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Timotheus’ Sphragis in the Persians and the Idea of Progress

Nicholas Boterf


The influence of the Sophists on New Music has recently become more recognized (e.g. LeVen 2014; Fearn forthcoming). This relationship not only sheds light on the aesthetics of New Music, but also its politics. There has been a tendency in the scholarship to downplay the inherent politics of New Music. For instance, Eric Csapo writes, “It would be difficult to argue that politics motivated New Music in any fundamental way…The poets and musicians were mainly interested in exploring the potentialities of musical form” (Csapo 2004: 229). He instead argues that critics and audiences, rather than the poets themselves, politicized New Music. This talk disputes this notion, and hopes to demonstrate how New Music could be fundamentally political. I will focus on the so-called sphragis portion of Timotheus’ Persians and analyze how Timotheus echoes and recalls sophistic theories of “progress.” The fifth-century marked a revolution in understanding human anthropology, as sophistic models of progress from a primitive state replaced visions of regression from a lost golden age. In this new conception of human history, mankind began in an animalistic “state of nature” only to reach its current civilized state by a series of discoveries (see Guthrie 1971, Dodds 1973, Nisbet 1979). Timotheus frames his musical history of citharody in terms that recall these theories, sketching out a path from nature to culture, from birth to nurturing.

The description of Orpheus at the beginning of Timotheus’ sphragis associates him with birth and nature. Orpheus’ musical achievement of inventing the lyre is strikingly described as him “begetting” the lyre itself (ἐτέκνωσεν) (222). The mention of Orpheus’ mother, the Muse Calliope, also emphasizes this focus on birth imagery. No other poet in this sphragis is identified by their parents, and the identification of a poet by a metronymic is very rare in archaic and classical literature. Orpheus, the archetypical poet, is described in deliberately exotic and antiquated terms.

The next poet mentioned in the sphragis, Terpander, is 

also described in terms of birth imagery (Λέσβος δ’ Αἰολία ν<ιν> Ἀν- / τίσσαι γείνατο κλεινόν) (227-8) but with an important difference: a place (Lesbos), not a person, is said to have given birth to him. In this regard, the peculiar collocation of “he yoked his Muse in ten harmonies” (δέκα / ζεῦξε μοῦσαν ἐν ᾠδαῖς) (225-6) is significant. In many sophistic discussions of progress, yoking livestock is a common, elementary step towards civilization (see e.g. Soph. Ant. 350-2; Moschion frag. 6 Nauck). Terpander therefore operates as a transitional figure in this sphragis, situated between nature and culture.

By contrast, Timotheus describes himself as fully a product of “culture.” While Terpander’s relation to Lesbos is described in terms of birth, Timotheus describes his own relation to Miletus in terms of “nurture” (Μίλητος δὲ πόλις νιν ἁ / θρέψασ’) (lns. 234-5). Furthermore, by emphasizing Terpander’s δέκα songs (225) in contrast to his own ῥυθμοῖς…ἑνδεκακρουμάτοις (230), Timotheus literally “one-ups” Terpander both in the number of strings and in the degree of poetic adornment. The number of strings added to the cithara parallels the transition from birth to nurture and from nature to culture. Fittingly, this catalogue ends with a description of the consummation of culture and urbanity itself, the polis. Most descriptions of progress in the fifth century end with the appearance of the polis (e.g. Moschion frag. 6 Nauck). The polis has such a monopoly on culture that its twelve walls (δυωδεκατειχέος) (235) are allowed to even outnumber Timotheus’ innovation of eleven strings.

Timotheus, therefore, uses fifth-century notions of progress to describe his musical predecessors and to carve out his own place in citharodic history. As this analysis suggests, this is not a politically neutral enterprise, as Timotheus aligns himself with theories that emphasize the prevalence of “nurture” (nomos) over nature (physis). His musical history, therefore, becomes not just an exercise in aesthetics, but a politically-charged interpretation of his musical heritage.

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