Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.08.18

Enrico Rebuffat, Poetes Epeon. Tecniche di composizione poetica negli Halieutica di Oppiano.   Firenze:  Leo S. Olschki Editore, 2001.  Pp. 273.  ISBN 88-222-5032-X.  EUR 28.00.  

Reviewed by Adam Bartley, University of Sydney (
Word count: 1407 words

Rebuffat has provided us with an important tool in the study of a work that, despite its popularity until the early 19th century, has received only limited modern critical attention. Recent monographs that focus on the Halieutica of Oppian include the new edition by Fajen,1 which appeared in 1999, Fajen's own analysis of the manuscript tradition of the Halieutica2 and James' examination of the language of the Halieutica,3 which focusses on the numerous apparently newly-coined compound epithets employed by Oppian. Rebuffat has added to this with a survey of the main elements of Oppian's style, using as his focus the elements of rhetorical style that were in vogue at the time of the composition of the Halieutica, namely the second half of the second century AD.

The book begins with an outline of the broad structure of the Halieutica, the sources that Oppian drew upon for his technical material and the aspect of Oppian's style that has been striking to all commentators -- the anthropomorphism of the fish. The second part examines the smaller details of rhetorical expression, including amplification, lexical variatio, the use of catalogues and similar features involving the names of fish or fishing equipment, the use of prosopopoeia and apostrophe to create the sense of a didactic 'speaker', as well as the use of the poet's own voice, as in addresses to the reader or moral expression, and the influence from Hellenistic Mirabilia. The final section deals with the broader details of Oppian's style, including σύγκρισις, gnomic statements, the inclusion of mythological material and the use of similes. An interesting set of indices have been compiled, with annotation to indicate where the author provides a detailed dissent from the view of recent Oppianic commentators such as Fajen, Effe4 and White.5 The index of rhetorical terms mentioned is particularly striking, allowing easy finding of common terms such as εἰκών and πλεονασμός, and should prove useful given the historical background of this work. Somewhat disappointing is the index of passages cited, which includes only the citations from the Halieutica itself, with other authors and works listed without reference to the passage discussed. The study of intertextuality in the Halieutica is in its infancy, and a listing of exact citations from other authors would have been useful and, given the style of this work, comparatively brief.

In his analyses Rebuffat mainly addresses himself to the text directly, cataloguing and analysing features in a manner that is mostly 'internal' to the Halieutica, although greater attention is given to context in regards to certain features such as similes or mythological digressions. Considerable attention is also given to recent Oppianic scholarship, and Rebuffat comments upon this at some length, dissenting from it considerably. This leads to some unexpected digressions such as the sub-chapter devoted to his dissent from Effe's analysis of the relationship to the prose sources for the Halieutica and the role of anthropomorphism.

Rebuffat's treatments of the finer features of style are well conducted and laid out in such a way as to be of considerable use to a reader, who needs to examine them in closer detail. Good examples of this are the catalogue of amplifications at pp. 71-81 and the rigorous analysis of the use of co-ordinating constructions at p.107. If this level of detail seems overly pedantic, it should be noted that the Halieutica has not been blessed with the wealth of analysis of this style that has been long available for the works of the traditional canon.

A notable aspect of Rebuffat's mode of argument is that, although he is certainly not dismissive of the influence of the epic tradition, his main focus is to set the Halieutica in the context of literary developments in the 2nd century AD. This is, in places, very successful, as some features are considered with 'fresh eyes', leading to some strong insights into the very fragmentarily preserved technical prose tradition that Oppian has drawn on, in the tradition of Keydell.6 Similarly effective is his examination of the use of place names at pp. 110-12, which is a useful starting point for examining Oppian's geographical understanding. Conversely Rebuffat sometimes overlooks the breadth of non-technical prose and verse material that Oppian draws upon, limiting himself to the most well-known epic poets. As an example, at pp. 232-33 when considering the simile comparing water stirred up by a whale with legendarily dangerous straits such as those of Messina, at 5.215-22, although he mentions potential influences from the Iliad and the Odyssey, he overlooks possible influences such as the depiction of Typhaon breathing with difficulty as he is buried by the cliffs of Cumae at Pindar Pyth. 1.17-18, which Oppian draws upon to avoid a simple repetition of the description from the Odyssey. Rebuffat's work does not, however, seek to take the place of a comprehensive commentary and, considering the size of the Halieutica and the range of issues that are addressed, such omissions are not critical. Nonetheless it is worth noting that this work gives the reader a good impression of the type of material to be found rather than a comprehensive catalogue for reference purposes.

