Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.09.18 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.09.18

Simon Hornblower, Lycophron: Alexandra. Greek Text, Translation, Commentary, and Introduction.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2018.  Pp. xxiii, 617; 11 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780198810643 (pb).  $45.00.  

Reviewed by Paul Ojennus, Whitworth University (


This is the paperback issue of Simon Hornblower’s text, translation, and commentary on Lycophron’s Alexandra, originally published in 2015, and reviewed in the BMCR by Charles McNelis 2017.03.54. This edition includes textual corrigenda, correction of factual errors, and the notice of a newly published verse inscription relevant to the Alexandra. This review will pay particular attention to the updates in the paperback edition, while discussion of the book as a whole will be more abbreviated, since McNelis’ review already treats the main points thoroughly.

This volume is a full-length scholarly commentary on the notoriously obscure poem Alexandra by the Hellenistic poet Lycophron, together with an introduction, Greek text, and English translation. The introduction places the poem in its mythological and literary contexts before advancing to topics particular to the Alexandra, that is, the date of the poem, its authorship, origin myths, epigraphy, and cult. Hornblower presents his own text, based primarily on the Hurst/Kolde 2008 edition, but with some changes and updates. The commentary is naturally at the center of the work; it illuminates underexplored aspects of Lycophron’s text, especially in relating it to the appropriate historical contexts, whether regarding its poetic provenance or the colonial contexts of its mythic repertory. It also turns to epigraphy in explicating the epicleses and epithets of the gods, as well as explaining the geographical references of the poem. The accompanying translation serves primarily as an adjunct to the commentary, making clear the construction of the Greek and the sense of Lycophron’s often obscure vocabulary; it does not aim to stand independently, but leaves in place the periphrases for the gods or other named entities that are explained in the commentary. Similarly, in keeping with its philological rather than literary function, it does not aim to reflect the meter of the poem or to create a one-to-one correspondence between the Greek and English vocabularies. An appendix on the anapestic Kassandra poem from P. Berol. 9775, a bibliography, and indexes of literary passages, inscriptions, Greek words, and topics complete the volume.

First, then, regarding the updates in the paperback edition, the largest portion of these are simple corrections to the setting of the Greek text, which Hornblower credits Robert Parker and Stephanie West for noting. For example, in the lemma in the commentary on line 30 λέγων has been corrected to λόγων; κόρη in line 1385 was printed in the original edition as κόρῃ, i.e., with an inadvertent iota subscript, but corrected to κόρη in the current edition; or in line 1432 ως is corrected to ὡς. Not all such corrigenda have been caught. For example, the lemma on line 45 ὀπιπεύουσαν is still printed as ὁπιπεύουσαν, i.e., with an inadvertent rough breathing; line 80 has κακλάζων, not the correct καχλάζων; on line 320 the text has μεμιγμένοι but the lemma in the commentary has the incorrect μεμιγμέναι; in line 736 οἵ (with an acute) is printed instead of οἳ (with a grave); in line 771 is printed instead of ἡ\; in 780 the acute is missing in Γονοῦσάν θ΄. I did not compare the texts of the two editions for every note in the commentary, but I understand Hornblower’s description of the differences, “correction of actual errors,” (p. v) to mean simple textual errors of the same sort. Finally, Hornblower gives notice of one particularly relevant addition to the bibliography that appeared since the original edition, the forthcoming publication of a long verse inscription from Milas, which has some parallels with Lycophron’s vocabulary.1 The paperback edition adds a reference to one of these parallels in the note on line 318.

The substantial introduction covers expected topics such as sources and influences, and the mythical contexts, but the weight of attention given to different topics is aimed at correcting what Hornblower perceives to be an imbalance in the recent scholarship. That is, he views previous editions of the poem and much of the recent writing on Lycophron as focusing too narrowly on its literary aspects, leaving gaps in terms of historical contexts, epigraphy, and religion that he partly addresses here. Thus, the related questions of authorship and date receive detailed attention, as do foundation myths and inscriptions. Hornblower argues for a date for the Alexandra as around 190 B.C. He insists that the reference to Roman rule by land and sea in 1229 must post-date the First Punic War and that the “unique wrestler” of 1447 most naturally refers to T. Quinctius Flamininus because of his appearances at the Isthmian and Nemean games after his defeat of Philip V at Cynoscephalae in 197 B.C. (in this respect, he thus returns to the early 20th-century view of Beloch and others). He further supports this position by pointing to the reference to the Dasii of Argyrippa in lines 594-595, who were prominent during the war with Hannibal. This reference makes sense only in the late third or early second centuries. This line of argument means denying the authorship of Lycophron of Chalcis, and assigning it to a homonymous or pseudonymous author; it also entails a unitary position, rejecting the proposal that the Roman section (1435-1450) is an interpolation. These entailments are less forcefully argued, but the position taken on dating and authorship is coherent and compelling, and Hornblower appears to meet the objections raised against earlier statements of it.

