Date of Award

Spring 2011

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Classical Studies

First Advisor

Dr. Sheila Murnaghan

Second Advisor

Dr. Ralph Rosen

Third Advisor

Dr. Peter Struck



Alison C. Traweek

Dr. Sheila Murnaghan

This dissertation explores how prose authors of the Classical period envisioned literary distinctions, particularly how and when they labeled a particular utterance ‘poetic’. The first chapter addresses fifth-century prose authors whose work survives in significant degree (Herodotus, Thucydides), or whose projects are inherently interested in literary categorization (Gorgias). The second chapter continues the investigation, looking now at relevant fourth-century authors who show an explicit interest in literary categories and, especially, the place of poetry (Isocrates, Plato). The final chapter addresses Aristotle’s treatment of poetry. The foundation of the project is a semantic analysis of the language used to describe or single out a work or production as poetic. The primary terms are various POI- root words (e.g. poivhma, poihthv~); various words of song (e.g. ajoidov~, mevlo~); and several adjectives and adverbs that consistently appear in the period in discussions of literary distinctions. There emerges, when these terms are traced through time, a clear picture of the ongoing instability of literary categories. Meter is consistently put forward as a formal feature that marks off poetry from prose, for instance, but it is just as consistently rejected by the same authors as a satisfying distinction; instead, further categories defined by subtler features are introduced to more accurately describe literary productions, and those productions’ relationship to the poetic. Studying how the authors of this period distinguished literary categories makes it clear that our emphasis on the contrast between prose and poetry is too simplistic. Rather, the continual negotiations we see these authors engaged in when trying to define the poetic alerts us to the relative nature of literary categories, and how poetry only becomes what it is in contrast to what it is not.