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Alexandra Pappas


The Aesthetics
of Ancient Greek Writing

When considering writing in ancient Greece, scholars from a va-

riety of disciplines will recall Platos famous discomfort with the
medium: it dulls a sharp memory; it easily deceives its audience, be-
ing the appearance of wisdom rather than true wisdom; and it is in-
discriminately mobile, available even to those who cannot understand
it.1 Famed thinkers since the fourth century b.c.e. have queried
Platos diatribe against the written text but not always with consen-
sus or satisfactory conclusion. I find it more useful, though, to widen
the lens to examine the interdisciplinary relationship between ancient
Greek words and images, which scholars from the traditionally in-
dependent disciplines of classical philology, epigraphy, art history, and
archaeology have been slow to do.2 Thus, we will not only better un-
derstand Plato but also the many who have responded both to the
philosopher and to the ancient Greek tradition in general, including
some of the authors and artists under consideration in this volume.
Rather than probe Platos notions in particular, then, this essay seeks
to situate his criticisms within their larger cultural contextby pos-
ing new questions about how the Greeks used their alphabet when it
first emerged in the eighth century b.c.e., and how those uses evolved
over time until around the first century b.c.e., when Rome and its
Latin language came to dominate the Mediterranean. As such, this
study engages a wide range of evidence and will include the visible
writings on archaic pots and statues (eighth to early fifth centuries
b.c.e.), the classical Athenian stage (fifth century b.c.e.), and, of
course, the page (third to first centuries b.c.e.). The representative
sample of material and literary evidence presented here draws on a
range of my interdisciplinary research and makes clear that, from their
genesis, the Greek visual and literary arts were very much in active di-
alogue and interacted in a variety of fascinating ways to create mean-
ing, sometimes in collaboration and at other times in competitive
terms but consistently with reference to one another.3
With ancient Greece we are fortunate to be able to begin at the
beginningthat is, with the invention of the Greek alphabet.
Although specialists continue to debate the specifics of the alphabets

e Aesthetics of Ancient Greek Writing 37

emergence, I accept the majority view that it was adapted from the
3.1ab. Phoenician script sometime in the early eighth century b.c.e.4 This
(a) Dipylon Oinochoe and (b) detail, alphabet is notable as the first to represent visually for the reader the
circa. 740 B.C.E. Athens National Mu-
full sounds of words, enabling a fairly precise reproduction of the lan-
seum, 192. Photograph reprinted by
courtesy of the Athens National Mu-
guages spoken sounds when reading its letters. Rather than remind
seum. Detail photograph in figure the reader of a word or otherwise symbolize a word already known,
3.1b by author. which some writing systems do, in this strict definition of an alpha-
bet, as Barry Powell has explained, the Greek alphabet attempts to
translate the aural, invisible elements of human speech into graphic,
visible signs.5 With this invention, some questions naturally follow:
what was the impetus for inventing this writing system, how was it
used in its early incarnations, and what role does its graphic visibil-
ity play early on and throughout its development? The material
record provides some early answers.
Emerging in the eighth century, this new writing technology cor-
responds chronologically with Homers composition of the Iliad and
Odyssey epics. Remarkably and somewhat counterintuitively, the early
practitioners of the alphabet employed it primarily to record poetry
some in the same dactylic hexameter as the Iliad and Odysseyan early
example of which is preserved on a Late Geometric wine jug con-
ventionally called the Dipylon Oinochoe (figure 3.1a). The scratched
hexameter graffiti on its surface circumscribes its neck, proclaiming,
He, who now, of all the dancers, sports most friskily, and probably
designates the vase itself as a prize for the victor in an athletic contest
(figure 3.1b). A few straggling letters trail after the hexametric dedi-
cationkappa, (mu), mu,(nu), nu, which correspond to our alpha-
betic series k, m, and nwith rather awkward, notably larger
handwriting that turns upward toward the rim, suggesting that these
letters were scratched by a different person.6 This is likely a bit of an
abecedariumthat is, a chunk of the alphabet written in serial order,

