Embodiments of Literature

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Barbara Graziosi

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Literature is often presented as something ethereal and intangible. It concerns the life of the mind, unconstrained by the material realities of the body. It does not depend on the senses, particularly: we can appreciate Homer by listening, reading, or touching Braille. These different sensory approaches affect our experience, of course, but we are still recognisably confronted with the same text. Logos, language, and literature pertain to the mind rather than the body (and this explains, in part, why literature is placed above material culture in traditional hierarchies). There are, however, ways of thinking about literature as an embodied experience. Gorgias Gorgias, Encomium of Helen 7-9 suggests one.

The corporeal nature of Gorgias' language is difficult to capture, in part because of the modern divide between mind and body: φρίκη περίφοβος, for example, becomes ‘a fearful fright’ in MacDowell’s standard translation, when the Greek describes a shudder. More strikingly, not once does MacDowell translate Gorgias’ σῶμα as ‘body’, even though it is the key term in our passage (see MacDowell 1982: 25). The small and invisible body of logos has very real power, he insists. The proof is its effect on the body of those who listen. Gorgias uses the most physical metaphor – rape – to illustrate what words can do. And yet even he must admit that the σῶμα of words cannot be apprehended directly – it cannot be touched or seen, even if its effects are felt in the body.

This short essay explores the material reception of literature, by considering portraits and places associated with ancient literary figures. I return at the end to Gorgias’ challenging proposition: that we feel literature in our body.


The creation of the author is an aspect of the reception of his or her work. Just as the Lives of the ancient poets are largely based on their works, so are their portraits. So, for example, Demodocus is interpreted as an autobiographical character, and Homer is depicted as a blind bard. Or again, Sappho describes how painful it is when a girl leaves her circle, and an important (if neglected) vase depicts this moment of separation Kunstsammlungen der Ruhr-Universität, Bochum.png.

Sappho and ‘the girl’ (ἡ παῖς: a designation that could apply to several of her girls) are depicted walking in opposite directions, but looking back at each other. As an object, the krater is as unsettling as Sappho’s poems of separation. Many vases play on the theme of the amorous chase: because they are round, whoever chases will in turn be chased, in an exhilarating spiral, in which the viewer can take part by turning the vase round and round. This vase is more awkward to view and handle: the body goes one way, the gaze, the longing, (and, we are reminded, the poetry) quite another.

There is some fun to be had when looking at material depictions of authors, and reading them as receptions of their work. The development of portrait types, for example, is influenced by literary canons, and simultaneously contributes to creating them. Juxtaposition with (and typological similarity to) other categories of portrait situates ancient authors within specific cultural and intellectual milieux: it transforms literary traditions into visual experiences and reifies them in the form of material objects. Portraits allow patrons to ‘possess’ specific literary traditions, genres or poems, and simultaneously generate an intellectual process by which the viewer is asked to ‘read’ the author’s work through the interpretation of specific details of physiognomy, expression, gesture, and placement in relation to other figures. Reading the image and reading the text become connected enterprises (see Picturing Poets, Zanker 1995).

Several ancient sources comment on the relationship between portrait and oeuvre. Theocritus, for example, writes an epigram about a statue of Anacreon placed in the poet’s native island of Teos Theocritus, Epigram 17.

Here the whole legacy of Anacreon is reduced to a statue (whether real or made up in poetry) and a sentence: ‘he enjoyed young boys’. There is apparently no need to read Anacreon’s work: the stranger is simply invited to visit Anacreon’s place of birth, look at the statue, and remember Theocritus’ own pithy statement. Readers will thus know ‘the whole man’ by a very quick and simple process. Unsurprisingly, there has been some debate about the word 'whole'. Some readers take it at face value (Rossi 2001: 284-5), others point out that the mini biography provided by Theocritus cannot be taken to represent all of Anacreon’s oeuvre, just as he fails to provide a satisfying ekphrasis of the statue (Bing 1988: 121). This seems true – and I add that Theocritus himself, as a poet, cannot possibly want to be reduced to a portrait and a sentence. His in-your-face Doric θᾶσαι at the beginning of this epigram (which is written in honour of an Ionian poet, after all, and purportedly placed on an Ionian island!) inscribes Theocritus’ own place of birth, as well as his voice and genre, in the composition, suggesting a more broad-ranging literary and personal engagement than his summary biography. Unlike the statue, literature is never confined to one place. As Pindar Pind. N. 5.1-3 taught us, it can travel on every ship and skiff.

