Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.04.14

J.L. Lightfoot (ed.), Parthenius of Nicaea: The poetical fragments and the Erotica Pathemata.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1999.  Pp. 607.  ISBN 0-19-815253-1.  $135.00.  



Reviewed by Christopher Francese, Dickinson College
Word count: 2718 words

Parthenius has had many roommates. His extant works were first collected along with other fragmentary Hellenistic authors in August Meineke's Analecta Alexandrina (1843). Edgar Martini's fine Teubner (1902) appeared in the multi-volume series of Mythographi Graeci. This was the basis of Gaselee's edition in the Loeb series (1916), where he is billeted together with Longus' Daphnis and Chloe. Now, with the publication of this remarkable book, he has a spacious (607 pp.) and expensive ($135 U.S.) home of his own. He has earned this attention through the work of scholars such as W. Clausen, T.P. Wiseman and L[ightfoot]'s dissertation supervisor A.S. Hollis (this is an expanded Oxford D.Phil. thesis of 1995), who have elevated Parthenius' reputation from that of a mere epigone ("what we possess does not rise markedly above the late Hellenistic norm," sniffed Blumenthal in RE 18.4 [1949] 1899), to that of an elegant and influential poet-scholar, and possibly the instigator of a Callimachean revival in Rome. L. rejects the latter idea, but no one would dispute that before we can place Parthenius fairly in any literary-historical narrative we need an edition that provides a solid text and puts the poetic fragments (including papyri discovered since Martini) and the prose Erotika Pathemata in context. L. has brought to this much-needed task formidable learning and linguistic skill (she is already a very competent textual critic), ample time (four uninterrupted years in the Ashmolean library, p. viii) and a distinguished set of advisors at Oxford. The result is philology of a very high order that challenges received wisdom at every point, asks new questions, and puts the study of Parthenius on an entirely new and secure footing.

An Introduction to the poetic fragments covers Parthenius' life (3-16), poetry (17-49) and literary influence (50-76). L. approaches the text and the biographical mysteries surrounding Parthenius with robust skepticism, and she is on something of a mission to rein in the imaginative reconstructions of other scholars. The evidence does not support, she argues, the notion of a cohesive neoteric school as maintained by Lyne; the supposed cantores Euphorionis, such as P.'s acquaintance Helvius Cinna, cannot be conclusively proven (pace L.C. Watson) to have imitated Euphorion; despite Pfeiffer, "there is no special reason to think that ... Parthenius' ... elegiac poetry could have influenced the Roman elegy." (72) Clausen's idea that Parthenius started a Callimachean revival is unsupportable, because Callimachus was known in Rome before P. arrived. She will go no further than "Poets of the mid-first century BC were interested in experimenting with the rich diversity of Greek genres" (69) with no special role provable for Parthenius. In this realm she is perhaps unduly pessimistic. What gave P. auctoritas was the high quality of his poetry, something that L. documents amply elsewhere. And the pervasive pattern of the "Greek mentor" in Roman intellectual life (on which see now Stephen Hinds in Allusion and Intertext: dynamics of appropriation in Roman poetry [Cambridge 1998], 74-83) grants the admittedly shaky testimonia more credibility than she allows. Innovators within Roman culture, like the new poets, needed Greek mentors to validate their own dialogue with Greece. Of course this does not mean, as Hinds emphasizes, that we must accept the rhetoric of (repeated) Hellenizing "revolutions" at face value (as Clausen seems to do). Quite the opposite. The fruitful critical work of examining what Parthenius had to offer and what the Romans actually made of it still remains to be done. And here L.'s commentary for the first time lays a firm foundation for such a comparison.

A swift but informative survey of Hellenistic literature after Callimachus (17-31) confirms the impression that P., in his predilection for learned, multi-book elegy, is a throwback to the Callimachean era. "We are once again struck by certain dissimilarities to his [Greek] contemporaries and predecessors over a century and a half." (30) He seems to have been aloof from the Greek festival circuit, and free of the need to flatter Roman patrons with panegyric, circumstances L. aptly contrasts with those of such contemporaries as Archias, Crinagoras, and Antipater of Thessalonica. We should add that he apparently did not, for whatever reason, write epigram.

L.'s survey of the extant poetic fragments and testimonia (31-49) lays great stress on the ambition and size of the Arete, and its distinctive mixture of authentic personal grief with impeccable scholarship and mythology. The closest predecessor was Antimachus' Lyde. The titles of other elegies (Heracles, Iphiclus) suggest a high narrative content, while the fragments themselves suggest a high erotic content, circumstances which align him more with Euphorion than Callimachus. Yet the vast majority of the verbal echoes in the fragments come from Callimachus, and in metrics as well P.'s practice is "puritanically, impeccably Callimachean." (2) With van Groningen L. draws attention to P.'s preoccupation with euphony, though she declines to draw the conclusion reached by Clausen and Ross that it was in this very area of metrics and euphony that P. may have had his greatest impact on the Romans.

