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  • Playing Hesiod: The “Myth of the Races” in Classical Antiquity by Helen van Noorden
  • William Thalmann
Helen van Noorden. Playing Hesiod: The “Myth of the Races” in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. x, 350. $110.00. ISBN 978–0-521–76081–2.

This excellent and original book represents a major advance in our understanding of Hesiod’s poetry, the development by later writers in their own cultural contexts of various perspectives latent in that poetry, and the intellectual traditions emanating in significant part from these constructions of “Hesiod.” The topic is large, and van Noorden makes what turns out to be a productive choice of focus: the afterlife of the “myth of the races” in the Works and Days (106–201), read, as later writers did, both in itself and in its larger context. Bypassing (but not completely ignoring) the explicitly didactic texts of Lucretius and Vergil (where Hesiod’s “influence” has often been studied), she finds Hesiod playing an important role in Plato (Protagoras, Republic, Statesman), Aratus’s Phaenomena (the only didactic poem she treats), Ovid’s Metamorphoses, pseudo-Seneca’s Octavia, and Juvenal’s sixth Satire. What gives her discussions particular depth and subtlety is that she is not merely interested in verbal citations of Hesiod; an “important principle” of the book is “that appropriations and transformations of Hesiod are evident as much in the use of voice and the framing of material as in the material itself” (160)—an approach borne out by the fruitfulness of her readings.

After building on important recent work on Hesiod to bring out the complexities in the myth of the races and the context in which it is embedded, van Noorden shows how his successors were inspired by and exploited them. The very situation of didaxis offered multiple possibilities even to nondidactic writers. The attempt of a speaker, whose authority arises partly from his powerlessness, to persuade a listener to improve ethically is constructed by Plato as “proto-philosophical,” and the relatively egalitarian relation between the brothers Hesiod and Perses becomes in Plato dialogic cooperation in a process of self-education. Aratus seeks to persuade his readers of the need to read signs [End Page 559] (constellations) in the wake of the Maiden’s departure from earth in order to stay in touch with the will of the gods and avoid possible disaster; the Works and Days is part of the world of signs that Aratus reads, and his poem, with its puns and acrostics, encapsulates that world and its challenge to interpret it. Perses (both “fool” and “godlike”) and the basileis (both “gift-devouring” and “those who know”) embody dual potentialities, as do the Republic’s Glaucon and Adeimantus (possible philosophers or tyrants) and the auxiliaries of Kallipolis, and must make a choice that can affect the entire community (as seen in the just and unjust cities; the Silver Race, which plays a key role in van Noorden’s discussions, models the consequences of a bad choice). The Octavia presents the dark side of didaxis: in Seneca, a teacher marginalized to the point of ineffectuality who has failed to persuade his listener to become good; in Nero, a Perses who chose wrong and a tyrant who, like the basileis “who know,” can out-argue his teacher. Finally, Juvenal’s speaker, losing focus and control over his arguments, lapses into monologue, in a virtually anti-Platonic development of the possibilities Hesiod offered.

It is notoriously uncertain whether Hesiod, in his account of the Iron Race, envisioned time as linear or circular, and this ambiguity was fruitful later on, for instance in the myth of the Statesman and in Ovid’s “narrative logic of repetition as evolution” (223). But perhaps the most prominent theme of the book is how productive the Works and Days’ method of “always revising its own epistemology or ontology” (55) was to be. In particular, the framing of the myth of the races as “another logos” (WD 106) in relation to the story of Prometheus and Pandora, with its suggestion of the value of multiple perspectives, was constructed by Plato as foreshadowing philosophical method, became in Aratus a question of the relation between...


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