BMCR 2006.03.37

Volumes on Nonnus of Panopolis

, Nonnos de Panopolis, Les Dionysiaques. Tome XVI. Chants XLIV-XLVI. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2004. 262 pages. ISBN 9782251002002
, Nonno di Panopoli, Parafrasi del Vangelo di S. Giovanni. Canto tredicesimo. Alexandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2004. 176 pages. ISBN 9788876947445
, Nonno di Panopoli, le Dionisiache (Canti XXV-XXXIX). Volume terzo. Introduzione, traduzione e commento. BUR Classici Greci e Latini. Milano: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 2004. 898 pages. ISBN 9788817002615
, Nonno di Panopoli, le Dionisiache (Canti XL-XLVIII). Volume quarto. Introduzione, traduzione e commento. BUR Classici Greci e Latini. Milano: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 2004. 758 pages. ISBN 9788817002622

Nonnus of Panopolis, who for years has languished in critical obscurity, is now, it seems, finally on the move. The four commentaries under review here give some indication of the current scope and direction of Nonnian studies and represent an important contribution to our collective understanding of this extraordinary poet. The starting gun for this critical revolution was fired thirty years ago when Francis Vian produced the first of a projected 18 volume commentary on Nonnus’ 48 book epic, the Dionysiaca.1 That exemplary work of scholarship (itself indebted to the work of the formidable Rudolf Keydell) has set the tone for all the subsequent volumes. When — shortly — the final volume is produced, the completed edition will represent a major landmark in the history of Classical scholarship.

Bernadette Simon [S.], in her second contribution to the Budé series2 brings that landmark one step closer to completion. Her commentary focuses on Books 44-6 of the Dionysiaca, the so-called Pentheid : Nonnus’ tragedy-length retelling of Euripides’ Bacchae. These three books form a self-contained unit within the larger epic narrative and provide a neat counterbalance to the three preceding books devoted to a contest between Dionysus and Poseidon for the attentions of the maiden Beroe. After the defeat of Dionysus in Books 41-3, comes the resounding triumph for the god of wine over Pentheus in Books 44-6.

S.’s commentary, following in the recent footsteps of Tissoni,3 provides a detailed analysis of the relationship between Euripides and Nonnus. Nonnus follows Euripides’ script closely but the accusations of slavish imitation that previous generations of scholars have been happy to level at him are proved to be unfounded (see esp. pp. 130-2). Nonnus’ Bacchae finds room for new episodes (such as the story of the Tyrrhenian sailors); his Pentheus is more culpable than Euripides’ (signalled early on by Nonnus’ insistence that Pentheus usurped power in Thebes rather than acceding legitimately to the throne), whilst his Dionysus is a more compassionate divinity (Nonnus’ Dionysus treats Agave and Autonoe with pity at the end of the narrative — an element entirely missing from Euripides’ presentation).

Though the title of the Pentheid is a modern coinage, it is felicitous in that it foregrounds the relationship between tragic material and epic form. Following his account of the end of the Indian War, Nonnus no longer engages with Homer in the same direct and sustained manner (the Odyssean wanderings of Books 40-8 are much more loosely conceived than the Iliadic fighting in Books 25-40). Nevertheless, Nonnus’ relationship with Homer does not simply come to an end at this point, and there remain many interesting nodes of intertextuality. S.’s detailed commentary draws attention to many such allusions. For example, at 46. 108 Pentheus disguises himself as a women by putting on clothes that he removes from a chest. S. notes an allusion to Helen in the Odyssey 15. 104-5 (compare Iliad 6. 288-95 especially with Odyssey 15. 99-108), removing a splendid peplos as a gift for Telemachus. In this way Pentheus is doubly transformed into a woman, both by the clothes and by the Homeric intertext.

A characteristic of S.’s approach, in keeping with the Budé project in general, is to employ a lighter touch than previous generations to textual problems. She makes a good case for the underlying logic behind many sections that have been previously dismissed as being botched together or ‘clearly’ incomplete or misplaced. This same spirit also applies to the text where the reading of the manuscript L is restored in a number of places in preference to Keydell’s emendations. She also follows the agnostic approach of the wider Budé series regarding the possibility of Christian echoes. Rejecting the thesis of Tissoni that Dionysus should be viewed as a Christ figure (pp. 133-4), S. is at pains to point out that this thesis ‘ne correspond aux intentions du poète’ (p.133). Nonnus’ Dionysus may well be more forgiving than Euripides, but this does not make him a proto-Christian (in her defence S. points out that the image of Dionysus the forgiving saviour can be found on Classical vase-paintings). For S., following the line adopted by Vian in the first of the Budé Nonnus volumes and continued throughout the series, the poet’s intentions are best represented by the term poikilia — an aesthetic position that frustrates any attempt to pin down a stable ‘meaning’, because of its emphasis on variation in theme and tone and on the diversity of the epic’s narrative forms and voices.

