Less Care More Stress.

Tim Whitmarsh’s “Less Care More Stress: A Rhythmic Poem from the Roman Empire” (published last month in the Cambridge Classical Journal; the title is a play on the self-help slogan “Less Stress, More Care”) describes an intriguing little text found all over the eastern Roman empire in the second century:

In this article I consider an anonymous popular text – a poem, I believe, but that identification presumes the discussion below – that was widely circulated across the Empire. My aim is twofold: to collate and publish it; and to reflect on what it can tell us about Greek metrics, poetics and literary value in the Roman period. This brief text, I argue, shines important new light on the emergence of stress-based (as distinct from quantitative) poetry. […]

The text, in its fuller form, reads:

ἃ θέλουσιν
οὐ μέλι μοι
σὺ φίλι με
συνφέρι σοι

They say
what they like
let them say [it]
I don’t care
you [go ahead and] love me
it does you good

Whitmarsh says:

The diction is unambitious. The verbs belong to the beginner’s Greek lexicon; there are no nouns, adjectives or adverbs. There is no sign of Atticism: in particular, the third-person imperative -έτωσαν ending, which is regular for the koine of the era, is censured by Atticist authorities, who prefer -όντων. […] The spelling συφέρι (in no. 8) also reflects a feature that is ‘not normally found in decrees and documents in which the writing is of a high standard’. In terms of language, then, our text and its inscribers do not lay claim to literary elevation. This is perhaps what one would expect, given the relatively modest value of the gems themselves: agate, onyx and sardonyx, the material on which the majority of texts are inscribed, are all varieties of chalcedony, an abundant mineral in the Mediterranean region.

He goes on to discuss meter (“Our text appears to make use of the stress accent to govern rhythm, in the manner of post-antique Greek poetry”), the use of half-rhymes, and interpretation:

This short version of the text means ‘they say what they like; let them say it; I don’t care’. This reads as a popular-philosophical proverb: the speaker’s view is set in defiant opposition to that of an unspecified majority. As a sentiment, this is almost infinitely adaptable, to suit practically any countercultural context. In a Greek context, however, the claim will have resonated as a claim to philosophical independence. […] οὐ μέλει μοι, indeed, may even carry a countercultural charge. μέλει μοι means ‘I acknowledge my responsibility’: it is a marker of submission to social expectations. […] We might think of Herodotus’ equally famous story of Hippoclides dancing away his marriage, with its epigrammatic conclusion: ‘that’s of no concern to Hippoclides!’ (οὐ φροντὶς Ἱπποκλείδῃ, Hdt. 6.129). To reject ‘care’ in this way is to assert individualism within a social context that demands submission and recognition of obligation.

Most transmitted versions of the text, however, carry an extra two lines, which change its meaning. We shift suddenly from speaking abstractly about what ‘they’ say to a more dramatic relationship between ‘you’ (σύ, σοι) and the ‘me’ (μοι) introduced at the end of line 4. The aggressive imperative φίλι με and the presumptuous συνφέρι σοι create a new urgency.

He quotes Catullus 5 (“Viuamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus”) and the Anacreontea, then turns to “contexts”:

Our text, therefore, appealed not because it identified its wearer as a certain kind of person, but for precisely the opposite reason: because it allowed individuals to escape local pigeon-holing, and claim participation in an indeterminate network of translocal sophisticates who ‘get’ this kind of playful, elliptical discourse freighted with covert sexual aggression. […] We are, perhaps, not far (in essence, if admittedly not in terms of scale) from the paradox of ‘mass individualism’ that has been identified as a characteristic of late-capitalist consumer culture (and which Monty Python’s Life of Brian famously satirised).

He ends with some sensible conclusions:

Given the two lines of anacreontics identified by Gallavotti, and indeed the Anacreontic flavour of the ‘careless’ rejection of the words of others, it is possible that our text started out life as a quantitatively metical poem; in the canonical form in which it circulated, however, across the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries CE, its metre was tied to stressed rhythm. This makes it the earliest example of a Greek stress-based poem identified to date. But there is no great surprise in this: it is highly likely that stressed poetry was circulating in oral form long before it manifested itself in high literature. Indeed, its adoption for late-antique Christian hymns, designed as they were to appeal to a broad audience, is strong evidence that stressed poetry was at that stage deeply rooted in oral contexts. If we knew more about the oral culture of the High Empire we would no doubt have many more parallels.

The simple, alluring beat, coupled with its half-rhymes, must have been one reason for the text’s popularity. Another was its adaptability into an elegant, patterned colometry that appealed aesthetically to the eye. But form is not the only explanation for its success. Our text allowed its bearer to stake a claim to individuality by rejecting social orthodoxy (what ‘they say’), and asserting instead a strong bond between ‘you’ and ‘me’. […]

Wearers of our text will be staking a claim, however indirect, to membership of the educated elite. At the same time, the text displays a number of markers of independence from the strict demands of classicism: subliterary diction and morphology, and most prominently the superimposed stress rhythm (borrowed from the popular uersus quadratus – whether in the well-attested Latin variety or in a Greek form that is otherwise unknown to us). Our text shows that it is aware of the poetic rules established by the canon; it simply does not care to abide by them (let the high theorists of quantitative metre say what they will). This text exemplifies both the pull of and the push against the normative classicism enshrined by the Second Sophistic. This tension was the stimulus for the creation of an experimental poem – let us finally give it that title – that was, apparently, unprecedented in the Greek world, and in formal terms at any rate astonishingly sophisticated.

I like a scholar who can quote both Catullus and Monty Python, and I’ve always loved that carefree “οὐ φροντὶς Ἱπποκλείδῃ” (which I have often muttered to myself over the years).


  1. PlasticPaddy says

    Olleke bolleke
    Maybe the author was pimping a verse from a kid’s rhyming song/game. Compare also Higgledy Piggledy, my black hen.

  2. January First-of-May says

    Olleke bolleke

    Эники-беники ели вареники.

    (I could swear we’ve discussed this Russian ditty on LH before, but Google doesn’t find any results.)

  3. “It does you good.”


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