Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.01.24

Vasiles A. Fyntikoglou (ed.), Virgiliou. Vougonia: To epullio tou Aristaiou (Georgikon IV 281-558). Vivliotheke Archaion Sungrapheon, 42.   Athens:  Stigme, 2007.  Pp. 388.  ISBN 9789602691946.  

Reviewed by Sophia Papaioannou, The National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (
Word count: 3207 words

The closural section of Georgics 4, famously referred to by the Greek technical term bugonia, 'the birth (of bees) from an ox', has proven an attractive challenge for the critics of Vergil's didactic epic in recent decades, especially since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Vergilian community witnessed the publication in close succession of Mynors' and Thomas' editions,1 and Farrell's fundamental interpretive study of the deeply allusive, decisively literary-historical texture of the entire poem, which devotes a large chapter to its recapitulating final episode.2 The Aristaeus' epyllion is probably one of the most puzzling parts of the Vergilian corpus, even of all Augustan literary production--an episode both inextricably tied to the rest of the Georgics and loosely attached to it structurally; a texture of threads tightly entwined and interdependent, but overall a narrative often leaving the impression that it lacks continuity; a text that prior to the studies of Boyle, Thomas, and Perkell in the 1980s, and Farrell, Biotti, and Gale in the 1990s,3 which emphasized allegory as the leading interpretive parameter of the entire poem, made a unique mark in Vergilian studies by effortlessly resisting crucial consensus.4 Here, two stories of diametrically opposite conclusions, Aristaeus' labor and ultimate success to restore to life his bees, and Orpheus' quest to the Underworld in order to bring back his dead wife, Eurydice, that ends tragically for both of them, intertwine, in fact are read as parallel. Not least, positioned at the end of the Georgics, the bugonia operates also as an epilogue to Vergil's early literary production, a turning point in his career, and a harbinger of the fascinating complexity of politics and poetics that emerge later in the Aeneid.

Fyntikoglou takes full advantage of these strides in Georgics research. He is deeply influenced, further, by Hardie's theory of reading Vergil's works as a mosaic celebrating 'cosmological allegory' that is regularly manifested in different generic contexts, and Conte's views about the presence of epyllion theory in the subtext of all grand poems of the Augustans.5 Thus well-versed in modern theory on intertextuality, Fyntikoglou argues that through close study of the bugonia, the conclusion of the Georgics, and as such, a miniature of the entire poem, one can discern Vergil's intention to interpret the structure and texture of the Georgics as the process rather than the outcome of neoteric poetic synthesis; and that Vergil's principal intention was to advertize, through poeticizing the composition of a didactic poem, the anatomy of the model didactic epic according to the code of neoteric poetics His readings, especially those advanced in the chapters three and four, are largely convincing, and they offer many original insights, through persuasive and lucidly conducted argumentation. Notably, Fyntikoglou unwittingly interprets the Georgics along the lines of another important book that came out almost at the same time, Gyburg Radke's recent reading of Hellenistic poetry as theoretical textswhich use aesthetics as a structural tool, in order to produce a composition that celebrates it.6 Furthermore, Fyntikoglou's effort should be praised for the fact that he has composed the first high-quality close study on the Georgics in Greek in recent decades, an accomplishment that will be particularly appreciated by the many advanced undergraduate and graduate Classics students in the universities of Greece, who, their fluency in English aside, crave first-rate scholarship publications in their native tongue.

