Stesichorus | Wikipedia audio article


Stesichorus (; Greek: Στησίχορος,
Stēsikhoros; c. 630 – 555 BC) was a Greek lyric poet. He is best known for telling epic stories
in lyric metres but he is also famous for some ancient traditions about his life, such
as his opposition to the tyrant Phalaris, and the blindness he is said to have incurred
and cured by composing verses first insulting and then flattering to Helen of Troy. He was ranked among the nine lyric poets esteemed
by the scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria and yet his work attracted relatively little
interest among ancient commentators, so that remarkably few fragments of his poetry now
survive. As one scholar observed in 1967: “Time has
dealt more harshly with Stesichorus than with any other major lyric poet.” Recent discoveries, recorded on Egyptian papyrus
(notably and controversially, the Lille Stesichorus), have led to some improvements in our understanding
of his work, confirming his role as a link between Homer’s epic narrative and the lyric
narrative of poets like Pindar.The following description of the birthplace of the monster
Geryon, preserved as a quote by the geographer Strabo, is characteristic of the “descriptive
fulness” of his style: σχεδὸν ἀντιπέρας κλεινᾶς
ἘρυθείαςΤαρτησ- σοῦ ποταμοῦ παρὰ παγὰσ
ἀπείρονας ἀρ- γυρορίζους
ἐν κευθμῶνι πέτρας.A nineteenth century translation imaginatively fills in
the gaps while communicating something of the richness of the language: Where monster Geryon first beheld the light,
Famed Erytheia rises to the sight; Born near th’ unfathomed silver springs that
gleam ‘Mid caverned rocks, and feed Tartessus’ stream.Stesichorus
exercised an important influence on the representation of myth in 6th century art and on the development
of Athenian dramatic poetry.==Biography==
Stesichorus was born in Metauros (modern Gioia Tauro) in Calabria, Southern Italy c. 630
BC and died in Katane (modern Catania) in Sicily in 555 BC. Some say that he came from Himera in Sicily,
but that was due to him moving from Metauros to Himera later in life. When exiled from Pallantium in Arcadia he
came to Katane (Catania) and when he died there was buried in front of the gate which
is called Stesichorean after him. In date he was later than the lyric poet Alcman,
since he was born in the 37th Olympiad (632/28 BC). He died in the 56th Olympiad (556/2 BC). He had a brother Mamertinus who was an expert
in geometry and a second brother Helianax, a law-giver. He was a lyric poet. His poems are in the Doric dialect and in
26 books. They say that he was blinded for writing abuse
of Helen and recovered his sight after writing an encomium of Helen, the Palinode, as the
result of a dream. He was called Stesichorus because he was the
first to establish (stesai) a chorus of singers to the cithara; his name was originally Tisias.===Chronology===
The specific dates given by the Suda for Stesichorus have been dismissed by one modern scholar
as “specious precision” — its dates for the floruit of Alcman (the 27th Olympiad),
the life of Stesichorus (37th–56th Olympiads) and the birth of Simonides (the 56th Olympiad)
virtually lay these three poets end-to-end, a coincidence that seems to underscore a convenient
division between old and new styles of poetry. Nevertheless, the Suda’s dates “fit reasonably
well” with other indications of Stesichorus’s life-span — for example, they are consistent
with a claim elsewhere in Suda that the poet Sappho was his contemporary, along with Alcaeus
and Pittacus, and also with the claim, attested by other sources, that Phalaris was his contemporary. Aristotle quoted a speech the poet is supposed
to have made to the people of Himera warning them against the tyrannical ambitions of Phalaris. The Byzantine grammarian Tzetzes also listed
him as a contemporary of the tyrant and yet made him a contemporary of the philosopher
Pythagoras as well. According to Lucian, the poet lived to 85
years of age. Hieronymus declared that his poems became
sweeter and more swan-like as he approached death, and Cicero knew of a bronzed statue
representing him as a bent old man holding a book. Eusebius dated his floruit in Olympiad 42.2
(611/10 BC) and his death in Olympiad 55.1 (560/59 BC).===Family===
The Suda’s claim that Hesiod was the father of
Stesichorus can be dismissed as “fantasy” yet it is also mentioned by Tzetzes and the
Hesiodic scholiast Proclus (one of them however named the mother of Stesichorus via Hesiod
as Ctimene and the other as Clymene). According to another tradition known to Cicero,
Stesichorus was the grandson of Hesiod yet even this verges on anachronism since Hesiod
was composing verses around 700 BC. Stesichorus might be regarded as Hesiod’s
literary “heir” (his treatment of Helen in the Palinode, for example, may have owed much
to Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women) and maybe this was the source of confusion about a family
