Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.12.20

Graziano Arrighetti, Poesia, Poetiche e Storia nella riflessione dei Greci. Biblioteca di studi antichi, 89.   Pisa:  Giardini editori e stampatori in Pisa, 2006.  Pp. 512.  ISBN 88-427-1445-3.  €160.00.  

Reviewed by Antonios Rengakos, Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki (
Word count: 1583 words

This sizeable book is the fruit of Graziano Arrighetti's (henceforth A.) long study in literary criticism, poetics, and ancient biography. It covers nearly the whole range of mainly Greek texts, from Homer and Hesiod down to Epicurus and Philodemus.

The first part ("La poesia. Saperi, forme del pensiero, strumenti espressivi", 3-180) is divided into two chapters. The first addresses problems of epic poetry, mainly of Hesiod, but also of Epimenides' Theogony. The second covers Stesichorus, the 4th Pythian of Pindar, and Euripides. In the first chapter A. focuses on Hesiod's relationship to the Muses. Starting from Theog. 27, which famously echoes (or reworks) Od. 19.203, he suggests that Hesiod does not criticize Homeric / heroic epic as a whole but the failure of heroic epic to draw a sharp distinction between truth and falsehood. This is obvious, e. g., from the similar praise bestowed on Odysseus' apologoi and the fictitious story the hero tells Eumaeus in Odyssey 14 despite the fact that these narratives have a different relation to reality. Because of his greater poetic self-consciousness Hesiod introduces several expressive innovations and shows awareness of the multivalence of moral terms, as is shown by their positive and negative meanings (ἔρις, αἰδώς, νέμεσις etc.) In the same vein, the poet also often confesses his ignorance (Theog. 369ff., WD 648ff. 661ff.), an unmistakable sign of an incipient crisis in the relationship of poet and Muses. Next, A. deals with the problem of "the double versions" of various events (Theog. 180b-192a, 477-84, WD 388-403a etc.) as well as with the famous "law" of Zielinski, which pertains to the problem of the presentation of simultaneous events in epic poetry. A. starts with the Hesiodic Titanomachy (Theog. 617ff.) and correctly suggests that that it does not violate the "law" in question. He also criticizes more broadly recent interpretations of passages that deal with simultaneous events, arguing that such interpretive attempts are focused on narrative analysis and neglect fundamental conventions of epic poetry such as the paratactic and multi-prismatic presentation of the same event as well as the technique of repetition. A.'s criticism is partly unfounded, given that some modern researchers1 analyze the phenomenon in question from a clearly oral perspective and that the dogma of the paratactic structure of epic poetry is controversial, to say the least.2 Other topics discussed in the same chapter: Theog. 211-25, mainly the transposition of vv. 213-14, which is rejected; the great importance Homeric heroes grant to their lineage (starting from the speeches of Athena/Mentes and Telemachus in Od. 1.123-251); the meaning of the terms τὸ καίριον and καιρός in Homer and Hesiod and the post-Hesiodic authors respectively; laughter, common in Homer but rare in Hesiod (and almost always betraying evil or vengeful thoughts). The first chapter concludes with an overview of the differences between the Hesiodic and the Epimenidean Theogony, the authenticity of which has been repeatedly questioned.

The second chapter begins with an exploration of Stesichorus' debts to Homeric poetry, for which ancient literary critics called the poet ὁμερικώτατος and a ζηλοτὴς μιμητής of Homer. A.'s analysis focuses on three areas. First, he discusses the narrative structure of Stesichorus' lengthy poems. Their lack of unitary focus differentiates them from contemporary and later lyric poetry, in which strict thematic selectivity predominates, but also makes them examples of the tendency to systematize mythological lore, which is obvious, e.g., in the epic cycle. Second, A. deals with the poet's expressive means, which are borrowed from the epic tradition (but often modified). Thus they ensure the Panhellenic appeal of Stesichorus' poems, and differentiate it from the mainly local one of the poems of Alcman, Alcaeus, and Sappho. Third, A. turns to the poet's variety of mythological themes and suggests that it is to be attributed to the poet's striving for Panhellenic appeal rather than to a preference for mythological variants current in Magna Graecia. Next, starting from Pindar's Pythian 4, A. examines the complex relationship between historical reality, as captured by the appeal to Arcesilaus for the return of the exiled Damophilus (71ff.), and the Argonautic myth, which forms the central theme of the ode. Two short notes ("Euripides and ὀρθότης τῶν ἐπῶν" and "Euripides, tragedy, and Socrates") deal with the characterization of Oedipus in the prologue of Euripides' Antigone as "τὸ πρῶτον εὐδαίμων" and "αὖθις ἀθλιώτατος" and their rejection by Aristophanes (put in the mouth of 'Aeschylus') in Frogs and with the well-known testimony of Diogenes Laertius concerning the alleged collaboration between Socrates and Euripides. A. correctly views this testimony as a representative example of the tendency of ancient biography to invent facts on the basis of vague indications.

