CJ Online Review: Johnson, Horace’s Iambic Criticism

posted with permission:

Horace’s Iambic Criticism: Casting Blame (Iambikê Poiêsis). By Timothy S. Johnson. Mnemosyne Supplement 334. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012. Pp. xii + 314. Hardcover, €119.00/$163.00. ISBN 978-90-04-21523-8.

Reviewed by Erika Zimmermann Damer, University of Richmond

Although Horace’s Epodes were frequently dismissed by earlier generations as an uneven poetic collection of obscenity and juvenalia, more recently critics have begun to seriously engage with his first lyric collection. Johnson’s important new study offers the first comprehensive English-language monograph on the Epodes since R. W. Carrubba’s study of poetic arrangement in 1969. As such, Johnson’s study makes a vital new companion to Watson’s (2003) Oxford commentary, and his serial reading of Epodes 1–17 provide students and researchers with a novel interpretation of Horace’s triumviral collection. Johnson’s engagement with Horace’s iambic practice springs from taking seriously Horace’s claim at Epistles 1.19.24–5 to follow the spirit and meter of Archilochus, but not the words hunting down Lykambes. Over the course of six chapters focused on Horace’s iambic criticism in the Epistles (Chapter 1), Epodes 1–7 (Chapter 2), Epodes 8–15 (Chapter 3), Epodes 16–17 (Chapter 4), Odes Book I (Chapter 5), and the Ars Poetica (Chapter 6), Johnson argues that Horace rejects a narrow Archilochean–Lykambid iambos that is aimed at domination, rage, and social disruption in Epodes 1–7 in favor of a poetics of polyeideia, or diversified unity, aimed at creating poetic and social harmony from disparate elements in Epodes 8–17, continued in Odes Book I and ultimately reflected in the theory of poetic unity in the Ars Poetica.

Horace’s iambic poetics are characterized by “transgression–responsion–fusion” (8–15), where his poems transgress assumed literary and social limits and can include abuse and obscenity. Transgression here makes opposing characters, perspectives, and emotions coexist within a single song or poetry book. By allowing divergences to be heard and brought into a relationship, iambic transgression can unify. The result is poetry characterized by the fusion of reciprocal song. Johnson thus argues for the positive social value of Horatian iambos. His poems, through their relationship to ritual, festive, and comic models of iambos exemplified in the stories of Iambe in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Archilochus’ mocking encounter with the Muses, employ transgression to achieve community rather than to shame a target. Across the span of his reading of the Epodes themselves, Johnson builds a persuasive case that iambos can create positive social and poetic outcomes.

Much as ritual creates community, Johnson argues, Horace’s iambics replace the singular domination of the Lykambid iambic tradition with a multivocal poetry that negotiates a sense of community. Yet the precise linkage to the ritual side is weak and it is unclear how Horace’s Epodes relate to the story of Iambe or to the story of Archilochus and his cow from the Parian Mnesiepes inscription. While Johnson cites (64–74) a connection between the ritual exchange of lampoons in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes and Horace’s resounding lyre in his own Hymn to Hermes (Odes 3.11.3–4) and points to Horace’s suitcase packed with Archilochus and the Greek comedians at Satires 2.3.11–12, this evidence does not make a substantive connection between Horace’s poetics and the Hymn to Demeter or to the post-Archaic testimonia of Archilochus’ life.

Chapter 3 (on Epodes 8–15) and Chapter 4 (on Epodes 16–17) offer Johnson’s most compelling new arguments. In Chapter 3, Johnson argues for the strength of the iambist in contrast with a dominant critical strand of reading Horace’s iambi as characterized by literary, physical, and political impotentia, seen in Fitzgerald, Oliensis, Barchiesi, and Harrison.[[1]] In the second half of his Epodes book, Horace defends the power of his poetry by “putting doubts about his iambic power into the mouths of others, patrons (epode 1, 14) and enraged lovers (epode 8, 12) and … defends himself … placing the charges that he is weak within the context of his most potent attacks” (41). For Johnson, Epodes 11–15 demonstrate how Horace incorporates alternate literary types and their multiple outlooks into his iambics. Epode 11, for example, becomes a fusion of two competing poetic modes, the “hardness” of invective iambos and the “softness” of erotic elegiac modes (139–42). Iambic becomes more than “hard” invective poetry, restricted to Archilochean abusive retaliation, but instead creates unity out of competing perspectives. This reading greatly expands the ideas proposed by Luck, Barchiesi, and Harrison in terms of Horace’s generic enrichment of iambos.[[2]] Where earlier criticism examined individual poems, Johnson sees such generic interactions as a broad trend giving shape to the second half of the Epode book, and leading to his newly synthetic view of Horatian iambos as polyphonic polyeideia.

