Lyric Poetry and Social Identity in Archaic Greece

Jessica M. Romney, Lyric Poetry and Social Identity in Archaic Greece (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020). 9780472131853.

Reviewed by Benjamin Jasnow, William Jewell College,

Jessica M. Romney proposes a novel approach to the study of identity in Greek lyric poetry in this attentive and productive series of close readings. The topic of identity in Greek literature has been widely studied in the past several decades, so investigations of Greek and Roman constructions of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, locality, etc., as well as modern receptions of those constructs, have become very frequent. [1] Romney’s approach to archaic lyric is part of this broader interest in identity and ancient literature, but she offers a little-used method within that wider framework. Romney takes a “social identity perspective” (5), including Social Identity Theory (SIT) and its offshoot Social Categorization Theory (SCT) (176, n. 25). Broadly speaking, this is a social-psychological approach that examines the actions and cognitive processes by which group identities are constructed and maintained by members, in contrast to the form of a given identity. SIT takes a particular interest in the construction of in-groups and out-groups, a frequent subject of interest for Romney (5–6, with n. 25).[2] Romney is one of very few classicists in recent years to use social identity theory.[3] Given the social-psychological bent of SIT and SCT, Romney is also part of a larger movement within Classics of applying cognitive theory to the study of ancient texts.[4]

Romney’s approach is very well suited to the analysis of sympotic discourse, where a number of different and intersecting identities may be invoked in a given poem as a means of fostering group membership. Since Romney, with her social identity perspective, is especially focused on the rhetorical processes whereby identity is created and maintained, she does not limit her discussion to, for example, gender, ethnic, or civic membership, but ranges over a wide variety of rhetorical strategies and identities that sympotic poets use to construct a sense of belonging. While SIT may be used to interpret the behaviors of “large-group” identities such as gender or ethnicity, Romney turns her attention mainly to “small-group identities” related to discourse on subjects that are especially relevant to symposionparticipants: “hoplite membership, political participation, social behavior, and the relationship between poet and audience” (7). Thus, an advantage of Romney’s small-group, social identity perspective is that it provides a flexible framework for analyzing a variety of discourses pertaining to membership, including language that may not at first glance relate overtly to identity. A poet need not refer explicitly to membership in, say, an ethnic group, to invoke the aspects of identity that interest Romney. Indeed, Romney’s approach makes it clear just how deeply and frequently concerned with membership and belonging these poets were.

Given the advantages and novelty of Romney’s approach to identity in sympotic lyric, I did find myself wishing for a more detailed discussion of identity, the social identity perspective, and the manner in which this approach differs in methodology and result from previous studies of identity in Greek literature. To this reader, at least, the overview of these topics in the Introduction was too cursory. Nevertheless, Romney provides a useful and interesting contribution to the study of identity in ancient Greek literature.

In “Introduction: Language and Identity,” Romney explains her social identity perspective and its applications for lyric poetry, as well as providing some basic overview of related concepts. She opens (1–2) by discussing language as a major means of defining the social world, the self, and identity. Greek lyric poetry in particular being replete with values, social structures, norms, and ideologies, is an act of “social communication” between the poet and the symposiastic group (2).

The remainder of the Introduction is divided into three sections: “Language, Poetry, and Society,” “Lyric Poetry and the Symposion,” and “Group Identity in Archaic Lyric.” In “Language, Poetry, and Society” (2–7), Romney explains that she will approach lyric poetry according to its social function, or how it shapes and is shaped by society. Here, Romney claims an inheritance from sociolinguistics and critical discourse analysis and provides a (somewhat too general) overview of those fields (4–5). This section also introduces Romney’s social identity perspective and her focus on small-group dynamics, distinguishing this method from other identity-based approaches to Classical texts, which have tended to focus on large groups. In “Lyric Poetry and the Symposion” (7–12), Romney provides definitions of both, explaining the various genres that lyric may refer to and some basic context about the symposion. For Romney, sympotic lyric poetry is “a system of genres linked by performance context, where the individual genres are also shaped by metrical, performative, and content/thematic criteria” (9). The symposion is a context for the elite men to define themselves, by means of sympotic ritual and space, as well as the articulation of moral and economic values (e.g., the agathos/kakos distinction) and shared culture, conveyed in large part through lyric poems, which serve a didactic and entertainment function. In “Group Identity in Archaic Lyric” (12–14), Romney concludes the introduction by explaining that her book will provide close readings that explicate the rhetorical strategies by which sympotic lyric constructed archaic, masculine, elite group identity, especially in social, political, and martial terms, and she overviews the four chapters.

