Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.11

Valéry Berlincourt, Commenter la Thébaïde (16e-19e s.): Caspar von Barth et la tradition exégétique de Stace. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 354.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2013.  Pp. xiii, 787.  ISBN 9789004207110.  $314.00.  

Reviewed by Antony Augoustakis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (


For students, critics, and especially modern commentators of Statius’ oeuvre, Valéry Berlincourt’s monograph on the exegetical tradition of the Thebaid, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, fills a huge gap: not only is this the first systematic study of the early commentators on Statius’ epic, but it is also the most complete. From a personal point of view, it has helped me immensely in my commentary work on Statius’ eighth book. As an indispensable guide to often difficult and perplexing passages, it offers superb analysis of the multi-layered world of Statian scholia through the ages, with a specific focus on Caspar von Barth, whose complete commentary of Statius’ poems still features prominently in every study of the Neapolitan poet. In recent years, even a cursory look at this list’s reviews reveals the extraordinary surge in monographs and volumes on Flavian poetry, in particular epic; commentaries on individual books of Valerius Flaccus, Silius Italicus, and Statius are being produced annually, but with less emphasis on the reception of the poems per se. What perhaps comes closer to Berlincourt’s work is Harald Anderson’s three volumes on the manuscript tradition of Statius (BMCR 2011.04.31). Berlincourt’s method in this monumental study is carefully outlined and clarified in the Introduction, where the author states that he aims to analyze and contextualize the various early modern commentaries and editions, by explaining the specific choices made by several of these commentators: namely, to discuss how the commentators and editors respond to Statius’ epic (42).1

The volume is divided in two parts after the Introduction: the first part serves as a detailed diachronic overview of the various commentators on Statius, beginning with Lactantius Placidus and the corpus of ancient scholia, through the extensive and influential work of philologists and editors, such as Gronovius, Barth, as well as Amar and Lemaire; in the second part Berlincourt surveys specific topics of the “discours exégétique,” such as the lemmatization, glosses, language and style, poetic composition, the various realia, and the moral message of the poem as explained through the notes. After the conclusion, in an unparalleled, systematic manner Berlincourt offers an eighteen-page list of his sources, that is, the annotated editions consulted (chronologically and with indication of language in which the scholia/translations are found), as well as an extensive bibliography. Equally indispensable are the four indices: the first, Index Notarum, lists all scholia mentioned and discussed in the book, per work (from Lactantius to Nisard, Arnould, and Wartel) and per locus; a shorter Index Locorum lists all Statian passages discussed without specific reference to annotations; and the last two are the conventional Index Nominum and Index Rerum.

The first part of the monograph begins with a quick statement about the utility and purpose of the section: it can serve as a reference for those students of Statian exegesis interested in particular commentators and editors. As such it provides biographical information on the individuals, their work, the purpose of their books on Statius’ oeuvre, an overview of the framework and set-up of the commentaries or notes, and their sources. Berlincourt starts with the corpus of scholia attributed to Lactantius Placidus, abbreviated as LP (or Lu(c)tatius, as Barth calls the author), from the second half of the fourth century CE (quickly enriched thereafter), rediscovered in the fourteenth century. Then we move on to the sixteenth century Italian translation in Venice by Erasmo di Valvasone, annotated by “Pietro Targa,” that is, Cesare Pavesi. The first commentator of the poem, however, Johannes Bernartius (1595) offers a good example of the cultural and societal context within which the edition with Latin notes was produced: Antwerp during Counter-Reformation. Bernartius offers a utilitarian reading of Statius, common in the period, emphasizing its moral message. John Barcley’s work (1601) is less known: it focuses mostly on the first four books (commentarii, less so on the following four (notae), and excluding the last tetrad altogether; the notes are limited to paraphrasing, with the exception of geographic, mythological, and religious references, which are fully explained with parallels from other ancient authors. Emericus Cruceus (1620) provides substantial notes on the epic, with a polemical tone towards his predecessors and contemporaries: he is also interested in ancient religious practices, as well as military references, even though posterity will by and large ignore Cruceus’ contributions. Thomas Stephens’ London translation of 1648 offers explanatory notes on a lesser scale than his predecessors’ work.

The first major philologist to publish notes on Statius Thebaid is Johann Friedrich Gronovius (Amsterdam, 1653). As Berlincourt aptly notes, a look at any modern apparatus criticus of Statius’ poem will quickly reveal Gronovius’ lasting legacy (94). Emendation is a priority for Gronovius, and often haste mars his work with mistakes and shortcomings. The French translation of Marolles (1658) is examined next: Marolles claims to draw from the critical works of François Guyet and Jean de Peyrarède.

With Caspar von Barth, Berlincourt enters the most important section in this chapter (114-40): Barth was a monstrum ingenii according to his professor Friedrich Taubmann. Barth’s monumental commentary was published posthumously by his close friend Christian Daum (Zwickau, 1664-65). Without doubt, Barth is a polymath: his works include commentaries on a plethora of ancient authors (Musaeus, Petronius, Pliny) down to late Christian authors as well (Claudian, Aeneas of Gaza, St. Gall). Berlincourt, with good reason, believes that Barth had been at work on his commentary (animadversiones) since the 1630s, before the appearance of Gronovius’. One of the most intriguing aspects of Barth’s oeuvre is his reference to the umbrella of vetera scholia (abbreviated as V.S.), which are not necessarily ancient glosses or scholia but could sometimes be Barth’s own: as Barth explains, he does not wish to appropriate any note as his own, and therefore, to avoid the accusation of plagiarism, he attributes the notes he had consulted to the V.S., especially since the task of distinguishing between what he took from manuscripts and previous works on Statius would have been arduous and quite impossible, given the longevity of the project (“son matériel préparatoire était désordonné,” 127; consider also the fire in his library in 1636).

