Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.08.53 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.53

Antony Augoustakis (ed.), Flavian Poetry and its Greek Past. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Roman language and literature, 366.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2014.  Pp. xxi, 453.  ISBN 9789004266483.  $209.00.  

Reviewed by Peter Davis, University of Adelaide (


This collection of papers arises from a conference entitled ‘Flavian Literature and its Greek Past’ held at Delphi in July 2012. Edited by Antony Augoustakis, a scholar well known for important work on Flavian epic, the volume contains chapters by an exemplary blend of senior and younger scholars from a variety of European countries as well as the USA and Australia. All papers are in English. Particularly striking (and entirely appropriate) is the preponderance of essays on epic poetry (fifteen out of nineteen), with Valerius Flaccus being the clear winner among the epicists and over all (seven chapters).

Augoustakis’ Introduction meets its generic requirements. First, it outlines the rationale for the volume’s existence (p. 2): ‘Undoubtedly, the Flavian authors engage in a fruitful dialogue with the literature produced in Greece from the Homeric epics through the archaic period to the classical age and the Hellenistic period’. The claim is clearly sound and a collection devoted to the topic is highly desirable. Second, it introduces the chapters that constitute the volume.

Arianna Sacerdoti’s first chapter presents a typological study of sleep and sleeplessness, beginning with an examination of the intertextual relationships between relevant passages in all four Flavian epics and the Iliad and Odyssey and concluding with a discussion of literary sleeplessness in Statius’ Siluae.

Part II, devoted to Valerius Flaccus, opens with Darcy Krasne’s essay on the connections between Valerius and his Hellenistic predecessors Aratus and Apollonius of Rhodes. Central to Krasne’s argument is the claim that ‘the earlier poetic versions of the Argo become the literal material, not just the literary material, used to build that poetic craft’ (p. 34). While at first sight this claim seems puzzling, it is warranted by Krasne’s focus on what happens to the Argo’s timbers in all three authors. Of particular interest is Krasne’s argument that ‘the potential for civil war is inherent in her [Argo’s] construction’ (p. 47).

Cristiano Castelletti examines the Valerian Argonautica’s relationship with Aratus. The focus of the argument is Valerius’ use of acrostics. That Virgil employed an acrostic when alluding to Aratus is well established (see Richard Thomas’s discussion in his commentary on Georgics 1.427-37). We should therefore not be surprised to find Valerius’ using an acrostic when alluding to Phaenomena and elsewhere. Castelletti’s discussion is highly ingenious and (I think) persuasive.

Simone Finkmann analyses ‘the key similarities and differences in the use of collective and representative speeches and collective “conversational silence”’ (p. 73) in Apollonius of Rhodes and Valerius. Finkmann reaches a number of interesting conclusions. Her analysis underlines important differences in the ways the two crews perceive their leaders: for the Hellenistic Argonauts Heracles is the irreplaceable hero, for the Romans it is Tiphys. Further, where Valerius has equivalents for the speeches of individuals in Apollonius, he has no counterpart for any collective speech.

Although Marco van der Schuur focuses on a brief episode, the deaths and common funeral of Idmon and Tiphys at 5.1-62, he confronts a broader question in Valerian scholarship: does Valerius confidently restructure the inherited tradition or does he undermine the reader’s attempt to make sense of allusions to poetic predecessors? Van der Schuur reads Valerius as employing the first technique with Apollonius and the second with Virgil. I do have a minor quibble: the Flavian Argonautica is not a nostos epic (e.g. p. 98), because it is not concerned with returning home (after all, that is what nostos means ). Carey Seal proposes that ‘Valerius offers a unique reconciliation of the first-ship and Apollonian views of the Argo’s place in human history and that he uses the question of civil war as his platform for doing so’ (p. 116). The great strength of this paper is its demonstration of the pervasiveness of the theme of civil war in the Valerius’ poem.

Daniela Galli’s chapter aims to show that ‘in addition to Apollonius, Valerius Flaccus knows Dionysius Scytobrachion’s version of the Argonautica and that he exploits both accounts to construct his own narrative’ (p. 139). To this end she compares a number of episodes in Books 1 and 2 with the account given in Diodorus Siculus, whose version of events made use of Dionysius.

The final Valerius chapter, by Irene Mitousi, looks at the Argonautica as an ideological epic. Mitousi’s central claim is that ‘the innovative voyage of the Argo stands for the Flavian dynastic enterprise’ and speaks of ‘the interchangeability between the voyage of the Argo and Vespasian’s reign’ (p. 155). Mitousi notes Valerius’ apparent obsession with tyrants and reads this as ‘part of Vespasian’s anti-Neronian propaganda’ (p.160). She reads the monster theme as ‘sanctioning not only the Argonautic expedition but the Flavian enterprise too, presenting both as restorers of order and agents of a new era’ (p. 163). While I am in favour of political readings, I have problems with this one. First, Mitousi’s reading depends on a Vespasianic date. While this may be basically right, the case needs to be made. After all, Valerius refers twice to the eruption of Vesuvius, a famously post-Vespasianic event. Second, the fact that Jason’s voyage brings Medea to Greece certainly makes him an ‘agent of a new era’, but it hardly makes him a ‘restorer of order’.

The four essays in the Statian section examine all of Statius’ oeuvre. Jörn Soerink considers the relationship between Thebaid and Euripides’ Hypsipyle. Soerink argues that Statius did know the Euripidean play and that he incorporated its plot into his narrative (p. 177). Having established that there are indeed intertextual connections, Soerink turns to the differences, the most of important of which is the greater prominence that Statius gives to Lycurgus over his wife Eurydice.

