BMCR 1997.02.12

Philodemus and Poetry

, Philodemus and poetry : poetic theory and practice in Lucretius, Philodemus, and Horace. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. xiv, 316 pages. ISBN 9780195088151.

Philodemus of Gadara seems about to join Callimachus, Posidonius, and a few others in the ranks of Greek intellectuals who must be included in any understanding of Roman poetry in the first century B.C. He can be found on the Web ( and on p. 185 of Steven Saylor’s latest novel ( The Venus Throw, 1995). In addition to the book under review here, Dirk Obbink has also recently given us a translation of Marcello Gigante’s Philodemus in Italy: The Books from Herculaneum (Ann Arbor 1995). It is beginning to be possible for students of Latin poetry and Roman intellectual culture in the first century B.C. to bring Philodemus into their account of that world; in a few years, it will be impossible to leave him out.

This new picture of Philodemus has emerged from papyri so charred in the destruction of Herculaneum that their eighteenth-century excavators at first mistook them for lumps of coal. To be read, these rolls had first to be dismantled and in the process, largely destroyed. After 200 years, the labor of generations of scholars and technicians has begun to produce readable texts from the records and remains of that destruction. Much of their labor has been a matter of restoring the original rolls by putting things in their proper sequence; it may be fitting, therefore, to suggest that the chapters of Philodemus and Poetry may best be read in a sequence other than that in which they appear between its covers.

The place to begin is with Richard Janko’s Chapter 6, “Reconstructing Philodemus’On Poems” (69-96). In Janko’s chapter, which constitutes a prolegomena to his forthcoming edition of On Poems, he first gives a clear, detailed account of the method of reconstruction, developed independently by Obbink and Daniel Delattre, which has allowed the original order of the fragments to be recovered. (The method, which Janko characterizes as “brilliantly simple” [71], involves reconstructing the work of the scholars who originally cut the rolls apart and peeled the outer layers away.) Janko then (73-87) tabulates and examines all known papyri of On Poems and offers a reconstruction of the work. This section is not easy reading, but I do not see how it could have been made easier than it is. Its difficulty, in fact, and its slow, ineluctable massing of detail to make a coherent picture of a lost work, recreate in a careful reader something of the philological excitement that scholars from several generations must have felt as they realized, with increasing clarity, that the carbonized lumps from the Villa of the Papyri could be transformed into philosophical and literary treasures. Finally, Janko moves on to reconstruct not only the general shape, content, and argumentation of Philodemus’On Poetry, but also the doctrines of Crates of Mallos pertaining to the arrangement of sounds in poetry. Janko can reach behind Philodemus to Crates because, as he demonstrates, the Epicurean theorist worked by first summarizing the views of his opponents, and then refuting them one by one. Crates seems to have been the source for the opening sections of Philodemus’On Poems.

With Janko’s chapter as an introduction, a reader can move on to Appendix 1, David Armstrong’s translation of Book 5 of On Poems. Armstrong works from the edition of Cecilia Mangoni (Naples 1993) and adds summarizing headings and explanatory notes. Because Philodemus writes on technical matters in a style almost as charred and desiccated as the rolls in which we read it, these aids would be welcome even if his text were not so lacunose that often Armstrong’s translation reads like Plato run through a food processor: “now Heracleides … for saying that … the poet … the hearers.” But with all its gaps and deformations, On Poems 5 is at present the most accessible section of Philodemus’ literary theory, and along with the even scrappier Book 4 it forms the focus of three of the remaining essays in this volume.

In a long essay on “Content and Form in Philodemus: The History of an Evasion,” James Porter teases apart the notion that a work of art can somehow be separated into the aspects we call “form” and “content.” He begins with an illuminating question, to which there is no easy answer: how do you say “form” and “content” in Greek? He then situates Philodemus’ remarks on this dichotomy in the context of literary theory after Aristotle, and in particular of the debate that centered on Neoptolemus of Parium’s tripartite division of poietike into poema, poesis, and poetes (to use the spellings associated with Neoptolemus—see p. 103, n. 18). Porter’s doxographical analysis reveals Philodemus as a thoughtful formalist who exposed the weaknesses of his predecessors’ theories in order to bolster his own.

In “Philodemus on Censorship, Moral Utility, and Formalism in Poetry,” Elizabeth Asmis continues Porter’s discussion of the implications of a distinction between the linguistic or phonetic formal elements of a poem and its thought or content. A critic’s understanding of the relative importance of these aspects, she demonstrates, bears a relation to his opinion on questions of censorship and moral utility. Formalists, to put it crudely, are apt to reject censorship and to regard moral utility as irrelevant to poetry; those, on the other hand, who agree with Plato (Resp. 607d-e) that good poetry is not only delightful but also beneficial are apt to argue, as Plato did, that harmful poetry ought to be condemned.

