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lyricist at a symposia
Greek poetry and music included epic stories, drinking songs, religious and processional hymns, funeral dirges, wedding songs, love poems, drama dialogues, and odes to the Gods and heros. Even political speeches had poetic elements. Poetry and verse were considered far superior to prose. The Greeks didn’t have a word for prose until decades after Herodotus developed it as a separate style and then it was referred to simply as psilos logos (“naked language”) and pedzos logos (“walking language”) as opposed to the “dancing or even airborne language of poetry.” [Source: Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker]

Vowels in the ancient Greek language had both pitch-accent and quantity (time value) unlike the stressed syllables of modern Greek. Thus the syllables of a line of poetry created prosodic rhythm with the long vowels receiving twice the time value as short vowels.

The Greeks were using iambic meter by the 7th century B.C. It was often associated with great orators such as Solon and Archilochus. A little bit later free, more expressive lyric poetry was introduced. The Greeks called it medic poetry. We use the word lyrical because poets who recited it were often accompanied by a lyre.

The Greek poetry that remains today is in a tragically fragmentary state. Camille Paglia wrote in the New York Times, “Only a fraction has survived, much of it by chance -- perhaps because it was quoted in an ancient letter or essay. Because of the fragility of papyrus and parchment, Greek literature was decaying by the Roman era. Schmidt stresses what we owe to the Egyptian desert, where papyrus discoveries are still being made in mummy wrappings and trash heaps. Ancient Greek poems today are often merely tentative scholarly reconstructions.

See Homer

Ancient Greek Poetry Competitions

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Poetry competition
A large annual dramatic and lyrical festival and competition honoring Dionysus was held in the city Dionysia in Athens. It began with a religious procession, culminating in songs, choral dances and sacrifices. The main events featured choral songs called dithyrambs. Dithyrambs were performed by a "circular chorus" of 50 men and boys who sang and danced around an altar in the orchestra area of a theater.

Tribal choruses competed against one another in festivals sponsored by wealthy citizens. The first prize was a bull and a tripod dedicated to Dionysus, second prize was an amphora of wine, and third prize was a goat. At this point in time music, poetry and drama were essentially the same thing and the subjects of the poem-songs were the Greek myths and episodes from the Iliad and Odyssey. Fertility festivals started dying out around this time because the harvests and rains they promised to deliver failed to arrive. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Each of the ten Athenian tribes sponsored two dithyramb choruses: one made up of men and other of boys. A wealthy patron paid for the costuming and training for the chorus members and a poet---who composed a poem for the events and choreographed the dances--- and a trainer and flutist. It is thought the chorus members circled an altar in the theater and did some dance steps as they did. The chorus also sang and danced during interludes between the dramatic plays.

The contest are said to go back a long time. There is one story of Homer facing off against his younger rival Hesoid, with Hesoid taking first prize because his book Work and Days , a long poem about farming, was deemed more “useful” than the Iliad .

Poetry, Prose and Rhetoric in Ancient Greece

Apollo with Kithara
Poetry preceded prose as a literary form in ancient Greece partly because the tradition of poetic story telling predates the invention of the Greek alphabet. With no written language the rhythm and rhymes of poetry made stories easier to remember and recount orally. The first literary work in prose was a history book by Herodotus (480-425 B.C.) written 800 years after the Iliad and Odyssey (which were first written in rhyme) took place.μ

Rhetoric, which essentially means the power of persuasion, was an important skill to the Greeks. Socrates said in 374 B.C. that persuasion was what separated mankind from the animals and brutes.

The great Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt wrote that oratory skill “became like the press today, the instrument of very little good and three-quarters of everything bad.” It “colored and enfeebled both poetry and history; even the philosophers were partly, in real life, really rhetoricians.”

Rhetoric and Politics, See Government and Democracy

Mnemonics and Memory

Two of the greatest singer-poets in ancient Greece were Simonides of Ceos, the "inventor of memorization" and reputedly the first poet to make money at writing eulogies, and Avion, who, according to legend, once charmed a dolphin with his lyre playing into carrying him all the way from Sicily to Greece. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

The father of mnemonics was Simonides of Ceos who was also reputed to be the first full-time professional poet. Once he was hired by nobleman to create a song in his honor. When Simonides sang a poem that was divided into two parts---one about the nobleman and the other about the Celestial twins Castor an Pollux---the nobleman said he was only going pay half the sum agreed on before. After this a message was brought to Simonides that two young men were waiting for him outside.