Ovid has equally thought-provoking things to say about portraits and places in the Sorrows Ovid, Sorrows 1.7.1-14.

Commentators move swiftly past Ovid's description of his fans who own busts of him, and signet rings with his face engraved on them, because they find his description embarrassing. They move straight beyond the longing for physical contact to line 11, and discuss what Ovid has to say about the Metamorphoses: the poem speaks of altered forms, and Ovid himself is an altered man. I suggest we should pay a bit more attention to the bust crowned with ivy, and the signet ring – not just as objects, but as objects that inspire physical responses to poetry. Removing the ivy means not just recognising Ovid’s unhappiness, but also his new work, the Sorrows, and ensuring that the author continues to remain an accurate imago of his oeuvre. As for the signet ring, new work by Chris Faraone on amulets may, in due course, provide an important interpretative framework. There is a well attested ritual whereby people who want to communicate with a god wear a signet ring with the deity’s image on it. Magical texts recommend wearing the image turned inwards, on the side of the palm, and sleeping with one ear next to it, in the hope that the god might send a message in a dream. This ritual of private communication may be relevant here. The addressee who loves Ovid needs to understand and yet dissimulate what the poet tells him (line 5, which is textually uncertain). There is the conceit of personal contact, even though Ovid does not even know who he may be addressing: siquis. This person should not seek the poet just through portraits, however, but rather by finding new meaning in the Metamorphoses. This meaning is personal – not just for the poet, and his changed oeuvre and life – but personal to the reader, who needs to guard his interpretation as closely as he keeps his signet ring.

Admiration for literature repeatedly finds expression in the desire to encounter the author face-to-face. Pliny comments, “Our longings give birth to likenesses that have not been passed down to us, as in the case of Homer” (Natural History 35.2: pariunt desideria non traditos uultus, sicut in Homero euenit). Petrarch laments the fact Petr. Fam. 24.12.2 that, because he lacks a proper translation of the Iliad, he can only catch glimpses of Homer’s face. In a different letter Petr. Fam. 18.2.6, he writes of embracing a copy of the Iliad, as if he were actually touching his beloved friend Homer. Elsewhere still Petr. Fam. 8.3.6, he admits that being close to an author has nothing to do with material objects. It is a personal connection, as if with a living person ‘made of flesh’, a connection that provides Petrarch with a suitable interlocutor and distances him from the uulgus.

Because the process of imagining the face and the body of the author involves a private and personal act of reading, real portraits can come into conflict with the imagined face. Libanius (Letters 143.3 Lib. Ep. 143.3), for example, is desperate to obtain a portrait of Aristides, but when he actually receives one he refuses to accept that it is a true likeness (Petsalis-Diomidis 2006). Surely, he argues, Aristides could not have looked so healthy, or have such luscious hair! Eventually, on receiving a second portrait that agrees with the first, Libanius accepts that the images must reflect how Aristides actually looked. But he is still puzzled by the hair, and demands to know how it could have been so abundant. He also wants a full portrait Lib. Ep. 143.5).

There are many other examples of desire for ancient authors (Güthenke forthcoming) and of disappointment with their portraits. John Cosin (1594–1672), Prince Bishop of Durham, ordered that his library on Palace Green be decorated with portraits of ancient philosophers and fathers of the Church, and insisted that that they be based on genuine ancient artefacts. When he actually saw them, however, he was appalled because, in his view, they looked like Saracens.

It seems, then, that portraits become sites of competitive reception, where different visions of ancient authors come to clash. The cognitive process by which the act of reading results in a private image of the author is destabilised by the objectivity of actual portraits.


