Craig Cooper (ed.), Politics of Orality: Orality and Literacy in Ancient Greece, Vol. 6. Mnemosyne Supplements, 280. Leiden and Boston: E. J. Brill, 2007. Pp. xx, 380 pp. ISBN 978-9004145-40-5. €129.00 / US$ 174.00.
University of Auckland, New Zealand []
This volume presents eighteen essays on aspects of orality with a shared focus on a variety of political associations; all are based on papers that were delivered at a conference on the theme of 'Politics of Orality' that was hosted by the University of Winnipeg in July 2004 -- the sixth in the series of Orality / Literacy conferences. A central feature of the conference was the panel discussion on First Nations issues related to the 'Politics of Orality' theme which, while not represented by a written paper, is with considerable appropriateness recorded by Craig Cooper in his preface as a recollection of the oral event. The papers are thematically grouped in five parts under thematic headings, and each paper is followed by its own bibliography.
Although inevitably there is a sense of minor frustration for the reader in an arrangement that separates papers on a common topic (for instance, Morrison and Griffiths on Thucydides, or Scodel and Griffiths again on Tragedy, or Olding and Harris on the Attic orators), this presents a refreshing change from the customary chronological regimen, inducing a different take on the study of the 'interface' between the written text and the oral context, and indeed encourages perception of other thematic strings that run across the groups -- for instance, the varying relationship between elitism and orality / literacy, which is discussed by both Pownall (4th century prose-writing supported the controlled dissemination of aristocratic morality) and Finkelberg (oral transmission is more suitable for exercising control over the dissemination of philosophical or otherwise privileged knowledge); similarly the notion that what is written is fixed and permanent: Morrison (in reference to Thucydides and Plato, where it is an advantage that a text can be -- orally -- scrutinised), and Griffiths (on letter-writing in Thucydides and Tragedy, where the textual permanence is a disadvantage in the face of unanticipated circumstances); Hubbard (on the sphrêgis of Theognis) succeeds in tying both these thematic strings together. With his over- arching theme and sub-thematic groupings, Cooper has put together a volume that will be more likely than most conference proceedings to be read through cover to cover, since it presents a faceted study of how oral and written factors have variously impinged on and been affected by political and historical developments in ancient Greece and Rome, with some reference also to other cultures.
Part I offers four essays under the heading of 'Epic, Orality and Politics.'
Elizabeth Minchin opens with 'The Language of Heroes and the Language of Heroines: Storytelling in Oral Traditional Epic' (pp. 3-38), in which she presents a further episode of her rewarding on-going cognitive approach to Homeric epic; here she examines gender differences in the embedded story-tellings of the Iliad and Odyssey, finding that the poets have authentically distinguished the diverse characteristics of stories told by men or by women in their varying social situations. An appendix helpfully lists all the instances of storytelling in the Iliad and Odyssey.
Nathalia King looks at the epic poetry of the Banyanga, a small culture in East Africa, in her paper entitled '"Summoning Together all the People": Variant Tellings of the Mwindo Epic as Social and Political Deliberation' (pp. 39-52). She examines four variants of a single episode from Mwindo Epic, which variously offer different scenarios for a chieftain's response to naturally occurring situations that challenge his authority. Perhaps, as King implies (p. 47), the classical parallel for this exemplary use of myth may be Greek tragedy rather than epic, but one is nevertheless reminded of the ancient tendency to use Homeric epic as a set of behavioural paradigms.
The reader is returned to early Greece with Franco Ferrari's 'Orality and Textual Criticism: the Homeric Hymns' (pp. 53-65), which considers variant manuscript readings in the light of the premise that the Hymns were not subject to editing by Alexandrian scholars, so that the textual record with its variations is closer to the rhapsodic tradition of performance. Presenting the Hymn to Apollo as a example, he takes up Burkert's suggestion that the text represents a particular performance by the Chian rhapsode Cinaethus at Polycrates' Delian Festival of 523 BC (politically motivated to strengthen the authority of Delos as a cult centre of Apollo), and suggests that the shape of the text as we have it accurately reflects the nature of the event: it was a tripartite performance, with an introductory section in which a chorus of Delian maidens performed, followed by the Delian section sung by Cinaethus, who then handed on the rhapsode's staff at line 177 to another performer from the same group who sang of Pythian Apollo.
