Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.06.12 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.06.12

Christos K. Tsagalis, Early Greek Epic Fragments I: Antiquarian and Genealogical Epic. Trends in Classics. Supplementary Volumes, 47.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2017.  Pp. x, 477.  ISBN 9783110531534.  $149.99.  

Reviewed by Ronald Blankenborg, Radboud University Nijmegen (

Early Greek Epic Fragments I: Antiquarian and Genealogical Epic (EGEF) is the 47th instalment in the rapidly growing De Gruyter series Trends in Classics – Supplementary Volumes (TCSV). Tsagalis has written more monographs (no. 1) and edited volumes (no. 7, 12, and 50) for the Supplementary Volumes, according to the publisher’s website a series that aims to publish ‘innovative, interdisciplinary work which brings to the study of Greek and Latin texts the insights and methods of related disciplines such as narratology, intertextuality, reader-response criticism, and oral poetics’. Early Greek Epic Fragments I fits in well: Tsagalis strives to counter a ‘pressing need in the field of fragmentary epic poetry’, in this case by providing ‘a running commentary’ (p. 1) on antiquarian and genealogical epic, the last of which was published nearly a century ago. Other specimens of early Greek hexametric poetry have been covered with running commentaries in recent years.1 The antiquarian and genealogical fragments themselves have been collated in the last three decades by Bernabé, Davies, and West.2 For his edition of the running commentary, Tsagalis has edited the relevant fragments again, and provided a useful Comparatio Numerorum with the editions by Kinkel, 3 Bernabé, Davies, and West (pp. 475-477). And more is to be expected, not just from the number in the current title under review (Fragments I), but also from forthcoming work by, among others, Obbink, Cardin, and Pontani that Tsagalis had access to. That all these studies are more than welcome becomes clear from the number of times Tsagalis still has to refer to, and cite from, nineteenth-century publications on early Greek hexametric poetry and the Epic Cycle.

EGEF provides, and comments on, a total of 98 fragments from and on pieces of antiquarian and genealogical epic, both from direct (the Papyrus Ibscher and the Tabulae Iliacae) and indirect tradition (e.g. in the works of Apollodorus, Athenaios, Favorinus, Pausanias, and in the scholia), but with the exclusion of testimonies (which are given as an introduction to the fragments): nineteen fragments concern Eumelos’ Titanomachy, seventeen his Korinthiaka, five the Europeia by the same author, five the poet Kinaithon, thirteen Asios, one fragment Hegesinous and Chersias respectively. Other fragments have been catalogued by title of the poem: three concern the Danais, thirteen the Carmen Naupactium, seven the Minyas, and eight the Phoronis. The six remaining fragments are assigned to an incertum carmen (Eum. Fr. 32 and Fr. 33 ‘more likely’ to the Korinthiaka, p. 153, 154, Eum. Fr. 36 ‘more plausibly’ to the Europeia, p. 168 n. 699) and fortasse ad Titanomachiam by Eumelos, the only poet represented with more than one poem in the overview.

The presentation of the material follows the collation of fragments by author or poem. First, the relevant fragments by poet or poem are listed, then the running commentary follows. The commentary is organized in a strict format. First, Tsagalis presents the material pertaining to the life of the author of the given epic, and to its title. The next section, ‘sources’, offers an overview of the extent to which the poem was known in antiquity, and the particular period it became more popular. Subsequently, the poem’s plot is dealt with. Tsagalis has a warning here (‘Reconstructing the plot of a fragmentary archaic epic is not easy’, p. 13), but argues that reconstruction ‘is essential for the ordering of the fragments, the discussion of the size of the poem and the extent of material it covered, as well as its interpretation’.4 He chooses to follow the advice of R. Wagner (quoted with modifications by West 2013 op. cit. in footnote 1): ‘In any attempt at reconstruction we must seek above all to attain a lively conception of how the available dry data about the content may have looked in the broad treatment of the poem itself. […] We must be guided in this by our knowledge of epic compositional technique as we see it in the Homeric poems, while recognizing that the Cyclic epics were less expansive and may have been in some respects less accomplished’ (p. 51 West, p. 14 Tsagalis).5 Following the reconstruction of the plot, we find sections on the style of the poem (issues pertaining to the way the central topic of the epic is carried out, and its literary qualities), and on the date of composition. Occasionally, and where deemed relevant, a section on ‘Diction and meter’ is added; in the commentary on the Phoronis, there is a section on ‘Reception’ (p. 410). The final section on each poet or poem, the larger part of the commentary, is devoted to detailed analysis of each fragment. Unavoidably, much of the information and references provided is repeated several times in the body of the text and in the footnotes, but this reviewer, despite reading the full text instead of using EGEF as a sourcebook, found the repetition useful rather than disturbing.

