Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.02.38

K. Spanoudakis (ed.), Philitas of Cos. Mnemosyne Supplement 229.   Leiden:  Brill, 2002.  Pp. xxviii, 454.  ISBN 90-04-12428-4.  $127.00.  

Reviewed by Alexander Sens, Georgetown University (
Word count: 2241 words

[[For a response to this review, see BMCR 2003.03.32.]]

To judge from references in the work of his near contemporaries, the early Hellenistic scholar and poet Philitas of Cos played a foundational role in the development of the refined and learned poetry admired by writers like Callimachus, Theocritus, and Posidippus, who treat him in different but complementary ways as a master of a slightly earlier generation. Unfortunately, the precise nature of Philitas' influence both as a poet and a γραμματικὸς κριτικός (cf. Sud. φ 332) remains murky, since his work has been lost almost entirely. His poetry survives in slightly more than two dozen short fragments, none longer than four lines and many consisting of only a single word or phrase; his lexicographical and interpretive scholarship is even more scantily preserved and shadowy. In recent years, these paltry remains have received a flurry of critical attention. This volume, a revised and expanded version of Spanoudakis' St. Andrews dissertation, follows hard on the heels of two Italian editions in which Philitas' poetic and grammatical writings were treated separately: E. Dettori, Filita grammatico: testimonianze e frammenti (Rome, 2000); and L. Sbardella, Filita: testimonianze e frammenti poetici (2002). Those editions, which Spanoudakis was unable to use before his book went to press, hardly foreclosed the need for a detailed English-language commentary on Philitas' entire corpus. The continued attention to an important if little understood figure in the history of Greek literature is thus welcome, and Spanoudakis' edition, which treats all of Philitas' surviving work, contains a wealth of useful information. I regret to have to say that the utility of the volume is diminished by the many errors it contains, as well as by a large number of difficulties in its arguments about literary and technical matters.

Spanoudakis' dissertation treated the verse fragments, and these remain the focus of this volume. Indeed, discussion of the nature and importance of Philitas' scholarly work has not really been integrated into the introduction, which mentions them only in passing and focuses on his career and influence as a poet. Those looking for a synthetic treatment of Philitas' scholarly contribution will need to go to the very end of the volume, after the discussion of the prose fragments themselves, and will find the discussion far less detailed than that of the poetry. The introduction itself treats the spelling and accentuation of Philitas' name; his background and career; his reception by and influence on later Hellenistic and Roman poets; his use of earlier literature, as well as his stylistic and metrical practices. Detailed essays on Philitas' individual works are reserved for the commentary.

Very little can be known with any confidence about Philitas' life and work, and discussion of his career and writings must be speculative. Individual scholars will have different senses of how much conjecture they find tolerable and what standards of argument they expect. In my view Spanoudakis frequently pushes the evidence beyond what it will bear: too often the discussions consist either of conjecture represented as fact or of more responsibly phrased speculation nonetheless presented with little or no argument. Thus, for example, Spanoudakis' claim (p. 26) that Philitas' quickly growing reputation was decisively enhanced "when he took over the 'Department of Literature' in the 'University of Cos', probably an institution with an established reputation," invents not only a detail of Philitas' vita (a footnote acknowledges that "We are not explicitly told that P. led a school at Cos, but the way to the Ptolemaic Court would have to go through this first" -- an unnecessary and unsubstantiated claim) but also an institutional structure about which we have no knowledge.1 Nor do I understand how Spanoudakis can so blithely conclude (p. 23) that "[t]herefore the beginning of the Coan's sojourn in Alexandria can be dated to ca. 297/6 BC" or that (ibid.) "P. was in his heyday then"; evidence for such specific statements is entirely lacking.

Similar issues attend the treatments of the interconnections among literary texts and the reconstructions of Philitas' poetry in the introduction and commentary. Poetic influence can be hard to gauge, especially when one is dealing with highly fragmentary texts. Spanoudakis' discussions of such matters offer a rich accumulation of material, from which he extracts at least as much as can plausibly be concluded. The treatment of the poet's engagement with earlier literature, however, implies a conception of the dynamics of literary interaction that many readers will find unpersuasive. Thus, for instance, his view (p. 133) that the story of Odysseus' visit to the island of Aeolus is unlikely to have occurred in a short digression at least in part because "surely the unheard [sic] (or -- at the very least -- recondite) story would stand quite oddly as a passing digression without due documentation" ignores the massive number of allusively recounted digressions in other Hellenistic poems. In much the same way, the claim (in his treatment of the Hermes on p. 127) that "P. must have found the explanation [of the events between Odysseus' two visits to Aeolus] produced in the Od. as [sic] insufficient" underestimates the widespread interest of Hellenistic poets in variant accounts of well-known events and seems to depend on the (overly simplistic) view that such departures from Homer are necessarily critical of the epic tradition. So too, the claims of the sort made on fr. 2.1 ἰσχυρὰ ... ἀνάγκη ("Epic diction demands κρατερή or κραταιή, but its absence is mitigated by the following ἐπικρατεῖ") or ibid. ἐπικρατῖ ("Epic diction demands ἐπίκειται") imply a different view of the poet's obligation to his epic material from that usually associated with Hellenistic poetics. Spanoudakis rightly recognizes that Philitas, himself an interpreter of the Homeric poems, shared with other Hellenistic poets an interest in problems attending the constitution of the text of early epic, and it is natural to suppose that he did allude to matters of contemporary debate. But Philitas' allusions to lines of Homer that were athetised by later Homeric scholarship do not necessarily show that "the question of its authenticity was raised as early as his days" (p. 173; cf.1792); in such cases Spanoudakis seems to have misapplied a methodology widely used in discussions of Hellenistic allusion. Similarly, it may well be that the Peripatetics exerted a great influence on Philitas, but at least some of the features Spanoudakis identifies as peripatetic (e.g. [p. 71] his use of glosses3 and proverbs and [p. 206] his interest in foundation legends) are common in Hellenistic verse and may not be due to the specific influence of Aristotle or his successors. Similarly, the claim (p. 183) that Aristotle was the "uncontested" authority on the generation of bees misrepresents the nature of ancient debate on such subjects.

