Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.12.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.12.02

Manuel Baumbach, Silvio Bär (ed.), Brill's Companion to Greek and Latin Epyllion and Its Reception. Brill's companions in classical studies.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2012.  Pp. xxvi, 640.  ISBN 9789004214323.  $258.00.  

Reviewed by Calum Maciver, University of Edinburgh (


Weighing in at 640 pages, this Brill Companion to Epyllion is anything but little. My pickings are, inevitably, slender. The size is, however, perhaps testament to the complexity of the short hexameter poems which together receive the attention of the authors of this volume, and is reflective of the still unresolved question of epyllion as a discrete genre. A glittering array of internationally renowned scholars came together in Zürich in 2009 to discuss epyllion in texts ranging in chronology and variety from the Odyssey to Tam O'Shanter of Scotland's national bard, and with the addition of a few more contributors, this edited collection forms the results.

Essentially, despite the volume's title, this is not a companion, but conference proceedings. If one compares, at random, Brill's Companion to Callimachus, one finds thematic sections, not linear-chronological sections as in this volume, with chapters entitled, for example, The Gods of Callimachus, Callimachus' Muses, or Callimachus and Later Greek Poetry. What is particularly useful about the current volume is that for many texts, such as Triphiodorus, Musaeus, Christodorus, we find large scale articles which will do much to scholarship on these less well-known authors, if less so to an understanding of Epyllion as an entity.

The editors include a succinct but useful introduction to the category epyllion, without giving any unnecessary preamble to the papers which follow. What do they do focus on, as do most of the papers in the collection, is the meaning of epyllion, its coinage, usage and implications as a category or non-category. The editors conclude, tentatively, that as a category there is essentially no ancient idea of epyllion as we know it, but acknowledge the potential usefulness of the term as a modern construct to define a number of texts (and, intertextually, against each other) which are epic-like, short, and which can be characterised by certain criteria which may include, but need not include, traditionally un-heroic themes. The editors are careful not to restrict these definitions to Hellenistic texts where epyllion tends to find its home in modern scholarship. Beyond the introduction, it is refreshing that each author addresses the idea of epyllion and either embraces, adapts or abandons the term's usefulness and function. Given its chronological range, few readers are likely to read this book from cover to cover, but in the volume's essential function as a receptacle for disparate articles on disparate themes and poems, these separate discussions of epyllion as a(n) (non-) entity will prove useful individually, but should be set in each instance against the overview given in the introduction.

The first section (on the history and development of epyllion) consists of three papers, two on the history of classical scholarship, and one on the role of Catullus 64 as primary focus for epyllion in scholarship to date. Both Masciadri and Tilg in their respective contributions delve into the reception and categorization of short epic-like Classical texts in German-speaking scholarship. Both sift through a wide range of German editions of Classical texts from as early as the 18th century. The term epyllion was thought to have been coined by the great Homeric scholar Friedrich August Wolf in 1820, but Tilg proves beyond doubt that, before Wolf, K.D. Ilgen in his edition of the Homeric Hymns in 1796 applied the term to describe the Homeric Hymn to Hermes. Tilg shows that for Ilgen, unlike Wolf in his discussion of the ps.-Hesiodic Scutum, the term is not pejorative, but rather that it stresses the close proximity of a text in nature to the Homeric epics. Tilg then traces the use of the term through nineteenth century literary and scholarly studies, and concludes that the idea of epyllion was broader in its scope than its current definition in scholarship. Importantly, he shows that the origin of the idea was seen in archaic, light-hearted hexameter poems, and not in the Hellenistic period. As the nineteenth century developed, the term came to be applied typically to Catullus 64. On the centrality of that poem in modern understanding of epyllion as applied especially to other Latin poems, Trimble manoeuvres expertly through a range of studies against a preliminary premise that it is 'fair to say that our own working definition of "epyllion" is in fact "a poem that reminds its readers of Catullus 64"' (p. 58). This holds true for many scholars, and indeed Trimble tentatively puts forward a suggestion that Catullus 64, for its complexity of composition, serves as a useful benchmark for other texts which bear similarities to the one we are so readily willing to call the perfect epyllion.

We get two chapters (Hunter, Bierl) on the Song(s) of Demodocus in the section on the Archaic and pre-Hellenistic period, along with two on the Homeric Hymns (Baumbach, Petrovic), and one on the pseudo-Hesiodic shield (Bing). Hunter displays his usual expertise in careful exegesis in his discussion of the three songs of Demodocus, especially the third, on Ares and Aphrodite, in terms of the evident extension and compression of narrative. Bierl's piece is somewhat different, but equally interesting. He acknowledges the legitimacy of reading the Song of Demodocus from a later Hellenistic perspective in order to better understand narrative and poetic functions. He states that smaller scale epic co-existed 'side by side with the one monumental Homer', but holds the view that smaller scale epic, represented by the Song of Demodocus, is the traditional, unmarked, usual epic entertainment (his words) and the longer full-scale Homeric epic is a marked, special case, and that therefore (and this is less convincing) much of what has traditionally been viewed as atypical epic content of the Song of Demodocus is traditional, as belonging to 'previous strata of epic song culture'. Baumbach is incisive in his analysis of the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite as a poem which crosses the boundaries traditionally marked between epic, hymnic and epyllic poetry. His focus in particular on readers’ reception of the text and their identification of its origin within and evolution from the Odyssey, with interesting results for our understanding of epyllion if we do indeed include the hymn within the epyllic compass. Like Baumbach, Petrovic, in a wide-ranging and thought-provoking paper which locates textual analysis within cultural and poetic paradigms, discusses the Homeric hymns, and sees them as important archetypes for Hellenistic epyllia and aesthetics. Bing brings this section to a close with what is essentially a sustained close reading of the pseudo-Hesiodic shield. His discussion of the aesthetics of ecphrasis is especially useful, as is his overview of the reception of the shield in Hellenistic small-scale epic, but his view (pp. 189-190) that its rhapsodic performance could have (re-) ignited a Hellenistic poet's interest in the shield is speculative at best.

