Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.12.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.39

Annette Harder, Callimachus: Aetia (2 vols.).   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. xii, 362; 1061.  ISBN 9780199581016.  $350.00.  

Reviewed by James J. Clauss, University of Washington (


As Professor Annette Harder tells us in her preface, she decided to write a commentary on the Aetia in the 1980s while teaching a course on Hellenistic poetry. Many who know her work well, both by way of her many publications and the biennial conference on Hellenistic literature that she has organized and managed at Groningen with considerable success since the 1990s, have been waiting for this commentary eagerly and with great anticipation. The wait is over and anticipation justified! Scholars interested in Callimachus and the Hellenistic era in general now have punctiliously detailed access in English to the surviving original text of the Aetia within a convenient, though frightfully expensive, two-volume set. Harder has managed to collect, organize, and assimilate a breath-taking amount of material, ancient and modern, in this latest and most up-to-date edition of Callimachus’s magnum opus. Harder’s magnum opus will not only enrich our understanding of the Aetia, as it has mine, but also inspire many new articles and monographs as scholars come to take full advantage of what she has achieved in this massive study. I find myself profoundly impressed by the painstaking research, well- reasoned conclusions, and relaxed style that invites readers to study and admire the many and various academic exhibits on display throughout this remarkable mouseion, if you will, of Callimachean scholarship.

In the Introduction (in Volume 1, which also includes the text), Harder addresses the key issues of composition and size, contents, date, genre, literary, social and historical context, literary techniques (the subsection on Word Order, 1.42-44, is particularly helpful in making sense of some of Callimachus’s more convoluted lines, such as the infamous Aetia 1.33-36 Pf.), meter, and the transmission of the text. Regarding a central point of contention, organization and date, Harder argues for the generally accepted view espoused by Parsons,1 pace Cameron,2: Books 1 and 2 were among his early works (beginning in the 270s); the poems in Books 3 and 4 were collected over the years and framed by the Berenice poems; all four books were then brought together and bookended by a new prologue and epilogue (ca. 246/5 BCE). On this point, I would note that whenever Harder disagrees with the views of academic colleagues on any issue, from the broad topics mentioned at the start of this paragraph to individual episodes, lines or words, she always treats those whose ideas she contests fairly and with respect, evincing a gracious model for intellectual exchange.

As Harder states near the end of the Introduction (1.75-76) and as we observe throughout the commentary in Volume 2 (which also includes two appendices, comparative tables, and indices of Greek words, names and subjects, and sources), each section of the Aetia begins with a short bibliography of modern studies, a description of the contents that often include other versions of the story printed in the original texts, a brief report on its position within the Aetia, and discussion of other fragments that some have ascribed to the story at hand (which in most cases Harder cautiously rejects; examples below); the rich line-by-line commentary follows. In some instances there are additional preliminary sections where appropriate (e.g., at 2.96-98 Harder discusses programmatic aspects of Callimachus’s dream as well as the arrangement of the fragments within this story). In short, while the commentary follows a rigid format, accommodation is made for those aetia that feature issues particular to themselves. Harder’s goals for the commentary include: knowing what Callimachus said (e.g., textual criticism, arrangement of the fragments); understanding the text at a basic level (e.g., vocabulary, syntax, realia); observing the Aetia as a work of art (e.g., style, meter, narrative technique, genre, intertextuality); and exploring the meaning of the constituent parts (interpreting the text within its literary, historical, and cultural contexts). Harder achieves these clearly articulated goals masterfully through a systematic approach that combines precise and well- deployed applications of numerous disciplines and areas of study in our field: literary criticism, philology, reception criticism, papyrology, history, ancient religion, meter, etc. On a procedural note, regarding the short bibliographies that attend each story, they are listed in alphabetic rather than chronological order, which makes it less convenient to follow the history of interpretation within the individual story. Moreover, dates in the bibliography are listed at or near the end of each item. As such it is sometimes a chore to find the full reference of a specific work by an author with multiple entries (e.g., Lehnus, 1.94); more on the bibliography, a thoroughly Callimachean issue after all, below.

