Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.06.13

A. Schiesaro, P. Mitsis and J. Strauss Clay (edd.), Mega nepios. Il destinatario nell'epos didascalico. The Addressee in Didactic Epic. Pisa: Giardini, 1994. Materiali e discussioni per l'analisi dei testi classici 31. Pp. 282. Lire 25,000. ISSN 0392-6338.

Reviewed by Michele Lowrie, New York University (

The choice of the didactic addressee as this collection's object of study targets the structural element that defines didactic epic as a genre. Teaching is perforce dialogic, and I can do no better than to cite the quotation from Servius with which Alessandro Schiesaro opens his article on the Georgics (129): "Et hi libri didascalici sunt, unde necesse est ut ad aliquem scribantur; nam praeceptum et doctoris et discipuli personam requirit."1 The heart of didactic does not actually reside in being written "ad aliquem" -- many other genres contain the features of address and dedication (lyric comes to mind).2 What distinguishes didactic, as Servius notes with precision, is the demand not merely for a teacher and student -- if all art has the capacity to teach, it will necessarily entail teachers and students -- but for the presence of their personas. This said, Servius slides easily from the idea that didactic be written "ad aliquem" to that of a generic requirement for the personas of teacher and student. The distinction between the addressee and the persona of the student, so simple to make in theory, in practice becomes hard to maintain. Furthermore, the slide from historical addressee, to the figure of the student, to the implied reader, to the historical reader, cannot be entirely controlled. Any particular second person could in principle correspond to any one of the above. Implicated in this slide is a further question: does didactic really teach? If so, what, and to whom? Such are the challenges facing the contributors to this book.

The strength of this collection lies in each scholar's commitment to working out these issues as manifested in individual texts. While the book's title, "Mega nepios," would appear to imply a monolithic generic construction of the figure of the student as a nitwit, in fact the survey of authors from Hesiod to Manilius reveals a remarkable degree of flexibility within a narrow set of givens. Two distinct strands emerge, philosophical poetry and the aestheticizing poetry of the Alexandrians and their aftermath, but even within each strand, the individual aims and pressures of each text result in a novel reconstitution of the elements.

It is not only the texts studied that refuse to fit into a single pattern: no theoretical parti pris imposes an orthodoxy on the contributors. This is, to my mind, very much a good thing because it shows up the inevitable slippages between categories much more so than if a single mind had organized all this material. The lack of a unifying theory, however, makes a more demanding job for David Konstan than first appears; rereading his foreword after reading the papers makes one better appreciate his skill (and wit) in bringing everything together. In the course of laying out a typology of addressees (Zeus and the Muses as sources of knowledge, dedicatees, didactic addressees proper, generalized readers, etc.), Konstan orders his summaries of the papers according to an argument that helps rectify the limitations of the chronological order in which the papers occur. By and large, a picture emerges of a strong distinction between the student, who perforce does not already have the knowledge the poet wishes to impart, and an implied reader, to whom the poet appeals as an ally against the recalcitrant student, whether or not the reader is represented as already in the know. These figures, however, play vastly different roles in different poets and can be located in a surprising number of positions.

I will survey the papers according to a number of issues that emerge from reading them together. These are the possibility of learning, the tension between didactic and aesthetic aims, the effects of historicism in confronting well-known addressees such as Caesar, and the internal split that leads again and again to a proliferation of categories.

It is a real question for didactic poetry whether the represented student actually learns the lesson. Jenny Strauss Clay shows that in the Works and Days Hesiod calls Perses ME/GA NH/PIOS or DI=ON GE/NOS according to whether he represents Perses as persuaded or not (30). The absence of Perses also matters, and she argues that Perses disappears precisely when the lesson becomes too hard: he may finally accept a life of justice and labor, but the further lesson of the imponderability of human life is presented not to him, but to the "ideal listener, O( PANA/RISTOS" (33). The reluctant student in later literature derives from Perses, but clearly has a structural role beyond any historical explanation: he figures our difficulty learning the lesson. Excellent examples are several passages from Manilius cited by Matt Neuburg representing the student as flailing after making valiant efforts -- my feelings exactly. Extreme reluctance on the part of the student figure, notably in Lucretius, raises the possibility that Memmius (or whoever plays that role) not only fails to learn, but in effect functions as a cipher for the lack of knowledge and understanding rather than as a bone fide student. Phillip Mitsis presents the relation between Lucretius' poet and student as agonistic and the poet's attempt at education as an act of coercion. The reader consequently identifies with the poet over against the student and feels smugly superior. Mitsis uses the simile of the doctor coating the wormwood with honey in the attempt to heal children as the locus for pursuing this relation, and brings his essay to an end with a warning: "In winking with the poet behind the back of the fool, we ourselves may be swallowing more of the poet's medicine than we suspect" (128). This warning suggests that it is in fact the reader who may truly learn the lesson, but not at all in the way the poem presents the process of learning. Lucretius wins us over not by demolishing our supposed counterarguments, but by a more subversive technique.

