New Oil in Old Jars Hipponax's Lekythos-Throw and Aristophanes' Frogs 1198-247

By Steiner, Deborah | Helios, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
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New Oil in Old Jars Hipponax's Lekythos-Throw and Aristophanes' Frogs 1198-247


Steiner, Deborah, Helios


This discussion has its origins in a common article, ubiquitous in Greek life: the oil jar or lekythos. Probably first made of leather, and subsequently from clay (although more expensive materials like glass or precious metal could be used on occasion), the lekythos was filled with oil, unguents, wine, cosmetics, or whatever could be made to fit in it. (1) The vessel might appear in many different contexts, whether at funerals (where it was buried with the body), in the kitchen, or among the articles used by women in their beauty regimes. According to our ancient sources, it was one of the accessories that individuals of both sexes most commonly had about their persons. Walking to and from the gymnasium or baths, Athenians (or their slaves) regularly carried the small object, along with a strigil, so as to rub and cleanse their skins with oil after exercising or bathing. This mundane object also had a long and varied literary career, (2) appearing in classical and postclassical authors who invested it with functions and meanings sometimes very different from those that it fulfilled in daily practice. In this article I treat two lekythoi in the literary accounts and argue for a possible intertextual relation between the episodes in which they appear. These several incidents also serve to make two broader points, whose relevance to the humdrum oil jar will become apparent: first, Hipponax's songs may have included a degree of literary self-consciousness and programmatic reflection more regularly associated with other authors and different genres; and second, the conceit of a literary a [gamma] [omega] v, which pits rival practitioners of the same or different poetic and aesthetic modes one against the other, might not only be a standard framework for exchanges of mockery and abuse in Old Comedy, but might belong among the several points of affinity between that genre and archaic iambos. (3)

I

My argument begins with an anecdote conspicuously absent from the half dozen or so modern discussions of figurative uses of lekythos and its compounds in the ancient sources. The episode appears no less than three times among the extant testimonia for the life of Hipponax. Grouped in Degani's (1983) edition as testimonia 19, 19a, and 19b, the three texts are so similar in language and content that they most probably derive from a single source, possibly an earlier commentator on Hipponax. (4)

  [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Testim. 19: Metrodorous
  Scepsius 184 F 6 J. ap. Athenaeus 12.552c-d [T 5 Gerber])

  Metrodorus of Scepsius in the second book of his 'On the Art of
  Training' says that the poet Hipponax was not only small of body but
  also thin and yet was so muscular that in addition to other feats he
  threw even an empty oil flask a very great distance, although light
  objects because of their inability to cleave the air do not have a
  strong momentum. (Trans. Gerber 1999)

  [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Testim. 19a: Aelian, VH 10.6)

  They say that the poet Hipponax was not only small of body and ugly,
  but also thin.

  [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Testim. 19b: Eustathius ad Hom.
  [PSI] 844 [1332, 54ff.])

  One must know with regard to Polypoites that those throwing [the
  discus] in the discus competition are said to be muscular, just as,
  they say, the following makes clear. Hipponax the poet, although he
  was small of body and thin, was yet so muscular that in addition to
  other feats he threw even an empty oil flask a very great distance,
  for all that objects having light bodies, such as an empty oil flask,
  do not have a strong momentum because of their inability to cleave
  the air.

In the only recent and sustained discussion of the anecdote, Ralph Rosen (1990) endorses earlier readers' suggestion that the episode had its origins in Hipponax's poetry and argues that the no longer extant composition would have involved an incident where the poet portrayed himself as mocked for his seeming debility and "challenged to a competition" (Rosen 1990, 13).

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