Annette Teffeteller, writing under the title of 'Orality and the Politics of Scholarship' (pp. 67-86), offers a challenge to what she terms the 'ideological baggage' with which 'the discussion of orality has been burdened'; she suggests that the Parry-Lord model of orality, in which oral improvisation, or composition-in-performance, is a defining characteristic, excludes by definition certain text-collections such as the Vedic hymns and pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, as well as Mesopotamian orally performed poetry, which she categorises as resulting from 'premeditated oral composition' (her italics). One wonders whether a stronger parallel for Mesopotamian poetry might perhaps be found in early Greek lyric rather than oral-derived epic.
Part II is entitled 'Political Manipulation of Texts,' with five quite different essays.
First is Geoffrey Bakewell with 'Written Lists of Military Personnel in Classical Athens' (pp. 89-101): generals in classical Athens kept records of 'those eligible for service; those called up; those serving; and those who died.' While this practice was prompted by a desire for insurance against being held accountable by the demos, there was an unintended consequence: the dramatic improvement of the city's military capabilities, resulting from the possession of exact information about the human resources available.
Greg Anderson writes on 'Why the Athenians Forgot Cleisthenes: Literacy and the Politics of Remembrance in Ancient Athens' (pp. 103-27), arguing that the notable lack of subsequent celebration of Cleisthenes and his associates after the political changes of 508/7 BC resulted from the reformers' deflection of attention from the novelty of their reforms by demonising the Peisistratids as 'illegitimate usurpers' and representing their own undertakings as a restoration of the previous traditional order.
Ruth Scodel's paper on 'Lycurgus and the State Text of Tragedy' (pp. 129-54) takes as a starting-point the biographer's statement that Lycurgus initiated both the erection of statues of the three Attic tragedians and the establishing of 'authorised' state copies of the texts of their plays. She concludes that the intention of creating these texts was not so much to attempt to control performances (especially outside of Athens), but rather to intervene in social memory, in parallel to the placing of the statues in the theatre: effectively, in sequence with the precursory Panathenaic text of Homer, Lycurgus' legislation established and preserved the three tragedians and their recognised corpora of works as 'national treasures,' the publicly acknowledged sponsors and repositories of poetic wisdom.
Greg Olding, in 'Myth and Writing in Aeschines' Against Timarchus' (pp. 155-70), examines that orator's departure from the norm when quoting from the Iliad by calling for the clerk to read out three passages, apparently from a written text, rather than himself quoting the verses from memory as was customary among the orators. It seems significant that the passages in question, which present a mythological parallel to the case, contain variations from the Iliad as we have it, which are of advantage to the case. He concludes that Aeschines' intention was to capitalise on the authority of the written word by presenting a model derived from myth in the form of independent evidence. He includes at the end an appendix arguing for the authenticity of the oration as a record of the speech as delivered.
Linda Zollschan's paper on 'Orality and the Politics of Roman Peacemaking' (pp. 171-90) examines the changes in procedures associated with the making of peace between Rome and an erstwhile enemy. Before the 2nd century BC, the imperium of a victorious general conferred upon him the right to negotiate a truce by means of a sponsio, or receive an unconditional surrender (deditio), both through a ceremonious oral exchange of formal question and response. In the course of the 2nd century, the Roman Senate diminished the power of the generals by replacing the bilateral oral negotiations with unilateral declarations, whereby the general was restricted to merely reading out a senatorial decree sent out from Rome proclaiming libertas or societas, with no requirement of responsive acknowledgement from those to whom it was read. Thus the auctoritas of the Senate was affirmed, and in the following century generals had to seek alternative and innovative means of asserting their imperium.
The third and fourth sections form a contrastive centrepiece to the volume on the theme of 'The Oral and Written Controversy.' Part III presents four papers on 'Privileging Literacy.'
'Privileging Literacy' opens with Thomas Hubbard's paper, 'Theognis' Sphrêgis: Aristocratic Speech and the Paradoxes of Writing' (pp. 193-215), which examines the evident discomfort of a poet who seems to have felt obliged to adopt the new written form of communication even while convinced that it was an inferior medium to the traditional oral transmission of information and wisdom from older agathoi to the impressionable young by personal example. Hubbard traces in the text of Theognis' sphrêgis elegy the concern, on the one hand, that once written the poetry becomes accessible to all, whether or not they appreciate the poet's values, which is countered by the new-found ability to claim one's writings as one's own and ensure them against subsequent adulteration; thereby the names of the poet and his beloved would remain famous for all time -- as indeed they have done.