Chapter 1, “The Rhetoric and Discourse of Groupness,” offers a preliminary discussion of the main strategies that Romney proposes lyric poets use to foster their own authority and, at the same time, a sense of group membership and common identity in the symposiastic audience. Regardless of meter, genre, or content, Romney argues that archaic lyric poets maintain authority and constructed group identity in consistent ways. The chapter therefore surveys these rhetorical strategies and provides examples before discussing them in the context of the close readings of Chapters 2–4.

In the section of Chapter 1 entitled “Poet as an Authority Figure and Group Member,” Romney examines the poet’s potentially contradictory needs to balance group membership with individual, poetic authority and enumerates four main strategies for maintaining that authority, each one of which is dealt within its own subsection. In “Knowing the Gods and the Future,” Romney contends that by asserting a proximity to the divine and knowledge of the future, the poet adopts an authoritative stance, but that authority is balanced by the poet’s sharing of knowledge with the group, which fosters a sense of membership. In “A Didactic Voice,” Romney examines how the poet adopts the authority of a teacher, by making the case that he has special life knowledge or traditional wisdom. In “Strong I-Statements and Self-Naming,” Romney explains how first-person singular statements establish a common, group perspective opposed to outside voices and may function as first-person plural statements in the context of sympotic performance. “Controlling Memory” explains how the poet builds authority by asserting the ability to memorialize worthy poetic subjects or choose not to memorialize those who do not adhere to group standards. The agreement between poet and group upon mutual standards cultivates group identity, while the poet’s power to glorify increases poetic authority.

In the section of Chapter 1 entitled “Rhetorical Strategies to Groupness, Romney explains the five rhetorical strategies that she contends archaic lyric poets used to build group identity. Each one is discussed in its own subsection. “Fiction of Sameness” explains that authors build group identity by asserting like qualities and/or behaviors, such as participation in the shared space and rituals of the symposion and sympotic norms, the use of first-person pronouns and/or possessive adjectives, shared values, and assertion of similarity to the in-group but differences from the out-group. In “Audience Addresses,” Romney describes methods for building group identity through second-person pronouns, names, and titles. The singular second-person pronoun address creates the illusion of whole-group participation in a personal relationship, whereas the second-person-plural pronoun addressed to the group creates a sense of group unity. The second person can also be used in a hostile address to an outsider, creating an in-group/out-group distinction and thereby fostering in-group cohesion. Names again foster group unity by offering the illusion of a personal or private relationship, in which the group becomes a participant. Titular addresses may foster group identity while also, depending on the title, creating a sense of hierarchy. “Audience Commands” explains the way that commands of various modes have different implications for group identity. First-person-plural commands are both integrative and directive, combining authority and the fostering of group belonging. Second- and third-person commands are more purely directive, and thus assert the poet’s authority more. All second and third persons “operate pragmatically as second person plural commands” (33) because of the confined space of the symposium for second-person commands and the frequent generalizing force of third-person commands. Value judgements embedded in commands reinforce group values, while the future-looking perspective of commands proposes maintenance of group cohesion into the future. In “Shared History,” Romney examines how lyric poets create and revise group memories in order to encourage a sense of shared identity. “Out-Groups and Threats” examines how lyric poets otherize out-groups, explicit or implicit, in order to foster in-group self-definition. Notably, Romney points out that out-groups tend to lack the positive attributes attached to the symposion, such as moderation (40).

