Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.11.12

Sibylle Ihm, Eros und Distanz. Untersuchungen zu Asklepiades in seinem Kreis. BzA 167.   Muenchen/Leipzig:  K.G. Saur, 2004.  Pp. 156.  ISBN 3-598-77716-7.  €78.00.  

Reviewed by Regina Hoeschele, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (
Word count: 1583 words

The past few years have seen an increasing interest in the study of ancient Greek epigrams, a genre that had been largely neglected by earlier generations of scholars. Most recently, Kathryn Gutzwiller's pioneering monograph on Hellenistic epigrams1 as well as Gideon Nisbet's book on Martial's forgotten rivals2 (to take just two examples) have shown that these poems deserve to be treated in broader studies not merely in short articles or commentaries, whose main purpose is often to explain single passages or to solve textual problems.3 A book entirely devoted to the poetry of a single Greek epigrammatist can only be welcomed. I. proposes a cohesive interpretation of Asclepiades' love poems on the basis of a conceptual connection ("konzeptioneller Zusammenhang", p. 10) between them. Above all she opposes what she calls the "Hetärenthese", i.e. the assumption on the part of many scholars that the women addressed by Asclepiades are hetairai (she is not the first to challenge this idea: see Cameron 19814).

The first part of I.'s study goes over the historical background to Asclepiades' poetry: she considers the role of hetairai and prostitutes in antiquity, the social standing of women in the Hellenistic age, and the meaning of the word παρθένος (chapter 1-4). Only half way through the book does she begin to examine Asclepiades' poems in particular (not counting the three epigrams mentioned in her chapter on παρθενία). I. first analyzes the poems which are concerned with women (ch. 5-6); a separate chapter is devoted to 25 and 26 G-P, where Asclepiades orders a slave to go to the market (ch. 7). Following this she deals with the role of Eros in Asclepiades' poetry and with his homoerotic epigrams (ch. 8). I. then compares two poems by Asclepiades (4 and 17 G-P) with two by Posidippus (2 and 5 G-P) in order to show how Asclepiades' epigrams were imitated and varied by the latter. She concludes the interpretative part of her book by analyzing how Zeus is represented in the epigrams (ch. 10).

The subtitle of I.'s work ("Untersuchungen zu Asklepiades in seinem Kreis") is puzzling, since it is hard to know what is meant by "his circle". A literary circle constituted by fellow poets such as Posidippus and Hedylus? Something like the alleged neoteric circle, although this is something of a romantic projection, perhaps, onto the world of Alexandrian poetry? Unfortunately, I. never makes clear what kind of circle she has in mind. She does examine the work of contemporary epigrammatists and their reaction to Asclepiades' poetry, but she does not seem to treat them strictly as members of a literary circle, although she uncritically accepts the Florentine scholion on the Aitia which represents Asclepiades and Posidippus as literary opponents of Callimachus (cf. footnote 1). A tendency to take ancient testimonies and poetical works as historical sources, indeed, is evident throughout I.'s book, even though she states in the beginning that her subject is Asclepiades' persona, not the historical author (p. 10). Contrary to some of her predecessors, I. does not treat the episodes described by the epigrammatist as real events, and rightly so. One of her most important contributions is to underline the close relation between the (speaking) names of Asclepiades' women and the epigrams in which they appear (here she draws heavily on observations made by earlier scholars). I. concludes that the poems do not deal with a "Vielzahl von Frauen," but with a "Vielzahl von Erfahrungen [...], die auf ein imaginiertes Bild der Frau ausgerichtet sind" (p. 69).

On the one hand I. bases her interpretation of the poems on the assumption that they are part of a fictional cosmos; on the other she tries to explain the epigrams by accumulating masses of historical evidence. Since fictional characters are not necessarily detached completely from the social world of a poet, this is not in itself a contradictory or objectionable procedure. I do, however, have the impression that I. is too literal-minded in her application of historical evidence to the interpretation of epigrams. She is right to stress that the girls are not presented as greedy for presents and demanding money for their services, which would be characteristic of hetairai. In order to prove that Asclepiades' women do not have to be "Hetären", I. argues that women living in the Ptolemaic era were more autonomous and had more rights than women of the classical age; hence girls other than prostitutes could come into contact with men and even have sexual intercourse without being married. Be that as it may, I doubt that we need such a long excursus on the historical background, as is offered by I., in order to understand Asclepiades' poetry. She does not consider the possibility that the behavior of Asclepiades' girls (whom she regards as fictional) might not mirror exactly the typical behavior of contemporary females. After examining Theocritus' second idyll and Herondas' first mimiambus, I. concludes, for example, that sending your servant to a person in whom you are interested erotically was not an unusual way of "Anbahnung" (p. 32). I.'s main idea, that the majority of Asclepiades' women are not hetairai, seems right to me. But internal evidence alone (plus some idea of the topoi relating to hetairai) would suffice to make the point. The historical evidence offered by I. might corroborate her thesis, but the proportion of background information to literary interpretation does not seem justified.

