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  • The Greeks and Their Past: Poetry, Oratory, and History in the Fifth Century BCE
  • Victor Bers
Jonas Grethlein . The Greeks and Their Past: Poetry, Oratory, and History in the Fifth Century BCE. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xii + 350 pp. 3 black-and-white figs. Cloth, $95.

Coming across the line James Joyce gives Stephen Dedalus, "history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake," Greeks of the classical period might be puzzled by a wish to escape the past, since for them it was far more a treasure than an affliction, but they would accept a description of the past as immanent and eternal. Evidently aware of the wide gulf between, on the one hand, most British and American classicists, and on the other, scholars versed in hermeneutics and phenomenology, Jonas Grethlein devotes the introductory chapter to a careful statement of his approach. All his principal specimen texts are drawn from fifth-century writers, or to be more precise, writers who were at work for at least part of the fifth century, even if a specific work does not quite make it under the wire, e.g., Lysias' (or at least the Lysianic) Epitaphios. There are out-of-period excursions to supplement a slender corpus, for instance Tyrtaeus and Mimnermus to support the analysis of the "New Simonides" (13). Grethlein's conceptual categories are explicitly modern: as social scientists put it, they are of the "etic," rather than the "emic" variety (5, n. 29). A number of phrases appear with great frequency, but what might look like a leitmotif serving as a rhetorical incantation is there by design, meant to make the discussion of any one of the "commemorative modes" intelligible on its own (12).

Grethlein investigates the interplay in the three genres of Greek literature of his title, "commemorative modes of memory" as he calls them, between two persistent, and evidently contradictory, attributes: consistency and contingency. The latter might be understood as equivalent to τύχη "chance," but Grethlein (following Rüdiger Bubner) insists that it is something quite different: the realm defined in medieval logic as quod nec est impossibile nec necessarium, a "frame for actions as well as for chance" (6). I am not competent to evaluate Grethlein's handling of the concepts' doxographic history, but found this no impediment to understanding the text-specific analyses.

Grethlein turns first to epinician poetry with a detailed study of Pindar, Olympian 2. Between the praise of Theron that opens and closes the poem fall short mentions of Semele and Io, women compensated for their sufferings, and a more detailed and darker reference to what befell Laius, Oedipus, and Oedipus' sons; there is then a segue to celebration of the athletic victories of Polyneices' sons (Grethlein postpones until 40, n. 60, a reference to Pindar's omission of the brothers' names, i.e., Eteocles and Xenocrates: this could confuse the non-specialist reader, whom the book generally accommodates). The poem as a whole shows how "the traditional and exemplary modes . . . serve as counterweights against the contingency of chance that threatens human identities and actions" (33). The assertion of continuity flows naturally from the connection of an aristocratic family to its (supposed) ancient roots (44). The eschatological section of the poem (57-83a) poses something of a puzzle, but Grethlein is adept at avoiding a potential [End Page 674] trap set by his own favored categories: the eschatology, he suggests, is a foil to human life (no surprise there), but is also linked to our familiar, contingency-filled world (31). These adroit interpretive maneuvers will prompt many readers to think of other challenges to Grethlein's broad interpretation. While reading this chapter I wondered how he could accommodate the on-and-off fortunes noted at Nemean 11.37-44: alternate generations of victory and disappointment are likened to season-to-season variations in crops and trees. The chapter's final page provided Grethlein's answer. Citing the very passage, Grethlein acknowledges that "the tension between continuity and regularity . . . and contingency of chance . . . remains ultimately unresolved"(46).

The third chapter moves on to elegy, with particular attention to the "New Simonides," fr. 11 West2, and several other fragments...


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