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Maarit Kivilo: Early Greek Poets' Lives. The Shaping of the Tradition (= Mnemosyne. Supplements - History and Archeology of Classical Antiquity; Vol. 322), Leiden / Boston: Brill 2010, XII + 270 S., ISBN 978-90-04-18615-6, EUR 103,00
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Rezension von:
Johanna Hanink
Department of Classics, Brown University, Providence, RI
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Johanna Hanink: Rezension von: Maarit Kivilo: Early Greek Poets' Lives. The Shaping of the Tradition, Leiden / Boston: Brill 2010, in: sehepunkte 11 (2011), Nr. 9 [15.09.2011], URL:

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Maarit Kivilo: Early Greek Poets' Lives

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In Early Greek Poets' Lives Maarit Kivilo examines the evidence for the development of biographical traditions around the archaic poets. She seeks to clarify 1) who was responsible for the creation of those traditions, 2) what the first sources of the traditions were, 3) when the traditions coalesced, and 4) to what degree biographical formulae and topoi shaped them. The body of the book consists of six case studies in corpora of testimonia: for Hesiod, Stesichorus, Archilochus, Hipponax, Terpander, and Sappho. With the exception of Hesiod, no ancient sustained biographical narrative exists for any of these poets; Kivilo is thus left to work with hugely disparate and scattered bodies of evidence, harvested from texts that range over nearly two millennia.

The case studies in individual poets are each structured according to a relatively consistent template: Kivilo begins with an overview of the most prominent features in the poet's biographical tradition, then goes on to assess the evidence for his or her genealogy, city of origin, major life events, death, and dates. Each study ends with a discussion of 'formulaic themes' in the stories about the poet's life, followed by a Conclusion in which Kivilo re-emphasizes the antiquity of certain elements within the tradition.

In the concluding chapters, Kivilo draws together the threads from the case studies. She finds that the sources for an early Greek poet's life included local traditions, historical records (such as victory lists), the stories told by communities with a vested interest in the poet (such as the Pythagoreans, in the cases of Hesiod and Stesichorus) and, most often, the poet's own verses. In all cases, the existence of biographical testimonia from the sixth and fifth centuries suggests that oral traditions about the poets' lives had begun to circulate soon after their deaths, if not in their lifetimes. Precisely because the traditions were first transmitted orally, they were shaped largely by formulaic biographical motifs, such as a supernatural 'initiation' or a period of exile. Kivilo does however argue that, despite the clear presence (or prevalence) of fiction within the biographies, the testimonia likely contain some kernels of historical truth and should not be dismissed wholesale.

This book will serve as a handy reference for anyone seeking an overview of the ancient traditions about any one of the six poets who are treated in depth. For each of those poets, Kivilo has gathered nearly all of the biographical testimonia, and her theme-by-theme treatment is exhaustive and clearly presented. She is particularly strong when it comes to describing and disentangling problems of chronography. In appendices she also provides useful tables that outline the formulaic themes found in stories about other categories of illustrious ancient figures: seers, sages, tyrants, and heroes. These appendices are supplemented with a References section on the ancient sources that attest to the topoi.

The thematic organization does, however, have its limitations: some information fits under multiple headings, and Kivilo's discussions are often repetitive between sections about (e.g.) a poet's origins, death, and chronology. Under each thematic rubric Kivilo also must assesses evidence that ranges from the testimonia of other archaic poetry to remarks made by Tzetzes in the 12th Century AD. Because Kivilo's main thesis is that the biographical traditions about poets began to take shape at an early date, she might have enlisted the book's presentation in support of that argument by grouping evidence according to source type or time period (e.g. 'fifth-century testimonia') rather than subject matter. One consequence of the thematic grouping is that some sections tend to read almost like poetic vitae, where competing accounts are weighted equally, and verses by the poet himself are occasionally quoted as 'evidence' for biographical events.

One problem inherent to the study of the archaic poets is the fineness of the line between the ancient testimonia for their poetry and their lives. Within this book the distinction and its difficulties are sometimes overlooked, as is especially noticeable in the handling of first-person poetry. Although Kivilo acknowledges the difficulty of interpreting poetic first persons in her Introduction (3-4), that difficulty is largely skated over in the section "Sappho's reputation, circle, and rivals" (183-193). On the other hand, in the section on "Terpander's poetry and music" (esp. at 148-151), little distinction is made between ancient scholarship on Terpandrean verse and ancient ideas about Terpander's life. Some general account of how biographical information was used by ancient scholars as an exegetic tool may have helped to clarify the aims and conclusions here.

At certain points Kivilo overstates the innovation of her own conclusions with respect to previous scholarship. For example, the arguments made by Mary Lefkowitz in The Lives of the Greek Poets (Baltimore 1981) - which Kivilo largely positions herself against (4 and passim) - hardly preclude the early, oral circulation of stories about poets. One of Kivilo's main conclusions, namely that within the biographical traditions "the most frequently used source is the poet's own poetry" (202) lies at the heart of Lefkowitz's thesis. What is more, although Kivilo is firm that the biographical traditions for poets show essential differences from those of (other) local cult heroes, there is little engagement in her book with the two recent (but not too recent) monographs which most fully develop that idea, namely Diskin Clay's Archilochos Heros: The Cult of Poets in the Greek Polis (Cambridge, Mass. 2004) and Todd Compton's Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History (Cambridge, MA 2006). It is also surprising that Kivilo does not dig more deeply into the arguments and methodology developed by Barbara Graziosi in Inventing Homer (Cambridge 2002); regrettably, the importance of biography as a site of reception and a creative process in its own right is here generally overlooked.

The chapters devoted to case studies of single poets follow such a rigid template that there is indeed little room for synthetic and comparative analysis of the different traditions and their patterns of formation, or even for speculation as to the motivations for those traditions' creation. Perhaps because Kivilo is so committed to exhaustiveness in the presentation and dissection of the ancient sources, she also glosses over many of the more interesting modern debates about the material (this is especially the case in the chapter on Sappho). Statements of overarching arguments and conclusions accordingly tend to seem either predictable or slightly forced; the Conclusion proper runs to little more than a page and is curiously articulated as a series of six bullet points.

Nevertheless, and not least of all for the sheer range of evidence that it presents, this book will prove an invaluable and durable resource. Kivilo's panoramas of ancient source-material also serve as an important reminder of the variety of ancient interest in both the lives and works of the archaic poets.

Johanna Hanink