Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.26

Lara Pagani (ed.), Asclepiades, of Bithynia: I frammenti degli scritti omerici. Pleiadi 7.   Roma:  Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 2007.  Pp. 273.  ISBN 9788884984432.  €38.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Alexandra Trachsel, University of Hamburg (
Word count: 1458 words

This work, the author's doctoral thesis, is on Asclepiades of Myrlea, one of the many ancient scholars who had a very intense and diverse productivity, as this work convincingly shows, but from whom unfortunately very scant evidence survives. In response to this problem, Pagani aims at restoring Asclepiades' achievement in the field of ancient scholarship. In doing so, she is also able to draw a very accurate description of the larger context of its creation.

Pagani's work is divided into five sections: an extensive introduction with an up-to-date bibliography, followed by a section containing the edition of the texts (testimonia and fragments listed separately) and a section where the author gives a very substantial commentary for each quoted passage. At the end are two appendices, each dealing with one potentially spurious fragment and three detailed indices.

In the introduction, Pagani begins with a discussion of the very few secure elements available about Asclepiades' life and work. She mentions first the evidence about his life: his hometown is Myrlea, which became later Apamea, and his life is dated between the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE. The other biographical details which come from ancient sources -- such as Asclepiades' stays in Alexandria or in Rome, the question of his teachers and his possible followers -- are still under discussion, and Pagani deals with these questions extremely carefully in her introduction as well as in the commentary on the individual testimonia. In addition to this, Pagani further expands her introductory section and gives a thorough presentation of all the known works of Asclepiades, despite stating from the very beginning that her research will focus on the fragments from the works where Asclepiades deals with the Homeric texts. Pagani gives a description of the works' content and outlines the discussion of their authenticity if their attribution to Asclepiades is not secured. This introduction is therefore also intended to be a helpful tool which enables the reader to appreciate the richness of Asclepiades' work and to understand the difficulty in dealing with it.

The introduction also provides useful information which allows the reader to determine Asclepiades' position within the tradition of ancient scholarship and to understand the large scope of his work before the book moves on to focus on its main subject, Asclepiades' works on Homer. The transition is made by a very helpful summary of the main threads that Pagani takes note of in Asclepiades' work. The scholar focused on topics such as Homer and astronomy or/and astrology, but he also seems to have dealt with works from other poets such as Pindar and some of the Hellenistic poets. His method seems to have relied on a close reading of the primary texts, on the analysis of mythological terms, and on etymology. As far as his affiliation to a scholarly tradition is concerned, even if his statements seem to be closer to the positions held by Crates of Mallos, he sometimes also agreed with some of Aristarchus' opinions.

In part two, Pagani deals with the texts of the testimonia and then with the fragments separately. For the texts of the testimonia, she follows the order of importance established by the information on Asclepiades' life and work contained in the passages. When examining the fragments themselves, Pagani first discusses the fragments attributed to the exegetical works on the Iliad and on the Odyssey, then dedicates a large section to Asclepiades' monograph on Nestor's cup, and lastly discusses fragments for which the attribution to a precise work of Asclepiades' is less well established. The edition of the given texts is mainly taken from available previous editions of their sources; their apparatus criticus is, however, supplemented by Pagani when necessary. She also gives for each fragment a complete section on parallel passages allowing precious insights into the rich usage ancient authors made of Asclepiades' works.

The third section, containing the commentary, is divided into two parts which mirror the two sections dealing with the texts (testimonia and fragments). In her commentary on the testimonia, Pagani begins by giving for each the state of the research exposing the opinions held by previous scholars, but she generally ends the entry with a summary of her own statements on the topic. In her commentary on the fragments, Pagani uses another method. She first situates the problem discussed by Asclepiades in a larger context, giving the opinions of other ancient scholars if available. For the first three fragments coming from the exegetical works on the Iliad and on the Odyssey she gives, at the beginning of her commentary, the context of the Homeric line under discussion in Asclepiades' work and explains the difficulties which motivated the explanation by the different scholars. She then proceeds to the solution suggested by Asclepiades and adds those of other scholars if they are known.

In her discussion of the fragments on the monograph on Nestor's cup (fr. 4-10), Pagani follows still another line of exposition. Except for fragment 4, which gets special treatment because of its length, Pagani begins each passage by explaining the general context in which the fragment occurs. As each of the fragments come from Athenaeus' Deipnosophistae, this raises the question of Athenaeus' usage of his sources, which Pagani examines again in detail. In fragment 7, for example, Pagani has to establish the difficult question of the length of Asclepiades' fragment within the text of the Deipnosophistae. The discussion also touches on other aspects of ancient scholarship. In fragment 5, the discussion about the etymology of δέπας gives insight into the way ancient scholars understood their own language and exposes the great variety of opinions among them. In fragment 8, Pagani's commentary allows the reader to see how ancient scholars explained their own culture and language, which is often very different from our modern understanding and description of these same features. The discussion on fragment 9 leads the reader to a further aspect of ancient scholarship. As the fragment is no longer about the Homeric text but about a line of Cratinus, Pagani's commentary goes beyond Homeric philology and shows the complexity of ancient scholarship about literary works other than the Iliad or the Odyssey.

Fragment 4, which represents the bulk of Pagani's commentary, has to be discussed separately here. The long commentary it requires is divided into five parts following the structure of the Greek text given in Athenaeus (11.487f-494b). In the first three parts, Pagani is concerned with the description of each part of the vessel (handles, nails and bottom) and exposes the tangled discussions these questions raised in Antiquity. It is followed by a section discussing the reconstruction attempt attributed to Dionysius Thrax. The fifth part is dedicated to the cosmic explanation given by Asclepiades and is again divided into several sections, each dealing with one of the problems occurring in Asclepiades' explanation. The first difficulty is the identification of the word πελειάδες with the seven stars of the constellation of the Pleiades, which leads to a discussion of the many passages from ancient sources Asclepiades quotes to strengthen his interpretation. This identification of πελειάδες with the Pleiades is the most important element in Asclepiades' explanation, as this association allows him to introduce the cosmic interpretation of the Homeric passage. There is then the question of the number of the Pleiades, followed by the question about the liquid Nestor's cup contained, the so-called Cyceon, and at the end is discussed the puzzling fact that only Nestor was able to lift the cup. The length of Pagani's commentary on fragment 4 shows how complex ancient scholarship could be, how it worked, and also the importance of this special Homeric passage on Nestor's cup in the eyes of ancient scholars. Pagani closes her discussion with two appendices where she considers two spurious fragments that have been rejected from the main corpus of Asclepiades' works.

In conclusion, Pagani's work is a very convincing attempt to demonstrate the many facets of Asclepiades' work, even if very few fragments of his scholarly activity have survived. She focuses on a very promising aspect by choosing to discuss the fragments that come from works where Asclepiades deals with the Homeric poems. Her work clearly culminates in the long discussion about the treatise on Nestor's cup. Furthermore, and beyond the discussion of the content of Asclepiades's works, Pagani's commentary also gives a good overview of the importance and afterlife of Asclepiades' contribution to ancient scholarship. By reading her work the reader also becomes aware of how much of ancient scholarship is lost. Therefore, despite the fact that Asclepiades is not a very well known author, Pagani's achievement will certainly become a useful tool for scholars specifically interested in the field of ancient scholarship, its richness and its difference from modern research on similar topics.

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