The book consists of three major parts and a fourth section with appended material complementary to the previous three. In part one (pp. 15-47), Fyntikoglou offers a brief narrative of the content of the Aristaeus episode and then sets out his premises for reading the poem in relation to preceding scholarship: he embraces the methodology of reading Aristaeus as a deeply allusive, 'alexandrian' in conception text, as introduced by Richard Thomas (most of Thomas' influential publications on the Georgics are listed in Fyntikoglou's bibliography), but, wisely, refuses to follow Thomas' pessimistic perspective. Specifically, Fyntikoglou's own interpretation, to be unfolded in the six essays following the commentary, develops around two principal lines of argument: (1) The bugonia episode recapitulates the basic themes of the entire Georgics, with Aristaeus being the archetypal farmer / epic hero, the archetypal Roman and an incarnation of the Roman labor, and also the ideal reader of the particular poem. The reading public of the Aristaeus epyllion includes a) Vergil's contemporaries more broadly; b) Maecenas, Vergil's patron, whose sponsorship of poets like Vergil has allowed a rebirth of free thinking at Rome; and c) Octavian the final winner of the civil wars, who is invited to become a new Aristaeus, likewise destined to restore life to the dead body of the respublica. (2) The interfusion of the Aristaeus and Orpheus stories, on the one hand, and of the deep intertextuality with earlier epic, alike Homeric and Callimachean, that permeates the bugonia episode. For Fyntikoglou this interdependence of intra-textuality and inter-textuality, or more precisely, the reception of intratextuality as another expression of intertextuality, in the closure of the Georgics, calls for a revision of the dialogue between literary genres in the episode, and by extension, for the redefinition of the didactic element it conveys. Inevitably, the reader is prompted to wonder whether the same applies to the rest of the Georgics as well.

The second part of the book is devoted to the text of the epyllion itself (pp. 49-103). First, Latin text (essentially that of Mynors in the OCT with minor changes) and Greek translation are printed on facing pages, and then follows a commentary that does not aspire to be exhaustive, but rather to supplement those of Mynors, Thomas and Biotti, and emphasize those ideas which Fyntikoglou proposes to develop further in his essays in the third part of the book. A notable addition to those commentaries is Fyntikoglou's integration into his study of relevant ancient material, specifically, the treatise on apiculture recorded in the fifteenth book of the Byzantine (10th c. AD) Geoponica and the Egyptian version of the bugonia.7 On the other hand, an important omission is the unawareness of the most recent annotated edition of the Georgics, by M. Erren; spread over two volumes separated from each other by 18 years, Erren's 1000-page long commentary, is worth consulting, especially on matters of language and style, and Quellenforschung.8

In the third and most extensive part of his study (pp. 104-317), Fyntikoglou in six essays addresses important questions about the smooth integration of the bugonia inside the Georgics overall. The first essay is devoted to the didactic mission of the episode. Fyntikoglou reads the opening statement of the unit at 281-286 as programmatic, endorsed by an emphatic reference to fama, typically viewed today in Augustan poetics as a reference to earlier literary tradition. Fama features again a few lines later (318) in an equally programmatic position, the opening of the Aristaeus story. For Fyntikoglou, this literary tradition identifies primarily with Callimachus' Aetia which inspired Vergil's understanding of an aetion (a narrative, often fictional, that explains the origins of various things) and the theory on the didactic mission of aetiology advanced therein. His mother Cyrene and the sea-god Proteus feature invariably and in different contexts in the role of Aristaeus' instructor , an embodiment of transformation, and as such, an allegory of the model neoteric poem.

Proteus, like Aristaeus, is a creator-- a creator of poetry no less, because his dissertation very soon after its opening is transformed from a piece of instruction to an aetiological poem, which in stylistic sublimity and subtlety of wit vies with the Callimachean Aetia,, its true model. Cyrene is also a poet in her own right: Fyntikoglou rightly observes that Aristaeus' mother and Proteus share common vocabulary that includes mainly poetically marked terminology. Thus, the praeceptrix role of Cyrene and the aetiological elegy of the diviner Proteus fuse into a lesson that does not particularly enlighten Aristaeus but presents an outright challenge to the erudite Vergilian reader and tempts Augustus to embrace the perspective of both narratees in order to decode the serious messages in the subtext. Fyntikoglou's study of Cyrene would have benefited from Christopher Nappa's recent reading of the Aristaeus episode, an insightful lengthy analysis that rounds up an equally stimulating and rich book on the whole poem, which among other things, suggests a closer attention to the poetics in the complex character and role of Cyrene. Fyntikoglou could have drawn additional insights from Nappa's discussion of the Georgics, wherein the indirect conversation between Vergil and Augustus is one of the main preoccupations throughout, to advance Vergil's narrative as a message to Maecenas and Octavian.9

