Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.03.47

Laura Miguélez Cavero, Poems in Context: Greek Poetry in the Egyptian Thebaid 200-600 AD. Sozomena. Studies in the Recovery of Ancient Texts 2.   Berlin/New York:  W. De Gruyter, 2008.  Pp. 442.  ISBN 9783110202731.  €98.00; $152.00.  

Reviewed by David Hernández de la Fuente, Universität Potsdam (

A panoramic study of Greek Epic in Late Antique Egypt, such as this recent book by Dr Laura Miguélez Cavero, published as a result of her 2006 PhD dissertation at the University of Salamanca, was much needed in this field of research. Greek Poetry in the Egyptian Thebaid, as the title goes,--or, rather, epic, since lyric or drama are let aside--is a very valuable piece of scholarship, as we shall point out in the following lines.

First of all, let us summarize the contents of the present volume. Poems in Context is divided into 5 chapters, the first one providing an analysis of "The so-called school of Nonnus in the literary context of Panopolis (3rd-6th c. AD)" and of some of the main figures of this long period of time (the family of Fl. Horapollon, Cyrus, Olympiodorus, Nonnus and Musaeus). Miguélez Cavero argues for the non-existence of a "School of Nonnus" or something similar explaining this Egyptian "poetic flourishing" ("that would force into a category a certain number of poets whose purpose surely was not to create a group", p. 5). She also emphasizes the idea that the most important work of this period, the Dionysiaca, "did not emerge in a thematic vacuum" (p.22). Both ideas are important and thoroughly discussed in the book and we shall go back to them.

To begin with, Miguélez Cavero introduces the reader in the historical and literary context of Late Antique Egypt and provides a catalogue of the Egyptian epic hexameter production from the 3rd to the 6th centuries AD (especially that of the Thebaid), both from those poets whose works are extant in the manuscript tradition as well as from those whose fragments are transmitted by papyri. This catalogue--various fragments, not all epic, encompassing a long period of time and a wide geographical area (p.33)--does not intend to be exhaustive by any means, but it serves as a useful complement to Heitsch's 1963 standard collection of fragments.1

This is followed in the second chapter by a very lively description of the poetics of the day, marked by a certain baroque poikilía and a taste for the unusual ("circular attitude", p. 122-4, perhaps a Neo-platonic feature) and for sensual metaphors ( as in the paragraph "Poems full of smell, taste, touch", p. 130).

Chapter three displays a panorama of the social, cultural and literary environment of the town of Panopolis, the learned capital of the Thebaid, where some of these poets were trained. The educational institutions--especially "secondary schools"--seem fundamental to understand the development of this form of high culture as Miguélez Cavero's approach demonstrates. Chapter four changes to a more concrete issue: the analysis of some key episodes of Nonnus' Dionysiaca in comparison with other passages of the above. Miguélez Cavero's main point in this argument is to present Nonnus' poetic oeuvre as a result of his strong rhetorical training, typical of Late Antique Poetry from at least the 3rd century CE onwards. In order to do so, she examines the poem in relation to a collection of rhetorical motives or exercises (encomium, ethopoea, ecphrasis, paraphrase, etc.).

Finally, and following Stegemann's 1930 theory (explained in p. 335),2 Miguélez Cavero concludes that the Dionysiaca is an outcome of a rhetorical practice, a literary exercise following closely some key handbooks of Late Antique Rhetoric. The classical debate between literary genius and technical exercise (cf., e.g., Ps.-Longinus, On the sublime, 8) might be applied here to Nonnus' works and their originality, but that is another question.

Returning, however, to the two aforementioned ideas, it seems clear from Miguélez Cavero's research that there was a solid cultural context in Late Antique Egypt and an exhaustive rhetorical education followed by Nonnus, his immediate predecessors, and his contemporaries alike. This fact, nonetheless, does not seem enough to play down Nonnus' significance as a literary model. It is necessary to define what is meant by the term "School of Nonnus" in scholarship. Miguélez Cavero convincingly rejects what she understands as "School" of Nonnus both in this book ("this leads me to deny that he is the 'caposcuola' of an alleged school, i.e., the leader of a group of poets who would have learned with him", p. 189) and in a recent conference paper ("La inexistencia de la llamada Escuela de Nono" at the Primer Encuentro de Jóvenes Investigadores de la Sociedad de Estudios Clásicos, CSIC, Madrid. November 17-18, 2006). Recently, other scholars have expressed the same view,3 regardless of what this expression implies for the scholarly and literary tradition, especially from Keydell onwards, but also already in Peacock's Ages of Poetry.4 Like many other scholars, Miguélez Cavero finds no difficulty in accepting other artificially coined classifications, such as, "Second Sophistic" (or, critically, "Third", p. 5 ) and "School of Gaza" (this time, a truly rhetorical school, p. 26, 90, 101), which seem to have proven useful for scholars.