In Chapter 4, the reading of Epode 16 is also compelling and original. In response to the dystopian vision of a Rome once again overwhelmed by civil war, the poem most overtly represents iambic as ritual and the poet becomes an Iambe figure, who offers a vision of hopefulness, and becomes “the one who knows how to confront Rome and lead her out of her warring mentality and pain” (162). The iambist does not doubt the power of his song, but instead offers it up in order to reconstruct Roman society.

Johnson’s readings speak to a sophisticated reader who has spent many years at work on Horatian criticism, and he contributes a valuable discussion of the Roman reception of Archilochus, not found in other recent critics of iambos who have largely concentrated upon the Greek evidence. Moreover, Johnson’s work shows exemplary control over the frequently obscure Epodes bibliography, and his serial approach to each of the Epodes allows for him to engage fully with his fellow critics. A final notable feature is Johnson’s use of the scholarly note. The generous notes often carry on an entire second line of argument in which Johnson engages prior Horatian critics from Heinze to Lowrie (2009). While it is challenging to restate Johnson’s complex arguments concisely, his many original readings of the Epodes warrant the serious attention of students and scholars alike interested in Horace’s poetry.


[[1]] W. Fitzgerald, “Power and Impotence in Horace’s Epodes,” Ramus 17 (1988) 176–91; E. Oliensis, “Canidia, Canicula, and the Decorum of Horace’s Epodes,” Arethusa 24 (1991) 107–38; A. Barchiesi, “Horace and Iambos: The Poet as Literary Historian,” in A. Cávarzere, A. Aloni, and A. Barchiesi (eds.), Iambic Ideas: Essays on a Poetic Tradition from Archaic Greece to the Late Roman Empire (Lanham, MD, 2001) 141–64; S. Harrison, “Some Generic Problems in Horace’s Epodes: Or, On (Not) Being Archilochus,” ibid. 165–86.

[[2]] G. Luck, “An Interpretation of Horace’s Eleventh Epode,” ICS 1 (1976) 122–6; A. Barchiesi, “Alcune difficoltà nella carriera di un poeta giambico: Giambo ed elegia nell’epodo XI,” in R. Cortès Tovar and J. C. Fernandez Corte (eds.) Bimilenario de Horacio (Salamanca, 1994); id., “Final Difficulties in an Iambic Poet’s Career: Epode 17,” in M. Lowrie, ed. Horace: Odes and Epodes (Oxford, 2009), 232–46; S. Harrison (above, n. 1).

Phrygian and Lydian Inscriptions from Northwest Turkey

Tip o’ the pileus to A.K. Eyma for passing along this item from Leiden University:

Linguists Alwin Kloekhorst and Alexander Lubotsky from Leiden University made a great discovery this summer. They deciphered a few dozen inscriptions on pot shards found in Daskyleion (North-West Turkey) as Phrygian and Lydian, and thus proved the presence of the Phrygians and Lydians in that area.


Kloekhorst and Lubotsky’s find can be termed sensational. Previous excavations had already led to the supposition that Greeks and Phrygians lived in and around Daskyleion between the 6th and 3rd century BC, but now there is also proof of the presence of the Lydians. The kingdom of the Phrygians in the mid-west of the Anatolian Plateau had a rich mythology in which kings such as Gordias (of the Gordian Knot) figured. The Lydians are known as a rich people that in all probability invented coins. This means it has been proven for the first time that Daskyleion was a multi-ethnic town in that period. This is important, because we do not yet know for sure which languages were spoken in North-West Turkey before the Greeks began to settle there in about 800 BC.

Grin and bear it

When the Turkish archaeologists Kaan Iren (Mugla University) and Handan Yildizhan (Nevsehir University) found pot shards with inscriptions that they could not decipher their search soon led them to Leiden. Kloekhorst, who received a VENI grant in 2008 for his research into Hittite (a language related to Lydian), is known to be expert in the field of Anatolian languages (a sub-group of the Indo-European language family). For his part, Lubotsky is an authority in the field of the Phrygian language. At the request of the Turkish archaeologists they spent a week in Daskyleion in July deciphering the inscriptions. Kloekhorst says, ‘It was 35 degrees and there was no air-conditioning. It was certainly a case of grin and bear it.’

To Zeus

The best discovery, says Kloekhorst, is a small shard with ‘To Zeus’ scraped on it. ‘Most of the shards are very small,’ he explains. ‘The words are often broken into pieces, and you do find a whole word it is usually a name. The advantage is that Phrygian and Lydian each had their own alphabets. That is often our only guide: it’s how we know that it can’t be a Greek text.’ The discovery amounts to some thirty inscriptions. That may not seem much but for two extinct languages it is huge. Kloekhorst says, ‘In total we only have 150 Lydian fragments. That means that any new piece of text is welcome. They are the small pieces of evidence that we work with.’