Different possibilities also exist. The agricolae of the Georgics hardly do more than mark the place of the didactic addressee handed down by the tradition, and Schiesaro pursues Vergil's complex proliferation of addressees (Maecenas, gods, Caesar, agricolae) outside of a real context of learning. The commonplace has it that no real farmer would pick up the Georgics as a handbook on agriculture; Vergil does not deign to pretend he would. Mauro Tulli's analysis of Parmenides shows the other extreme. He sees the voyage toward knowledge undertaken by the poet as an indication that it is indeed possible to learn: the poet presents himself both as an initiate undertaking the journey from a state of ignorance into one of knowledge and as someone who has completed the journey and can bring the reader (there is no extant addressee) to the same goal. As Konstan remarks, this formulation of the problem makes Parmenides more akin to the "enunciation of a sacred doctrine, presented in the manner of a vision, than an exercise in calculated pedagogy" (15). Alessandro Barchiesi raises a special problem, whether Caesar can learn, that devolves at least partially on the historical relations with the poets concerned.

The two strands of didactic mentioned above, philosophical and aestheticizing poetry, arise because of a tension within the genre between what Horace names in his own didactic poem, the utile and the dulce (Ars P. 343). One of these predominates in each strand, but the tension itself is systemic. Aratus, as Peter Bing shows, encourages readers to identify with his generalized, anonymous addressee (a second person singular), precisely because he really addresses his poem not to anyone interested in a practical application of its learning (utile), but to the educated reader who will pick up on all the tricks of Alexandrian artistry (dulce) familiar from Bing's earlier work, some of which he recapitulates here.3 The learning appeals not because it genuinely contributes to the good life, as can be argued for Hesiod, Parmenides, Empedocles, Lucretius, and even Manilius, but because it forms one item among others of esoteric knowledge. Vergil similarly follows suit with his token agricolae; Schiesaro argues that the Georgics really speaks to a public made up of Maecenases. Bing's point about Aratus comes up again to some extent in the treatments of almost every Latin poet. Lucretius is the poet for whom the disjunction of the dulce from the utile is occasion for crisis. The wormwood and honey image arises from this disjuction, and while it would be easy to posit that the utile looks to the student and the dulce to the implied reader, the one necessarily comes with the other. We may think we are drinking honey, but Mitsis reminds us we are unwittingly swallowing medicine. Ovid sends up the distinction in the Ars amatoria because even the utile falls under the category of dulce.

Armstrong's thesis that Horace's Ars poetica relies on Philodemus' poetics makes explicit the tension between aesthetics and utility. He cites Philodemus' remarkable statements about how poetry can only imitate didactic speech and need only "have the air of conveying useful or interesting knowledge, not the reality" (224) and makes connections with the content of the Ars (though some of these seem forced to me). I would have liked him to pursue the ramifications of this poetics on the Ars' own didacticism.

Armstrong's insistence on the historical reality of the Pisones and how the identity of the addressees shapes the poem raises the issue of historicism and the didactic addressee. He counters Frischer's recent theory that the father is Piso Caesoninus as an octogenarian in 20 B.C. with an identification of him as L. Piso Pontifex, the son of Caesoninus, in c. 10 B.C.4 But whatever the generation, the interest of his argument lies in the directedness of Horace's epicurean poetics, deriving from Philodemus, to at least one addressee -- the father -- who belonged to a family famous for its patronage of Philodemus. Armstrong sees the adolescent boys as the principle addressees, which accounts for much of the jocularity of the poem, with a father in the know listening in the background. The role of the implied reader found elsewhere here shifts to another addressee. Striking in Armstrong's analysis is the eclipse of the usual implied reader or generalized addressee. Everything is particularized, and I wonder if this may in fact account for why the Ars seems so enigmatic to us moderns: it is not really directed at us.

