Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.08.56 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.08.56

Mauro Tulli, Poesia e prosa di età ellenistica: In ricordo di Roberto Pretagostini. Consulta Universitaria del Greco. Seminari, 1.   Pisa; Roma:  Fabrizio Serra Editore, 2017.  Pp. 88.  ISBN 9788862279604.  €28,00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jan Kwapisz, University of Warsaw (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review. The reviewer wishes to apologize for its tardiness.]

The slim volume under review is one of a number of Gedenkschriften dedicated to the memory of the internationally renowned Hellenist Roberto Pretagostini (1949–2006), one resulting from a workshop held on the tenth anniversary of his premature demise. Like probably all contributors to it, presumably with the exception of its editor, I did not get to know Roberto Pretagostini in person, thus I obviously have nothing to say about his compelling personality. Yet perhaps the main reason why his memory is still cherished by his many friends and disciples, and certainly why it is so dear to me, is—let me begin with a programmatic statement—that his scholarly output has come to embody a certain ideal of doing philology; a philology that starts with years-long efforts to learn enough Greek and Latin to make some actual sense of Pindar or Tacitus—and never really becomes anything else. In a world in which one can make a career as a scholar of classical literature without actually taking pains to master one of the classical languages (that is, beyond familiarizing oneself with a bunch of catchy phrases in Greek or Latin and knowing classical authors from what they print on the right side of those convenient volumes that come as handsome green and red hardbacks), or without even getting to study the literature of the Greeks and the Romans, such an ‘old-fashioned’ way of practising philology is at times regarded as unexciting pedantry. Yet there is nothing unexciting, (overly) pedantic or old-fashioned about Roberto Pretagostini’s scholarship on Hellenistic poetry, which never loses sight of a broader picture, and even his more technical studies on the metre of Greek poetry, besides showcasing his brilliant philological skills, hold broader relevance for those interested in ancient poetry insofar as they explain the mechanisms of how it worked. The volume under review furnishes clear testimony to the lasting force of the intellectual charm of doing philology the old way, and what is quite remarkable is that it does so by exclusively comprising the work of scholars at an early stage of their careers.

In a more practical sense, this volume is the first in a series founded to showcase the impact of the Consulta Universitaria del Greco, an association created in 1981 to promote the study of Greek language and literature in Italy; Roberto Pretagostini was its president in 1995–1999 and 2001–2005, and the current president is Mauro Tulli, the editor of the volume under review. The book collects six papers presented at a workshop held at La Sapienza on 2nd December 2016. These essays attempt to fulfil a double function of addressing some specific issues related to Hellenistic poetry or prose and at once introducing the authors’ broader projects from which these studies stem.

As such, when viewed as a whole they allow some broader reflection even despite treating an array of largely unconnected themes. Even if these will not necessarily become a must-read for specialists in the respective fields, these are six fine pieces of philology, each not without its merits. They exhibit a number of appealing approaches and/or bring a number of fine, and at times important, observations on various aspects of Hellenistic literature, although one would expect some of these points to receive a fuller treatment in the larger projects that these relatively brief discussions herald. Altogether, this elegant libellus nicely illustrates both the persisting robustness of Hellenic studies in Italy and the stunning fertility of the upsurge in interest in Hellenistic literature in the last three decades—the relatively few veterans of the revolution are now being followed by quite a crowd of strenuous successors. From the viewpoint of the academy, this is as much a promise as a challenge, for this aspiring group will need somewhere to do the job they have been taught to do.

Further general points. I find it noteworthy that whereas in his work on Hellenistic poetry, Roberto Pretagostini focused mostly on Callimachus and Theocritus, the two big names are all but absent from the collection under review. One paper is devoted to Aratus and two to Apollonius of Rhodes, but even within the latter pair one also explores medical prose, and the remaining three essays deal with texts rarely approached by scholars of Hellenistic poetry (though this volume proves that they have clear relevance to it): treatises on musical theory, the pseudo-Platonic Eryxias, and the epigraphic Erythraean Paean to Asclepius. Rather than seeing here a dawning ‘kill your idols’ movement, I suspect that these approaches result from the recognition of the fact that new insights into long-familiar texts are possible either when these texts receive careful attention from one trained in the use of a battery of modern exegetical tools (not to mention expert knowledge of the classical languages) or, more spectacularly, when their contextualization is deepened through introducing a new text into a picture.

The first and the last essays in the collection apply the former methodology. In the opening discussion, Pietro Massari makes a contribution to the study of the intratextuality of Apollonius of Rhodes by (successfully) attempting to link two geographical passages (2.1207–15 and 4.514–21) and also arguing (less convincingly, to my mind) for their Dionysiac allusiveness. I note that two notable features of the poetics of Lycophron’s Alexandra, namely its geographical erudition and numerous fancy parallelisms,1 are strongly reminiscent both of the learned geography of the Argonautica as characterized by Massari and in particular of the way in which the two passages he discusses are linked. Thus his paper becomes an invitation to broader reflection on Hellenistic poetics.