James V. Morrison's 'Thucydides' History Live: Reception and Politics' (pp. 217-33) engages with the debate over the reception of Thucydides' Histories: was the work read privately, or orally to a group? He draws a complex parallel between Thucydides and Plato, suggesting that the works of both writers were likely read aloud to a group of auditors, who might in both instances engage in on-going discussion of the content; it seems probable that the participants in such occasions would have been oligarchic in their sympathies. Furthermore, both writers had an intention that was in part at least retrospective: to record and thereby recreate oral events from the past (the discussions of Socrates, and the debates in the Athenian assembly and other political and strategic negotiations in the Histories), but at the same time had also a forward-looking purpose in their writing: Plato sought to promulgate the philosophical activity and method of the Academy, while Thucydides, it is suggested, 'wishes to provoke his readers and auditors, so that they also become engaged in historical analysis and the business of politics' (p. 231).
Frances Pownall investigates the educative potential of prose-writing in 'From Orality to Literacy: The Moral Education of the Elite in Fourth-Century Athens' (pp. 235- 49). She argues that in the 4th century, the traditional function of Homer and the poets of imparting the old moral values was transferred in part at least to prose-writers such as Isocrates and Xenophon, whose writings notably present by both precept and practical example aristocratic moral virtues of the kind that would have been relevant to the politically engaged and ambitious among the educated elite. Like Morrison, she allows for the probability of oral delivery of the written texts, and again envisions that the target audience / readers would be oligarchic in their aspirations.
Matthew J. Martin offers a very different take on the interrelationship between oral performance and written text in 'Writing Divine Speech: Greek Transliterations of Near Eastern languages in the Hellenistic East' (pp. 251- 73). He describes three separate examples where texts in Near Eastern languages were transliterated using the Greek alphabet (in some instances in an extended version). There is a small group of Babylonian cuneiform texts from the 2nd or 1st century BC that have inscribed on the reverse of the clay tablets a Greek transliteration of the sounds, which can only have been intended to allow readers literate in Greek to access the Akkadian language without being literate in cuneiform, and perhaps, as Martin suggests, without necessarily comprehending the meaning. A more substantial example is offered by the Greek transliteration of late Egyptian (hieroglyph, hieratic or demotic) ritual texts in the 3rd century AD, where the intention is clearly to render the correct pronunciation for those who read Greek but not the Egyptian scripts. Finally Martin discusses Greek transliterations of Hebrew, as preserved in the secunda of Origen's text- critical synopsis, the Hexapla, which dates from the early 3rd century AD: the first two columns give the Hebrew text in Jewish script and the Hebrew text in Greek transliteration, responding to Origen's belief that hearing scripture even when not comprehended was in itself of spiritual value. In each instance, the intention was to enable the oral performance of essentially incomprehensible texts, so that clearly the content was immaterial, and the oral performance of paramount importance.
Part IV presents the other side of 'The Oral and Written Controversy,' this time 'Privileging Orality.'
Emma M. Griffiths writes of fifth-century Athens in 'Fighting the Future: Euripidean Letters and Thucydides' Athens' (pp. 277-91), with an unusual and perceptive analysis of letter-writing (as represented by Euripides) as a futile attempt on the part of the letter-writer to engage with and control the future. Euripides' use of this dramatic device may perhaps be seen as responsive to an awareness of literacy as a useful but imperfect tool in Athenian political life. A pattern emerges of the conviction of certain Euripidean characters (Phaedra in the Hippolytus, Agamemnon in the IA, Iphigenia in the IT) that a future course of events may be changed through a written letter; their belief is however proved by subsequent developments to have been illusory, for the fixed text of a letter cannot respond to shifts of circumstance. A similar pattern can be discerned in the writings of Thucydides, who, Griffiths suggests, was warning of the limitations of the power of literacy: written texts (including letters) might seem to offer a potential means of exerting control over the future, but the promise would not be fulfilled; hoped-for outcomes would fail to materialise. This is exemplified by the letter of Nicias (Thuc. 7.8), which does not fulfil its sender's intentions.
Discussion of elitism recurs in Margalit Finkelberg's 'Elistist Oratory and the Triviality of Writing' (pp. 293- 305), in which she focuses on Plato's Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter, as the two Platonic works that give consideration to the inadequacy of writing for appropriately conveying philosophical knowledge. She compares attitudes to writing in Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Neoplatonism, Rabbinic Judaism, and mystical Judaism, concluding that 'in each of the cases under consideration it was taken for granted that oral transmission is by its very nature restrictive and therefore more suitable for allowing the elites to exercise control both over the dispersal of information and over the concrete form taken by it,' (p. 302) in contrast to the uncontrollable mass circulation made possible by written transmission.
