BMCR 2004.11.19

Forme di comunicazione nel mondo antico e metamorfosi del mito: dal teatro al romanzo

, , , Forme di comunicazione nel mondo antico e metamorfosi del mito : dal teatro al romanzo. Culture antichi, studi e testi ; 17. Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2003. vii, 336 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 8876946926 €28.00.

The book contains the proceedings of a Conference held in 2001 in Turin, organised by the “Pôle Alpin de Recherches sur les Sociétés Anciennes” (PARSA). The subject is extremely broad; the 19 contributions cover a wide range of topics and are centred on an even wider set of ancient texts. Theatre and the novel, to which the title makes reference, are only two of the literary genres involved, while philosophy, epic, and Hellenistic poetry are also well represented; the first contribution also deals directly with some myths, rather than with particular texts, and the role that society and politics have played in their evolution and diffusion. Of course, as always with this kind of book, only a few readers, if any, are likely to be interested in reading it from cover to cover; conversely, most of them will find one or two valuable discussions in it, at least. A substantial part of the volume, for example, actually deals with the topic “dal teatro al romanzo”, which has been (and still is) a rather popular research field; therefore, the book recommends itself as useful reading for, among others, the ever-growing number of scholars interested in the ancient novel. The papers vary in length, depth, and originality, but the overall quality is good. Their number allows for only a very short account of each one’s contents; some remarks about factual errors and issues of presentation are listed at the end, in the ‘quibbling’ section.

After a short introduction by Lucio Bertelli and Gian Franco Gianotti, who organized the Conference, the first contribution, by Antonio Aloni (“Teseo, un eroe dalle molte identità”, pp. 1-22), studies the formation and evolution of the heroic character of Theseus in Athenian society. The myth of Theseus was widespread and prominent in the cultural, religious and social life of 5th century Athens, but in the 6th he was “una figura evanescente, protagonista di poche avventure non tutte precisamente lodevoli” (5). Theseus’ myth undergoes a remarkable evolution from the age of Pisistratus, when the hero’s non-autochthony, his provenance from Troezen and his birth by Poseidon were particularly stressed, to the democratic Athens, when he was rather believed to be a son of Aegeus and therefore a true Athenian, connected with the goddess Athena. J. Neils1 has suggested that Theseus was ‘adopted’ by the Alcmeonids as a reaction to the strong connection of the Pisistratids, the opposing faction, with Heracles: therefore Theseus’ myth played an important part in the political struggles of the 6th century, and his evolution was influenced by them in turn. Aloni corrects the excessive schematism of Neils’ thesis by pointing out that non-autochthony and a connection with Poseidon were features common to both Pisistratids and Alcmeonids and that also the Pisistratids played a role in shaping Theseus’ myth, as can be inferred from the François vase and from the interpretation of a few Homeric lines.

5th-century Athens is the central concern of Anna Beltrametti’s paper (“Storie e drammi di regalità nell’Atene periclea. Di Ciro e di Edipo, di Solone e del Sileno”, pp. 23-41). Beltrametti points out that Athenian culture seems to be obsessed, in the very century when democracy was at its highest, by the idea of monarchy and its corruption. In the author’s view, this is particularly true as regards Herodotus and Sophocles, “i due intellettuali più organici e impegnati nel progetto pericleo” (27); the paper analyzes similarities and differences in the two authors’ approaches to the theme of kingship and tries to highlight some possible interactions between literary presentations of kings and Athens’ historical vicissitudes. Classical theatre is the subject of Jaume Pòrtulas’ paper (” ‘Molto hai toccato il mio cuore, figlio di Filammone…’ (Reso, 890-973)”, pp. 43-48), a short contribution about the Muse’s rhesis at the end of the pseudo-euripidean Rhesus and on some mythical Greek poets.

