BMCR 2001.08.01

A Commentary on Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica V

, , A commentary on Quintus of Smyrna Posthomerica V. Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava. Supplementum, 208. Leiden: Brill, 2000. x, 172 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9004115943

J(ames) & L(ee) have given us an excellent commentary on Book 5 of Quintus’ Post-Homerica. A succinct introduction precedes the detailed commentary. Accurate indices of subjects, references to ancient and mediaeval literature, and Greek words complete the volume.

A. The Poem and its Date

The manuscript history and the references to Quintus Smyrnaeus in ancient and Byzantine sources are handled solidly. The relatively new material suggesting that Quintus was the father of Dorotheus, a Christian priest martyred under Diocletian, is clearly and convincingly presented.

In working toward a terminus post quem J & L presume that Quintus’ indebtedness to later sources (i.e. Pisander of Laranda) for post-Homeric material indicates a dissappearance of the Epic Cycle from circulation. Quintus’ choice of sources may indicate nothing more than personal preference or the popularity of a source (or even Quintus’ rebellion against popularity?). It is dangerous to argue ex silentio for the loss of material. This cautionary note does not call into question the floruit established by J & L.

B. Book 5 and its Sources

Understandably the discussion of sources confines itself to Quintus’ reliance upon surviving works of Greek literature, especially Homer, of course, as well as Apollonius Rhodius, Hesiod, and Sophocles—and the possibility of Virgil and Ovid. More attention might have been paid to other late poets, particularly Nonnus, as cognate repositories of earlier, now lost material, such as Pisander of Laranda, a putative replacement for the Epic Cycle as a source for post-Homerica, according to J & L (see especially the madness of Athamas at the beginning of Dionysiaca, Bk. 10, which also involves the killing of animals under the delusion that they are enemies).

C. Beliefs and Interests

Stoicism is identified as the predominant ideology evident in Quintus. J & L are right to say that there are no signs of the influence of Christian belief in the Post-Homerica, but we should hardly expect to find any in a purposefully Homerizing epic. Perhaps the demonstrable Christian activity in Quintus’ family and the lack of Christian expression in the Post-Homerica (along with the work of Nonnus, which includes two distinct epics, one an overtly pagan life of Dionysus and one a verse version of the Gospel of John) should suggest a strict separation of art and faith amongst some literate Christians.

D. Characterisation

J & L draw out the point—an unarguable one—that Quintus’ characterization consists of the idealization of each of his heroes; inasmuch as they lack faults, weaknesses, and shortcomings, they lack the depth, humanity, and interest of Homer’s characters. They happily note that this effacing of heroic flaws can heighten the dignity and piquancy of certain scenes.

E. Narrative Technique

J & L point out that Bk. 5 is the most rhetorical book in the Post-Homerica, predictabley since it deals with the contest over the armour of Achilles. It has the highest percentage of speeches, including set pieces, and is not merely episodic. Quintus makes use of irony, paradox, dramatic tension, suspense, climax, foreshadowing, ring composition, similes (which are largely “Homeric in manner and content”), and variations on traditional themes or motifs.” The authors provide illustrative examples and judiciously defend Quintus from the dismissive criticisms which have been too readily levelled at the late epic poets generally.

F. Language and Style

Quintus follows his model Homer especially closely in language and style, e.g. lack of syllabic augment and of the definite article. The authors make carefully limited claims for originality while acknowledging faults like “excessive use of ornamental adjectives.” There is a very brief survey of such devices as parataxis, pleonasm, chiasmus, alliteration, etc.

G. Formulae

J & L undertake to demonstrate Hoekstra’s view, contra Parry, that “a literate poet can adopt formulaic diction,” using noun-epithet combinations. This hotly debated question will not be decided easily, but since “Quintus uses proportionally a much greater variety of epithets per hero than does Homer” (e.g. seven of Homer’s eight epithets for Agamemnon are repeated, while only one of Quintus’ fifteen is), since Quintus has “substantially more metrical doublets” (e.g. seven for Achilles in the genitive as against Homer’s two), and since he “avoids large-scale repetition”, the differences between the two poets are substantial. It is one thing to account for the modified formulaic usage of a poet under the overwhelming influence of Homer, and quite another to account for the formulaic nature of Homer composition in the first place. It still seems reasonable to conclude that Homeric epic was oral in origin, whether Homer was literate and made use of writing or not, while Quintus was a literate poet following the style of oral composition to a considerable extent.

H. Metre

There is also a short section on metre. The recent Iliad commentary (ed. Kirk) provides about 300 pages of introduction in its six volumes, as against 31 pp. in the Quintus commentary. It is clearly an advantage to be able to devote 18 pp. to similes instead of a single page, and 30 pp. to formulaic language instead of six. Even so, J & L provide a wealth of valuable information in their concise introduction. Campbell’s useful commentary on Bk. 12, by contrast, lacks a summation of his findings in such an introduction.

For the commentary proper J & L aim for a balance between literary aspects, especially the “question of sources” (in particular Sophocles and Ovid) and “detailed examination of language and style.” The balance, however, is tipped in favour of language and style, particularly with reference to the Homeric model. Very little attention is given to the fuller history and transmission of ideas, motifs, and versions of stories (except the subjects of ecphrasis, pp. 33-38, the mountain of Ἀρετή, 52-54, and medical science, 107-108), although fulsome reference is made to Vian in this regard. This stress on language and style, it must be said, is appropriate for Quintus, because his poem does not intend to reflect his own world and ideas in his poetry but rather is chiefly concerned to emulate Homer.

Each section and sub-section of the text is headed by a fairly extensive introduction with summary (e.g. 5 1/2 pp. on 1-120 and 2 pp. on 49-56). These introductions are particularly interesting and informative, above all when they deal with sources (e.g. the Debate between Ajax and Odysseus, 180-317, and Mourning and Funeral of Ajax, 487-663). But sections of the commentary are filled with snippets on usage: 195, a certain dative plural occurs only once in Homer, but 24 times in Quintus; 197, ” λυγρὴνλώβην seems to be a new combination”; 200, Νῦν δ’ ἤδη… “only here in Quintus but occasionally in Homer.” See the top of p. 86 for more of the same. This emphasis on the linguistic and formulaic expression has become a common feature of commentaries on late epic poets. Such information would be much more accessible and therefore useful if it were assembled in one place, not mixed with other matters in a commentary. There would then be more room for interpretive literary comment. But on the whole J & L strike a reasonable balance for a poet who has not been “thought worthy of extensive literary study in English” (Hainsworth). One hopes, however, that other commentators will follow J & L in citing translations by sound scholars (here Combellack and Vian) when the sense of a passage is in dispute.

On a particular note, J & L criticize Quintus’ description of Ajax running himself through the neck (as opposed to the traditional account that he fell on his sword) as “difficult to envisage” (p. 132), but one need look no further than the famous Pergamene statue of the Gaul about to commit suicide with his dead wife still in his arms for a visually believable precedent.

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With the untimely death of Kevin Lee Classics has lost a talented scholar, and many of us have lost a kind and good friend. (For a nice obituary see —edd.)