Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.04.11

Vayos Liapis, Menandrou Gnomai monostichoi. Eisagôgê, metaphrasê, scholia.   Athens:  Stigme, 2002.  Pp. 529.  ISBN 960-269-189-7.  

Reviewed by Antonis K. Petrides, Trinity College, Cambridge (
Word count: 2683 words

In the last 40 years, the collection of gnomic wisdom in iambic trimeters known as Menandri Sententiae has seen a new critical text,1 a comprehensive monograph,2 at least two important editions with translation and notes in Italian3 and Spanish,4 as well as a number of other significant studies of text and content. This handsome volume by Vayos Liapis (L.) is the first attempt to provide a full-fledged commentary on the Sententiae, along with a thorough introduction, an updated text (but not a new critical edition), and a lucid, unforced translation into Modern Greek (of the Sententiae proper and all ancient texts cited in Introduction and Commentary).

A. The introduction:

The introduction (pp.29-107, with five appendices) opens with a semantic examination of the term γνώμη and the demarcations between such rhetorical genres as γνώμη, χρεία, παροιμία, ἀπόφθεγμα, ὑποθήκη, and ὅμοια or ὁμοιώματα. L. is cautious not to draw too rigid a line between categories, which eventually share the common function of "demonstrating the correctness of a certain mode of action by projecting moral staples of known value" (p.33, my translation).

Sections 2 and 3 of the introduction locate the gnomic genre in the literary context of pagan and Christian literature from Antiquity to late Byzantium. Such wide-ranging exposition is inevitably sketchy, but even so the basic issues are informatively raised and an abundance of bibliographical leads for further research is provided.

Sections 4 and 5 examine in closer detail the two weightier formative platforms of the Sententiae, rhetorical practice and classroom instruction. Rhetoric employed gnomic discourse as a repertory of universal principles used to defend or reject arguments (quaestiones finitae); as rhetorical embellishment (ornatus); and, most importantly, in προγυμνάσματα, composition exercises for students and trainees. Gnomic collections such as the Μενάνδρου καὶ Φιλιστίωνος σύγκρισις, organised in groups of thematic ἀντιλογίαι, allow an insight into their classroom usage: such collections afforded students both an edifying read in polished Greek and a means to sharpen their critical faculties by being familiarised with the methodology of δισσοὶ λόγοι. L. clearly favours the classroom as the most influential interface in bringing together such gnomic compilations as the Monostichoi: even when, as it is here, the arrangement is not thematic but alphabetical, classroom instruction informs the content of the compilations (hence, a preoccupation with sentences praising education and such educational principles as silence or physical punishment); more fundamentally, however, classroom usage affects the transmission of gnomic collections, rendering their boundaries elastic and thus susceptible to interpolations and other manipulations of a largely random nature. L.'s wholesale belief in the formative importance of the classroom naturally informs the way he approaches the question of the collection's intentionality (Section 7): he accepts Lanowski's rebuttal of Kock's overly ingenious suggestion that the Monostichoi were little more than a "calligraphy pad" for training scribes. For L. the moral constructiveness of the collection and its applicability for teaching "constitutes its generative precondition, pure and simple" (p.63). Section 5 concludes with an overview of the use of gnomic wisdom in the Modern Greek classroom (pp.53-56).

Section 6 unpacks the technology of compiling a collection such as the Monostichoi by illuminating with lucid examples the two chief editorial principles involved: (a) linguistic smoothing and (b) decontextualisation and generalisation. The discussion of S.50 (adapted from Menander, fr.129 K.-A.), which explains by means of these principles the shift from Menander's λαλίστατον to καλλίστατον, is one of Liapis' most original contributions in this book and should be accepted as a definitive support of the transmitted text.

Section 8 recapitulates the sources of the collection: Menander, other comic and tragic playwrights, the gnomic Chares, the epigrammatist Palladas, the Vita Aesopi and the pseudo-Isocratic Πρὸς Δημόνικον and Πρὸς Νικοκλέα. L. has an important contribution to make here, too: to the sources above he adds the inscriptions found on the εἰληταρια held by saints in Byzantine iconography: according to L. at least five of the monostichoi in this collection reformulate inscriptions such as these.

Section 9 deals with the question of originality or, as L. puts it, of the genetic relation between the Menandrian and non-Menandrian material. The prevailing scholarly theories concerning this relation are: (a) that a Menandrian nucleus was expanded into the Monostichoi as we know them (Meineke, Meyer, Koerte); or (b) that a nucleus comprising heterogeneous material, some of it Menandrian, some not, grew ever steadily, as material was ushered in by Christian moralists and schoolteachers (Görler). In this hypothetical proto-collection, contends Görler, the arrangement was thematic, with the source designated by name. When the arrangement turned alphabetical, apparently following a new vogue in gnomic collections, subject headings, and with them source designations, were dropped; this made it easier to ascribe the whole collection to such an emblematic figure as Menander. L.'s sympathies clearly lie with Görler, to whose arguments he has little to add.

