Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.05.23

Olimpia Imperio, Parabasi di Aristofane. Acarnesi, Cavalieri, Vespe, Uccelli. Studi e commenti, 13.   Bari:  Adriatica Editrice, 2004.  Pp. 448.  €23.00 (pb).  



Reviewed by Antonis K. Petrides, Trinity College, Cambridge (ap290@cam.ac.uk)
Word count: 1611 words

[The Reviewer apologises for the lateness of this review]

Imperio's is an unusual book, which combines what is practically a monograph on "la sezione compositiva più rappresentativa dell'archaia -- the book's long and painstaking, if not always to-the-point Introduction -- with detailed commentaries on the four Aristophanic parabases that come complete with the seven "canonical parts" acknowledged in the Scholia (κομμάτιον, ἀνάπαιστοι, πνῖγος, epirrhematic syzygy). The commentaries use the texts of Douglas Olson on the Acharnians (Oxford 2002), of Henderson's Loeb on the Knights and Wasps (Cambridge, Mass., and London 1998 and 2000) -- with Zimmermann's scanning of the κομμάτιον and the odes -- and of Dunbar on the Birds (Oxford 1995). Divergences (there are very few) are discussed in the Commentary.

Imperio's apparent intention is to create an image of the pivotal role played by the parabasis in Old Comedy in structural and discursive terms as a striking theatrical oddity, as well as a repository of motifs and metaphors, which connote, in their own "maniera peculiare", the poetic "cifra" of the work as a whole. As such, Imperio's book makes sense today as would have been unimaginable a few years ago, that is, before the dismissiveness of older generations of scholars, for whom the parabasis was mostly a theatre-historical problem, gave way to exploring ways whereby the parabasis could contribute to or even encapsulate the play's discourse.

Equally high in Imperio's priorities, it seems, has been to popularise this new approach by striking a balance between a primary readership of mainly Italian undergraduates and an international field of specialists, to whom the work by Sifakis, Hubbard, Bowie, Bierl, Goldhill, Hesk and others mainly caters. This quest for balance between meticulous exposition and the production of new knowledge works well in the commentaries, albeit with a certain timidity in the handling of age-old problems and an uncomfortably frequent acknowledgement of particular scholars and schools of thought when addressing these. It is the reviewer's impression that the same balance was not achieved in the Introduction, which is the book's Achilles' heel in more ways than one.

It is surprising, to begin with, that despite Imperio's intricate appreciation of modern scholarship on the parabasis and her admirable bibliographical alertness (there is barely anything written on the parabasis that is not given mention in this veritable goldmine of information), her introduction, following two well-considered sections on the terminology and the evolution of the parabasis, is still very traditional, a formalistic exposition of 'contents' and 'structures'.

The section on 'i contenuti', which forms the hard core of the introduction (pp. 22-99) and is the book's weakest link, seeks out in Aristophanes, as well as in the major parabatic fragments, the five motifs which recur most frequently in this part of the play, namely (a) the eulogy and the apologia of the poet; (b) the self-eulogy of the chorus; (c) the captatio benevolentiae; (d) ψόγος and ὀνομαστὶ κωμῳδεῖν; and (e) the invocation of the Muses and other divinities.

Unfortunately, the thrust of this section is descriptive rather than analytical and superficial rather than insightful. Attempts to contextualise the parabasis are reserved for later, in the introductory sections to each commentary and in the commentaries themselves; still, even there, Imperio's success in bringing out the "stretti legami intertestuali tra la parabasi e il resto della commedia" (p. 112), the gist of what renders a parabasis relevant and worthwhile, is not resounding (she is more successful in the case of Acharnians, cf. note on l. 628, p. 117, than in other plays). What makes works like, for instance, Hubbard's or Hesk's so engaging is that they utilise the parabasis as the prism through which they read the play at large. Imperio gestures towards this, but the gesture remains incomplete.

The small interest she shows in the articulation of the parabasis in performative terms, apart from the inevitable discussion of costume and mask (this itself does not go beyond a status quaestionis), is also a missed opportunity. Theatre, in general, is rarely reckoned with and the parabasis is treated mainly as text. The commentaries, though, do offer a welcome exception in the treatment of metre, which is discussed, often in the wake of Zimmermann's seminal analyses, as a chorist's guide to dance and movement (see, e.g., pp. 142-143, 268, etc.), as well as a philologist's intellectual exercise.

