Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.01.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.01.40

M. A. Harder, R. F. Regtuit, G. C. Wakker (ed.), Hellenistic Poetry in Context. Hellenistica Groningana, 20.   Leuven, Paris, Walpole MA:  Peeters, 2014.  Pp. x, 349.  ISBN 9789042929852.  €64.00.  

Reviewed by Robert Lamberton, Washington University in St. Louis (

Table of Contents

This volume represents the proceedings of the tenth biennial Workshop on Hellenistic Poetry at the University of Groningen, held in 2010. As Annette Harder explains in her brief preface, the theme of this workshop, intended to counter the widespread notion of Hellenistic poetry as l'art pour l'art, encouraged participants to "investigate the ways in which Hellenistic poetry, in spite of its special and learned character or rather because the poets were exploiting it, played a part in its social and cultural context" (vi).

The authors of the thirteen papers inevitably vary in their adherence to this theme as well as in their notions of "context" (an issue that often arises in conferences organized along these lines), but the concept is a timely and fruitful one, and the volume contains some genuine advances. Roughly half of the papers set out to situate some aspect of Hellenistic poetry in the context of its original audience—either the social world or the ideology of that audience (or of that of the poetry's royal sponsors). This, broadly speaking, seems to have been the intention of the organizers of the workshop, and so we may start with these (taking them by groups and roughly in order of presentation, which is alphabetical by author).

Stefano Caneva in "Courtly love, stars, and power. The Queen in 3rd-century royal couples, through poetry and epigraphic texts" (25-58) examines the depiction of the royal couple by several poets (Apollonius, Theocritus). Association with Aphrodite proves to smooth the way to cultic honors for Berenice I and later for other (living) Hellenistic queens, but it is the theme of requited love that prevails in the depiction of queens, especially toward the end of the third century, when relative calm and "the search for dynastic stability gave queens, especially in Egypt, an increasingly more powerful role...." (48). Keyne Cheshire ("Callimachus' Hymn 5 and an Alexandrian audience" (59-84) takes a different tack, concentrating on "how an Alexandrian population, composed primarily of first and second generation Greek immigrants from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds, might have received" such a poem (61). The author demands that some well-established preconceptions about the poem and the audience's presumed sympathies be abandoned, but the approach is a promising one and the results worthy of consideration. Andreas Fountoulakis' "The poet and the prophetess: Lycophron's Alexandra in context" (103-124) takes on the familiar question of placing that poem in a specific historic context within the Hellenistic world. Through a lucid review of some familiar givens about the poem, as well as some fresh observations, he argues that its "form and content are to a large extent dependent on the ideological demands of the early Hellenistic world and its Alexandrian political and cultural milieu" (104). At this point, one might have hoped for some reconciliation (or at least a cross reference) to André R. Looijenga's view, argued briefly below (236-237), that the poem's "most likely provenance [is] the Attalid royal court of Pergamon in the first decades of the second century BC." If the Alexandra seems doomed to continue wandering in search of its historical context, Looijenga's essay "The spear and the ideology of kingship in Hellenistic poetry" (217-246), along with Rolf Strootman's "The dawning of a golden age: images of peace and abundance in Alexandrian court poetry in relation to Ptolemaic imperial ideology" (323-339) each contribute to our understanding of the symbolism of power among the Hellenistic kings and "their" poets. Two more papers deal with poetry in search of its historical context in the Hellenistic world. Dee L. Clayman's tightly argued "Historical contexts for two Aitia from Book III: “Acontius and Cydippe” (frr. 67-75 Pf.) and “Phrygius and Pieria” (frr. 80-83 Pf.)" (85-102) looks at those stories and their probable roles within Callimachus' poem. While bound closely to the larger theme of the search for context in Hellenistic poetry, this constitutes a small but important contribution to the ongoing project of reconstructing the organization of Callimachus' Aitia. Jackie Murray's "Anchored in time: The date in Apollonius' Argonautica" (247-284) applies the descriptions of celestial phenomena in the epic to the unresolved question of its date. The indications of the stars (and planets) support her position that "the skyscape of the Argonautica mirrors that above Alexandria in the year of [Ptolemy III's] jubilee" and therefore the epic "must have participated in or at least responded to Ptolemy III's construction of his reign as a new era" (270).

Another group of essays deals with epigraphic poetry, and here the issue is the relationship of epigrams to the context or contexts in which they reach us. Peter Bing's learned and fascinating contribution, "Inscribed epigrams in and out of sequence," (1-24) is concerned with the epigrams of the well-known Daochos dedication in Delphi. The epigrams of this group originate with a single inscription, fragments of which have been found at Pharsalus, which celebrated Hagias as hometown hero — he was a περιοδονίκης, having won victories in all the major Panhellenic games (5). This epigram, with appropriate modifications, found its way (along with a copy of the Lysippan statue set up in Pharsalus) to the monument at Delphi depicting Hagias among the other relatives of Daochos. There it is adapted and "becomes the point of reference for a larger epigram-cycle," (14) which leads the reader/viewer through the illustrious family of Daochos, with repeated references back to the Hagias inscription. This becomes a wonderfully concrete model for the evolution of epigram into cycle and ultimately of the way in which "Hellenistic poets...similarly endeavored to structure their audience's reading" (21). Comparanda demonstrate that the story does not end here: "willful and intractable" readers, including later poets, interact with this process and may decisively change our perceptions of the transmitted poems and groups. Valentina Garulli's "Stones as books: the layout of Hellenistic inscribed poems" (125-170) and Regina Höschele's "Honestus' Heliconian Flowers: Epigrammatic Offerings to the Muses at Thespiai" (171-194) deal with similar issues of the interaction of sets of epigrams on stone and the relationship of such sets to literary collections.

The three remaining essays represent three diverse notions of the contextualization of Hellenistic poetry. The one closest to the social/political core concept discussed above is Jan Kwapisz' "Kraters, Myrtle and Hellenistic Poetry" (195-216). Kwapisz takes the symposium as context and examines the archaeological and textual evidence for significant changes in that institution in the Hellenistic period. The evidence points to "a change in the basic mechanism of the symposium" in the period, implying that "improvisation...was by no means the standard procedure of poetic composition" as it had been in archaic and classical symposia (212). The "performance context" not only for skolia but for recitation of other sorts of poetry as well is "unattested in the Hellenistic period" (208). Ingo Schaaf ("Trick and trade? The Eretrian 'Hymn to the Idaean Dactyls' (IG XII, 9. 259)" [303-322]) revisits that inscription, used prominently by Sandra Blakely1 in her discussion of the origins of metallurgy. The reconsideration of the epigraphic issues involved is certainly timely and interesting, but the advances seem, finally, to be few. Amanda Regan's "'In such a Night': Hellenistic Magic in the Argonautica" (285-302) sets out to put Apollonius' Medea in the specific context of Hellenistic magic by establishing that she can be seen to manifest "the four distinct aspects of the Hellenistic magician" (285). But what exactly establishes this pattern of "the four different facets of a Hellenistic witch" (300)? The author does not tell us clearly just where the defining paradigm comes from, and therefore what authority it has and what is to be gained by looking for it.

The collection as a whole is surely a symposiac feast (or perhaps a generous post-prandial carafe) of scholarship and a welcome addition to the distinguished series it joins. Collectively, the publications of the Workshops on Hellenistic Poetry have become one of the most important vehicles for new and innovative work in this active and productive field within the study of the ancient world. We are all deeply in the debt both of the editors and organizers and of the University of Groningen for bringing them to us.


1.   Blakely, Sandra, Myth, Ritual, and Metallurgy in Ancient Greece and Recent Africa Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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