The last two sections of the introduction offer an overview of the textual sources and a catalogue of medieval and modern translations of the γνῶμαι. The introduction concludes with five appendices (pp.85-107). Appendix A cites ancient definitions of the term γνώμη from Aristotle to Priscian. Appendix B comprises ancient sources on χρεῖαι and their difference from γνῶμαι. Appendix C provides evidence for the use of γνῶμαι as school texts. Appendix D is titled The Sententiae and the Rhetorical Variatio. Appendix E cites an extract from the Novel of Madam Erse by Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis, quoting material from the Monostichoi.

B. The text:

L. reproduces the text as constituted by Jaekel (J.) not from any integral body transmitted by any single ancient source, but by bringing together individual collections of monostichoi of varied length and content, transmitted by 38 medieval manuscripts (p.76). Unlike J., L. uses double numbering to distinguish between individual sayings (the numbers on the left hand side) and line numbers (with smaller print on the right hand side): the distinction is necessary since not all monostichoi are literally one-liners.

My general feeling, however, is that sometimes L. clings to Jaekel's text more closely than necessary. A number of fresh papyrus finds unknown to Jaekel have enriched our material considerably. These papyri were included in the Spanish edition of Sánchez-Elvira and García Romero (pp.426-436), but, although used as a comparative source, they are curiously and without adequate justification excluded from L.'s main text.5

Apart from this little glitch, generally speaking L. improves J.'s text considerably. The text of Sententiae 206 (= l. 212 J.), 213 (= l. 219 J.), 471 (= l. 479 J.), 501 (l. 509 J.) and 741 (= l.750 J.) are the most suggestive examples of such improvements. The case of S. 419 = l.427 J. (L. emends ἐπὶ τὰ τέκνα to ἤπια τέκνα) is less straightforward: the reason is provided by L. himself in the commentary ad locum: ἤπιος especially in Comedy is an adjective that usually qualifies the attitude of father towards child rather than vice versa. L. provides no parallels of ἤπιος as an attribute of the behaviour of offspring toward parent.

Also dubious is L.'s editorial choice in S.676 (= l.685 J.), an adaptation of Menander, Dysk.797. While J. emends codex K to reproduce the Menandrian verse exactly, L. chooses to retain the transmitted text, since he believes that the Sententia consciously adapts Menander to give his verse a more palpably exhortatory sense. Be that as it may, the text of K is un-metrical: if it is not to be emended, it should at least by demarcated by daggers, as is L.'s (and J.'s) practice in the case of other un-metrical or indeed prosaic Sententiae in this collection.

In five instances, L.'s text is corrupted by misprints:

1. S. 554 (l. 562 J.): οὐκ ἐσθ' ὑγίειας κρεῖττον οὐδὲν ἐν τῷ βίῳ. τῷ is superfluous.

2. S. 572 (= l.580 J.) read δεδυστυχηκόσι rather than δεδυστηχηκόσι.

3. S. 655 (= l.664 J.): L.'s text is hypermetrical by one foot, since L. fails to reprint J.'s line end after ἔπλασεν.

4. S. 765 (= l.775 J.): τοῦτ' ἐστὶ τὸ ζῆν, μὴ σαυτῷ ζῆν μόνον Liapis. Read σεαυτῷ rather than σαυτῷ.

5. S. 829 (= l. 839 J.): πρὸς φῶς Liapis. Un-metrical. Read πρὸς τὸ φῶς.

L.'s deviations from J.'s edition are collected in a Comparative Table on pp.497-501. Unfortunately, a number of significant cases are absent from this table, some of them L.'s own emendations. I list the seven most important:

1. S. 44 (=line 47 Jaekel): ἅπασιν εὖ πράττουσιν ἥδομαι φίλοις. This is the reading of Β and Γ adopted by Liapis. Jaekel's correction to ἅπαντας εὖ πράττοντας (based on the reading of D: ἅπαντος εὖ πράττοντος) is unnecessary.

2. S. 138 (= l. 144 J.): κλαυθμάτων U and Jaekel, κλαυμάτων Liapis.

3. S. 198 (= l. 204 J.): δὶς πρὸς τὸν αὐτὸν αἰσχρὸν ἐγκροῦσαι λίθον. L. corrects J.'s unmetrial προσκροῦσαι.

4. S. 277 (= l. 284 J.): προσδοκῶντες Liapis (correctly), προσδοκοῦντες codd. and Jaekel. The correct sense is, of course, provided by Liapis' προσδοκάῶ "expect, suppose". (προσδοκέω means "to be thought besides", "I also seem to...")

