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CJ-ONLINE  February 2008

CJ-ONLINE February 2008

Subject:

CJ Online 2008.02.02 IRWIN Solon and Early Greek Poetry

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Solon and Early Greek Poetry: The Politics of Exhortation. By ELIZABETH 
IRWIN. Cambridge Classical Studies. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge 
University Press, 2005. Pp. xiii + 350. Cloth, $90.00. ISBN 0–521–85178–5.

Order this text for $78.72 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
CAMWS and the Classical Journal: 

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect-home/classjourn-20

Print Version: CJ 103.3: 316–19 

Perhaps it is faint praise to say that Elizabeth Irwin’s Solon and Early 
Greek Poetry is the most exciting book on Solon’s political elegy ever 
written. Most of the scholarship devoted to Solon’s poetry has not been 
remarkably adventurous; certainly it has had nothing close to the white hot 
critical energy that crackles through Irwin’s work. [n. 1] As she notes, 
Solon scholars have traditionally put the lawgiver before the poet; the 
poetry has been treated as corollary to the political activity. But Irwin 
shows how organically the poetry and the politics are linked; indeed, the 
multiform configurations of this linkage are her true abiding theme. The 
dual career of Solon offers a rich case study of poetic politics and 
political poetics: he “represents the ideal figure through which to analyse 
the political implications of poetic expression in the archaic period” (p. 
87).

The semantic, grammatical and tonal ambiguities and discontinuities in the 
political elegies that scholars have traditionally tried to correct or 
explain away in an effort to preserve an unproblematic Solonian “viewpoint” 
are Irwin’s hermeneutic bread and butter. She capitalizes on these details 
to the fullest, freeing texts such as fragment 4 (the Eunomia) from the 
gray cocoons in which they have been trapped to reveal the dynamic poikilia 
of Solon’s poetic and political personae. Irwin’s Solon is a polytropic 
expert in semantic contestation, Lakoffian “framing,” conceptual 
detournement and recuperation, and subtly coded doubletalk; he is a bravura 
self-fashioner, a cunning political and poetic “master of the game.” What 
you see is what you do not get (e.g., “Solon exploits the language of 
tyranny while seeming explicitly to reject it” (p. 243)—such disingenuous 
disavowal being a characteristic Solonian maneuver). All this furious 
signifying and rhetorical sleight of hand will not be everyone’s cup of 
tea. This Solon may seem to some like too dreamy a poster boy for a certain 
second-generation New Historicist-inflected classical studies. I, however, 
would take him any day over the straight Solon, the measured statesman and 
earnestly versifying propagandist. Both are too good to be true, but there 
can be no doubt that Irwin’s trickster is more responsive to the 
sophisticated and contentious political and poetic cultures of Archaic 
Greece.

Above all, Irwin’s Solon is a self-serving manipulator of poetic 
traditions. Crucial to her arguments is an intelligent approach to 
intertextuality and allusion, between elegy and Homer, elegy and Hesiod, 
and sympotic and public elegy, and the way intertextual engagement allows 
poets and reperformers to fashion complex sociopolitical identities. Irwin 
is aware of the special methodological dangers in arguing for “strong” 
intertextuality in orally derived poetry, but succeeds in creating an 
“interpretive space between the traditional verdict of strict allusion and 
the countervailing view that reduces all repeated themes … to the category 
of moral and poetic clichés” (p. 115). She channels Stephen Hinds here, 
whose expansive vision of metapoetic interplay in Latin poetry she 
convincingly imports into the study of early Greek elegy, which badly needs 
its sophistication. Irwin largely stays away from arguments for strict 
textual reference, preferring to describe the more gestural yet ultimately 
richer modes of intertextual acknowledgement through which Solon engages 
the postures of rival poets, genres and traditions as shaped by their own 
frames of reception.

In Part One, “The Politics of Exhortation,” Irwin undertakes to read anew 
the martial exhortation elegy of Tyrtaeus and Callinus. The intertextual 
engagement between this elegy and martial epic allowed sympotic performers 
to indulge in “a type of heroic self-fashioning” (p. 62). Such narcissistic 
role-playing belies the pro patria mori sentiments of the poetry, which 
most scholars take as a genuine expression of an emergent polis ideology. 
Anything but, argues Irwin; polis ideology has a purely instrumental 
function, to reinforce aristocratic ideology. As the Iliadic laos was there 
to validate the kleos of the hero, so the dêmos in elegy confers status on 
its sympotic singers in the eyes of their fellow symposiasts.