Spanoudakis' desire to offer full as a reconstruction of Philitas' poetry as possible is clearly reflected in his assignment of the fragments to individual poems, especially the Demeter. Whereas Powell, for example, assigns only four of the extant fragments to this work, and Sbardella seven,4 Spanoudakis identifies seventeen fragments as belonging to it, including eight treated by Powell as "ex incertis"(fr. 6; 7; 8; 14; 17; 18; 20; 21.1; cf. also frr. 11 = SH 675B; 15 = SH 675C; 16 = SH 673; 21 = SH 674). The result is that in Spanoudakis' edition only three "fragmenta incertae sedis" remain. His distribution of fragments allows the editor to offer a fuller account of the contents of the Demeter than would otherwise be possible, and his lengthy and interesting essay on the topic will be widely consulted. In many cases, however, the placement of individual fragments in the edition misrepresents the shaky nature of the ground on which their ascription to the Demeter rests. A striking but not atypical example is fr. 11, which consists of a single word ἄστλιγγας, a rare noun identified as Philitan by schol. A.R. 1.1297, which it glosses as meaning "sparks" or "curls" of hair, and attested elsewhere of the tendrils of a grapevine and the tentacles of the sea-hare. Spanoudakis, on the basis of h.Cer. 278-80 and other passages in which the goddess' hair figures in accounts of her mourning, argues that the word occurred in a description of her in the Demeter. This is possible, but, given how little we have of Philitas' poetry and the wide range of contexts in which it is possible to imagine him mentioning hair, it would seem more responsible to locate the word among the fragments of uncertain provenance (cf. the treatment of, e.g., frr. 7 νήχυτον ὕδωρ; 15 Θεσσαλαί). Moreover, whereas Lloyd-Jones and Parsons cautiously print "ἄστλιγξ (ἄστλιγγες?)" at Supplementum Hellenisticum 675B and Sbardella prints "ἄστλιγξ (fort. ἄστλιγγας)" in his fr. 28, Spanoudakis gives the word only in the accusative plural, apparently on the assumption that the lemma at Hsch. α 7826 is drawn from Philitas, and although this may be the case, the editor offers no discussion of why it is sufficiently likely that the form should so appear in the text.

The strength of Spanoudakis' commentary lies especially in its accumulation of thematic parallels from both earlier and later poetry. His treatment of linguistic and literary questions, especially the coloring of individual words and phrases, is often less helpful. Thus, for example, a note like that on fr. 27.2 (p. 333), where Spanoudakis claims that "κρόταφοι, (p. 333), 11x in Homer, is a term of medical colouring," raises the related questions of what "coloring" means and how it is gauged, since the commentator proceeds to quote a series of passages of other poetry rather than of medical texts. On matters of tone, the commentary is sometimes heavy-handed. Thus, in the note on 19.2 (pp. 208-9) the suggestion that λευκολόφος may show Phlious' effeminacy is hard to sustain, given that the word does not have any implication of this sort in its several attestations in antecedent literature (Anacr. PMG 433.1-2; E. Ph. 119; Ar. Ra. 1016). That whiteness of skin might be held a mark of effeminacy is beside the point, since the object at issue is a helmet crest. Similarly, to claim (pp. 217, 223) that the anaphora of καί κεν in fr. 21 produces a "stuttering" effect analogous to that at h.Cer. 141 (where the alliteration and anaphora hardly require us to imagine the goddess stuttering!) presumes a treatment of Demeter (if, indeed, she is the speaker) that is not obviously sustained by the extant evidence, especially since Spanoudakis simultaneously notes the common appearance of anaphora in short epic catalogues (pp. 217-8). At other times it is entirely unclear by what critical criteria the author arrives at his conclusions. Thus, for example, in his note on fr. 2 (p. 107) he asserts that "[t]he assonance of the novel construction χαλεπῶν ἀχέων and the twice repeated α-ε-ων sequence of sounds prompts [sic] Ἀχέρων," despite the absence of any reason to think of Acheron or the Underworld elsewhere in the fragment. A similar claim appears in the note on fr. 2.1 ἐπικρατεῖ, which "may also prompt an underlying ἐπὶ κρατί," though an evocation of κάρα here makes little sense and contributes nothing to the point.