With his own warning in mind, Tsagalis takes his readers on a fascinating tour around some of the earliest Greek epic fragments. Despite the sometimes rather speculative character of the reconstructions and expansions, one cannot help but be carried away in awe by the convincingly argued overviews of storylines and plots, the meticulously reconstructed family trees (with abundant input from the mythographers), and the overwhelming details from the comparison of the fragments presented with the Homeric epic, other fragmentary (cyclic) epic, and testimonia. Especially stimulating examples are the excursus (within the context of Eumelos’ Titanomachy) on the reasons behind the start of the panoramic account with a theogony by ‘the person who organized the Epic Cycle in the late classical period’ (Eum. Fr. 6, pp. 58-61), on the order of the contests in the first Isthmian games (Eum. Fr. 23, pp. 108-119), and on the explanation with respect to Medea and the cult of Hera Akraia in Eumelos’ Korinthiaka (Eum.Fr. 24, pp. 120-126). The poetry by Kinaithon and Asios, as well as the Carmen Naupactium, prove to be excellent occasions to display a wide array of genealogical and geographical connections through comparison with the mythographers (despite the lack of ‘plot’), all as interesting and well-documented as they are plausible. In nine pages (pp. 221-229), using the character of Alkmene as an example, Tsagalis argues persuasively that Asios deliberately tied in several genealogical lines from elsewhere into the Aiolian (as in: descendant from ‘Aiolos’) stemma. This is merely one of the examples of the way the author illustrates the ongoing struggle for influence between the various ‘spheres’ in archaic Greece, reflected in antiquarian and genealogical poetry. All Tsagalis’ reconstructions and his often verbose but impressive expansions are accompanied by extensive references to a total of 1805 informative footnotes.

At some points, Tsagalis’ concerns are more strongly focused on the authenticity of the fragments, and their exact dating and/or assignment. Uncertain fragment Eum. Fr. 37, for example, is assigned after some debate (172-174); readers feel like eyewitnesses when reading the personal communications between Tsagalis and his colleague Davies that have led to Tsagalis’ assigning of four lines of epic poetry in Paus. 9.29.1-2 (III 53.18-54.2 Rocha-Pereira) to the archaic poet Hegesinous (p. 256 n. 1087). Acknowledging that the extant material is not sufficient for authoritative remarks on the issue, Tsagalis largely refrains from statements on literary quality and style, often limiting his remarks concerning style to the safe assumption that epics ‘must have been of considerable length’ (e.g. p. 213).

Tsagalis’ broad treatment of the fragments renders fascinating overviews and expansions, but of course questions will remain, particularly with regard to the dating of the epic fragments and their alleged authors. This reviewer was not convinced by the assignment of the uncertain fragment Eum. Fr. 37 to an archaic Titanomachy or Gigantomachy based on the occurrence of νεφεληγε[ρέτα Ζεύς (equally attested in Nonn. Dion. 8.720), and despite the repeated breach of Hermann’s Bridge. In the treatment of ‘diction and meter’, a separate heading in the commentary on Asios’ and Chersias’ fragments, of Asios Fr. 13 (p. 248) verse 4 (in the ‘reversed’ order suggested by Naeke), χαῖται δ’ἠιωρέοντ’ ἀνέμωι5, there is no mention of what makes this line stand out when compared to the Homeric epic: the combination of an unusual synizesis on position 5 with elision at the penthemimeres. The latter does not occur until well after the time of the Iliad and Odyssey. In general, Tsagalis tends to postulate relatively early dates of composition for various epics: the date of composition of the Carmen Naupactium, for example, with an argued terminus post quem around 750 BCE and an ante quem around 450 BCE, is tentatively placed ‘either in the seventh or the sixth century BC’ (p. 372). On the Phokais, however, he does not wish to exclude the possibility of a ‘pseudo-archaic epic’ created in the Hellenistic period (p. 399).

