BMCR 2004.02.05

Stories from the Mountains, Stories from the Sea: The Digressions and Similes of Oppian’s Halieutica and the Cynegetica (Hypomnemeta 150)

, Stories from the mountains, stories from the sea : the digressions and similes of Oppian's Halieutica and the Cynegetica. Hypomnemata, Bd. 150. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003. xii, 342 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3525252498. EUR 66.00.

There is something of a double irony in writing a book on digressions in Oppian and pseudo-Oppian. Most classicists, it is sad to say, would be hard pressed to outline in any detail what narrative there is in Oppian or pseudo-Oppian to be digressed from. Those that recall the titles Halieutica and Cynegetica will appreciate the second irony: texts on hunting, whether it is the pursuit of fish or game, are inevitably given to divagation. Hunters do wander, pursuing their quarry on the pathless woods and sea. This is a book dedicated to getting off the beaten track (in all senses).

It is a pity that classicists are so unfamiliar with Oppian and ps-Oppian. The fact that there are over 50 Byzantine manuscripts of Oppian extant indicates something of the popularity of the Halieutica; and the Cynegetica is itself a form of flattery in its imitativeness. Like Aratus, much praised by the ancients, little read by moderns, Oppian and ps-Oppian raise a question about our appreciation of what ancient readers really enjoyed. What’s more, the Halieutica‘s bizarre combination of tales of fish and eroticism, surprising myths and scientific curiosity, academic obscurity and odd folklore, should be meat and drink to post-modern literary critics. More traditionally minded scholars too should be taken by this Greek poetry written for Roman emperors — the Halieutica is addressed to Marcus Aurelius, the Cynegetica to Caracalla. It is precious testimony of Greek literary culture at work in the upper echelons of Roman patronage. These texts are also firmly placed in a literary tradition of generic poetry, a tradition which includes Latin and Greek works. Here, unlike, say, in the Greek novel, we have Greek writing which seems to be anchored in a bilingual world, or which at least may know both Latin and Greek writing. With the Cynegetica of ps-Oppian, we also have a work written not just within the didactic tradition, but also, apparently, with a close eye on the Halieutica. As with Arrian’s Cynegetica, we have a test-case of generic intertextuality.

All this should make these texts of considerable interest. Sex, fish, patronage and literary sophistication: what more could a real classicist want? Yet no monograph has been produced to attract scholars and students to these unfamiliar haunts (as, for example, Patricia Rosenmeyer has done skilfully for the Anacreontea in her The Poetics of Imitation [CUP, 1992]). There is a modern critical edition of the Halieutica (based on extensive examination of the manuscripts) by Fajen [Teubner, 1999 — see also his Noten zur handschriftlichen Überlieferung der Halieutika des Oppians (Franz Steiner Verlag, 1995)] to add to Boudreaux’s 1908 edition of the Cynegetica. There are a handful of articles, mostly on technical issues of language. More approachable is the very brief commentary on a few extracts from the two poems in Neil Hopkinson’s Greek Poetry of the Imperial Period (CUP, 1994). Most find Oppian and ps-Oppian in Mair’s Loeb, which has a helpful introduction, setting out clearly the evidence why ps-Oppian is not Oppian, for example, and has many useful notes. The translation, however, is somewhat old-style Loeb. So Adam Bartley, a young Australian scholar who worked with Alan James at Sydney and Heinz-Gunther Nesselrath at Göttingen, was bold — ahead of his time? — in taking on Oppian and ps-Oppian for his PhD, from which this book has been developed. The book is not, however, a monograph to stimulate new interest in a forgotten world. It is rather a linguistic commentary on selected passages of the two texts, each introduced with some general remarks. It can only really be read with a text open and alongside, as one might expect for the commentary format. The book has a brief introduction (15pp) on digressions and similes in didactic epic, and a brief and very circumspect conclusion (4pp). The heart of the work is two long chapters, the first and longest (191pp) on digressions, the second and most successful on similes (95pp). The bibliography is inevitably small.