38 Alexandra Pappas
the way we learn to write and sing our abcs today. Thus, it appears
that, after seeing someone inscribe the verse dedication on the
oinochoe, a second person tried his hand at learning a few letters of
the novel Greek alphabet. Instead of alpha, beta, however, this student
has begun with kappa, omitted lambda, and gone on to mu and nu.
This is remarkable evidence for the process of learning how to write
at virtually the same moment that the Greek alphabet was invented.
What is even more remarkable, particularly in light of the trends in
other early writing systems, is the close association of the earliest uses
of this new technology with the poetic arts and, as I will emphasize,
the visual arts. Unlike the invention of the Mesopotamian cuneiform
or Mycenaean linear B writing systems, for example, the Greek al-
phabet does not immediately serve the needs of economy, trade, or
law.7 Recalling the definition of the Greek alphabet already cited
that it attempts to translate the aural, invisible elements of human
speech into graphic, visible signswe might say more specifically
that the early Greek alphabet quite often translates the invisible ele-
ments of poetic speech into graphic, visible signs and, as we shall in-
vestigate, that those signs, in turn, exhibit a kind of visual poetics.
Notably, the inscription on the oinochoe, incised after firing,
was carefully placed so as not to violate the preexisting concentric
bands of black slip and saw-toothed decoration on the vase. The
first inscriber used the undecorated, solid-black shoulder zone as a
ground line for the spidery writing, although the less-proficient
second writer was not able to write so neatly. Nonetheless, the graf-
fitos placement respects the rest of the decorative motif and neatly
integrates with the vases overall aesthetic plan. Indeed, it may itself
have looked like an innovative decoration to its viewers, many of
whom, no doubt, could not have read it.8 I suggest, then, that we
see the writing on the Dipylon Oinochoe as a prototype for writ-
ings ability to contribute to an objects decorative schema, or for
writings communicative aesthetics. The following four objects un-
der consideration more fully exhibit these communicative aesthet-
ics and comprise a representative sample that illustrates a pervasive
trend spanning the late eighth to early fifth centuries b.c.e.9
To illustrate the communicative aesthetics of Greek writing in an-
other medium, we shift from Athens to Boeotian Thebes, from wine
jug to figurine, from athletic to religious context with an inscribed
bronze statuette manufactured about forty years after the oinochoe,
the so-called Mantiklos Apollo (figure 3.2). Dedicated to the archer
god by one Mantiklos, this diminutive warrior with triangular head,
torso, and lower extremities features a formulaic hexameter inscrip-
tion in two lines of continuous, vertically oriented boustrophedon script
weaving back and forth (as the ox ploughs) on his thighs.
Reading left to right and beginning with the outer line, the first
hexameter speaks forth in the first person, personifying the figurine

e Aesthetics of Ancient Greek Writing 39

Mantiklos Apollo, Greek, late Geomet-
ric or early Orientalizing Period, circa
700675 B.C.E. Boeotia, Thebes. Bronze,
20.3 cm. (8 in.). Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, 03.997. Francis Bartlett dona-
tion of 1900. Photograph 2010 Mu-
seum of Fine Arts, Boston.

and naming its dedicator, Mantiklos, as well as the dedicatee, the sil-
ver-bowed far-darterthat is, Apollo. The second hexameter, read-
ing right to left, or retrograde, snakes back on itself, looping inside
the first inscribed line, and names the cost of commissioning the stat-
uette, concluding with a direct address to Apollo: Mantiklos dedi-
cated me to the far-darter, him of the silver bow, as a tenth part; / so
do you, O Phoibos, grant a pleasing gift to me in return.
The writing here complements the other physical details of the
figure, which are also marked out by incision. The pectoral and ab-
dominal musculature, although relatively crude, are defined by in-
cised lines, as are details of the head and hair. Although most early
Greek inscriptions run horizontally, this one reads vertically, a fact
partly explained by the availability of space: the thighs of the war-

40 Alexandra Pappas
Attic lekanis lid, circa 63020 B.C.E.
Athens National Museum, 852. Pho-
tograph by author.

rior are large enough to accommodate the dedicatory hexameters.

The chest, however, is just as viable a space, if the only matter un-
der consideration were space for the letters. I want to suggest, then,
that the inscriber intentionally placed the inscription on the legs as
a way of paralleling, mirroring, and balancing the long, braided
locks of hair that frame the face. Indeed, there seems already to be
a correspondence between these two parts of the statuette because
the size and shape of its thighs appear identical to that of its head
and hair; other visual equivalences accord with this symmetry: the
outer strand of writing mimics the outer lock of hair just as the in-
ner hexameter reflects the smaller braids closest to the warriors
face. The double locks of hair and the double strands of writing vi-
sually echo one another, creating symmetry in a piece which other-
wise may have appeared to be top-heavy.10
The painted inscription on the lid of a late-seventh century leka-
nis, a shallow covered casserole dish, shows a similar regard for the vi-
sual effect of early Greek writing (figure 3.3). As Henry Immerwahr
has documented, the lid features a curious mixture of letter shapes

