Hesiod: A Guide to Selected Sources

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Sarah Burges Watson

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The texts and translations relating to this guide have been prepared by Sarah Burges Watson.

Hesiod’s existential status is uncertain. His name is attached to a number of archaic epics, products of a tradition in which concepts of authorship differed both from our own and from those of later ancient readers. Ancient perplexities are reflected in the fluctuation of Hesiod’s corpus: nineteen poems were variously ascribed to him (see Kivilo 2010: 37); in late antiquity, the number had dwindled to three: Theogony, Works and Days (Op.) and the Shield of Heracles (see West 1966: 48-52). These are the only ‘Hesiodic’ poems to have survived complete. Notably absent is the Catalogue of Women, which followed on from the Theogony in the version known to Hellenistic scholars. Of Hesiod’s other poems we have titles and, in some cases, fragments.


Embedded Autobiography

Hesiod refers to himself by name at Theogony 22 Hes. Theog. 22-34, suggesting a connection with the formula ὄσσαν ἱεῖσαι (‘sending forth a voice’), used three times of the Muses in the proem (Nagy 2009: 287-8). While he pastures his flocks on Mount Helicon, the Muses breathe song into him. The poet’s name and his poetic initiation are thus intertwined and a quasi-autobiography is embedded in the Theogony. The Works and Days Hes. Op. 27-41 Hes. Op. 270-2 Hes. Op. 633-40 Hes. Op. 646-62 gives a more human slant to Hesiod’s autobiographical passages, matching his didactic persona. References to the Theogony sequence Hesiod’s oeuvre in a manner imitated by later poets, notably Virgil (Most 1993, Haubold 2010, Hardie 2010). These ‘autobiographies’ engender biographical traditions probably fostered by performers and cults of Hesiod as well as rival groups, such as the Chian Homeridae.


Our knowledge of traditions about Hesiod derives from (1) the accounts of his life in a tenth-century lexicon, the Suda Suda, s.v. Hesiod, and in the Vita Tzetz. Vit. Hes. of Tzetzes (twelfth century), who draws on the Neoplatonist Proclus’ Vita (not extant). (2) The so-called Certamen Homeri et Hesiodi Certamen or Contest of Hesiod and Homer, based on Alcidamas’ Mouseion (fourth century BCE), which, again, draws on earlier traditions. (3) Scattered ancient references (Jacoby 1930, Most 2006), Plutarch being a particularly important source. A Boeotian by origin, he wrote a (lost) biography on Hesiod and a commentary on the Works and Days which Proclus quotes extensively in his own commentary, of which we have fragments.

Poetic Genealogy and ‘Family’

Fifth-century genealogies Procl. Chr. 1, doubtless promoted by Orphic/Eleusinian interests, made Hesiod and Homer cousins of one another and descendants of Orpheus, who was represented as the oldest poet. Several authors Hippias of Elis, 86 B6 D-K Ar. Ran 1030-6 Pl. Ap. 41a attest to an apparently canonical sequence: Orpheus, Musaeus, Hesiod, Homer. (See Orpheus: A Guide to Selected Sources). Herodotus Hdt. 2.53 rejects the tradition that Orpheus and Musaeus preceded Hesiod and Homer, and assumes that Homer and Hesiod were contemporaries. The Certamen story depends on this view. Hesiod’s age Clem. Al. Strom 1.21, 117.1 Diog. Laert. 5.87, 5.92 Gell. NA 3.11.1 [Plut.] Consol. ad Apoll. 105d Tzetz. Vit. Hes. (ch. 4) Certamen 4 Certamen 5 was hotly debated throughout antiquity (see Graziosi 2002: 100-10, Kivilo 2010: 12-17, Koning 2010: 40-55, Nagy 2010: 336-341), his relation to Homer being a fundamental preoccupation of his reception history (Koning 2010).

Hesiod’s father is named Dios perhaps through a misreading of Works and Days 299, or to suggest a connection with Zeus (genitive: Dios). In the Works and Days (633-640) Hes. Op. 633-40, he flees poverty in Aeolian Cyme for Boeotian Ascra. The Suda Suda, s.v. Hesiod and Tzetzes’ Vita Tzetz. Vit. Hes. (ch. 1) report this as a factual statement about Hesiod’s origins. It may also be an aetiology for the Aeolic strand in Hesiod’s (predominantly Ionic) dialect (Nagy 2009: 290-4). A (didactic-sounding) mother is added: Pycimede (‘wise-counselling’). His brother Perses, the didactic addressee in Works and Days, who appropriates Hesiod’s inheritance by bribing the kings (27-41 Hes. Op. 27-41), is considered historical by most, but not all Schol. Hes. Op. Proleg. B 13-16 Schol. Hes. Op. 27a ancient readers. A son is provided (see Works and Days 270-2 Hes. Op. 270-2 with scholion Schol. Hes. Op. 271a); according to the Aristotelian Constitution of Orchomenus Tzetz. Vit. Hes. (ch. 7), he was Stesichorus. (On Hesiod’s family, see further Kivilo 2010: 8-11).

