Signs of Orality: The Oral Tradition and Its Influence in the Greek and Roman World

Signs of Orality: The Oral Tradition and Its Influence in the Greek and Roman World

Signs of Orality: The Oral Tradition and Its Influence in the Greek and Roman World

Signs of Orality: The Oral Tradition and Its Influence in the Greek and Roman World


The essays in this volume present new insights into the far-reaching influence of an early oral culture on subsequent development after the spread of literacy. At the outset, revisionist essays on the Homeric epics examine such questions as historical memory, Homers audience(s), descriptive strategies, ring-composition, and the status of orality as a constitutive feature of the epics. These are followed by virtually unprecedented studies of the orality of later (written) literature, including Greek oratory, Virgilian epic, Plinys Panegyricus and story-telling in late Greek writers. Included as well are two discussions of Athenian vase-painting: annular scene-composition in the black-figure tradition, and the implications of kalos-inscriptions. An introduction by leading oral theorist John Miles Foley situates all the essays at the leading edge of oral theoretical development.


The intention of this volume is to offer a critical examination of the perceived interface between oral tradition and written literature in the ancient world. This reflects a current trend among oral theorists towards challenging the construct of an oral tradition in counterpoise to subsequent written literature, and recognising that the oral traditional narrative system continued to pervade potentially every form of cultural expression in the subsequent literate development of the society, wherever written or other forms of text (such as vase-paintings) relate to traditional or traditionalised forms of verbal presentation. The chapters were originally delivered as papers at a conference entitled Epos and Logos, held at the University of Natal, Durban, South Africa in July 1996. The title of the volume was inspired by John Miles Foley’s keynote address at the conference, “Reading between the signs: Homer and Oral Tradition”, which explored the concept of the word sêma (sign) in relation to reception of the Homeric texts in particular and oral literature more generally. Epos and Logos was the second in what has become a biennial series of orality conferences: the first, entitled Voice into Text, was organised by Ian Worthington at the University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia in July 1994, and the third, also under the title Epos and Logos, is to be hosted in July 1998 by Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, with Janet Watson as organiser.

Throughout the volume, translations from Greek and Latin are the authors’ own unless otherwise indicated; while an attempt has been made to standardise the spelling of Greek names in transliterated form, the usual anomalies must be acknowledged in the interests of traditional reference: some, like Sokrates, were hesitated over, Thoukydides was rejected along with Aristoteles and Platon. Names of Greek works are

For a report on this conference, see N. W. Slater in Gnomon 69.6 (1997), 571; abstracts of all the papers delivered at the conference are published in Scholia. Natal Studies in Classical Antiquity 5 (1996), 161–70, and may also be accessed electronically. The papers selected for this volume have all been peer-refereed.

A detailed discussion is included in Foley (1999: Ch.l).

Selected proceedings of the Tasmania conference were published in Worthington (1996).

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