e Aesthetics of Ancient Greek Writing 41

Corinthian kotyle, rotations (a), (b),
and (c), circa 59570 B.C.E. Muse du
Louvre, Paris, CA 3004. Photograph
from different Greek dialects.11 I propose that the painter intended
reprinted by courtesy of Runion des this odd, perhaps confusing mixture of alphabetic forms, with their
Muses Nationaux/Art Resource, New striking visual pun, to result in a meaningful aesthetic effect for the
York. viewer.
The round interior of the lid contains a circular inscription in ap-
plied black slip. Beginning at the bottom, it reads, kyklos Glmyd
(I am the circle [that is, lid] of Glemydas), making this an owners sig-
nature that plays with the visual context in which the signature lies.12
Because the writing is structured around a small painted circle in the
center of the lid and is framed on its outer edge by another, larger cir-
cle, the cyclical pattern of the whole piece reverberates in the content
of the inscription; the word meaning circle is simultaneously contained
within and helping to create its own circle. As if to reinforce the point,
the inscription both begins and concludes with letters made up of small
circles, the koppa and omega, respectively.13 So the circular inscription
is bracketed by circular letter shapes, just as the inscription as a whole
is framed both internally and externally by painted circles. There is a
symbiotic exchange between the semantic meaning of the words and
their visual effect, the one reinforcing and evoking the other.
In contrast to the writing on this lekanis lid or the Dipylon
Oinochoe, which figures among abstract decoration, the dipinti, or
painted inscriptions on a deep, two-handled cup called a kotyle (fig-
ures 3.4ac), lie in a figural context. In yet new and innovative

42 Alexandra Pappas
ways, this enables and invites the cups painter to integrate writing
within its scenes so that the shape and placement of the written
words communicate with the viewer on multiple levels simultane-
ously; in the context of figural narrative, the visual poetics of the
written word realize their potential even more fully.
Between the cups handles on one side, the hero Heracles and his
ally Iolaos battle the many-headed monster Hydra. On the other side,
men, whose padded rear ends suggest their identity as comedic actors,
dance. Although the scenes are superficially different in subject mat-
ter, I maintain that the cups inscriptions unify them visually, if not
thematically. On the side featuring Heracles, a pair of horses, labeled
as belonging to the hero, stands yoked to a chariot behind which
Athena, also labeled, stands holding a wine jug, or oinochoe (figure
3.4a). Next, a figure labeled Herakles fights the Hydra with help
from his companion, labeled Wiolas (that is, Iolas), who attacks the
monster from behind (figure 3.4b). This scene is a lively and dynamic
heroic struggle and the names contribute to this sense. The horses la-
bel, of Herakles, syntactically declares that they belong to Heracles
but also suggests the motion of the animals advancing legs as the la-
bel curves underneath their bellies. So, too, Heracles name vertically
braces his rear leg as he rushes toward the Hydra, and Iolaos fills in
the space between his legs, solidifying his stance as he readies for an
attack from one of the monsters heads.

e Aesthetics of Ancient Greek Writing 43

In the same way, the names of the dancers on the other side of
the cup highlight and reinforce their actionsin this case, rhyth-
mic revelry (figure 3.4b). Continuing from left to right, we first see
the only one of the six padded figures who is not dancing. He
stands under one of the kotyle handles and has his hand in a dinos,
a large, deep cauldron for mixing wine. His name label, Lordios,
reads from left to right and derives from a verb, which can mean
to toss ones head back. Thus, his name suggests that he dips his
cup into the dinos to fill it with wine and will throw his head back
as he revels in its contents. His name curves from the level of his
padded rear end down toward the foot of the dancer next to him,
visually joining him in the action despite the fact that he faces the
opposite direction and does not dance.
The next two dancers, Whadesios and Paichnios, face one an-
other and form a lively pair, each lifting a foot and swinging his arms
(figures 3.4b and 3.4c). The meaning of Whadesios name indicates
that he, or perhaps his dancing, gives pleasure, while Paichnios name,
from an adjective meaning playful, also reinforces the action of that
dancer. What is critical here, though, is that the placement of these
names is as meaningful as their content. The raised foot of Whade-
sios is supported by his name, whose retrograde arc recalls the pass-
ing swing of his foot. This carefully shaped label also buoys the raised
knee of his partner Paichnios, reminding the audience that these two
interact in the course of their dance. Paichnios name, also retrograde,
frames the pair, curving down toward the ground as if pushed into its
shape by the momentum of the dancers raised foot. Thus, these curv-
ing names suggest the motion acted out by the figures they identify,
communicating the idea of dancing on multiple levels simultaneously.
Although the next figure is dancing, both of his feet are on the
ground, which may account for the lack of a label; there is no need
to accentuate the movement of his feet (figure 3.4c). He faces another
dancer, named Komios, whose movements embody the very mean-
ing of his name. Derived from an at times wild and drunken proces-
sion called a kmos, this name is appropriate for someone engaged in
a scene of merry reveling with dancing and wine.
Thus, the names on this kotyle function on several levels. On the
one hand, we read them and they identify figures engaged in a spe-
cific narrative focused on Heracles, his horses, or Iolaos. In the case
of the dancers, whose names are generic, they describe their behav-
ior. The appearance of the names, thoughtheir shape and place-
menthighlights that behavior, outlining dancing legs and feet and
articulating the interactions of hero and monster or one dancer with
another. Indeed, as Matthias Steinhart has recently proposed, we should
view these two scenesone specifically heroic and the other gener-
ally merryas unified: perhaps these comic padded figures dance a