As anyone knows who has worked on the Aetia, there are a host of surviving passages that in their fragmentary condition defy unequivocal interpretation, and many and diverse have been the attempts to make sense of them. One of the hallmarks of Harder’s commentary is that she begins her discussion of such passages by laying out all of the arguments clearly, fully, and fairly, and then either chooses or offers an option, sometimes hesitatingly, or leaves the question(s) unresolved. For example, the identity of the poets and poems referred to at Aetia 1.9-12 Pf./Harder have long exercised scholars, especially as they figure as part of a larger conversation regarding Callimachean poetics. After reducing the possibilities to two (that “Callimachus compared the short elegiac poems of Philitas and Mimnermus (1) with their own long poems or (2) with the long poems of other poets,” 2.33 ad 1.9-12), Harder discusses the various arguments for two pages and concludes: “All things considered the arguments in favour of (2) seem to be the strongest, although the first word of 10 still remains an uncertain factor … and a significant remaining difficulty is that the plural in 11 f. would indicate the same poem as the singular ὄμπνια Θεσμοφόρο[ς in 10” (2.35).

Regarding the Epilogue of the Aetia and the meaning of πεζόν at 112.9 Pf./Harder, after carefully exploring the meanings “less elevated style of poetry” versus “prose” for the latter and noting that its use here could apply to either meaning, Harder considers a number of other factors (date, parallels, ancient reading practices), acknowledges a serious objection adduced by an opponent to her line of thinking, and with this taken into consideration concludes her detailed discussion by describing as “conceivable” the notion that the Epilogue provided “an oblique means of telling the reader that after the Aetia he should join the narrator in his journey to the foot-pastures of the Muses and read the book-roll which contained the Iambi” (2.870). A central Leitmotif in the commentary that underscores Harder’s non-insistence is the ubiquitous qualifier “conceivable.”

Such judiciousness extends even to minor issues. Regarding the meaning of σισύρην (Aetia 177.31 Pf./54c.31 Harder), Harder prefers “blanket” over “cloak” but leaves the issue unresolved (2.459). At Aetia 63.6 Pf./Harder, whether [ἔ]γεντο means ἐγένετο or εἷλε, after citing ancient and modern testimony, Harder concludes that [t]he first solution therefore seems more likely” (2.508). Whether τὰ περισσά at Aetia 64.9 Pf./Harder signifies extra letters in the Greek alphabet (with Lobel) or Simonides’s eximia sapientia (with Pfeiffer), Harder observes, “Of these two interpretations the first is more attractive, because it accounts best for the definite article. An extra advantage is that with this interpretation two inventions would be mentioned which have a function in this fragment: letters and texts have turned out to be subject to destruction and the usefulness of memory might be hinted at in the sequel …” (2.523). In sum, Harder never insists that we agree with her but provides readers with all of the available information needed to make informed decisions, including her own measured conclusions.

We can add caution to judiciousness in Harder’s modus operandi, particularly as regards the many non- assigned fragments scholars have tentatively attributed to the Aetia. In her discussion of such fragments pertaining to the case of the Victoria Berenices (2.393), we can see this cautious approach fully at play. Of the seven fragments that have been tentatively ascribed to the opening aetion of Book 3, Harder concludes (1) “this is unlikely to be right;” (2) “the context is too uncertain for conclusions;” (3) “could also be related to the Lock of Berenice;” (4) this could apply to Theseus as well in the Hecale; (5) “much is uncertain here;” (6) “[t]he attribution would gain in plausibility if we could be certain that P.Oxy. 2463 was from a commentary on this part of the Aetia;” (7) that P.Oxy. 2463 was a commentary on 176 Pf./54b Harder “is very uncertain.” Even if one disagrees with Harder, she has conveniently catalogued the passages of interest for us to consider. Unfortunately a number of these fragments, even if they are not ultimately from the Aetia, are not printed and so interested readers need to go elsewhere to examine the texts. Readers will want to have Pfeiffer, SH, and in some cases SSH nearby when reading Harder. But, I would add, the resulting conversation among these works is edifying.

