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“Always and Everywhere:” Early Greek Poetry, Local Identities, and the Universal Homer in Plutarch’s Symposia

David Driscoll

University of California, Davis

Much scholarly attention has been paid in recent years to local identity in the Imperial period (e.g. Jones 2004 and the papers in Whitmarsh 2010), including in Plutarch’s Quaestiones Convivales, where characters assert their civic and regional identities as part of a pattern where “shared Greek culture is formed from Panhellenic diversity” (König 2007: 63). Relatively little attention has been paid, however, to the dynamics surrounding early Greek poetry and local identity in these symposia (though see Bowie 2013). This paper argues that the QC’s symposiasts treat Homer differently from other poetry, namely as unlocated in space. The kind of Homeric universalism expressed in the symposium hence looks quite different from the ‘omnipresence’ often attributed to him in the imperial period: rather than a Homer with “myriad local identities... which satisfied local needs” (Hunter 2018: 2; cf. Kim 2010: 164-8), Plutarch’s symposiasts construct a universal Homer with no local or regional identities whatsoever.

First, I survey how Plutarch’s symposiasts link poet and place. These characters often identify early poets with place: e.g. the otherwise unknown (possibly invented) poet Aristomache is linked with her home of Erythrae and her victories in epic at the Isthmia (5.2.675b). Particularly important is the common association made between Boeotia and the poets Hesiod and Pindar: characters from Boeotia are more likely to quote these authors, and in one telling moment the character of Plutarch is expected as a Boeotian to use Hesiod as evidence for his argument (9.2.738a). By contrast, while Homer’s characters and narrative are at times linked with specific locations (e.g. the Hellespont: 4.4.668f, 8.8.730c), the symposiasts reject connecting Homer and individuals’ tastes in Homer to place. These characters hence find inappropriate to the symposium conversation about Homer’s birthplace and life: for example, the character of Plutarch “scorns” (5.2.675a: καταβαλὼν) the story of the contest of Homer and Hesiod at Chalcis. Furthermore, unlike the moralizing proverbs drawn from Greek history, the lessons drawn from Homer’s narrative are universal: while Boeotians learn from the Persian War, etiquette drawn from Achilles’ and Eumaeus’ hospitality must be at hand “always and everywhere” (7.4.703f: ἀεὶ... καὶ πανταχοῦ).

Second, I demonstrate in two close readings some of the interpretative payoffs, where characters engage in sympotic games preferring this ‘placeless’ approach to Homer to localizing interpretations of Homer. First, a playful exchange trades on the Homeric term Ἀχαϊκός (4.4.667e-f). The conversation is characterized by puns and poetic vocabulary touching on their names and local identities: Symmachus (literally “fighting along with”) is asked to “defend Poseidon” (οὐκ ἀμύνεις τῷ Ποσειδῶνι), and Polycrates misuses the poetic term ἀμφίαλος (5xOd., 1x Pind., 1x Soph.) to describe Symmachus’ peninsular hometown of Nicopolis. In this context Symmachus’ unique reference to the Gulf of Corinth as the “Achaean sea” (τῆς Ἀχαϊκῆς... θαλάττης) should be read not merely as a flattering reference to Polycrates’ home of Sicyon at the edge of the region of Achaea, but also against imperial debates on Homer’s usage of ἀχαϊκός (e.g. Str. 8.6.5; cf. QC 2.1.631b). Symmachus’ use deviates from interpretations of the Homeric ἀχαϊκός as referring to the whole of the Peloponnese and implicitly critiques scholarship into Homeric geography. Second, Plutarch’s brother Lamprias engages in etymological games undermining efforts to find Greek dialect in Homer (8.6.726d-727a). Parallels in verbal structure between Lamprias’ speech and the scholia suggest parody of Homeric glossing (e.g. 8.6.726f: τὸ κεράσαι ‘μισκῆρε’ καθ' Ὅμηρον~ Σ Il. 1.423 D: ὁ δὲ Ὠκεανὸς ποταμός ἐστι καθ’ Ὅμηρον). Lamprias implicitly argues that if Homer contains local forms of Greek (cf. Montanari 2012), one must also accept that Homer contains e.g. Latinmiscere under the form ἔμισγε. Lamprias begins his etymological games with a derivation ofcena from the Greek ‘community’ (κοινωνία), and it is tempting to connect this universal Homer with the universalizing ideology of the Plutarchan symposium: for the conversation to be “common” (1.1.614e: κοινὸν), so too must the most prestigious early Greek poet.

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Literary Banquets of the Imperial Era

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