BMCR 2006.07.17

Herodes Atticus reflected in occasional poetry of Antonine Athens. Studia Graeca et Latina Lundensia 13

, , Herodes Atticus reflected in occasional poetry of Antonine Athens. Studia Graeca et Latina Lundensia ; 13. Stockholm: [Lund University Press], 2005. xiii, 119 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 912202137X $69.50.

Skenteri has chosen an interesting niche within which to craft a book. At the intersection of archaeology and literature, in the often ignored poetic subculture of the prose-dominated Second Sophistic, and swirling around the brilliantly controversial figure of Herodes Atticus, S has compiled a group of five inscribed poems that deal with Herodes’ career and personal life (overlapping categories, to be sure). S is clear about the market placement of such a project: “This study differs from previous research in the sense that it will focus entirely on verse inscriptions connected with Herodes Atticus and found in two different regions of the Roman Empire” (3). None of S’s texts can be definitively attributed to Herodes (nor does S ever push such an attribution), but they all clearly were created under his approving eye. In addition to this attractively narrow focus, S claims the methodological innovation of studying these poems in terms of “how occasional poetry functioned in the contemporary society and of how an individual like Herodes exploited the poetic medium in order to enhance himself” (3). This project, therefore, represents a valuable contribution to the study of Greek poetry of this era, a field in which the excellent work of Ewen Bowie remains embarrassingly lonely.1 S’s text will be of interest primarily to scholars specializing in this period, and it presents an ambitiously cross-disciplinary analysis of an intriguing set of textual artifacts.

Chapter 1 offers a variety of preliminary information largely focusing on S’s methodology and Herodes’ biography, with shorter sections on the background of this project (part of Lund University’s ongoing research project ” Athens as the Cultural Metropolis of the Roman Empire“), previous work on poetry of the Second Sophistic period, and an overview of the scope and general approach of S’s text. The methodological section is the weakest part of the book, and anyone familiar with modern approaches to ancient poetry can safely bypass it. For example, some will object to S’s insistence that the poetry under discussion had an identifiable “function”. This assertion is central to the book’s argument, which seeks to understand the relationship between Herodes’ public image and this group of poems, but such a goal does not demand that we boil art down to an easily digestible capsule of functionality. Comments on the author and audience are similarly problematic. Without any references to the large bibliography dealing with the authorial persona, S seems to be struggling to reinvent the wheel: “The poet will, in the poetic text, assume a persona that is not identical with his real person” (8). Furthermore, even this basic discovery of the distance between authorial persona and “real person” seems undermined on the next page with the statement that much of the poetry dealing with Herodes’ deceased family members “can be read as sincere expressions of [Herodes’] deep sorrow” (9). Part of this problem stems from a tension in S’s text between the desire to create a historicizing argument (i.e., by reading these poems we can learn about the historical Herodes) and the realization that literature is never transparent. Thus, the following sentence ends up muddying the waters by conflating Herodes’ sense of himself with the public persona he sought to create: “The poems convey his own self-image and the image of himself that he wished to present to others” (7). The chapter concludes with a biography of Herodes that provides a useful and quick overview for anyone who wants more than the OCD offers without tackling the works of Ameling and Tobin.2

Chapter 2 deals with two inscribed poems from Triopion, Herodes’ estate on the Via Appia. Here S produces much more solid scholarship, and my criticisms should not detract from the benefits of studying these poems as literary monuments that participated in shaping Herodes’ public image. The structure of this chapter (repeated in Chapters 3 and 4) is clear and tight. Greek texts are based primarily on Moretti’s edition and Peek’s emendations,3 and the author’s own English translations follow with an acknowledgement of indebtedness to the translations by Froehner (whose text is missing from the S’s bibliography and only partially referenced in the footnote) and Kammerer-Grothaus.4 Next, for each poem S offers a brief commentary on the technical details of the texts and translations, frequently adding important points to the discussions of earlier editors. Finally, the content of each poem is analyzed in terms of its “function” and genre. Triopion A, which consists of 59 hexameters by the poet-doctor Marcellus, is a dedicatory epigram associated with a lost statue of Herodes’ dead wife Regilla in her heroon on their estate. There is much here of mythological interest that deserves further scholarly attention. For example, the poem presents Herodes and Regilla as descendants of, among other mythical figures, Theseus and Aeneas, respectively. S teases out many of the allusions here but never exhausts the poetic possibilities of the happy marriage of the greatest heroic bloodlines from Athens and Rome coming together on an Italian estate named after a sanctuary of Demeter at Knidos that was compared to Eleusis by Callimachus.5 Along with the otherwise unattested etiology of the ivory moon worn by patricians on their sandals as deriving from a shining beacon worn by Hermes in Aeneas’ escape from Troy, we are confronted with a very innovative and sophisticated text that could certainly be explored further. Triopion B, thirty-nine more hexameters that S suspects are also by Marcellus, is “an appealing hybrid, a hymn and a curse epigram at the same time” (53). The poem asks for divine protection of the estate and threatens potential vandals with utter destruction. S’s discussion of the hymnic and curse traditions provides helpful and succinct background. Here we see most obviously the importance of simultaneously studying the sculptural and literary aspects of this poem. S highlights the innovative decision to place funerary curse inscriptions typical of those found in Asia Minor on Athenian-style herms “combining a foreign practice with a native tradition” (57). Such insights help to reanimate the visual and monumental dimensions of these poems that disappear when the texts are studied without their corresponding contexts.

