laments were performed and transmitted. Despite the chronological order followed in the presentation of the texts, Palmisciano emphasises the necessity of considering the constant relationship between oral-anonymous and written-authorial forms of lamentation. His in-depth and accurate textual analysis, enriched by three insightful linguistic appendices and synoptic tables of functions, shows the dialogical nature of funeral laments. Through a categorisation of threnodic themes, motifs, formulas and figures of speech, Palmisciano demonstrates that ritual lamentation was performed as a 'solo dialogue' between the living and the dead. After calling the dead by name or other affectionate words, the mourner does not expect to receive any answer, but rather aims to facilitate the dead person's transit to the underworld, placate his/her spirit and claim compensation for his/her death. As Palmisciano notes, the dialogical form of funeral lament is evidenced by the use of affirmative and/or interrogative sentences in the second person, and the accompaniment of a solidary chorus in the performance of both bereaved relatives and hired mourners. Through the identification of common elements in a chronologically extended corpus of poetic laments, Palmisciano convincingly denies a difference in the modality of performance between the γόος and the θρῆνος. Far from being a spontaneous expression of grief, lamentation was ritually performed as a structured, formulaic and dialogical response to death in ancient Greece.

The other significant results provided by Palmisciano's application of a functional approach to funeral laments consist in the interpretation of poetic texts whose genre is unknown as θρῆνοι, and in the recognition of threnodic aspects in poetic texts which do not belong to the genre of the θρῆνος. For instance, Palmisciano argues that Stesichorus, like Pindar and Simonides, was hired to compose θρῆνοι, by referring specifically to fr. 245 Davies (= 302 Finglass). On the other hand, he does not read fr. 244 Davies (= 301 Finglass), attributed to Stesichorus, as a θρῆνος despite its threnodic connotations. As he persuasively explains, gnomic sentences were not employed in poetic laments with a consolatory function, but rather because of their connection with the strategy of funerary rites. Therefore, he does not consider the presence of gnomic sentences, which were also used in different genres of lyric poetry, as a sufficient criterion for interpreting a poetic text as a funeral lament. By detecting the thirteen functions of ritual lamentation, Palmisciano sheds fresh light on philologically controversial poetic texts, such as the threnodic elegies of Archilochus (frr. 9 and 11 West) and Anacreon (frr. 191 and 193 Gentili), and the eschatological verses of Sappho (fr. 55 Voight) and Pindar (fr. 129, 131a-131b and 137 Maehler).

Despite the noteworthy use of the criterion of function in the reading of poetic forms of ritual lamentation, some assumptions on their performance are less convincing from a gender perspective. Looking at the representation of male laments in Homer, Attic tragedy, and funeral epigrams, Palmisciano argues that there were no gender differences in the expression of grief but rather a distribution of gender roles in funerary rites (p. 140). He departs from previous philological interpretations, according to which lament was seen as an unsuitable practice for men and well-educated people, and reads criticisms and limitations of feminine forms of lamentation as a threnodic motif. However, this argument fails to engage with recent debates about the dangerous effect of the female voice in funerary rites and the complex gendered nature of laments as depicted in Attic tragedy. Palmisciano refers to the legislation promulgated from the sixth to the fourth century BC to control ritual lamentation (pp. 105–110), but he does not give enough attention to the vengeful implications of the laments performed by women in aristocratic societies, and their representation in tragic plays staging intra-familial conflicts. Nevertheless, the application of the functional methodology proposed by Palmisciano makes his book a remarkable contribution to the social, cultural and linguistic study of funeral laments.


1.   Eugen Reiner, Die rituelle Totenklage der Griechen (Stuttgart, Berlin: Kohlhammer, 1938). Alberto M. Cirese, 'Nenie e prefiche nel mondo antico', Lares 17 (1951), 20–44. Ernesto De Martino, Morte e pianto rituale. Dal lamento funebre antico al pianto di Maria (Torino: Boringhieri Editori, 1975). Margaret Alexiou, The ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, second edition, 2002).

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