Encomiastic poetry of the Hellenistic royal courts is currently the object of wide and renewed scholarly interest from several perspectives. For this reason S. Barbantani’s (hereafter B) learned, elegant and very thought-provoking study of SH 958 and 969, two elegiac fragments celebrating a figure, or figures, associated with the Galatian wars of the 270’s, has appeared at an especially opportune moment. Four factors in particular contribute to this, and these will in part inform the reception of B’s work and will in turn all be affected by B’s analysis of SH 958 and 969.
1. Simonides’ Plataea elegy has occasioned a re-assessment of an elegiac tradition of military victory celebration. This poem, in many ways pre-figuring what are often perceived as Alexandrian artistic stratagems, clearly enjoyed a certain popularity in the Hellenistic period and was imitated by Theocritus in two of his encomiastic works (Idd. 16 and 17: see esp. the observations of Fantuzzi and Rutherford in Boedecker/Sider).1 A discussion of Hellenistic encomiastic elegy in light of our new appreciation of the genre is a very welcome one.
2. A. Cameron’s influential if in some ways controversial study of Hellenistic elegy, and particularly of the Prologue to Callimachus’ Aetia, has occasioned a new and differently poised interest in elegiac style, content and occasional function in the Hellenistic period.2 Whether read in light of, or against, the programmatic statements of the Aetia’s opening lines, fragments of contemporary elegy cannot but take on a new and differently cast artistic importance.
3. Patronage poetry of the Hellenistic period, once derided, is now held as an important political medium and creative socio-cultural force. The work of R. Hunter, D. Selden and S. Stephens, among others, has done much to highlight not only the political character of Hellenistic court poetry but especially to emphasize its role in the creation and propagation of a cultural program.3
4. The publication of P. Mil. Vogl. VIII 309 has not only given us new examples of Alexandrian court poetry (whether celebrating royal territorial domains, monuments or equestrian victories) but has also brought a renewed awareness to the multi-faceted role of the Ptolemaic court in artistic production. This collection not only celebrates Ptolemaic royalty and courtiers but also utilizes these celebratory pieces themselves for aesthetic structure and balance.
B’s work on SH 958 and 969 engages throughout with each of these factors, and brings the reader of
B divides her introduction, a chronological overview of historical-encomiastic elegy in the Hellenistic period, into three sections: the first, and longest of these (pp. 3-31) surveys the genre’s development from archaic historical elegy (with elucidating comments particularly on the Smyrneis of Mimnermus) to the third century BCE. In her discussion of Hellenistic court poetry and its heritage, B pays particular attention to the relationship of poet to patron/court (esp. pp. 12, 18) and to performance/recitation with an eye to later rendition (her note on p. 12 that an original court performance might constitute a type of
The second section of her introduction (pp. 32-49) centers on encomiastic poetry of the Ptolemaic court, its authors, recipients and conventional themes. The picture B delineates of the early Ptolemaic court is a revealing one, of royalty, courtiers and artists engaged together in the creation of a Ptolemaic culture. Her sensible comments on the role of symposia in this setting further enhance a growing scholarly awareness of the central place of symposia as creative space throughout the Hellenistic period. B’s comments on the court as first audience of Hellenistic court poetry (esp. pp. 41-44) are compelling, as are her observations on the engagement of poet and royal patron with one another. Essentially B paints a picture of the Ptolemaic court not as a set of discrete institutions set apart from one another, but as an organic/cultural whole. While there remains much about the court, and individual courtiers that, from paucity of information, remains unknown to us, B does a deft job of representing those we can still observe, e.g. the Samian admiral Callicrates. The introduction concludes with an overview of elegiac fragments from the Hellenistic period that may be termed “encomiastic”. Among the most intriguing are the epigrams preserved by P. Cair. Inv. 65445 (discussion pp. 51-56) and the elegiac fragment preserved by P. Petr. II 49 (a) (possibly of Posidippus, but see B’s discussion p. 60). In considering this section, the reader will now want to take into consideration several of the new epigrams attributed to Posidippus preserved in P. Mil. Vogl. 309 VIII, especially the hippika that celebrate equestrian victories of Berenice I and another Berenice, possibly the wife of Antiochus II.4 Overall B’s introduction is a trove of insightful information on Ptolemaic court poetry and the cultural and political life that it at once partakes of and reflects. Readers will want to add this to the works of P. Bing, G. Weber, and an ever expanding bibliography on Hellenistic court poetry as essential reading not only for the contextualization of this court poetry, but also for the court itself.5
The first chapter (the most substantial part of the work) is a detailed commentary on SH 969 and 958 (pp. 63-179). A section on the critical-interpretive history of these fragments from 1918 to the present opens this chapter (pp. 63-72). This section highlights two of the central problems afforded by SH 969 and 958: whether, although in different hands (p. 118), these are originally lines of verse belonging to the same work, and the identity of the figure(s) celebrated. Fr. 969 appears to be the opening of an encomiastic composition, fr. 958 a narrative section of an encomiastic or epic-encomiastic poem. While B does not believe the two fragments belong to the same composition (p. 69), she nonetheless treats them in their “rhetorical order” (p. 72), i.e. first incipit (SH 969) then narrative (SH 958). This ordering allows the reader both to assess the arguments put forward by some scholars for their association with one another and to perceive something of a larger context for the two fragments. The two compositions bear several marked similarities, and B notes (p. 118) that the authors of the two compositions apparently belong to the same cultural milieu. B joins the editors of the SH in assuming that the two fragments celebrate a Ptolemaic king (probably Ptolemy II, p.125 and elsewhere) but gives fair space in her summary of the status quaestionis to other views (indeed throughout the work B is remarkably generous and even-handed: her inclusion in Appendix 1 of earlier reconstructions is characteristic). The sections on both fragments (sections 2 and 3) consist of a text (B has herself consulted both papyri), discussion of author and genre, line by line commentary (the commentaries in turn include lengthy thematic digressions), and B’s own proposed text and translation of both fragments (pp. 116-17 and 178-79 respectively). The reader, in using the commentary, will want to make frequent consultation of these proposed texts and those of earlier editors included in Appendix 1. Otherwise occasional inconveniences will arise (e.g. p. 107 on Terzaghi’s conjecture at 969.6
PSI inv. 436 (SH 969) is an elegiac fragment of 9 lines: only two letters can be read, with difficulty, in the 9th line. The fragment opens with the adverb
P. Hamb. 312 inv. 381 (SH 958) is an elegiac fragment of 17 lines that encompasses part of an interchange between two speakers: a messenger (otherwise unidentified) who is apparently directly addressed in the second person singular by the poet (line 2
In the second, and shorter chapter (pp. 181-223) B contextualizes SH 958 and 969 in terms of other literary works inspired by the Galatian wars of the 3rd century BCE, and in terms of the Galatian invasions of other parts of the Greek world and the responses of other Hellenistic dynasts. Her detailed summary is a valuable reminder of the enormity of these invasions not only in terms of historical reality but also in terms of contemporary and later cultural imagination. (The reading of Callimachus’ Hymn to Delos in light of the earlier explication of SH 958 and 969 is particularly useful.) The study concludes with two appendices, the first encompassing previous reconstructions of the two fragments (and in some cases translations), the second an extremely useful catalogue of extant fragmentary Hellenistic elegy. The volume of the Biblioteca di Aevum Antiquum is quite handsomely produced, and virtually free of editorial error.
In conclusion, this reviewer would like to note that the work
1. M. Fantuzzi, “Heroes, Descendants of Hemitheoi: The Proemium of Theocritus 17”, in D. Boedecker, D. Sider (eds.), The New Simonides: Contexts of Praise and Desire, Oxford 2001, pp. 232-41: I. Rutherford, “The New Simonides: Toward a Commentary”, ibid., pp. 33-54.
2. A. Cameron, Callimachus and His Critics, Princeton 1995.
3. R. Hunter, Theocritus and the archaeology of Greek poetry, Cambridge 1996; D. Selden, “Alibis”, CA 17 (1998) 289-412; S. A. Stephens, Seeing Double: Intercultural Poetics in Ptolemaic Alexandria, Berkeley 2003.
4. Esp. XII 20-33 (AB 78), XII 34-39 (AB 79), XIII 9-14 (AB 82). That the royal child celebrated in these poems is Berenice the Syrian, wife of Antiochus II, was first suggested by D. Thompson, “Posidippus, poet of the Ptolemies”, forthcoming in K. Gutzwiller (ed.), The New Posidippus: A Hellenistic Poetry Book, Oxford 2004.
5. P. Bing, The Well-Read Muse. Present and Past in Callimachus and the Hellenistic Poets. Göttingen 1988; G. Weber, Dichtung und Höffische Gesellschaft. Die Rezeption von Zeitgeschichte am Hof der ersten drei Ptolemäer. Stuttgart 1993.
6. See P. Pontani, “The First Word of Callimachus’ Aitia”, ZPE 128 (2000) 57-59.
7. To n. 273, on the topos of oriental luxury, add L.V. Kurke, “The Politics of
8. Encomium of Ptolemy Philadelphus, by Theocritus, translated with an introduction and commentary by R. Hunter. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.