As for I.'s interpretations of individual poems, most are no more than one or two pages long, and she is mainly interested in explaining the situations which underlie the respective epigrams (only in ch. 9 does she offer a more thorough analysis, including some good observations on the poems' form). Many epigrams by Asclepiades undoubtedly need such explanation, as the conflicting opinions of scholars show. I. fulfills the intention of her book by successfully demonstrating conceptual connections among the poems: she points out recurring motifs and repeatedly indicates how Asclepiades not only reveals his innermost feelings but also backs away if he is treated unfairly by a beloved: "Eros und Distanz", as the title has it. In the end the reader might, however, still wonder if this is really all that might have been achieved by a cohesive interpretation. For example, we learn nothing about the intertextual subtlety of the poems, about their formal artistry (with the exception of ch. 9), or the way in which they play with the epigrammatic tradition.

It is odd that I. puts Beckby's translations under the poems she discusses, even though she quite often disagrees with his versions (the Greek text is usually accompanied by a translation, an apparatus criticus including useful references to scholarship on textual and exegetical problems, and cross-references to related poems). Especially for readers who are not very familiar with the Greek language it might be confusing to be confronted with an interpretation that contradicts the translation which is offered. Unfortunately there are various linguistic errors: e.g. δέλτος is feminine, not masculine (cf. p. 95: "einen δέλτος"); it is modified by χρυσέη (23.3 G-P). And τραυλίζειν means exclusively "to lisp", not "to read" (cf. p. 95).

Finally, I may mention two cases in which I disagree with I.'s interpretation of individual poems. At the end of epigram 25 G-P Asclepiades orders his servant to go to the perfume-seller Aischra, to fetch five silver lecythia (the meaning of ἀργυρέας is disputed) and to give her a sign, which consists in saying that Bakchon kissed or embraced five in a row (πεντ' ἐφίλησεν), with the bed as his witness. Whatever it is that the slave is supposed to obtain from Aischra, the sign almost certainly alludes to sexual intercourse between his master and the woman. I., however, thinks that it refers to Bakchon getting drunk five times, while he desired to be with Aischra (cf. p.83): the bed which is called as witness can confirm that nothing ever happened between the two of them. I do not know what she bases this idea on, but the intertextual reference of Marcus Argentarius to this passage (AP 5.128.4), which I. does not mention, helps us to understand how it is meant (Marcus substitutes a lamp for the bed, which is said to have witnessed what he is not willing to describe). In the case of 5 G-P I. wonders why Asclepiades gave the one woman, with whom he fell unconditionally in love, such an obscene name (Didyme's name recalls the Greek word for testicles, but might also evoke the notion of two breasts or two buttocks). I. missed a short article by Pär Sandin5 published in 2000, in which he suggests that we understand the simile "Didyme is as black as coals, but when we heat up coals, they shine as bright as the buds of roses" as follows: when Didyme is aroused, she opens her labia and the inner parts of her vagina shine like red roses against her black skin (roses being a common image for the pudenda muliebria).

The book contains several misprints (most notably on p. 128: väterlich, versinnbildlich, dass, Motivs der Sehens), but on the whole it reads well. In her desire, however, to present her results as objectively as possible in the introductory chapter, I. tends to use the passive voice excessively (14 cases of "werden" within two paragraphs on pp. 11-12!).

Although I have serious reservations concerning I.'s method and particular focus, the reader will nonetheless find various good observations within her study. One eagerly awaits, however, the full-scale commentary promised by Alexander Sens.


1.   Gutzwiller, Kathryn (1998): Poetic Garlands. Hellenistic Epigrams in Context, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London.
2.   Nisbet, Gideon (2003): Greek Epigram in the Roman Empire. Martial's Forgotten Rivals, Oxford.
3.   See also Niklas Holzberg's recent introduction to "Martial und das antike Epigramm", Darmstadt 2002.
4.   Cameron, Alan (1981): "Asclepiades' Girl Friends," in H. P. Foley (ed.): Reflections of Women in Antiquity", New York: 275-302.
5.   Sandin, Pär (2000): "An Erotic Image in Asclepiades 5," Mnemosyne 53: 345-6.

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