An important consequence of Vian’s project was the stimulus it gave to Enrico Livrea to produce a parallel series of commentaries designed to cover the 21 chapters of Paraphrase of St. John’s Gospel, a work widely, and credibly, attributed to the author of the Dionysiaca. Livrea’s series, though still at a relatively early stage, is characterised by the same meticulous attention to detail that has become the hallmark of the Budé Nonnus.

Claudia Greco’s [G.’s] commentary, text and translation of chapter 13 of the Paraphrase of St. John’s Gospel (an elaboration of her 2002 doctoral thesis) is the latest instalment of this project. This section concerns the Last Supper, Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and the betrayal of Christ by Judas. The first section of G.’s introduction (pp. 15-28) develops the picture of Nonnus as the scholarly exegete, concerned more with the theological interpretation of St. John than he is with the challenge of converting koine Greek into Homeric hexameters. Here it is Cyril of Alexandria who holds greater sway than Callimachus, as can be seen, for example, in Nonnus’ reading of the scene of the washing of the disciples’ feet. For Nonnus, clearly informed of late-antique theological discussion, the scene is to be viewed as a prefigurement of the sacrament of baptism — an interpretation that remains possible but somewhat opaque in St. John’s Gospel. Christian exegesis is of course only one of the threads that make up the fabric of this densely-woven text. G. is alive to the possibilities of Neoplatonic thought-patterns within the narrative, relating the journey of the ‘hero’ (through, for example, the language of travel and return) to the metaphorical progress of the soul. In this respect it is interesting to note a small, and on the face of it inconsequential detail that Nonnus adds to the scene of the foot-washing. At lines 55ff. Jesus is described as making a circuit round the twelve disciples who are seated at a circular table. St. John mentions nothing of Jesus’ circular course, but in a late-antique context the possibility of astrological symbolism in this scene is hard to miss: the twelve apostles, as G. suggests (p. 20), invite reading as signs of the zodiac with Jesus as the sun.

The remaining part of the introduction (pp. 35-49) is taken up with more technical aspects of the Paraphrase (a list of koine words and phrases together with their epic substitutes, a comparative list of tenses used in both texts), followed by a section on Nonnian style (abundance of adjectives, fondness for Homeric hapax legomena and neologisms) and concluding with a brief description of the manuscript tradition. This richly-detailed and well-produced work is a worthy addition to the Livrea project and to the wider bibliography on the poet from Panopolis.

For a number of years the Vian and Livrea projects have advanced in tandem, though with little signs of direct engagement or dialogue between the two. Though both commentaries readily support the idea of a single poet responsible for both works, they do not have the same single poet in mind. Each group supports a quite different constructions of Nonnus. For the French, the Nonnus of the Dionysiaca is a secular poet engaged primarily in a secular literary endeavour; for the Italians, the Nonnus of the Paraphrase is a Christian exegete, deeply embedded, and an active participant, in contemporary religious discourses. Until very recently, the radical differences between the two projects have remained masked by the fact that both projects have tended to stick closely to their own discrete sphere: ‘Christians’ with the Paraphrase; ‘pagans’ with the Dionysiaca. There are increasing signs however that this traditional arrangement is under attack.

Certainly the work of Gianfranco Agosti [Ag.] and Domenico Accorinti [Ac.], the last two authors under review here, represents a significant departure from the traditional approach to Nonnian scholarship. Both served their Nonnian apprenticeship on the Paraphrase project,4 and it is the Christian Nonnus of the Paraphrase that they have now brought directly to bear on the Dionysiaca.5

It should be said right away that these last two books, like the others under review, are books that all those with an interest in Nonnus will wish to have on their shelves — useful and often provocative companion volumes to set beside the Budé commentary, and readily affordable. They reprint the Budé texts where available and fill gaps with Keydell (one hopes that any second edition will by then be able to use the Budé text throughout). Though there is no apparatus criticus, the advantages of a more compact edition (with notes on the same page as the text and translation) more than make up for this. Deviations from the published texts are, at any rate, noted at the beginning of each book, and particular textual problems are amply discussed in the notes.

Between them Ac. and Ag. cover the last half of Nonnus’ 48 book epic, from the start of the Indian War (following Dionysus’ crossing of the river Hydaspes), through the hero’s advance through Greece to Athens, Eleusis and his ultimate apotheosis.