The moment he went outside to see who it was the roof of the nobleman's palace collapsed killing almost everyone inside. The callers of course were Castor and Pollux. Later the singer was called into the collapsed palace. The bodies were so mangled they could not be identified. Simonides with his phenomenal memory was able to identify everyone not only because he remembered who everyone was but he could also remember where they had all been sitting. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin,∞]

Describing Simonides method Cicero said: "persons desiring to train this faculty must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the images of the things will denote the things themselves., and we shall employ the places and images respectively as a wax writing-tablet and the letters written on it.∞

Orpheus and Early Greek Poets

In a review of Michael Schmidt’s ' The First Poets ,''Camille Paglia wrote in the New York Times, “the evolution from aristocratic rule to democracy in Greece was accompanied by the emergence of a strongly individualistic lyric poetry. While the Hebrew Bible, the other major source of Western literature, expresses a God-centered view of the universe, Greek literature gradually freed itself from the sacred to focus on the uniquely human voice.Schmidt is the editor of PN Review, the founder and director of Carcanet Press and the director of the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University in England. He wrote''Lives of the Poets'' (1998), a widely praised 900-page book on English poetry. [Source: Camille Paglia, New York Times, August 28, 2005]

''The First Poets'' covers about a half-millennium of writing up to the third century B.C. Its chronological organization is ideally suited for those seeking an introduction to Greek poetry. Drawing on translators from John Dryden to Guy Davenport, Schmidt deftly explains the problems in translating ''vowel-rich'' ancient Greek into English, which cannot capture Greek's falling rhythms and vocal pitch.

The book's profiles begin with Orpheus, the legendary father of poetry and music, whom Schmidt boldly treats as a real person: ''I take Orpheus to have been an actual man with an actual harp in his hand.'' After his wife, Eurydice, was lost in Hades, Orpheus turned to boy-love and was reputedly the first to practice it in his native Thrace. His death was gruesome: he was torn to bits by bacchants, and his severed head floated to the island of Lesbos, which was thereby impregnated with poetic genius.

In his chapter on Hesiod, whose ''Works and Days'' and ''Theogony'' rivaled Homer's epics for near-biblical status in Greek culture, Schmidt gives glimmers of the more reader-friendly book that might have been -- an alluring, dreamlike travelogue of the Greek sites where ancient poets lived and created. ''Even today it is no easy matter, getting to where Hesiod's farm used to be,'' he says. Hiking through a parched landscape up Mount Helicon, he sees ''old olive trees clenched among the rock'' and is surprised by ''tiny gusts of exquisite scent'' from the ''wild, almost leafless cyclamen, pale dots of purple.''

Sappho on a Greek vase
With Archilochus, Schmidt hits his stride. ''The only Greek soldier-poet we have,'' Archilochus was born on wind-swept Paros, famed for its translucent marble. As a young man, he was leading a cow to market when the Muses appeared, stole the cow, and left a lyre in its place. Archilochus became a brazen sensualist, caustically irreverent. Schmidt calls him a ''cad,'' a cruel exploiter of women and ''an early defining figure of patriarchy''; his imagery has ''a reptilian eroticism.''

Alcman, who labored for Sparta, provides an eloquent contrast to cynical Archilochus. The ''I'' of Alcman's ''civic'' choral poetry was collective. Schmidt compares Alcman's work to masques like Milton's ''Comus,'' where poetry and music are interwoven. Alcman's poems were ''sung not in the intimacy of the symposium,'' a male dinner party, he writes, ''but in the open, public air.'' Schmidt also laments Sparta's cultural decline. Famous in the seventh century B.C. for its ''music, pottery and poetry,'' it became an imperial power so besotted by militarism that ''three centuries later, the adjective 'Spartan' had become synonymous with 'Philistine.' ''

Next we meet Mimnermus, whom Schmidt calls ''an elegist of pleasure,'' and the misogynous Semonides, who sees woman as sow, vixen and bitch. Then come the great poets of Lesbos, Alcaeus and Sappho, both aristocrats born during the politically unstable early seventh century. Schmidt calls Alcaeus ''a brilliant poet of wine'' and ''debauchery'' but also ''a survival poet, enduring exile and hardships.'' Ancient writers assumed he ''preferred the company of his own sex.''

Book: The First Poets, Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets by Michael Schmidt. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)


Bust of Sappho at
the Musei Capitolini
Sappho wrote sensuously about love between females. The word "lesbian" comes from her home island of Lesbos. Born in 610 B.C. in Lesbos, off of Asia Minor, she was probably from a noble family and her father was probably a wine merchant. Little is known about her because she didn't write much about herself and few others did.

In Sappho's time, Lesbos was inhabited by the Aeolians, a people known for free thinking and liberal sexual customs. Women had more freedom than they did in other places in the Greek world and Sappho is believed to have received a quality education and moved in intellectual circles.

Sappho formed a society for women in which women were taught arts such as music, poetry and chorus singing for marriage ceremonies. Although the relationship between Sappho and the women in her society is unclear she wrote about love and jealousy she felt for them. In spite of this, she had a child named Kleis and may have been married.

In his book The First Poets , Michael Schmidt speculates on where she was born and raised on Lesbos: was it in the western village of Eressus in rough, barren country, or in the cosmopolitan eastern seaport of Mytilene? He subtly evokes her poetic style: ''Sappho's art is to dovetail, smooth and rub down, to avoid the over-emphatic.'' And he aptly compares the relationship between voice and musical accompaniment in Sappho's performance of her poems to the recitative in opera. [Source: Camille Paglia, New York Times, August 28, 2005]

Over the centuries passionate arguments over Sappho's character, public life and sexual orientation have sprung up. Even though there is no direct reference to homosexual or heterosexual sex religious leaders---including Pope Gregory VIII, who called her a "lewd nymphomaniac” in 1073---ordered her books burned.

