Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.11.14

Enrico Magnelli (ed.), Alexandri Aetoli Testimonia et Fragmenta. Studi e Testi 15.   Florence:  Università degli Studi di Firenze, Dipartimento di Scienze dell' Antichità "Giorgio Pasquali", 1999.  Pp. 304.  L.70,000.  

Reviewed by S. Douglas Olson, University of Minnesota (
Word count: 1394 words

Alexander Aetolus was a contemporary of Aratus and Antagoras of Rhodes and, like them, spent time in the court of Antigonus Gonatas in Pella; he also worked at some point in the Library at Alexandria producing a diorthosis of the text of tragedy for Ptolemy Philadelphus. Like Callimachus, Theocritus, and Lycophron (who flourished at roughly the same time), he was both a philologist and a poet, and his tragedies were sufficiently well-regarded for him to be included in the Hellenistic Pleiad. His literary output also included elegy, epigram, and dactylic hexameter, and what survives of his work hints at a typically Hellenistic fondness for obscure mythological detail and a personal taste for Aeschylus and Stesichorus. Time dealt unkindly, however, with both Alexander's academic work (which perished more or less completely) and his poetry, of which we have only 72 more or less securely attested verses, 34 of them from a single elegiac fragment preserved by Parthenius.

The most recent substantially complete edition of the fragments of Alexander Aetolus is Powell's Collectanea Alexandrina (pp. 121-30), which is three-quarters of a century old and badly in need of replacement. Enrico Magnelli's new study offers a substantial introduction with particular attention to questions of style and meter; testimonia (omitted by Powell); a text, based in large part on a fresh examination of the manuscripts; a full critical apparatus, with many unlikely conjectures helpfully banished to an appendix; an extensive commentary; an Italian translation of the most substantial fragments; and a series of indices. This is a work of great industry and learning, and will undoubtedly become the standard edition of this obscure but intriguing early Hellenistic scholar-poet.

Magnelli's text differs from Powell's in at least twenty places and represents a careful rethinking of every aspect of the tradition, although I found myself unconvinced by a number of his editorial decisions. A case in point is fr.2.2 (from the otherwise obscure Kirke), which describes how the pompilos fish will be posted near the steering-oar of someone's ship. Athenaeus (the source of the fragment) has θεοῖς ὕπο [metrical], but Magnelli (following Powell) prints Meineke's θεᾶς ὕπο, arguing that the title suggests that the poem was about Kirke and Odysseus, and that the verses must refer to the goddess' dispatch of the hero from her island (cf. H. Od. 11.6-8 = 12.148-50). This is nothing more than guesswork and no basis for emending perfectly acceptable Greek.1 A more difficult problem is posed by fr.1.4 (from the Halieus), which falls near the end of a brief description of a magical plant used by Helios to keep his horses from growing weary during their course through the sky but eaten by the mortal fisherman Glaucus, who was thus transformed into a sea-divinity. Athenaeus (the source once again) has ὕλην ναιετάουσαν , which was accepted by Kaibel in his edition of the Deipnosophists but can scarcely be correct. Powell and most earlier editors printed Musurus' ὕλῃ ναιετάουσαν (in reference to the plant), whereas Magnelli opts for Hartung's ὕλην ναιετάουσιν (in reference to Helios' horses). Musurus' emendation is awkward, and Hartung's is not impossible. All the same -- as Powell must have seen -- the problem with Hartung's suggestion is not just that horses do not normally live in woods, but that a renewed reference to them puts the emphasis in precisely the wrong place, on the irrelevant question of where the Sun-god stables his team rather than on the herb which, as far as one can tell from what Athenaeus has to say, was central to this portion of Alexander's story.

These are perhaps minor points, and it is impossible not to be grateful to Magnelli for having produced a clean and careful new text of what remains for us of Alexander's poetry. The greatest strength of this edition is in any case the extraordinary philological richness of the commentary. Magnelli gives virtually every surviving word of Alexander extended, careful treatment, with particular attention to matters of style and usage, and copious citation of parallels. This is serious, substantial and exceedingly well-informed work and represents a major contribution on a wide range of stylistic and lexicographical questions. The accessibility of Magnelli's notes is frequently limited by his tendency to cite an excessive number of parallels, many from relatively late sources, where a representative sample with emphasis on earlier material would have served just as well; to quote Greek unnecessarily; to provide editors' names every time a source is mentioned rather than specifying in an initial note which editions will be used throughout; to cite fragments in particular from two or even three editions;2 and by an overly detailed bibliographic style that requires (e.g.) giving authors' initials and full titles for journal articles, and authors' names for entries in encyclopedic sources such as LfgrE. Had Magnelli adopted a more slender style, his commentary would have served the average reader far better, with no appreciable sacrifice of academic quality. This is nonetheless first-rate work and will be welcome to editors of other Hellenistic poets in particular.

