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Sites of Memory and Ancient Reception of Poets: Archilochos on Paros.

Erika Taretto

My paper showcases some of the research carried out under the aegis of the major research project Living Poets: A New Approach to Ancient Poetry, which aims “to develop a new approach to classical poetry, based on how listeners and readers imagined the Greek and Roman poets.” Within that broad remit I focus on how Archilochos (and hence his poetry) was imagined when he became a Parian symbol.

I posit that the Archilocheion on Paros, a site celebrating the memory of the poet, aimed at shaping the reception of Archilochos’ work. In Paros, the admirers of Archilochos actively engaged anew with the interpretation of the poetry and its poet. This paper ultimately shows that sites of memory for poets had an impact on the reception of ancient poetry.

My line of analysis arises from two specific theoretical and methodological strands of research. Recent studies have already explored the biographies of the poets as a mode of reception, rather than advocating or refuting their historical reliability (cf. Graziosi 2002, Hanink 2008). This approach, in my paper, encounters the idea of lieu de memoire as advanced by Pierre Nora: a “site of memory,” he writes, is a place "where memory crystallizes and secretes itself" (Nora 1989: 7). I expand on these theories by arguing that biography (materialized in a site) can be used to shape the reception of poetry.

In the Hellenistic age, when poets of the past were often memorialized (cf. Bing 1993), a hero cult for Archilochos was celebrated on Paros. In the third century BC a certain Mnesiepes put up an inscription in the shrine of the Archilocheion to celebrate the poet (cf. Clay 2004). The Archilocheion soon became famous across the Mediterranean world (e.g. Poseidippus’ sphragis, 118 AB).

First, I show that praising Archilochos in front of a non-Parian audience was a complicated choice. Both the poet and his poetry had been harshly criticized in the earlier tradition for several reasons (e.g. Pind. Pyt. 2.52-6; Kritias fr. 44 DK). In particular, Aristotle (Rhet. 1398b10-12) still identified a paradox between the Parian honours for Archilochos and the poet’s blasphemy.

Secondly, I argue that Mnesiepes and the Parians, aware of the criticism against Archilochos, undertook a culturally refined operation in order to avoid the potential failure of Archilochos’ cult: they shaped literary history and genre definitions around Archilochos. More specifically:

  • 1) The inscription engages precisely with the criticism expressed by Aristotle, as Mnesiepes narrates the episode of Archilochos’ exchange with the Muses in Aristotelic terms (e.g. skoptein, gelotos). Thus the Parians provide a precise definition of iambos in order to justify Archilochos’ mocking of the Muses.
  • 2) At about the same age of the Mnesiepes inscription, the Marmor Parium is put up in the island. The Marmor was an inscription with a universal history and it surprisingly mentioned a very high number of poets. The Marmor was a complement to the Archilocheion and thus inserted Archilochos in a wider pan-Greek literary horizon. More precisely, the Marmor’s peculiar selection of poets includes many authors of dithyrambs: this is arguably to reinforce the idea that the offensive language of Archilochos was, in fact, functional to the cult of Dionysus which Archilochos, according to Mnesiepes, introduced at Paros.
  • 3) Mnesiepes finally subtly shapes the notion of readership of Archilochos. Mnesiepes suggests that readers in the past misunderstood Archilochos’ poetry. On the contrary, a new, wiser reading is made available by and in the Parian Archilocheion. Thus the inscription recognizes that the Hellenistic Parian (temporal and spatial) context matters when approaching a poet’s work and life.

In conclusion, I hope to demonstrate that a site of memory for an ancient poet, such as the Archilocheion, could have an important role in the reception of the poet’s work, in the formation of canons and poetic categories, and in the shaping of literary histories.

Session/Panel Title

Ancient Receptions of Classical Literature

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