Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.07.10

Richard Janko (ed.), Philodemus, On Poems, Books 3-4, with the Fragments of Aristotle, On Poets.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010.  Pp. xvi, 629.  ISBN 9780199572076.  $175.00.  

Reviewed by Robert Mayhew, Seton Hall University (

Our sole source for the On Poems of Philodemus (1st c. BC) is the papyrus remains from Herculaneum. The volume under review contains the latest fruits of Richard Janko’s Herculanean labors. Janko’s edition of On Poems 1 was published over a decade ago,1 and he is already at work on an edition of Book 2. (Book 5 is being edited by three of his colleagues in the Philodemus Project: D. Armstrong, J. Fish and J. Porter). Janko describes the content of the On Poems as follows: “Books 1-2 discuss the doctrines of a series of critics whose opinions Crates [of Mallos, 2nd c. BC] had summarized because their theories appeared to privilege the sound of verse over the sense . . . Book 4 is a rebuttal of one or more critics concerned with genre, including Aristotle. Book 5, the last of the treatise, includes a brief summary and equally brief rebuttal of the doctrines of a series of critics, including Crates himself” (63-64). More on Book 3 shortly.

The present work is divided into three parts. Part I consists of the text of On Poems 3, with translation and notes, preceded by a 64-page introduction divided into six sections (the last a Conspectus Siglorum). The first section covers the history of the text, and includes a useful account of how the papyri were opened and recorded. Janko points out that, as the title and author’s name for Book 3 are missing,2 the ascription of this material to Book 3 is at best probable. He provides support for this ascription here and elsewhere in the introduction. Section 2 discusses in detail the manuscript sources for the fragments of On Poems 3, namely: P.Herc. 1087 and 1403, and the corresponding disegni—carefully made drawings which in some cases preserve the content of papyri fragments no longer extant or (as) legible. Section 3 (‘The Reconstruction of the Papyrus-Roll’) contains a surprising amount of mathematics, which I will not attempt to summarize. As Janko explains: “The circumference of the roll, like that of any spiral, continually declines. This decline has the potential to provide information essential for establishing the correct order of the fragments” (37). Janko’s meticulous measurements tend to “confirm the traditional order”, though he notes “several divergences” (43); these calculations also aid in determining the number of missing lines and words. The content of On Poems 3 is described at length in Sections 4 and 5, and one can only be impressed by how much information Janko is able to squeeze out of the meager remains. He writes that Book 3 “is a hypomnema written in a style typical of Philodemus, which apparently takes as its object the work of an adversary whose doctrines are presumably quoted in the order in which they were put forward in the opponent’s work. If the hypothesis advanced [earlier in the introduction] is correct, the purpose would be to rebut the doctrines of Crates of Mallos advanced in the same work whose earlier sections were rebutted in De poem. 1-2” (65).

The text is arranged as follows: On the left-hand page there are two columns, the right a transcription of the Greek as found on the papyrus, the left an apparatus criticus; and on the right-hand page, the Greek is presented from margin to margin, and is followed by an English translation (when there is enough material to translate). At the top of every right-hand page the subject matter and fragment numbers are usefully provided (e.g. ‘On euphony in verse frr. 32-4’). Footnotes to the translation serve the function of a commentary. On Poems 3 is the least well-preserved of the five books; the following (fr. 7) is typical:

desunt versus fere x u.v.
- - - . . . . π]ροϲτι[ - - -
- - - . . . .]ατι δ[ - - -
- - - . . . .]η̣π[ - - -
- - - . . .]. .ο̣η[ - - -
- - - ἀκ]οαῖϲ̣ τ̣ῆι α[ - - -
- - . .]ι παντ̣[ - - -
- - - . .] μηδε̣[ - - -
desunt versus haud pauciores xvii

A few fragments are more substantial, however; and I found one of these (fr. 15) especially interesting, as it contains—if Janko’s interpretation is correct—a reference to Heraclides of Pontus not previously identified as such. Here are the first two lines of legible material:

καὶ τῶν φιλοϲόφ[ων Ἡρακλεί-
δης ϲυγ[γράψαϲ παραπλήϲια

Cleary this reading is conjectural; but Janko provides a succinct defense of its plausibility in the notes to the translation.

Where On Poems 3 is somewhat disappointing, Book 4 (the subject of Part II) “is a treasure” (viii). It is valuable, not only because of the amount of material it contains, but because of the attention it devotes to criticizing Aristotle.3 Its source is P.Herc. 207 (with the relevant disegni). The set-up of Part II is the same as for Part I; the introduction as well has the same structure as the previous one, though it is more substantial (nearly 100 pages) to match the more substantial remains of Book 4. As for its content, the fragments from early in this book are fairly sparse, though even here there are some (possible) gems. For instance, fr. 10:

deest versus unus
- - - . . . . . .]ν Δημοκ[ριτ - - -
- - - . . . . εἴ]δωλα τ[ - - -
- - - (.) παρι]ϲτάμεν[α - - -
- - - μου]ϲ̣ικ[ - - -
desunt versus fere xxix

Janko translates: “(c.5-6 words missing) Democritus (c.2-3 words missing) images (c.2-3 words missing) that present themselves (c.2-3 words missing) music (?) (c.103 words missing to end of column)”. He comments in a footnote: “This is a new fragment of, or testimonium to, Democritus of Abdera, not in Diels-Kranz or the collection in Taylor 1999. Although it consists of only four words, it supplies the missing link between his theory of images and his belief that poetry and music are divinely inspired, since the world is full of images, the images cause our perception and thoughts, and they are themselves divine” (251 n. 6). The note does not end here. Further, Section 3 of the introduction (‘Philodemus’ Sources and Opponents’) begins with an eight-page discussion of Democritus, with a focus on fr. 10. I do not know enough about Democritus to assess how plausible Janko’s interpretation is; but I found his discussion of Democritus fascinating, and I hope this material prompts scholars of atomism to give fr. 10 and Janko’s account of it serious attention.