relationship. According to Stephanus of Byzantium and the
philosopher Plato the poet’s father was named Euphemus, but an inscription on a herm from
Tivoli listed him as Euclides. The poet’s mathematically inclined brother
was named Mamertinus by the Suda but a scholiast in a commentary on Euclid named him Mamercus.===Background===
Stesichorus’s lyrical treatment of epic themes was well-suited to a western Greek audience,
owing to the popularity of hero-cults in southern Italy and Magna Graeca, as for example the
cult of Philoctetes at Sybaris, Diomedes at Thurii and the Atreidae at Tarentum. It was also a sympathetic environment for
his most famous poem, The Palinode, composed in praise of Helen, an important cult figure
in the Doric diaspora. On the other hand, the western Greeks were
not very different from their eastern counterparts and his poetry cannot be regarded exclusively
as a product of the Greek West . His poetry reveals both Doric and Ionian influences and
this is consistent with the Suda’a claim that his birthplace was either Metauria or Himera,
both of which were founded by colonists of mixed Ionian/Doric descent. On the other hand, a Doric/Ionian flavour
was fashionable among later poets — it is found in the ‘choral’ lyrics of the Ionian
poets Simonides and Bacchylides — and it might have been fashionable even in Stesichorus’s
own day. His poetry included a description of the river
Himera as well as praise for the town named after it, and his poem Geryoneis included
a description of Pallantium in Arcadia. His possible exile from Arcadia is attributed
by one modern scholar to rivalry between Tegea and Sparta. Traditional accounts indicate that he was
politically active in Magna Graeca. Aristotle mentions two public speeches by
Stesichorus: one to the people of Himera, warning them against Phalaris, and another
to the people of Locri, warning them against presumption (possibly referring to their war
against Rhegium). Philodemus believed that the poet once stood
between two armies (which two, he doesn’t say) and reconciled them with a song — but
there is a similar story about Terpander. According to the 9th century scholar Photius,
the term eight all (used by gamblers at dice) derives from an expensive burial the poet
received outside Catana, including a monument with eight pillars, eight steps and eight
corners, but the 3rd century grammarian Julius Pollux attributed the same term to an ‘eight
all ways’ tomb given to the poet outside Himera.===Career===
Many modern scholars don’t accept the Suda’s claim that Stesichorus was named for his innovations
in choral poetry — there are good reasons to believe that his lyrical narratives were
composed for solo performance (see Works below). Moreover the name wasn’t unique — there
seems to have been more than one poet of this name (see Spurious works below). The Suda in yet another entry refers to the
fact, now verified by Papyrus fragments, that Stesichorus composed verses in units of three
stanzas (strophe, antistrophe and epode), a format later followed by poets such as Bacchylides
and Pindar. Suda claims this three-stanza format was popularly
referred to as the three of Stesichorus in a proverbial saying rebuking cultural buffoons
(“You don’t even know the three of Stesichorus!”). According to one modern scholar, however,
this saying could instead refer to the following three lines of his poem The Palinode, addressed
to Helen of Troy: There is no truth in that story,
You didn’t ride in the well-rowed galleys, You didn’t reach the walls of Troy.Helen of
Troy’s bad character was a common theme among poets such as Sappho and Alcaeus and, according
to various ancient accounts, Stesichorus viewed her in the same light until she magically
punished him with blindness for blaspheming her in one of his poems. According to a colourful account recorded
by Pausanias, she later sent an explanation to Stesichorus via a man from Croton, who
was on a pilgrimage to White Island in the Black Sea (near the mouth of the Blue Danube),
and it was in response to this that Stesichorus composed the Palinode, absolving her of all
blame for the Trojan War and thus restoring himself to full sight.==Works==
The ancients associated the lyrical qualities of Stesichorus with the voice of the nightingale,
as in this quote from the Palatine Anthology: “…at his birth, when he had just reached
the light of day, a nightingale, travelling through the air from somewhere or other, perched
unnoticed on his lips and struck up her clear song.” The account is repeated by Pliny the Elder
but it was the epic qualities of his work that most impressed ancient commentators,
though with some reservations on the part of Quintillian: “The greatness of Stesichorus’ genius is shown
among other things by his subject-matter: he sings of the most important wars and the
most famous commanders and sustains on his lyre the weight of epic poetry. In both their actions and their speeches he
