BMCR 2006.03.39

Allegoria. Volume I. L’età classica. Introduzione e cura di R. Radice

, , Allegoria. Temi metafisici e problemi del pensiero antico ; 98. Milan: V & P Università, 2004-. volumes ; 22 cm.. ISBN 8834350073 €45.00.

The book under review is the first of a three-volume collection on the history of ancient allegory which will deal with the different forms of allegoresis from the scholiasts of the Homeric opus to late antique pagan and Christian authors. The first volume is mainly dedicated to Stoic allegoresis, very influential in antiquity, and in particular to etymology which was an important part of the Stoic theory of language. Stoic thinkers believed that language had been built up from a relatively small number of elementary units ( πρῶται φωναί) in which was recognisable a mimetic relation between phonemes and meanings. According to the authors Ramelli (R.) and Lucchetta (L.), the present study aims to offer a comprehensive coverage of pagan (and, in particular, Stoic) allegoresis: “solo in base a un’analisi sistematica ed esauriente, infatti, è possibile pervenire a conclusioni fondate riguardo al valore dell’allegoresi, ai suoi presupposti, ai suoi scopi e alla sua funzione in ambito stoico” (p. 478).

The book begins with a preliminary chapter where Radice (p. 7) distinguishes allegory, “una interpretazione casuale e rapsodica dei simboli”, from allegoresis, interpretation of symbols “filosoficamente motivata”. He also notes that there are two constituting features of the allegoresis: “strutturale e regolativo” and “fondativo” (p. 40). Allegoresis has, therefore, the role of uncovering those “fragments of truth” which either men or time have disseminated into myth. The first chapter (‘Tracce di esegesi allegorica prima dello stoicismo’) examines the presence of allegorical exegesis before the Stoics. Theagenes of Rhegium (VI century BC allegedly the inventor of the allegoresis, thought of an allegorical interpretation or, to use the words of ancient scholiasts, a “method of defence” of certain myths (especially those concerning the gods) contained in the Homeric texts which had already been criticised by Xenophanes and Heraclitus, and subsequently by Plato who, for pedagogical reasons, considered the myths and their allegorical interpretation unsuitable to young readers. The method of Theagenes has the purpose of interpreting the Homeric myths as types of physical phenomena (e.g. Apollo exemplifies fire, Poseidon the waters) or human behaviour (e.g. Athena for wisdom, Aphrodite for love). Unlike Plato, Aristotle and Democritus believed the myth to be an essential part of philosophy, anyone who was φιλόμυθος was perforce also a φιλόσοφος since myths are powerful vehicles of knowledge. According to Aristotle, myths were containers of ancient hidden truths which only the allegorical exegesis could bring to light again. Aristotle’s exegesis is essentially applied to the Homeric texts as they are, from a physical perspective ( φυσικῶς), a valuable source of explanation of natural phenomena, and, from an ethical point of view, an elucidation of human behaviour. Another interesting interpreter of ancient myths is Antisthenes who saw the Homeric characters as symbols of virtue like, for instance, Odysseus the σοφός par excellence, or Heracles the symbol of wisdom that wins the earthly battle against noxious desires.

The second chapter (‘L’allegoresi vetero-stoica del mito teologico’) examines the Stoic allegoresis of Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus. The standpoint of the Stoics is that ancient poems contain in their poetical form ( ποίησις) a representation ( μίμησις) of human and divine affairs. Poetry is not merely entertainment but essentially a vehicle of philosophy which has to be detected and understood, “il mito poetico è un discorso falso che presenta in immagini la verità” (82). One form of finding the truth is through the allegorical interpretation of epithets and the elucidation of their etymology. In the latter case, the influence of the Stoics on later thinkers will be influential. Zeno and Cleanthes analyse proper names or epithets of the gods in order to find explanations of physical phenomena (and this approach recalls the method of Aristotle). For instance, Zeus is invoked with different forms reflecting his multifarious powers; he is called, therefore, Δία because through him ( δία) nature exists; Ζῆνα for from him all beings receive life ( ζῆν). Ἥρα, instead, symbolises the air, ἀήρ; Apollo, according to Cleanthes, is depicted with a golden πλῆκτρον since being the god of sun he also reflects the light of sun. The chapter gives a wealth of examples of Chrysippus’s symbolical and etymological interpretations of myths and divine epithets. The myth can also be interpreted as a form of veneration of the Olympian gods. The Stoics attribute to the epithets of the gods a twofold significance, since they contain the essence of the divinity of the gods and the reference to natural laws: “lo stoicismo non voleva rompere con il patrimonio religioso tradizionale, ma intendeva ricuperarlo, valorizzando con esso anche la poesia e le espressioni artistiche, in una superiore sintesi culturale” (103).

In the third chapter (‘Esegesi allegorico-etimologica stoica negli interpreti di Omero di età alessandrina’), two important schools of exegesis are examined: the school of Alexandria against that of Pergamum. Within the former, R. considers the allegorical exercise practiced by Apollodorus of Athens on etymology. Apollodorus not only confined his interpretation to the various names of Zeus,1 he also argued that divine epithets do not stem from toponymy but from intrinsic attributes. According to him, Athena is called Γλαυκῶπις not because she dwells on the top of the eponymous mountain but because she is endowed with sharp sight ( γλαύσσειν); Aphrodite is called Κύπρις not because of her Cyprian origin, but instead from the verb κύω (“to conceive”), incorporated and partly recognizable in her names. In the light of what has been said so far, it is not a surprise that Crates, the head of the school of Pergamum, strongly believed that the alert reader was able to find in the Homeric texts expression of the polymathia of their author, a treasure of explanations of many cosmographical and physical phenomena.

