BMCR 2005.09.20

Greek Mythography in the Roman World

, Greek mythography in the Roman world. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xvi, 346 pages).. ISBN 9780198038214 $55.00.

A serious, book-length study of mythography has long been a desideratum, and the lack of one is felt even more keenly now that there is so much excellent work on individual mythographers.1 This book, despite its general title, does not fill that gap because Cameron is uninterested in the main surviving mythographers or those who made interpretation as opposed to simple narration a major part of their work. Still, this deeply learned study of a selection of mythographical works from the early centuries of our era is very welcome. Not only will it be of vital importance for scholars working on mythography, but its audience will include anyone whose work intersects with the varied topics it treats. Cameron’s command of difficult sources, both primary and secondary, is nothing short of extraordinary, and he conveys that erudition with an admirably clear and at times even conversational style. This makes individual sections of this complex volume quite lucid and engaging, though reading it straight through can be exhausting. Cameron’s insights and his willingness to treat so many minor works as worthy of study in their own right more than repay close reading.

The cohesiveness of the book’s early chapters derives from Cameron’s attempt to make his various analyses relevant to unraveling the mystery of the Ovidian Narrationes (or Argumenta), the prose summaries that come down to us in the text or margins of several early manuscripts of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and, in later manuscripts, on their own. The later chapters, particularly 9 and 10, range into larger questions surrounding mythology and mythography. These are all relevant in one way or another, but the book is by no means a straightforward study either of the Narrationes or of any other mythographical texts. Digressions are intelligent and revealing, but alarmingly frequent. The shifting focus of Cameron’s attention gives the book a lopsided feel and often gives the impression that a more systematic approach might have had even more successful results.

Most of the chapters begin with comments that set the stage in an informative and general way but then quickly turn to matters so technical and scholarly that a simple, general summary of the whole does not seem to me to be of particular value. What follows, therefore, is a synopsis of each of the book’s chapters along with my comments.

1. An Anonymous Ancient Commentary on Ovid’s Metamorphoses ?

Cameron here addresses the various questions of the origin and original form of the Ovidian Narrationes. His main purpose is to argue against two elements of the communis opinio surrounding the Narrationes : first, that they are, at least partly, the surviving remains of an ancient Ovidian commentary from late antiquity; second, that they came into their present form some time after the fifth century AD.

The material supposedly derived from the earlier commentary is divided into three categories (1. extra mythological detail, usually the supplying of names for unnamed characters in Ovid or genealogical information, 2. brief explanatory phrases, and 3. source references). These are purportedly Otis’ categories,2 but they are not in fact the same, and there is a resulting slipperiness in Cameron’s argument. Otis’ first two categories correspond exactly to Cameron’s third and second, but Cameron’s “extra mythological detail” is not Otis’. Rather, Otis concerns himself with “actual scholia of an interpretative character,” an entirely different matter. This is not just a matter of mismatched nomenclature. Otis catalogued Cameron’s extra details but was not much concerned with them. Cameron simply never quite faces Otis’ “actual scholia” head on.3

Nonetheless, Cameron’s arguments here are persuasive enough to shake the commentary theory even if he never quite delivers the knockout punch. To skip ahead for a moment to the next chapter on Hyginus and Narrator (Cameron’s useful but initially jarring moniker for the author of our summaries), Cameron there does treat one of Otis’ scholiastic passages, namely Narr. 2.6 where Narrator cites one and a half lines of Latin hexametrical verse on why the catasterized Callisto never sets into Oceanus. In Hyginus’ Fabulae 177 four hexameters are likewise cited for this myth (perhaps from the same poem). While I agree with Cameron that this does not necessarily point to an Ovidian commentary (a logical source for both would also be the ‘real’ Hyginus, excerpted by Narrator and appearing mangled in our surviving Hyginus), there are serious problems with his bald assertion that “while Narrator had an obvious motive to quote a poem Ovid imitated, Hyginus did not.” It is true that Narrator names authorities for Ovid; it is not his practice elsewhere to provide quotations of them.

Cameron is, to my mind, more clearly persuasive in his attempt to redate the Narrationes to the mid-2nd to mid-3rd century. He shows through close argument that the long-noted similarity between the commentary on Thebaid 4.347 and Narr. 5.4 proves that the Statius commentator mangled the Narrationes or was using a mangled text of them. Cameron next makes a strong case that Vibius Sequester’s odd geographical dictionary, which he dates c. 350,4 depends on the Narrationes. Cameron then turns to the scholia on Germanicus’ translation of Aratus’ Phaenomena (almost certainly earlier than the 4th century), and makes a convincing case based on verbal parallels that, when they refer to the Ovidian version of Callisto’s metamorphosis into a bear, the source was not Ovid himself, but the Narrationes.

