New research on a little-known text written in ancient Greek shows that “accented poetry”, the ancestor of all modern poetry and song, was already in use in the 2sd Century AD, 300 years earlier than previously thought.
In its shortest version, the anonymous four-line poem says “they say what they like; let them say it; I do not care “. Other versions expand with “Come on, love me; it makes you feel good ”. The experimental verse became popular throughout the Eastern Roman Empire and survives because, in addition to probably being shared orally, it was found inscribed on twenty gemstones and in graffito form in Cartagena, Spain.
Comparing all known examples for the first time, Cambridge professor Tim Whitmarsh (Faculty of Classics) noticed that the poem used a different form of metric than is usually found in ancient Greek poetry. In addition to showing signs of the long and short syllables characteristic of traditional “quantitative” verse, this text employed stressed and unstressed syllables. Until now, “accented poetry” of this genre was unknown before the 5th century, when it began to be used in Byzantine Christian hymns.
Professor Whitmarsh said: “You didn’t need expert poets to create this kind of musicalized language, and the diction is very simple, so it was clearly a democratizing form of literature. We have an exciting glimpse into a form of oral pop culture lurking beneath the surface of classical culture.
The new study, published in The Classic Cambridge 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 we know today.
The poem, unprecedented in the classical world, consists of verses of 4 syllables, with a strong emphasis on the first and a weaker on the third. This allows it to fit into the rhythms of many pop and rock songs, such as “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry.
Whitmarsh said: “We have known for a long time that there was popular poetry in ancient Greek, but much of what survives takes a form similar to traditional high poetics. This poem, on the other hand, points to a distinct and flourishing, mostly oral, culture which, luckily for us in this case, has also found its way onto a number of gemstones.
When asked why the discovery had not been made before, Whitmarsh said, “These artifacts have been studied in isolation. Gemstones are studied by one group of scholars, the inscriptions on them by another. They have not been seriously studied before as literature. People looking at these coins usually aren’t looking for changes in metric patterns.
Whitmarsh hopes scholars of the medieval period will be satisfied: “This confirms what some medievalists suspected, that the dominant form of Byzantine verse developed organically from changes in classical antiquity.
In its written form (which shows some minor variations) the poem reads as follows:
?? They say
θέλουσιν What they like
?? Let them say it
οὐ μέλι μοι I do not care
?? ??με Come on, love me
????σοι it makes you feel good
The precious stones on which the poem was inscribed were usually agate, onyx or sardonyx, all varieties of chalcedony, a mineral abundant and relatively inexpensive throughout the Mediterranean region. Archaeologists have 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 in the Aquincum Museum in Budapest (image available for reproduction with credit line).
Whitmarsh believes that these written props were primarily purchased by people of the middle ranks of Roman society. He argues that the distribution of gemstones from Spain to Mesopotamia sheds new light on an emerging culture of “mass individualism” characteristic of our own consumer culture of late capitalism.
Whitmarsh said: “The closest modern equivalent is probably a Quote T-shirt. When you have people across a huge empire eager to buy things that connect them to the centers of fashion and power, you have the conditions for a simple poem to go viral, and that’s clearly what’s happening. passed here.
The study points out that “they say what they like; let them say it; I don’t care ”is almost endlessly adaptable, to fit virtually any counter-cultural context. The first half of the poem would have sounded like a claim for philosophical independence: the validation of an individual perspective contrary to popular belief. But most versions of the text have two extra lines that take the poem from an abstract discourse about what “they” say to a more dramatic relationship between “you” and “me.” The text avoids determining a precise scenario but the last lines strongly suggest something erotic.
The meaning could simply be interpreted as “show me affection and you will benefit from it,” but, according to Whitmarsh, the words “they say” should be re-read as an expression of society’s disapproval of an unconventional relationship.
The poem allowed people to express provocative individualism, differentiating them from trivial gossip, the study suggests. What mattered instead was the real intimacy shared between “you” and “me,” a feeling that was malleable enough to suit virtually any wearer.
Such claims to unconventional individuality were, however, pre-written, first because the “reckless” rhetoric was borrowed from high literature and philosophy, suggesting that the owners of the poetic gems cared, after all, of what the classical literati said. And secondly, because the gems themselves were mass-produced by workshops and exported everywhere.
Whitmarsh says: “I think the poem was appealing because it allowed people to escape local classification and claim their participation in a network of sophists who ‘have’ this kind of playful, sexually charged discourse. “
“The Roman Empire radically transformed the classical world, interconnecting it in all kinds of ways. This poem is not about an imposed order of the imperial elite but about an ascending pop culture that is sweeping the entire empire. The same conditions allowed the spread of Christianity; and when Christians began to write hymns, they would have known that poems in this accented form resonated with ordinary people.
Whitmarsh made his discovery after finding a version of the poem in a collection of inscriptions and tweeting that it looked a bit like a poem but not quite. Cambridge colleague Anna Lefteratou, native Greek speaker, replied that it reminded her of later medieval poetry.
Whitmarsh said: “It made me dig below the surface and once I did, these connections to Byzantine poetry became clearer and clearer. It was really a containment project. I wasn’t doing the normal thing of flitting around with a million ideas in my head. I was stuck at home with a limited number of books and obsessively rereading until I realized it was something really special.
There is no world catalog of listed ancient gemstones and Whitmarsh believes there may be other examples of the poem in public and private collections, or awaiting excavation.