Fyntikoglou's second essay discusses the genre of the bugonia and concludes that it is not technically an epyllion but, rather, a narrative that concentrates all the major generic characteristics of an epyllion. Here Fyntikoglou engages in dialogue with the major theories on the literary character of the epyllion and its definition as a genre of its own. A full survey of the most important bibliography on the issue (with full discussion of the main works on literary genre in the notes throughout the chapter--a boon to graduate students and novices in literary theory) backs up the argument against limiting the term 'epyllion' to independent-standing compositions, and extends it to include segments of poems that belong primarily to a different genre; according to this premise, one should not talk about epyllia but about thematically independent clusters that are marked by certain poetic characteristics one finds always in the typically defined epyllia. According to the above definition, the term 'epyllion' includes both longer and multi-thematic narratives and shorter tales. Callimachus' little epic of Hekale , or the bugonia episode in its entirety belong to the former category; indeed, Aristaeus' effort to revive his bees, like Theseus' expedition at Marathon, operates as an all encompassing frame of smaller, at once interrelated and independently standing stories. On the other hand, Orpheus' tale inside the adventure of Aristaeus and other self-standing embedded narrative units such as the desertion of Ariadne as depicted on the famous bedspread of Thetis' couch in Catullus 64 or the several tales inside the Hekale, like the conversation between the crow and the raven, belong to the second category.

The discussion that develops in the third and fourth chapters of Fyntikoglou's study, the core of the book in my view, takes on the character of Aristaeus and his story (chapter 3, pp. 165-227), and the interaction of Aristaeus' quest with the embedded tale of Orpheus and Eurydice (chapter 4, pp. 229-262). Fyntikoglou's reading of Aristaeus accounts for many stimulating and sensible observations. There are lengthy discussions, among other topics, a) on the manifestation of labor, a key theme of the entire Georgics (but carefully absent from Aristaeus' speech), which ultimately proves to be a game in intratextuality that involves several other marked terms of laboring, such as ars and extundere so that the toil applies to the construction of this elaborate text as much as to the agricultural labor and the revival of the bees; to the concluding aspect of the bugonia and the intimate relationship between the final and the opening section of the whole epic (the Theodicy episode in Book 1.125-135); b) on the association between the plague that destroyed Aristaeus' bees and the plague at Noricum, which is likewise set at the conclusion of Georgics 3 and so, plainly another closural narrative of utter loss meant to be read next to the bugonia; c) on the inevitable ties to the account of the most celebrated didactic plague in Latin poetry in Lucretius; and not least, d) on the Homeric subtext behind Aristaeus' heroic models, first Achilles in Iliad 1, in his appeal for assistance to his own Nereid mother, and then the Telemachus of the Telemacheia, alongside his host Menelaus-- himself no less a model for Aristaeus, having been the first hero to have extracted a significant secret out of Proteus.

Most of Fyntikoglou's arguments contain original ideas, and importantly, elicit further debate. For instance, Aristaeus' Achilles-like profile, rightly read by Fyntikoglou as projecting a character marked by (the obviously un-epic traits of) immaturity and confusion, should be interpreted primarily along the lines of Homeric succession and antagonistic aemulatio, as a consciously lighter recasting of the Iliadic Achilles, anticipating the transformed epic hero Aeneas and his relationship to Venus--and becoming, a generation later, the model for Phaethon's encounter with Clymene at the end of Ovid's Metamorphoses 1, which is a closer parallel to Aristaeus, also involving a quest, a transition to a territory that is forbidden to humans, and divine ancestry on both parents' sides. Fyntikoglou's lucid reading of the catalogue of the Nereids in 4.334-347 (pp. 190-199) as a case study of neoteric poetics at work because it represents an exemplary encapsulation of cross-section of different subtexts and literary traditions, engaging both content and form (meter, rhythm, sound, etymological wordplay), is one of the most enjoyable sections of the volume. Finally, the evocation of Menelaus (an interlocutor to Aristaeus by proxy, via the latter's obvious resemblance to Telemachus) and the Homeric Proteus (as Menelaus portrays him in the Odyssey), offer Vergil, in Fyntikoglou's eyes, two more occasions literally to put on display the very process of composing according to the rules of neoteric poetics. Thus, the Homeric Proteus becomes a pastoral hero in the Georgics, echoing the world of the Eclogues; while Menelaus is seen now in the shadow of Cyrene, now behind Aristaeus himself.

