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New Discovery Reveals Thriving Pop Culture in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece pop culture
The poem inscribed on a cameo on a medallion of glass paste (2nd to 3rd century CE) found in a sarcophagus around the neck of a deceased young woman in what is now Hungary. Credit: Aquincum Museum

A new discovery by a British archaeologist at UK’s Cambridge University reveals that in ancient Greece there was a thriving pop culture.

Professor Tim Whitmarsh, studied a little-known text written in ancient Greek showing that “stressed poetry,” the ancestor of all modern poetry and song, was already in use in the 2nd Century CE, 300 years earlier than previously thought.

In its shortest version, the anonymous four-line poem reads “they say what they like; let them say it; I don’t care.” Other versions extend with “Go on, love me; it does you good.”

The experimental verse became popular across the eastern Roman Empire and survives because, as well as presumably being shared orally, it has been found inscribed on twenty gemstones and as a graffito in Cartagena, Spain.

By comparing all of the known examples for the first time, Whitmarsh noticed that the poem used a different form of metre to that usually found in ancient Greek poetry. As well as showing signs of the long and short syllables characteristic of traditional “quantitative” verse, this text employed stressed and unstressed syllables.

Until now, “stressed poetry” of this kind has been unknown before the fifth century, when it began to be used in Byzantine Christian hymns.

“Exciting glimpse” of oral pop culture in ancient Greece

Professor Whitmarsh told Cambridge University magazine: “You didn’t need specialist poets to create this kind of musicalized language, and the diction is very simple, so this was a clearly a democratizing form of literature. We’re getting an exciting glimpse of a form of oral pop culture that lay under the surface of classical culture.”

The new study, published in The Cambridge Classical Journal, also suggests that this poem could represent a “missing link” between the lost world of ancient Mediterranean oral poetry and song, and the more modern forms that we know today.

The poem, unparalleled so far in the classical world, consists of lines of 4 syllables, with a strong accent on the first and a weaker on the third. This allows it to slot into the rhythms of numerous pop and rock songs, such as Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”

Whitmarsh says: “We’ve known for a long time that there was popular poetry in ancient Greek, but a lot of what survives takes a similar form to traditional high poetics. This poem, on the other hand, points to a distinct and thriving culture, primarily oral, which fortunately for us in this case also found its way onto a number of gemstones.”

Asked why the discovery hasn’t been made before, Whitmarsh says: “These artefacts have been studied in isolation. Gemstones are studied by one set of scholars, the inscriptions on them by another. They haven’t been seriously studied before as literature. People looking at these pieces are not usually looking for changes in metrical patterns.”

Whitmarsh hopes that scholars of the medieval period will be pleased: “It confirms what some medievalists had suspected, that the dominant form of Byzantine verse developed organically out of changes that came about in classical antiquity.”

In its written form, the poem reads

Λέγουσιν They say

ἃ θέλουσιν What they like

λεγέτωσαν Let them say it

οὐ μέλι μοι I don’t care

σὺ φίλι με Go on, love me

συνφέρι σοι It does you good

The gemstones on which the poem was inscribed were generally agate, onyx or sardonyx, all varieties of chalcedony, an abundant and relatively inexpensive mineral across the Mediterranean region.

Archaeologists found the most beautiful and best-preserved example around the neck of a young woman buried in a sarcophagus in what is now Hungary. The gem is now held in Budapest’s Aquincum Museum.

Whitmarsh believes that these written accessories were mostly bought by people from the middle ranks of Roman society. He argues that the distribution of the gemstones from Spain to Mesopotamia sheds new light on an emerging culture of “mass individualism” characteristic of our own late-capitalist consumer culture.

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