Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.03.11

Vincenzo Di Benedetto, Il Richiamo del Testo: Contributi di filologia e letteratura (4 vols.).   Pisa:  Edizioni ETS, 2007.  Pp. 2178.  ISBN 9788846719409.  €160.00.  

Reviewed by Suzanne Saïd, Columbia University (

Table of Contents

V. di Benedetto is already well known for his books on Homer (Nel Laboratorio di Omero, 1994), Greek medicine (Il medico e la malattia. La scienza di Ippocrate, 1986) and, above all, Greek tragedy (a history of the Euripidean text La tradizione manoscritta di Euripide, 1965; two commentaries on Euripides Orestes, 1965 and Trojan Women [with E. Cerbo], 1998; a major book on tragic performances in classical Athens (La tragedia sulla scena [with E. Medda], 1997; and three important contributions on Euripides [Euripide Teatro e Società, 1971], Aeschylus [L'ideologia del potere e la tragedia greca. Ricerche su Eschilo, 1978] and Sophocles [Sofocle, 1983]). But the four volumes of his selected papers with a preface by R. Di Donato will undoubtedly contribute to illuminating the wide range of Di Benedetto's interests and assessing his importance as a scholar.

It is a daunting task to review more than 2,000 pages representing the production of 50 years of work devoted to grammar and linguistics (I.373-532), Greek literature (from Homer to the Hellenistic period I.533-III.1488), philosophy and religion (IV. 1489-1654) as well as medicine (IV.1655-1776), but also to Latin (IV.1777-1848) as well as Italian literature (IV.1849-2122).

I will try first, relying on Di Benedetto's recollections ("Ricordi e storia della filologia" I.1-202) and his methodological contributions ("Questioni di metodo e approfondimenti" I.203-306 and "L'antico come modello del futuro" I.307-372), to draw his intellectual biography and define the major characteristics of his scholarship before presenting his contributions to Greek literature and culture, leaving to others more qualified a review of his work on Latin and Italian literature.

The collection of papers devoted to recollections and history of philology (I.1-202) introduces the reader "into the laboratory of Di Benedetto," to paraphrase the title of one of his books. He acknowledges his debt to A. Peretti, Epirema e Tragedia (1939) and, more indirectly, to the German scholarship devoted to the formal aspects of Greek tragedy, such as W. Schadewaldt's Monolog (1926), Walter Nestle's Prolog (1930) and W. Kranz' Stasimon (1933). The influence of Momigliano's work on the history of classical scholarship is also obvious, for instance, in Di Benedetto's long review of the book of K. Reinhardt on Aeschylus and its antagonistic relation to Wilamowitz' work (I.241-255). But most of all, Di Benedetto was influenced by E. Fraenkel (I.45-64), whose seminar he attended as a young student. He owes to him his interest in the formal aspects of a text and his awareness of the signification of formal changes. But Di Benedetto, like his older contemporary A. La Penna, whose book on Horace and Augustan ideology (1963) he praises, was also keenly aware of the importance of social context and strongly defended, in the preface of his Euripide Teatro e Società (1971), a combination of formal and historical understanding. Last but not least, the Marxist intellectual Sebastiano Timpanaro, who was among other things a classical philologist, played a major role in his intellectual development (I.103-189). The three papers put together in the section called "L'antico come modello del futuro" (I.307-366) provide a direct illustration of Di Benedetto's Marxism. A few years after their publication (1978), he wrote in Klio a long review of M. Finley's influential Sather Lectures on Ancient Economy given in 1972 (I.309-313), attacking the anti-Marxist slant of a work which, due to the influence of Weber, stresses the role of status and denies the primacy of economy. Later on (1981), Di Benedetto paid attention to the reception of antiquity and the vision of ancient Greece in Marx and Engels (I.315-366).

What characterizes Di Benedetto's scholarship, as it appears in these four volumes, is first the broadness of his interests, which include together with Greek literature, with which I'll deal later on, grammar, philology, philosophy and medicine.

His interest in ancient grammar began early (1957) with a paper on an unedited Florentine grammatical papyrus combining elements borrowed from various authors including Dionysius Thrax and Apollonios Dyskolos (II.375-380). From 1958 to 2000 (II.381-467 and 521-531), in his contributions to the history of ancient grammar, he unflaggingly criticized the authenticity of the work attributed to Dionysius Thrax against scholars such as Pfeiffer and Erbse. According to him, this work, put together around the IV century AD, is, like the Pseudo-Tryphon, a compilation without originality.

A paper published in Glotta 1983 (II.505-519) demonstrates that Di Benedetto is also a true philologist interested in etymology and history of words, as demonstrated by an enquiry into the vocabulary of 'dawn' beginning with Sappho and going back to Indo-European.