Part Two, “Political Poetics: Solon’s Eunomia,” argues that Solon 
critically defined his public elegy against the sympotic elegiac tradition; 
the imagery of martial exhortation in the latter, which served the 
distinction of the few, is detourned in civic exhortation toward the 
collective concerns of the polis. At the same time, Solon’s Eunomia 
implicitly criticizes the martial epic (i.e. the Iliad) that supports the 
ideological orientations of a Tyrtaeus. Solon’s epic model is rather the 
Odyssey. Through thematic and structural allusions, he “recapitulates in 
elegy” the Odyssey’s own critique of the Iliad “through his use of martial 
epic and elegiac imagery as foil” (p. 121). Irwin further suggests that 
Solon modeled both his poetic and political stances on Odysseus, that 
“master at controlling his own reception” (p. 148). She explores in detail 
two key episodes in Solon’s biographical tradition—the “crazy like a fox” 
performance of the Salamis elegy and the accounts of travel—arguing that 
both reflect Solon’s success at defining the terms of his reception; they 
positively narrativize his self-representation in the poetry as a cunning 
Odysseus. (Irwin’s semiotic analysis of the felt hat supposedly worn by 
Solon when he sang the Salamis is a brilliant example of how to recoup 
“cultural truth” from apocryphal anecdotes.) The section concludes with a 
long but less interesting discussion of Solon’s (well-known) Hesiodic 
debts.

Part Three, “Poetry and Political Culture,” looks at the framing of 
political language in the elegies. The primary contention is that Solon’s 
political activity is haunted by the specter of tyranny, which he does not 
attempt to exorcize fully. Rather, he performs a coy dance with the 
language of tyranny, at once virtuously rejecting and subtly embracing 
it—while customizing its valency—in order to define a distinctly autocratic 
yet populist position within the polis. The win-win rhetoric is, “I’m not a 
tyrant; I don’t want to be, but I could be, and if I were….”
 
Irwin moves on to argue for continuities between the careers of Solon and 
Pisistratus. Both had complicated relationships to tyranny, were savvy 
political dramaturges, tried on Odyssean identities and used poetic 
performance for political gain. The last point is taken up in the 
Conclusion. Just as Solon democratized sympotic elegy (and, by extension, 
its Iliadic model), so Pisistratus democratized the Iliad with his 
institution of its Panathenaic performance, where it was tailored to fit 
demotic ideology, its celebration of heroic kleos shaded over into an 
object lesson in the wages of stasis and the destructive power of 
aristocratic entitlement.

My one substantial criticism of Irwin’s book is that she never delves into 
the performative realia of Solonian elegy. While making much of how the 
sympotic context of martial-exhortation elegy fundamentally affects its 
message, she does not dirty her hands with strong conjectures about the 
performance context of Solon’s elegy beyond the assumption that it was 
“public.” In her discussion of the anecdote about the performance of the 
Salamis elegy, she does focus attention on the detail that Solon sang the 
poem in the agora, but treats it more symbolically than historically (it 
narrativizes an ethical shift in the genre from private to public). I 
admire Irwin’s desire to transcend the deadlock of wie es eigentlich 
gewesen ist, but given her emphasis on performance context as determinant 
of meaning, historical specificity is important. Was elegiac performance in 
the agora more common an occurrence than we might think? What might have 
been other civic fora for it?

More importantly, can we be sure that a poem such as the Salamis was even 
delivered in public in Solon’s time? E.L. Bowie has argued that it was 
performed sympotically, for an audience of “upper-class neoi” (JHS 106 
(1986) 19). Some elegies (e.g. fr. 26W2) do seem to belong to the 
symposium, and several anecdotes implicate Solon there as well. In the most 
famous, Solon, over wine, exhorts his nephew to teach him a song of Sappho, 
so that “having learned it I may die” (Aelian ap. Stob. Flor. 3.29.58). 
Irwin does not tarry with the sympotic Solon. That is a pity, as he would 
enrich her picture of citizen Solon. I would be especially curious to know 
how she would treat this anecdote. After all, is there not some ambiguity 
in Solon’s death wish? Is he expressing genuine rapture or snidely 
criticizing sympotic lyric and the elitist ideology it celebrates? I am not 
sure which, but it is a credit to Irwin’s welcome reappraisal that the 
question had never occurred to me before.

TIMOTHY POWER
University of Washington, Seattle
   and the Center for Hellenic Studies

[n. 1] But see now the stimulating essays, including one by Irwin, in Part 
I of J. Blok and A. Lardinois, eds., Solon of Athens: New Historical and 
Philological Approaches (Leiden, 2006).


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