44 Alexandra Pappas
parody of the Heracles myth.14 Having reached the same conclusion
independently, I endorse his reading and add to it the evidence of the
names, which both unite the two scenes and unify the iconography
on the cup as a whole. The design of the label of Heracles horses links
the hero with the dancers, the interwoven heads and necks of the Hy-
dra resonate in the general weave of the dancers names, and the in-
tertwined lotus and palmette motif in the decorative band below reflects
the overlap of dancers legs and names, resulting in an aesthetic unity
on the surface of the cup. To neglect the visual impact of these words
is to miss a great deal of the message they communicate. As many of
the essays in this volume explore, in this alphabetic context, too, the
forms of the inscriptions, rather than accidental and arbitrary, are es-
sential to the communicative act.
To illustrate that the semantic meaning of these words is not their
only important feature, I conclude this portion of the survey with a
roughly contemporary vase, a type often used for cooling wine called
a psykter (figure 3.5a).
In a comic scene similar to that on the kotyle, males with exposed
genitals and nude females all dance. Thus, as on the kotyle, the writ-
ing among these dancers also emphasizes the action of the figures,
highlighting their physical movements and articulating the interac-
tions among them (figure 3.5b). But when we turn to the meaning
of the names, we find that they do not communicate semantically
with the audience at all, for these are nonsense inscriptions, painted
to resemble words but whose letters do not combine to form any
known words when read.15 While legible names dramatize the lively,
rhythmic movement of the dancers on the kotyle, here we see how il-
legible, meaningless names perform an analogous function, their vi-
sual presence alone contributing to the aesthetic organization of the
scene and communicating with the viewer.
As we move away from this survey of early Greek inscriptions
in their visual contexts, it is important to keep in mind that the an-
cient Greek verb graphein meant both to write and to draw or
paint. While this double meaning may initially strike us as odd,
we note a similar range of meaning in our English cognates. For ex-
ample, graphite is the lead used in pencils for writing, while the ad-
jective graphic often implies the visuality of an image, as in the
discipline of graphic arts or when referring to violence in a movie
that may be visually intense. That one verb could govern two dis-
tinct techniques betrays their overlap in the minds of their Greek
practitioners. Indeed, the multivalent semantic range of graphein
finds its context in the general definition of writing I apply to this
study, first put forth by Emmett Bennett, Jr., in 1963: any system
of human intercommunication by means of a set of visible marks
with a conventional reference.16 Improving on earlier definitions

e Aesthetics of Ancient Greek Writing 45

(a) Corinthian psykter and (b) detail,
circa 57050. Brussels, Bruxelles that privileged alphabetic writing by hinging the relationship of all
Muses Royaux dArt et dHistoire
R 248. Photograph KIK-IRPA,
writing to speech, Bennett then divided writing into two equally
Brussels. expressive and valuable categories, lexigraphy and sematography,
with only the former bearing an intimate relationship to speech.17
Thus, visual marks that make a record of speech are lexigraphic,
and sematographic writing communicates without a direct correla-
tion to human speech, such as algebraic equations, bars of musical
notes, fiscal symbols such as $ or , or a on a door identifying a
womens restroom. Within this schema, incising letters to make a
legible, utterable word is every bit as much an act of writing as are
painting blobs that resemble a wordthe former lexigraphic and
the latter sematographic. These archaic Greek inscriptions, then,
convey information to their audience semantically as well as visu-
ally, revealing the symbiotic relationship between these two inextri-
cable registers of lexigraphy and sematography in early Greek
With the visual importance of early Greek epigraphy as a foun-
dation, I now want to trace the continuation of this theme in texts
from the later fifth century. Despite differences in time and setting,
the treatment of Greek letters and words as a locus of visual specta-

