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Fine Weather and Outdoor Symposia in Alcaeus

Vanessa Cazzato

Alcaeus’s sophisticated use of imagery has been somewhat neglected in comparison with that of his Lesbian fellow-poet Sappho – but this neglect is unfair. This paper explores Alcaeus’s skillful use of one particular group of images, namely weather imagery; it shows that the poet is drawing on a nexus of topoi discernible both in sympotic poetry and on sympotic pottery, and it seeks to explain his peculiar manipulation of these topoi.

There is an abundance of allusions to favourable and unfavourable meteorological conditions in Alcaeus’s sympotic poetry. The reference to weather as present in the ‘here and now’ of the indoor and nighttime context of the symposium is symptomatic of the imaginative playfulness of this performance setting, as discussed influentially by Lissarrague (1990) in relation to pottery as well as poetry. This weather imagery, it is argued, can be understood as representative of a general aesthetic tendency of the symposium to modify the performative setting by overlaying onto it a series of more imaginative settings. While images of storms and shipwrecks in Alcaeus’s poetry have been much remarked upon ever since Heraclitus first pointed out their frequency in his study of allegory, references to good weather in Alcaeus have been scarcely discussed. This paper examines a selection of fragments (particularly frr. 352, 334, 367, 347) which bring fine weather into the symposium and by so doing in some sense stage the symposium in an outdoor setting. The argument begins by comparing this portrayal of outdoor symposia to a related iconographic strand on sympotic pottery. The sympotic pots depicting outdoor gatherings of drinkers function as imagistic foils for their actual context of use in a manner very similar to that of the poetry. Some scholars have recently argued (see especially Topper 2009 and 2012, Heinrich 2007) that these visual representations of symposia taking place in the open air carry connotations of primitiveness and idyllic simplicity. Related notions can be seen at play in some literary sources, e.g. Plato’s Republic and Lucian’s True Histories, but the most significant comparandum for our texts is Euripides’s Cyclops. As has been rightly pointed out (by Rossi in an important article of 1971) the final scene of this play includes a pastiche of poetic topoi, and especially of sympotic topoi. Our fragments of Alcaeus, then, can be better understood when placed in this broader context of ideas and associations of the notion of ‘outdoor symposium’. In particular, the fragments conjure up the agrarian world and rural life and set it against the backdrop of the hetareia’s sympotic gathering; fr. 347 especially, which is famous for its intertextuality with Hesiod’s Works and Days, draws on a folkloric tradition, whether mediated through didactic epic (if we accept deliberate allusion) or directly and independently. In Alcaeus (not too dissimilarly from Cyclops) the use of topoi related to outdoor symposia produces an ironic effect. Alcaeus’s warrior hetairoi would have taken aesthetic pleasure from the piquancy and play of inversion arising from the reference to outdoor symposia with all their connotations while at the same time reinforcing their communal sense of social superiority.

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Greek Lyric

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