BMCR 1995.04.09

1995.04.09, Hopkinson (ed.), Greek Poetry of the Imperial Period

, Greek poetry of the Imperial Period : an anthology. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. xiii, 224 pages : maps ; 20 cm.. ISBN 9780521411554. $64.95 (hb).

This companion volume to the editor’s A Hellenistic Anthology (Cambridge University Press, 1988) is, because of the relative inaccessibility of the material it presents, even more valuable than its predecessor. It’s not, like the other volume, a “green and yellow book,” but rather a “purple and gray book” (though the latter term may never have the currency of the former)—which is to say that it belongs not to the canonical hard core of the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series of school texts, but to the more interesting and innovative subset of that series called the Imperial Library. Here have appeared to date Apuleius’Cupid and Psyche (ed. E. J. Kenney) and three orations of Dio Chrysostom edited by D. A. Russell, and promised, along with works of Augustine and Claudian, are Daphnis and Chloe (ed. E. L. Bowie) and Plutarch’s Eroticus (ed. Fred Brenk). These are texts—the Greek ones in particular—that have in most cases never benefited from presentation in this format because the canon has so dominated Greek and Latin pedagogy that a need for school texts of the Greek literature of the Roman Empire was never felt. The change is both exciting and food for thought—but more of that later.

What Hopkinson serves up, with the sort of practical, useful, unassuming but impeccable commentary we have come to expect of the “green and yellow books” is the following (in approximate order of line-count): The whole of Hero and Leander, nearly 350 lines chosen from the Halieutica and Cynegetica attributed to Oppian, the whole of the Actaeon episode from Nonnus ( Dionysiaca 5.287-551), the episode of Paris and Oenone from Quintus Smyrnaeus ( Posthomerica 10.259-489, with cuts), and 23 epigrams (189 ll.) from the Anthology. The collection opens with six Anacreontic poems and closes with three fables of Babrius—perhaps the most immediately accessible and attractive material here, and wisely placed—and also includes a brief Orphic hymn, an excerpt from the astrological poem attributed to Manetho, and a short piece by the Hadrianic lyricist Mesomedes. Some of these choices were easy enough—Hero and Leander is by far the most influential poem of the period and no one could dispute that any student of Greek literature should know it—but others were less obvious, and given the sort of anthology Hopkinson set out to produce, all are to be applauded.

The bulk of the material presented belongs, appropriately, to the genres of epic and epyllion. The lengthy and rich passage from Nonnus is an elegant representation of his distance both from Homer and from Ovid. The relationship of Actaeon’s explicitly and emphatically human capacities, both for suffering and for speech, to his physical transformation into a deer, evoke inevitable Ovidian associations, but we are given enough of a sample here to get a sense of a very different poetics at work, to which Ovid is largely irrelevant. Here and in his notes to the seldom read passage of Quintus, Hopkinson does a good job of presenting the quite different relationships of the two poets to Homeric language. Hero and Leander receives the heaviest annotation by far (almost 50 pp. for a little more than 11 pp. of text, whereas the roughly equal quantity of material from Oppian receives only 20 pp. of notes), including elucidation of a good deal of vocabulary, and even of fairly elementary “irregular” forms (“δαμείς: 2nd aor. pass. part. of δαμάζω” is singled out at l. 88), along with informative comment on the relationship of Musaeus’ phrases to Homeric formulas and deviations from the norms of classical Greek syntax. Here the student with two or three years of college Greek should find what he or she needs to read the poem efficiently, and a good deal more. One could wish that the notes to the more difficult passages of Nonnus and Oppian, with their recherché vocabulary, were as generous in supplying aids to facilitate first reading. There as well, a great deal is to be learned from Hopkinson’s notes, but his understandable reluctance to supply information that may be gotten from the lexicon will slow the student down. The descriptions of springtime in the fishy world ( Halieutica 1.446-508) and of how the Grey Mullet (κεστρεύς) contemplates the baited hook (3.482-587, esp. 498 ff.) are quite amazingly attractive, but a note on the word κεστρεύς itself, or on the fascinating history of νέποδες, one of Oppian’s principal and characteristic terms for fish in general, would have helped many first readers to a quicker apprehension of the text, without unduly weighting down the notes. Bulk, in any case, seems not to have been a problem, since the Hellenistic anthology offered 190 pp. of notes for 1740 ll. of poetry, whereas here we have only 144 pp. for 1535 ll.