46 Alexandra Pappas
cle persists but now as something to be viewed in the minds eye or
even on the stage itself. Here, too, the Greek distinction between
word and image is blurred; and once again, letters and words are
themselves the locus of viewing.
A tantalizing fragment from Euripides play Theseus, from the
latter half of the fifth century, illustrates precisely what variety of
political, social, and cultural identities could be at stake when view-
ing the word in classical Greece. In this tragedy, an illiterate herds-
man tries to communicate to another character the name of the
Athenian hero Theseus, which he has seen inscribed somewhere.
Because he is unable to read, the herdsman resorts to describing the
uppercase letters that spell Theseus name as basic shapes:

I am not experienced in letters,

but I will tell their shapes and clear signs.
Theres a circle, as if measured out by compasses;
this has a clear mark in the middle.
The second [letter] has rst two lines,
and another one keeps these apart in the middle.
The third is like a lock of hair wound around,
and the fourth, in turn, has one straight line
and three slanting lines are propped on it.
The fth is not easy to describe;
for there are two lines set apart,
but they come together into one support.
The last resembles the third.18

This characters description required the Athenian audience, as

it does us, to picture these letters in terms of the individual strokes
that make up their shapes as a whole. So the circle with a mark in
the middle is the theta, the second letter with two lines separated in

sigma, and so on. The sequence described looks like -----

the middle by another is an eta, a wavy or curly lock of hair is a

and spells the heros name. For the audience to understand the
word the herdsman attempts to communicate, we must visualize
the Greek letters in our minds eye; and in this dramatic context, as
in the material world of vases, the appearance of letters and words
is critically important. Seeing these letters together as a word, after
all, names the title character of the play and must have been a key
point of recognition in the tragedy.
Within a couple of decades of Euripides production, in the
later fifth century, a lesser-known tragedian, Agathon, imitated the
Euripidean passage in half as many lines in his play Telephus.19
Here, too, an illiterate character works to communicate the word
Theseus to another character:

e Aesthetics of Ancient Greek Writing 47

The rst part of the writing was a circle with a belly button in
the middle;
then two straight bars yoked together,
and the third was like a Scythian bow.
Then there was a trident lying sideways;
and, from one bar, there were two joined ones.
And that which was the third, was the last again.

Like Euripides, Agathon has his illiterate character describe the

letters in Theseus name in terms of their shape. Unlike Euripides,
however, Agathon explicitly connects these letter shapes to tangible
material objects: the Scythian bow evokes a capital sigma, the tipped-
over trident is a capital epsilon, and the bar that creates the images of
eta and upsilon recalls material manufacture, such as a level used in car-
pentry, in its ancient Greek applications.20 Thus, Agathon requires the
audience to draw on iconography from the material realm, such as
painted scenes on vases, to envision the images of the letters that make
up the word Theseus; and the imagined letters take on a materiality
reminiscent of our early Greek inscriptions. The stakes of viewing have
shifted, however, with the shift from the archaic to the classical pe-
riod, from the pot or statue to the classical theater.
I want to suggest that the authors of these ekphrasesconvention-
ally defined as poetic descriptions of crafted objectsconsciously aim
to resolve a tension felt gradually more in the fifth-century democratic
city-state: those who could read, although still a minority, had increasing
access to political power and documents because, by this period, laws,
decrees, tribute and debtor lists, and other fundamental documents of
the democracy were set up as public inscriptions in the heart of civic
and religious Athens, in the Agora, and on the Acropolis.21 On the other
hand, the inability of their fellow illiterate citizens, who were equal in
name, if not in practice, under the pervasive democratic ideology of
isonomia (political equality), to decode the documents of the democ-
racy, threatened to compromise this majoritys political power. In the
democratic theater, however, where educated and uneducated alike
made up the audience, the code of letters is successfully deciphered by
all present with the aid of these descriptions and the dramatic gestures
and other theatrics that must have accompanied them. Thus, the pub-
lic, visible nature of ancient Greek writing begins, in the Classical Pe-
riod, to take on a new, politically charged set of implications; and in this
dramatic setting, writings visibility reinforces the illusion of isonomic
equality that was moving ever farther from democratic reality.22 Beyond
the politics of these passages, though, it is important to note the fun-
damental fact that in this dramatic context letters have once again been
cast as something important to be viewedalthough in this case, it is
the minds eye rather than the physical eye that sees.

