“Entwining Greek with Asian Speech”: Studies on Timotheus of Miletus’The Persians

Milena Anfosso

  Anfosso, Milena. “Entwining Greek with Asian Speech”: Studies on Timotheus of Miletus’ The Persians. CHS Research Bulletin 9 (2021).


As a Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies, I am currently developing the results of a chapter of my dissertation with the aim of producing my first monograph entitled: “Entwining Greek with Asian Speech”: Studies on Timotheus of Miletus’ The Persians. My goal is to shed light on some understudied aspects of one of the most difficult (and controversial) pieces of Greek literature through an unprecedented interdisciplinary approach. The piece in question is the citharodic nome The Persians, a poetic description of the Battle of Salamis (480 BCE) by the lyric poet Timotheus of Miletus (late fifth century BCE). In order to explain some specific features that I noticed while digging into this fascinating text, I am using conceptual tools that have been elaborated on in modern sociolinguistics and pragmatics, as well as more traditional methods drawn from historical/comparative linguistics and classical philology. I hope that this novel attitude towards Timotheus’ The Persians will do justice to the poetic composition itself, too frequently underestimated by literary critics, and help us better understand the multilingual and multicultural situation that characterized Western Anatolia in the Achaemenid Era.


I started developing an interest in Timotheus of Miletus’ poem The Persians in 2016, while I was writing my dissertation on the sociolinguistic relationships between ancient Greek(s) and Phrygian(s) (Anfosso 2019). Indeed, I noticed that this poem featured a linguistically interesting passage for my purposes, since a soldier from the Phrygian city par excellence in Greek literature, i.e. Kelainai (Ivantchik, von Kienlin, Summerer 2013: 222), was portrayed speaking in broken Greek (verses 150–161). However, the verses in question had never been studied from a perspective which could highlight the linguistically mimetic skills of Timotheus who, considering his Milesian origin, must have had some knowledge of the epichoric languages spoken in Western Anatolia at his time – at least in terms of their overall “impression.” Thus, I decided to dig deeper, until the Phrygian soldier’s speech became the subject of Chapter 2 of my dissertation. During my dissertation defense at Sorbonne University in 2019, this Chapter was unanimously praised by my Jury as the most innovative part of my entire dissertation, an effective synthesis of my skills in linguistics, philology, and history. Since this topic seemed so promising, in the summer of 2019 I drafted a research proposal with the intent of transforming Chapter 2 into a monograph. I could not expect anything better than Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies supporting my book project, entitled “Entwining Greek with Asian Speech”: Studies on Timotheus of Miletus’ The Persians.

Timotheus of Miletus’ citharodic nome The Persians (late fifth century BCE) is a lyric description of the naval battle of Salamis (480 BCE) fought between an alliance of Greek city-states under Themistocles and the Persian Empire under King Xerxes. Eventually, the battle resulted in a decisive victory for the outnumbered Greeks. The Persian Wars (499–479 BCE) were a popular literary subject between the late fifth and the early fourth century BCE. What is particularly remarkable is that Timotheus chose to describe the battle from the Persians’ perspective (cf. the most famous example, Aeschylus’ tragedy The Persians, 472 BCE), using a peculiar structure, i.e. a series of episodes, each of which contains a narrative introduction and a speech. In these impassioned speeches, the poet not only expressed the different emotions of his characters with his music, but he also mimicked their different voices, playing with four different registers, and adapting the language to the social level and the ethnic origin of each character. By doing so, he was able to display strongly contrasted pictures of the defeat experienced by the Persians at Salamis:

  1. through the words of a rich Persian lord (verses 72–81);
  2. through a chorus of shipwrecked ordinary men from Lydia or Mysia (verses 105–138);
  3. through the desperate gibberish of a humble soldier from Kelainai (verses 150–161);
  4. through the lament of the Great King of Persia himself, Xerxes (verses 178–195).
The impressive painting entitled Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis (1868, oil on canvas, 560 x 980 cm, Munich, Maximilianeum Collection), by Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1805–1874), is the most important representation of the Battle of Salamis realized in the modern age. The Romantic painter was surely influenced by Herodotus’ account in the Histories (Amendola 2016: 29–31) and by Aeschylus’ evocation of the battle in The Persians (Amendola 2016: 31–41).

In my book, these speeches will be analyzed for the first time on the basis of concepts elaborated in modern sociolinguistics and pragmatics. Since Timotheus of Miletus was one of the best ancient Greek musicians, the musical background of The Persians will be taken into account as well. Indeed, as Maurice Croiset (1903: 343) effectively stated more than a century ago, in Timotheus’ poetry language itself is music. This means that Timotheus’ lexical choice was undoubtedly driven by the words’ intrinsic musical qualities in order to make his poetry highly evocative, liable to lure the ear, and appeal to the senses.

