Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.07.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.07.33

Michele Solitario, Leonidas of Tarentum: Between Cynical Polemic and Poetic Refinement. Quaderni dei Seminari romani di cultura greca, 19.   Roma:  Edizioni Quasar, 2015.  Pp. 110.  ISBN 9788871406077.  €31.00.  

Reviewed by Taylor Coughlan, University of Cincinnati (

Michele Solitario’s Leonidas of Tarentum: between Cynical polemic and poetic refinement, a revised and translated version of the author’s tesi di laurea magistrale at La Sapienza – Università di Roma, examines, as his title suggests, the two most well-known aspects of the early Hellenistic epigrammatist’s surviving oeuvre, namely his engagement with Cynic thought and use of elaborate diction in epigrams with humble subject matter. Once characterized as a strict adherent of Cynicism and dismissed for his baroque style, Leonidas has emerged in recent literature as an assured and self-conscious poet, who thoughtfully (and sometimes humorously) engaged with contemporary intellectual and cultural concerns and contributed meaningfully to the aesthetics of Hellenistic poetry. Despite these advances in criticism, Solitario believes that significant “preoccupations or simple evaluations” remain concerning Leonidas’ Cynical outlook and poetic style, “which have hampered the possibility of capturing the cultural richness contained in his epigrams” (1). While Solitario is correct to stress the need for continued critical study of Leonidas’ poetics, starting with a new edition of and commentary on the epigrams, his own contribution is limited by the questions he asks and the approaches he employs.

In addition to a summary introduction, the monograph consists of two chapters and two appendices, followed by a bibliography and three indices.

In Chapter One, “Leonidas on Poverty”, Solitario examines the theme of poverty in the epigrams in relation to (a) Cynic writings on the topic and (b) the “poetical” function of the elaborate diction used to articulate this theme. In Leonidas’ surviving corpus, the simple life, built on contentment with little and an attitude of self-sufficiency (αὐτάρκεια), is championed. Notable on this account are G-P 75, an epitaph for a certain Crethon whose poverty is positively evaluated in comparison to the excessive greed of the Persian king Gyges, and G-P 33, an appeal by a nameless speaker to another man to trade in a wandering life for retirement in a small wooden hut. Contentment with little has been associated traditionally with the influence of Cynic thought on the poet. Reconstructing a Cynic approach to poverty from anecdotes about Diogenes of Sinope from Diogenes Laertius and fragments of the early Hellenistic Cynic philosopher Bion of Borysthenes, Solitario observes that extreme poverty, not simply self-sufficiency, had a moral value. Pointing to several places in Leonidas’ epigrams where poverty (πενία) is described in unwelcome terms or aspects of the Cynic tropos biou are treated with an ironic cast (here especially the two epitaphs for the Cynic Sochares, which Solitario hyperbolically categorizes as “derisive”), Solitario argues that Leonidas cannot be restating or adopting Cynic ideology; rather the sentiment found in these epigrams should be understood as broadly evocative of a general distaste, perhaps grounded in Spartan culture, for luxury. While the abject poverty of Cynic askēsis, as exemplified in the figure of Diogenes, is not paralleled in the surviving epigrams of Leonidas, this should not come as a surprise, since Leonidas is involved in the project of writing poetry not philosophy. Indeed, it has long been recognized that Leonidas is not versifying Cynic precepts, but rather adapting from Cynicism an ethical outlook that champions simplicity. In collecting and discussing the difference between the praise of a litos bios and self-sufficiency in Leonidas’ epigrams and the moral valuation of complete self-depravation in Cynic askēsis, Solitario ably reinforces these findings of previous scholarship; however in the process he fashions a straw man, one who would still believe (as Geffcken once did and then later renounced) that Leonidas was a strict follower of Cynicism, which distorts the history of Leonidean studies on the poet’s engagement with philosophical discourse.1