Among the ancient philosophers, Di Benedetto is mostly interested in the sophists. His first published paper (1955 IV.1491-1514) was devoted to Gorgias' On Not Being and his polemics against Protagoras. He also reassesses the influence of the sophistic movement on Euripides by stressing the opposition between the positive role given to religion by Protagoras and tragedies such as the Trojan Women and the Bacchae (2001 IV.1515-1520) and by demonstrating the gap between the praise of sophia in the Antiope and the questioning of its value in the last tragedies (2005 IV.1525-1551). Conversely, he demonstrates the impact of Antisthenes, who was considered the founder of cynicism, and brings attention to the echoes of his theories to be found in some scholia to the Odyssey (1966 IV.1597-1614).

He also paid much attention to Hippocratic medicine (IV.1655-1775). Instead of trying to identify the 'truly' Hippocratic treatises, he tried in his first paper published in 1966 (IV.1657-1711) to compare various works in order to identify some general trends, stressing for example the affinities between Epidemics I and III and Prognostic, Sacred Disease, and Airs Waters and Places. Later on (1970), he similarly demonstrated the debt of Ancient Medicine to Regimen in Acute Diseases (IV.1715-1726). Also, against Jouanna (Hippocrate. Pour une archéologie de Cnide, Paris 1974) and Grensemann (Knidische Medizin, Berlin 1975), he refused to endorse a strict distinction between the schools of Cos and Cnidus (1980 IV.1735-1749).

Two recent papers also suggest an interest in religion, more precisely in Orphism: the comparison between two golden leaves from Petelia and Hipponion (2004 IV.293-306) and the long review (2006 IV.1643-1654) of the edition and commentary of the Orphic texts by M. Tortorelli Ghidini (2000).

To show in full Di Benedetto's versatility, one could add two papers on the authenticity of the prologue to Xenophon's On hunting (1967 IV.1555-1595) and the treatment of two myths (Hesperidae and Prometheus) by the Hellenistic historian Agroetas (1966 III.1475-1482). One has also to mention his four papers on Latin literature (IV.1779-1848). Among them, I want to single out the three papers published in 1995-1996 and devoted to Vergil's Aeneid (IV.1777-1837). In all of them, Di Benedetto concentrates on the reception of Homer by Vergil and uses comparisons with the Iliad to better emphasize the originality of the Latin epic through a series of distortions, dislocations and 'refunctionalizations'. I leave to others more qualified review of his many papers devoted to the Italian literature from Dante and Petrarch to Foscolo, Manzoni and Eugenio Montale.

Second I would like to emphasize Di Benedetto's continuing interest in philology stricto sensu, that is, close reading, manuscript transmission and, even more, textual criticism.

To get a sense of his exemplary close reading one can look at the paper published in 1972 (IV.1727-1733) where he compares the text of Hippocrates Nature of Man 24 and its quotation by Aristotle (HA III 512b) and draws interesting conclusions concerning the transformation of style by Aristotle. His interest in manuscript transmission around the time he published his book on the manuscript tradition of Euripides (1965) can be illustrated by his paper on the transmission of Theophrastus De lapidibus in the codex Vat. Gr. 1305 (IV.1617-1628) published in 1966. From 1966 (on Andromache 854-857 III.1163-72) to 2005 (on Posidippus ep. 91 II.947-964), there are many demonstrations of the importance he attached to textual criticism. As opposed to many English scholars, Di Benedetto is decidedly conservative. He quotes with approbation Hermann's sentence Cur corrigatur quod caret vitio? (III.1288). The best instances of this conservatism are to be seen in his rejection of the many corrections, transpositions or additions to be found in West's edition of Aeschylus (see for instance III.1209-1231 on the Agamemnon and III.1223-1239 on the Choephoroi). He rarely proposes a correction himself: the paper of 1067, where he relies on fragment vi of Accius to correct fragment 1066 Nauck of Euripides' Telephus 1967 III.1191-1192), is one of the few exceptions.

Third, it should be noted that Di Benedetto was interested in intertextuality and reception long before they became buzz words. In the Iliad he is always looking for echoes in order to point out significant variations (e.g. 1986 II.535-581). He systematically makes use of comparison between Iliad and Odyssey (e.g 2001 II.691-700), Homer and lyric poetry (e.g. 1973 II.791-793) , Pindar and Aeschylus (e.g. 1995 III.1279-1288). Before M. Fantuzzi and R. Hunter's book Tradition and Innovation in Hellenistic Poetry (Cambridge 2004), Di Benedetto's papers on Hellenistic poetry display the same awareness of the importance of allusions: he finds echoes of Homer and lyric poetry in Posidippus (2003 III.1413-1430), identifies intertextual relations between Hellenistic poets (two epigrams of Posidippus and Callimachus or Posidippus ep. 92 and Callimachus' prologue to the Aetia, 2003 III.1431-1455) or between Hellenistic and Latin poetry (e.g. Posidippus and Horace, 2003 III.1413-1430).

