Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.08.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.08.05

Camille Geisz, A Study of the Narrator in Nonnus of Panopolis' Dionysiaca: Storytelling in Late Antique Epic. Amsterdam studies in classical philology, 25.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2017.  Pp. ix, 282.  ISBN 9789004355330.  $127.00.  

Reviewed by Emma Greensmith, Colgate University; University of Cambridge (;

Few poets in antiquity are more self-consciously programmatic (or programmatically self-conscious) than Nonnus of Panopolis. His Dionysiaca is a feat of Homeric megalomania, its forty-eight books matching the Iliad and Odyssey combined, which flaunts from the outset a bendy, protean poetics to guide its hero through erotic, exuberant adventures. His twenty-one-book Paraphrase of John’s Gospel displaces koine Greek for the most elaborate, literary language of all, revelling in the challenge of turning epic diction to Johannine Christology and vice versa. It therefore seems fitting that amidst the boom in scholarly interest in the poet over the past three decades,1 there now comes a monograph centrally dedicated to the subject of Nonnus’ poetic voice.

Geisz states the aims of her study as, firstly, to ‘explore the storytelling techniques employed in the Dionysiaca’ and, secondly, to ‘examine how this narratorial voice contributes to, or draws upon, the aesthetics of the late antique period’ (4). The introduction briefly establishes the project’s goals and assumptions and provides a summary of its four parts. It begins with an overview of the state of play of Nonnian scholarship—questions concerning the poet’s contrasting subject matter, religious context, and varying reception over time. It then lays out the chosen methodology for the investigation: perhaps unsurprisingly, given its topic, it makes use of narratology. Geisz focuses on de Jong, who first applied narratological theory to Greek literature, and notes that this work has not yet ventured into Late Antiquity, which provides the justification for the current undertaking. This swift outline, however, fails to cite the major theoretical predecessors on which de Jong’s work is based (Bakhtin, Bal and Genette do not receive explicit discussion until much later 2) and says nothing about the conceptual divisions between, for example, narrator and author on which such readings are centred. Most crucially, it does not discuss the strengths and indeed potential weaknesses of narratology as an interpretative model, nor make the case for its particular applicability to Nonnus. As we shall see, these are questions which remain pressing. Part 1 considers ‘The Narrator-Author’s Engagement with his Predecessors and with the Tradition of Epic Storytelling’, via the establishment of an epic persona in the opening proem (Chapter 1), the programmatic techniques of the second proem in Book 25 (Chapter 2) and wider recourse to the Muses in seven other passages of the poem (Chapter 3). Geisz neatly isolates some of the principal features of innovation in Nonnus’ portrayal of invocation and inspiration, situating his choices not only against Homeric precedent but also Hesiodic, Pindaric and, particularly, Alexandrian approaches. For example, Nonnus is argued to follow Alexandrian poets in employing the Muses as a literary device associated with epic, rather than a genuine source of ‘religious’ inspiration (however problematic this divide is to determine). In a move of considerable originality, he also imbues them with specific descriptive characteristics (Κορυβαντίδες, 13.46, μαχήμονες, 21.73, Λιβανηίδες, 41.11 and Ὁμηρίδες, 32.184) so as to make them most relevant to the stories that follow each invocation. However, for a section dedicated to poetic motivation, the discussion of the first proem is rather limited. Nonnus’ main poetological force is reserved, in Geisz’ judgement, for the second proem, which is ‘the truly programmatic one’ (18). Yet the opening proem also brims with self-consciousness, naming Homer (1.38, a daring move in epic which recurs conspicuously in the second proem, as Geisz discusses), and instantiating key symbols of Dionysiac poetics: Proteus as a figure for the poem’s shifting self-conception, and terms such as νόθος (1.31), μιμηλός (1.29) and, crucially, ποικίλος (1.15), which receive little or no comment here.

Part 2: ‘A Narrator Scholar with an Innovative Approach to Storytelling’ analyses in two chapters the narratorial interventions in the Dionysiaca, interventions which occur far more frequently here than they do in other epics. Chapter 4 dissects where and how the narrator comments on the chosen version of the myth he is telling, identifying the focus on variants, choices and sources as evidence of his Callimachean persona as a learned and self-reflective storyteller. Chapter 5 examines the narrator’s opinion of his own narrative and intervention into the story at moments less obviously programmatic than the proem, through self-anchoring in space and time, evaluative adjectives (νήπιος, 2.449, κοῦφος, e.g. 33.206, and, most frequently, δειλός), verbs in the first person (on two occasions, both [οὐ] μέμφομαι: 5.395 and 401) and, most extensively, in the syncrisis between Dionysus and Perseus, Minos and Heracles in Book 25. Whilst Geisz convincingly presents a narrator strongly invested in asserting his own personality, her analysis prompts the question, which is not addressed, of why this assertion is so partial and so fragmented: why, for instance, Nonnus would use νήπιος only once, when the term is such a frequent, obvious marker of narrative judgement in Homer and Quintus of Smyrna; or why intense moments of narratorial presence are avoided in general throughout the poem, and concentrated only in Book 25.

Part 3: ‘A Narrator-Storyteller in Dialogue with his Audience’ investigates direct addresses to the audience (Chapter 6)—which, it is shown, tend to focus on sight, colour and sound—indirect addresses in the form of metalepsis, gnomai and counterfactuals (Chapter 7) and comparisons and similes (Chapter 8). What emerges from this section is how Nonnus takes devices generally considered by scholars to be particularly prevalent in Late Antique epic and, surprisingly, tones them down. There are for instance only 45 gnomai in the Dionysiaca and 260 similes— a considerable backwards step in comparison to Quintus and Oppian, not only in number but also in proportion. Nonnus does however increase the variety of settings to which these devices are applied: in the case of gnomai as well as the common epic topics of fate and the human condition, he includes a number of statements about love and the importance of sight as an incentive for it. Again, however, Geisz does not directly tackle the implications of this interesting pattern: what does it mean that the poet of the Dionysiaca, so often associated with hyperbole and excess, in this respect defines himself against his predecessors by reticence, even reserve?

