If a representative group of classical scholars were polled as to what they associate with the term “simile,” the most common response would presumably be “Homeric.” We are all familiar with attacking heroes compared to charging animals and dying warriors likened to trees felled by woodcutters in the mountains. These and similar images occur all over Homer, as well as in subsequent Greek and Latin epic poetry, and they have long been the object of extensive study. Considerably less well known is the fact that similes also play an important role in didactic poetry — a fact of special interest to students of this elusive genre, given that in antiquity, didactic poetry was typically regarded as belonging to epic. How are didactic similes like, and unlike, epic similes? And how can the highly poetic figure of the simile be combined with the at least in some cases extremely technical subject matter of didactic poetry? These are the kinds of questions that Claudia Schindler (S.) tackles in her valuable monograph, the first on the subject.
S.’s book (based on her 1998 Münster dissertation) is a model of clarity: the division into individual chapters is completely straightforward; each chapter ends with a useful summary; and the author’s style of argument is extremely lucid (if somewhat dry). The focus of the study is on Latin didactic poetry, specifically the first three great Latin didactic poems, Lucretius’ De rerum natura, Vergil’s Georgics, and Manilius’ Astronomica (following Bernd Effe, S. does not regard Ovid’s Ars amatoria as purely didactic, cf. p.12 n.10). S. treats each of these works in an individual chapter (Chs. 4-6), after first surveying earlier scholarly literature and defining her approach (Ch. 1), discussing terminology and giving her own definition of what a “simile” is (Ch. 2), and briefly examining the use of similes in Greek didactic poetry from Hesiod to Nicander (Ch. 3). The book concludes with a brief summary of the author’s results (Ch. 7); it also contains an appendix with a comprehensive list of the similes in the three works treated.
While S. does raise some broader questions about didactic similes (such as those mentioned in my first paragraph), the bulk of her book is devoted to close readings of individual similes in the three selected works rather than to the development of a thesis concerning the use of similes in didactic poetry in general (compare also S.’s cautious title “Untersuchungen”). This is certainly a wise choice: since, as the author observes in her conclusion (p. 276), even the three poets she examines use similes in markedly different ways, it is hardly possible to come up with a unified theory of the didactic simile. In fact, it is exactly on those few occasions when S. turns to (wary) generalization that her arguments are most open to objection. Thus, her claim (introduced suddenly at the very end of the Vergil chapter) that the use of similes in the Georgics is informed by Stoic pantheism would need more extensive substantiation than the mere reference to the passage (4.221-227) about the divine nature of bees and god’s permeation of the entire universe — where this particular view is, at any rate, ascribed to quidam (v. 219) and reported in indirect statement and cannot, therefore, a priori be taken as the poet’s own opinion. Likewise, it does not have to be the case that Vergil’s and Manilius’ more purely “poetic” use of similes vis-à-vis Lucretius’ more “functional” one reflects a development from the “pre-classical” to the “classical” (pp. 281 f.), especially given that S. herself observes a similar contrast already between Empedocles and Nicander ( mutatis mutandis).
In spite of her material’s resistance to generalization, S. is able to discern some larger trends in the didactic poets’ employment of similes. In epic, the subject matter of similes typically comes from a sphere completely different from the subject matter of the main narrative (e.g., a dying hero is compared to a falling tree), and there is thus a clear conceptual break between what S. calls the “Haupttext” and the “Gleichnistext.” In didactic poetry, by contrast, there often is a continuum between the two, an implication that the things compared are similar at a deeper level than the comparison itself suggests. This is clearest in Lucretius, who (for example) in 1.277-294 likens the violent blowing of the wind to the motion of a torrent (cf. S.’s discussion on pp.78-83). In Homer, both storm and torrent (forces of nature) can serve as comparanda for attacking heroes (human beings), but Lucretius’ simile is different in that it compares two phenomena that are comparable by reason of an ontological connection: the activity of both wind and torrent can be explained with the existence and behavior of the atoms. Another interesting aspect of didactic similes that S. points out is the fact that they often exchange the themes of “Haupttext” and “Gleichnistext” as they are found in epic. For example, many similes in epic poetry are drawn from the realm of agriculture; thus, at Il. 2.147-149, the Achaean army is compared to a field whose ears of grain are being stirred by the wind. By contrast, in the Georgics, agriculture is the main topic of the poem, while similes are often drawn from the military realm, as in 2.274-287, where the regular arrangement of vines is compared to a legion’s drawn-up lines of battle (cf. S.’s pp.158-166).
The greatest strength of the book is the very endeavor to which the author devotes the most space: her detailed interpretation of a large number of Lucretian, Vergilian, and Manilian similes. S. is an extremely sensitive reader of Latin poetry and manages to tease out the various aspects and implications of the passages she treats while hardly ever getting carried away into the speculative or fanciful. Particular highlights, in my opinion, include S.’s readings of (to mention just one simile from each author) Lucretius’ difficult comparison of the image seen in a mirror to a clay mask turned inside out (4.292-301; pp.87-90), the already-mentioned Vergilian vineyard-army-simile, and Manilius’ pair of extensive methodological similes (the process of teaching and learning about the heavens is compared both to children’s learning to read and to the building of a city, 2.750-787; pp.252-272). On the whole, it is perhaps the chapter on Lucretius that is the most interesting, owing no doubt to the fact that there are many more similes in the De rerum natura than in the other two poems and to the particular way in which they are closely integrated into the argumentative structure of the work as a whole. Still, S.’s comments on all three authors are well worth reading and can in fact serve as an extensive interpretive commentary on the lines treated: her work will be fruitfully consulted not only by classicists specifically interested in didactic similes, but also by everyone who works, from whatever perspective, on any of the particular passages. In sum, S.’s book is a welcome addition to both the ever-increasing literature on ancient didactic poetry and the study of Latin poetry in general.