In making my way through the book, I came to realize another quality that Harder may or may not have imagined when compiling her commentary. When I began graduate studies back in the 1970s, I began to notice that scholars would refer to Fraenkel’s commentary on the Agamemnon even when the point at hand had nothing to do with Aeschylus or his play, a fact that initially puzzled me.3 In time, I came to realize that the reason why this work was cited so often was that many of the entries comprised magisterial statements not only about the Aeschylean lines on which they commented but about central aspects of Greek language, literature and culture. Harder herself engages in the practice of citing Fraenkel in this way (cf. 2.683 ad 80.9 and 2.842 ad 110.71-2). As it happens, the depth to which Harder explores the broad array of points raised in the course of explaining the Callimachean text has resulted in the creation of a highly focused mini-encyclopedia of Greek culture, similar to Fraenkel’s Agamemnon. Here are some examples of passages that may well be referred to in the years ahead: looms in antiquity (κανών 2.536 ad 66.4); solitary speeches in Greek literature (2.576 ad 73-74); treatment of epilepsy (2.597 ad 75.13-14); κάλυκες as jewelry (2.679-80 ad 80.5); ἀπήνη as a form of transportation (2.698-99 ad 85.5); construction technique of bronze statues (2.702-03 ad 85.10-11); κύρβεις in antiquity (2.776-77 ad 103); hair sacrifice (2.803-04 ad 110.7-8); the Chalybes (2.819 ad 110.48); Hephaestus’s forge (2.883-84 ad 113e.11); Erigone (2.962-63 ad 178.3); oaks in antiquity (2.1000 ad 186.15); shaking with the right hand (2.1010 ad 189); thigh wounds (2.1023 ad 190c), and so on. There is a potential downside to encyclopedic entries of this sort, however: sometimes scholars provide evidence for that which is obvious or universal, such as the fact that mice annoy people (2.458 ad 54c.28) or parents try to secure good daughters- or sons-in-law (2.558 ad 67.9-10). But Harder rarely crosses that line and I am happy to have ancient evidence regarding mice and parental preferences.

To turn to the nugatory, Harder notes in the Bibliography (1.77-108) that she did not systematically include publications that appeared in or after 2006. What is more, the Preface of this 2012 publication is dated to 2009 (1.vii-ix). Given the scope and complexity of the commentary, it is fully understandable that continuing to collect and incorporate new material in a decades-long project could have delayed the release of this invaluable work indefinitely; clearly a manuscript of this size and scope needed much time from compilation through to publication. For future printings, however, I would recommend at the very least the inclusion of a major commentary that preceded this edition and to which Harder appears to allude in the commentary as forthcoming (2.739-41 ad 93.6-7, 93.8, 93.9, 93.13, 93.16, 93b), namely G. Massimilla, Aitia. Libro Terzo e Quarto Pisa 2010 (BMCR 2011.02.12). Moreover, the decision not to include a list of the well-known commentaries of non- Callimachean texts referred to in the notes puts an extra burden on the reader who may not work on and therefore be familiar with the particular editions referred to; in this case I would have erred on the side of inclusivity and made a little extra room for a Pinakes-lite.

Regarding other non-essential points, Oxford UP allowed Harder to cite pages and lines very loosely (number + f./ff.), a practice that can be most unhelpful when trying to isolate the issue to which an author wants to direct the reader. One striking instance pertains to a work that discusses the “Alexandrian footnote,” cited as “S. Hinds, Allusion and Intertext, Cambridge 1998, 1ff.” (2.586 ad 75.4); in point of fact, the book, which the citation would appear to encourage us to read in its entirety, engages far more than the one issue cited. Finally some abbreviations refer to abbreviations: “Frisk” = “Frisk 1960-72,” “Schneider” = “Schneider 1870-3,” “Schwyzer” = Schwyzer 1966-8” (1.77). If the time has not already come, even these works will someday be unknown to future scholars and so full reference would be most helpful in anticipation of the next generation of readers. And this book will without a doubt be the standard text for the next generation.

The editors of BMCR sent me the review copy of Harder’s Aetia in late July and I finished reading all 1400+ pages around mid-September. Only the beginning of the school year with all of its duties and distractions prevented me from sending in my review sooner. In short, I had a hard time putting this down. I suspect that my family and friends felt abandoned during the waning days of summer; even our dog Carl seemed unhappy with me, lying disapprovingly outside my study door. But as I devoured this amazing work day after day, relentlessly and religiously, I gained many new insights into Callimachus’s great poem and had the opportunity to learn so much about first-rate interdisciplinary research within Classics. Harder’s Aetia will likely itself become a classic. Now if only Oxford will make this book available at a reasonable price in paperback or some other modern affordable medium, then more readers will have the same opportunity I had when I found myself, thanks to this new edition, transported back in time and engaged in a heady, albeit fragmented, conversation with Callimachus, between the holy days of Hempfest and Bumbershoot in Seattle during the summer of 2012.


1.   P. J. Parsons, “Callimachus: Victoria Berenices, ZPE 25 (1977) 1-50.
2.   A. Cameron, Callimachus and his Critics, Princeton 1995.
3.   E. Fraenkel, Agamemnon , Oxford 1950.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010