Hornblower similarly discusses the role of epigraphic evidence regarding Lycophron’s use of cult epithets for the gods, demonstrating that the author’s use of (to us) obscure titles, epithets, and names for the gods is consistently grounded in the reality of Greek cult: he uses names that were in fact used in the individual gods’ cults, and often the specific term he selects has relevance to its literary context (e.g.,the name was used in a cult in the geographical area of the action in the narrative). Hornblower also argues that the epigraphical data show that the scholia on the Alexandra and Tzetzes’ commentary accurately represent the ancient scholarship and can be treated seriously as evidence for religious usages, even when epigraphical evidence is lacking. This demonstration is an important contribution to the understanding of the work and opens it up to use by archaeologists and scholars of Greek religion. A third important and innovative portion of the introduction discusses foundation myths and myths of origin in the Alexandra. In particular Hornblower points to the interest of the poem in cataloging the mythicized colonization of the Mediterranean in the Archaic period, where founders of colonies are identified with Greek leaders returning from Troy or Trojans escaping the destruction of their city. He notes too that the foundation myths associated with Cyprus and Italy are especially frequent and prominent, and that certain story-types, such as animal metamorphosis or the animal guide recur in these myths across the poem. A fuller discussion of the topic is promised to appear in Hornblower’s forthcoming book on the poet.2 Some topics are treated only cursorily in the introduction. In particular, the meter of the Alexandra is relegated to a footnote (p. 2), and the note on the text printed in this volume is very brief although the section on the history of the text, adapted from P. M. Fraser’s notes toward a commentary on the Alexandra is complete, as is the note on Lycophron’s language. These are quibbles, since other literary and philological topics are covered thoroughly, and the acknowledged focus is on addressing gaps in the historical and religious aspects of the text.

The commentary is the center of the work, to which Hornblower subordinates the text and translation. Hornblower presents his own text, with a minimal apparatus, referring readers to Mascialino 1964 edition and the Hurst/Kolde 2008 edition for a full apparatus. Hornblower’s approach to the text is sensibly conservative, preferring not to regularize non-conventional and dialect forms, idiosyncratic usages, or otherwise unattested lexemes in a text where such features are clearly part of the poet’s verbal technique. As noted above, the translation is presented as a guide to understanding the construction of the Greek, an adjunct to the commentary, not as an independent literary translation. Although he duly attends to philological matters, for example, discussing textual cruxes, unique or rarely attested words, forms, and usages, or internal cross-references, philology is not the primary focus of the commentary. Rather, as in the introduction, Hornblower’s greatest contribution is establishing the various contexts of the poem. General areas of special note include geography, mythology, and religion. He diligently presents the evidence for the often recherché toponyms Lycophron employs, gathering evidence from the ancient authors and modern archaeology and expressing a sense of whether the usage is apt, obfuscating, or, in a few cases, likely confused. Particularly helpful are the consistent references to coordinates in the Barrington Atlas. As adumbrated in the introduction, Hornblower lavishes particular attention on the titles of the gods as they occur in the text, noting where Lycophron’s usage is confirmed by epigraphy to reflect actual cult usage, collecting and evaluating the evidence provided by the scholia and Tzetzes’ commentary along with that of the ancient authors, and providing likely explanations where no evidence currently exists. Again, this is an important advance in the scholarship, since Hornblower establishes that Lycophron’s usage is not (merely) a learned or literary game, but relates concretely to Greek cult practices. Hornblower’s treatment of the foundation myths especially shows the depth of his scholarship; these are often lengthy notes comparing the literary tradition of the myth with the historical tradition and archaeological evidence to aim at a sense of what Lycophron’s audience might have expected and how the poet alludes to, transforms, or engages those expectations. Several passages occasion extensive essays in the commentary, especially on the Locrian Maidens (on lines 1141-1173) which compares Lycophron’s account to the other available evidence and discusses the implications of that comparison for the dating of the poem, and on Hector’s cult at Thebes (on lines 1189-1213) which more briefly compares the extra-textual evidence and more thoroughly develops Hornblower’s own view of the historical development of the cult.

Altogether, the volume not only fills an important gap in the scholarship in supplying a modern full-length commentary on the Alexandra, but begins to address the imbalance both in the briefer commentaries and in the more literary scholarship on Lycophron . Additionally, the introduction and the commentary make important contributions to the discourses on the date of the poem, its relations to Greek religion as evidenced in the literary and epigraphical records, and the relationship of the poem to the mythology surrounding Greek colonialism. Discussions of philological and literary aspects of the poem are less central, but are still complete and often offer new approaches. This commentary promises to open up the Alexandra to new audiences, particularly in Greek history and religion, and to be a cornerstone of the scholarship on Lycophron going forward. The paperback issue corrects many, though not all, of the textual errors of the original edition and gives notice of an important addition to the bibliography that might otherwise be overlooked. ​


1.   Hornblower’s preface to the paperback edition projects that it will appear in 2018; at the time of this writing it was still in press as Marek, C, and E. Zingg. Inschriften von Uzunyuva (Milas). Asia Minor Studien. Bonn: Rudolf Habelt.
2.   Hornblower, S. 2018. Lykophron’s Alexandra and the Hellenistic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. At the time of this writing it is projected to be released in August 2018.

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