Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.08.58 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.08.58

Timo-Christian Spieß, Die Sabinus-Briefe: Humanistische Fälschung oder antike Literatur? Einleitung - Edition - Übersetzung - Kommentar. Bochumer Altertumswissenschaftliches Colloquium Bd 86.   Trier:  WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2012.  Pp. 320.  ISBN 9783868213508.  €32.50 (pb).  

Reviewed by Theodor Heinze, Wiesbaden (

Table of Contents

In his elegy Amores 2, 18, Ovid cites several of his mythological epistles that have come down to us as his Epistulae Heroidum in the loose manner of an Alexandrian catalogue. He adds immediately that his friend Sabinus has written epistolary responses to six of these letters: Odysseus to Penelope, Hippolytus to Phaedra, Aeneas to Dido, Demophoon to Phyllis, Iason to Hypsipyle and Phaon to Sappho. Ovid mentions Sabinus again at Pont. 4, 16, 13-16 as the author of Odysseus’ letter, of an unfinished dierum … opus (a georgic or a calendar poem) and possibly of an epic poem called Troezena, Troesmen or Troesmin in mss., this being all we know about him.

Now, circumstances of transmission provide us with three mythological letters that purport to be rescriptiones to three of Ovid’s heroical letters: Odysseus to Penelope, Demophoon to Phyllis and Paris to Oenone. The text (330 lines in all) is first found at the end of five incunable editions of Ovid’s Heroides (a list on p. 76): Treviso 1475?, newly discovered by the present editor Spieß at Göttingen SUB (GW: M28768); Parma 1477, which also bears exclusive testimony to two passages in Ovid’s Heroides (16, 39-144 and 21,145-248), the authenticity of which now is undoubted; Vicenza 1480; Venice 1486 and 1492. It has been printed in most editions of the Heroides up to Loers’ (1829-1830), the letters being attributed in edd. Treviso 1475? and Parma 1477 to "A. Sabinus, eques Romanus celeberrimus vatesque, Nasonis temporibus floruit. Qui has omnes responsiones et alias edidit, quae non reperiuntur." But ever since Aldus Manutius’ edition of 1502, doubt has been cast upon this attribution to Ovid’s friend.

When Otto Jahn discovered in 1837 what has to be considered a second-hand reference (J. G. Weller, Altes aus allen Theilen der Geschichte, vol. 2, Chemnitz 1766, 244-260, here 248 to the humanist Angelus Sabinus alias Angelo Sani resp. Angelus de Curibus Sabinis (fl. 1460s-70s) who, in the dedicatory letter to his Paradoxa in Iuvenali of 1474, claimed authorship of these letters, this attribution found general acclaim, and the practice of printing these letters along with Ovid’s Heroides was discontinued.

The tide rolled back again, when B. Häuptli 1 found out that ed. Parma 1477 contained not only the two additional passages of Ovid’s Heroides mentioned, but also the three response letters Heinrich Dörrie had overlooked. He concluded that both the two Heroides passages and the three response letters must go back to one and the same manuscript, and that the Vaticanus Urbinas 353 is a descendant of this manuscript. As Domizio Calderini (1446–1478), believed to be the humanist editor of ed. Parma 1477, was not likely to be deceived by a fake set up by a contemporary humanist and in particular by a personal enemy such as Angelo Sani was, Häuptli concluded that the three response letters were the work of an unknown ancient poet.

But again, this view has been contradicted in favour of Angelus Sabinus by B. Geise on the grounds of the missing manuscript transmission of the three response2 and by Chr. Meckelnborg / B. Schneider, who argued that there was no proof for Calderini’s editorship.3

The book under review, the revised version of a doctoral dissertation submitted to the Classics faculty of Bochum University in 2010/2011, addresses the authorship question once more. To let the solution out immediately: Spieß opts for an unknown post-Senecan imperial poet of the first or second century and tackles the question through a linguistic commentary, preceded by an edition and a translation. In the introduction (pp. 11-77), he presents a succinct sketch of the problem (pp. 11-19), a discussion of the method employed (pp. 19-33) and a summary of the results (pp. 34-75).