The commentary is primarily concerned with linguistic register and with the formation of the literary language of the two poems. Bartley shows that Oppian and ps-Oppian in different ways (their language is far from similar in style) not only closely rework didactic epic traditions but also the Hellenistic epigrammatists and a range of other texts. He shows less interest in the development of the narrative of the two poems, their content or indeed their literary rhetoric. He has perhaps been led in this direction by the available scholarship on the poem, which has remained dominated by such philology. The problem of what a digression is and how it is recognized is not treated with any nagging concern. After Ovid’s Metamorphosis, or, from another tack, after narratology, this should be seen as a particular problem. It is strange, for example, to see the wonderfully fascinating proem of the Cynegetica treated as a digression. While these opening lines of the poem are not precisely a didactic exposition of hunting or wild beasts, it is hard to see how a poem’s programmatic recusatio, which expresses the poem’s theme and inspiration, can be a digression (though the post-modern critic might have fun with the idea of a book that begins with a digression. How and when would one know? When would it stop?). The variety of passages considered as digressions, and the unexplored thematic richness of the selections, make this central chapter feel inadequately focused. There are too many unasked and unanswered questions. Here the limitation of the book’s format and its genesis in a PhD seem regrettable. The second long chapter on similes is more successful precisely because its subject is more closely defined, its relation to epic tradition more precisely expressible, and consequently the focus is more coherently maintained.

At its best the commentary is helpful and gives the necessary material for a more developed literary understanding. Take for example, the gloss on Halieutica 2.28, where the strange phrase ῥαιστήριος ἱδρώς is said to be the care of Hephaestus ( μέλει — a typical Homeric formulation). Bartley notes that ῥαιστήριος appears to mean ‘in respect of the hammer’, but this sense does not occur in earlier epic. When Apollonius Rhodius uses it (three times) it seems to mean ‘destructive’. (So far, this is available in LSJ.) But Homer uses the word ῥαίστηρ only once — of Hephaestus making Achilles’ armour ( Il. 18. 477), a word also adopted by Calllimachus of the Cyclopes ( Hym. in Dian. 59). Finally he observes that Oppian takes Homeric rather than Hesiodic models for his representation of divinity. This note gives the basic information (though he might also have noted the use of ῥαίστηρ at Aesch. PV 56, also of Hephaestus, and its later metaphorical use in Oppian himself, applied to a fire-brand, called the ῥαίστηρ of the house). Bartley does not hazard an interpretation or a discussion of the point of the Homeric borrowing. Nor does he comment on the bold expression ῥαιστήριος ἱδρώς‘hammery sweat’. The commentary provides some tools, then, but does not direct the reader. Consequently, at times the commentary on digressions in particular merely notes a Homeric use of a word and moves on. The best commentary will not only answer your question, but will also direct you to previously unseen problems or possibilities.

On similes, the focus on semantics is more controlled, and it is interesting to compare the very different styles of Bartley and Hopkinson on, say, Hal. 1. 463-9. Hopkinson, as befits his audience, helps with translation, notes Homeric phrases, corrects LSJ, and has a brief, intelligent comment on the functioning of the simile. Bartley discusses the development of the simile at length, looks at how Homer is used (rather than just noting the phrasing), and relates the work to the language of Oppian elsewhere. Here Bartley has much more space than Hopkinson, and, although he can’t match the experienced density of Hopkinson’s style, he does use the space well and produces a commentary of greater depth.

The titles of the selected sections for commentary fire the imagination. ‘Eastern marriage customs and jealousy’; ‘How octopoda devour their limbs for food’; ‘How moles are sprung from King Phineus’; ‘comparison of octopus and crayfish to a highway robber attacking a passing drunk’; ‘comparison of a frantic dog to a pregnant girl’ — and so on. It is clear from such titles alone how the works of Oppian and ps-Oppian may relate both to the Greek novel and to the paradoxographical writing such as Aelian, as well as the more narrowly described didactic tradition. This sort of broader cultural placement of the Halieutica and the Cynegetica is not attempted by Bartley, despite the introductions to each simile or digression and the detailed linguistic commentary.

When there is so little written on Oppian and ps-Oppian, we should be grateful for a volume which will make approaching these texts easier and more profitable for future scholarly enterprise. But we are still waiting for a book which can capture the sexy excitement of fish for Oppian, and the pleasures of the chase in ps-Oppian.