J.C.B. PETROPOULOS, Eroticism in Ancient and Medieval Greek Poetry. London: Duckworth, 2003. Pp. xiii + 206, with 13 plates.† ISBN 0-7156-2985-9. STG £45.00 (Hb).
Review by John A. Madden
This is a valuable book. The title, however, does not do it full justice. Its thesis is that there is continuity (with permutations) of imagery and motif in erotic Greek popular song, stretching from the ancient world through the medieval to the modern period.† The author reveals a fine grasp of all three periods he is Associate Professor of Ancient Greek Literature at the Democritean University of Thrace, has read and consulted wisely and is, one presumes, Greek himself.
The main (narrative) section of the work consists of five chapters and a brief Epilogue. In the first chapter ?Problems, Sources and Strategies? the author discusses inter alia two difficulties facing him at the start: (i) How can one adequately treat folk song for the ancient, medieval and early modern periods, when it is insufficiently preserved in written form? (ii) How can one be sure of continuity of culture from the late 6th century A.D. onwards (the time the Slavs first invaded), when some scholars argue for a cultural break (and the subsequent slavonicization of† Byzantine culture) from that time. In his response to these problems and elsewhere in the chapter the author is forthright and sensible.
Chapters II-V comprise the core of the book. Each chapter treats an important thematic area of the Greek erotic folk-song tradition, which the author takes as a test case for his central thesis: ? Nuptial Praise? (ch.II), ?Nuptial Blame? (ch.III), ?Harvest Imagery and the Motif of the Apple? (ch.IV), ?The Wings of Desire: Popular Amatory Wishes? (ch.V). These chapters with their many pages of appended notes and accompanying Testimonia (a great number of the latter esoteric and some published for the first time) show the author at his best. Bringing to bear his wide research from all three epochs of Greek culture (and occasionally from other cultures also) he analyses and illuminates in thorough and convincing fashion significant sections of the Greek amatory corpus both folk and literary - on his way to demonstrating that continuity which was his original aim. Of special value is the author?s concern to locate songs in their ritualistic and social setting .
The book is carefully proofread. None of the small number of typing errors noted is important. One inconsistency however, needs correction: T(estimonium) G2 is dated to the 18th cent. twice (p. 144 n. 30; p. 146 n .46.17) but to the 19th cent. once (p. 108).
The work, however, is not free from criticism. For one thing the author quotes passim from the Greek of all periods, but always in transliteration. This spoils the effect. And, it is all the more surprising given the author?s own background. One would have hoped that, if all else failed, he would himself have had camera-ready copy prepared for his publisher using Greek lettering.
Furthermore, the book is fragmented and hardly user-friendly. It began as an Oxford D.Phil. thesis (supervised by Sir Kenneth Dover) and has preserved its thesis format since. To the main body of the work (the five chapters mentioned above and the Epilogue, pp. 1-88) are added Testimonia, Addenda, nine Appendices and Notes. The main text, the Testimonia, Addenda and Notes are of course all interconnected. Thus the reader has to keep all four sections ?going? simultaneously with the result that the continuity of the narrative is often broken - a problem made more acute by the fact that some sentences in the main text have two and occasionally even three footnotes attached to them.†† On returning to the main text the reader may find it necessary to reread the sentence from which he had earlier started out.
Another criticism concerns the Index. Given the disjointed nature of the book and the fact that it is as likely to be consulted for specific points of information as read through from cover to cover, a fuller Index would seem not only desirable but essential. This, however, has not been provided. Thus, interesting material (on e.g. the evolution of the optative, pp. 79-80; the Second Sophistic, p. 138, n. 13; Nicetas Eugenianos, pp. 78-9; Pliny, Ep.10.97, p. 27) will lie hidden except to the more determined searcher.
These to be sure are not major defects and they are far outweighed by the book?s merits.† Indeed, the work deserves a wide readership. Traditional Classicists and Byzantinists will find stimulating both the author?s insights into amatory poetry from their own epochs and also his ample collection of comparative material from periods outside their own. But the work?s usefulness does not stop there. All those concerned with the erotic tradition (not just Greek) be it in poetry, prose, folklore, ritual, sociology or anthropology will obtain enrichment for their researches here.