Asmis shows that Philodemus came down on the side of those who maintained that in judging the quality of a poem, its thought mattered more than did its formal excellences; at the same time, Philodemus seems to have criticized the demand for moral utility as an essential feature of a good poem. Since in the surviving portions of On Poems Philodemus spends much of his time taking apart the views of earlier critics, Asmis necessarily illuminates these predecessors as she works through Philodemus’ account of them. She is able to show that a heretofore unidentified formalist critic whose views appear in columns i-v of P.Herc. 1676 and the closely related P.Herc. 1074 + 1081 may well be Heracleodorus, and she sheds considerable light on Philodemus’ better-known opponents Heraclides of Pontus, Neoptolemus of Parium, Aristo of Chios (if he is the Stoic whose name ends in -on or -ton at the end of Mangoni col. xvi), and Crates of Mallos.

David Armstrong continues this discussion of the relation between form and content with “The Impossibility of Metathesis: Philodemus and Lucretius on Form and Content in Poetry.” (Armstrong’s essay is supplemented and given specificity by his third contribution, done jointly with Steven Oberhelman, “Satire as Poetry and the Impossibility of Metathesis in Horace’s Satires”). Armstrong ranges more widely than either Porter or Asmis: back to Leucippus and Democritus (Porter, to be sure, takes the Atomists into account but speaks in cautious terms of “the possibility of an indirect influence,” p. 142) and forward to Coleridge, the New Critics, and Postmodernism. Armstrong also has more to say about Philodemus’ theories of music and rhetoric than did Porter or Asmis, and his view of Philodemus as a strong formalist is not easy to reconcile with Asmis’s picture of an anti-utilitarian who sought to balance the claims of moral content and formal excellence.

Armstrong concludes with these words: “I have always wished that a doctrine of poetics that corresponds more nearly to what I understand to be the compositional practice of actual ancient poets than most previously known ancient literary criticism could be extracted from the remains of antiquity” (p. 231). Philodemus’ doctrine, he believes, answers that wish. It presents a formalist, Epicurean view in which the true pleasure of poetry, and the poet’s principal creative task, depends on perfection of arrangement and on the disposition of stoicheia, the phonetic units that are the elements of poetry.

Armstrong’s wish also touches on one of the principal excellences of this book. Ancient literary criticism as represented by the Aristotelian tradition, focused as it was on matter, substance, and quality (for example, “the sublime”), often seems to modern readers jejune or inaccessible. The library of critical texts from Herculaneum has given us ancient criticism for an age of formalist theory, and it has already begun to transform the way in which we understand the poetry and poetics of Catullus, Lucretius, Vergil, and Horace.

Two controversies run through the essays in this collection: the nature of poetry and of the relation between its form and its content, and the question whether orthodox Epicureanism, if such a thing exists, allows an Epicurean to be a poet, or indeed have anything to do with poetry. Epicurus, notoriously, seems to make poetry incompatible with his philosophy when he says, “It is only the wise man who will be able to converse properly of music and poetry—but not engaging in composing poems as a serious activity” (Diog. Laert. 10.120 = frr. 568 and 569 Usener)—if indeed that is what he says in this textually vexing fragment. Yet there is Lucretius, and Philodemus himself.

The question is complex, but a clear, consistent, and appropriately nuanced answer to it emerges from the four contributions that precede Janko’s central chapter: Elizabeth Asmis, “Epicurean Poetics,” with David Sider’s “Epicurean Poetics: Response and Dialogue;” Sider’s “The Epicurean Philosopher as Hellenistic Poet;” and David Wigodsky’s “The Alleged Impossibility of Philosophical Poetry.” There was, they demonstrate, no Epicurean edict against poetry to compare with Plato’s condemnation. The Epicurean sage’s attitude toward poetry will resemble his attitude toward other non-philosophical pursuits, as reported by Diogenes Laertius in the passage cited above. As the Loeb puts it: “he will pay just so much regard to his reputation as not to be looked down upon…. And he will make money, but only by his wisdom, if he should be in poverty, and he will pay court to a king, if need be … and will give readings in public, but only by request.” Each of these activities, and poetry with them, receives its qualification. The Epicurean sage does not ask whether poetry is compatible with his philosophy, but how, to what extent, and under what circumstances. The Epicurean’s need to ask these questions in the context of his philosophy created, as Wigodsky, Asmis, and Sider show, a need for something very like a theory of literature, as well as a theoretical debate on the nature of poetry. Philodemus, thanks to his habit of recording his opponents’ positions before refuting them, has now become our chief witness to the richness of this debate. In two essays, David Blank (“Philodemus and the Technicity of Rhetoric”) and Obbink himself (“How to Read Poetry About the Gods”) extend the range of this volume beyond questions of form and content or attitudes toward poetry into central questions of Epicureanism, or indeed of any ancient Greek philosophy: the nature and origin of language, and of our ideas about it, and the origin and development of our ideas about the divine. The two essays also remind us that Philodemus worked in a world of Roman grandees, where matters of rhetoric and religion were not merely academic.

Fortunately, Diskin Clay’s long, thoughtful introduction (“Framing the Margins of Philodemus and Poetry”) has made it unnecessary for me to do more than mention each of the essays in this important volume. The book, in effect, comes equipped with its own review essay. There are two bibliographies: Appendix 2, “Philodemus on Poetics, Music, and Rhetoric: A Classified Bibliography,” and a general bibliography of works cited. Along with the essays gathered between its covers and Armstrong’s translation of On Poems Book 5, they make Philodemus and Poetry an indispensable tool for scholars beginning to delve into what may be Herculaneum’s most valuable treasures.