Sappho's Poetry

Sappho wrote 500 poems, with 12,000 lines, of which 700 lines survive in fragments. Most of her poems are oriented towards women. Even so she also wrote about love of men, celibacy and love itself. Many works are believed to have been lost because they were never copied by medieval monks. Most of the 700 lines come to use via strips of papyrus taken from ancient mummies.

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Godward In the Days of Sappho 1904
Some regard Sappho as the greatest poet of antiquity. ''He Seems to Me a God'' and ''Ode to Aphrodite'' are regarded as her two brilliantly original major poems. Describing her jealousy while watching a woman she loved talk to a man, Sappho wrote:
Like the very gods in my sight is he who
sits where he can look in your eyes, who listens
close to you, to hear the soft voice, its sweetness
murmur in love and
laughter, all for him. But it breaks my spirit;
underneath my breast all the heart is shaken

In a poem dedicated to Aphrodite, “scheming daughter of Zeus,” she wrote:

For though she flee, soon she’ll be chasing;
Though she refuses gifts, she’ll be giving
Though she loves not, she’ll love despite herself

Later Ancient Greek Poets

Paglia wrote in the New York Times, “The lawgiver Solon was the first poet of Athens. His was ''a language of distilled moral truth'' that had what Schmidt calls ''a humorless pithiness.'' Solon's maxims, ''Moderation in all things'' and ''Know thyself,'' were carved on Apollo's temple at Delphi. There were two poets named Anacreon. The ''false'' one inspired the carpe diem (''seize the day'') tradition of ''creature pleasures'' of sex and appetite that would so enchant European literature. The real Anacreon was ''drawn to boys'' and died from inhaling a grape pip. He was honored in a robust nude statue on the Athenian Acropolis.

The poet Hipponax, Schmidt writes, shows ''the human body at its most gross''; he is ''obsessed with food, sex, excretion'' and ''a cruising lust.'' His poetry, with its ''smells'' and ''obscene diction,'' has ''the repulsive fascination of toilet-wall graffiti.'' Hipponax influenced Aristophanes' farcical comedies and possibly Petronius' decadent ''Satyricon.'' Simonides, a shrewd operator, was the first poet to get rich from selling his work. Corinna's narrative poetry was so admired that she was said to have been Pindar's teacher and rival (though she lived long afterward).

Pindar's ornate, visionary odes are untranslatable. Commissioned to praise athletic victors or memorialize gifts, they are, Schimdt says, ''the extremity of art,'' moving ''towards timelessness or abstraction.'' He calls them ''a texture of cross-referencing'' and ''an almost continuous string of metaphors.'' The odes of Pindar's rival, Bacchylides, were lost until a smashed papyrus scroll of his work was discovered in Egypt in the 1890's and reassembled at the British Museum.

After Pindar, Schmidt writes, lyric poetry lost vitality, and ''verse thrived primarily in the drama.'' In the new Hellenistic world inaugurated by the conquests of Alexander the Great, ''cultural authority'' shifted from Athens to Alexandria in Egypt, where poetry now ''lived in libraries'': ''What had been language responding to nature, history, the social world, began to become language responding to prior language.'' The poet Callimachus, for example, was a librarian, ''the father of bibliography.'' His cataloging lists, or canones, became our ''tyrannical canonical texts.''

Schmidt paints a vivid portrait of bustling Alexandria with its ''racial mix'' and ''mess of languages and dialects.'' There Theocritus invented the pastoral idyll, a sentimental fantasy of happy, singing shepherds that would remain chic until the era of Marie Antoinette. Themes of boy-love and ''open-air buggery'' are also part of Theocritus' legacy. For Schmidt, Theocritus was emblematic of radical changes in Greek literature. His poetry was no longer sung for a live audience. Now written down, it addressed ''a creature who hardly existed in Homer's day, the reader.''


Gorgias, one of the Sophists
The Sophists were a group of anti-philosophers. Protagoras (480?-411 B.C.), their founder, believed that the human mind was incapable of fathoming the truth and said that all view points could be argued and people were better off spending their time doing civic duties and helping others. His famous motto was: “Man is the measure of all things.”

Rising to prominence in the 5th century B.C., Sophists were traveling teachers who taught mainly in sports gymnasiums. They opposed philosophical speculation. Instead they taught rhetoric in Dale Carnegie-style positive thinking and getting-ahead-in-life classes. These practical philosophers believed thought and action were intrinsically linked and persuasion was the most effective means of getting what one wanted. The Sophists gave us the word sophism, meaning a clever but specious.

The Sophists had a special speech-making school for generals and statesman. Protagoras taught his students many useful tips including never let "vowels fall in adjacent positions, for this would create a halting effect, nor is it right to end one word and begin the next with same syllable." The leader's most famous speech, Panegyric, took nearly 15 years to compose. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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