New shards
The excavation house in the village of Ergili, where Alwin Kloekhorst and Alexander Lubotsky stayed and worked for a week.

The excavation house in the village of Ergili, where Alwin Kloekhorst and Alexander Lubotsky stayed and worked for a week.

At the request of the Turkish archaeologists Kloekhorst and Lubotsky are producing a book on the joint discoveries. An article will also be published in which they will reveal the discoveries. But it probably does not end there. ‘Whilst we were in Turkey,’ says Kloekhorst, ‘every now and then a new shard with an inscription would be found. I can easily see us having to return next year.’

The original article includes photos of some of the inscriptions and relevant links to the people involved.

JOB: Latin Prose @ UNC Chapel Hill

Seen on the Classicists list

The Department of Classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the College of Arts and Sciences seeks an assistant professor in Latin prose for a tenure-track appointment. The area of specialization is open, but we especially welcome candidates working on prose of the Republican or Augustan periods, and those with an ability to teach Latin epigraphy at the graduate level. Teaching duties will include graduate courses in Latin prose, as well as undergraduate courses in Latin and classical civilization. Applicants should demonstrate the potential for excellence in research and a serious commitment to teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Preference will be given to those with Ph.D. in hand or those who can provide assurances of completing the degree by July 1, 2013. UNC Chapel Hill is an EOE employer. Women and minority scholars are encouraged to apply. Applicants apply online at http://unc.peopleadmin.com/postings/8381 and attach a letter of application, a curriculum vitae, and the names of four people who will write letters of recommendation. Applications must be received by November 1, 2012 for consideration. The four letters of recommendation should be sent directly to: William H. Race, Chair, Latin Prose Search Committee, Department of Classics, CB# 3145, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3145. E-mail inquiries should be addressed to: whrace AT email.unc.edu. The Department website is at www.classics.unc.edu.

On Bare Breasts in Ancient Greece

In the wake of the Kate Middleton thing, Slate magazine wonders when bare breastedness became taboo in ‘the west’ (for want of a better term) … here’s a bit:


A French judge ordered the magazine Closer to turn over topless photos of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, on Tuesday. Attorneys for the magazine argued unsuccessfully that the photographs were not an invasion of privacy because bare breasts are no longer taboo in Europe. When did bare breasts become taboo in Western civilization?

Probably around 3,000 years ago. Women are displayed with exposed breasts in Minoan artwork from 1500 B.C. Some historians believe that these ancient women went topless only during religious rituals—bare-breasted, buxom goddesses have been worshipped since the dawn of civilization—but some of the artworks depict everyday activities, suggesting that bare breasts may have been commonplace. Just across the Mediterranean, ancient Egyptian women sported elaborate dresses that could either cover the breasts or leave them exposed, depending on the whim of the designer. Over the next few centuries, however, breasts become strictly private parts. Ancient Athenian women were wearing flowing, multilayered robes that concealed the shape of the bosom by the middle of the first millennium B.C. Spartan attire was more risqué, exposing the female thigh, but breasts were always covered.

A series of sculptures suggests that even Greek goddesses became more bashful about their breasts during this period. Aphrodite of Cnidus, sculpted by Praxiteles of Athens in the fourth century B.C., depicts the nude goddess covering her genitals but leaving her bosom exposed. In copycat statues sculpted over the next several centuries, however, the goddess uses her other hand to cover a breast as well. The evolution of these Venus pudica sculptures strongly suggests that the ancients had come to feel that modesty required covering the breasts.

It’s not entirely clear why bare breasts became verboten in ancient Greece, but some historians think it had to do with the changing roles of women. As the centuries progressed, ancient Athens became an increasingly patriarchal society. Women retreated into the home, rarely emerging in public, and lived under the dominion of their fathers or husbands. Because the breast had long been a symbol of feminine fertility, it had to be kept from view. […]

This (Minoan bare-breastedness) is one of those things which, I think, has been blown out of proportion  over the past couple of generations especially for various reasons. Near as I can tell, the Minoans were an anomaly, fashion-wise,  if their art portrays daily reality and to read into the general milieu of the ‘west’ the fashion sense of the Minoans seems a bit extreme. One will note, e.g., that in Minoan frescoes, men are topless too. Now if we flash forward (pun intended) a few hundred years to mainland Greece, sure, we’ll see plenty of naked statuary of males and females, but that doesn’t mean folks — male or female — were wandering about the Agora that way and I highly doubt they did so on the mainland while the Minoans were frescoing about on Crete and environs …