You are here

Revision and the Lyric Sphragis

Daniel Anderson

Cambridge University

In his vivid portrait of the author in the heat of revision, Euripides places emphasis on the repeated sealing and unsealing of the writing-tablet (IA 35-40 δέλτον ... σφραγίζεις λύεις τ' ὀπίσω), and the theme is recalled throughout the play's opening (IA 155-6, 325, 306). On one level, these words simply help paint a vignette, as do the other terms that refer specifically to a folding wax tablet (IA 35 ἀμπετάσας δέλτον, 37 γράμματα συγχεῖς, 39 πεύκην). More than this, however, the sealing and unsealing of the tablet express a teleology of revision; the sealed text is a symbol for the completed text, no longer in need of further change. Agamemnon's anxious near-incapacity to finish the letter is signalled by his repeated breaking of the seal.

One unexplored avenue in scholarship on ancient revision is its relation to the literary sphragis (σφραγίς). This is an especially useful avenue of investigation when looking to the sort of revision at work in Greek literary texts. On the one hand, the sphragis treats texts as distinct units, with the implication that they are single and stable entities. The symbolic assertion of authorial control over text suggests that editorial change would otherwise continue to be possible. On the other hand, the sphragis raises the possibility of non-authorial revision, when the conceit is used by one author to exert authorial possession over another's text (Anderson 2014).

The first extensive use of the sphragis is found in Archaic lyric, and so I propose to focus my investigation there. I begin by defining some formal features of the lyric sphragis, such as invocation and especially self-naming (e.g. h.Ap. 172-5, Demod. fr. 2, Sapph. 1.20, 94.5), certain key words (e.g. λόγος at Hes. WD 106, Xenoph. B 7, cf. Ar. P. 146-8, Com. adesp. 51), and deictic pronouns (e.g. Phoc. frr. 1-5). The image of the sphragis is of course specifically drawn from Theog. 19-30. Thought of in the context of revision, we find the sphragis used to supplement fictional documents (Archil. fr. 185, cf. West 1988), to admonish and emend (Sol. fr. 20, cf. Gurd 2012) and to revise one's own earlier work (Stesich. fr. 192).

To consider one example in more detail, note how Stesichorus draws on the format of the sphragis to mark two different versions of a text, fr. 192 οὐκ ἔστ' ἔτυμος λόγος οὗτος κτλ. While λόγος can stand for a story in a very general sense (e.g. Hdt. ii 120, also about Helen), the demonstrative suggests a specific reference in this passage to the text of the Helen. Moreover, the fragment addresses Helen, who is then at once the mythological figure and Stesochorus' homonymous work, the Helen. There are some playful implications for the nature of revision once we begin to think of Stesichorus' earlier work as an εἴδωλον (phantasm) with respect to the corrective supplement.

Where appropriate, I will make references to other periods and genres, especially the use of sphragis elements which indicate textual multiplicity in Old Comedy (Ar. Nu. 518ff. ταύτην ... τῶν ἐμῶν κωμῳδιῶν, Cratin. frr. 208-9, cf. Slater 2002: 69-71, 141), in order to flesh-out the picture offered by the Archaic poets.

Scholarly work on revision aims in part to overcome simplistic views about the fixity of text over against more fluid ideas about textuality (Gurd 2012: 6-7). However, in a world of text dominated by mass reproduction, we do well to remember how radically different a technology are most of the media for ancient writing, in that they allowed for change each time a fresh text was written-out. The importance of the sphragis is correspondingly great. Investigation into Archaic uses of the literary sphragis reveals a level of interaction with notions of fixity and textual plurality long before the encyclopaedic projects of the Hellenistic world. 

Session/Panel Title

The Genesis of the Ancient Text: New Approaches

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy