BMCR 2002.06.16

Philodemus, On Poems, Book 1, edited with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary

, , On poems. Philodemus--the aesthetic works ; v. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000-. volumes 1, 3-4 : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0198150415 $150.00.

Janko’s book, which has already been awarded the Goodwin Award of Merit by the American Philological Association (another way of saying that this review is long overdue), is the first to be appear in the Philodemus Translation Project, which is dedicated to publishing Philodemus’ esthetic works; i.e., On Poems (vol. I, to be completed in two more volumes by Constantina Romeo, David Armstrong, Jeff Fish, Jim Porter, and Janko), On Rhetoric, and On Music. What Philodemus has to say about esthetic matters will be further supplemented by the publication of Dirk Obbink’s Philodemus. On Piety, Part 2 (Oxford 2003), which is concerned with the way poets treat the gods.1

The series, edited by Janko, Obbink, and David Blank, is called a translation project because the initial and very generous funding came from a NEH translation grant; and there is indeed a translation supplied. One may wonder, though, whether the vast audience for the Penguin Classics and the Chicago Greek Tragedies in Translation will rush to read such unpurple passages (see below, n. 6) as that found in (e.g.) col. 42, which reads in full as follows: [after a gap of ca. 90 words] “(that) it is ( predicate missing), whether it is good or bad. Accordingly, how might it not rightly seem to be the thing both primary and particular to a poet?’ [note end to quotation, which context suggests but does not make explicit are the words of Pausimachus] In another passage he says that ‘the poet is not to be praised, if there are beautiful plots and plot-structures, (but only if his composition is good) ( c. 74 words missing) (. . . Choerilus)” Some columns are better, many are worse.2 I point out this fragmentary state of the text not to scoff, however, but to begin my praise of Janko’s work, and by work I mean in both the concrete sense of the finished volume ( ergon) and in the more verbal sense of the labor that went into producing it ( ponos).

To reach the point of producing such an unglamorous translation takes years of study dedicated to close examination of some of the world’s most illegible papyri. Books that once could be opened and closed at will were so severely charred by the eruption of Vesuvius that most could, after rediscovery in the 18th century, be “opened” only by piece-meal removal of sheets from rolls that had been bisected vertically along the central pole. Since removal of a layer often destroyed it, drawings were made beforehand by workmen who knew no Greek and who therefore would not be tempted to transcribe what they only thought they saw. These drawings, still called disegni in the literature,3 some now in Oxford and some still in Naples, thus attained the status of primary witnesses when the original text is no longer extant and appear in app. critt. as O and N, respectively, even when the original was not destroyed. (In the latter case, one can test the reliability of the disegnatori; cf. pp. 57-67.) Of the extant originals, those past a certain point below the surface can be as legible as papyri found under the best circumstances in Egypt. The charred surfaces present formidable obstacles, but recent advance in microscopy have enabled papyrologists to read very obscure traces. Other scientific techniques are proving even more valuable: in addition to the Nikon microscope models, which have been available for a few years now, imaging techniques developed by astronomers to peer into the furthest reaches of the universe have been applied to papyri so carbonized that the naked eye cannot even register that writing is present (details on pp. vi-vii). Unfortunately, this ability to read black on black came too late for Janko to make use of in this book, but presumably the next volumes in the series will benefit from it, and perhaps a later volume will provide textual addenda to Book 1.

The bulk of the book, ca. 250 pages, comprises text, apparatus, translation, and footnotes to the translation, this last being the “commentary” of the subtitle. (The footnotes are appended to the translation only to keep the Greek texts less visually cluttered; in fact, most notes are of the sort one finds in a typical commentary lemmatized by Greek word.) Arranged in a format unfamiliar to most readers of edited papyri, the left-hand page contains two columns — apparatus criticus on the left, diplomatic transcription on the right —, while the right-hand page repeats the Greek text, now printed margin to margin (which is somewhat easier to read for sense), below which is the translation, below which in turn are the notes (which often begin on the bottom of the left-hand page).4 The right-hand page is also helpfully given a heading descriptive of the column contained on that page, typically in the form of “X on Y” (e.g., “Pausimachus on the importance of word-order”).

To have compiled the app. crit. alone is a major accomplishment, as this not only called for the usual perusal of published material but also an examination of handwritten notebooks of the inspectors of the disegnatori and then on the basis of handwriting styles to assign names to those men who are in effect the earliest editors of the text. Another problem faced by Janko and other editors of Herculaneum papyri was to establish the order of the fragments, as the initial breaking up of carbonized roll as explained above, which was followed by further breakage, led to one original roll’s having more than one “P.Herc.” number (in this case, P.Herc. 444, 460, 466, 1073, 1074, 1081). Thus, earlier editors, not so sure as Janko where these fragments belonged labeled them Treatises B, C, D, E. The further unpeeling led to later scholar’s mistakenly reading the columns in reverse order, an error that was only put to right by Daniel Delattre and Dirk Obbink, each working independently of the other. (Does it speak well of the scholars who for over an hundred years claimed to have made sense of the Herculaneum papyri even though reading them backward column by column?) Thus, the first note for every column of text is often headed Order of fragments. Here too Janko has made significant improvement over earlier editors, in large part guided by his own deep immersion in the texts, but also by poring over the archives in Naples that record and catalogue the papyri. Among other things Janko took into account were the outline of papyrus fragments (those looking like France would have occupied positions above and below each other; the editors of the Derveni papyrus looked for the pieces that look like Africa), the number of words per line (every one of which he counted; since this number tended to decrease in the course of the original roll, the average number/line in a column suggests relative placement within the roll), and the near repetition of sentences (since Philodemus regularly gives his opponents their say one after the other before rebutting them in the same order). Just reading his first-person account of all this in ch. 4 of the introduction is enough to make an ordinary scholar exhausted. Janko has thus brought together earlier published material not hitherto known to have come from Book 1, greatly improved their text by exhaustive autopsy and other editorial skills, and added to these texts newly opened, discovered, or identified fragments. What we have here can almost be considered an editio princeps.

Let’s say then that Janko has succeeded in reading correctly everything that his microscope and naked eye could see, and further grant that he has established the correct order of the fragments, and that every restoration he prints is correct.5 What he has given us is still far from pellucid. The primary reason for this is that there are still gaps no sane editor would dare to fill in except in the broadest of tentative outlines, so that often one is not sure that the words on the page are Philodemus’ own or those of his opponent of the moment; cf. the passage given above, which begins in midquotation from (as Janko shows) Pausimachus. It is also the case that Philodemus’ prose style, aggravated by his hiatus-avoiding hyperbata, contains, as is usual in all kinds of scientific treatises, the many technical terms of the craft; in this case the craft of literary criticism, which flourished throughout the Hellenistic age. At least his desire to deliberately avoid (see how annoying it is) hiatus has the virtue of allowing editors to be sure that a sentence with hiatus is a quotation of someone else. Reading Philodemus’ prose is not a complete chore, though: when he says (col. 181.14-19) “but lambda is the most resplendent, for it is most lovely and leader of what is most resplendent and what gleams” (my translation, following Janko), he manages to include eight lambdas into his Greek.

Literary criticism flourished but it did not survive. Philodemus’ literary treatises are valuable therefore not only because of his own literary theories (and for me this is their primary attraction), but also because he is our only source for the views of the most important literary theorists from Aristotle down to his own time: in Book 1, Andromenides, Crates of Mallos, Megaclides of Athens, Heracleodorus, and Pausimachus of Miletus. They are thus worth the effort of deciphering for anyone interested in Hellenistic literary criticism (which clearly has to include anyone who wants to read Horace’s Ars Poetica,6 but all the Augustan poets read and absorbed these theories; Vergil would have learned them directly from his friend Philodemus). Of these theorists the best and most subtle seems to be Philodemus himself, whose own views are put forward piecemeal in the course of his criticism of others. What did these obscure guys argue for and over? The relationship between our old friends from college lit. courses, Form and Content, each, though, split into the tiniest elementary particles possible. Form, for example, was analyzed at the level of the sound represented by individual letters. Lambda (better, labda) was considered among the smoothest of sounds by most Greeks (see above) and xi among the least, and these euphonists argued strongly that the worth of a poem could truly be judged very largely on the basis of the presence or absence of these desirable or cacophonous “letters.” Philodemus accumulates theoretical arguments against them here, and as I tried to show in my edition of his epigrams he chose Xanthippe/Xantho/Xantharion as the name of his (persona’s) love interest in large part to demonstrate that one could write beautiful poetry with “ugly” sounds.

Metathesis was also a hot topic among these theorists and Philodemus takes issue with those who argue that word order makes no difference. Again, as a practicing poet he would know in his bones that it does. A reader of Philodemus’ treatise, though, might wish he had taken this to heart when composing his prose. At one point he rearranges Hom. Il. 16.112-14 so that, although they still scan, the first line is entirely dactylic (with a word break between the third and fourth feet, like the first line I ever tried to compose in Greek hexameter) and the second is, fifth foot excepted, all spondaic (with a violation of Naeke’s Law), and the third line both violates Naeke’s Law and has a word break between the third and forth feet. I should have noted this in my discussion of Phil. Epigram 22 (= 25 Gow-Page), where the roughness of thought is intentionally mirrored by a roughness of language that in part includes metrical irregularities. Should this metathetic passage be thought of as an addition to Philodemus’ poetic corpus?

On the subject of content Philodemus opposes those like Pausimachus who argued that it is irrelevant to good poetry: “(We do not blame a verse insofar as its content is good), nor do we praise it insofar as it is bad” (58.1-2, as fleshed out and translated by Janko). Philodemus, on the contrary, agues that the poem’s content or thought should be intelligible and clear and that furthermore the virtue of a poem lies in its proper combining of form and content. The poem need not, however, be “true,” nor need the poet be a good person in any moral sense. If you want the truth, go to a properly argued prose treatise; a work of Epicurus would be a good place to begin. When all of On Poems is reedited, students of Hellenistic and Roman didactic poetry should reconsider this genre in the light of these recent and current theoretical discussions now clarified for us as never before by these new editions of Philodemus. Was, e.g., Nicander influenced by Heraclides, who argued that the excellence of a poem lay in its usefulness?

A whole new world of literary criticism is being opened up by Janko and, in time, the entire Philodemus project. Their introductions will be mined by all subsequent students of literary criticism itself and of Augustan poetry in general. Their recalcitrant texts will be consulted less often, but without the years of toil that allowed for these editions, Philodemus’ contribution to the history of criticism would remain unappreciated by all but a few classicists.


1. Philodemus’ On the Good King according to Homer is far more a discussion of kingship than an attempt to treat Homer as poet. My own The Epigrams of Philodemos (New York 1997) tries to show how Philodemus’ incorporated some of his poetic theories into his epigrams.

2. As an example of the latter, cf. 158: “( 7-8 words missing) swineherd ( 3-4 words missing) of the ( fem. sing. noun + 2-3 words missing) success ( 3-4 words missing) to find material ( 3-4 words missing) disposed ( 3-4 words missing) by means (?) of speech ( 3-4 words missing) belonging to ordinary persons ( c.22 words missing) of verse of ( fem. sing. noun + 2 words missing) disposed. For not ( 3-4 words missing) clearly ( 3-4 words missing) (Homer) said that Patroclus was sacrificing ( 2-3 words missing) in divinely inspired (diction) ( c.20 words missing).” Yet for all the fragmentary nature of this archipelago of syntaxless passages, Janko can yet reasonably infer that in this passage “Philodemus’ rebuttal of Andromenides may have moved from his doctrine of the diction suited to plot … to that of the diction appropriate to Homeric characters….”

3. The scholarly literature on Philodemus makes frequent use of several Italian terms, many of them conveniently defined by Janko; e.g., scorzatura, svolgimento, sollevamento, sovrapposto, sottoposto. On the other hand, classicists who are not papyrologists may need their LSJ to make sense of “Since only one kollesis has been identified, the average width of the kollema is unknown” (p.72).

4. It was therefore a slight error of judgement for the press to have inserted the plates between two such facing pages rather than between two pages that do not have to viewed simultaneously. And while on this subject, OUP should be criticized for binding the book like a cheap paperback (and then charging $150.00) and scanting on the margins: the inner margins in particular are so narrow that there is no room for a reader’s marginalia and I suspect that the pages cannot be xeroxed. When library copies have to be rebound, which is done by first slicing the bound edges, text is sure to be lost.

5. It is of course possible to differ with him here and there. I am not convinced, e.g., that < τό > should be inserted at col. 12.19, or < τά > at 49.4. At 18.4 he restores < μεγάλῳ > to a line quoted from Homer, but I suspect this is Philodemus’ error rather than that of a scribe, in part because the Greek words quoted (one word + the defective line of Homer) make up one complete dactylic hexameter. Not ad loc. but in his introductory comments on typical scribal errors (p.81), Janko considers this omission one of the scribe’s many errors of haplography. Since letters within angle brackets are “litterae ab editore insertae,” he could argue that he is covered either way, but I’m sure Janko would agree that it is not the job of the editor to improve on the ancient author. Some other minor criticisms: p. 134, after naming “Pythagoras, Democritus, Archytas, and Heraclides of Pontus,” Janko refers to Heraclides as “the latter” rather than “the last” (pretty trivial, admittedly). p.233 n.5, παρασχηματίζειν is only a restoration by Turnebus of Theophrastus (as quoted by Plutarch), which should now be quoted by FHSG numbers, here 711 (elsewhere Janko does cite Theophrastus fragments correctly). 295 n.4, Janko may be taking “Phrygian speech” (col. 91.12-13) too literally; it may simply be a generic insult, just as the Romans said “to speak Oscan” as the equivalent of βαρβαρίζειν, according to John Lydus Mens. 1.13. And as a general criticism, Janko frequently fails to signal in his translation that the Greek word behind it is fully or significantly restored. Less often a word appears in the English that is not expressed in Greek and whose presence is neither signalled nor defended by Janko.

6. His use of the phrase ‘purpureus pannus’ comes from Philodemus’ similar phrase, αἱ πορφυραῖ, at Poem. 1 col. 49.26.