Solitario is on stronger footing when he addresses the uncritical dismissal of Leonidas’ poetic style, famously his choice to juxtapose elaborate diction with poor or banausic subject matter. While the pronouncements of Wilamowitz and of Gow and Page (cited passim as only “Gow”) undoubtedly impacted Leonidas’ reception as a mere virtuoso versifier for several generations, in recent decades his stylistic choices have undergone favorable re-evaluation in terms of a Hellenistic penchant for the combination of low and high styles and a fascination with the poor and grotesque. Again, Solitario sidesteps, downplays, or ignores these scholarly developments, in the service of his argument that Leonidas’ stylistic choices are integral to the expression of his thoughts on poverty. Solitario focuses his attention on the language Leonidas used to describe a life of self-sufficiency with some success. Among summaries of previous scholarly exegesis, a practice that belies this work’s origins and which would have been better relegated to the footnotes, the author offers several valuable new readings of diction. In an epitaph for the elderly subsistence farmer Cleiton (G-P 87), for instance, Solitario nicely observes that the anaphora of the adjective ὀλίγος “stresses the limited dimension of the place where Cleiton spent his long life, emphasizing the contrast between the narrow spatial extension of his surroundings and the extended temporal dimension, which the peasant lived through on his little patch of earth” (25).

Chapter Two, “Leonidas on Work”, examines the theme and language of work in a similar fashion to poverty in the preceding chapter. Leonidas wrote a number of epigrams, primarily dedicatory and sepulchral, for members of the lower echelons of Hellenistic society, such as weavers, carpenters, hunters, and fishermen. Previous scholars have associated the preoccupations of his surviving corpus with Cynicism, given its valuation of manual labor and banausic craft. Solitario questions the specific philosophical underpinnings of these epigrams. He begins the chapter with a survey of the epigrams on carpenters, weavers, hunters, and fishermen. This section focuses on the structure and language of the epigrams. Composed almost as a running commentary, Solitario summarizes the content of the epigram and lists the notable features of its diction. Although repetitive in places, he convincingly notes that, in those epigrams that contain lists of dedicated implements, the elaborate adjectives (whether drawn from Homeric antecedents or neologisms) paired with the tools of humble trades are not mere ornamentation, but rather often invite the reader to imagine the now silenced tools in action. In this way he echoes and expands upon the observations of Kathryn Gutzwiller (uncited in this context), who noted of εὐαγέα (“bright”) modifying ῥυκάνον (“plane”) that the adjective was welcome, contra Gow and Page, if the reader imagines the glint of the plane in movement from the perspective of the artisan.2 In the remaining sections, Solitario again challenges the traditional assumption that Leonidas’ interest in the nobility of lower-class craftsmen derives from Cynic influences. Rightfully rejecting Gigante’s politicization of craftsmen as figures of social revolt and democratization, 3 Solitario emphasizes that while Cynics, following in the footsteps of Socrates, favorably valued manual labor, they considered hard work only as a step towards attaining virtue. In the epigrams of Leonidas, however, he argues that work has no explicit moral value; rather it was a means of escaping poverty. In place of a strong Cynic influence (Leonidas does not even mirror the same types of craft praised by Diogenes!), Solitario unconvincingly suggests that the cultural context of Leonidas’ native Tarentum was the major factor in his preoccupation with the lives of the lower-class.

This final point brings us to the least persuasive aspect of Solitario’s approach to the select epigrams of Leonidas he treats: the use of a biographical reading. Throughout, Solitario naively identifies the voice and circumstances in the epigrams under discussion with the historical figure of Leonidas. From a decidedly programmatic self-epitaph (G-P 93), Solitario extrapolates that Leonidas was banished from Tarentum and eventually died in exile abroad after a life of penury and itinerancy. Nowhere does the author acknowledged that there can be a distinction between the historical identity of the poet and the poetic persona(e) he fashions within individual epigrams or across a sequence or collection; indeed, Solitario altogether disregards the impact of generic conventions on the content, structure, and language of the epigrams he discusses. In the case of this self-epitaph, for example, it has been correctly observed that Leonidas is constructing his poetic identity through, in part, comparison to the Greek wanderer par excellence Odysseus. Indeed, the absence of discussion of Odysseus, a Cynic figure, is glaring, especially given Leonidas’ knowledge of and engagement with Homeric diction.4