48 Alexandra Pappas
The audience literally observed letters in action, however, in this
next and final exemplum from Attic drama, a late fifth-century com-
edy by Callias that decks the stage with lettersin fact, all the letters
of the Ionic alphabet to be seen in the flesh by the audience.23 Rather
curiously, in this play, alternately titled the Letter Show or the Letter
Tragedy, each member of a chorus of women portrayed one of the
twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet, and the chorus members
would dance out two-letter combinations of a vowel and a consonant,
creating a four-dimensional representation of a traditionally two- or
three-dimensional medium. As one fragment from this comedy in-
dicates, the coupling of letters started off by joining beta, the first con-
sonant in the Greek alphabet, with each Greek vowel in order; and
the chorus members would pair themselves off physically and then
make the sound of the syllabic combination their twosome created,
by singing, for example, beta alpha ba, beta epsilon be, beta eta b,
beta iota bi, and so on, rendering a series like English ba-be-bi-bo-
bou. Although most details of the plays performance remain un-
known, it seems likely, from the extant fragments, that this curious
pairing occurred for each consonant and vowel combination possible
and, at the plays conclusion, culminated in an obscene phallic joke
implied by the final combination of letters.24
To focus on a more relevant aspect of the plays interest in visi-
bility, it is immediately striking that Callias has put letters on stage
as characters in a drama. The initial oddity of this fades a bit, though,
when we consider it along with the earlier material I have presented
in this essay. Like the painted inscriptions on the archaic vases, where
the visual presentation of the words itself is meaningful, here the au-
diences gaze is once again directed toward letters as they are presented
in the round, on display for public viewing, perhaps not such an odd
occurrence for a Greek audience accustomed to see carefully placed
letters and words in countless other contexts.
This manipulation of the visual qualities of writing is taken to new
heights in this essays final material, the Hellenistic technopaegnia, or
pattern poems, a form likely familiar from more modern examples
such as George Herberts Easter Wings or e. e. cummingss poems.
These ancient epigrammatic poems, five of which survive from the
third to first centuries b.c.e., formed the shapes of material objects on
the pages of a poetry book, creating their images by alternating the
length of the poems lines.25 The ancient titles tell us that they are a
pair of Eros wings spread in flight, a double axe head, an egg, an al-
tar, and a panpipe, called a syrinx and reproduced here (figure 3.6).
The content of each poem corresponds in some way to the shape
it makes on the page. For example, the Wings poem speaks forth
as a personification of the wings of Eros, the Axe claims to be the
very one that cut the wood for the Trojan horse, and the Syrinx

e Aesthetics of Ancient Greek Writing 49

The Syrinx of Ps.-Theocritus, AP
15,21m circa 150 B.C.E. [?] Repro-
duced from Gow, Bucolici Graeci
(1952), 180, by permission of Oxford
University Press.

describes its owner Pan and his love for the nymph Echo. While in
the eighth through early fifth centuries craftsmen of vases, statues, or
grave stelae often inscribed their material creations with epigrammatic
poems, in the third century these clever poets used the epigram itself
to create an image of the object, which was now physically absent.
What we view in the technopaegnia is simultaneously word and ob-
ject: an object on the page made out of words. As readers of these po-
ems, we are also spectators of the pictures they make, a duality the
authors revel in. The first two words of the Wings, for example,
command the reader: leusse me (gaze upon me). So, too, the author
of the Altar effectively tricks the reader into looking upon a repre-
sentation of the same altar whose viewing was instrumental in
Philoctetes injury: according to myth, when Philoctetes violated a
taboo by looking on a divinitys altar, he was bitten in the foot by a

50 Alexandra Pappas
poisonous snake, which delayed his journey to fight against the Tro-
jans at Troy. Thus, the technopaegnia self-consciously stand at once
as literary and visual artifacts, and the boundaries between ancient
Greek words and images, arts and letters, have once again collapsed.
As this brief essay has illustrated, and as many scholars of the clas-
sics have neglected to note, modes of viewing the word in ancient
Greece defy simple categorization because writing traveled fluidly be-
tween literary and material worlds, at once communicating on lexi-
graphic and sematographic levels. In one instance writing creates a
literary text, and in another it is used for image making, whether on
archaic vases, the classical Athenian stage, or the pages of a Hellenis-
tic poetry book. Indeed, ancient Greek visible writings collapse the vis-
ible and the legible into one, align the visible and the legible along
parallel lines, incorporate the legible within the visible, and at times
even privilege the visible over the legible.26 For this material, I con-
clude, to ignore the appearance of ancient writing is to fail to read
it thoroughly.
To return to where we began, it is precisely this materiality and
visuality that troubled Plato, leading him to condemn writing. Writ-
ing, after all, is deceptive, for it is the appearance of wisdom rather than
true wisdom. Exhibiting a true understanding of the flexibility of the
medium, Plato even makes explicit the analogy between writing and
painting: Strange indeed, Phaedrus, is this power of writing, and in
this particular way it is really like painting; for the products of paint-
ing stand there as if alive, but if you ask them something, they are al-
together solemnly silent. And [written] words are the same. You
might think that they said something as if they were sentient, but if,
wanting to learn, you ask them something about what they say, they
only communicate the same one thing every time.27
We must understand ancient Greek writing as material, and
gaining insight into Plato is just one of the many important impli-
cations of this phenomenon. Nor should it come as any surprise
that the same people, whose aesthetic sensibilities yielded the tem-
ples and statues that boast broad appeal even today, conceived of
their written language as another form of visual art, combining
word and image to create arts in letters.

