Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.01.08

Stratis Kyriakidis, Catalogues of Proper Names in Latin Epic Poetry. Lucretius - Virgil - Ovid. Pierides. Studies in Greek and Latin Literature.   Newcastle:  Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.  Pp. xix, 219.  ISBN 978-1-84718-146-6.  $69.99.  

Reviewed by Christopher Francese, Dickinson College (
Word count: 2275 words

This book is a new and valuable contribution to the understanding of catalogues of proper names in epic, a subject that has exercised scholars since antiquity and drawn considerable interest in recent years. The big catalogues (Homer's ships, Vergil's Latin allies) are not the focus here. Kyriakidis deals mainly with the smaller ones (of warriors, rivers, and places) that are ubiquitous in classical epic. His central insight is that in poetic catalogues of names it is the density of names, the number of names per line over a span of lines, that matters most in the literary effect. Just count the names per line--a simple idea, but one that yields important dividends in the hands of such a sensitive and skilled reader as Kyriakidis. His watchwords are density, pacing, and tempo. An accumulation of names means a swift pace, and little emphasis on each one. Wider spacing of names gives each name more breathing space and emphasis. Epic poets, starting with Homer, use this simple equation in quite subtle ways to reinforce the meaning at any given moment, to emphasize an emotion or a picture, and as a kind of guide to focus the attention of the reader or listener.

Albin Lesky tried this method briefly in a 1970 article about Vergil's catalogues, 1 and that article evidently suggested Kyriakidis' trademark technique of enumeration (e.g., a catalogue with ten names in five lines might be analyzed 1-2-3-2-2). But Kyriakidis is far more comprehensive, and economically handles a wealth of examples from Homer to Hellenistic hexameter poetry, Vergil and Ovid. Lucretius plays only a small role. An appendix analyzes all the catalogues in the Aeneid and the Metamorphoses, grouping them in terms of densityeither-- "density in the middle," "spacing in the middle," "ascending mode," "descending mode," "internal balance, " or "erratic pattern."

The structure of the book is problematic, but I will discuss that later. First, a few examples to give a sense of Kyriakidis' approach. The catalogue of nymphs who mourn Patroclus in Iliad 18.39-51, he argues, stops the narrative so as to allow us to dwell on Thetis' grief, not to suspend it, as a scholiast on this passage maintains and as modern students have complained.2 The list of nymphs at Georgics 4.334-47, postpones the meeting of Aristaeus and Cyrene and allows the reader time to anticipate it. A catalogue of killings in the Iliad (15.328-42) has spacing in the middle, density at the flanks. At the center is a miniature aristeia for Aeneas, and the lists of several other kills on the flanks helps the reader to focus on Aeneas without interrupting the sequence of the narrative. This is an Iliadic pattern, not found in the Odyssey or in Apollonius of Rhodes; but Vergil uses it in Aeneid 10.123-145. There Ascanius is introduced, with a simile, between two more dense lists, first of Trojans, then of Latins. Kyriakidis deftly notes how the density of the list of Trojans belies their actual sparseness on the wall (rara muros cinxere corona, 10.122). The catalogue indicates the impression they would like to make on the Latins. Ascanius' position in the middle of the catalogue mimics his position in the middle of the scene described.

Lists of descending density emphasize the end, as when Agamemnon calls the elders to attend a sacrifice (Il. 2.405-7), and the most prominent name in the list, that of Odysseus, appears alone in the last verse. In a travel catalogue, the list of places Menelaus visited on his homeward journey (Od. 4.83-5), the rhythm of names slows (3-3-1) in tandem with the narrative pace, stressing the last name in the catalogue. Kyriakidis finds a similar pattern at Aen. 6.58-61, where Aeneas describes his wanderings to the Sibyl, saving Italiae for isolation in the last verse. The moral? Oftentimes geographical names "are not there primarily as information to the reader but seem to participate in the process of transforming a visual sequence into a temporal experience for the reader, or, in other instances, to follow an acoustic experience" (p. 28). An illustration of the latter is Vergil's list of names of places filled with lament of the Dryads for the loss of Eurydice (Georgics 4.460-63). It has an ascending tempo (1-2-3) that expresses in textual terms the magnitude and spreading of the lament through the empathy of nature.

