BMCR 2003.06.17

Der hellenistische Hesiod. Arats Phainomena und die Tradition der antiken Lehrepik. Serta Graeca: Beiträge zur Erforschung griechischer Texte, Band 11

, Der hellenistische Hesiod : Arats Phainomena und die Tradition der antiken Lehrepik. Serta Graeca ; Bd. 11. Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2001. x, 258 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 3895002119. EUR 65.00.

In Fakas’ revised 1998 Hamburg dissertation, we have for the first time a comprehensive guide to Aratus’ indebtedness to early Greek epic. In many respects, the agenda for research into the relationship between the Phaenomena and its most important model, Hesiod’s Works and Days, is set by Richard Hunter’s 1995 article.1 However, the recent commentaries of Douglas Kidd (1997) and Jean Martin (1998) generally confine themselves to listing the relevant parallels, whereas more interpretively inclined studies have mainly focused on the rewriting of themes from WD in the proem and the Parthenos episode. Now F.’s study, clearly written, well-structured and consistently argued around a number of bold theses, provides a methodologically sophisticated, up-to-date interpretive framework for the Phaenomena‘s numerous allusions to Hesiod and Homer.2

In the first chapter (pp. 5-66), focusing on the opening hymn to Zeus, F. traces Aratus’ departures from the specific conventions of ‘objective’ rhapsodic hymn-writing, demonstrating how the poet takes care to mark his special indebtedness to Works and Days 1-10. The most conspicuous thematic difference between the two proems is Aratus’ portrayal of Zeus as a beneficent deity rather than an awesome protector of Justice. This discrepancy has often been made to serve as the basis of a ‘naive’ stoicising reading of the Phaenomena as a whole; but on F.’s interpretation, it is unnecessary to adduce stoicism in order to explain the poem’s idiosyncracies. For Aratus’ original audience, a stoic reading of the opening hymn was, at best, optional, as was a political reading, according to which the proem constitutes an indirect glorification of the poet’s royal patron.3 Aratus’ portrayal of Zeus is not painted in the bright colours that such readings necessarily presuppose; rather, it is markedly ambivalent, and discrepancies with WD are caused by Aratus’ lack of interest in the specific concerns of the earlier poet rather than by a desire to provide a stoically or politically motivated ‘correction’ of his world-view.

These observations clear the ground for F.’s view that the Phaenomena constitutes a self-reflexively literary rather than an ethically or philosophically inspired composition. Aratus’ main programmatic goal in the Phaenomena‘s proem is a repudiation of the ‘homerising’ mode of composing epic. By structuring his poem as a continuation and development of Hesiod’s WD, he aligns himself with the tradition of non-heroic didactic epic; and by substituting the earnest ethical preoccupations of WD with a sophisticated aestheticism, he makes this obsolete genre palatable for a contemporary audience.

In the second chapter (pp. 67-84), F. demonstrates that the structure of the Phaenomena self-consciously reflects the peculiarities of WD both in its major outlines and in the minutest details. He argues that Aratus’ innovative approach to archaic compositional techniques is guided not by a desire to emulate his model but rather to adapt the repertoire of didactic epic to the new literary environment in which it is to function: a world in which Schriftlichkeit and libraries have replaced the direct oral transmission of knowledge.

The third chapter (pp. 85-148) starts out by describing the communicative situation posited by WD as a ‘didactic drama’, through which the audience are steered gradually, as they become more involved, to identify with one of the two dramatis personae: the ‘pupil’. Although this paradigm may not do full justice to the complexity of the communication between narrator and audience that takes place in WD, it proves a valuable heuristic device for establishing the narrative voice of the Phaenomena. The Aratean personae of ‘teacher’/narrator and ‘pupil’/narratee, while being absent in passages where their presence might plausibly have been expected, keep a conspicuously low profile in passages where they are present. Moreover, the communication between ‘teacher’ and ‘pupil’ on matters nautical and agricultural displays a carefully maintained distance from the actual subject-matter. On F.’s reading, the ‘didactic drama’ of the Phaenomena, markedly different from the foregrounded interaction between narrator and narratee of WD, intentionally show up the artificiality of the poem’s fiction of providing useful tips for farmers and sailors.