In The Persians, the “most extreme” speech from a linguistic point of view is, of course, the Phrygian soldier’s one. Many features of this speech have traditionally been stigmatized as being just linguistically incorrect or reflecting Timotheus’ baroque virtuosity and his adherence to so-called “New Music” (cf. among the most recent commentaries: Janssen 1984; Hordern 2002; Sevieri 2011; Lambin 2013). Since this approach seemed to be too narrow to me, I have opted for another one, in my opinion more suitable to account for Timotheus’ linguistically mimetic skills.

Ancient Greeks perceived Greek language as the most important criterion to determine their own “ethnic identity”, which distinguished them from non-Greeks, i.e. barbarôi, ‘barbarians’, a term purely linguistic in origin that referred to non-Greek speakers. Since in literary fiction it was impossible to entirely reproduce a “barbarian language”, i.e. a non-Greek idiom, other ways to give an impression of foreign speakers had to be implemented by ancient Greek authors. In sociolinguistics, the incomplete linguistic competence of a non-native speaker in a target language is known as a linguistic register called broken language (Ferguson and DeBose 1977), which can be easily imitated by a native speaker through a register called secondary foreigner talk (Hinnenkamp 1982: 40–41). The deliberate usage of this register in literary fiction is a very precise technique that aims to obtain different effects, from mimetic realism to humorous parody, up to ethnic denigration, according to the author’s needs (Traugott and Pratt 1980: 358–397).

Taking all this into account, I have been able to explain the deviations from the norm of Greek language in the Phrygian soldier’s speech:

  1. in terms of linguistic strategies deployed by Timotheus in order to reproduce in a credible way the type of Greek spoken by the Phrygian soldier in the frame of secondary foreigner talk;
  2. in the light of the latest knowledge of linguistic contacts between Greek, Phrygian, Lydian, and Old Persian in Anatolia in the Achaemenid Era (hence the title of my book, an English translation of verses 146–147 of The Persians: […] Ἑλλάδ’ ἐμπλέκων | Ἀσιάδι φωνᾷ […]).

During my Fellowship, I have planned to compare Timotheus’ Phrygian soldier’s speech to other foreigner talks in Greek literature from the same geographic area with a view to disclosing the linguistic strategies used by other authors to give voice to foreigner characters, more specifically, Asian. The first candidate has been Euripides’ Phrygian slave in the Orestes (verses 1369–1502), because it is the closest parallel to the Phrygian soldier from both a chronological (late fifth century BCE) and a thematic point of view. Then, I have compared Timotheus’ Phrygian soldier’s speech to the Scythian archer’s lines in Aristophanes’ Women at the Thesmophoria (verses 1001–1007; 1083–1135; 1176–1201; 1210–1225). Thanks to this comparison I could demonstrate that Timotheus’ secondary foreigner talk in The Persians occupies an intermediate position between these two extremes. Since this method of investigation proved successful, I have decided to extend the same analysis to the other characters’ speeches in The Persians, in order to uncover novel or understudied features. For example, I will compare Timotheus’ Xerxes to other Persian characters in Greek literature, such as the royal family in The Persians of Aeschylus, as well as Aristophanes’ Pseudartabas in The Acharnians (more specifically, verses 100, 104), with the goal of detecting the similarities and the differences in conveying a “Persian vibe” into their Greek.

It goes without saying that my sociolinguistic analysis of The Persians prominently includes the contextualization of the literary passages in question into Achaemenid Western Anatolia’s society and history (sixth – fourth centuries BCE). As an example of my methodology in this respect, I have investigated the contacts between Lydians and Phrygians in the Kelainai area, the birthplace of Timotheus’ Phrygian soldier, through a careful review of historical (e.g. Herodotus, Xenophon, etc.) and epigraphic sources (Ivantchik and Adiego 2015; 2016), as well as archaeological findings (Ivantchik, von Kienlin, and Summerer 2013, with references). Then, since the Phrygian soldier was part of the Persian army, I have explored in detail Phrygian contacts with Iranian peoples during the Persian domination of Anatolia by taking into account: local inscriptions attesting Iranian anthroponyms (Schmitt 1973), Achaemenid seals (Kaptan 2002), and the unique Phrygian tablet A. 29797 = HP-114 (i.e. the only Phrygian inscription outside Phrygia (Brixhe 2004: 118–126)) found in the debris of Persepolis.

While elaborating my book project, I was particularly inspired by these two books:

  • Porter, J. R. 1994. Studies in Euripides’ Orestes. Leiden.
  • Willi, A. 2003. The Languages of Aristophanes. Aspects of Linguistic Variation in Classical Attic Greek. Oxford.

