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The Pleasures of Lyric in Plutarch's Hierarchy of Taste

David F. Driscoll

University of California, Davis

Much recent work has considered how Greek speakers of the early Roman empire reinterpreted canonical classical texts to develop and assert their own identities (Whitmarsh 2001, Kim 2010), but relatively little attention has been paid to early non-hexametric poetry (though see Bowie 1997, 2008a, 2008b, 2009; Cannatà Fera 1992, 2004). In attempting to understand the place of early melic, iambic and elegiac poetry in this context, this paper shows how Plutarch represents intellectuals engaging with such poetry as an expression of aesthetic taste in his Table Talks. This paper falls into two parts: in the first part, I perform a quantitative analysis to show how the quotation of early non-hexametric poetry is particularly affiliated with the highest echelons of the symposium; in the second part, I focus on two particular discussions by these figures of music and poetry (QC 7.5, 9.15) to shed light on why ‘lyric’ is a preferred genre.

First, I present quantitative analysis to show in broad strokes how Plutarch shapes engagement with poetry to characterize the taste of his figures. There are 24 quotations of non-hexametric poetry from the 5th century and before in the Table Talks (3x Alcaeus, 1x Alcman, 1x Archilochus, 2x Ibycus, 13x Pindar, 1x Sappho, 2x Simonides, and 1x Xenophanes). In contrast to the quotation of Homer and Euripides, which are commonly quoted by all characters in the symposium but proportionally more by lower-ranking members (particularly grammarians), quotation of early ‘lyric’ is confined to members of certain highly-ranking forms of identity and to preferred members of Plutarch’s symposium. Specifically:

Plutarch’s family and close friends


  • Plutarch himself
  • consul: Sossius Senecio
  • his brother Lamprias
  • sophist: Callistratus
  • his close friend Soclarus
  • doctors: Trypho and Moschion
  • philosophers: Hagias and Ammonius (along with Ammonius’ son Thrasyllus)
  • musician: Erato

I then show how there is still room for individual taste within the broader social matrix: the musician Erato disdains poetry in general and epinician in particular but is the only figure to quote Sappho (3.1.646e-f), whereas Ammonius and his son are particularly fond of ‘lyric’ poetry of all sorts, especially otherwise rarely-cited authors like Ibycus (8.3.722d, 9.15.748c), Simonides (8.3.722c, 9.14.743f), and Xenophanes (9.14.746b).

            Second, I turn to two discussions of popular vs. elite taste in the Table Talks to single out the particular appeal of ‘lyric.’ Popular taste is defined in QC 7.5 in terms of audience effect: after a performance by a flute-player has provoked a diverse audience to such pleasure (7.5.704d: ὑφ᾽ ἡδονῆς) that “the majority leapt up and joined in the dancing, with movements disgraceful for a gentleman” (704d: ἀνεπήδων οἱ πολλοὶ καὶ συνεκινοῦντο κινήσεις ἀνελευθέρους), the sophist Callistratus criticizes such ‘beautiful’ (καλῶς) but base pleasures as being derived from the body (705a: τοῦ σώματος) and provoking an instinctive participation by the audience (705a: μιμητικῶς); in contrast, poetry like Euripides, Pindar, and Menander is “sweet reason” (706d: ποτίμῳ λόγῳ). The talk seems to establish the preference for lyric and kindred genres as based on a rejection of pleasures derived from the senses; so much fits cross-culturally with other hierarchies of taste, where elites likewise reject the art objects easiest to appreciate (Bourdieu 1984).

I close, though, by considering Ammonius’ comparison of dance with poetry at QC 9.15 (building on Schlapbach 2011). There the philosopher praises a hypocherma (probably Pindar: fr. 107a Snell) because it almost ‘invites’ (παρακαλεῖν) its audience’s hands and feet to dance along with it (9.15.478b-c; cf. 7.5.704f-705a); yet in today’s world such combinations of dance and poetry are no longer possible. For Ammonius, then, the hypocherma tantalizingly flirts with the possibility of the same kind of audience participation as the popular music of 7.5 but denies its audience that pleasure. Both ends of the hierarchy of taste are concerned with the pleasures of the body, but elites distinguish their taste by preferring poetry suggesting but denying those pleasures.

Session/Panel Title

Lyric from Greece to Rome

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