BMCR 2003.02.20

FATIS NIKHFOROS. Frammenti di elegia encomiastica nell’età delle Guerre Galatiche: Supplementum Hellenisticum 958 e 969. Biblioteca di Aevum Antiquum: Instituto di Filologia Classica e di Papirologia

Silvia Barbantani, Phatis nikēphoros : frammenti di elegia encomiastica nell'età delle guerre galatiche : Supplementum Hellenisticum 958 e 969. Biblioteca di Aevum antiquum ; 15. Milan: Vita e pensiero, 2001. xx, 339 pages : facsimiles ; 24 cm.. ISBN 883430697X EUR 25.82 (pb).

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 Φάτις νικηφόρος to a renewed awareness of encomiastic poetry of this period as at once cultural heir and creative force. The book consists (following prefatory material) of a lengthy introduction that surveys the development of the genre of historical-encomiastic elegy, a chapter devoted to the text and exegesis of SH 969 and 958 (giving for each fragment text, discussion of author and genre, and commentary), and a chapter devoted to the historical background to the two fragments (the Galatian wars). The work concludes with two appendices, extensive bibliography, indices and three papyrological photos, two of SH 969 (the second is an enlargement), and one of SH 958.

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 προέκδοσις is very thought-provoking, and her point that the author of SH 969 indeed retains his fame ἐν βύβλοις is an acute one). Her analysis of the commemorative role of encomiastic poetry is especially illuminating, and her depiction of a large-scale existence of itinerant elegiac encomiastic poets in the early Ptolemaic period is evocative of now largely lost traditions of court performance. B’s suggestion (p. 25) that these would in particular be the target of Callimachus’ disdain in the Aetia prologue is a suggestive one: suggestive too is her discussion of possible reasons for the loss of so much encomiastic elegy (pp. 23-24). Overall this section of B’s introduction is an excellent overview of many features, and scholarly problems, of early Hellenistic court poetry.

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 θοῦρος Ἄρης, p. 128 in discussing the conjecture ὦνα to 958.3).

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 πολλάκι, strikingly the same word now generally recognized to have opened Callimachus’ elegiac Aetia.6 B’s observation (pp. 89-90) that this may be coincidence of generic convention rather than deliberate allusion is no doubt correct: we are nonetheless reminded here of the (now largely lost) genre of celebratory elegy in response to which Callimachus composes his Aetia (a point B repeatedly makes in her study). Indeed B very insightfully uses the surviving encomiastic works of Callimachus, the Victory of Berenice and the Victory of Sosibius, to elucidate the reading of SH 969 by both comparison and contrast (esp. pp. 78-86). The new epigrams attributed to Posidippus on the equestrian victories of two Berenices also now provide helpful comparative material. Striking too in the opening lines of SH 969 is the contrast of reported utterance and memorialization ἐν βύβλοις (line 4): B’s commentary is particularly good on this Hellenistic characterization of fame (pp. 103-106). Among other points in B’s study of this fragment I would highlight here her discussion of the conjectured reading Ἄρης at line 6 (pp. 108-11) and of the collective Ἑλλήνων at line 7 (and the significance of this term for the Greco-Macedonian élite of this period). Her comments on the generic motives of eulogy (e.g. p. 113) are enlightening, as is her discussion of the similar language and imagery of epitaph and eulogy (e.g. pp. 114-116). Indeed the study throughout raises many thought-provoking questions on the generic conventions of court elegy, and it will be used with profit by scholars of many perspectives who work with Hellensitic and later poetry.

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 ἤνυες) and the king to whom his message is addressed, who in turn is the speaker of the final 9 lines of the fragments. The king’s speech delineates a juxtaposition of earlier enemy Persian forces (lines 13, 15-16) and the present Galatian enemy. This juxtaposition of distant (and “heroized”) and present conflict immediately calls to mind the structure of Simonides fr. 11 W. (on Plataea), a comparison B touches on in her discussion of this fragment’s genre (p. 123). B is particularly good on the cultural memory of the victories of the Persian Wars of the early fifth century in the Hellenistic period and the role of these victories for Hellenistic imaging of the enemy (cf. her comments on 958.9 ὑβρισταί τε καὶ ἄφρονες esp. pp. 149-50).7 The apostrophe of a secondary character in the fragment’s second line, with the attendant intervention of the narrator’s poetic voice, has long troubled scholars of the poem. B’s discussion of this poetic conceit in terms of the poem’s epic and elegiac features (pp. 119-123) is very helpful. B assumes (p. 125) that the poem celebrated either the victory of Ptolemy II over his mutinied Galatian mercenaries in 276 (the same incident recalled in Callimachus’ Hymn to Delos 165-88) or another victory over the Galatians in lands under Ptolemaic control. She does, however, give ample space to proposals by earlier scholars of other Hellenistic kings and occasions. Her discussion of the poem’s epicizing features (and distinction between Homeric “coloring” vs. allusion) is enlightening, as is her qualitative evaluation of the poem in comparison with other Hellenistic poetry (R. Hunter’s forthcoming treatment of Theocritus Idyll 17 will provide a useful comparison in many respects here).8 B’s extensive use of Menander Rhetor’s βασιλικὸς λόγος in seeking to ascertain the conventions of a largely vanished genre, Hellenistic encomiastic elegy, is both judicious and illuminating. A major contribution of B’s work is her analysis of royal “image-making” in the early Hellenistic period, a process of which encomiastic elegy was a part but which included an array of literary, inscriptional and monumental works, all of which B deftly and elegantly treats in her analysis.

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 Φάτις νικηφόρος is much more than its subtitle might suggest. While this is indeed a scholarly commentary on two encomiastic elegiac fragments of the Hellenistic period with a wealth of philological and critical detail, it is at the same time a much larger cultural study of the world these two fragments recall. As a study of the elegiac tradition, of Hellenistic court poetry, of the fashioning of Hellenistic kingship, and of questions of third century artistic taste and decorum, B’s work is a major contribution to a growing and changing scholarly discussion of Hellenistic poetics as both reflection of, and creative agent for, the culture of the royal court. The necessarily detailed character of the work does not make for easy perusal, and the reader may occasionally find the abundance of learned material rather overwhelming. The reader who perseveres, however, will be richly rewarded.


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 ἁβροσύνη in Archaic Greece”, CA 11 (1992) 90-121.

8. Encomium of Ptolemy Philadelphus, by Theocritus, translated with an introduction and commentary by R. Hunter. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.