Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.07.18

Alexander Sens, Theocritus: Dioscuri (Idyll 22). Introduction, Text, and Commentary. Hypomnemata 114.   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1997.  Pp. 251.  ISBN 3-525-25211-0 (pb).  



Reviewed by Frederick T. Griffiths, Amherst College
Word count: 2121 words

Theocritus' important and much-debated Hymn to the Dioscuri has long needed a book-length commentary. Though Dover offered acute observations about the poem in his school text (1971), Gow's commentary (1965) has remained standard and keeps alive his sense of Idyll 22 as a patchwork of better materials and worse. Gow separated out:

(i) an originally separate adaptation of the thirty-third Homeric Hymn (the proem, 22.1-26);
(ii) a critical rewriting of the boxing match of Polydeuces and the ogre Amycus narrated at the start of Apollonius Rhodius' second book (22.27-134);
(iii) a corresponding episode to give Castor a part in the diptych (his duel with Lynceus in 22.135-211); and
(iv) an epilogue with "traces of hasty writing" (22.212-223).

It is with (iii) and (iv) that problems set in for all interpreters. Here Gow sensed "considerable carelessness in writing." The combat that traditionally occasioned Polydeuces' fraternal sacrifice of half his immortality (in the Cypria and Pindar's tenth Nemean ode) has become in (iii) Castor's effortless and grisly dispatch of a talkative but sympathetic victim. To keep the protest of the doomed Lynceus from succeeding all too well, Gow followed Wilamowitz in declaring a lacuna after v. 170 so that the rest of the speech can be assigned to Castor. (In fact, 22.171-180 present no defense of the Dioscuri's behavior but merely the proposal for the duel.) To these well-written speeches, perhaps from the drawer, Theocritus added, in Gow's view, a duel hastily cribbed from Homer and an epilogue of "extraordinary carelessness." Gow's verdict: "a very unsatisfactory poem."

This hasty Theocritus who let a project slip away from him is not elsewhere in evidence in Gow's commentary and has not won easy acceptance from later scholars. No other theory now commands the field, though the idyll continues to receive much scrutiny. Its formal similarities to Callimachus' hymns and its undeniable parallels to Apollonius continue to make Idyll 22 cardinal evidence for Alexandrian literary politics. A case can also be made for seeing allusion to Aratus' Phaenomena in the proem's storm scene, as has been argued most persuasively by Sens himself in CQ n.s. 44 (1994) 66-74. Given the role of the Dioscuri in Ptolemaic cult, as well as in the Argonautica and the Aetia, Idyll 22 stands at a crossroads of third-century literary culture.

Since Gow's time, faith has subsided in some "feud" over the writing of epic (Callimachus vs. Apollonius), in which Theocritus might be aiming his own missile at literary "kings and heroes" by way of the Argonautica. If one assumes such partisanship, it is not hard to see the Polydeuces episode as a delicate, innovative, and "Callimachean" recasting of Apollonius' boxing match-cum-battle. The urbanity of Theocritus' rewriting -- pastoral scene painting, stichomythia, ogre spared, combat averted -- then stands, on this reading, in pointed contrast to the brutality of Castor's sequel (naif slaughtered). Alan Cameron has recently debunked this line of interpretation (see below).

Feud or no feud, Idyll 22 offers a tour de force of styles in hexameter. The diptych as a vehicle for counterpoint and stylistic play is handled engagingly in a chapter entitled "All the twos" in Richard Hunter's admirable Theocritus and the Archaeology of Greek Poetry (Cambridge 1996), where the hymn enjoys pride of place among his readings of non-bucolic idylls. If the end of Idyll 22 points a bitter moral about divine power, argues Hunter, it is not a new or anomalous lesson, and much the same can be found in the cases of Actaeon, Teiresias, and Erysichthon in Callimachus' fifth and sixth hymns.