These chapters reveal how Aratus, manipulating the topoi and conventions of didactic epic, sets up WD and its author as his revered but not slavishly followed model. Whereas F. successfully traces the outlines of this ‘Hellenistic Hesiod’, he seems less successful in keeping sight of the real Hesiod. Not every reader will be convinced by F.’s sketch of a religiously inspired, self-assertive Boeotian peasant who consciously turned his back upon narrative heroic epic, sitting down to create a rival genre with which to address an assembly of fellow peasants; and his demonstration of the genuine spontaneity and naivety of Hesiod’s archaic style is far from uncontestable.4 F.’s tendency to conflate the historical Hesiod and the ‘Hesiod’ conjured up as a foil for Aratus’ sophisticated poetry becomes more pronounced in the final two chapters.

Chapter 4 (pp. 149-75) is devoted to Aratus’ aition of the constellation Parthenos (96-136), which as previous commentators have shown constitutes a ‘commentary’ on Hesiod’s Myth of the Ages and Praise of Justice ( WD 106-201, 213-85). F. has many new things to offer, most importantly an overall interpretation that emphasises the poetological importance of this passage, to the exclusion of any of the ethical or paradigmatic functions implicit in the Hesiodic model. On F.’s view, Aratus’ Myth of the Ages is a mere temporal device, articulating a past which accommodates the anti-heroic ideal of a world with peace, justice and tilth (and no ships!), and a present in which Parthenos shines, morally neutralised by her catasterism, high up in the sky; these two focal points reflect the genealogy of didactic epic from its Hesiodic beginnings to its august present. Although F.’s meta-literary reading accounts for several puzzling features of Aratus’ text, his reluctance to acknowledge any contemporary relevance or moral in the Dike aition causes him to gloss over a number of others; and one cannot help thinking that Aratus must have gotten more out of his model than F. allows.5

In the fifth chapter (pp. 176-220), F. argues that throughout the Phaenomena, Aratus’ aesthetic delight in a purely descriptive account of the constellations and meteorological signs takes precedence over the religious concerns of traditional didactic epic. His exclusive aestheticism reveals itself in a marked lack of ‘piety’: Hesiod’s heady mixture of theology and ethics, with its almost monotheistic emphasis on Zeus’ universal centrality, is replaced by an ambivalent, fragmented conception of divinity in which Zeus is now a fairy-tale deity, then a mere abstraction; Hesiodic ethical terminology is consistently neutralised to the level of descriptiveness. On F.’s view, the poem’s preoccupation with its own literariness — its status as a work of artifice at two removes from the natural processes it purports to describe — disqualifies it as a serious statement of scientific, religious or philosophical ideas.

The Phaenomena that emerges from F.’s book is a poem concerned overridingly with exploring ways of creating non-homerising epic in a literate environment, addressing a small and learned audience sympathetic to Aratus’ aestheticism and competent to pick up his veiled poetological statements. This ‘literary’ reading of the Phaenomena succeeds where philosophical and political readings have fallen short: it offers a comprehensive interpretation of the poem as a text composed with a single, consistent programme rather than as a thematically somewhat underdeveloped exercise in versification and aemulatio. That said, it must be added that, despite many nuanced qualifications in the footnotes, not every one of F.’s theses does full justice to the poem’s complexity. For instance, F. argues in great detail how Aratus foregoes the particular religious earnestness of WD, but this ‘lack of orthodox piety’ does not necessarily mean that the poem is completely devoid of serious religious ideas. It is precisely in such passages that F. regards as programmatic of Aratus’ a-religious aestheticism (e.g. 135-6 ἐννυχίη ἔτι φαίνεται ἀνθρώποισι | Παρθένος, or 223-4 αὐτὰρ ὁ Ἵππος | ἐν Διὸς εἰλεῖται καί τοι πάρα θηήσασθαι) and in the all but Callimachean over-determination of conventional religious tropes (e.g. Dike’s double parentage in 98-9, or the juxtaposition of Himmelsgott and Sagengott in 259-67), that a particularly Hellenistic ‘religiosity’ can be discerned — one that is concerned to show the continuing presence of the ancient Greek divinities in modern society.6 F.’s undue scepticism of any serious religiosity not expressed with Hesiodic ‘piety’ is even more pronounced in his treatment of Callimachus’ first Hymn, a poem that is caricatured as a paragon of wanton irreverence.7