The next three papers are devoted to the place held by myth and poetry in Platonic philosophy. Patrizia Pinotti (“L’Asino, il Re, la Fanciulla Gravida e il Cigno. Metamorfosi del mito e prefigurazioni del romanzo nella scrittura platonica”, pp. 49-78) considers the Platonic dialogues as a whole as “una storia scandita … dai temi della ricerca, dell’agnizione e della profezia, e articolata ai [sic] motivi della nascita di bambini eccezionali, dell’iniziazione di fanciulli meravigliosi, e della consacrazione di figure reali e divine” (53); it is a story made up of tales that “non sono più un mito e non sono ancora un romanzo, ma che gettano qualche lume sulla metamorfosi dell’uno nell’altro” (55). It happens that Socrates and his interlocutors embody some symbolic characters, such as those quoted in the title, that will later come back to life in narrative literature, like the Life of Aesop, the Life of Apollonius, and most of all Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. The idea of Socrates embodying an ass would be particularly exciting in view of the novel by Apuleius (a philosophus Platonicus), whose main character is metamorphosed into an ass. Unfortunately, this idea seems to this reviewer to be much less explicit in the Platonic dialogues than in Pinotti’s paper: I can find almost no ground to state that in the Symposium and in the Theaetetus Socrates “assume esplicitamente tratti asinini” (74).2 Jean-Marie Bertrand’s paper (“Mesonges, mythes et pratiques du pouvoir dans les cités platoniciennes”, pp. 79-96) is about the relevance of falsehood and mythopoeia to Plato’s political project in the Republic and in the Laws; it also contains a discussion on the correct meaning of the adjective γενναῖον used of the mendacious tale in Rep. 414b (a controversial point): not “noble lie” or the like, but “un authentique mensonge, parfaitement réussi dans sa formulation et sa capacité à tromper son destinataire” (85). The contribution by Curzio Chiesa (“Platon et le bon usage des fables phéniciennes”, pp. 97-111) is closely related and deals with the legitimacy of narrating false myths to educate the citizens of the ideal polis, the credibility of those myths, their addressees, and the connection of such an educational mythology with rhetoric. Note that Chiesa accepts the meaning of γενναῖον attacked by Bertrand (without discussing it).

As a natural follow-up, two other contributions concern Aristotle’s views on myths in the Poetics. Annick Jaulin (“La transformation du mythos dans la Poétique d’Aristote”, pp. 113-120) stresses the difference between epic and tragic tales, the latter being characterized by a higher grade of unity and by a “non-episodic”, systematic and teleological structure. The differences between epic and tragedy and between good and bad philosophies are the same: therefore tragedy is “plus philosophique” than epic. Dina Micalella (“I miti e l’arte del poeta tragico (Aristot. poet. 1454 a 9 ss.)”, pp. 121-133) studies the complementary role played by tyche and the poet’s techne in the finding and choice of the mythological subject for a tragedy.

The mythical fight between the Dioscuri and the sons of Aphareus, first narrated by Homer, is to be found in several later texts. Olivier Gengler (“Héritage épique et lyrique dans la poésie alexandrine: les Dioscures et les Apharétides d’Homère à Lycophron”, pp. 135-147) studies the different perspectives of the Hellenistic authors who refer to this myth (Theocritus, Apollonius, Lycophron; but also Pindar and Alcman), and their relationship with the Homeric model. The literary evolution of a myth is also the subject of one of the most interesting papers in the collection. Federica Bessone’s “Discussione del mito e polifonia narrativa nelle Heroides. Enone, Paride ed Elena (Ov. Her. 5 e 16-17)” (pp. 149-185). The myth of Helen’s abduction by Paris provides the subject for three of Ovid’s Heroides, in which “lo scontro di prospettive multiple tra i tre mittenti epistolari ricostruisce in piccolo … la pluralità di valutazioni concorrenti che il mito aveva suscitato in fasi diverse della cultura greca (e latina)” (154). Ovid does not limit himself to alluding to a secular debate on Helen’s innocence or culpability, but also puts some themes already exploited in the Ars amatoria to good use. In doing so he deconstructs the traditional opposition between accusers and defenders of Helen: Paris’ iniuria is desired, and even solicited, by Helen herself, who is therefore both victim and instigator of the abduction. The frequent and important intertextual connections between the three epistles reinforce, in Bessone’s view, the unity of the liber heroidum; they can also be used as a subsidiary critical tool to assess the authenticity of some controversial lines (e.g., 5,139-146: pp. 178-181).

The two following papers lead us into the realm of rhetoric. The function of mythology in Latin declamations is the subject chosen by Danielle van Mal-Maeder (“Credibiles fabulas fecimus: Mythe, rhétorique et fiction dans les déclamations latines”, pp. 187-200): passing allusions to myths are employed to raise the declamations’ characters to the rank of mythical heroes, to make the reasoning more convincing, to show off the declaimer’s erudition, and to put the learning of the audience to the test with an “allusion savante”. Elisabetta Berardi (“Mito e storia nella diatriba cinico-stoica (una lettura dell’or. 17 di Dione di Prusa)”, pp. 201-213) presents a study on Dio Chrysostomos’ Oration 17, the way it exploits mythology and its Euripidean and Herodotean models.

The ancient novel, and more generally ancient prose narrative, has been a discreet presence in some of the preceding papers; now it takes centre stage — which is indeed the correct expression since several contributions deal precisely with the relationship between theatre and the novel. The first paper, however, (Clarisse Herrenschmidt, “Callirhoé et Chariclée héroïnes monétaires? Une proposition à propos de Chéréeas et Callirhoé de Chariton et des Éthiopiques d’Héliodore”, pp. 215-233) suggests that the heroines of Chariton’s and Heliodorus’ novels can be constructed as metaphors of the coin (especially of the gold coin), of its value and its circulation. A rather eccentric thought on a first reading, and a bit at odds with the “idealistic” nature of these novels; nevertheless, Herrenschmidt is very sober and cautious in proposing her idea and supports it with some good arguments.