The fourth and final part considers how the Nonnian narrator turns himself into a character in his own epic: first through apostrophes (Chapter 9) and then, most strikingly, by casting himself as a Bacchic reveller, enlisting Proteus both as a companion and an ‘alter ego’ (Chapter 10). This final step returns, via ring composition with Chapter 1, to discussion of the first proem. This section is one of the most successful in the study, precisely because it offers more evaluation of the narrative manoeuvres it describes. For example, apostrophes in the poem, unlike in Homer and Apollonius, are almost always addressed to the main character Dionysus (or, on two occasions—Actaeon at 5.316-25 and Persephone at 6.155-9—to characters serving as early foils for him). Nonnus, Geisz argues, innovatively uses the device to encourage the narratee to ‘share not only in his compassion for Dionysus, but also in his admiration, and even amusement’ (245). We are therefore offered insight into an ironic, facetious narrator, who proposes the radical idea that one is allowed to laugh at epic, even at Dionysus. It is regrettable however that the crucial programmatic figure of Proteus (and with him, the notion of ποικιλία) receives full attention only at this very late stage: as noted above, his absence from the initial reading of the first proem was striking.

Overall, there is much to commend in this study. It is clearly expressed, carefully organised and well presented. It contains some incisive close readings of the poem and compares it with an impressive range of literature; archaic, Hellenistic and imperial. However, in the scope and impact of its conclusions, a number of issues must be raised. The first, more minor, relates to content. Whilst Geisz includes a useful glossary of narratological terms, the general index and index locorum are extremely brief: there is for instance no entry on ekphrasis, despite the four continuous pages dedicated to the topic (146-9). The generally broad range of literary interlocutors is marred by one notable omission: there is virtually no discussion of the Paraphrase, aside from a note in the conclusion that there might now usefully be undertaken a ‘similar study’ of that text in the future. This relentlessly bifurcated approach to Nonnus is unhelpful: until his two works are considered together, the Janus character of his poetics will continue to elude us.3 Given the central questions of this book, and how it engages with a number of other non-narrative Greek epics (such as Dionysius Periegetes and the Oppians) it could well have taken steps towards achieving this dialogue.

The last and largest limitation concerns conception. As I have sought to convey in my comments on the chapters, Geisz does not sufficiently address the wider context or consequence of the narrative choices that she demonstrates: whether, or why, Nonnus is exceptional in his assertion of a personality and transgression of the epic tradition, and what shifts in Late Antique literary culture could be motivating this salience or change. Her analysis is strong on parallels and penchants, but much weaker on paradigms. Further consideration could have been given, for example, to the religious connotations of an increased recourse to the self (interacting with, for instance, Shorrock’s influential work on the Christian dynamics in Nonnus’ Dionysiac poetics 4), ideas about the form and structure of knowledge in Late Antiquity,5 or—particularly relevant to her discussions of sight and ‘Nonnus’ visual poetry’(182)—developments in Late Antique art and visuality.6 In other words, the study successfully achieves its first stated aim—to explore the storytelling techniques of the Dionysiaca—but, through a lack of sustained dialogue with Late Antique aesthetics, it does not fulfil its second.

Geisz concludes by asserting that narratology is ‘indeed a valuable tool for the study of the Dionysiaca’ (264). Yet one of the principal criticisms of the narratological method is that it is very good at explaining what poetic composers do, but often less successful at exploring why. Given the particular poet under question, and, as Shorrock memorably puts it, his ‘disturbing and exhilarating refusal’ to dictate position and determine meaning narratology alone may not in fact be sufficient to capture these protean ambitions.7


1.   Since the completion of the Budé edition of the Dionysiaca (1976-2006, 19 volumes), there have emerged many new publications: monographs (R. Shorrock The Myth of Paganism: Nonnus, Dionysus and the World of Late Antiquity. [London: Bloomsbury 2011], which follows his earlier The Challenge of Epic: Allusive Engagement in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus. [Leiden: Brill 2001]; H. Frangoulis Du roman à l’épopée: influence du roman grec sur les Dionysiaques de Nonnos de Panopolis. [Besançon: Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté 2014]; N. Kröll Die Jugend des Dionysos: Die Ampelos-Episode in den Dionysiaka des Nonnos von Panopolis. [Berlin: De Gruyter 2016], B. Verhelst Direct Speech in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca. [Leiden: Brill 2016]), edited volumes (K. Spanoudakis Nonnus of Panopolis in Context: Poetry and Cultural Milieu in Late Antiquity. [Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter 2014]; H. Bannert and N. Kröll Nonnus of Panopolis in Context II: Poetry, Religion, and Society [Leiden: Brill 2017] and most recently D. Accorinti Brill’s Companion to Nonnus of Panopolis [Leiden; Boston: Brill 2016]) and editions and commentaries on, thus far, eight books of the Paraphrase.
2.   e.g. Genette at 88, Bal at 19 n1 and 65.
3.   On this ‘Janus character’, see the introductory essay by D. Accorinti in Brill’s Companion to Nonnus of Panopolis (Leiden; Boston: Brill 2016), 9-53 esp. 37-9.
4.   Shorrock 2011.
5.   As explored in e.g. T. Whitmarsh and J. König ed. Ordering Knowledge in the Roman Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007).
6.   Geisz briefly references scholarship undertaken on the Dionysiaca and Late Antique art, e.g. at 257-8. Such models could have informed her study more consistently.
7.   Shorrock 2011, 78.

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