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A Trader in Song: Hesiod at the funeral games for Amphidamas

Alexander Dale

This paper examines the Nautilia from Hesiod’s Works and Days (lines 618–693), and specifically the digression on Hesiod’s victory at the funeral games for Amphidamas at 646–62, within the context of ‘biographical digressions’ in Hesiodic poetry and their poetic function.

            Hesiod’s ‘personality’ has been variously interpreted in modern scholarship. The once popular evolutionary model that charted a development of consciousness from the objectivity of Homer to the subjectivity of lyric posited Hesiod as the first ‘personality’ in western, if not world, literature (e.g. Snell 1953; Fränkel 1975:94–131). While this teleological approach has fallen out of favour in recent years, it remains the case that Hesiod seems to tell us much about himself, and his apparent autobiographical asides are often seen as clumsy and irrelevant, detracting from rather than adding to the poetic message of the passages in which they occur (thus e.g. West 1978:33). The Nautilia in particular has been seen as extraneous to a poem ostensibly dealing with agriculture, and thus out of place within the framework of the poem (Solmsen 1982:30), while Hesiod’s narration of his poetic victory at Chalcis has likewise been interpreted as anything from irrelevant self-promotion to a Hellenistic recusatio avant la lettre (e.g. Rosen 1990).

            In this paper it is demonstrated that not only is the Nautilia a natural and integral part of a poem that seeks to give a comprehensive but superficial description of agriculture in the broadest sense (following on Nelson 1996), but that the digression on Hesiod’s poetic victory has multiple poetic functions within the structure of the poem. Firstly, it can be interpreted as an instance of ‘gift praise’ with close cognates in both Pindar and Bacchylides (for the importance of the conventions of epinician for elucidating Hesiod’s biographical asides see Griffith 1983), as well as the Rigveda (cf. Patel 1929), suggesting an inherited device (for the Indo-European background cf. Benveniste 1969 1:65–121 and 163–71; Watkins 1995:68–84). Furthermore, the ‘trade in song’ that Hesiod enters into in his exchange with the sons of Amphidamas can be seen as a foil and positive exemplum to the mercantile trade being considered by Perses. The rhetoric surrounding trade and commerce in archaic literature is considered, and it is suggested that the language Hesiod uses to describe Perses’ prospective merchant sailing assimilates his venture to a paradigm of promiscuity, gluttony, and greed. Hesiod in turn establishes his trade in song as an instance of gift exchange within the poet-patron relationship of xenia, thus assimilating himself to the noble and heroic ideal as espoused in the archaic Greek world.

            It is hoped that by contextualising Hesiod’s biographical digressions, and particularly his description of his poetic victory at the games for Amphidamas, within the rhetoric of xenia and gift exchange, utilising a poetic device employed by epinician poetry and representing an inheritance from the Indo-European poetic tradition, the skill and craftsmanship of Hesiod the poet, rather than the rustic clumsiness of Hesiod the peasant, will become that much more manifest.

Session/Panel Title

Inscribing Song: Archaic and Classical Greek Poetry

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