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The Δυσκολώτερον Σκόλιον: A New Model of the Skolion Game in Antiquity

Amy Pistone

The conventional definition of skolia has largely hinged upon whether a poem was called a skolion by an ancient author (even Reitzenstein’s extensive and influential survey of skolia does not depart significantly from this conception and, more recently, Campbell follows Page in this classification). However, this is an inadequate approach to skolia. The evidence we do have – the Attic skolia of Athenaeus, examples of skolia in comedy, and the general agonistic setting of other, similar symposiastic games – allows for a more nuanced and precise understanding of the role of skolia as a genre and the ways in which they were employed in the skolion game. I argue that the conflicting depictions of this game in the ancient sources can be solved by making a careful distinction between skolia (short, simple poems that would be used to begin this game) and the skolion game itself (a complex game in which participants would try to “cap” each other’s lyrical performances).

Working from the Attic skolia of Athenaeus (PMG 884-908, Ath. 15.691c-696a), I begin with an admittedly imprecise but nonetheless useful preliminary definition of skolia as short songs in aeolic meter that address gnomic themes.  As I show in the rest of the paper, however, this definition cannot explain fully the nature of the skolion game: the widespread folk etymology of skolion from δύσκολος (“difficult,” at Schol. Pl. Gorg. 451e and Ath. 15.693f.-694c) alone points to something more complicated and challenging than simply short aeolic couplets. Indeed, the difficulty of this the skolion game, as alluded to by so many of the testimonia, seems to lie in the clever and extemporaneous joining of new lines onto the skolion setup that a player received from his fellow symposiast.

Building upon recent, innovative approaches to the study of skolia (Collins 2004, Yatromanolakis 2009), I read several ancient testimonia against the definition I have derived from the Attic skolia in order to resolve the seemingly contradictory descriptions of these poems as both difficult and easy, sung by everyone but also only the wisest men, short but yet long enough to be passed crookedly (σκολιῶς) around the room.  In the absence of direct evidence, I draw upon material from Aristophanes’ Wasps, literary depictions of symposia (Plato’s Symposium and Plutarch’s Septem Sapientium Convivium) and lyric fragments (PMG 909, Archilochus fr. 2, 172, 174-177, and select comparanda from Theognis and Alcaeus) to support a new model of the skolion game in which participants attempted to combine  lines that had some point of contact (either metrical or thematic) with the preceding line, but which could come from different songs, be in a different meters, or even consist of original compositions. There was another time during the symposium for simply reciting the next line of a well-known song, as outlined by Athenaeus and others; in the skolion game, however, the goal was rather to redirect the song to one’s own desired end (whether political commentary, social commentary, or a humorous insult at the expense of a fellow symposiast).  

Rather than a definitive catalog of the available skolia, then, I suggest that Athenaeus’ Attic skolia need to be viewed as traditional exempla in a genre composed of a fluid set of songs that could accommodate variations and adaptations. These skolia could be employed to start a round of skoliastic competition, but the skolion game could draw upon lines from a variety of genres and meters, including lines that were improvised on the spot. In this model, the traditional skolia serve only as “cues” for the poetic play of symposiasts and jumping-off points for a much richer and intergeneric style of symposiastic play. This approach erodes many of the seemingly firm divisions between lyric genres and allows for a reevaluation of the relationship among these genres. It requires a somewhat broader conception of what constitutes a skolion – and a far broader conception of what the skolion game entailed.

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Greek Lyric

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