The commentator has his work cut out for him and, to repeat, the poem has long needed a monographic commentary -- all the more since here, for once, Theocritus' craftsmanship has been called into question. Sens brings to the project both literary judgment and technical rigor. He covers with clarity and economy the areas where readers and specialists want reliable answers, and he does so in support of a well-considered reading of this elusive poem. The commentary sums up and extends the arguments of three earlier articles concerning the idyll's sources, most notably Aratus in the proem and the Paris-Menelaus duel of Iliad 3 in the Castor episode, as well as the Achilles-Hector duel and tags of other Iliadic battles. A discussion of the Odyssey's Irus as a model for Amycus has subsequently appeared in HSCP 96 (1994) 123-26. Sens has persuaded me on numerous points, but not all, and to this I shall return below.

The opening chapter on "Structure and Unity" sets up the larger reading to follow without burying the reader in the details of the debates. Tabulating the correspondences between the Polydeuces and Castor episodes, Sens leaves little room for Gow's speculations about slipshod construction (14-15). Concerning the epilogue's problematic reference to the Homeric celebration of the twins -- conspicuously absent as they are from the Iliad -- Sens distills his view, argued more fully in TAPA 122 (1992) 335-50, that in evoking the Paris-Menelaus duel of Iliad 3, the scene where Helen fails to spot her brothers, and in letting Castor survive the fight where he traditionally dies, Theocritus pursues "a literary game, serving favorably to accentuate the difference between the Theocritean and Homeric treatments" (23). "Having already made the duel at which the twins fail to appear a central model in the immediately preceding narrative while at the same time removing the practical reason for their absence from Troy, Theocritus goes on in the epilogue to write as if they had actually played a major part in the Iliad after all" (23). Sens leaves open the possibility that Theocritus is staking a new literary claim for the Ptolemies through this earlier pair of Theoi Adelphoi who slash their way into new "Homeric" territory. The Ptolemies' interest in the Dioscuri is duly noted (23, 80, and 215), but Sens declines to follow Cameron in making them central to Theocritus' purposes here.

The second chapter, on the idyll's date and relationship to contemporary poets, contains the fullest gathering yet of the intertextual evidence for the view that it is Theocritus who is adapting Apollonius and not vice versa. A majority of scholars put Apollonius first, and many will never be convinced by the adduction of textual parallels, no matter how extensive, without more external evidence. Sens performs an important service in collecting and significantly augmenting the parallels, as well as in being forthright about the limits of this evidence. On dialect, language, and style (ch. 3) and meter (ch. 4) he provides a balanced distillation of current understandings, again without gratuitous detail. With exemplary clarity, chapter 5 summarizes the transmission of the text in light of recent papyri and with due attention to P.G.B. Hicks's 1993 Cambridge dissertation. In his edition of the poem, Sens differs from Gow in eleven places, most importantly concerning the supposed lacuna at verse 170.

The volume is well indexed, including a helpful subject index that allows literary, linguistic, and metrical issues to be followed from the introduction on through the commentary. From the "c"s: "caesura," "Callimachus," "cauliflower ears," "commonplaces," and textual "corruption." This is an ideally easy volume to use.

Gow's twenty or so pages of line-by-line commentary have multiplied sevenfold, but with no diminution of point. Sens lives up to the current computer-supported standards of comprehensiveness in reporting antecedent and parallel usages, but without losing sight of the interpretive problems of the poem. Current work on Homeric and Hellenistic stylistics figures helpfully throughout. In longer entries at transitional moments he advances his own reading of the poem with full attention to alternative interpretations.

As was discussed above, our estimation of the second half of the poem rests in large part on close analysis of Theocritus' craftsmanship: Are the familiar phrases and flourishes just generically "Homeric" (and therefore a mere pastiche or cento) or is Theocritus playing off particular Homeric scenes (e.g., Paris vs. Menelaus), as well as off Nemean 10? Sens argues that "Homeric diction and prosody are varied, words are used in new ways, and archaic material is in general recalled and reworked in a learned manner" (200). The commentary amply supports that claim. It seems reasonable to conclude that, whatever Theocritus is up to, he is not doing it in haste.