Chapter 3 offers an assessment of another pair of texts, elegiac epigrams found in Attica that describe Herodes’ mourning for his wife and one of his children, respectively. S again organizes the material methodically, proceeding from details of the discovery of the inscriptions to critical texts, translations and notes, and broader discussions of the content and style of each. S’s analysis of the Avlona epigram was, for me, the highlight of the book. S insightfully shows the important connections between the architectural and sculptural context of the poem and its content. The epigram is cast as a dialogue between the widowed Herodes and an admiring passerby who seems not to know that Regilla has died. (The frozen voice of Herodes must have been delighted that this friendly chap, if no one else, also betrays no knowledge of the persistent rumor that Herodes had caused Regilla’s death by kicking her in the stomach in the eighth month of her pregnancy.) The conversational poem gains poignancy (though perhaps Herodes doth protest too much?) by its location on the Gate of Eternal Harmony which, in happier days, had marked the point of contact between Herodes’ and Regilla’s sections of the estate and declared their lasting matrimonial bliss to the world. The quality of S’s work, however, falls off somewhat in the discussion of the Kephisia epigram, a poem lamenting the death of an infant of uncertain identity. The text itself is troubled (so much so that S prints the texts of both Peek and Follet), and this understandably makes progress difficult. Yet while much of S’s work here relies on the conventions governing funerary epigrams, not a single piece of scholarship on that genre is cited. Thus, by the time S has rejected Peek’s text in favor of Follet’s,6 in part because Peek’s “is in conflict with an important genre convention” (75), the conclusion that this poem “offers something new and original” (76) (namely, “the repetition of the same name referring to two different people” in a single funeral epigram) falls rather flat. The ensuing discussion of the identity of the dead child (named Herodes, according to Follet and S but not Peek) comes to the tentative conclusion that the subject of this epigram is the prematurely born product of Regilla’s fatal pregnancy. The chapter ends with snapshots of two important issues: first, the debate over the alleged excessiveness of Herodes’ lamentation (poetic and otherwise) for his personal losses; second, the possibility that these two poems from Avlona and Kephisia should be understood in some sense as a pair that work together to create a complex and heterogeneous image of Herodes’ personal life. The former subject, in particular, ought to have been investigated more probingly in light of S’s stated interest in how these poems contributed to Herodes’ public image.