For both Ac. and Ag., Nonnus is a poet who exists not at the margins, but at the very centre of late-antique cultural and religious discourses. Section one of Ag.’s introduction raises interesting and important issues concerning the context for the performance of the Dionysiaca (pp. 7-18). We know nothing about how the Dionysiaca was performed but, as Ag. suggests, some books stand alone and suit recitation e.g. Phaethon (Book 38); Tyre (Books 40-1). Given the length of the poem, the Dionysiaca would certainly have demanded many performances. We know little more about the location for such performances, though Ag. points to the interesting discovery of two rooms near the public baths in Alexandria that provided an eighty-seat auditorium. Concerns about performance have hitherto not had the attention that they perhaps deserve because of the difficulty in trying to identify the audience for such a work. Ag. follows Haas in his contention that ‘Alexandrian lecture halls were scarcely segregated by religious persuasion’ and invites us to imagine a mixed audience of both pagans and Christians, educated in ancient paideia, capable of appreciating the musicality of Nonnus’ verses, his rescripting of the story of Dionysus and his syncretistic reading of polymorphic divinity — much the same audience in fact who would have listened to and appreciated the Paraphrase (pp. 16-17).

Another noteworthy section within Ac.’s introduction (pp. 22-32) focuses on prophetic utterance. Taking as its starting point the linguistic connection between the words of the prophets in the Paraphrase and the oracular voices contained within the Dionysiaca, he suggests that the connection, far from being merely linguistic, reveals a ‘characteristic feature of the mentality of the time’ (p. 24). It keys into a much wider debate about the place of oracular authority and prophetic utterance in late antiquity whereby Christian writers sought to control traditional sources of oracular power (often retrojecting into pagan oracles predictions of the coming of Christ). This remains an area of fertile and largely unexplored ground that will clearly repay further work, especially with regards to Nonnus and the figure of the late antique poet as inspired mediator between the divine and mortal spheres.

Ac.’s introduction (pp. 7-37) takes a similarly contextualising approach. He charts the journey of the ‘Greek’ poet Nonnus through landscapes both real and imaginary via Dante and the Lebanese poet Nadia Tuéni. The ‘real’ landscapes under discussion are those of Tyre and Berytus, two of the most clearly realised places in the epic (pp. 20-5). For the vivid tone that Nonnus adopts when describing these places, Ac. borrows Tuéni’s phrase ‘géographie poétique’. Literary inspiration in the guise of Achilles Tatius clearly informs Nonnus’ description of Tyre, but Ac. follows le Comte de Marcellus’ 1856 suggestion that Nonnus may have studied law in Berytus. Whether or not this was in fact the case, the emphasis and direction of Nonnus’ praise itself has important implications for our reading of his own cultural positioning. As Ac. says, though he may have been ‘culturally a Greek’ (p. 19, quoting Liebeschutz), it is interesting that none of the cities of Greece is praised in the way Tyre and Berytus are praised. Though this is certainly true, the fact that Nonnus’ 48-book epic reaches its conclusion in Athens at the Eleusinian mysteries should not, of course, be underestimated.

A further part of Ac.’s introduction (pp. 25-36) highlights the richly allusive construction of Nonnus’ city of Athens. Ag. rightly draws attention to the similarities between the introduction to Book 47.1-33 and the first stasimon of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. What is most noteworthy, however, is his suggestion that Dionysus’ entry into Athens contains a hitherto undetected allusion to the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem as described in the Gospels, when the crowd, in order to bestow honour, spread their clothes over the road and cover them with branches and strips of foliage.

If Ac. is right, an intertextual reading that sets Christ and Jerusalem alongside Dionysus and Athens has the potential to transform our understanding of the Dionysiaca and its position within the cultures of late antiquity. Before such a reading can command real credibility, however, there is clearly a need for a wider-ranging study of the place and function of ‘Christian resonance’ throughout the narrative of the Dionysiaca and not just within specific lines or episodes. How does a late-antique Christian read the story of Dionysus? Is it possible, as the secular perspective of the Budé maintains, to engage with Nonnus’ epic in an essentially secular manner? Or to what extent can it be maintained that any late-antique text inevitably implicated in contemporary discourses of religion and society? These are questions that need to concern both the ‘pagan’ and ‘Christian’ traditions of Nonnian scholarship, since the answers are far from obvious. What is obvious — and a cause for some celebration — is that Nonnus of Panopolis does indeed appear to be finally on the move.


1. F. Vian, Nonnos de Panopolis, Les Dionysiaques. Tome I. Chants I-II. Paris, 1976.

2. B. Simon, Nonnos de Panopolis, Les Dionysiaques. Tome XIV. Chants XXXVII-XL. Paris, 1999.

3. F. Tissoni, Nonno di Panopoli. I Canti di Penteo (Dionisiache 44-46). Commento, Firenze, 1998

4. Ac: Canto XX (1996); Ag: Canto V (2003)

5. They complete the BUR series begun in 2003 by D. Gigli Piccardi (Books 1-12) and F. Gonnelli (Bks 13-24).