The Theognidea in Reperformance: A Rhetorical Rereading

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The Theognidea is the most significant work of archaic Greek elegy, but questions of its origins have long dominated its study. This dissertation reads the Theognidea as the product of widespread, rhetorically motivated sympotic performance and gives equal interpretive weight to each performance, whether it be the putative “original” or a reperformance. I find that many features that had been regarded as cruxes would have instead been assets for symposiasts hoping to repurpose the poetry. In the first chapter, I take up the problem of poem divisions. There is no authoritative scheme of poem divisions. Indeed, there are almost as many different schemes of poem division as there are versions of the texts, as I show in the results of a survey of the poem divisions made by 16 manuscripts, 21 editions, and two schemas proposed in a monograph. I argue that this variation is not a problem, but instead a reflection of the malleability of the text, a feature that would have been useful in sympotic reperformance. In the second chapter, I argue that the doublets are demonstrations of the adaptability of the poetry to new contexts, whether or not they are actual transcriptions of reperformance. I argue that the change in medium from dynamic, sympotic performance to fixed, page poetry has created interpretive problems which can be solved with the introduction of a born-digital edition of the collection. In the third chapter, I discuss the use of five value terms (agathos, esthlos, kalos, kakos, and deilos) which occur with notable frequency in the collection. I find that the status of “good” or “bad” described by these terms is a matter of discernment rather than the result of objectively identifiable indicators like birth or wealth; moreover, the status is regarded as impermanent. The frequent use and inconsistent application of these terms is a reflection of the fact that these terms were both valuable and contestable. In the fourth chapter I build upon the unsettled social picture of the third chapter with an examination of the use of friendship language in the Theognidea. I find that friendship is predominantly described on a one-on-one level and characterized by a lack of trust. If organized friend groups (hetaireiai) did exist, they do not seem to have held much sway over the interpersonal relationships of the symposiasts who performed this poetry. The final two chapters are concerned with how this new reading ought to affect our understanding of author and audience in the poetry. In the fifth chapter, I examine passages in which the speaker of the poetry makes claims to authorship. I find that these claims are consistent with the immediate rhetorical needs of the symposion and do not preclude reuse. I argue that Theognis, as identified in previous readings, is best understood as an implied author. I close with an examination of how the implied authors of the collection has been understood. In the sixth chapter, I describe the differences between the ancient and modern audiences of the poetry. I survey the extensive use of address in the collection to show that the audience is quite literally an element of the poetry, and I discuss how these vocatives could be used in reperformance. I conclude with a rumination on the role that modern readers play as audience members. I find that it is ultimately impossible for readers now to fully inhabit the role of audience envisioned when it was performed in the symposion.





Karsten, Alexander (2023). The Theognidea in Reperformance: A Rhetorical Rereading. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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