From Johannes Veenhusen’s edition (1671), Berlincourt passes to examining Claudius Beraldus’ edition in the well-known series Ad usum Delphini (1685), whose “continuous” commentary exercises great influence on subsequent editors and commentators through the nineteenth century. Several translations are surveyed next, such as those by Walter Harte (1727) in English and by Cornelio Bentivoglio d’Aragona (notes by Filippo Argelati, 1731-32), as well as by William Lewis (1767), one of the most famous early renderings of the poem. The Milanese (1782-88) and Venetian (1786) editions are followed by John Valpy’s and George Dyer’s 1824 edition in London, a mere reproduction of Beraldus’ notes with the addition of variae lectiones.

One of the most significant editions of the poem (and one still used by commentators) was published in the series Bibliotheca classica latina by Nicolas-Eloi Lemaire, with the assistance of Jean-Augustin Amar du Rivier in 1825-30 (commonly referred to as “Amar-Lemaire,” even though Lemaire seemed to have been the leading collaborator, at least concerning Statius’ epics).

Finally, the chapter closes with the translation in French by Louis Achaintre and Marc-Lucien Boutteville (1829-32) and Désiré Nisard (with Arnould and Wartel, 1842), as well as the editions by Wilhelm Weber (1833) and Friedrich Dübner (1835- 36), with discussion of the use of their predecessors’ commentaries and editions.

In the Introduction to the second part of the volume, Berlincourt explains that he will look at the various commentators and editors while trying to explain the wider context in which each was writing, from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, especially the influence of humanistic exegesis and the various historical and social backgrounds in each case (e.g., Counter-Reformation). From the sixteenth century onwards, pedagogical and educational aims began to be combined with an interest in explaining the precise nature of ancient cultural practices, as well as in drawing lessons for the contemporary world. As an outcome of such efforts, the form of “commentary” is privileged during the period, with its limitations but also its display of “polymathie.” A significant precursor of the model is found in the medieval excerpta and florilegia.

In the chapter titled “Texte,” Berlincourt examines the arrangement of the lemmata in the various commentaries (with a special focus on Barth’s), be they original lemmata or copied and reproduced ones (often enriched or simply consolidated) by later authors. In the commentaries and editions surveyed, the question of establishing an authoritative text is often addressed, especially by Barth, who commonly resorts to his optimus codex, sometimes with mixed results. In addition, editors often zealously engage in excision of verses from the text.

The following chapter (“Sens littéral”) engages with the efforts on the part of the commentators to explain the text at hand (that is, to provide “éclaircissements,” “clarifications”). Berlincourt is interested in the types of explanatory notes provided and the strategy behind how the editors chose their explanations and how they facilitate the understanding of Statius’ poem for their prospective reader. One mechanism in place is the reformulation of the verse, as Lactantius often does, verbum pro verbo, perhaps by providing a synonym. Another method is to paraphrase, that is, not just to rearrange the words, but provide a free translation of the verse (and Berlincourt offers a plethora of examples here). Finally, the note can shed light on specific aspects of the language and meaning by identifying an object or the name of a god, as is often the case with various geographical references, for the unpacking of which the reader would really need the commentator’s help. In “Langue et style,” Berlincourt turns to an investigation of the commentary notes pertaining to Statius’ language and style: the linguistic notes are often prescriptive and descriptive, that is, they offer synonyms to various words or a paraphrase of the meaning of the word itself; sometimes, the editors, especially Barth, address a metrical irregularity or a Graecism in the syntax. Berlincourt’s discussion of the use of figures of speech in the notes is particularly interesting.

In the chapter titled “Oeuvre,” the author examines the function of cultural explanations offered by the commentators in the context of the utilitarian aspect of such works: what lesson is the reader to take away from the ancient works? To delve into the ancient sources from which Statius draws and to quote these directly, as Barth often does, helps the reader of the note understand the wider context or mythological reference, to which Statius alludes in an elliptical manner. It is fascinating that Barth, for instance, a true polymath, often quotes from late antique and medieval authors to shed light on a specific passage of the Thebaid, and as such he is ahead of his time in clearly identifying the reception of the Flavian poet by later authors.

The seventh chapter (“Antiquités et Realia”) treats the parallelisms drawn between Statius’ poetic world and the contemporary world of the scholiasts, especially since the commentators are called to provide exegesis on a Latin poem set in Greece. In explaining ancient geography, customs, and rituals, commentators often draw from contemporary works, as they try to locate, for instance, the ancient places in modern cities. Special attention is being paid here to religious rites and the treatment of military techniques and tactics, as these issues very commonly attract the interest of commentators.

In the final chapter (“Valeurs”), Berlincourt examines how the various scholiasts strive to find a moral message conveyed through Statius’ poem, one that resonates with their intended readership. Already in Ps.-Fulgentius’ twelfth centurySuper Thebaiden one finds an allegorical interpretation of the Flavian poem (Soul, Vices, God). The various sententiae in the poem lend themselves to such an interpretation, of course.

Berlincourt’s work has done a great favor to all critics and students of Statius’ poem, readers who do not necessarily have access to a wide variety of early editions and commentaries: the book guides the reader through the often complex early modern tradition of notes on the Thebaid, while it introduces us to the “politics” of glossing a Latin poem 1,500 years after its production, as well as to the history of its reception. This indispensable volume is therefore highly recommended for its breadth of vision and execution; Berlincourt proves to be as much of a polymath and polyhistor as the authors he examines in his monograph.


1.   Berlincourt uses Hill’s 1996 second edition of the poem (Brill), but he notes that the 2007-2008 edition by Hall, Ritchie, and Edwards has been consulted extensively (BMCR 2010.04.10).

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