Jean-Michel Hulls’s essay focuses on Thebaid and Siluae. Beginning with the Siluae, Hulls emphasises Statius’ ‘Romanizing’ of his Greek poetic inheritance (p. 199). In considering the Thebaid, Hulls examines the epic’s connections with the cyclic Thebais and Greek tragedy, particularly Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus and Euripides’ Phoenissae and Supplices, arguing that Statius takes over Athens in order to ‘express a very Roman and Flavian set of political themes’ (p. 213).

Federica Bessone’s essay deals with all three Statian works, analysing programmatic passages from the two epics in relation to Siluae. Bessone argues that Statius’ ‘different poetic forms appear to be connected by a common trait: the claim to the social status of the poet as such and of the prestige due to him, whatever, performance he offers to the audience’ (p. 215). In Bessone’s view Statius claims a Greek as well as a Roman and Neapolitan identity. She pays particular attention to the proem to the Achilleid where Statius speaks of himself as a Theban poet and to Statius’ self- representation as Amphion in all three works.

In the final paper on Statius, Pavlos Sfyroeras examines Statius’ exploitation of a famous Homeric simile (Iliad 4.141-7) in the Achilleid. Sfyroeras highlights Statius’ exploitation of the gender ambiguities inherent in Homer’s comparison of Menelaus’ wound (blood on flesh) to a woman staining a cheek piece for horses (scarlet on ivory).

Part IV presents four essays on Silius. Evangelos Karakasis examines the opposition between Fabius and Hannibal in Punica 7, arguing that Fabius is modeled on Domitian and that Hannibal is presented as an enemy of Domitian (p. 266). Karakasis combines tortuous writing with simplistic argument. Consider this sentence: ‘The Homeric intertext is, therefore, often interweaved [sic] and diffracted through the prism of a parallel reading of Virgilian, Lucanean, and Statian passages, chiefly “window references”1 to the Homeric intertexts of the Silian passages in question (e.g. Silian night raid = Statian Thiodamas’ attack and Hopleus and Dymas incident = Virgilian Nisus-Euryalus attack = Homeric Doloneia / Silian Hannibal = Lucan’s Caesar = Virgilian Turnus = Homeric Achilles)’ (p. 264). While I find the sentence difficult to follow, I have to reject those equal signs. Virgilian Turnus, for example, does not equal Homer’s Achilles.

Joy Littlewood examines Silius’ use of the feast in Punica 11 as a vehicle for the exploration of such moral themes as ‘the evils of the tyrannical use of power and the dangers of luxuria’ (p. 285). She pays particular attention to the double structure of Hannibal’s feast and to his exploitation of the two sense of fides,, both loyalty and lyre.

Michiel van der Keur takes on Silius’ encomium of Homer in Punica 13, arguing, first, that Silius presents Scipio as an epic hero like Achilles, but in the style of Alexander, and, second, that he suggests his own status as a Roman successor to Homer: he is the Romanus Homerus (pp. 292-3). The argument is well made. I note, however, that van der Keur translates hic at 13.782 as ‘Homer’. While this is correct in the context, the translation prompts a question: why does Silius not name Homer in Book 13 when he is willing to name Ennius in Book 12?

Marco Fucecchi views the Punica as a meditation on kingship in the Greek tradition. He too emphasises the importance of the Homeric poems and considers Homer’s role in the nekyia in Punica 13. But Fucecchi also stresses the role of Cicero’s thought particularly when it comes to Silius’ representation of ‘Scipio at the Crossroads’, concluding that ‘Scipio Africanus is chosen by Silius as the ancient precursor of the ciuilis kingship’ (p. 323).

The volume closes with three papers on Martial. Margot Neger is concerned to establish the importance of the Greek epigrammatic tradition for Martial’s literary program, despite the fact that he evokes his Latin predecessors repeatedly but seems to ignore the Greeks (p. 330). Neger argues that it is through allusion to writers like Callimachus, Lucillius and Parmenion that Martial engages with his Greek predecessors on metaliterary matters.

Robert Cowan takes up a complex issue that others have avoided, the reception of Alexandrian literature in Flavian poetry. Cowan argues that ‘Flavian poets were influenced by Hellenistic poets, by the Roman poets who had received them, and by the very mode of that reception’ (p. 346). That complexity he views as an opportunity and not just a problem. Cowan focuses primarily on 10.4, in which Martial advises against so-called hackneyed subjects (actually the subjects of Flavian epic and Senecan tragedy) and urges the study of Callimachus’ Aetia, and 1.92, in which he alludes to Catullus’ Furius and Aurelius cycle and the Aetia.

The collection closes with Ana Maria Lóio’s discussion of Martial’s treatment of the talking book and its connection with Hellenistic traditions. Lóio focuses primarily on 14.83 and 10.1. Reading 14.183 as a couplet spoken not by the Martial but by the pseudo-Homeric epic, the Battle of Frogs and Mice, results in a poem in which Homer, as a writer of nugae, becomes Martial’s predecessor. For Martial, like Callimachus, who had also professed admiration of pseudo-Homeric poetry, brief works are the ones that have value. Lóio compares 10.1 with the preface to Ovid’s Amores. While the poems are linked as introducing second versions, they differ in their attitude to brevity: while Ovid has shortened his collection, Martial declines to do so. After all, bad readers can skip poems.

This volume serves two important purposes. First, it demonstrates the importance of Flavian engagement with Greek literature and thought even where we might least expect it, in writers like Silius and Martial. Second, it testifies to the vitality of the study of Flavian literature in contemporary Latin studies. These major poets are finally receiving the scrutiny and appreciation that they deserve.2


1.   For discussion of the ‘window allusion’ readers should consult Cowan’s essay in this volume (esp. 347-9).
2.   One final observation: some contributors quote Loeb translations. In my view this is an acceptable practice in some circumstances. The Loeb translators, however, should be acknowledged.

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