The critical process, aligned with the theoretical premises to see the Georgics as a versified treatise on neoteric poetics, applies even more fittingly to Orpheus' experience. The 'Orpheus epyllion' (in Fyntikoglou's definition) receives a similarly thorough treatment that advertises Vergil's mastery of literary tradition ideally represented by the traces of a celebrated legend of Greek antiquity. Orpheus' simultaneous evocation and reversal of Aristaeus inspires Fyntikoglou to propose a reading of Orpheus as yet another manifestation of Achilles in Iliad 1, which complements Aristaeus' own, because Orpheus' Achilles-like features draw on both the same and different parts of the great Homeric hero's experience in Book 1 (specifically, the argument with Agamemnon, but also Achilles' mourning by the sea, which served as Aristaeus' model, as well) and 23 (the mourning over the dead Patroclus). Similar methodology directs the examination of Orpheus in the light of Odysseus, the hero of the first literary nekyia, where Fyntikoglou's argument leads to the surprising conclusion that at the end of his journey, Orpheus has been transformed into an Achilles. This different method of using essentially the same literary tradition positions the relationship between Orpheus and Aristaeus on a new level, which considers the two in model-archetype relationship: upon reaching the end of Orpheus' story the reader comes to realize that the hero's particular version of his katabasis is in discourse with its long literary past as much as with the literary anatomy that shapes the texture of Aristaeus' own experience. At the same time, Fyntikoglou ingeniously points out, Orpheus, too, is prefigured as a neoteric poet: his laments for Eurydice follow a specific literary plan and show awareness of himself as poetic genius. The Orpheus chapter closes with a justification for the antithetical conclusions of the two parallel quests: for Fyntikoglouthe principal didactic message of the entire poem lies here. Orpheus has a tragic end, shown not in his dismemberment but with his retreat into depression and perpetual lament-- or poetically speaking, into a self-centered poetic expression that never evolves. This supposedly instructs Aristaeus (or rather, Vergil's Roman contemporaries) about the duty to weather and recover from disaster in order to survive and triumph and instructs the reader of the Georgics across time to consider the message of the poem on the basis of the way in which the (social and political) meaning behind the change theme of neoteric poetics possibly addresses her own experience.

Much of the literary background of the Aristaeus and the Orpheus stories surveyed in the next (fifth) chapter has been already mentioned in detail in the discussions of the intertextual models of the two heroes in chapters three and four. The reader who does not specialize in Augustan poetry, on the other hand, will appreciate the orderly presentation of a long and complex Greek tradition, and the relationship of the bugonia epyllion to the neoteric tradition. And the illuminating description of the interaction of the episode with Eclogues 10 which evolves around Gallus--who is distinctly compared to a Roman Orpheus in Eclogue 6, the poetic core of Vergil's early collection--is welcome. Equally complementary to and supportive of the poetic analysis of the bugonia advanced in the earlier chapters, is the comparison between traditional and neoteric poetic principles surveyed in the sixth and final chapter under the suggestive title 'ars~vates', each of the two terms carrying two different but interlinked meanings, and modifying multiple characters, who in turn interfuse in similar fashion.

The book concludes with: a) a useful appendix (pp. 319-358), in three parts that deal respectively with a comparison between Vergil's account of the bugonia and the technical procedure as recorded in the Egyptian texts; a lucid summarizing overview of the leading scholarship on the Georgics in the past three decades (an initiative that will be greatly appreciated by many graduate students, and classicists who do not specialize in the study of the Georgics); and a summary of all four books of the poem; b) a bibliography, general index and index locorum; and, finally, c) an English summary (pp. 375-388) wherein the non-Greek speaker can find a good description of the main arguments and thematic highlights in each section of the book.