e Aesthetics of Ancient Greek Writing 51


This essay has benefited from the critical feedback of the Visible Writings confer-
ence audience, this volumes editors, and the careful attention of Marcy Dinius and
Holly Sypniewski. Any errors are, of course, my own.
1. Plato, Phaedrus, 274b279b.
2. While scholars of Greek language have tended to neglect the objects to which that
language was often attached, scholars of Greek objects have often overlooked the materi-
ality of the words on them. Thus, for example, Greek inscriptions often appear in texts as
typographically neat and with little or no reference to their original physical context, mak-
ing full contextual study impossible. Important recent exceptions to this limited and lim-
iting approach include Jeffrey Hurwit, The Words in the Image: Orality, Literacy and Early
Greek Art, Word and Image 6 (1990):18097; Franois Lissarrague, Graphein: crire et
dessiner, in Limage en jeu: de lAntiquit Paul Klee, ed. Christiane Bron and Effy Kass-
apoglou (Lausanne: Universit de Lausanne, Institut darchologie et dhistoire ancienne,
1992), 189203; Simon Goldhill and Robin Osborne, eds., Art and Text in Ancient Greek
Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Zahra Newby and Ruth E.
Leader-Newby, eds., Art and Inscriptions in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 2007); Jocelyn Penny Small, The Parallel Worlds of Classical Art and Text (Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Graham Zanker, Modes of Viewing in Hellenistic
Poetry and Art (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004); and Michael Squire, Im-
age and Text in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
Although still a minority, these interdisciplinary approaches happily represent what appears
to be a growing trend.
3. Alexandra Pappas, Greek Writing in Its Aesthetic Context: Archaic and Hel-
lenistic Arts and Letters (Ph.D. diss., University of WisconsinMadison, 2004);
Robin Osborne and Alexandra Pappas, Writing on Archaic Greek Pottery, in Newby
and Leader-Newby, Art and Inscriptions, 13155.
4. Barry B. Powell, Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (Cambridge: Cam-
bridge University Press, 1991), 567, reviews the evidence, arguments, consensus, and
5. Ibid., 2.
6. Barry B. Powell, The Dipylon Oinochoe and the Spread of Literacy in Eighth-
Century Athens, Kadmos 27 (1988): 6586.
7. On Mesopotamian cuneiform as generated out of administrative necessity, see
Piotr Michalowski, Mesopotamian Cuneiform, Origin, in The Worlds Writing Systems,
ed. Peter T. Daniels and William Bright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 33
36; on the early uses of Linear B, see Emmett L. Bennett, Jr., Aegean Scripts, Linear
B, in Daniels and Bright, Worlds Writing Systems, 12530. In contrast, it took nearly
150 years for ancient Greek writing to serve these arenas consistently.
8. Actual levels of literacy throughout the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic peri-
ods have remained impossible to quantify. For the relative trends suggesting that the
vast majority could not read, see William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1989), and Rosalind Thomas, Literacy and Orality in Ancient
Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
9. Osborne and Pappas, Writing on Archaic, 13155.
10. It was relatively common to place dedicatory inscriptions on the legs of archaic
monumental statues as an alternative to the more usual inscribed statue base, and it re-
mains to be explored whether other examples bear out the aesthetic explanation pre-