A discussion of P.'s posthumous reputation and influence on Greek literature (76-96) shows that he continued to be read and admired by the Greek public until the fourth century A.D. (An exception would be his contemporary Erycius, who accused him of "vomiting on the Muses.") While he apparently never became a school author, he may have eclipsed Philetas in the 'canon' of Greek elegists.

After this introduction comes the text of the fragments themselves, with facing translation (100-133), and a commentary (134-214). The text of the fragments is necessarily based on that of the Supplementum Hellenisticum, though she has examined the papryi and is able to correct SH in a few places. Her numbering should now become standard. In printing supplements she is even more conservative than SH, though the commentary records most reasonable suggestions. These are generally used in the translation, which is excellent. The commentary efficiently presents a wealth of information on subjects grammatical, geographical and literary, far more than has ever been brought to bear on this poet. It would be impossible to summarize the rich findings of the commentary; I will merely mention her views on a few of the more significant fragments.

The encomium and the epicedium for Arete are the same work (3 books, elegiac). It is impossible to be sure that he wrote it before his capture, as Pfeiffer believed: the Bithynian geographical names are no proof. The fragments contain Callimachean and Theocritean forms, indulge in Callimachean wind-naming and unorthodox mythology (Iris is married to Zephyrus), and mention the foundation of Cyzicus. Arete is dead. P. expresses intense grief. He may have been absent from Nicaea, and may be asking the winds to carry him back there, or to fan the flames of Arete's pyre. Mythological narrative and exquisite scholarship (unusual words, forms, myths and historical information) are fully integrated with passionate personal statements. Pfeiffer (CQ 1943) saw this as an important precedent for Latin elegy, but L., as mentioned, demurs on this point.

With Lyne (Ciris [Cambridge 1977]), L. would like to see P.'s Metamorphoses, which dealt with Scylla daughter of Nisus, as a source for Ovid Met. 8.1-151 and the Ciris ("Ovid would then seem to have had Parthenius' version in front of him," 167). A scholiast summarizes his version, and probably quotes a poetic phrase (τὸν μόρσιμον πλόκαμον) directly (cp. Ovid's fatali crine). So, unlike Lyne, L. believes the Metamorphoses was probably poetic, not a prose handbook. Parthenius' unique etymological aetion, deriving Scylla's name from the σύρεσθαι, "to be dragged," "was influential in Latin ... to judge by accounts using trahere (Prop. 3.19.26, Ov. Met. 8.142, Ciris 390)." (166) But so many classical and Hellenistic versions of the Scylla myth seem to be lost that such an inference is unwarranted.

Clausen had made much of the euphony and exquisite word-patterning of the Byblis fragment (33 L.), our longest. He compared it with Catullus 95 and suggested that the neoterics learned a few things about technique from the Nicaean. L., by contrast, who will go on for a page or more discussing a single grammatical rarity, is typically restrained in matters aesthetic. Noting the same phenomena that Clausen pointed out she says merely, "Word-patterning is fairly sophisticated [she cites the lines]. Van Groningen draws attention to some patterns of assonance (perhaps specious)." (188; Clausen is not cited in this context). At the end of her discussion she notes that Parthenius echoes extensively Apollonius' lines on the suicide of Cleite (1.1065 ff.) but offers no detailed comparison. This approach to intertextuality is typical: she takes her job to be finding the "source" or an "echo" of a line (there is a list of "echoes and allusions" 559 f.) but rarely does she pursue the implication of any example. Literary critics may find this old-fashioned, but they should rejoice. She brings to bear an astonishing range of comparative material, which will provide other scholars with fodder for more in-depth analyses.

Wealth of comparative material is also the strength of the introduction to and commentary on Erotika Pathemata, which L. has created virtually ex nihilo. It is hard to overstate the extent to which she has surpassed all previous discussions of this enigmatic, idiosyncratic work. L. has mastered vast tracts of prose mythography and historiography, and the perspective thus gained allows her to reexamine every aspect of the book with great authority.

Through astute comparisons with other Hellenistic mythography she brings out its distinctiveness: not a set of epitomes or summaries, not a reduction of myth, its avowed aim is to amplify (225). Like kindred material in Peripatetic compilations of anecdotes, it takes no consistent moral view. Though he rarely includes the gods as characters and tends to avoid adynata, P. is not a true rationalist like a Palaephatus or Euhemerus; rather he exhibits "a less revisionist, and more subtle, form of rationalism, which consists in plausible characterization and the imputation of rational motivation to his protagonists (a feature of logography at least as early as Herodotus), general avoidance of the bizarre, and settings which are not exotic or mythological." (231) These are key points of which earlier scholarship is ignorant, the full implications of which still need to be worked out.