Similar reservations can be leveled against F.’s contention, maintained throughout the book, that the transition from orality to literacy by itself can account for all the differences in tone, address, and rhetorical strategy between Phaenomena and WD. F. identifies Aratus’ audience as a small circle of literati interested in reflection on the new parameters of literary communication but not beset by any curiosity about the changed socio-political environment or by doubts about the validity of their cultural values. There is something unsatisfactory about F.’s consequent dismissal of integral features of the poem’s discourse (the hymnic topoi, the mythological asides, the vignettes of sea and country life) as mere generic flavouring. Somehow, we have to account for an intended audience that can take in the ivory-tower pedantry of the ‘teacher’/narrator as well as the reassuring surface message that Zeus, the Muses and the Hesiodic ideals of equity and order are still of crucial importance for making sense of a world otherwise changed beyond recognition.

However, although F.’s main theses may strike some readers as being too reductive of the poem’s complexity, they generate a number of illuminating interpretations of individual passages, and frequently provide solutions for long-standing problems. Here is a selection: — Arat. 2-4 should not be read as a stoic ‘correction’ of the Hesiodic world view; rather, WD 101 πλείη μὲν γὰρ γαῖα κακῶν, πλείη δὲ θάλασσα is brought into the text as a corrective to the optimistic tone of Aratus’ words. — The homeric hapax βῶλος in Arat. 7 evokes the antithesis between agriculture and warfare implicit in Od. 18.366-79. — The perennially problematic χαῖρε πάτερ… | αὐτὸς καὶ προτέρη γενεή (Arat. 15-6) is elegantly explained as Aratus’ leave-taking of the subject-matter of heroic epic, reflected further on in the omission of the heroic race from his Myth of the Ages. — The pun on Aratus’ name (Arat. 2 ἄρρητον) thematises the tension between a modern striving for originality and the traditional anonymity of the Homeridae, who are evoked by an allusion to Pi. N 2.1-5. — The ‘rightness’ of Aratus’ prayer at Arat. 18 ᾗ θέμις εὐχομένῳ consists in its calling all the Muses μειλίχιαι, as a corrective to Hesiod’s and Empedocles’ preference for Calliope ( Theogony 75-84, fr. 131.3 DK). — The low profile of the ‘teacher’/narrator is emphasised at Arat. 303-4 and 559-60 by intertextually equating him with garrulous Nestor ( Il. 23.326 and 2.361 respectively). — The acrostich πᾶσα at Arat. 801-4 is a modernised version of the old-fashioned associative root-anaphora figure, cf. e.g. WD 353-6.

Easily disclosed by 17 pages of index locorum, such sensitive interpretations without doubt constitute the main asset of F.’s book. His demonstration of the pervasive influence of both Homer and Hesiod on Aratus, and his sustained exposition of the Phaenomena‘s self-conscious literariness, serve to make the poem less of an anomaly in the corpus of extant Hellenistic poetry. Although, being sceptical of the poet’s stoicism as well as of his serious interest in astrology and meteorology, F. has little to say about science and philosophy in the Phaenomena, his scrupulously compiled bibliographical dossiers to a large extent make up for this partiality. With generous quotation of the Greek text wherever apposite (but no translations), and often illuminating cross-references, The Hellenistic Hesiod is a thought-provoking contribution to the study of Hellenistic poetry.