Historicism changes the picture and makes us less willing to accept the addressee as a persona. Even Memmius, shadowy as he is, seems more real than Perses with all the vividness of his representation, and even than Pausanias, despite the wealth of information Dirk Obbink amasses about him (80-81; good comments on "sphragidization," 78). The particularity of addressees becomes especially vivid for the Roman poetry, not, I think, because Roman prosopography is or seems more recuperable than Greek, but because of the way the poetry presents its own relation to history. This issue reaches its apex in Barchiesi's paper, which pursues Augustus himself as a didactic addressee in Horace, Epistles 2.1, and Ovid, Tristia 2. Horace's attempt to teach the princeps to read poetry becomes in Ovid's hands a demonstration of how the same princeps failed to read Ovid's Ars amatoria correctly -- with terrible consequences for the poet. Barchiesi deconstructs several oppositions that are fundamental to the genre: the distinction between the social and aesthetic functions of literature (the utile and dulce under a different guise), Ovid's own traditional and allusive distinction between his life and his persona. Ovid's exile renders problematic the split between literature and reality that persona theory takes for granted, and Augustus proves himself an aggressive historical reader despite Ovid's attempt to keep him in the role of mega nepios. But Caesar cannot win the battle merely by a display of force. Neuburg demonstrates how Manilius keeps the identity of his Caesar purposefully ambiguous, so that he may pay lip service to a living emperor, but covertly remain true to his astrological convictions, according to which the emperor only really matters once he has become a god. In Neuburg's words: "to Manilius, the only good emperor -- the only emperor truly worthy of receiving his dedication -- is a dead emperor" (257).

Every one of these papers establishes a split somewhere, but the split is mobile. Clay places Hesiod's between Perses and the PANA/RISTOS or ideal reader; Tulli within the two aspects of the poet as teacher and student in Parmenides; Obbink distinguishes Empedocles' personal second person addressee from a more generalized second person plural; Bing comes closest to denying a split, but that is because he rejects even a pretense in Aratus to addressing sailors and farmers in favor of a learned reader; Mitsis separates the didactic addressee from the reader in Lucretius; Schiesaro shows the muliplicity of Vergil's addressees; Barchiesi's Augustus plays varied roles in Horace's Epistle and dances on the barrier that separates him as actual and represented reader in Ovid's second Tristia; Armstrong distinguishes two sets of addressees in the younger Pisones and their father; John Miller analyzes the gendered split between the avowed female addressees of Ovid's Ars Amatoria 3 and a second implied audience of men who witness the instruction of the puellae, and a further split between both audiences and the real readers who consist of both sexes; Neuburg sees a split within Caesar and another between Caesar and the figure of the student. Furthermore, different readers may locate the split in different places even within the same author. Mitsis' paper progresses heuristically from a simplified "reader" to a split between the mega nepios and the smug (implied) reader, but Schiesaro, who uses Lucretius as foil to Vergil, drives a further wedge into the figure of the student: Memmius is the actual addressee/dedicatee, but a more generalized addressee also becomes manifest in distinction to both Memmius and the implied reader. The degree to which the tu of the poem accords with Memmius throughout is controversial, but what happens over the course of Mitsis' and Schiesaro's papers reveals something fundamental: any split is provisional until a further split is established at another level. Does that imply infinite refraction? No. Only that once there come to be too many divisions for practicality, the split migrates to a different position in the genre's discursive make-up.

The various articles in this book also contain an abundance of material not easily summarized because each aims to address the needs of individual works. Obbink's piece could stand as a general introduction to Empedocles beyond the issue at hand. My only complaint is that the volume could have used a more rigorous proof reading. But why believe me? Read it yourself.


  • [1] ad Georg., proem. Also mentioned in the preface (9) and in David Konstan's Foreward (12).
  • [2] As noted by Konstan (11).
  • [3] HSCP 93 (1990) 281-285.
  • [4] B. Frischer, Ars Poetica, Shifting Paradigms (Atlanta 1991).