Similar limitations can be observed in the way that Rebuffat has handled rhetoric, which is often treated as though it were an immutable source of definitions and tools, with limited attention given to the place of the Halieutica in the development of rhetoric between the 3rd century BC and the 6th century AD. This is a valuable analytical approach for the 'documentary' style of this book, but it would at times be useful to know in greater detail how the author understands some of the terms that he employs and the reader should be aware that at this point the extent to which the Halieutica is a reflection of contemporary literary fashions, as opposed to those of the Hellenistic period or from later in the Imperial period, has not been fully considered.

As noted above, the Halieutica has not yet been subject to much of the basic critical analysis that the works of the Classical period received in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fajen has provided a thorough examination of the large number of extant manuscripts and provided a critical edition, James has examined the most striking features of Oppian's language, while Keydell fleshed out much of the background of the prose sources behind the technical content of this work. Rebuffat has now provided a critical element in the examination of any work of the Imperial period, that is the description of the rhetorical elements of its composition. Despite the limitations of scope of this book imposed by the amount of material the author seeks to survey, he has also taken the chance to perceptively question some of the assumptions used by earlier writers. This is also highly valuable as, beyond some comments by Kenney on Effe's conclusions on the apparent stoic focus of the Halieutica,7 the low volume of writing about Oppian has restricted the amount of re-examination of earlier research.

Grounds for discontent with this work are few. One would be that, while some elements such as rhetorical amplification and the use of synonyms within a description are listed exhaustively and will surely prove useful to other researchers, others such as the use of mythical elements addressed at pp. 159-77, or the use of synonyms at pp.87-95, are not, by the author's own admission, exhaustive. Again, given the scope of this book and the amount of material that it addresses -- the Halieutica is composed of five books of more than 700 lines each -- this is not surprising, but it should be understood that this book provides more of an outline for the reader of the features that can be found as opposed to a comprehensive examination of same.

In the analysis of Oppian's similes Rebuffat does not provide any meaningful definition of how we should understand the term 'simile' in regard to the Halieutica, beyond a brief footnote at p. 188. This is unfortunate as McCall8 notes that this was something of a moving target and subject to re-appraisal by rhetoricians and, more significantly for this author, by philosophical schools between the Classical period and Oppian's own time. In view of the questions over the apparent philosophical focus of the Halieutica, it is surprising that Rebuffat has not addressed the potential relationship between the rhetorical features attributed to the different philosophical schools and the features that he has observed so accurately.


1.   Fritz Fajen, ed., Oppian, Halieutica : Der Fischfang, Stuttgart, 1999.
2.   Fritz Fajen, Noten zur handschriftlichen Überlieferung der Halieutika des Oppian, Stuttgart, 1995.
3.   Alan W. James, Studies in the language of Oppian of Cilicia, Amsterdam, 1970.
4.   Bernd Effe, Dichtung und Lehre: Untersuchungen zur Typologie des Antiken Lehrgedichts, Zetemata, 69, 1977.
5.   Heather White, Studies in Late Greek Epic Poetry, Amsterdam, 1987.
6.   Rudolf Keydell, "Oppians Gedicht von der Fischerei und Aelians Tiergeschichte", Hermes, 72, 1937, 480-510.
7.   E.J. Kenney, "The typology of didactic", CR, 29, 1979, 71-3.
8.   M.H. McCall, Ancient Rhetorical Theories of Simile and Comparison, Cambridge Mass., 1969.

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