The monograph concludes with two appendices, which are not referenced in the body of the main text. The first appendix, “The concept of τῦφος: a possible Cynic element in Leonidas’ poetry”, examines in detail the textually compromised G-P 67, on the brevity of life and the necessity of contentment with little. The epigram is often cited as the clearest expression of Cynic thought in Leonidas. τῦφος, often translated as “pride”, was a state of mind to be avoided for Cynics, and it is clear how this concept could be related to Leonidas’ epigram. Solitario rightly concludes that “Leonidas might have been familiar with the Cynic concept of tuphos”, but in celebrating the ability of the Muses to preserve his memory in perpetuity, the poet remains prideful and thus “strips [τῦφος] of its most extreme features.” Again, however, we find the Leonidas of a “Cynic cast” (Clayman 2007, 497) argued for in previous scholarship. The second, shorter appendix, “Cynic bios and Pythagorean bios”, compares characterizations of Cynics and Pythagoreans in fourth and early third-century BCE literature, particularly Middle Comedy. Similarities reinforce the conclusion that philosophical content and qualities of Leonidas’ verse are not strictly Cynic in origin.

In the final analysis, Solitario reconfirms much of what we have perceived to be Leonidas’ engagement with contemporary philosophical thought and continues to advance our understanding of his poetic style, but ultimately the monograph is limited by its dedication to biographical readings and a failure to consider the content and style of the epigrams within their wider generic context.

Solitario should be commended for translating his tesi into English, and thus making it available to a wider readership. A few infelicities of usage are present (e.g. “The production of Leonidas”, 1; “The Cynics revalued . . . manual work”, 70), but none that detract from the overall clarity of expression and argumentation. Typos are relatively few as well.5 Formatting is another issue; quotations both within the main body of the text and the footnotes are inconsistently italicized and there is no standard pattern of translation when citing Greek besides the quotation of epigrams, with some small phrases receiving translation while long passages of prose remain untranslated (e.g. Teles 2.7-8 Fuentes González at p.19 n. 62).


1.   Besides Geffcken (Leonidas von Tarent. Jahrbücher für classische Philologie suppl. 23, Leipzig 1896), who argues that Leonidas’ epigrams depict the poet’s initiation into Cynicism (which the author later retracted in his RE article [XII.2, 2023]), the major treatments of the topic all recognize that Leonidas is not espousing strict, systematic Cynic thought; see e.g. M. Gigante, L’edera di Leonidea (Naples 1971), 45-55; K. J. Gutzwiller, Poetic Garlands: Hellenistic Epigrams in Context (Berkeley, 1998), 103-8; and D. L. Clayman, “Philosophers and Philosophy in Greek Epigram” in P. Bing and J. S. Bruss (eds.), Brill’s Companion to Hellenistic Epigram (Leiden 2007), 509-12.
2.   Gutzwiller 1998 (n. 1), 92 n. 111.
3.   Gigante 1971 (n. 1), 55-66.
4.   On Odysseus as a Cynic hero, see R. Höistadt, Cynic hero and Cynic king (Uppsala, 1948), 97-8; S. Montiglio, Wandering in Ancient Greek Culture (Chicago, 2005), 187-203; and S. Montiglio, From Villain to Hero: Odysseus in Ancient Thought (Ann Arbor, 2011), 29-31 and 66-73. On the Homeric echoes in this particular epigram, see K. J. Gutzwiller, “Catullus and the Garland of Meleager” in I. Du Quesnay and T. Woodman (eds.), Catullus: Poems, Books, Readers (Cambridge, 2012), 105-7, and C. Campbell, “Poets and Poetics in Greek Literary Epigram” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cincinnati, 2014).
5.   See, e.g., “Gigante 1976” for “Gigante 1971” (15 n. 48); “Apart of Weinreich 1938” for “Apart from Weinreich 1938” (15 n. 48); “e” for “and” in “ὀλιγαῦλαξ e ὀλιγόξυλος” (25; see again at 27 n. 93); “he considered it natural asking money” for “he considered it natural to ask for money” (34 n. 121); “the use of refined expression and rare epithets is . . .” (86).

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