1. R.L. Hunter, ‘Written in the Stars; Poetry and Philosophy in Aratus’ Phaenomena‘, Arachnion 2 (1995) 1-34.

2. F. frequently glances at recent developments in Latin studies for interpretative approaches (e.g. 43 n.129, 56 n.159, 99 n.48, 147 n.211, 176 n.4); at relevant points, he helpfully cites literary theory (e.g. p. 33 n.93, 85 n.1-2, 149 n.3), ancient history (20 n.53) and philosophy (176 n.3, 177 n.7). He takes a wisely agnostic position in such issues as the relative dates of Homer and Hesiod (50 n.145), the ending and binary division of Hesiod’s Works and Days (42 n.128, 67 n.2), the role of the Homeridai in the transmission of the Homeric text (48 n.139), the authorship and date of the cyclic epics and the Catalogue of Women (49 n.142, 77 n.50) and the date of the transition form orality to literacy (89 n.15).

3. Though I find myself largely sympathetic to F.’s arguments, not every reader will be convinced by his outright dismissal of ancient testimonies to the stoic sympathies of both Aratus and Antigonus Gonatas. Likewise, F.’s decision to discuss the telltale δημοτέρας ἤειδεν ἐπισπέρχουσα θέμιστας (107) with its evident political overtones in an early footnote rather than in the main text has significant repercussions for his reading of the Parthenos episode.

4. F.’s portrayal of Hesiod and his achievement is somewhat reminiscent of that of Hermann Fränkel ( Dichtung und Philosophie des frühen Griechentums [2nd ed. Munich 1962] 104ff.), though he takes care to support it with numerous references to more recent literature. I find implausible the idea that in WD, Hesiod actually addresses and describes his own milieu — farmers and sailors — whereas in his Theogony, he may have addressed a courtly audience (pp. 100 and 21); and, despite some explicit disclaimers (e.g. p.76 n.44), I still prefer to believe that WD represents a grand synthesis of a living tradition rather than its beginning.

5. If the figure of Parthenos/Dike represents didactic epic, her remarkable equation with Demeter can be interpreted as a further tribute to the didactic ideal of justice, agriculture and peace; the odd collocation ἤειδεν… θέμιστας at line 107 even has Dike dispensing law in verse (p. 171f.). Less than convincing, on the other hand, is F.’s view that Aratus simply ‘breaks off’ the Myth of the Ages at stage three and consequently loses its force as a socio-political paradigm (p. 162): surely, the narrative of the gradual alienation of Dike from human society can have its own rhythm, distinct from Hesiod’s? For a more sympathetic reading of the Hesiodic myth and its reception, see G. Most, ‘Hesiod’s Myth of the Five (or Three or Four) Races’, PCPhS 43 (1997) 104-27.

6. I am not convinced by F.’s assertion (e.g. p.189 n.58) that in these instances the overall tone precludes ‘earnest religious feeling’. The sheer number of key passages susceptible to an alternative interpretation points to a more consistent religious reading than F. is prepared to allow: Aratus’ discussion of the missing Pleiad ( Phaen. 259-63) can be read as making a paradoxical scholastic point rather than posing a literary zetema; his suppression of the current identification of the Kneeling Man (63-70) as Heracles may be a pointer to contemporary ruler cult rather than an example of Ästhetisierung, etc.

7. F. acknowledges Richard Hunter’s cautionary general remarks about religiosity in Hellenistic poetry (‘Writing the God: Form and Meaning in Callimachus’ Hymn to Athena‘, MD 29 [1992] 9-34); but he would, I feel, have done well to take them closer to heart. For a reading of Callimachus’ first Hymn that takes full account of its seriousness as well as its playfulness, see S.A. Stephens, Seeing Double: Intercultural Poetics in Ptolemaic Alexandria (Berkeley 2003) 74-121.