In the volume’s closing discussion, Matteo Rossetti’s concern is with second-person utterances in Aratus; in its few pages, which deal solely with Arat. 1–732, the author manages to offer a number of fine observations on the fascinating topic of the Hellenistic text-reader dialogue. Again, this should be viewed as a tantalizing opening to something more. For instance, I would be curious to learn what function Rossetti would assign, within the strategy of Aratus’ didacticism that he sets out to characterize, to Aratus’ famous acrostich at lines 783–7.

The appeal of the remaining four contributions is, as I said, in how new approaches to Hellenistic literature, including its canon, result here from exploring little-studied sources. Martina Peloso revisits Apollonius of Rhodes by discussing those passages of the Argonautica that are somehow concerned with the physiology of puberty. I wonder whether the fact that this is poetry about adolescents makes it also an ancient contribution to the young adult fantasy genre—how much do Medea and Katniss Everdeen have in common? At any rate, this paper is at its best and most novel where it fruitfully confronts Apollonius with Greek medical prose—another recent instance of simultaneously exploring ancient scholarship and Hellenistic poetry.2

Marco Donato affords us a glimpse into his Paris–Pisa PhD thesis (completed last year), which provides an edition, with commentary, of the pseudo-Platonic Eryxias. This dialogue has been dated to the third century BC, which means that it was conceived in a milieu shared with the greatest cultural creators of the Hellenistic age. Is this fact somehow reflected in Eryxias? Yes, it is; by unveiling the literary history behind the imagery of wasps and a wasps’ nest in Eryxias, Donato shows that a characteristically Hellenistic poetics of blending literary traditions was not unfamiliar to its author. This is an exciting approach, and if more of it is to be found in Donato’s disseration, every scholar of Hellenistic poetry should be hoping it will soon appear in print.

Ambra Tocco discusses, by aptly embracing the currently in-vogue concept of letteratura sommersa, the little we know, owing to later sources (mostly Porphyry’s commentary on Ptolemy’s Harmonics), about the Hellenistic theory of harmonics. The topic may not have universal appeal, but the essay offers a tantalizing if concise glimpse into a significant aspect of Hellenistic intellectual life and invites a reflection on how its vibrant traditions came to be lost and forgotten. As such, this discussion has broader relevance for those interested in Hellenistic culture.

Finally, Antonella Fusari’s concern is with the Erythraean Paean to Asclepius, a piece of cultic poetry attested by several epigraphic testimonies dating from, on the one hand, the fourth century BC and, on the other, the Imperial age. Strictly speaking, therefore, we have no straightforward evidence of Hellenistic interest in the Paean, although its relevance to the study of Hellenistic poetry (and hence the volume under review) is obvious. A part of this paper that feels particularly fresh is where Fusari suggests that the cultic context in which the Paean may originally have been composed was that of Epidaurus. To my mind, this proposal deserves recognition, even though the discussion, like a large part of the volume, feels as if it was meant to whet one’s appetite for more rather than provide definitive solutions to the problems posed.3

The volume boasts the usual elegance of Fabrizio Serra’s publications. There is no index, but none is necessary in a miscellaneous collection of less than a hundred pages. The quality of the editing is on the whole very high, I noticed only a few typos; my only quibble is that the Greek is not always translated. I note that the series’ second volume, also edited by Mauro Tulli, appeared last year; it is titled In dialogo con Omero and deals with various aspects of the reception of Homer in Antiquity and Byzantium.

Authors and titles

Pietro Massari, ‘Il fulmine e il Caucaso in Apollonio Rodio’
Martina Peloso, ‘Mania erotica e crisi puberali nelle Argonautiche di Apollonio Rodio’
Marco Donato, ‘Socrate e le vespe siracusane: epos e commedia nel proemio dell’Erissia
Ambra Tocco, ‘Pensare i suoni, descrivere la musica: logos e aisthesis nella scienza armonica di età ellenistica’
Antonella Fusari, ‘La lunga fortuna di un inno: il Peana di Eritre e i suoi contesti di esecuzione’
Matteo Rossetti, ‘La funzione didascalica degli appelli al lettore nei Fenomeni di Arato’


1.   For the latter, see E. Żybert, ‘Symmetry and verbal parallelisms in Lycophron’s Alexandra’, Eos 106 (2019), forthcoming.
2.   For this trend cf., e.g., the essays collected in M. A. Harder et al. (edd.), Nature and Science in Hellenistic Poetry (Leuven, 2009).
3.   P. LeVen’s succinct commentary on the Erythraean Paean to Asclepius is now available in D. Sider (ed.), Hellenistic Poetry: A Selection (Ann Arbor, 2017), 18–24, which appeared around the time when the book under review was published. The absence of the same author’s The Many-headed Muse: Tradition and Innovation in Late Classical Greek Lyric Poetry (Cambridge, 2014) from the bibliography of Fusari’s paper is more difficult to explain.

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