Kyriakidis often detects efforts to arrange names in the text in such a way that they mimic or reinforce ("mirror" is his favored term) an action or idea. The Pleiades are close together in the sky, and Aratus puts them close together on the page (Phaenomena 262-3). At Iliad 15.328 we hear that "man slew man and the fight was scattered." This is followed by a rather irregular distribution of names, which are scattered over the text.3 Vergil employs a similar technique at Aen. 9.756-77, where the Trojans "scatter" at the sight of Turnus (diffugiunt 9.756), and the density of names that follows shows no particular pattern. Kyriakidis even claims, somewhat less persuasively, that the spacing of the names of the promontories of Sicily that cover the body of the punished giant Typhoeus at Ov. Met. 5.349-53 reflects a posture that suggests crucifixion, "hands stretched and feet close together or one on top of the other . . . head . . . tilted to the right" (p. 56).

Kyriakidis is familiar with, yet refreshingly independent of, earlier work. There are three main types of questions in previous criticism of epic catalogues, all of which go back at least to Macrobius. The first might be called logical: on what basis are the names chosen or omitted, on what principle are the names ordered? Do the names in the catalogue appear elsewhere in the narrative, or do they not, and is the poet thus guilty of irrational or confusing cataloguing? Macrobius (Saturnalia 5.15-16) saw Homer as entirely logical and consistent in the Catalogue of Ships, Vergil as lacking in care and jumping around geographically in his analogous large catalogues. Recent critics see more sophisticated principles of organization, and even praise "chaotic" catalogues as stylistically appropriate.4 The second, related, set of questions is literary-historical. How do authors deal with catalogues differently, and what does this say about the evolution of the epic form? When Vergil is being discussed this comes down largely to Homer vs. Vergil. According to Macrobius' pro-Homer analysis, Homer's technique, though simple and repetitive, is more pleasing and appropriate. Vergil's efforts to provide variations of phrasing are mannered. The third type of question asks how authors deal with the potential tedium of the catalogue form, a quality which, while not ascribed to any particular epic catalogue, is narrowly avoided thanks to the superior craft of the author. Homer includes stories in his catalogues as a way of staving off ennui and drawing out pleasure, says Macrobius, and Vergil does the same in imitation of him. The elaborate efforts of Mazzochini,5 though more sympathetic to Vergil, revolve essentially around the same problems: catalogues were an inescapable feature of epic after Homer; Homer's dominance presented a challenge and created anxiety for Vergil, who strives for variety and artful structure within the Homeric mold. Vergil's language tends to be more artful, expressive, and visual than in bare Homeric lists of the slain, a way of avoiding the "potential monotony" of the form (Mazzochini, p. 367). Macrobius too had seen both Homer and Vergil as tied irrevocably to the catalogue by virtue of the genre, but working as hard as possible to remedy the inherent tedium of the enterprise (fastidio narrationum medetur 5.16.4, horrorem satietatis excludant 5.16.12). Similarly, the Homeric scholia suggest that the names in Iliad 16.415-8 are only a representative list, since more would be "mere garrulity." Likewise Janko ad loc. says that a longer catalogue "would be tedious."

Kyriakidis addresses the questions of coherence, but not in the traditional way. Rather than worry about ordering principles, he investigates patterns of framing and closure. Careful framing and ring composition are characteristic of Homer and Vergil, though Vergil on average allows individual names more space. Vergil closes with a pause only rarely, Homer more often, and this makes the dead stop after the catalogue of Latin allies, which ends Aeneid Book 7 with Camilla, all the more striking. Kyriakidis highlights the relationship of catalogue and simile, and shows how frequently Homer uses them in tandem to prolong and accentuate a narrative moment. But this is apparently peculiar to war poetry, and not found in the Odyssey or in Apollonius. Vergil uses the Homeric device to excellent and original effect (esp. the Baiae simile at Aen. 9.710-716).

As for tedium, Kyriakidis winningly refuses to acknowledge the problem (until a footnote on p. 78, admitting that, "In antiquity as well as nowadays, the catalogue has been considered as times as a handy but at any rate monotonous piece"). This frees him to simply analyze types and effects and instances, and not worry overmuch about defending the whole idea. His key, somewhat unorthodox, premise (unfortunately not stated explicitly until p. 108) is that catalogues function like similes, to "hold the reader's attention to a particular stage of the narrative by delaying its development." Prolonging the reading time accentuates the narrative moment; it does not simply delay forward progress.

When it comes to Homer vs. Vergil, Kyriakidis is thankfully free of the impulse to defend one at the expense of the other, or to overdraw the contrasts between the two. Indeed, it is the similarities between the two that are so striking in Kyriakidis' analysis, and the fact that Vergil evidently saw what Kyriakidis sees, namely the musical, rhythmic, but also visual potential of lists of names.

