If we went to 21st-century America and all we studied was modern poetry, we wouldn't really get a sense of everything. You have to study architecture, entertainment, living patterns, even garbage.

Stephanie Larson

Stephanie Larson, associate professor of classics and one of Bucknell's two National Endowment for the Humanities Chairs in the Humanities 2009-2012, hopes to reveal new layers of a still-mysterious past through her original research on poetry and culture from the sixth and early fifth centuries B.C.E. She is researching a book about the ancient Greek poet Pindar, who was born in Boeotia in 522 B.C. Early in his career, Pindar made "cultural history as an individual poet from this region," says Larson: his performances commanded high fees, and his venues included the famous panhellenic Games in Olympia and spectacles at Delphi.

As with many literary figures of antiquity, getting to know Pindar is a difficult task. Detailed biographical information is scarce; however, Larson is not interested in recreating a "true" biography.  Rather, she seeks to elucidate Pindar's subtle celebration of Boeotian culture through his poetry.  Her preliminary research reveals that despite Pindar's mainstream success, he was an underhanded rebel of the times, using panhellenic poetry to counteract the negative stereotypes of his home province. Most of the surviving literature from ancient Greece comes from Athens, the political enemy of Boeotia. The Athenians "constantly portrayed the Boeotians as these sort of rustic, provincial, uncivilized boors," Larson says. By examining the numerous Pindaric odes side by side, Larson is discerning patterns the poet used to extol the virtues of Boeotia. He tended to praise local heroes, such as Herakles, a Theban, and interspersed details of his own life in his work, even in poems that seemingly had nothing to do with these subjects on the surface.

Larson also is working on articles dealing with the Greek writers Sappho and Herodotus. Sappho is the only female Greek poet of her day from whom an entire poem survives. Larson has examined Sappho's view of Homer's Penelope. Over the ages, men have praised Penelope as a patient, chaste and long-suffering wife, the ideal of Greek womanhood. Yet it appears that Penelope, too, could also be interpreted by women and for women.  Larson suggests that in one of Sappho's most famous poems (fragment 94), the poet alludes to Penelope and her faithful longing for her husband, Odysseus. Here Sappho subverts aspects of Penelope's fictional story, thereby poignantly highlighting the focus on separation and change in the poem. In the scholarly community, there is an enduring debate about the context in which the poem was originally performed in seventh-century B.C.E. Greece. Larson's interpretation bolsters the view that the poem was first performed about the time of an impending marriage of a young woman involved in a civic ritual celebrating marriage and thus that the poem in fact is meant to comment artistically, culturally and politically on the meaning and merits of such rituals. Larson's Sappho article will appear in print in 2010.

Larson's new research on Herodotus examines his interest in Eros, the Greek god of love, as applied to Herodotus' interest in moralizing the politics of the day. Larson argues that Herodotus viewed erotic attraction toward women as a common characteristic of tyrants who had lost their grip on decency.  Tyrants who exhibit such lust in Herodotus' work will inevitably fall.  Interestingly, such predicted downfall appears particularly prominently in accounts of the rival Persian king Xerxes.

In both her scholarly work and in her teaching, Larson looks beyond the writers' words to piece together their stories, diving into archeology, history and art to get a more complete picture. "If we went to 21st-century America and all we studied was modern poetry, we wouldn't really get a sense of everything. You have to study architecture, entertainment, living patterns, even garbage," she says. "You can't really understand something unless you try to uncover every little bit of evidence you can. It's harder when you get further back in time, because less evidence survives through the centuries, but then again, it's more fun that way, too."

Posted Sept. 9, 2009

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