EGEF is on the whole well produced, as are all the instalments of the Supplementary Volumes. Regrettably, though, some typos and misspellings were overlooked in the editing process.6 In general, punctuation like commas could have been more profusely used. Inconsistencies in the spelling of personal names and geonyms are the author’s choice (explained on p. 3, and illustrated on p. 184 n.742 concerning ‘Teisamenos’/‘Tisamenos’, cf. n. 1453 [p. 355]). Also the author’s choice is the decision to translate all the extant fragments (pp. 12-13, with an excursus on the importance of translations for interpretation) and much of the other Greek passages cited; why then leave various quotations (especially in the footnotes, e.g. n. 715) without a translation?

In sum, with Early Greek Epic Fragments I Tsagalis offers a valuable, readable, and highly desired commentary on the extant early antiquarian and genealogical epic fragments. Despite the many uncertainties and questions, and at times because of them, this imaginative book will be both fascinating and useful for all students and scholars of Greek epic fragments and of mythology and mythography alike. One can only hope for the appearance of part II soon.


1.   On the Trojan epics by M.L. West, The Epic Cycle. A Commentary on the Lost Troy Epics. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013; on the Theban epics and the Aethiopis by M. Davies, The Theban Epics. Washington, DC; London: Harvard University Press 2014, and The Aethiopis: Neo-Neoanalysis Reanalyzed. Washington, DC & London: Harvard University Press 2016 respectively.
2.   A. Bernabé (ed.), Poetae Epici Graeci. Testimonia et Fragmenta2 (2 vols). Munich & Leipzig: K.G. Saur 1996-2007 (1st ed. of vol. 1 1987); M. Davies (ed.), Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1988; M.L. West (ed.), Greek Epic Fragments from the Seventh to the Fifth Centuries BC. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press 2003.
3.   G. Kinkel, Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Leipzig: In Aedibus B.G. Teubneri 1877.
4.   In a recent review on BMCR (BMCR 2018.03.37, on Benjamin Sammons, Device and Composition in the Greek Epic Cycle. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press 2017), Malcolm Davies warns against the dangers of reconstruction: the principle of expansion, ‘speculations hardly worth writing down’, and the risk of ‘hypotheses spawning hypotheses’ in an attempt to apply literary criticism to fragmentary poems.
5.   EGEF is dedicated to the memory of M.L. West, and relies heavily on his work and on Tsagalis’ personal communications with the late scholar.
6.   Page 7: ‘is’ for ‘its’; p. 28: ‘Σ Eur. Med. 19’ for ‘Σ Eur. Med. 11’; p. 53: ‘of one’ for ‘one’; p. 65: ‘Gigantom- achy’ for ‘Giganto-machy’; p. 66: ‘poem)’ for ‘poem’; p. 103: ‘run’ for ‘ran’; p. 116: ‘in combat’ printed twice, ‘filum’ for ‘filium’; p. 117 n. 446: ‘the important’ for ‘the most important’; p. 122: ‘need’ for ‘needed’; p. 124: ‘to their death’ for ‘in their death’; p. 125: ‘for Minyas is’ for ‘for Minyas are’; p. 128: ‘choose’ for ‘chooses’; p. 137n537: ‘two’ for ‘too’; p. 138: ‘hang up’ for ‘hung up’; p. 145: ‘have contributed’ for ‘contributed’; p. 193n795: ‘resulted’ for ‘resulted from’; p. 232: ‘clealry’ for ‘clearly’; p. 233 ‘is the intervention’ for ‘it is the intervention’; p. 236: ‘account of’ for ‘account for’; p. 246 ‘is the argument’ for ‘the argument is’; p. 247: ‘typical for ktisis-literature motif’ for ‘motif typical for ktisis- literature’; p. 328: ‘alredy’ for ‘already’; p. 329n1363: ‘scoprion’ for ‘scorpion’ (twice); p. 332: ‘osbervations’ for ‘observations’; p. 341’no a single’ for ‘not a single’; ‘Hoesktra’ for ‘Hoekstra’; p. 370 ‘run away’ for ‘ran away’; p. 383: ‘(187) that’ for ‘(187) says that’.

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