Last but not least are his polemics with contemporary or former scholars. Like L. Robert (not a negligible model!), Di Benedetto often thinks against other scholars, even if he denies it: "io rarissimamente polemizzavo con altri studiosi" (II.68). One of his first published papers (1961), a survey of recent Euripidean studies (III.1147-1157), attacks vigorously the works of Zurcher (1947) and Friedrich (1953). His paper "Critica del testo o improvvisazione?" (1968 I.221-240) is a harsh criticism of the work of E. Degani on the indirect textual tradition of Euripides' Orestes. In his paper on the staging of Aeschylean tragedy (1989 III.1029-1060), he considers the hypothesis of Hammond (GRBS 13, 1972 387-445) about the existence of an outcrop of rock on the east side of the orchestra as "an expression of intellectual snobbery" and excludes the raised stage proposed by Arnott and others. In his "1952-2004: un lungo studio sulla tragedia greca," published in 2005 (I.3-38), he criticizes G. Thompson's attempt to find a direct link between the tragic characters of Aeschylus and the social classes of contemporary Athens (what he calls "naïve marxism") as well as Vernant's interpretation of Greek tragedy with its emphasis on tragic ambiguity. "Lo storico e il documento " (2006 I.271-305) picks on L. Canfora's Il papiro di Dongo (2005). His closest friends are not immune to his criticism: the paper on Aeschylus and war (1999 III.1293-1301) is a reaction against the portrait of Aeschylus as someone who hated the war drawn by S. Timpanaro. But one has also to acknowledge that he is often ready to pay tribute to his predecessors. In his review of recent works about Euripides quoted above, he warmly praised the books of Greenwood (1953), Ludwig (1954), Strohm (1954) and Zuntz (1955) and often voiced his admiration for E. Fraenkel.

This being said, I want to look with more detail at the papers devoted by Di Benedetto to Homer, archaic lyric and tragedy.

From 1986 to 2002, Di Benedetto published a series of papers on Homer (II.533-767) that attempt to reintroduce into Homeric scholarship the notions of art and choice which came under attack with Milman Parry's emphasis on the constraints of formulaic style. The purpose of his important paper "nel laboratorio di Omero" (1986 II.536-581) was to illuminate the poetic technique of Homer through a close analysis of formulas and their variations. He also pointed out the existence of significant echoes between distant passages, different characters or various incidents. Another paper published in 1987 (II.584-615) expanded this analysis of significant echoes and highlighted the importance of the variations of the lion simile before M. Lonsdale, Creatures of Speech: Lion, Herding and Hunting Similes in the Iliad (1990). Two papers published in 1993 (II.611-615) and 2000 (II.617-645) dealt in the same way with the signification of a repeated formula and the use of anaphora in Homeric speeches. It comes as no surprise to find also four papers published between 1996 and 2001 (II.648-690) where Di Benedetto defends his thesis against the criticisms and misinterpretations of scholars such as P. Mureddu, M. Cantilena, C.O. Pavese and J. Portulas.

After the Iliad, Di Benedetto applied the same method to the Odyssey, the earliest example of "littérature au second degré". In two papers (II.691-700 and 701-704), he gave a close look to the reuse of Iliadic patterns and illuminated significant variations. I would like particularly to emphasize the importance of the two last papers devoted to the Odyssey. In "letteratura di secondo grado: l'Odissea fra riusi e ideologia del potere" (1999, II.705-739), Di Benedetto systematically used comparisons with the Iliad to point out the originality of the Odyssey: its privileging long term profit -- a point already made by J. Redfield in "The Economic Man" (in Approaches to Homer, 1983, 218-247) -- its praise of secretiveness and lies in order to reach one's aims, its new emphasis on human responsibility and its expression of an ideology which extols the virtues of hereditary monarchy and advocates an ideal of concord in the city (through the final reconciliation scene) and in the house (with the description of harmonious relationship between the slaves and their owners). With "Ulisse: conoscere o regnare?" (II.741-767), Di Benedetto focused first on the the travels and defined the characteristics of a "subjective" narrative that privileges Odyssseus' interests in xenia and the memories of his ordeals, a reading supplemented by a comparison with Jason's toils and an appendix devoted to the lying stories. Then Di Benedetto convincingly demonstrated the reuse and shifting of Iliadic themes from the Iliad to the Odyssey, from foreign war to civil war (through a comparison between the speech of Eurymachus to Odysseus in book 22 of the Odyssey and the speech of Hector to Achilles in book 22 of the Iliad) and from heroic death to heroic survival.