Chapter 1 concludes with the section “Group Identities, which defines three large-group identities: politēs or citizen identity, ethnic identity, and regional identity. These large-group identities are not the author’s focus, but when they do occur in archaic lyric, Romney argues that, as preexisting group identities, they can help foster a sense of cohesive identity in the small group of the sympotic audience.

Chapter 2, “Constructing Group Identity: Tyrtaeus and Martial Lyric” (47–88), focuses especially on Tyrtaeus 11 and 12, which Romney argues create an ideal hoplite identity, to which the audience member must aspire to retain membership within the group. In Tyrtaeus 11 (56–67), the poet’s didactic tone and an assertion of knowledge of Zeus create an authoritative stance as he informs the neoi how they should behave in the phalanx. The poet exhorts and commands that the youth, who share a genealogical connection as Herakleidai, should remain steadfast among the promachoi, and not shrink with the tressantes. This combination of exhortation toward proper behavior and shared genealogy fosters group identity in opposition to the negative exemplum of the tressantes. Although this poem has sometimes been interpreted as dividing elite hoplites, in possession of the full panoply, from non-elite, light-armed gymnites, Romney makes the interesting and plausible claim that the poem in fact unites these groups. The gymnites are not outside the phalanx, but lighter-armed members of the phalanx group who can strive like the rest to remain steadfast in battle. This emphasis on proper behavior is unifying because it is accessible to all, unlike proper armament or high birth, which would favor the elite.

A similar emphasis on proper behavior is to be found in Tyrtaeus 12 (67–79), where once again the shield alone, as opposed to the full panoply, is the minimum requisite for group membership, so long as one’s behavior is informed by proper aretē. In Tyrtaeus 12, the poet refuses, in a forceful I-statement, to use his memorializing power to glorify any excellence save for martial aretē, defined as thouris alkē(68–69). The poet is using his authority to enforce the standards of group identity. All andres agathoimust strive in a competition of equals toward martial aretē. This competition unites the group, as opposed to dividing it along class lines, because it does not depend upon birth or wealth. Behavior according to martialaretēis a common good, and the community returns the efforts of the anēr agathos, dead or alive, by proper mourning or honor. The glory of the anēr agathosis quasi-Homeric, but it is toward the betterment of the group, not the kleos of the individual.

After the case studies of Tyrtaeus 11 and 12, the section “Martial Poetry and Identity” offers a survey of martial lyric poems that use similar rhetorical strategies to foster group identity (shared history and sameness, commands, enforcement of group behaviors).[5]

Chapter 3, “Threats to Social Identity: Alcaeus on Exile and Betrayal,” examines how Alcaeus 129 and 130b negotiate the strains of exile upon the group and lay claim to bonds with fellow sympotic hetairoi and polisidentity, even in these threatening circumstances. Alcaeus 129 (94–107), a prayer to Zeus for vengeance, rescues group identity by positioning the tyrant Pittacus as an oath-breaker and out-group, in contrast to the in-group of Alcaeus’s fellows, whose community-oriented behavior in support of the elite hetairoi is contrasted with the individual and base actions of the tyrant: “Pittacus’ inability to participate fully in sympotic discourse and his breaking of the oath deny him the symposiality needed to be a full member of the we-group, while the sameness imposed by the symposion draws the audience group and poet closer together, as they oppose themselves to the outside and the out-group of Pittacus” (106).

In Alcaeus 130b (107–19), the poet uses I-statements to create the fiction of a poetic persona in isolated exile, even as the poem is performed before the sympotic audience of (presumably) fellow exiles. On the one hand, everyone in the audience can identify with the experience recounted by the persona loquens, fostering group identity. However, the fact that the poet in performance and the persona loquens are different entities is also useful to group cohesion. The audience may identify with the isolated persona, but his isolation does not threaten the status of the group, because he is a fictional entity, not the same as any particular group member. The discussion of 130b includes a thoughtful and enjoyable discussion of three spaces within the poem: that of the longed-for polis, that of the wilds or eschatiai, and that of the temenos (a space within the polis, but defined by Romney as a feminine realm in the context of this poem, and thus further distanced from the poet). The poet evokes the spaces to express a longing for the features of polis-life from which he is excluded, while simultaneously asserting an enduring citizen identity.