Sens has taken our understanding of the idyll to a higher level. New questions inevitably present themselves. He generally agrees with Hunter's "hymnic" reading of the Castor episode and with Hunter's view that the bride-stealing, never-explain-never-apologize Castor falls within ancient understandings of the divine. This reading obviates the need to see some literary critical point in the brutality of the swordfight, but brings its own problems. In a way surely not lost on an Alexandrian audience, the regular references to Zeus's paternity (22.1, 95, 115, 137) leave off at the start of the Castor episode, while "son of Tyndareus" (earlier only at 22.89) thereafter becomes standard (22.136, 202, 212, 216). Theocritus' Lynceus may be mistaken about the real (i.e., divine) identity of his adversaries and thereby come to resemble the mortal dupes of divine disguisings in the Homeric hymns to Demeter, Aphrodite, and Dionysus, but Idyll 22's Dioscuri are not disguisers. Gods who do not know that they are gods give pause, as do gods who slaughter the mortals they trick, rather than instruct and spare them. Demeter (hymn 2), Aphrodite (hymn 5), Dionysus (hymn 7), and Callimachus' Athena (his hymn 5) all deign to give the sort of explanation conspicuously missing from Theocritus' silent Castor. Similarly, Callimachus' disguised Demeter gives ample warning in advance (hymn 6). The "never apologize" applies better to the gods of hexameter than does the "never explain." Furthermore, it is heroes who need a bolt from the blue to quell combats (Odyssey 24), not gods.

Certain etiquettes (if not ethics) constrain the Homeric gods, and much is said in Idyll 22 about the protocols of hospitality (by Polydeuces), of marriage (by Lynceus), and of duels (by both). The audience might well recall that Iliadic gods do not hack down mortals directly, even as Iliadic duels never fully proceed to swords. Is the pursuit and disembowelment of a maimed opponent better form for a god than for a hero? The coup de grace for Amycus, monstrous as he is, would have been atasthalon (22.131), and Theocritus' Polydeuces is right to forbear, as Apollonius' Polydeuces does not, precipitating a battle. Where does that leave us with Castor? In a word, the hymnic form speaks for Castor's divinity; his behavior invites a more complex view. But, to repeat, Sens unfolds his readings cleanly and with balance, and this issue plays only a limited role.

Sens credits but does not pursue the view that the poem may be written for the court, as Alan Cameron has argued forcefully in Callimachus and his Critics (Princeton 1995) 431-436. Here I believe Sens's caution is warranted. Cameron reasons that the traditional death of Castor and the shared immortality were problematic in the dynastic context and therefore quietly dropped. As with Hunter's reminders about the grim assumptions of pagan theology, we are spared the need to see the final carnage as deliberately bad poetry in service of a polemical point about style. But other questions then arise: Why would Theocritus go to such lengths to squelch the fraternal sentimentality of Nemean 10 if the future Theoi Adelphoi are listening? Callimachus' Apotheosis of Arsinoe (fr. 228 Pfeiffer), where the Dioscuri snatch up the Helen-like queen, suggests that the twins' redemptive fraternity struck a chord with the royals. The traffic in brides seems a singularly dicey topic to raise at court, yet Theocritus goes to some trouble to replace the traditional cattle as the casus belli. As Sens suggests, the theme may serve to recall Helen and the duel of Iliad 3. The court poems predicably dwell on earlier mortals (Helen, Heracles) who were upgraded to divinity; why then the twins' apparent slide from Zeus's paternity to Tyndareus' after 22.137? And, again, why the sympathetic victim? Hunter and Sens have clarified the profound error of Lynceus, but the pathos remains. In his "hymnic" reading of Idyll 22, Hunter skips the question of courtly context and relegates his "Ptolemaic" Helen to a later chapter. In his own judicious interpretation, Sens sums up the evidence and leaves the matter open.

The hymn's innumerable archaic and contemporary intertexts make it inevitable that these questions will continue to be disputed. With Apollonius and Callimachus apparently at hand, the stakes are high. And we must wonder what lured gentle Theocritus out onto the battlefield in the first place. In this learned and literarily wise commentary, Sens has performed the needed housecleaning on old debates while doing justice to a poem that turns out to be better than we had thought.

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