2. The Greek Sources of Hyginus and Narrator

Hyginus’ Fabulae and De astronomia are of major importance to Cameron because they represent (with the Germanicus scholia) the only mythographical Latin texts remotely comparable to the Narrationes. As a consequence, he goes into some detail about this issue, and the first portion of this chapter is the best recent overview in English of both of these texts. His particular focus is on how these Latin works relate to the more numerous Greek mythographical texts, so he devotes considerable space to the evidence provided by the bilingual excerpts in Ps.-Dositheus, going so far as to raise the possibility that Hyginus’ original was Greek, though a Latin original seems to him “on balance the more likely alternative.” Despite the conclusion, the exercise is instructive and one of the best features of Cameron’s approach: he does not let sleeping assumptions lie. This does not mean that he makes none of his own; the nature of these texts and the evidence do not allow us to dispense with them entirely.

In Cameron’s treatment of the Callisto fabula in Hyginus, he argues against A. S. Hollis, who detected an Ovidian commentary behind the scenes.5 The main point here is that Narrator and Hyginus (as we have him) derived much of their learning from Greek sources, but not directly from the sources they cite, rather from intermediary mythographical sources.

3. Mythological Summaries and Companions

Those Greek precedents are the subject of Cameron’s third chapter. Considering Cameron’s earlier interest in the Callimachean Diegeseis, it is no surprise to see them here, especially as they are very close to the Narrationes in form (and likely intent). He also discusses tragic hypotheses, as well as Libanius’ Demosthenic hypotheses and Proclus’ summaries of the poems of the Epic Cycle. These, and texts along these lines, such as Ps.-Eratosthenes and the so-called Mythographus Homericus are viewed here as a particular species, less interested in grammatical and lexical information than fuller commentaries, and more interested in the stories (and, more importantly, the stories behind the stories) found in poets. They are thus seen as complementing other, more scholarly kinds of supporting materials.

4. Narrator and His Greek Predecessors

The aids to reading discussed in the previous chapter, along with prose paraphrases, had a particular form as companions to difficult poems, and that form provides exactly the model for the Narrationes —source citations, occasional explanations, additions and all. Cameron makes that point at length throughout this chapter, spelling out the connections and adding another notable feature, namely, that the Narrationes avoid the conceits of what we might term mainstream mythography. No rationalization, no allegoresis (though the Minerva/Arachne episode at least borders on it), etc.

Most interestingly, Cameron takes up directly the question of how the Narrationes came to be attached to the manuscripts of the Metamorphoses. Cameron, in contrast to Otis and others,6 sees the Narrationes as a companion to Ovid, and specifically a companion modeled directly on Greek exemplars. For him, then, the matter is much simpler. At first the Narrationes was a separate companion volume, but at some point was incorporated into the manuscript tradition of the Metamorphoses directly. He compares the Germanicus scholia, which are inserted directly into the text in the manuscripts and provide summaries and breaks, just as many modern school editions do for difficult authors. He also collects the meager evidence showing just this format (or something similar) for other works. The last section of the chapter is spent dealing with the specifics of how the Narrationes would have functioned in both formats, and questions of their subsequent textual history. This discussion lacks Cameron’s usual technical detail and does not engage directly with earlier scholars’ view.

5. Historiae and Source References

In this chapter Cameron delivers a salutary lesson in source criticism for anyone who works closely with mythographical material, whether the extant mythographers or scholia. Although ‘conscientious’ citation of sources is not solely the domain of mythographers in antiquity, Cameron is surely right to see it as one of their most characteristic features. Much work has been done on the source citations of individual mythographers, but here the phenomenon is investigated as a whole. He also addresses in this chapter the issue of why source citation was so important an issue culturally. Cameron at some length details not only how citations were expected to look, but also the question of what it means when a mythographical writer does cite sources. His answer is, rather depressingly, that it does not necessarily mean very much. This is hardly a new thought, perhaps, but here the problems are elegantly laid out and a kind of typology constructed for the various ways in which mythographical source citations could degrade over time. In addition to simple copying mistakes, successive authors could simplify, modify and summarize their sources in often baffling ways. Cameron does not despair, citing several examples of genuine erudition in later antiquity, but he rightly warns.

6. Bogus Citations

If some citations were simply mangled and some were honest mistakes, there are others that are more problematic, namely those that are outright falsehoods. The stars here are the wretched Ps.-Plutarchan Parallela Minora and De fluviis and the utterly charming Kaine Historia of Ptolemy ‘Chennos.’ Cameron does not suggest that any of the mythographical works is comparably mendacious, and so this chapter is rather a lengthy digression, but the discussion is enlightening and the subject deserves and needs treatment. And is it not entirely without point in the context of the book, for it speaks to the culture of the footnote in which these authors produced their works, perhaps parodying their earnest contemporaries for entertainment.