Following the case studies of Alcaeus, the section of Chapter 3 entitled “Social Identity under Threat: Betrayal and Exile” (119–27) examines a number of other instances in which Theognis, Hipponax, and Archilochus negotiate threats to group identity.

In Chapter 4, “The Group and the Individual: Solon and Political Lyric” (129–65), Romney turns her attention to Solon 4 and 33. In Fragment 4 (136–52), Solon’s first-person persona merges with the “we” of the sympotic audience. This small in-group is in contrast to the larger and vaguely defined out-group of hēgemones and astoi, characterized by over-consumption, which is destroying the polis. Membership in the in-group, on the other hand, implies adherence to the sympotic moderation and political program of eunomiē endorsed here by Solon. In Fragment 33 (152–56), Solon channels the in-group’s laughter towards a persona in the guise of one of his political opponents, who is mocking him in ridiculous and immoderate terms. This iambic attack on the corrupt values of an opponent promotes a group identity that supports Solon’s political and ethical program.

Following these case studies of Solon, the section of Chapter 4 entitled “Political Worlds and Values” (156–65) evaluates instances in which Theognis, Alcaeus, Archilochus, and Phocylides use audience addresses, commands, audience similarity, out-groups, and threats of danger to unite groups in support of political ideals.

In “Conclusion: Identity Through Poetry” (167–74), Romney emphasizes her view that identity is neither essential nor static. Rather, identity is created in an ongoing, social process. Archaic lyric provides “snapshots” (173) of the continual work of constructing and maintaining group identities for the elite, masculine, sympotic poets and their audiences.

Romney certainly succeeds in demonstrating that collective identity was of central importance to sympotic poets. The “rhetorical strategies to groupness” that she articulates here cut across metrical and geographic boundaries and provide a useful framework for future inquiries. Romney’s book is a valuable and stimulating contribution to the study of identity and ancient Greek lyric poetry.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Language and Identity (1-14)
1. The Rhetoric and Discourse of Groupness (15–45)
2. Constructing Group Identity: Tyrtaeus and Martial Lyric (47–88)
3. Threats to Social Identity: Alcaeus on Exile and Betrayal (89–128)
4. The Group and the Individual: Solon and Political Lyric (129–45)
Conclusions: Identity Through Poetry (167–74)


[1] See, e.g., the bibliographies at Classics at the Intersections and Diotíma.

[2] Especially Bethan Benwell and Elizabeth Stokoe, Discourse and Identity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006).

[3] Others include: Julia Shear, Serving Athena: The Festival of the Panathenaia and the Construction of Athenian Identities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021) [published after the volume under review]; Nicolas Wiater, The Ideology of Classicism: Language, History, and Identity in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte 105 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011); Susan Lape, Race and Citizen Identity in the Classical Athenian Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).>

[4] See Peter Meineck, William M. Short, and Jennifer Devereaux, eds., The Routledge Handbook of Classics and Cognitive Theory (London: Routledge, 2019). Romney herself is a contributor to this volume.

[5] There is a confusing translation from the Greek in Chapter 2. In the two quotations of Tyrtaeus 12 on pp. 68 and 70, the Greek is divided in the middle of a conditional in an unnatural way, rendering the translation unclear.


1. We live in a political era dominated by discourse on identity. Do you see this study of ancient identity as relevant to our present political moment? If so, how? If not, why not?

Oh, the dreaded “relevance” question… I suppose the answer is yes and no, and my hesitance to go further than that derives from a point Garret Fagan made in his book on the Roman arena, namely that while we can talk about commonalities of psychological processes shared by the present and classical antiquity, we should not assume commonalities in behaviour. Lyric Poetry examines a body of poetry that interacts with a changing sociopolitical world in the Greek poleis: effective citizenship broadens, economic prosperity expands, and new poleis are being founded around the Mediterranean. The lyric poems preserve some of the ways elite citizen men reacted to this changing situation and the effects it had on the social and political groups that intersect with the symposion.