The issue of the marginal "manchettes" that go with most of the stories is hopefully settled once and for all by L.'s excellent, thorough discussion: they are not by P., and they do not indicate sources. They are accurate where we can check and were probably compiled by scholars in the first few centuries A.D. On the question of sources L. equivocates. She wants to see them as primarily poetic, yet she rightly insists that the stories are not epitomes; the commentary everywhere reveals the close kinship with prose historiography (emphasized at 262); and the preface itself suggests that Erotika Pathemata will explain poetry rather than summarize it. She canvasses the possibility that "perhaps P. went back to the prose historians himself to fill out the obscurities in the allusive treatments he found in the poets." (246) Though it deprives us of large chunks of Powell's Collectanea Alexandrina, this is clearly the right answer -- as (for example) L.'s own comparison between XXVI (Apriate) and Euphorion 415 i 12-21 SH reveals. I cannot understand why she then insists that "Parthenius' sources are, at least mostly, poetic." (369, cp. 301) There is no space to summarize L.'s excellent comparison of Erotika Pathemata and the Greek novel (which should be read by students of the latter form), nor her masterful discussion of the style and language of the work. I would only note only that her own commentary again fights against one of her conclusions, that the language is not especially "poetic" (295), and that in defending the work's off-hand elegance she turns a blind eye to some of its truly awkward passages (e.g. the end of XVI.1).

L. has examined the manuscript, and her text of Erotika Pathemata differs from Martini's Teubner in some seventy places. Thankfully not over-cautious in this realm, she prints nine of her own emendations (all well-grounded), one suggestion by Donald Russell, and various other corrections recorded but rejected by Martini. She also includes in the apparatus several very attractive suggestions by Russell, G.O. Hutchinson and Leofranc Holford-Strevens. This is a substantial advance (although those wishing full information on the history of the textual criticism will need to consult E. Calderon-Dorda, Partenio de Nicea: Sufrimientos de amor y fragmentos [Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, 1988], especially the bibliography on pp. xlix-li).

The commentary is dense. Typically L. deals first with the question of sources: where might P. have found the story? Where did other versions come from? She disentangles the various parallel versions of the myths clearly and exhaustively. The relentless Quellenkritik can be fatiguing, but from the rich store of comparative material she adduces, we see each story anew: in its "original" context as a local, dynastic or aetiological myth; as an erotic novelette; and as part of a wider story type within Greek myth and culture. Several general trends emerge. In his excerpting, P. de-politicizes the local myths he tells. One might contrast Callimachus in this regard, for whom Acontius and Cydippe are, among other things, a way to honor the Acontiadae. P. introduces the tyrant Phayllus (XXV), forgetting even to tell us what state he is tyrant of! He is cavalier with his sources, freely reorienting them to emphasize the element of ejrwtiko;n pavqhma (a term L. sees as referring primarily to erotic "emotion," rather than to "disaster" (367 f.) -- but the latter is clearly the distinctive element of Erotika Pathemata: they are unhappy love stories). Time and again key military or political context is left out in favor of psychological or amatory detail. It is interesting to note that P., like the mythographer Conon, is indifferent to the heroization of founder figures in ktisis-myths (399). P. prefers to work with variants of well-known myths, to re-work familiar types: Hippodamia and Oenomaeus can be seen lurking behind Pallene and Sithon; Harmodius and Aristogeiton behind Hipparinus and Achaeus; Scylla daughter of Nisus behind Nanis and Peisidice. The wit, as so often in Hellenistic literature, comes from placing old material in new, disorienting contexts (passim, but esp. 234 ff.).

In general L. is more interested in examining connections and analogies elsewhere in mythology than in isolating what makes Erotika Pathemata the distinctive product of Parthenius' literary mind. Her primary interest in sources leads her to under-emphasize how the peculiarity of vocabulary and style suggest that P. is retelling the stories in his own words, not copying from exemplars. Moreover, since she completely separates discussion of the poetic fragments and that of Erotika Pathemata, there is a structural impediment in the book to considering them together as evidence for Parthenius' poetics. As a result, despite the length of the book, we get no real synthesis of all the evidence, a synthesis which might then be turned to the larger problem of placing P. within Greco-Roman literary history. But with her immense labor and acumen L. has made such further work possible.

Other, more minor complaints: editors of primary texts are often invoked but are not included in the bibliography. The comparatio numerorum on pp. 98-99 omits Martini. The statue group of Oenone and Paris mentioned on p. 393 is not "by Zeuxippus," but stood in a bath in Byzantium called Zeuxippos. Add to the bibliography F. Zimmermann, "Parthenios' Brief an Gallus," Hermes 69 (1934) 179-189, and E. Gabba, "True History and False History" JRS (1981) 50-62 (cited on p. 261). On p. 326, line 26, sticking with the parodosis (rather than Rohde's emendation) yields a very weak sense. Typos are rare: p. 100 for ἔγραψε δι' read ἔγραψε δὲ (as on pp. 3 and 36); p. 232, line 5, for "Peisidice's" read "Nanis'"; p. 312, line 20, for αὐτοῦ, read αὑτοῦ; p. 318, line 17, for ὑπέρξεται, read ὑπέρχεται; p. 321, line 7: for "bugle" read "bell"; p. 324, line 23, for ὁμόσειεν, read ὀμόσειεν; p. 344 line 26, L. prints a slightly different word order than Martini, though the apparatus is silent; p. 352, line 9-10 and line 13-14 final n has been shunted to the next line, and on the same page, the final omega in line 12 should be a hyphen.

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