BMCR 1999.11.16

Theocritus: A Selection

, , A selection. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xi, 308 pages : illustrations, map ; 20 cm.. ISBN 9780521574167. $24.95.

Hunter’s Theocritus is a welcome addition to the series, Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. Comparisons are proverbially odious, but comparison with Dover’s now thirty-year old St. Martin’s Theocritus is useful and hard to resist. Both are just over 300 pages long, both provide introductions which cover: transmission, life of Theocritus, metre, dialect or language, and Bucolic poetry. Dover adds sections on style and aspects of Hellenistic poetry, Hunter on the locus amoenus. Hunter has an extensive bibliography, Dover’s spare bibliography cites no articles. Dover has a vocabulary, Hunter hasn’t. Hunter’s introduction is 30 pp. long, Dover’s is nearly twice as long. Dover provides commentary on 18 poems and six epigrams (73 pp. of text), Hunter on only eight (28 pp. of text). The cause of at least some of these quantifiable differences is that, reflecting developments in the study of Hellenistic poetry generally and Theocritus in particular, Hunter’s commentary has a stated “literary bias.” And so Hunter provides 47 pp. of commentary on Idyll l, Dover 18 pp.; 56 pp. on Idyll 7 as against 22 pp.; and 28 pp. on Idyll 11 as against 6 pp.

In his introduction Dover gives more general information on dialect and somewhat more detail on specifics; Hunter’s specific information is easier to find, more “user-friendly” I suppose we must say. Dover has a good general introduction to Bucolic and Hellenistic poetry; Hunter assumes general knowledge, and concentrates on the competitive nature of Bucolic. His section on the locus amoenus is primarily about the irruption of eros which destroys the bucolic quiet.

Dover prefixes a brief and general one-page introduction to his commentary on Idyll 11. Hunter discusses Nikias, Galateia, the lost Cyclops or Galateia poems of Timotheus and Philoxenus, the unique style, and the interpretive problem of singing as a pharmakon (is the Cyclops cured?) inter alia in his eight-page introduction. Hunter makes good on his claim to be literary in his line-by-line commentary as well: he not only discusses the meaning of ἐπ’ ἀνθρώποις (l. 4) and ὁ παρ’ ἁμῖν (l. 7) but also describes the structure of 1-6 and 19-21, notes that line 6 teasingly exaggerates Od. 8.63, comments on the song as a paraklausithyron (ll. 19-79), which Dover fails to do, and notices slight zeugma and oxymoron (ll. 10-11). Neither comments on the striking sound of l. 29. At 77f. Dover takes the girls’ laughter as real, but teasing, and concludes that Polyphemos knows this but pretends otherwise. Hunter’s comments are more detailed and nuanced.

Hunter’s eight-page introduction to Idyll 7 remarks on the rarity of “first-person narratives of past events not embedded in a wider context,” draws comparisons with Plato’s Lysis and Phaedrus, considers the identity and role of Simichidas and Lykidas, notes that the meeting with Lykidas is modelled on Homeric meetings, addresses the “city-country” theme, comments on “echoes of the proem of Hesiod’s Theogony, and gives a map of Cos. To the list of Modern discussions and to the bibliography add: Mark Andreas Seiler, Poiesis poieseos: Alexandrinische Dichtung kata lepton in strukturaler und humanethologischer Deutung, Stuttgart and Leipzig, 1997, which has a long and important discussion of Idyll 7 from the perspective of intertextuality.

What he chooses to comment on, and at what length, is of course the most crucial decision for a commentator. And no two people will agree. But does the knowledge that the name Amyntas is very common but is not yet attested on Cos (l. 2) advance our understanding of the Thalysia? Does the prosopographical excursus on certain Coan nobility (ll.4-7)? Whether the spring, Bourina, flowed from a bull’s muzzle, and whether it was created by a knee, do we need a page on Bourina (l. 6)? Does the identification of the mound (l. 10) with “a small hill (modern ‘Mesovouno’)” affect our reading of the poem, whether it is right or wrong? Is it helpful, in a commentary with a literary bias, to learn that the wild olive (l. 18) “is smaller, bushier and much less valuable than the cultivated version”? On the other hand, couldn’t one spare a line or two to note that midday (l. 21) is a favourite, and dangerous, time for meeting a god, especially if Lykidas is Apollo, a view Hunter seems to favour?

Hunter is good on the mockery in Lykidas’ words (pp. 158f.) But does it enhance our impression of Oromedon (= Mt Dikeo), or of Apollo who has this epithet, to be told that “the name also occurs as that of an initiate at Samothrace …”? We learn the capacity of Mytilene’s southern harbour, the features of its northern (l. 61), but there is no mention of the harbour as erotic metaphor. “The imagined location of Phrasidamos’ farm has been much debated (l.132).” I doubt that this exercise in ‘virtual geography’ will help fix the “boundaries of the Haleis deme” let alone the meaning of the poem. It is perhaps reasonable for a commentator to dump his full load in a scholarly commentary on the complete works such as Gow’s, but not here. I don’t think that students will appreciate having to sift through so much curious lore for what they really need.

[Seiler suggests that ἔτος ὥριον (l. 85) is object of the verb, not accusative of duration of time, as Hunter and apparently everyone else takes it. I fail to see the problem of Pan heading in the wrong direction (ll. 111f.), since in these lines the poet wishes him ill for his lack of cooperation.]

If Hunter had been more selective in choosing topics for comment and had exercised more control over the extent of his comments, he would have been able to include a few more poems. As Corinna advised the young Pindar: Sow by hand, not by bushel. Hunter’s commentary certainly has attractive features, but one might still choose Dover’s text to provide the student with basic help, and supply the literary analysis himself or otherwise.