Niall Slater looks at the exploitation of oral-literary dynamics within the highly literate context of Rome in the first century AD, in 'Neronian Oral Politics: the Case of Musonius Rufus' (pp. 307-18). Musonius was a Stoic philosopher who practised a Socratic oral method, and whose work consequently (like that of Socrates himself) survives only as recorded by others. Nevertheless, it is clear from two of his discourses (8: 'That Kings Should Study Philosophy' and 9: 'That Exile is Not an Evil') that his philosophical ideals and oral practice presented a considerable political challenge for the Neronian state and its successors. In the first, he addresses to a visiting dignitary (a Roman client ruler from Syria) advice on the need for a ruler to acquire through the study of philosophy the old virtues of wisdom, justice, self-control, and courage, so as to fulfil the ideal of being a 'living law' as pater patriae. The obvious comparative application to the Roman emperor contains the potential for criticism of that less than ideal ruler, and the notion of the validity of competition to rule (as eventuated in AD 69) is introduced by Musonius' insistence that anyone who could demonstrate success in ruling over a few people could contend for the privilege of ruling over a larger number. In Discourse 9, Musonius seeks to demonstrate that exile from one's community does not entail loss of freedom of speech: it is only fear that can restrain a person from speaking his mind, and that is conquered by philosophy. Such an argument, presented in AD 65 at a time when the Roman political class was increasingly disempowered under Nero, reasserted the power of a dissident to continue to voice challenge, even from exile.
Part V is devoted to two essays on 'Orality and Written Law.'
The first, by Edwin Carawan, is 'Oral "Agreement", Written Contract, and the Bonds of Law at Athens' (pp. 321-41), in which he examines through a series of specific examples the nature and use of synthekai, which were 'covenants' recording contracted agreements. Although they were written documents, it was always the original oral acknowledgement of the transaction that conferred the binding obligation: the syntheke merely constituted lasting evidence that the agreement had taken place, and so should not be regarded as a written contract in the modern sense in which the document itself is regarded as the instrument of agreement (as, for instance, in a consequent lawsuit). The same principle pervades public undertakings as well as private ones, as can be seen in the legal disputes over obligations under the Covenants of Reconciliation at the end of the 5th century: Carawan's example is Isocrates' speech Against Callimachus, in which he traces the emergence of a principle ('that legal obligations are based upon a certain kind of contract') that would ultimately lead to the recognition of Law as the ultimate authority by which disputes could be laid to rest.
Edward M. Harris concludes the volume with 'Did the Athenian Courts Attempt to Achieve Consistency? Oral Tradition and Written Records in the Athenian Administration of Justice' (pp. 343-70), a paper which investigates the possibility of appealing to precedent when there was no formal record of past judgements and their motivations. Harris identifies a large number of instances of instances in the Attic orators where earlier cases are cited in support of a given interpretation of the law, showing also that when in the face of legal issues a litigant did not have a precedent, his case was likely to be regarded as weak by the court. He shows that appeals to precedent were common, relying for the most part not on documents but on public memory (although the written texts of other laws might be cited to support a given interpretation of a particular law as being consistent with the original lawgiver's intent). This leads to the conclusion that there was an expectation of consistency in the application of laws, based on Athenians' widespread knowledge of earlier trials derived from personal experience, the oral tradition, and written records of past decisions and other laws. Harris appends a list of the speeches from the Corpus Lysiacum distinguishing those cases involving legal issues from those concerning questions of fact.
Finally there is a 'select' index, which is in fact fairly comprehensive; some of the entries could perhaps have been omitted as their references are exclusive to individual chapters and predictable from the various chapter titles (for instance, 'Mwindo, 41-47' is more or less coincident with King's chapter on Mwindo Epic, pp. 39-52).
The volume is bedevilled by typographical slips and inconsistencies too numerous to list here. Most are merely irritating (such as the variants 'Pisistratids' and 'Peisistratids' used passim in Anderson's chapter), or careless ('Munchin' for 'Minchin' in the preface on p. xvi), but one or two are errors of fact -- for instance, the first conference on Orality and Literacy was held in 1994, not 1995 (p. ix). There is also inconsistency in the adoption of Harvard-style referencing, where the date and page references are sometimes enclosed in brackets, sometimes not, even within a single chapter.
[] Acknowledgement: the reviewer participated in the conference of which this volume represents the selected proceedings, but did not submit a manuscript for publication.