Some semantic consensus about the term "school" seems, therefore, necessary: obviously, "school" can be understood as "any institution at which instruction is given in a particular discipline" but also as "group of artists, philosophers, etc. sharing similar ideas, methods, or style" (Oxford English Dictionary). In the first sense, it is evident that a school of rhetoric where Egyptian poets learned side by side Nonnian Lyrics never existed as such, and nobody could speak of a group of writers around this poet of obscure biography, as Miguélez Cavero rightly points out. Moreover, because the alleged "Nonnians" poets lived until, at least, the 6th century CE, after the poet's lifetime. But, given the numerous examples of almost contemporary and later poets who seem to imitate Nonnus closely--Miguélez Cavero presents numerous instances, e.g. in Musaeus,5 and other fragments from her catalogue, 17, 36, 45, 48..., pp. 114-125 passim--, nobody can deny the importance of the literary legacy--or, in the other sense, a "School"--of the author of the Dionysiaca. A series of poets of the first two centuries after the diffusion of his work-- Pamprepius of Panopolis, Musaeus, Colluthus, Cyrus of Panopolis, Christodorus of Coptos, Dioscorus of Aphrodito, etc.--imitated Nonnus thoroughly (both in metrics and vocabulary, even plagiarizing whole verses6). Let us also remember that Nonnus' verses were also read and studied in Late Antique Egypt as reference school texts together with Homer, Menander or Euripides as some papyri seem to show,7 a very remarkable honor for a "modern poet". All this goes to show an almost immediate success of the Dionysiaca.

It is true that Nonnus' literary admirers--poets ranging from Musaeus to Paul the Silentiary or John of Gaza, who thoroughly imitated Nonnian features and poetics--have been often, and perhaps inadequately, called 'School of Nonnus' by scholarship since Keydell's old articles on Nonnus.8 As a recent contribution by D. Gigli demonstrates, the so-called 'School' must be clearly understood to be literary, and not as a school in a rhetorical or scholarly sense, as Miguélez Cavero seems to take it: the "Nonnians" imitating Nonnus' works could then be "un gruppo di poeti che si richiamano in modo più o meno evidente ai dettami stilistici e mettrici dell'autore',9 rather than a self-conscious group intentionally adopting any rhetorical-academic sense. Following Gigli's statement, we are of the opinion that, from this literary approach, scholars could still speak of a "Nonnian" School of imitators as a common denomination for scholarly usage.

Summing up, though, and apart from such considerations, this book constitutes all in all an excellent piece of research offering a wide status quaestionis and a lively picture of Greek Literature in the Late Roman Empire and its cultural, historical, social, and literary milieu. Perhaps one of its most remarkable merits is the agility of Miguélez Cavero's prose: in a circular--almost a "Nonnian"--manner, the arguments are elegantly displayed and the book possesses academic clarity and philological akribeia combined with an attractive style. Recapitulations, indexes (general & locorum), appendixes and checklist of fragments are especially useful for the reader. Finally, Miguélez Cavero's book must be welcomed as a very useful instrument for further scholarly work on this field. It offers a comprehensive and valuable synthesis of this late flourishing of Greek Epic and should become a reference book for any library on Late Antiquity.


1.   Heitsch, E., Die griechischen Dichterfragmente der römischen Kaiserzeit, Götingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht 1963.
2.   The rules for encomium outlined by Menander Rhetor inspired the Dionysiaca according to V. Stegemann Astrologie und Universalgeschichte: Studien und Interpretationen zu den 'Dionysiaka' des Nonnos von Panopolis, Leipzig, Teubner, 1930, pp. 104 ff. & 209 ff. Cf. also E.D. Lasky, "Encomiastic Elements in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus," Hermes 106 (1978) 357-376.
3.   E.g. G. Agosti-- F. Gonnelli, "Materiali per la storia dell'esametro nei poeti cristiani greci," in: M. Fantuzzi & R. Pretagostini (eds.), Struttura e storia dell'esametro greco, I, Roma 1995, p. 291, who prefer to say "Nonnian" poets rather than "School of Nonnus."
4.   In the Literary Miscellany in Prose and Verse, London 1820, pp. 183-200 the novelist T.L. Peacock defended a "Nonnian age" of poetry. See also the anonymous defence of Nonnus as a literary model entitled "On the poetry of Nonnus," The London Magazine (oct. 1822) 336-340 / (nov. 1823) 440-443. Cf. my article, "Nonnus, Peacock and Shelley," Res Publica Litterarum: Studies in the Classical Tradition 30 (2007) 188-198.
5.   About Nonnus' Nachleben, cf. L.R. Lind, "Nonnos and his Readers," Res Publica Litterarum: Studies in the Classical Tradition 1 (1978) 159-170 or, very recently, Audano S. (ed.) Nonno e i suoi lettori. Hellenica 27. Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2008. Further examples of imitations could be added just by checking the testimonia of the main editions of, e.g., Pamprepius, Musaeus, Colluthus, Christodorus, Agathias, Paul the Silentiary, John of Gaza, Dioscorus of Aphrodito or George of Pisidia, etc.
6.   E.g., the case of Musaeus, sometimes a "cento" of Nonnian material, cf. T. Gelzer (ed.), Musaeus, Hero and Leander, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge (Mass.)--London, Harvard U.P.-Heinemann, 1975, p. 298, or that of Colluthus, to whom Nonnos seems a "maître en poésie" according to P. Orsini ed., Collouthos, L'enlèvement d'Hélène, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1972, intr.
7.  K. Treu (1996): "Antike Literatur im byzantinischen Ägypten im Lichte der Papyri," Byzantinoslavica, 47.1 (1986) 4.
8.   R. Keydell, "Nonnos (15)," RE 33, 1936, 904-20 and "Die griechische Dichtung der Kaiserzeit (1930-1939)," JAW (Bursians Jahresberichte), 1941, 1-71.
9.   D. Gigli, "ΑΕΠΟΒΑΤΕΙΝ. L'ecfrasi come viaggio in Giovanni di Gaza," in Audano S. (ed.) op. cit. (cf. note 5), p. 83.

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