52 Alexandra Pappas
sented here. This figure was broken off at the knees after manufacture; and although
this alters our overall impression of the statuette today, it does not affect this aesthetic
reading: the lower legs, void of inscription, would have balanced the chest, while the
head and upper legs would still correspond visually.
11. Henry R. Immerwahr, Attic Script: A Survey (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1990), 10. Although the lekanis itself seems to be Attic, the writing is diverse: the lamb-
das recall the Argive dialect, while the gamma and sigma are Ionic.
12. The owners signature, which marks out an object as belonging to someone
who is named on the object, is one of the earliest and most common types of inscrip-
tion. This must reflect an impulse immediately inspired by the early alphabet: to claim
ones belongings.
13. Koppa corresponds essentially to our letter Q and appears in inscriptions from
specific regions including the Dorian islands Thera, Melos, and Crete: Leslie Threatte,
The Grammar of Attic Inscriptions, vol. 1, Phonology (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1980
96), 2123. Over time the koppa drops completely from the alphabetic repertoire, and
kappa is universally used instead.
14. Matthias Steinhart, Die Kunst der Nachahmung: Darstellungen mimetischer
Vorfhrungen in der griechischen Bildkunst archaischer und klassischer Zeit (Mainz am
Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2004), 4043.
15. Immerwahr, Attic Script, 4445, documents four types of ancient Greek non-
sense inscriptions: mock or near sense, which prompt the reader to recall the real
words they imitate since their garbled letters imitate formulaic phrases often found on
pots; meaningless, which have clearly legible letter forms but bear no close relation to
actual words; imitation, which look as if they are comprised of a series of letters, but
the letter forms are unidentifiable; and blot or dot, which consist of rows of blots or
dots and suggest to the viewer that an inscription could have stood in that place. The
example presented here falls into the meaningless category with its legible letters.
16. Emmett L. Bennett, Jr., Names for Linear B Writing and for Its Signs, Kad-
mos 2 (1963): 98123.
17. See, for example, Ignace Jay Gelb, A Study of Writing, 2d ed. (Chicago: Univer-
sity of Chicago Press, 1963), 1213.
18. Richard Kannicht, Euripides, vol. 5 in Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, ed.
Bruno Snell, Richard Kannicht, and S. L. Radt (Gttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht,
1971 ), from 382. The herdsman describes uppercase letters because the epigraphical con-
vention was to use all capitals.
19. August Nauck, ed., Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, 2d ed. (Leipzig: Teub-
neri, 1889), with a supplement by Bruno Snell (Hildesheim, 1964), from 4. The trage-
dian Agathon appears to be the same fictional Agathon whose tragic victory is the cause
for celebration in Platos Symposium, 173a.
20. Kann has a particularly marked association with the world of craftsmanship,
denoting sometimes the supports that preserve the shape of a shield or sometimes a
straight rod used in weaving, masonry, or carpentry. Indeed, the word may very well
have elicited an association with the famous Polycleitus, sculptor of the Doryphorus,
and his treatise by the same name in these recent decades after its composition, circa
44030 b.c.e.
21. Thomas, Literacy and Orality, 139.
22. Editors note: Transmedia writing offers insights into the connections of power,
knowledge, and the cultures of text. This is evoked in other essays: through a hesitant
celebration of democracy in Barbara Krugers poster art (Marilyn Symmes); through

e Aesthetics of Ancient Greek Writing 53

dichotomies between hieratic and demotic writing and between writing and drawing
(Franois Cornilliat); in transgeneric almanacs (Marija Dalbello); through visible lan-
guage in sacred spaces (Richard Serrano); and in urban paleography (Batrice Fraenkel).
23. For recent stimulating treatments that also examine these Theseus and Telephus
fragments, see Ralph Rosen, Comedy and Confusion in Callias Letter Tragedy, Classi-
cal Philology 94 (1999): 14767; Niall Slater, Dancing the Alphabet: Performative Lit-
eracy on the Attic Stage, in Epea and Grammata: Oral and Written Communication in
Ancient Greece, ed. Ian Worthington and John Miles Foley (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 117
29. I accept the late fifth-century/early fourth-century b.c.e. date proposed by Rosen
and adopted by Slater.
24. Slater, Dancing the Alphabet, 12829, suggests that the combination of the
final consonant, psi, and the final vowel, omega, might have comically suggested to the
audience the word pslos, which refers to a circumcised penis and whose ithyphallic
qualities could have been represented easily and appropriately on the stage.
25. The bucolic and Greek Anthology manuscripts preserve a total of six of these
pattern poems: Andrew Sydenham Farrar Gow, Bucolici Graeci (New York: Oxford Uni-
versity Press, 1952); William Roger Paton, The Greek Anthology (Cambridge, Mass.:
Loeb Classical Library, 1918), vol. 5. I mention only five here because of the post-Hel-
lenistic date of the sixth, Besantinus Altar, which comes from the Emperor Hadrians
reign in the second century C.E. The five poems under consideration here can be found
most easily in book 15 of the Greek Anthology: Syrinx, 15.21; Axe, 15.22; Wings,
15.24; Altar, 15.26; and Egg 15.27.
26. These analyses engage directly the language of the program of the Visible Writ-
ings conference that first inspired this essay.
27. Plato, Phaedrus, 275d.

54 Alexandra Pappas