5. S. 514 (= l. 522 J.): αἰεὶ Γ and Jaekel, ἀεὶ cett. and Liapis. Either will do in terms of meter: the a in ἀεί is normally long, though in Greek drama it is short in the overwhelming majority of instances: see s.802, Eur.Alc.700, Medea 457, 670 and elsewhere.

6. S. 622 (= l. 630 J.): γίνεται Liapis. γίγνεται Jaekel.

7. S. 734 (= l. 743 J.): ἀνθρώποισι Liapis (after Grilli). Jaekel prints the un-metrical ἀνθρώποισιν.

C. The commentary:

An asterisk next to the number of the sententia in the translation points to the commentary. A significant number of γνῶμαι, namely 151 out of a total of 866 (17.5%) are not commented upon. At first sight, this may slightly compromise the claim for a "comprehensive" commentary. Nonetheless, the flat truisms and the repetitiveness of this material afford enough justification for such omissions, with their welcome effect of rendering an already lengthy book much lighter. What one misses is a clear statement of the criteria that inspired L.'s particular selection.

The weight of the commentary lies in elucidating the sometimes tantalisingly ambiguous ethical precepts contained in the sententiae. A wealth of parallel texts from all ranges of Greek literature and beyond locates the Monostichoi in the milieu of gnomic wisdom. What distinguishes this book from others of its kind is the richness of organic parallels from Modern Greek (and Middle-Eastern) folklore, which brings forth the essential cultural continuity that binds the material together. For this achievement beyond all others L.'s book deserves the highest praise.

The parallels are neatly hierarchised: in a collection that, albeit falsely, is attributed to Menander, comparable material from Comedy is naturally provided on top; other equivalencies are cited in a roughly chronological order or according to relevance. Such catalogues can never be exhaustive; hence one should not grumble too much about "omissions" or oversights. I quote, however, a number of unmentioned cross-references, which are, in my view, indispensable:

1. S. 66 (= line 70 Jaekel): αὐθαίρετος λύπη 'στὶν τέκνων σπορά. To the parallels mentioned, add Plautus, Miles Gloriosus, 702ff., esp.718ff., where Periplectomenus explains why he would rather abstain from parenting.

2. S. 81 (= line 87 Jaekel): ἀπῆλθεν οὐδεὶς τῶν βροτῶν πλοῦτον φέρων. Only Modern Greek parallels cited. Add Plautus, Trin. 493-494: aequo mendicus atque ille opulentissimus / censetur censu ad Acheruntem mortuos.

3. S. 104 (= line 110 Jaekel): βροτοῖς ἅπασι κατθανεῖν ὀφείλεται. On the teleological necessity of death, L. cites a number of Modern Greek parallels. To those add the following verses from the poem Ὑστεροφημία by Kostas Karyotakis: τὸ θάνατό μας χρειάζεται ἄμετρη γύρω φύση [line end] καὶ τὸν ζητοῦν τὰ πορφυρὰ στόματα τῶν ἀνθῶν ("our death is called for by the boundless Nature that surrounds us, and is demanded by the crimson mouths of the blossoms...").

4. S. 133 (= line 139 Jaekel): γυναιξὶ πάσαις κόσμον σιγὴ φέρει. L. compares Menander, fr. 815 K.-A. on a λάλος γυνή. Compare also Libanius, Declamatio 26 (Δύσκολος γήμας λάλον γυναῖκα ἑαυτὸν προσαγγέλλει), whose dependence upon Menandrian (or, at any rate, comic) material is very probable.

5. S. 138 (= line 144 Jaekel): γέλως ἄκαιρος κλαυμάτων (κλαυθμάτων U and Jaekel) παραίτιος. A sole Modern Greek parallel quoted. Cite also the Cypriot proverb: τὸ γέλιον τῆς Παρασκεvὶς ἒν κλάμαν τοῦ Σαvvάτου ("laughing on Friday is crying on Saturday").

6. S. 140 (= line 146 Jaekel): γέρων ἐραστὴς ἐσχάτη κακὴ τύχη. A reference to the comic type of the senex amator is certainly due here, cf. K. C. Ryder, "The senex amator in Plautus," G & R 31 (1984), 181-189. To the parallel of Menander, fr. 400 K.-A. add Plautus, Miles Gloriosus, 969-970, where Acroteleutium is reported to demur from her feigned marriage to Periplectomenus, because "she hates the old man" and prefers the graces of the soldier. A young woman married to an old man is "et nupta et vidua" (964-966).