The shorter poems are well treated, sometimes outstandingly so. The poets and the epigrams of the AP are presented in the notes exactly according to the pattern set in Hopkinson’s Hellenistic Anthology, and generally speaking this is just what the reader envisioned needs. We are told enough to appreciate the wit, to be able to get the joke without having the punchline either ruined or belabored. Included is a good introduction to the abstruse but intriguing world of the isopsephic epigram, where lines or whole couplets are so composed that the numerical value of the letters is equal to that of other lines or couplets. Perhaps the most unlikely (not to say outrageous) choice here is what must be the first introduction ever into the realm of the school text of the pederastic epigrams of book 12 of the AP—including Strato’s modest meditation on the isopsephy of πρωκτός and χρυσός (the numerical values of each of which words = 1,570).

What is admirably outrageous here is not so much the prurient praise of pederasty (a topos, after all, in Greek poetry from Theognis on), but the isopsephy. There is something distinctively and characteristically Imperial. Hopkinson’s selection is otherwise dictated in large part by a commitment to the familiar notion of continuity in Greek poetry, and the introductions and notes remind us again and again that classical, and more often Hellenistic, precedents account for the esthetic values to be observed in Imperial Greek poetry. That is not to say that there is no balance. Hopkinson shows his reader what is old and what is new, and deserves much credit for that. But my principal criticism of his selection centers on the fact that there is so much that is new in the Greek poetry of the Roman period that is not here. Where he has demonstrated continuity, I might have hoped for more of the evidence of discontinuity, of change. His introduction devotes three pages to “Christianity” and he points out that the authors of certain of the poems included may have been Christians (Nonnus) or most certainly were (Paul the Silentiary). But this is made explicit only to underline the point that “amongst intellectuals of the period it was not felt contradictory for a Christian to write heavily classicising works, and that allusion to and exploitation of traditional myths was not confined to pagan writers” (121). This is undoubtedly true, and an important and intriguing truth about the complex interactions of religion and literary culture in the Roman Empire. There is a tacit understanding, though, that Christians writing as Christians are excluded from the range of poetic discourse represented in this anthology. It is striking, moreover, that while the polytheists are here routinely designated by the Christians’ contemptuous term for them (“pagans”), Christian discourse is treated with the even greater contempt of being condemned to silence. Christians writing as Christians, with all the scriptural baggage that entails, do not sound a harmonious note in the literature of the period—one might even call it a barbaric yawp—but the point is that that yawp represents an important voice of Greek poetry in the Imperial period, and one that was eventually to drown out the Hellenizing tradition represented here. A more realistic presentation of the period would include it. Distinctively Imperial forms of Greek poetry such as the Homeric centones (whether Christian, Gnostic, or undifferentiated from the religious background of the poetry they exploit), the sometimes hamfisted but engagingly eclectic poetry of John of Gaza, an excerpt from the hexameter paraphrase of The Gospel of John attributed to Nonnus, or a sample of George of Pisidia’s chronicle in iambic trimeters—he may have been the last poet capable of manufacturing classical trimeters—of the campaigns of Heraclius against the Sassanians—any of these texts would, in the context of this anthology, have opened up new vistas and contributed substantially to a richer and more equitable picture of the range and the originality of Greek poetry in the Imperial period.

No doubt I want better bread than is made of wheat. Let us be happy with what we have, for that is a great deal. Hopkinson’s anthology, along with the subseries of Cambridge school texts to which we owe it, represents the entry into a form accessible to undergraduates with a few years of Greek of much material that was hitherto far less accessible. It also represents a very welcome byproduct of the decay of the canon-based study of ancient Greek and Latin literature. There is no doubt in my mind that an undergraduate can learn more of use about the literature of the ancient world from reading Hero and Leander than from reading yet another book of Horace. Publications like this one are making that possible.