The best starting point for an inquiry into theatre and the novel is probably Heliodorus’ novel, which contains a massive quantity of explicit and implicit references to theatrical practices as well as to individual dramas. Daria Crismani’s short but interesting paper (“La donna velata e altri ricordi di scena tra le pagine del romanzo greco”, pp. 235-241) deals with some of these references; particularly thought-provoking is Calasiris’ speech, which explains and puts into practice the rules that are to be followed in order to ‘stage’ a good narration and to enthrall the audience as if they were at the theatre. Gian Franco Gianotti (“Andromeda e Psiche: storie nuziali e assunzioni in cielo”, pp. 243-257) does not limit himself to theatrical and novelistic texts; he masterfully explores several rewritings of the myth of Perseus and Andromeda in Euripides, Ovid, Manilius and Apuleius, but also in minor and fragmentary texts, and in iconographical sources. Michele Curnis (“Un tópos quasi immancabile: la tempesta marina tra teatro e romanzo”, pp. 259-273) studies analogies and differences in the way dramas and novels exploit the topos of the seastorm, both as a metaphorical and a descriptive element. He points out that “la tempesta marina in ambito teatrale prelude allo scioglimento, mentre nel romanzo sovente tempeste e naufragi sono punto di partenza” of new adventures (271).

A book on “metamorfosi del mito” could not overlook Philostratus’ Heroikos, whose main concern is the rewriting and correction of the myths narrated by Homer. Raffaella Falcetto (“Il mito di Palamede nell’Heroikos di Filostrato”, pp. 275-297) undertakes the difficult task of tracing Philostratus’ sources for each detail of his account of Palamedes’ myth. The task is made difficult by the fragmentary status of several sources (the dramas by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, but also works by Gorgias and Alcidamas) and by the vagueness of some details (for example, the association of the Muses with the invention of the alphabet is a traditional topos, and it offers an unsteady ground to establish a connection between Philostratus and Alcidamas [292]), but Falcetto’s work is very well documented, and she goes as far as possible in her search.

After Falcetto’s interlude, the theme “dal teatro al romanzo” is resumed by Maria Teresa Clavo (“Comunicare a Delfi: lo Ione euripideo e le Etiopiche di Eliodoro”, pp. 299-321), who studies the different functions of the Delphic oracle in Euripides and Heliodorus. In the Aithiopika, Charicleia’s story shows several analogies with Euripides’ Ion; however, the role of “schemer of the plot”, which Apollo played in the tragedy, is played by Calasiris in the novel. Calasiris, “quasi Apollo mascherato da saggio, è l’ingegnere di piani segreti in cui i personaggi si muovono come pezzi di un gioco” (318). Mario Seita (“Oreste ed Elettra al tempo di Robespierre. Nota a Les dieux ont soif di Anatole France”, pp. 323-334) closes the book with a study on the classic models of Anatole France’s novel.

Thanks to the technological revolution of recent decades, books can be published quickly at a low price, and we cannot but be glad of this improvement; however, such speed and efficiency are not always without consequences affecting the overall quality of a publication. This is indeed a good and interesting book, as has been stated already; but a bit more editorial care would have made it even better. It seems that the editors have made no attempt to standardize the papers; some of them use bibliographical abbreviations and have a final bibliography, some do not, and those who do fail to use the same standards; the Greek font is not the same in each paper; there are different standards for quotations in modern languages in isolated paragraphs; and so on — but of course such purely aesthetic flaws can be easily ignored by a reader who is not going to write a review. More substantial is the lack of a general index and/or an index of the passages quoted: this would have been useful since we often find two authors dealing with the same topic without making reference to each other (for example, the problem of Theseus’ birth from Aegeus or Poseidon, in Aloni at p. 2 and passim and Bessone at p. 159 and n. 31). There are also several typos and some slips (e. g. p. 314 where Heliodorus’ novel is defined “novella”, probably a mistranslation for “romanzo” from Spanish “novela”), that could have been avoided with more proofreading.


1. J. Neils, The Youthful Deeds of Theseus, Roma 1987.

2. Pinotti’s statement is grounded mainly on the “complessa vicenda mitica del rapporto tra re e divinità frigie dall’aspetto asinino e quell’Apollo che, secondo la ricostruzione di A. Krappe, ne avrebbe assorbito culti ed epiteti” (62): cf. A. Krappe, Apollon Onos, “CPh” 42 (1947), 223-234.