Janko writes in the introduction that “The last section of Book 4 is beyond doubt a refutation of an Aristotelian work about poetry” (220). This section (coll. 106-120) contains the meatiest fragments in the entire collection; the ample discussion of them in the introduction and in the notes to the translation is excellent. The subject-matter of these fragments includes Philodemus’ objections to Aristotle on: the unity of the art of poetry; the mimetic nature of poetry; the nature of character; comedy, tragedy and epic; etc. Although there are many parallels between this material and Aristotle’s Poetics, Janko argues (agreeing with Sbordone) that the object of Philodemus’ criticism is in fact Aristotle’s lost dialogue On Poets. This dialogue is the subject matter of Part III, which I turn to now.

Part III (‘Aristotle’s Dialogue On Poets: A New Edition of the Fragments’) consists of an introduction, text with apparatus criticus and facing translation, and a commentary. The lengthy (and truly superb) introduction consists of ten sections: (1) The Nature and Content of Aristotle’s De poetis; (2) The Formal Features of the Dialogue; (3) Mimesis and the Classification of the Genres; (4) The Origins of Drama and the Fragments in Themistius; (5) Tragic Catharsis and the Opening of Philodemus’ De poem. 5; (6) Faults in Poetry: The Excerpts in Aristocles of Messene; (7) The Title and Date of Aristotle’s De poetis; (8) The Diffusion of Aristotle’s De poetis and Poetics in Antiquity; (9) Why a New Edition is Needed; (10) The Present Collection of Fragments.

This new edition consists of ten testimonia and over 100 fragments.4 Aristotle’s On Poets originally consisted of three books; where possible, Janko has assigned fragments to a book, and they are in every case arranged according to subject matter (e.g. F 45-56 fall under the heading ‘The purpose of poetry, i.e. catharsis’). Many of the fragments are new, in the sense of not having been identified as coming from the On Poets and so included in earlier editions of it (or in other collections of Aristotle’s fragments). Here is one example (F46, from Phld. De poem 5):

ἒϲτιν ποιη[τι]κὴ χρήϲιμον πρὸϲ [ἀρε]τήν, καθαίρουϲα ὡ[ϲ] ἔφαμεν, τὸ (ἄλογον) μόριον (τῆϲ ψυχῆϲ).
The (art of) poetry is something useful with a view to virtue, purifying, as we said, the (irrational) part (of the soul).5

The source of many of the new fragments is Philodemus’ On Poems 4-5; but significant others come, for example, from Aristocles of Messene and Themistius. Janko claims that “this edition more than quadruples the number of fragments” (400; there is a concordance of various editions of On Poets at 555-56). In a very few cases it was not clear to me why a particular text was considered a fragment of the On Poets (e.g. F 53-54, which come from Aristotle’s Politics 8), though Janko does make clear in the introduction and commentary how such texts are connected to what Aristotle is doing in the On Poets. The concise, informative commentary begins in the case of each text (or set of texts) with a general discussion, which is then followed by further comments geared to lemmata.

Limitations of space made it impossible for me to describe the details of Janko’s interpretations of the texts he presents (from both Philodemus and Aristotle) or how his views differ from those of other scholars. Nor can I successfully convey the amount of painstaking work that Janko went through to produce this superb volume (but see pp. viii-ix, for a start). I do hope, however, that my description of this volume makes clear how valuable it is, not only to scholars of Philodemus but to anyone interested in Aristotle’s poetics (or Plato’s, for that matter) and Hellenistic literary criticism.

I end this review with a recommendation, which I hope Janko won’t find too presumptuous: When the time comes to produce a paperback edition, I suggest splitting the material into two volumes: one containing Philodemus’ On Poems 3-4, the other Aristotle’s On Poets. I think such a move would allow this material (and especially the latter) to reach an even greater audience—the sort of audience it deserves.


1.  Richard Janko, Philodemus, On Poems, Book 1, edited with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. See the review by David Sider (BMCR 2002.06.16). I pass over the difficulties involved in editing such papyri, as they are referred to by Sider, and his remarks are equally applicable here.
2.  Cf. Plate 20, a photograph of the name and title which come at the end of Book 4.
3.  Aristotle’s name (see col. 106) was first identified in this material by Cecilia Mangoni, who died in 1994 at the age of 30. Janko made use of her unpublished work on On Poems, which he describes at length in the introduction (160-65). The title page to the volume under review includes: “. . . by Richard Janko with an unpublished edition by Cecilia Mangoni†”.
4.  I count the texts grouped together (e.g., T 6a-b, F 44a-e) individually.
5.  A rather different translation appeared in Janko’s Aristotle, Poetics I, with the Tractatus Coislinianus, a Hypothetical Reconstruction of Poetics II, and the Fragments of the On Poets (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 61 (fr. 4.7).

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