Because bodies are located in space and time, embodied responses to literature clash with the intangible ubiquitousness of words. The krater depicting Sappho makes the point: bodies go their separate ways, but longing and poetry still connect them. Theocritus objects to ancient literary tourism: the Hellenistic desire to celebrate the poets in the places where they were born, through cultic statues and monuments (Clay 2004), is exposed as inadequate: he tells us to look at an Ionian poet, on an Ionian island, by addressing us in his own native Doric, θᾶσαι, and thus making us think of Sicily instead. Ovid speaks of the physical intimacy established by wearing a signet ring, and then suggests that the act of reading the Metamorphoses is equally close and personal. Petrarch embraces a Greek manuscript of Homer’s Iliad, but then blames Homer for ‘having forgotten his Latin’ – i.e. for not having inspired adequate Latin translations. The problem is not just linguistic, for Petrarch: he resents Homer’s cultural and geographical distance, in an attitude of suspicion and superiority towards Byzantine culture (Dionisotti 1967). Bishop Cosin thinks that the ancient philosophers are like him, and is dismayed to find out that they look like Saracens.

The problem of place and possession resonates through the history of classical culture, of course. We are all familiar with the distaste and disorientation of northern Europeans, when confronted with modern southerners living in ancient landscapes. When Freud visits the acropolis, physical closeness to the ancient world inspires a reflection on cultural distance, not least from his own father (Leonard forthcoming). The Sicilian poet Salvatore Quasimodo Salvatore Quasimodo, 'To a Hostile Poet' (Nobel laureate 1962) tries to capture his physical closeness to Aeschylus in an invective against an unnamed poet of the north.

As Capra points out, Quasimodo alludes to ancient traditions about Aeschylus’ death (see Aeschylus: A Guide to Selected Sources), according to which a flying eagle saw the bald head of the poet, mistook it for a rock, and dropped a tortoise he was holding in his talons, in order to crack open its shell and eat it. Quasimodo leaves out the colourful detail of the tortoise falling from the sky, because it does not fit the starkness of his poem. What he offers instead is the image of a forlorn figure in a vast landscape – a figure that is simultaneously Aeschylus and Quasimodo. It is only halfway through the epigram that the ancient and the modern poet part company. Unlike Aeschylus, Quasimodo is still alive, and does not plan to die any time soon: his grandmother passed on excellent genes, after all. It is his rival from the north who will go first, as rain falls on his yellowed skull. Quasimodo is still at play on the golden sands of Gela at the end of his poem. The suggestion is that the Sicilian Greek lives like Aeschylus – feels the ancient sand and sea through his own living body – whereas his northern rival can at best die like the ancient poet, with something nasty (rain or tortoise) falling on his head. Here too, competitive literary receptions are negotiated through embodied experience.

What portraits and places bring to the fore are intensely personal responses to ancient literature. Scholars insist, quite rightly, that authorial representations depend on two factors: an interpretation of the author’s oeuvre, and the conventions of biography, portraiture, and other relevant genres. To these two, I would add a third element that determines how ancient authors are represented: the lived, embodied experience of their readers and admirers.


  • Bing, P. 1988. ‘Theocritus’ Epigrams on the Statues of Ancient Poets.’ A&A 34.2: 117-123.
  • Capra, A. 2008. ‘Quasimodo e i lirici greci.’ Quaderni del Vittorini 2: 11-39.
  • Clay, D. 2004. Archilochos Heros: The Cult of Poets in the Greek Polis. Cambridge, MA.
  • Dionisotti, C. 1967. Geografia e storia della letteratura italiana. Turin.
  • Güthenke, C. (forthcoming). ‘“Lives” as Parameter. The Privileging of Ancient Lives as a Category of Research around 1900.’ In R. Fletcher and J. Hanink (eds.), Creative Lives. New Approaches to Ancient Intellectual Biography. Cambridge.
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  • Petsalis-Diomidis, A. 2006. ‘Sacred Writing, Sacred Reading: The Function of Aelius Aristides’ Self-Presentation as Author in the Sacred Tales.’ In J. Mossman and B. McGing (eds.), The Limits of Ancient Biography. Swansea: 193-211.
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