Now in some respects what we are seeing today is similar, particularly when compared to Theognis’s grumblings or Solon’s chidings of the citizen body of Athens. Many countries are experiencing economic changes and destabilization, while there are calls for electing a more diverse cast of politicians so that elected officials in the U.S. and Canada (and elsewhere) better represent the demographics of their constituencies. In response to those calls, we see the reactions of the elite political class and those who see their interests represented by them, or who think they will represent their interests. Where the present political moment differs is that we don’t just have the voices of the political elites; we have many others as social media, the internet, and reduced publication costs have opened up new spaces for non-dominant voices to be heard and be recorded. Plus, there are people in the political majority and the political elites who are both listening to the voices of non-dominant groups and are agreeing with them. So instead of just one side of the reaction to sociopolitical change, we have many, and because non-dominant groups, who often collectively outnumber the social or political “majority,” are able to advocate and effect change, we also have reactions upon reactions that we do not see in the ancient material.

I think the more we understand the multitude of ways group identities will be affected by changing social, economic, and political contexts, the better. But at the same time, we must be highly cognizant of the fact that groups will react differently in the present or future than they have in the past because of the different social and historical contexts.

2. Can you elaborate in more detail about how your social identity perspective differs from previous dominant approaches to the study of identity in ancient literature, both in terms of approach and result? For example, how does your approach achieve different results than, say, a study that might focus on ethnic or civic identities? 

One of the points of the social identity perspective that I haven’t seen stressed as much in previous studies of ancient identity is the issue of salience: the more salient a group membership is to an individual, the more important their social identity as based in membership in that group is. When we consider the issue of salience, the questions change from “Is X identity important?” to “When is X identity important?” And I think that’s important; my identity as a Canadian citizen is not important all the time, but only at certain points when the context demands it (say, watching the gold-medal U.S.–Canada hockey game), and the same is the case in ancient Greece: the Athenians are perfectly happy to define themselves in terms of their Hellenicity during Xerxes’ invasion (Hdt. 8.144), but fifty years later, their identity as Ionian Greeks is more important in the new context of battling Sparta for hegemony of Greece. The social identity perspective forces us to attend to as many different contexts as we can to see what identities are operating, how they are defining their groups, and, most importantly, why they are salient in that particular moment or context.

There’s always a danger in studying identities that once we find a dominant form of identity rhetoric for one period or context, we want to apply it to other contexts and periods. I think that’s where many studies of ethnic and civic identities open themselves up to critique, especially when they use fifth- and fourth-century evidence for the Archaic period. I don’t know if I have completely avoided that danger, but I do think that the attention to group membership, institutional and sociohistorical contexts, and the audience expectations that the social identity perspective and sociolinguistic principles advocate for does help us mitigate it.

3. Are there any features of symposiastic poetry that should not be interpreted in light of the social identity perspective? Or is symposiastic poetry so inherently tied to group membership that social identity is always in play? 

More the latter question than the former, I think. Social identities cannot be divorced from a group, its gatherings, and its activities. In that respect, your second question hits the nail on the head: when a sympotic group gets together, plays their games, and performs their poems, they are engaging in the construction of the group as such; in this sense, sympotic activity is social identity work for the particular group at hand.

At the same time, however, social identities are not always at the fore; most of the time, identity work happens with no one the wiser, and in this, identity operates much like ideology. It is only when there is some sort of crisis (which can range from minute to massive) that identity work becomes more visible: someone disagrees with dominant group values, the socioeconomic hierarchy is destabilized, new population groups move into the city, etc. All of those changes prompt an expression of identity, as seen most visibly in Theognis’s grumblings about the changing social situation in his polis>/i>. So for your first question, I’d say that it’s not so much that there are features that shouldn’t be interpreted in light of the social identity perspective, but rather we should ask when identity work is more or less important. For example, calls for everyone to drink together are calls for group unity. But Alcaeus making that call while (hypothetically) giving Pittacus a pointed look is very different from Archilochus making that call while he and his friends get drunk; the first is an active strategy for enforcing group identity and unity, the latter a neutral function of drinking in a group setting and social interactions in general.

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