The range of texts offered by the section on the Hellenistic period is (surprisingly) not broad, and disappointingly there is no article on Moschus' Europa (though Höschele and esp. Kuhlmann glance in that direction); the section on Latin poetry devotes itself to an even narrower range. Luz begins the Hellenistic section with a study of Pindaric narrative technique as evident in especially Theocritus' mythological poems, and concludes (not unexpectedly) that Theocritus developed from Pindar how to do epyllion. (On a separate note, it is puzzling why Luz defines epyllion as a short hexameter poem with mythical subject if, in her footnote 1, she advocates banishing such a description of epyllion). Gutzwiller's excellent article (it is surprising that her seminal 1981 book on epyllion is not cited more in this volume) has many facets: she focuses in particular on ancient (especially Hellenistic) literary criticism, with particular attention paid to the Hecale. Through lucid linguistic analysis and comparanda she proves that the mega poiema in particular in the scholion to Callimachus' Hymn to Apollo (T1 Hollis, ad 2.106, which states that Callimachus wrote the Hecale in response to taunts that he was incapable of writing a large poem), belongs to the terminology of Callimachus' contemporary critics. Her discussion of poetological or metapoetic signals in the Hecale is entirely convincing. Of the two articles on Theocritus, Acosta-Hughes briefly pursues the figure Heracles in Idylls 17, 24, and 13 (and 25). Thomas Schmitz provides an intriguing reading of ps.-Theocritus 25, combining both philological acumen and insightful literary-theoretical analysis (in the latter category he is surprisingly author-centred at times). He comprehensively demonstrates that the poem is complete as we have it (although it should be pointed out that his seven points to prove this are mostly based on literary, and not material, criteria). He discusses the effects of presupposition as read in the abrupt beginning and section openings of the poem, and ends by looking at possible meta-narrative aspects of Heracles' lion-skin. For Schmitz, these literary techniques make the poem a typically Hellenistic text. Fantuzzi discusses the Epithalamium of Achilles and Deidameia. As he states, there is very little evidence for the poetic history of Achilles at Scyros before Statius, other than this poem. He discusses its date and authorship, and then expertly delves into the programmatic and intertextual implications of the poem (especially the comparison with Polyphemus of Theocritus 11, and the agonistic implications of ti melpso, p. 295, with reference to the breadth of Lycidas' repertory versus the limitations of the Theocritean bucolic singers, particularly Polyphemus).

There are three chapters on authors of the late Republican and Augustan periods. Klooster examines what Parthenius' Erotika Pathemata tell us about epyllion and its generic affiliations, and in particular, what kind of poetry Parthenius, seen as the last of the Alexandrians, may have expected Gallus to write. Within similar restricted parameters, Höschele focuses on the surviving traces of Calvus' Io. Among well-argued but mostly speculative propositions, Höschele's suggestion is convincing in that since Calvus' heroine Io draws her knowledge of forthcoming evils intertextually from her role in Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, she is most likely the speaker (to herself) of fr. 21 Hollis (dira sibi praedicens), along with fr. 20 Hollis, in the context of a prophetic dream. Eigler's short piece on the Orpheus epyllion in Metamorphoses 10 is unfortunately poorly translated from its German original, but makes a clear case for this episode as metapoetically emblematic of the Metamorphoses and its creator.

Tomasso's study of Triphiodorus is so broad (38 pages in total) that it will likely function as a scholarly introduction to the poem, author and literary context (his view that it predates Quintus Smyrnaeus is unlikely, however). Dümmler's treatment of Musaeus is painstakingly detailed, thorough and (therefore) rewarding. A welcome addition to the narrow bibliography on Christodorus is Bär's analysis of ecphrasis, which makes a number of important observations on literary aesthetics and categorisations, and especially welcome conclusions on the jeweled style in later Greek poetry. Kuhlmann ends the section on Imperial literature with a study of Europa in Moschus, Ovid, and Nonnus, and the narratological tension in each text between narrator and narratee.

The volume is end-stopped with chapters on the reception of the (non-) genre in post-Classical literature and scholarship. Passing over the eminently useful discussions on Latin epyllion in the Middle Ages (Cardelle de Hartmann and Stotz) and in neo-Latin literature (Korenjak), I will end in the Scottish Ayrshire countryside. Ewen Bowie, in his familiar and inimitable style, makes the case that Burns, a well-read poet even before his translation to Edinburgh in 1786, most likely had access to a wide range of translations (and if his Latin was up to it, original language) editions of Classical epyllia in the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh. Bowie analyses a range of epyllion-like techniques in Tam O'Shanter from gnomai to ecphrasis, and (rightly) concludes that at least the epyllic material in Vergil Georgics 4 was an influence on this mock-epic.

This is an excellent collection of detailed and at times adventurous studies of a large range of texts. The volume was subjected to excellent editing; the reader, too, will find the massive bibliography and indexes very useful. Typos are minimal (e.g. 'und' p.264, 'disconinuity' p. 266, 'Daphis' p.296 ). The price is absurd.

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