To summarize, Fyntikoglou's study of the bugonia is a welcome new take on the study of one of the most popular, but frustratingly elusive pieces of Vergil's literary career, and Latin literature overall. All the major aspects of the poem are reviewed in the light of a new reading of the neoteric aesthetic, at once inspired by and antagonistic to Callimacheanism, which is certain to stir up further debate. Some of the theses advanced, especially Vergil's inspiring teacher-profile, would have benefited had Fyntikoglou the chance to take into consideration Nappa's study. The high quality of the publication deserves praise; I have found only three minor misprints. The perhaps over-extensive footnotes, often longer than the main text on the same page, attest Fyntikoglou's intimate familiarity with the major scholarship on the issue, and his diligent efforts to make his arguments as comprehensive as possible, and accessible to non-Verigilan specialists-- an initiative which the Latinist inexperienced in the studies of intertextuality and narratology will greatly appreciate. The translation accompanying the text, on the other hand, is worthy of acclamation: it does an important service to the hellenophone community of literary readers, who typically find it hard to enjoy the difficult, technical language of the Georgics in a non-Greek language. To be sure, this is not a literary translation, and on several occasions the translator's effort to render the exact meaning of the original produces a pedantic text, bereft of the easy grace of Vergil's Latin. But, it serves its purpose quite well: it is easy to follow and, most importantly, accurate. And I should note that Fyntikoglou's is only the second translation of the Aristaeus segment ever--and the first one by a Vergilian specialist--to be composed in Greek.10


1.   Richard F. Thomas, Virgil: Georgics, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1988); R.A.B. Mynors, Virgil: Georgics (Oxford, 1990).
2.   J. Farrell, Vergil's Georgics and the Traditions of Ancient Epic: The Art of Allusion in Literary History (New York and Oxford, 1991).
3.   A. Boyle, The Chaonian Dove: Studies in the Eclogues, the Georgics and the Aeneid, Leiden 1986; Christine G. Perkell, The Poet's Truth: a Study of the Poet in Virgil's Georgics (Berkeley, 1989); Farrell (see note 2); A. Biotti, Georgische: Libro IV (Bologna, 1994); Monica Gale, Virgil on the Nature of Things: The Georgics, Lucretius, and the Didactic Tradition (Cambridge, 2000). In addition to the commentaries, Richard Thomas has written, mostly in the 1980s, several pioneering articles on the interpretation of the Georgics; several of them have been reprinted in R. Thomas, Reading Virgil and his Text: Studies in Intertextuality (Ann Arbor, 1999).
4.   Fyntikoglou duly notes (p. 22) the famous observation in J. Griffin, Greece and Rome 26 (1979) 61, wherein the latter counts seventeen different interpretations produced in the years between 1967-79; as many have been added since: see the overview in C. Nappa, Reading After Actium: Vergil's Georgics, Octavian and Rome (Ann Arbor, 2005), 265 nn. 48-50.
5.   P.R. Hardie, Virgil's Aeneid. Cosmos and Imperium (Oxford, 1986); G.-B. Conte, The Rhetoric of Imitation (Ithaca and London, 1986), and id., Genres and Readers (Baltimore and London, 1994).
6.   G. Radke, Die Kindheit des Mythos-- die Erfindung der Literaturgeschichte in der Antike (München, 2007).
7.   The reader wishing for a brief but compact review of the bugonia archaeology should add to Fyntikoglou's principal references B.G. Witfield, 'Vergil and the Bees: A Study in Ancient Apicultural Lore', Greece and Rome 3 (1956) 99-117, , Biotti's commentary and two articles by E. Peraki-Kyriakidou-- the former in Greek, titled, 'Egypt or Macedonia', in the 1998 volume of the Annual Scholarly Review of the Philosophy School of the Aristotle University; the other, 'The bull and the bees', in LEC 71 [2003] 151-174.
8.   M. Erren, P. Vergilius Maro. Georgica. Band 1. Einleitung. Praefatio. Text und Übersetzung (Heidelberg, 1983); M. Erren, P. Vergilius Maro. Georgica. Band 2. Kommentar (Heidelberg, 2003).
9.   Nappa (note 4 above). Very likely Nappa's book came out too late for Fyntikoglou to take it into consideration.
10.   A century ago, in the early 1900s, the novelist Konstantinos Theotokis, a non-classicist, translated all four books of the Georgics in Greek for the first time, an opus, which so far stands as the only Greek translation of this great poem (repr. Athens: Keimena, 1970); regrettably Fyntikoglou cites nowhere that he was aware of or used this translation, which is actually quite good, as well. For obvious reasons, I do not take into consideration the late-18th c. translation of the Georgics by Eugenios Voulgaris in...Homeric Greek).

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