The writing of commentaries is a tricky and laborious activity, and even careful editing and proofreading will miss some flaws. Nonetheless, the rate of slips both minor and major in this volume is sufficiently high to prevent readers from feeling confident about its accuracy.5 Easily decipherable mistakes of spelling and usage are forgivable irritations but occur with disturbing frequency,6 as do errors that may be harder to spot, like the substitution of "dedicit" for "decidit" (p. 173), of "Mayer" for "Meyer" (p. 79) or of "Hilberg's law" for "Giseke's law" (p. 213).7 The leisurely manner of presentation sometimes leads to other sorts of confusion (e.g. the contradictions on p. 81 "P. avoids hiatus ... There are four instances of hiatus in the extant fragments" and p. 95 "ἀλώμενος is a poetic word. It is constructed with different prepositions..., but ἀλώμενος περί + accusative is surely prosaic"). Such cases, however, are trivial when compared to others sorts of mistakes that may pass more easily under the casual reader's radar screen. Thus, for example, in the treatment of the evidence for the orthography of the poet's name, the case for Philitas rather than Philetas -- both are plausible, but the earliest papyrus witnesses have the former -- is even stronger than Spanoudakis supposes, since he misdates the new Posidippus papyrus, in which Philitas' name is spelled with an iota (as it is in a 3rd c. BCE papyrus of Strato's Phoenikides) to the late 3rd c. CE rather than the late 3rd or early 2nd c. BCE (cf. also the lemma to his T 3 on p. 1).8 Similarly, in the discussion of Strato of Lampsacus' sojourn in Alexandria (pp. 27-8) the references to "Ptolemy Euergetes" seem to be to Ptolemy I Soter rather than Ptolemy III Euergetes.

Despite all of this, Spanoudakis' edition has done an important service in bringing together a wealth of comparative material that will facilitate future work on a major figure in the literary history of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Indeed, its principal shortcomings -- incautiousness and exuberance in the face of restricted evidence -- may also be seen as advantages: Spanoudakis' reconstructions of Philitas' work, even when they transcend the limits of what can be known, are often interesting, and scholars working on Hellenistic and Roman poetry will benefit from consulting them, so long as they do so carefully.


1.   Similar, if more cautiously couched, is the speculation about Asclepiades, who, it is claimed (p. 50), "might have led the School of Literature at Samos".
2.   Williams' note on Call. h. 2.22, cited by Spanoudakis on p. 179, deals with a different sort of issue.
3.   Given how little we know both of Philitas' poetry and his reading of Aristotle, it seems incautious to claim that "As Aristotle wished, P. avoids an overloaded excess of glosses in his poems, which would result in βαρβαρισμός" (p. 71).
4.   fr. 5 Sbardella = 1 Powell; fr. 6 = 3 P.; fr. 7 = 2.1-2 Powell; fr. 8 Sbardella = 2.3-4 P.; fr. 9 = SH 673; fr. 10 = SH 674 (v. 1 = 23 P.); fr. 11 = 24 P.
5.   There are also a few unexplained oddities of presentation. It is not clear, for example, why the first fragment of the Demeter is numbered 5a rather than 6, especially since Spanoudakis is not following the numeration of Powell's edition. Nor do I share Spanoudakis' generous notions about what constitutes even a "testimonium dubium": the first two of the three passages on p. 12 do not mention Philitas explicitly or implicitly but are rather examples of later poetry on which Philitas' work could arguably have exerted some influence.
6.   Some representative examples: p. 33 "That Hermesianax is ... capable of such a distortion is clear by Homer's love to Penelope" for " is made clear by Homer's love for Penelope" vel sim.; p. 124 for "Brasswell" read "Braswell"; p. 135 for "evoces" read "evokes"; p. 137 "Both him and Odysseus " for "both he and Odysseus"; p. 148 "In p. 229" read "On p. 229"; p. 162 read "acknowledge" for "aknowledge"; p. 177 for "Imitation ... are" read "Imitation ... is"; p. 181 for "preempts" read apparently "precedes"; p. 198 for "contemptuous" read "contemptible."
7.   The Greek seems to be better proofread: on p. 39 delete second χεῖρας; p. 152 for [μαλαμπέ]ταλος read "[μελαμπέ]ταλος.
8.   The epigram on Philitas was composed sometime after Ptolemy's deification but not necessarily, as Spanoudakis claims (p. 24), shortly thereafter, especially as the papyrus shows that Posidippus' literary activity probably extended several decades beyond the 260s.

Read Latest
Index for 2003
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:28, Friday, 03 April 2009