Rhythm for Situational Contexts: The Case of Ancient Greek Epic Performance


  • Ronald Blankenborg Department of Classical Studies Radboud University Nijmegen The Netherlands




In this article1 I will discuss rhythm’s contribution to the performance of ancient Greek epic like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in terms of phonostylistics, the branch of phonetics that studies the use of phonetic means which are restricted to specific contexts. Hartmann and Storck (1972: 175) aptly define phonostylistics as “that branch of stylistics which investigates the expressive function of sounds”. I will apply observations from recent studies on phonostylistics in order to account for the rhythmical effect of the so-called heroic meter. It will be my aim to classify the rhythm of the dactylic hexameter as a function: a deliberate influence on stylistic variation. As such, rhythm may be compared to other stylistic functions like the tempo of speech. The rhythm of heroic meter is a conscious deviation from everyday unplanned spoken language. Its appliance creates a ‘situational context’, i.e. a particular linguistic environment that is conditioned by a fixed set of extra-linguistic factors: in this case, the performative environment. My perspective on the performance of ancient Greek epic will be limited, though, to this single aspect of prosody, rhythm, with only little regard for other issues such as the how and when of performance. Contemporary durational performances of the Homeric epic provide an intuition for epic performance as a particular linguistic environment. In this contribution, I will first discuss the prosody of ancient Greek epic performance with a focus on rhythm. In subsequent sections, I will analyse the performance of ancient Greek epic as a situational context under the influence of the rhythm of heroic meter: this phonetic feature is restricted to the context of epic performance. In the final section of this article, I will pay special attention to the way modern audiences perceive the ‘otherness’ and the repetitiveness of heroic rhythm.

Author Biography

Ronald Blankenborg, Department of Classical Studies Radboud University Nijmegen The Netherlands

Department of Classical Studies