Hesiod versus Homer

According to Eustathius Eust. Il. 1.4.28, the Chian Homeridae considered it heresy even to mention the contest between Homer and Hesiod (see Nagy 2010: 62-3). The tradition was based on Works and Days 650-62 Hes. Op. 646-62, where Hesiod refers to his victory in a poetry competition for the funeral games of Amphidamas (see Graziosi 2002: 168-80). In a textual variant of Works and Days 657 Schol. Hes. Op. 657a, Homer is named as the antagonist. The contest takes place across the strait from Aulis, where the Greek fleet assembles in the Iliad. Following an invocation to the Muses (Iliad 2.484-7), the ships are enumerated in a lengthy catalogue. Hesiod claims to have dedicated his tripod on Helicon (Works and Days 658-9 Hes. Op. 646-62), where it was displayed in Pausanias’ time Paus. 9.31.3. The obvious candidate for Hesiod’s victorious poem is the Theogony, although, in the Certamen, Hesiod’s victory depends on a passage from the Works and Days.

Plutarch Schol. Hes. Op. 650-62, pp. 205-6 Pertusi [Plut.] Consol. ad Apoll. 105d, who asserted Homer’s priority and doubted Hesiod’s claim to be the Muses’ disciple, judged Works and Days 650-62 an interpolation. His view reflects the verdict of Hellenistic scholars Schol. Hes. Op. Proleg. Ac Crates, fr. 78 Brogg. (West 1978 ad loc.), who also athetized one or both of Hesiod’s proems to the Muses. (See Montanari 2009). Pausanias Paus. 9.31.4 says that the Boeotians showed him a proem-less version of the poem and considered only the Works and Days authentic. But both proems were key to the Boeotian festival of the Muses, whose allegiances were also manifestly non-Homeric. In the parade of poets’ statues Paus. 9.30.2 which Pausanias saw in the grove of the Muses on Helicon, Homer’s image was ‘deafeningly absent’, whilst Hesiod took centre-stage. Pausanias highlights the gap with a pointed reference to scholarly wrangles about their chronologies. (See Hunter 2006: 16-28).

Death, Burial and Cult

Plutarch Plut. Num. 4.8, 62c compares the hero cults of Hesiod and Archilochus (see Archilochus: A Guide to Selected Sources), whose poetic inaugurations show obvious similarities. (On Hesiod’s death and hero cult see Nagy 2009: 304-8, Kivilo 2010: 25-35, Koning 2010: 133-8). Hellenistic inscriptions IG VII, 1785 IG VII, 4240 survive from the cult of the Muses in Boeotia but stories about Hesiod’s death are earlier. Thucydides Thuc. 3.96.1 says that Hesiod was killed in the shrine of Nemean Zeus in Locrian Oinoe, following a prophecy that he would die in Nemea. The Certamen Certamen 13 and Tzetzes Tzetz. Vit. Hes. (ch. 9) specify that the prophecy, which Hesiod misunderstood, was made in Delphi, where he consulted the oracle after his victory. Whilst travelling home, he was accused (some said falsely Paus. 9.31.6 Plut. Conv. sept. sap. 162c) of seducing the daughter of his host and was subsequently murdered (perhaps unintentionally Suda, s.v. Hesiod) by her brothers. After his death, Hesiod was vindicated: his murderers were shipwrecked and his body was brought ashore by dolphins during a religious festival, a sure sign of Apollo’s favour. In a story quoted in the Aristotelian Constitution of Orchomenus Schol. Hes. Op. 633-640, the Delphic oracle instructed the citizens of Boeotian Orchomenus to move Hesiod’s bones from Oinoe (or Ascra) to their city. According to Plutarch Plut. Conv. sept. sap. 162c, the site of his grave in the shrine of Nemean Zeus was kept secret to prevent this. Tzetzes’ Vita Tzetz. Vit. Hes. (chs. 9-10) transmits two epitaphs, one of which is also quoted by Pausanias Paus. 9.38.3; the second is ascribed to Pindar.


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