Chapter 4 deals with a fragmentary elegiac inscription from Marathon, which Bowie deemed “excessive … in a number of ways.”7 The poem offers an account of Herodes’ return to Athens after successfully defending himself before the emperor Marcus Aurelius on charges of tyrannical behavior lodged against him by a group of prominent Athenians. Given these awkward circumstances it is surprising to read a poem describing the jubilant reception of Herodes by not only the entire city but a clutch of prominent divinities as well (Athena, Demeter, Kore, Dionysus, and, somewhat unexpectedly, Aphrodite). Oddities abound in S’s treatment, such as the use of Herodotus to support a claim about how Greeks “of this period” wore their hair (90) and the total absence of references to relevant scholarship for the claim that this poem “follows in the footsteps of the most prominent Hellenistic poets … ” (106). Nevertheless, S does treat many of the critical issues relating to the document at hand. For example, S suggests that the poem may have been as long as 58 lines (only 26 are preserved in good condition), discusses the dissonance between Herodes’ unhappy recent relationship with Athens and the triumphant tone of the surviving text, speculates that the surprising presence of Aphrodite in Herodes’ welcoming committee can be explained by Herodes’ dedication of a statue of the goddess, and points out many striking stylistic features, especially the large number of uniquely attested words (though admitting that at least one TLG search was “not exhaustive”, 105). The main sticking point of this chapter for many readers is likely to be the issue of the historicity of the event recounted in the poem. In addition to the obvious problems of Herodes’ (un)popularity at Athens and the presence of such a large part of the Greek pantheon among the human retinue, S points out that certain choices, such as the poem’s dramatic location (Thria, on the road between Athens and Eleusis) and the list of participating divinities, “[do] not seem to have been made at random” (96), and that the entire event evokes the annual procession from Athens to Eleusis (98). Yet even these seemingly stylized details do not shake S’s dogged commitment here to a historicizing reading. The enthusiasm of the Athenians is explained away with the suggestion that they “missed Herodes’ financial support and therefore wanted to accept him again” after his prolonged absence (107) and that “the Athenians regretted their actions and were anxious to give him a warm welcome home” (109). The possibility that the text is “hyperbolical” is dismissed out of hand with the claim that “it would be out of place to regard it as such” (109) despite S’s admission on the next page that “[a]ll the poems attributed to Herodes display hyperbolical elements … ” (110). While a historicizing interpretation of the poem may be valid and the Athenians may have been truly jubilant upon the return of their scandal-plagued patron, such an approach would be strengthened by a more thorough discussion of the role of Herodes’ deft rhetoric (a relevant issue regardless of whether he was the author or patron of this poem), the differences between poetic vision and historical archiving, or the tension between proscriptive and descriptive speech acts. S never banishes the anti-historicist reading altogether and ends the chapter with a shrug of the shoulders and the optimistic consolation that “[r]egardless of whether the poem reports facts or fiction … for the modern reader … some delightful pieces of occasional poetry have been handed down to posterity” (110).

The book ends with a brief chapter that recaps the main arguments and conclusions. Sadly, this two-page coda serves only to grind the text down to an abrasive halt. The last page alone contains two fragmentary words (“th” and “slo”) and one sentence unburdened by any grammatical subject (“All the [evidence?] presented … “). I have left this matter for the end of my review in order not to distract from the scholarly strengths and weakness of S’s text, and I will neither bore BMCR’s readers nor raise my own blood-pressure by rehearsing the often clunky style, the errors of punctuation, the otiose repetition of information within the same or adjacent paragraphs, the mangled verb forms, and similar mechanical irritants. Suffice it to say that S’s publishers ought not to have allowed this text to go to press in its present condition.


1. E.L. Bowie. “Greek Sophists and Greek Poetry in the Second Sophistic,” ANRW II.33.1, 1989: 209-258; “Greek Poetry in the Antonine Age,” in D.A. Russell (ed.), Antonine Literature. Oxford, 1990: 53-90; “Hadrian and Greek Poetry,” in E. Ostenfeld, at al. (eds.), Greek Romans and Roman Greeks. Aarhus, 2002: 172-197.

2. W. Ameling. Herodes Atticus. Hildesheim, 1983. J. Tobin. Herodes Attikos and the City of Athens. Amsterdam, 1997.

3. L. Moretti. Inscriptiones Graecae urbis Romae. III, Rome, 1979. W. Peek. “Zu den Gedichten des Marcellus von Side auf Regilla und das Triopion des Herodes Atticus,” ZPE 33, 1979: 76-84.

4. W. Froehner. Les inscriptions Grecques. Paris, 1865. H. Kammerer-Grothaus. “Der Deus Rediculus im Triopion des Herodes Atticus,” Römische Mitteilungen 81, 1974: 131-252.

5. As S notes, Callimachus mentions Triopion in his “Hymn to Demeter”, saying that “the goddess was as crazy about [the grove of Dotion] as she was about Eleusis, Triopion, and Enna” (29-30).

6. S. Follet. “La datation de l’archonte Dionysios ( IG, II 2, 3968),” REG 90, 1977: 47-54. W. Peek. “Attische Inschriften,” Athenische Mitteilungen 67, 1942: 1-217.

7. Bowie, 1990: 60.