7. S. 145 (= line 151 Jaekel): γυναῖκα θάπτειν κρεῖσσόν ἐστι<ν> γαμεῖν. The classic moment of play with this commonplace sentiment in Comedy is Plautus, Trinummus, 39ff., the flagitatio between Callicles and Megaronides. The old men wish each other "good"; it turns out, though, that this "good", that their wives live a long and healthy life, is not much appreciated!

8. S. 333 (= line 340 Jaekel): θυσία μεγίστη τῷ θεῷ τό γ' εὐσεβεῖν. Liapis juxtaposes a number of parallels, where lavish sacrifices are branded as less genuine expressions of piety than modest offerings. Striking is, however, the absence of Menander, Dysk. 447-453.

9. S. 490 (= line 498 Jaekel): μηδένα νομίζε<τ'> εὐτυχεῖν, πρὶν ἂν θάνῃ. A number of parallels is naturally adduced, yet the locus classicus, Herodotus, 1.30-33, is not one of them.

10. S. 593 (= line 601 Jaekel): οὐπώποτ ἐζήλωσα πολυτελῆ νεκρόν. Liapis refers to Solon's attempts to curb funerary ostentation. More apt to the context of Menander, fr.835 K.-A., which he cites as parallel, are the similar attempts by Demetrios of Phaleron, see Christian Habicht, Athen. Die Geschichte der Stadt in hellenistischer Zeit, Munich 1995 (Greek transl. by Yiannis Koilis, Athens 1998, p.83).

11. S. 641 (= 650 Jaekel): παντὶ βροτῷ θνήσκοντι πᾶσα γῆ τάφος. Liapis cites opposite parallels, arguing that death in foreign lands was bitterly unwished for by the Greeks. From the numerous equivalent Modern Greek formulations hereon (the theme is particularly common in the folk songs on ξενιτειά), I would single out Andreas Kalvos': εἶναι γλυκὺς θάνατος [line end] μόνον ὅταν πεθαίνωμεν εἰς τὴν πατρίδα (Death is sweet/ only when we expire/ in the homeland).

12. S. 684 (= line 693 Jaekel): ῥᾷον παραινεῖν παθόντα καρτερεῖν (= Eur. Alc. 1078). Comment ad locum, p.443: "remarkable is here the conjunction παραινεῖν ́ καρτερεῖν, for which I was not able to locate a satisfactory Modern Greek parallel". A possible parallel may be the Cypriot proverb: ἀπ ὂν ἀππ ἔξω τοῦ χοροῦ, πολλὰ τραούθκια ξέρει (he who is not partaking in the dance, has many songs to sing).

D. The translation:

Translation as a cultural transfer is ideologically charged by definition; translating Ancient to Modern Greek even more so, in the midst of the fierce clash between Katharevousa and Dimotiki, which produced pretentious texts in an absurdly artificial language professing to reflect the common tongue, while, in fact, confusing the vulgar with the poetic. The establishment of Dimotiki as the official language of the state in 1976 inspired a fresh confidence to the spoken tongue. L.'s translation, in rhythmic prose, reflects this new vitality of Dimotiki, with an effortless flow and genuine sincerity, which leaves behind the extremes of the past in favour of communicability and good taste. Its greatest strength is its successful appropriation of paratactic structures from Modern Greek gnomic discourse to render the more complex ancient syntax. The result is a flexible piece of translation, faithful to the artistic achievement of the original, but also unapologetic towards its more clumsy moments.

E. Conclusion:

Overall, L.'s book deserves to become the standard work of reference on the Monostichoi. The misprints and other lapses mentioned above do not detract much from the book's value, but a second edition eliminating them would be highly desirable.6


1.   S. Jaekel (ed.), Menandri Sententiae. Comparatio Menandri et Philistionis, Leipzig 1964.
2.   W. Görler, Μενάνδρου Γνῶμαι, PhD Berlin 1963.
3.   G. Pompella (ed.), Menandro Sentenze. Introduzione, traduzione e note di G. P. con testo Greco, Milan 1997.
4.   R. M. Mariño Sánchez-Elvira & F. García Romero (eds.), Proverbios griegos. Menandro Sentencias, Madrid 1999.
5.   On this papyri, see Carlo Pernigotti, Raccolte e varietà redazionali nei papiri dei Monostici di Menandro, Papiri Filosofici. Miscellanea di Studi 3, Firenze 2000, pp. 171-228. Unless I have missed the reference, this article is not cited by L.
6.   I thank Professor Richard Hunter and Mr Christos D. Simelidis for their helpful suggestions.

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