The second part ("I filosofi, la letteratura, la storia: le forme, i contenuti") is divided into three chapters. The first discusses the relationship of poetry, myth and history in Plato and Aristotle (pp. 183-270), the second the place of literary criticism, biography and anecdote in the thought of Aristotle and later Peripatetics (271-314), and the third the Epicurean view of literature, and in particular the biographical work of Philodemus (315-459). In the first sections of chapter 1, A. deals with the problem of the relationship of myth and history in the Platonic Timaeus and Critias and with the problem of the reference to the poem about Athens and Atlantis that, according to the aged Critias, could have been composed by Solon (Tim. 21c4-d3). A. then focuses first on Aristotle's Poetics and in particular on the meaning of the predicate ὁμοῖος (Poet. 1454a 24-25, 1454b 10-11). Based on a fragment possibly from the philosopher's Protrepticus (PVindob G 26008 and 29329) A. locates the meaning in the internal correspondence between the ethos of a character and the behavior attributed to him/her by the poet. A. then analyzes the criticism of Solon the lawmaker in Plato's Phaedrus (278b7ff.), which contrasts with the otherwise positive presentation of Solon in the Platonic dialogues (A. believes that the contrast is due to a shift in Plato's view). The chapter also includes a lengthy examination of the reconstruction of historical events in Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians by means of reasoning signaled by terms such as ὅπως γάρ, ὅθεν, σημεῖον, τεκμήριον, τὸ εὔλογον, εὐλόγως and often based on the principles of the plausible and the necessary, which, as we learn from chapter 9 of Poetics, should also determine the μύθος of poetic works. The first chapter concludes with an examination of Ath. Pol. 23.1-3 which alleges that the Areopagus enjoyed enhanced prestige after the naval battle of Salamis. This claim contradicts other passages of the same work (23.3ff.) and of Politics (1304a 17ff.) and has been questioned by historians. According to A., the contradiction is due to the systematic and non-historical approach of both Constitution and Politics, which allows Aristotle to view the influence of Areopagus as a kind of informal "constitution".

The second chapter is mainly devoted to the Peripatetic tendency to combine literary criticism and interpretation with the biography of the authors. In particular, A. examines the function of biographical anecdotes in Aristotle, which are incompatible with the rest of the philosopher's research tools, and observes that their presence in the work Περὶ ποιητῶν and absence from Poetics are due to the different character of the two treatises, historical and normative respectively. Next, A. offers a historical overview of biographical criticism, beginning with Hesiod's Theogony and Aristophanes' Frogs and ending with Aristotle's successors in this field, Chamaeleon, Satyrus, and also the first Letter to Ammaeus of Dionysius of Halicarnassus as well as later texts such as the Life of Pindar in POxy 2438 (2nd-3rd cent. CE).

Taking its cue from the volume edited by D. Obbink, Philodemus and Poetry (New York-Oxford 1995), the third chapter deals with the relationship between Epicurean philosophy and poetry. As is well known, Epicurus himself urged the wise man to eschew poetic composition, but prominent Epicureans such as Philodemus and Lucretius dealt extensively with poetry. Epicurus' rejection of poetry had two motives: first, the view, widespread since Solon's time, that poetry was a source of falsehoods and, second, the Aristotelian view that poetry is not the most appropriate vehicle for the dissemination of philosophical ideas. According to A., the "heretical" (in the framework of Epicurean philosophy) choice that Lucretius makes with De rerum natura may be accounted for mainly by the fact that the poem does not present new research but a known theory for which the Latin poet considered the medium of didactic poetry as the most suitable. Next, A. discusses the (lack of) influence of Aristotle's Poetics on Hellenistic authors,3 the relationship of De rerum natura to the poetic theory of Philodemus, and the latter's works On Piety and Σύνταξις τῶν φιλοσόφων. A. discusses extensively the various problems posed by Σύνταξις as transmitted by PHerc 1021 and 164 (on Academy), 1018 (on the Stoa), 495 and 558 (on Socrates and the Socratics), compares it to other texts of ancient scholarship (e.g. Didymus' Commentary on Demosthenes' Philippics, PBerol 9780) and reaches the conclusion that Σύνταξις is not a history of philosophy but a treatise similar in character to the biographical work of authors such as Hermippus. The chapter concludes with observations on Philodemus' works devoted to eminent figures of the Garden (e.g. Πραγματεῖαι, Περὶ Ἐπικούρου etc.) followed by an appendix about the Epicurean studies of Hermann Usener.

The book is a very rich work featuring impressive bibliographical completeness, sober interpretive judgment and wide learning. All those who work on the various topics it addresses are bound to find it an indispensable point of reference.


1.   T. Krischer, Formale Konventionen der homerischen Epik, Zetemata 56, Munich 1971.
2.   M. Reichel, Fernbeziehungen in der Ilias, Tübingen 1994.
3.   P. Kyriakou, "Aristotle's Poetics: Its Theoretical Foundations and Its Reception in Hellenistic Literary Theory" (diss. Ohio State University, 1995) ch. 5; ead., "Aristotle's Poetics and Stoic Literary Theory" RhM 140 (1997) 257-80.

Read Latest
Index for 2007
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:32:28, Friday, 03 April 2009