7. Myth in the Margins

Cameron’s main purpose here is to reevaluate mythographical marginalia from ancient papyri, building on his discussion in Callimachus and his Critics (Princeton 1995). His points are quite simple, but are of extreme importance. Arguing that they should be taken as interesting and worthwhile in their own right for the light they shed on the transmission of knowledge, the industry of book production and the modes of popular reading, he condemns the widespread view that early marginalia are of limited worth and that they become really interesting only when medieval scribes begin to excerpt full commentaries for their notes. In fact, relatively few scholars would put the case so bluntly, but it is hard to deny that the rather simple glosses and mythographical notes from earlier in antiquity have been too often seen as the random jottings of an individual in a private copy simply as an aid to memory. Cameron threads his way through the various views about annotation for the ancient classroom and similar topics, but spends the bulk of the chapter collecting evidence for the relatively early development of annotations and for the incorporation of some annotations in one way or another into rolls and codices as they were produced instead of as later additions by an owner.

8. Mythographus Vergilianus

Having argued in chapter 3 that, at least among the Greeks, mythological companions, as distinct from fuller commentaries and grammatical aids, were relatively common, and further arguing that the Narrationes demonstrate that the format moved into the Latin-speaking world, Cameron raises the possibility that there existed also a specifically mythological companion to Vergil (or, possibly, one for each of Vergil’s poems) that was eventually incorporated into the commentaries. Calling this supposed author “Mythographus Vergilianus” (and reminding us that once no one would have suspected the existence of the now undoubted “Mythographus Homericus”), he goes on to point out distinctive features of the mythological material in the Vergilian scholarship (distinct formulaic language beginning and ending the stories, e.g., much like the MH) and to ask when it might have arisen and what its sources might have been. His view is that it came into existence before the middle of the 2nd century and was derived almost entirely from Greek authorities. Cameron notes the difficulties of proving such a supposition but explores in his hallmark fashion the source citations incorporated into the material and points the way toward further arguments about the possibility.

9. Myth and Society

Cameron finally turns to the most basic questions about mythology’s place in the ancient world, both as subject matter for learned poets, artists and orators, and in itself. Much of this material seems introductory and to come too late in the book (especially since it does not depend in any serious way on Cameron’s earlier detailed arguments), but it is valuable and quite accessible. Particularly useful is his discussion of the ways in which mythology was learned, though there are some questions that inevitably come to mind. How precisely does one learn a particular myth from a painting, for instance? Or why was the interest in obscure mythological genealogy still so prevalent in the later era, when most of the names involved in the more obscure myths were merely names? Because Cameron’s whole concern has been with imperial (and indirectly Hellenistic) mythography, there is the rather large and regrettable absence of any discussion of earlier mythography, a genre (to use a simple word for such a remarkably diverse kind of writing) that arose practically immediately after the first prose literature.

10. The Roman Poets

The issues explored in the previous chapter become rather more pointed here. The concern is no longer how the ancients learned myth, but how Latin poets learned it. Cameron’s conclusion is, I think, both quite obvious and quite right, though it is surprising how rarely even the possibility is broached these days: they learned it as everyone else did, or at least partly so. If earlier poets rarely provide complete stories, the details in any given later poet, even when the main outlines of a narrative are derived directly from those earlier poets, must either be invented or taken from somewhere. That somewhere must in large part be mythographical handbooks, commentaries, and companions. Cameron rightly points out that there is no either/or answer here. A poet might take from some or all possible sources, but there is no reason to exclude some on the basis of their inherent artlessness.

Cameron discusses Vergil and, at greater length, Ovid in what seem to me sensible terms. Perhaps the strongest examples he cites are the mythological lists in Ovid. Though poetic lists of names go back to Homer and Hesiod, Ovid’s have close parallels in prose mythographers, and Cameron seems exactly right to compare Jove’s nine sexual encounters with mortal women in rapid succession on Arachne’s weaving to something one would find in a mythographer (namely, Hyginus 226, though the fabula is lost and we know it only by its titulus, Quae mortales cum Ioue concubuerunt). The chapter concludes with a full discussion of the seven transformation stories found in outline in Laurentianus graecus 56.1. Cameron does not go anywhere near so far as to suggest that such mythographical sources were someone like Vergil or Ovid’s main sources, but rather adjuncts to memory, organizational aids, and guides to further research.