Porter’s book gave me an idea of the structure that I wanted for my monograph, since he divided the content of each chapter thematically, without making a word by word commentary on the Orestes. As this kind of commentary already existed for Timotheus’ The Persians as well, I thought that focusing on a few understudied aspects would be more successful in bringing out new perspectives. On the other hand, Willi’s monograph is an excellent sociolinguistic analysis of Aristophanes’ comedies and of his Attic Greek. Although it is not possible to obtain the same result for Timotheus’ language because of both the fragmentary status of the literary corpus and the intrinsic nature of the lyric compositions, I think that I got close to the same level of depth and accuracy in the analysis of the language used in the Phrygian soldier’s speech.

I have already presented some aspects of my research on Timotheus’ The Persians at conferences in both the United States and Europe, with enthusiastically positive feedback on my work from an international and variegated scholarly audience. Thus, I am confident that there are good chances for my book to be positively received by the scientific community. Moreover, the publication of my interdisciplinary monograph in English will allow me to reach beyond the restricted audience of my French dissertation, engaging a broader academic public all around the world. I really hope to make solid contributions to the study of ancient Anatolia, my main area of interest, and more widely to the study of linguistic and social diversity in ancient times — a burgeoning field of research that, in addition to its intrinsic value, has much to offer to the contemporary study of diversity in the United States.

Despite the limits imposed by the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic, which did not allow me to spend my residential fellowship term at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C., nevertheless I have been able to pursue research thanks to Harvard Library’s incomparable digital resources and to its extremely efficient Scan and Deliver service. I am also very grateful for the possibility that I had to take full advantage of the feedback of the best Hellenists in the world, in a friendly and collaborative (even if virtual) environment. Without the Center’s support nothing of what I am achieving at the moment would have been possible, and I feel very lucky to be a Research Fellow in these uncertain times.

Selected Bibliography

Amendola, S. 2016. “Il mare nemico di Serse: i ‘Persiani’ di Eschilo e ‘Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis’ di Kaulbach.” Charis. Studi offerti a Paola Volpe dai suoi allievi, ed. S. Amendola and G. Pace, 23–54. Trieste.

Anfosso, M. 2019. Problèmes linguistiques du rapport entre Grec(s) et Phrygien(s). Ph.D. diss. Sorbonne University.

Brixhe, C. 2004. “Corpus des inscriptions paléo-phrygiennes. Supplément II.” Kadmos 43:1–130.

Croiset, M. 1903. “Observations sur ‘les Perses’ de Timothée de Milet.” Revue des Études Grecques 16:323–348.

Ferguson, C. A., and C. E. DeBose. 1977. “Simplified Registers, Broken Language, and Pidginization.” Pidgin and Creole Linguistics, ed. A. Valdman, 99–125. Bloomington/London.

Hinnenkamp, V. 1982. Foreigner Talk und Tarzanisch: Eine vergleichende Studie über die Sprechweise gegenüber Ausländern am Beispiel des Deutschen und des Türkischen. Hamburg.

Hordern, J. H. 2002. The Fragments of Timotheus of Miletus. Oxford.

Ivantchik, A. I., and I. J. Adiego. 2015. “A New Lydian Inscription from Kelainai and the Problem of Lydian Presence in Phrygia in the Achaemenid Period.” Вестник древней истории 292/1:14–27.

———. 2016. “Une inscription lydienne de Kélainai.” Kelainai–Apameia Kibotos: une métropole achéménide, hellénistique et romaine, ed. A. I. Ivantchik, A. Von Kienlin, and L. Summerer, 289–300. Bordeaux.

Ivantchik, A. I., A. von Kienlin, and L. Summerer. 2013. “A Phrygian City between East and West.” L’Anatolie des peuples, des cités et des cultures (IIe millénaire av. J.-C. – Ve siècle ap. J.-C.). Colloque international de Besançon, 26–27 novembre 2010. Vol. 2. Approches locales et régionales, ed. H. Bru and G. Labarre, 221–230. Besançon.

Janssen, T. H. 1984. Timotheus, Persae. A Commentary. Amsterdam.

Kaptan, D. 2002. The Daskyleion Bullae: Seal Images from the Western Achaemenid Empire. Leiden.

Lambin, G. 2013. Timothée de Milet. Le poète et le musicien. Rennes.

Porter, J. R. 1994. Studies in Euripides’ Orestes. Leiden.

Schmitt, R. 1973. “Iranisches Sprachgut auf phrygischen Inschriften?” Die Sprache 19:44–58.

Sevieri, R. 2011. Timoteo. I Persiani. Testo greco a fronte. Milano.

Traugott, E. C., and M. L. Pratt. 1980. Linguistics for Students of Literature. New York.

Willi, A. 2003. The Languages of Aristophanes. Aspects of Linguistic Variation in Classical Attic Greek. Oxford.

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