Kyriakidis does, however, have a larger literary historical idea, involving the distinctiveness of Ovid, and here the book runs in to some trouble. Kyriakidis argues that catalogues of proper names are not just a misunderstood aspect of ancient epic technique but that they "permit us a glimpse into the poet's perceptions of life and the real world" (p. xiii). How so? Homeric and Vergilian catalogues, he argues, enumerate fully, and see each item as a distinct entity. By contrast Lucretius and then Ovid stress the transience and insubstantiality of names. In the Metamorphoses "a great change is brought about which drastically alters the function and meaning that catalogues traditionally had" (p. 73). Ovid's catalogues of rivers show a prevailing "fluminality" in his attitude to life. "Whereas Virgil attempts to control time and show fixity in nature with the imagery of rivers, Ovid endeavors to show that time can never be under control" (p. 143).

This philosophical thesis explains the inclusion in the book of Lucretius, who, as Kyriakidis admits, has little time for catalogues of proper names. The problem is that catalogues of proper names are rather a blunt instrument to deal with the issues of the nature of time and the meaning of life. The contrast between Ovid and other epic writers in dealing with catalogues is real and programmatically significant, as Christiane Reitz has shown.6 But Kyriakidis' version of the contrast is overdrawn and over-interpreted. More seriously, the foundation of Kyriakidis' "musical" approach, which is so fruitful in the first part of the book, is the assumption that the names themselves in epic catalogues do not matter very much as individuals. This is true, especially compared with other types of significant naming in ancient literature, say, in lyric or satire or historiography. But this fact fits awkwardly with the later argument that Vergil uses his catalogues to preserve and immortalize, Ovid to stress transience and mortality; that Vergil and Homer confer prominence on names, but Ovid's framing devices devalue them. In fact, as Kyriakidis shows, the whole genre of the epic catalogue of proper names devalues the names as referents, and that is exactly what makes them poetically useful.

The structure of the book is odd, and I found myself annotating the table of contents to make it clearer what was being discussed. The first part deals with density and order, first generally, then in Homer and Vergil, then Ovid. Then there is a section on spatial "mirroring," mainly in Ovid. There follows a section called "The Catalogue Vocabulary," which is really about the individuality and transience of names (mainly Ovid). Then comes a section called "Contents and Context," which deals with formal framing devices, but also distinguishes between "narrative" catalogues (mostly in epic) and "exemplary" catalogues (mostly in didactic). Then comes a section on Lucretius and his destabilization of mythological names, contrasted with Vergil. Finally a long section picks up the earlier discussion of framing devices, adding the points about similes and pauses, and uses these formal devices to elicit a broader interpretation of catalogues first in Vergil, then in Ovid's Metamorphoses. The main problem is the interweaving of the formal analyses and the (separable) philosophical argument. And for some reason there is no overall conclusion. Kyriakidis writes with pleasing concision, but some of the analyses of examples are too brief. One of the strong points of the book is its inclusion of the views of the Homeric scholia and other ancient commentators. But there is no coherent discussion of the approaches ancient commentators typically take; this would be an excellent topic for an article.

These structural problems, though, do nothing to diminish the value and freshness of the book as a whole. "The poetry of names and places is one of the bases of Greco-Roman poetics," said Paul Veyne.7 Kyriakidis has gone a considerable way to illuminating the function and, yes, beauty, of one of the more maligned, yet fundamental, features of classical epic poetry.


1.  A. Lesky, "Zu den Katalogen der Aeneis," in W. Wimmel, ed., Forschungen zur römischen Literatur. Festschrift zum 60. Geburtstag von Karl Büchner (Wiesbaden: F. Steiner, 1970), 189-196.
2.   C. Rowan Beye, "Homeric Battle Narrative and Catalogues," HSCP 68 (1964) 345-373, p. 345.
3.   But note that Kyriakidis had earlier used the same passage as an example of "spacing in the middle," p.20, cf. p. 36.
4.   E.g., A. Barchiesi, Ovidio: Metamorphosi, vol. 1 (n.p.: Mondadori, 2005), p. 253, note on Met. 2.217-26.
5.   Paolo Mazzochini, Forme e significati della narrazione bellica nell'epos virgiliano. I cataloghi degli uccisi e le morti minori dell'Eneide (Fascano: Schena Editore, 2000). Reviewed for BMCR by Andreola Rossi here.
6.   C. Reitz, "Zur Funktion der Kataloge in Ovids Metamorphosen," in Werner Schubert, ed., Ovid, Werk und Wirkung: Festgabe für Michael von Albrecht zum 65. Geburtstag, vol. 1 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1999), 359-372.
7.   P. Veyne, Roman Erotic Elegy: Love, Poetry and the West, trans. D. Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 118.

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