Cameron’s 11th chapter is a brief conclusion. It is followed by six appendices. 1. A discussion of the name Lactantius Placidus. 2. Three of the Ps.-Dosithean excerpts of Hyginus side-by-side with the text of Hyginus as we have it. 3. A note on the question of whether the text of the Narrationes shows meaningful differences in the two main traditions of transmission (in the text of Ovid and separately). 4. A brief argument in favor of the authenticity of the marginal source citations in Parthenius and Antoninus Liberalis. 5. A note on the source citations in the Origo Gentis Romanae. 6. A brief discussion of Laurentianus gr. 56.1 (see chapter 10) and a new text of the mythographical excerpts based on Cameron’s own collation, as well as a translation.

Minutiae: The volume is handsomely produced, with high-quality paper and bindings. There is a selective index, which includes ancient authors, but a separate index locorum would be more useful. A full bibliography would have required enormous labor, but it would have made consultation far easier. There are some inconsistencies in typography, but nothing truly problematic. Errors are generally slight and infrequent for such a complex book, with most involving formatting issues such as unclosed parentheses, lack or unnecessary presence of italics, or the odd extra space. Other typographical errors that caught my eye: Pp. 11 n. 40 and p. 90 n. 5 “see Ch. VII” for “see Ch. VIII.” P. 26 n. 108 Macrobus for Macrobius. P. 33 lengh for length. P. 34 “an error than” for “an error that.” P. 38 n. 27 ὀμώνυμον for ὁμώνυμον. P. 46 277-9 for 277-93. P. 54 “Oxyrynchus commentary” for “Oxyrhyncus commentary.” P. 91 n. 10 “following chapter” ought to be “chapter VIII.” P. 217 and elsewhere Palaefatus for Palaephatus (though correctly so-spelled in a few places citing Latin texts). Pp. 240 n. 116 and 245 n. 130 “Appendix 5” for “Appendix 6.” P. 337 Αἴχμαίου for Αἰχμαίου. P. 338 ἀνεῖλειν for ἀνεῖλεν. P. 338 γυνὴ for γυνή.


1. For instance, M. K. Brown, The Narratives of Konon (Munich 2002); R. L. Fowler, Early Greek Mythography, Volume 1: Text and Introduction (Oxford 2000); J. L. Lightfoot, Parthenius of Nicaea. Extant Works Edited with Introduction and Commentary (Oxford 1999); and J. Stern, Palaephatus Περὶ ἀπίστων : On Unbelievable Tales (Wauconda, IL 1996).

2. B. Otis, “The Argumenta of the So-Called Lactantius,” HSCP 47 (1936) 131-163.

3. Cameron is surely correct to argue that there is no need to see any of the material in his own categories as necessarily derived from a full commentary, but Narrator’s substantial if wrongheaded allegorical interpretation of the tapestries of Minerva and Arachne as representing the superiority of scientia artis over labor is an entirely different beast. And even if, to quote Tarrant (in Pecere and Reeve (edd.), Formative Stages of Classical Traditions [1995]), in the Narrationes“no other scholiastic comment … equals this one in interest,” it and the others ought to have been treated by Cameron. In fact, it is on the basis of these that Otis argues that all of the scholiastic material is originally external to the summaries. I am inclined to be satisfied by neither scholar here, though I’m generally convinced more by Cameron. Otis’ idea that all of these things are intrusive marginalia because a few seem to be is rightly condemned by Cameron, but it is equally hard to see how Otis’ relatively few interpretive “actual scholia” jibe with Cameron’s views, particularly in the absence of any discussion or acknowledgment of them.

4. Cameron bases the date on the revival of interest in Silver Latin poetry in the early fourth century and the end of pagan sacrifice some decades later, but the latter criterion has only a single present tense ( Mater deum … lavatur, Vibius Sequester 21) to depend on, and the occasional failure to correct such presents to imperfects is not unknown even in clearly later authors.

5. A. S. Hollis, “Traces of Ancient Commentaries on Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” Papers of the Leeds International Latin Seminar 9 (1996) 159-74.

6. Otis (1936, 134) had created the following scenario: “at some time before the ‘Dark Age’ some learned man equipped a manuscript of the Metamorphoses with ‘legends’ and ‘footnotes.'” These, the Narrationes proper, in other words, came to share at least one manuscript equipped also with marginal scholia derived from the putative full commentary. From that combination the Narrationes as we have them emerged, a mixture of two very different ingredients. Some of Otis’ details are due to his particular view of the relationship between specific Ovidian manuscripts, but it is the fullest exposition of a theory for the origin of the Narrationes that we have. Many others assume an Ovidian commentary but fail to provide explicit hypotheses for how it was transformed into the Narrationes.