As for the method (p. 19-23), much of it resembles recent Echtheitskritik of Ovid’s Heroides, 4 which rests on linguistic and metrical singularities and, where appropriate, on Bertil Axelson’s criterion for determining a given text’s priority. Following this trend, Spieß supposes that parallels or the lack thereof, ranging from Ovid to Cinquecento humanist poets, not individually, but in their overall tendency, reveal the provenance of these texts. To this end, he pays particular attention to rare words, collocations, turns of phrase and syntactical phenomena, to motifs, topoi and the structuring of groups of verses, to internal coherence, knowledge of myths and, last but not least, metre. The premise on which his decision rests is, apart from the observation of the poet’s imitation of poetic models, that an elaborate style with occasional dark, unclear or deviating passages would be an argument for ancient provenance, whereas the same phenomena with a simple and clear style would be an argument for humanist authorship (p. 23).

This permits him to show by means of an exemplary list of imitations that the humanist Angelus Sabinus in his undisputed epic De excidio civitatis Leodiensis on the fall of the city of Liège in 1465-1468 cannot be the author of the response letters, as one would have expected a majority of imitations not from Vergil, but from Ovid (p. 26-33).

Spieß then summarizes the results of his commentary in a list of conclusive passages (p. 34-53) and presents the results of his research into the metre of the three letters, which reveals a rule-abiding, if non-conformist versifier in terms of ancient metre, as already Häuptli had maintained (p. 53-67). On this basis, he discusses the cas de figure for the solution of the authorship problem (p. 69-75).

In the introduction’s final section (pp. 76-77), Spieß rehearses the ancient editions. For his text, he relies on the editions of Loers and Häuptli and the apparatus provided by Johann Christian Jahn (1828) and Loers. Although he surmises on the grounds of the evident textual corruption that there was a manuscript tradition (see also p. 23), there is no discussion of its character (some awareness at p. 77). Neither does he mention the Vaticanus Urbinas 353, written before 1482, the only ms. of these letters, perhaps a copy of ed. Parma 1477.

The edition (pp. 79-107) is equipped with an apparatus, which does not claim to be exhaustive. The text is notoriously corrupt and difficult. Spieß has much praise for the conjectures of N. Heinsius, but nevertheless adopts his own solutions in ten places (1,101; 2,4; 2,74; 2,83; 2,100; 3,10; 3,26; 3,28; 3,36; 3,68). There is no list of deviations from Loers’ authoritative edition, nor does he highlight the new readings of ed. Treviso 1475? (1,47; 2,18; 3,7). His editorial decisions generally are well argued, though punctuation, always a matter of dispute, could have been given a different treatment in several places.

The translation, facing the text, has been done deliberately in German prose, as Häuptli’s is metrical (a short note on translations at p. 77). Although it has no literary pretensions, it is at times felicitous, but often also odd, long-winded or even incorrect (1,17 "nachdem ich ihren Anführer Rhesus getötet hatte": Rhesus was killed by Diomedes).

The commentary (pp. 108-296) is a lemmatic commentary on single words, collocations or (parts of) sentences, while sections on entire passages are rare. It offers for each of the three letters first a summary of the Briefsituation of the Ovidian letter, then a summary of the Briefsituation of the response letter and a Gliederung (rather, a line-by-line overview of the contents of the letter). Although the authorship question is in the forefront, the commentary helps the neophyte as well as the advanced reader with the difficulties of the text in terms of textual criticism, linguistic and metrical explanation and mythological detail. Unfortunately, Spieß does not bother to discuss all textual variants; even if emendations are evident, the mistakes would have merited attention in view of a history of the text. The sheer mass of linguistic parallels and literary models extensively adduced by Spieß demonstrates how deeply steeped these letters are in the literary code of Augustan and Neronian poetry, in particular Ovid, Seneca, Vergil, and the love poets. Spieß also comments on points of contact both with Ovid’s letters to which these letters respond and with the rest of the Ovidian corpus of heroic letters. And he engages time and again in fruitful discussion of Häuptli’s decisions and comments, even correcting him (p. 276 ad 3, 55-56). While refraining from taking issue with a number of points of detail, the reviewer found the explanatory material sensibly chosen and informative throughout.