From 1973 to 2006, Di Benedetto paid much attention to archaic lyric (II.769-986), especially to Sappho, as demonstrated by the 10 papers included in the Contributi as well as his long (5-88) introduction to Saffo Poesie (BUR 1987). One of them addresses the problems of Sappho's biography through a confrontation between POxy 1800 and other sources (1982 III.1393-1405). Four deal convincingly with textual problems (II.805-820, 909-913, 921-923, 965-986). But Di Benedetto is also a sensitive literary critic who used comparisons with Homer (II.791-3, 839-851, 853-871) in order to throw into relief Sappho's originality and pays attention to the reception of her poems in Latin poetry (II.925-946). In the same way, he used comparisons with Achilles' monologues in the Iliad to show some Archilochean variations (II.882-896). He also published on Alcaeus' historical background and the history of Mytilene (II.771-789) and discussed the interpretation of some lines of Alcman (II.795-804) and Solon (II.821-826).

However, the major contribution of Di Benedetto to ancient scholarship is undoubtedly his work on Greek tragedy, which is justly given the largest number of pages in these Contributi (III. 993-1365).

The organization of the tragic text is addressed in two papers. The first one, published in 1961 (III.1118-1144), deals with the exceptions to the rule of exact responsio between strophe and antistrophe and opposes systematic attempts to eliminate them from Euripidean tragedies. The second one, published in 1991 (III.995-1028), illuminates the complex treatment of lament at the end, usually in order to harness the emotions induced by it and produce a catharsis.

Three papers devoted to Aeschylus' stagecraft prepare or complement the major book of Di Benedetto and Medda about tragedy on stage (La tragedia sulla scena, 1997). The first one (1984 III.1061-1079) deals with the Oresteia. It emphasizes the echoes, but also the differences, between the Agamemnon and the Choephoroi and contrasts the presentation of the two murders and their authors. The second one ("Le Eumenidi: una tragedia di interni e senza σκηνή,"1987 III.1081-1098) addresses the difficulties linked to the staging of the Eumenides and proposes a bold but convincing solution: in the Eumenides, the skene is not included into the scenic space. Like the Persians, the tragedy is performed in an open space which represents first the temple of Apollo at Delphi, second the temple of Athena on the Acropolis, and third the council chamber of the Areopagus on the hill of Ares (as opposed to the two first parts of the Oresteia). The contrast with the Agamemnon and the Choephoroi, where the skene represents the palace of Agamemnon, is glaring but also meaningful: as opposed to the private space of a house which has witnessed many murders, the two temples have become public spaces open to view. The last paper (1989 III.1029-1060) deals more generally with the staging of the Aeschylean tragedies. It well illustrates the change linked to the inclusion of the skene in the scenic space by a comparison between the two tragedies staging the return of a king, the Persians and Agamemnon.

I would like also to draw the attention of the reader to the paper on Aeschylus and war (1999 III.1293-1301) that acknowledges the complexity of the presentation of the war in the Oresteia, first with the Agamemnon where the Trojan war is perceived both as a just punishment and a source of sorrows, second in the Eumenides where Athena's speech is full of unashamed and cheerful militarism.

Another important paper deals with the treatment of space in the tragedies of Sophocles (2003 III.1099-1115) and introduces the notion of 'refunctionalization' (rifunzionalizzazione). This is illustrated first with the Oedipus at Colonus. Whereas at the beginning of the play the place where Oedipus arrives is lavishly described, the place of his death is but an undefined "foreign country" (ll.1705, 1713). At the end of the Trachiniae, the house, empty of its inhabitants, has also lost its meaning. Di Benedetto also draws attention to a conclusive motif which appears in Antigone and Oedipus Rex when a character asks, without success, to be led away, before concluding with the Electra, where the house becomes a dead end excluding any subsequent development.

To conclude this review of this impressive collections of papers, I single out one of the early papers of Di Benedetto on Hellenistic poetry, "Homerisms and metrical structure in the Dorian Idylls of Theocritus" (1956 III.1379-1392), for its originality. In order to solve the problem of the Dorian dialect in the Idylls, Di Benedetto chose to concentrate on their obvious non-Dorian characteristics, that is, the frequency of the Homerisms, and succeeds in establishing a correlation between metrics and dialect: the most "Dorian" Idylls are also those which are most foreign to the rhythmical refinements introduced by Callimachus.

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