The fourth chapter (‘Esegesi storico-razionalista del mito legata all’ambiente peripatetico’) examines a different kind of exegesis: the rationalization of a myth. The most important representative of this school of thought is Palaephatus (probably a pupil of Aristotle) who applied his exegesis to myths concerning men and heroes rather than gods. According to Palaephatus and the rationalist exegesis, myths were not conceived to explain natural phenomena; on the contrary, they were essentially a distortion of real events which happened in the distant past. I shall only mention two instances of rationalistic exegesis (but R. ably presents several fascinating passages): the first being the story of Aeolus, king of the winds who helped Odysseus by constraining in a bag all the unfavourable winds. This is explained by Palaephatus as the mythical crystallisation of a man, expert in physics, who revealed to Odysseus which winds to avoid and when. The myth of the Sirens was another example of reality encrusted with fantasy: the Sirens, who used to deceive and kill sailors, were originally prostitutes who, once they had squandered the wealth of their prey, quickly disappeared (hence the image of women with legs like those of birds). The exegetical typology of Palaephatus had many followers and traces of his method can also be found in Vergil and Ovid.

In the fifth chapter (‘I primi riflessi dell’allegoresi stoica nel mondo filosofico latino e i dibattiti critici’), R. focuses her analysis on the Latin allegoresis contained in the second book of Cicero’s De natura deorum. Cicero gives an insightful account of the diatribe concerning the reception in Rome of the Stoic allegorical exegesis. On one side, the character of Balbus represents the sustainers of the Stoic allegorical etymology of gods’ epithets (e.g. Saturn stems from saturari; Jupiter from iuvans pater; Neptune from nare). On the other side, Cotta, the second character, speaks for those sceptical about such an allegorical approach to names and myths, and derides Balbus who had based the etymological derivation of Neptune from nare on the basis of one single letter, the ‘n’. The chapter ends with a brief examination of the allegorical methods of Philodemus of Gadara, Lucretius, Horace, Philo of Alexandria, and Josephus.

In chapters six (‘L’allegoresi di Cornuto e degli altri Stoici romani’) and seven (‘Gli altri allegoristi stoici e stoicizzanti del I-II secolo’), R. deals with the Stoic allegoresis in Rome. Cornutus’s allegorical and etymological interpretations of myths derived essentially from the exegetical method carried out by Chrysippus, Apollodorus of Athens and Crates. However, R. does not confine her examination to the etymology of names, rites and origin of myths but, instead, she extends her analysis to visual representations of gods (for instance, the symbolism of the thunderbolt or that of the eagle, both associated with Zeus). Cornutus clearly influenced the poetry of Persius and probably the epic of Silius Italicus (R. p. 327 speaks of “una serie di affinità, di punti di accordo” between Silius and the thought of Cornutus), and also aroused the stern criticism of Seneca who attacked the allegorical approach to myths operated by Cornutus as ineptiae, product of a levis ac fabulosus sermo (benef. 1.3.8, 1.4.6). Among the fertile environment of Stoic philosophers and allegorists in Rome, Chaeremon of Alexandria, one of the three teachers of Nero, applied allegorical exegesis to the Egyptian myths, and his method was eventually to be used in the proto-Christian exegesis of the third century. Among other interesting texts examined here are three treatises commonly referred to with the title De regno (the typological interpretation is in this case applied to political purposes) and the libellum De vita et poesi Homeri of pseudo-Plutarch aimed at illustrating the polymathia of Homer.

In chapter eight (‘Le Allegorie dello pseudo Eraclito’), L. concentrates on an individual writer: he examines in detail the method of pseudo-Heraclitus and finds that in the Allegories its author does not seek to attain the atomistic etymology of a single word in order to uncover the deep significance of an epithet but the understanding of a bigger portion of the text in which the word examined is found. L. speaks of a “sistema comunicativo bidirezionale” where allegoresis is not only applied as a ‘passive’ allegorical approach but it also prompts the production of further texts on the gods: “per lo pseudo Eraclito ricorrere alle allegorie non serve solo alla comprensione del testo, un uso del procedimento allegorico che potremmo definire passivo, ma anche a comporlo” (p. 406). L. concludes that in the Allegories, the Stoic allegorical interpretation is attenuated and suggests a later date of composition of the text at some point during the second century A.D. when the anti-stoic exegesis of Galen reached a wider audience.

The book ends with conclusive chapter containing an overview of the texts studied in each chapter and an updated bibliography (pp. 479-543) — which clearly reveals the industry of the authors — of new studies published in the recent years. Apart from the inevitable misprints and minor errors, the book is generally well edited and the arguments are ably supported by a wealth of first and secondary sources. Glenn Most, in an article appearing in 1989,2 hoped that the lacuna on the study of Stoic allegoresis would soon be filled. This study is an important contribution to the understanding of the dynamics of ancient philology and will be no doubt an invaluable source of orientation for those interested in the subject of ancient allegory.


1. For instance, according to Apollodorus Zeus is called Δωδωναῖος because he gives presents (from δίδωσιν) and Πελασγικός because he lives near ( πέλας) the earth.

2. G.W. Most, ‘Cornutus and Stoic Allegoresis: A Preliminary Report’, ANRW II. 36.3 (1989), 2014-65, esp. 2018: “A complete collection of the remains of Stoic allegoresis … remains an important desideratum and an indispensable premise for the much-needed monographic treatment on its scope and history which would inevitably cast much light on the relations between philosophy, religion, and literature in antiquity”.