The section "Literatur" (pp. 297-320) lists the works referred to throughout the book, but is not a full bibliography. In particular, the list of further Ovidian editions on pp. 302-303 is not exhaustive (missing e.g. P. Ovidii Nasonis Heroides et A. Sabini epistolae, e Burmanni maxime recensione editae. Cura Davidis Jacobi van Lennep, qui et suas Animadversiones subiecit. Amstelodami 1809, 2nd ed. 1812, quoted secondhand on p. 140). For humanist authors, Spieß usefully refers to the excellent website musisque deoque directed by Paolo Mastandrea (Università Ca’Foscari, Venice), but does not indicate online availability of early prints (Parma 1477) and editions such as Angelus Sabinus, De excidio civitatis Leodiensis (quoted p. 18 n. 45) or Jahn 1828, even if digitized by a reliable institution such as the Munich Digitizing Centre (part of the Bavarian State Library), or even Loers’ edition (1829/1830).

As for their reception history, Spieß notes an apparent imitation of 3,44 in Gerolamo Bologni’s (1454–1517) Candidae (1,1,53f.). One may add that Marcus Alexander Bodius (16th c.) significantly wrote response letters to all the fifteen single letters of Ovid , because he did not like the Sabinus-letters; similarly, Francesco Dyni (17th c.) wrote response letters to all but those letters that had not yet received a response from the hand of Sabinus.5

Spieß’ attempt to solve an open research problem is meritorious. His dating of these letters to post-Senecan imperial times is not quite new, as Häuptli preceded him in this, but is much better documented and argued, despite the spin given to the evidence more than once. He certainly shifted the burden of proof to those who continue to believe in their humanist provenance. But although, or rather because, one finds few parallels from humanist poetry in the commentary (40 odd references, many of them of a general nature, on 190 odd pages full of references to ancient poetry), one has to bear in mind the low degree of focus to which the method employed can lay claim, as regards lack of research on humanist texts or, what is more, lack of decisive or exclusive criteria (why not compare the Odysseus letter with the Renaissance Responsio Vlixis ad Penelopen per Angelum vatem egregium recently pubished by Meckelnborg and Schneider?6). Reasonably, Spieß himself underscores the problematic nature of his argument.

Less meritorious is the fact that Spieß does not interpret these letters as works of art, dubbing them a rhetorical school exercise, while Häuptli found in them "phantasievolle … Reaktionen der Addressaten" (p. 359). Nor does he address the question why the author chose to write these particular three letters. They have a certain charm of their own and merit further interpretation.

The overall production of the book is excellent at a reasonable price. Few typographical errors and oddities (e.g. Latin u instead of v) have escaped an otherwise well executed proofreading.


1.   B. W. Häuptli (ed., tr., comm.): Publius Ovidius Naso, Ibis – Fragmente – Ovidiana. Lateinisch-deutsch. Artemis and Winkler, Zürich 1996 (Sammlung Tusculum), 118-141. 354-374.
2.   B. Geise, Die Tres Epistulae A. Sabini - antik oder humanistisch?, in: Osnabrücker Online – Beiträge zu den Altertumswissenschaften 5, 2001, 1-15.
3.   Christina Meckelnborg, Bernd Schneider (intr., ed., tr., comm.): Odyssea. Responsio Ulixis ad Penelopen. Die humanistische Odyssea decurtata der Berliner Handschrift Diez. B. Sant. 41. K. G. Saur, München, Leipzig 2002 (Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, Bd. 166), reviewed by J. L. Butrica, BMCR 2002.10.21, p. 6.
4.   Spieß p. 21 n. 52 expressly refers to W. Lingenberg, Das erste Buch der Heroidenbriefe. Echtheitskritische Untersuchungen. Ferdinand Schöningh, Paderborn 2003 (Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des Altertums, Neue Folge, 1. Reihe, Bd. 20), reviewed by J. A. Richmond, BMCR 2003.08.17, for priority criticism.
5.   H. Dörrie: Der heroische Brief, 1968, 108-109 resp. 110-111; C. Ritter (ed., tr., comm.): Ovidius redivivus: Die Epistulae Heroides des Mark Alexander Boyd. Edition, Übersetzung und Kommentar der Briefe Atalanta Meleagro (1), Eurydice Orpheo (6), Philomela Tereo (9), Venus Adoni (15). Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim, Zürich, New York 2010.
6.   See footnote number 3.

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