The greatest fault of this section, however, to this reviewer's mind, is its 'centrifugal' drive away from the core issue -- explaining what the parabasis is about -- which makes it very hard to read. The narrative heaves under the weight of its own erudition, rarely resisting the temptation to heap detail upon disorienting detail. The effect is that, more often than not, the notional boundary between Introduction and Commentary is blurred, focus is lost and the reader remains with the impression that there must be bigger fish to fry. Imperio, for example, rarely shies away from page-long, sometimes even two-page-long footnotes expounding issues that would be better placed in the Commentary or whose strict relevance to the issue of parabasis per se is not entirely clear. I single out two characteristic instances:

1. Footnote 103, p. 40: a half-page long excursus on Hyperbolus' mother apropos of Nu. 551-559.

2. Footnote 104, p. 41: a page-long reference to Eupolis' Maricas with questions regarding the date of the eupolideans in the Clouds and generally the dating of the revised version of the play.

It is also Imperio's practice to attach excursuses in small print dealing with issues of only oblique relevance to the point at hand, and which, again, one could do without in a general introduction. In the context, for instance, of arguing that the poet's apologia in the Acharnians is actually an exception to the earlier rule provoked by Cleon's unjust accusation, Imperio dedicates one and a half pages in small print (59-61) to recapitulating scholarly opinions on whether Dikaiopolis is an 'autobiographical' character and another two (64-66) to the question whether the impeachment was against Callistratos or Aristophanes. These two excursuses are framed by three pages in which footnotes cover more than ninety percent of the page and discuss issues such as whether the legal format of Cleon's impeachment was προβολή or εἰσαγγελία or whether the accuser evoked that famous ghost of a law which allegedly curbed the comedians' freedom of speech (note 146). The result of this profusion is an uneasy feeling that Imperio is carried away by the train of her own thought and that the wealth of her learning is not properly managed and sifted.

Ultimately, the most unwelcome consequence of this section's longwindedness is that it crams into five pages (pp. 99-104) what could have been by far the most energetic part of the Introduction: the 'vocabulary of metaphors' employed in the parabasis as a test ground for the poet's 'autoconsapevolezza' regarding his own status as a professional artist and intellectual, as well as the ethical and cultural potential of the messages conveyed by the performance. Regrettably, this section is cut so short that the material assembled is hardly more substantial than a perfunctory catalogue.

For all the shortcomings of the Introduction, however, Imperio's book is eventually vindicated by the Commentary, which showcases philological work of the highest exactness and clarity. Especially useful in this respect are the commentaries on the Knights (in anticipation of Henderson's promised work, Imperio offers the most thorough analysis of these particular verses in any language) and the Wasps (on which she adds much to McDowell, although her interpretive take on the play is governed by a conviction not universally shared, namely that Aristophanes' 'secret period' refers not to the years between 427 and 424, but to the period prior to the Banqueters). The sections on the Acharnians and the Birds inevitably follow on the footsteps of Douglas Olson and Dunbar quite closely, while updating them (see, e.g., Imperio's note on Ach. 709) and often cleverly complementing them (e.g. Av. 703-704, 742). Generally, Imperio's exegetic strategy may be to tread on safe ground -- she rarely ventures new solutions to old problems, textual or otherwise -- but doxographies of contested issues are presented fully and responsibly enough to abet original thought. Comments on individual lines are so thorough as to allow little room for additions or complaints (one solitary instance is, perhaps, Wasps 1068-1070: πολλῶν κικίννους νεανιῶν: possible reference could be made to the presence of the κίκιννος on such comic masks of young men as the two ἐπίσειστοι, on which they signified ἀλαζονεία and impetuousness, cf. Pollux, 4.147).

The length of an already sizeable book could have been reduced if Imperio had relied less on direct quotation from secondary literature and had avoided instances of repetition (e.g., Sch. Vet. Ar. Pax 734b and Anon. de chor. [Proleg. de com. VII] p.17.2-5 are quoted in full twice, in footnotes 16 and 22 and 6 and 22 respectively of the Introduction). Otherwise, Imperio is careful to avoid mistakes and slips (I have counted not more than ten typos, mostly in the Greek).

All in all, Imperio's book is a conscientious attempt to gather together a corpus of evidence, which should work well as a teacher's guide and could offer useful leads to the expert. The commentaries are researched to exhaustion and written with flair and an eye for strict accuracy and precision. The Introduction lets Imperio down and eventually gives an air of unevenness to the whole project. Especially in the case of some footnotes, various layers of elaboration give the appearance of afterthoughts and are not entirely blended in. All the same, Imperio's book demonstrates the need to look even more closely into the parabasis and for that it is welcome.

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