Magnelli's intense focus on verbal detail is also the source of the most substantial weakness of his commentary, which is a tendency to scant the literary forest in favor of the philological trees even at points where attention to larger critical issues might have shed light on Alexander's use of individual words and phrases. In fr.3 (a Hippolytus-like tale of the death of the hero Antheus at the hands of the anonymous wife of King Phobius), for example, the reason the poet specifies that the woman uses 'both hands' to pick up the millstone she drops on Antheus' head must be in part simply to stress how heavy -- and thus how deadly -- a weapon this is, a straightforward point that Magnelli (who is more concerned with identifying possible traces of Homeric diction) fails to make. Likewise the rare adjective ἀλφεσίβοιος in v. 8 (of the water of Peirene) is pointless in context if it means 'nourisher of oxen' (as Magnelli, comparing A. Supp. 855, would have it), and is far better taken to recall Il. 18.593 and h.Ven. 119 (cited but rejected as parallels by Magnelli), where the word refers to girls who bring great bride-prices, allowing this to be understood as another invocation of the theme of perverted social relations (here courtship) that runs throughout the fragment. The allusion in v.17 to Penelope's steadfastness in refusing an unwanted marriage, on the other hand, can only be ironic: unlike Odysseus' wife, Phobius' is intrigued by the possibilities produced when another, younger man enters his house (a point Magnelli does not make). On the level of narrative strategy, the reference in vv.7-10 to the Corinthian boy Actaeon, who died in a brawl that followed his rejection of the advances of the Bacchiad Archias (D.S. Bk. 8 fr. 10; Plu. Mor. 772e-3b; S A.R. 4.1212), is not simply a typically Hellenistic 'learned digression' (thus seemingly Magnelli), but a clear if misleading foreshadowing of what is to come in Alexander's story: the lovely young Antheus will also die as a result of sexual intrigue, although in his case because he refuses to be seduced by a woman rather than a man. So too, the use of the adjective λιθόλευστος to describe the infatuation of Phobius' wife with Antheus (v. 12) is not only an ironic prefiguring of the means she chooses to kill the boy (thus Magnelli, following Stern) but another bit of narrative misdirection, in that the obvious implication is that she will be stoned to death for her (attempt at) adultery, whereas she actually hangs herself (vv.33-4). What Magnelli has done with Alexander is magnificent; it is only a pity that he has not done more.

The book has been beautifully produced and typographical errors are rare, although I noted παισίν for παισὶν in the apparatus to fr.3.23 and Λητωίδος for Λητωῖδος at fr. 4.7.3 I checked 100 random references to ancient and modern sources; only two of these were bad,4 which is to say that fact-checking and the like have been about as good as one could ask given the complexity of the document. These are in any case minor points which ought not to be allowed to detract from the many excellences of this edition. Magnelli's Alexander ought to remain authoritative at least as long as Powell's has, and his next project is eagerly awaited.


1.   Cf. fr.10, where Magnelli in his commentary uses the fact, attested by several scholia to the Iliad, that Alexander in his otherwise obscure Astragalistai mentioned Patroclus' murder of another boy while playing knucklebones in his youth as the basis for the unwarranted conclusion that this story must have been the central theme of the poem.
2.   There is in fact considerable variation in citation-style throughout the text (e.g. continuous HE and GPh numbers are sometimes given and sometimes not; Archilochus is cited alternatively from West and from both West and Tarditi; West, IEG is referred to as both "West" and "West2"; Iliad-scholia are generally but not always cited by page- and line-numbers in Erbse), all of which suggests somewhat careless copy-editing -- which ought ideally not to be the responsibility of the author.
3.   Magnelli's discussion in his commentary also suggests that Powell's ῥοῶν (< ῥοή) rather than ῥόων (< ῥόος) was intended at fr. 6.1.
4.   On p. 119 line 6, for "A.R. 1, 863" read "A.R. 1, 836"; on p. 200 lines 26-7, for "RE XVIII 2 [1942]" read "RE XVIII 1 [1942]". On p. 137 line 32, "Hdt. 2, 17, 6" would have been more helpful than Magnelli's "Hdt. 2, 17".

Read Latest
Index for 2000
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:27:05, Friday, 03 April 2009