gives due dignity to his characters, and if only he had shown restraint he could possibly
have been regarded as a close rival of Homer; but he is redundant and diffuse, a fault to
be sure but explained by the abundance of what he had to say.” Quintillian
In a similar vein, Dionysius of Halicarnassus commends Stesichorus for “…the magnificence
of the settings of his subject matter; in them he has preserved the traits and reputations
of his characters”, and Longinus puts him in select company with Herodotus, Archilochus
and Plato as the ‘most Homeric’ of authors.Modern scholars tend to accept the general thrust
of the ancient comments – even the ‘fault’ noted by Quintillian gets endorsement: ‘longwindedness’,
as one modern scholar calls it, citing, as proof of it, the interval of 400 lines separating
Geryon’s death from his eloquent anticipation of it. Similarly, “the repetitiveness and slackness
of the style” of the recently discovered Lille papyrus has even been interpreted by one modern
scholar as proof of Stesichorean authorship – though others originally used it as an
argument against. Possibly Stesichorus was even more Homeric
than ancient commentators realized – they had assumed that he composed verses for performance
by choirs (the triadic structure of the stanzas, comprising strophe, antistrophe and epode,
is consistent with choreographed movement) but a poem such as the Geryoneis included
some 1500 lines and it probably required about four hours to perform – longer than a chorus
might reasonably be expected to dance. Moreover, the versatility of lyric meter is
suited to solo performance with self-accompaniment on the lyre – which is how Homer himself
delivered poetry. Whether or not it was a choral technique,
the triadic structure of Stesichorean lyrics allowed for novel arrangements of dactylic
meter – the dominant meter in his poems and also the defining meter of Homeric epic
– thus allowing for Homeric phrasing to be adapted to new settings. However, Stesichorus did more than recast
the form of epic poetry – works such as the Palinode were also a recasting of epic
material: in that version of the Trojan War, the combatants fought over a phantom Helen
while the real Helen either stayed home or went to Egypt (see a summary below). The ‘Lyric Age’ of Greece was in part self-discovery
and self-expression – as in the works of Alcaeus and Sappho – but a concern for heroic
values and epic themes still endured: “Stesichorus’ citharodic narrative points
to the simultaneous coexistence of different literary genres and currents in an age of
great artistic energy and experimentation. It is one of the exciting qualities of early
Greek culture that forms continue to evolve, but the old traditions still remain strong
as points of stability and proud community, unifying but not suffocating.” – Charles Seagal.===An ‘Homeric’ simile===
The Homeric qualities of Stesichorus’ poetry are demonstrated in a fragment of his poem
Geryoneis describing the death of the monster Geryon. A scholiast writing in a margin on Hesiod’s
Theogony noted that Stesichorus gave the monster wings, six hands and six feet, whereas Hesiod
himself had only described it as ‘three-headed’. yet Stesichorus adapted Homeric motifs to
create a humanized portrait of the monster, whose death in battle mirrors the death of
Gorgythion in Homer’s Iliad, translated here by Richard Lattimore: He bent drooping his head to one side, as
a garden poppy bends beneath the weight of its yield and
the rains of springtime;” (Iliad 8.306-8)Homer here transforms Gorgythion’s death in battle
into a thing of beauty—the poppy has not wilted or died. Stesichorus adapted the simile to restore
Death’s ugliness while still retaining the poignancy of the moment:
Then Geryon rested his neck to one side As might a poppy when it mars
The tenderness of its body shedding Suddenly all of its petals… (Geryoneis)The mutual self-reflection of the
two passages is part of the novel aesthetic experience that Stesichorus here puts into
play. The enduring freshness of his art, in spite
of its epic traditions, is borne out by Ammianus Marcellinus in an anecdote about Socrates:
happening to overhear, on the eve of his own execution, the rendition of a song of Stesichorus,
the old philosopher asked to be taught it: “So that I may know something more when I
depart from life.” See The Queen’s Speech in the Lille fragment
for more on Stesichorus’s style.===The 26 books===
His works, according to the Suda, were collected in 26 books but each of these was probably
a long, narrative poem. The titles of more than half of them are recorded
by ancient sources: Helen: This might have been the poem in which
he portrayed Helen of Troy according to convention as a bad character. His interest in the Trojan epic cycle is evinced
in a number of works. Helen: Palinodes: An introduction to a poem
of Theocritus refers to “the first book of Stesichorus’s Helen”, indicating that there
were at least two books under this title. Similarly, a commentary recorded on a papyrus,
indicates there were two Palinodes, one censuring Homer, the other Hesiod for the false story
that Helen went to Troy. Dio Chrysostom summarises two accounts of
the Palinode, one in which Helen never sailed for Troy, and a second in which she ended
up in Egypt – only her image arrived at Troy. It is not known if either of the two Palinodes
was separate from the Helen book(s). Sack of Troy: Some scholars think the content
of the poem can be deduced from a relief carved onto a monument near Rome, but this is contentious
– see the section below Tabula Iliaca. Wooden Horse: The title was recorded in a
fragmentary form on a roll of papyrus: Στη…Ίππ.. ~ Ste(sichorus’s Wooden) Hor(se). Possibly it was just an alternative title
for Sack of Troy. Nostoi (The Returns): This dealt with the
return of the Greek warriors from Troy. Geryoneis: This relates the theft by Heracles
of Geryon’s cattle. Many recently discovered fragments allow us
a glimpse of the poet at work over the length of the entire poem. It includes:
romantic geography – descriptions of the Sun’s voyage in a golden cup under Ocean,
of Eurytion’s homeland, the ‘all-golden’ Hesperides, and of Pallanteum in Arcadia, which possibly
featured as the home of the Centaur, Pholus; poignant speeches based on Homeric models
– a proud speech by Geryon to Heracles that echoes Sarpedon’s speech to Glaucus, and an
exchange between Geryon and his mother Callirhoe that echoes exchanges between Achilles-Thetis
and Hector-Hecuba; heroic action, again with Homeric colouring
– a description of the dying Geryon that echoes the death of Gorgythion. Cerberus: The title is mentioned by Julius
Pollux only because it included the Greek word for a purse but clearly it relates to
Heracles’s descent into Hades to fetch Cerberus. Cycnus: A scholiast commenting on a poem by
Pindar summarises the story: Heracles’s final triumph over Cycnus after an initial defeat. Skylla: The title is mentioned by a scholiast
on Apollonius of Rhodes in a passing reference to Skylla’s parentage and possibly it involved
Heracles. Thebaid, Seven Against Thebes?: These two
titles are conjectured by one modern scholar as appropriate for the longest fragment attributed
to Stesichorus – discovered in 1974 among the wrappings of a mummy of the 2nd century
BC stored at the university of Lille, generally known as The Lille Stesichorus. It presents a speech by a Theban queen, possibly
Jocasta, and some scholars have denied attribution to Stesichorus on account of its “drab, repetitious
flaccidity”. But opinions are mixed and one scholar sees
in it “…Stesichorus’ full mastery of his technique, handling epic situations and characters
with the flexibility and poignancy of lyric.” Eriphyle: The title is mentioned by Sextus
Empiricus in relation to an imaginative account of Asclepius raising the dead at Thebes. Evidently it concerns Eriphyle’s role in the
Theban epic cycle but with an imaginative twist. Europa: The title is mentioned by a scholiast
on the Phoenissae of Euripides in relation to Stesichorus’s imaginative variation on
the traditional tale of Cadmus, the brother of Europa, sowing dragon’s teeth – Stesichorus
presented Athena in that role. Oresteia: It came in two parts. The title is mentioned by a scholiast on Peace,
a play by Aristophanes, attributing some of the lyrics to a borrowing from Stesichorus’s
poem. The ‘second’ Oresteia is mentioned in a scholiast’s
comment on Dionysius of Thrace, according to which Stesichorus attributed the discovery
of the Greek alphabet to Palamedes. Boar-hunters: Athenaeus mentions the title
when quoting a description of a boar nosing the earth and the poem evidently concerned
Meleager and the Calydonian Boar. Funeral Games of Pelias: The title is recorded
by Zenobius, Athenaeus and Etymologicum Magnum, the last two of which also include a handful
of quotes.===Spurious works===
Some poems were wrongly attributed to Stesichorus by ancient sources, including bucolic poems
and some love songs such as Calyce and Rhadine. It is possible that these are the works of
another Stesichorus belonging to the fourth century, mentioned in the Marmor Parium.==Tabula Iliaca==
Bovillae, about twelve miles outside Rome, was the original site of a monument dating
from the Augustan period and now located in the Capitoline Museum. The stone monument features scenes from the
fall of Troy, depicted in low relief, and an inscription: Ιλίου Πέρσις κατα
Στησίχορον (‘Sack of Troy according to Stesichorus’). Scholars are divided as to whether or not
it accurately depicts incidents described by Stesichorus in his poem Sack of Troy. There is, for example, a scene showing Aeneas
and his father Anchises departing ‘for Hesperia’ with ‘sacred objects’, which might have more
to do with the poetry of Virgil than with that of Stesichorus

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