BMCR 2006.11.30

Tradition and Innovation in Hellenistic Poetry

, , Tradition and innovation in Hellenistic poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 1 online resource (x, 511 pages). ISBN 051108059X. $120.00.

Table of Contents

This “revised and expanded” translation of Muse e modelli: la poesia ellenistica da Alessandro Magno ad Augusto (Reviewed by William Beck, BMCR 2003.01.01) is a series of ten essays written by two of the most sensitive and provocative readers of Hellenistic poetry. The breadth of knowledge and the depth of insight displayed in each of these ten essays will reward any advanced Hellenist remotely interested in the literature and the literary milieu of the Hellenistic era.

At the outset the authors declare that “the principal purpose of this book is to set Hellenistic poetry within its own intellectual and cultural context” (p. vii). The cultural context is primarily, as the evidence insists, Ptolemaic Alexandria. Apart from a section on Aratus (p. 224-45) and a chapter on epigrams, the first eight essays focus on authors and texts that can be situated in Hellenistic Egypt. Of necessity the authors devote most of their attention to Theocritus, Callimachus and Apollonius, but there is ample attention given to epigrams and Posidippus. The ninth essay, “Hellenistic Drama,” and the tenth, “Roman Epilogue,” (less and more respectively) attempt to deliver on the dust jacket’s promise to assess Hellenistic literature’s influence on Rome.

Fantuzzi (hereafter “F”) and Hunter (hereafter “H”) frequently consider from many different angles how poets of this new era came to terms with their cultural “lateness,” exploited the innovative potential their changed cultural circumstances offered (e.g., technologies of preservation and transmission of cultural knowledge), and forged a new poetic for a very different world. In the course of their literary experiments, Hellenistic poets also did much to entrench an idea of the “Classic” (see especially pp. 23 with n. 89 and p. 462 with the sentence beginning, “Roman literature is…”). What (or who) constitutes tradition and how Hellenistic poets innovated upon it is demonstrated not by sweeping assertions about the appropriation and exploitation of cultural artifacts; rather, H and F invite their readers to form ideas of a broader pattern and practice by intricate readings of particular authors and texts. Close readings of specific texts in relation not only to their obvious models but also to a wide array of subsidiary sources, often identified for the first time, give this book a density and appeal that will stimulate any specialist to think and rethink her assumptions and approach to epigrams, encomia, epyllia and aitia, Apollonius, Aratus, Callimachus and Theocritus. Certainly these essays will also provoke the interested to consider and reconsider how these poets adopted, adapted, resisted, and exploited and even (to some degree) invented the literary tradition they cherished more and resented less than is generally imagined. Readers (particularly those less sanguine about the degree to which Hellenistic poetry exhibits and exploits a self-conscious textuality and how much poetry’s performance context had really changed during the Hellenistic era) may find themselves contesting what is written, but all will be richly rewarded for reading each of these “thick descriptions” with care. Below is a brief summary of each chapter and a more detailed summary and discussion of select chapter sub-sections (with a few attendant quibbles) that exemplify H’s and F’s approach.

1 Performance and Genre (F)

F surveys fundamental questions surrounding sources of poetic authority, the forces driving poetic innovation, and several key features of the resulting literary output.

1.1 Invoking the Muse, Evoking Models (pp. 1-17)

F begins by asserting that the Classical dichotomy between inspiration and techne becomes elided among Hellenistic poets. Inspiration and technical expertise are asserted and enlisted by scenes of poetic investiture from a recognized master. Simichidas of Theocritus’ Idyll 7, Herondas’ dream in Mimiambus 8, and Callimachus’ “Reply to the Telchines” are among the examples illustrating the phenomenon. For the balance of the essay F turns to Callimachus’ Iambi 1-5, in which the persona of Hipponax figures so prominently, to sharpen his point. Despite the departures from Hipponax and overt embrace of techne expressed in the other Iambi (especially 13), Callimachus still “takes pains to find a historical ‘guarantor’ for his practice in the poetry of the past” (p. 17).

1.2 Impossible Models and Lost Performance Contexts (pp. 17-26)

While affirming the power of Kroll’s “Kreuzung der Gattungen” for understanding Hellenistic poetics, F hastens to show that there is more to their methods than arid intellectualism that inspires “genre-mixing.” In particular, F points to the changed performance contexts created by a changed society as driving poetic innovation. The empirical particularism of the Archaic and Classical periods gives way to logical taxonomies based upon abstract generalizations in the Hellenistic era. We have moved from the unique aesthetic demands of a particular occasion to an interest in identifying underlying conventions of genre. No longer able to replicate the performance conditions of the “original” poetic forms, Hellenistic poets were freer to play with the conventions of these forms removed from any particular performance context.

2) The Aetiology of Callimachus’ Aitia (H)

The first three sections (pp. 42-51) of this essay provide an overview of Callimachus himself, the possible overall structure of the Aitia and the more general interest in aitia and aetiology exhibited by Hellenistic poets. The latter sections offer close readings of specific texts.

2.7 Callimachus and the Ician (pp. 76-83)

H continues his exploration of “Callimachus’ self-positioning as an aetiological poet” (p. 76) in the story of the Ician (Callimachus, fr. 178). Here H presents a lucid discussion of the political and sympotic registers of the tale. He also connects the story with Odyssey. 17.217-28 (Melantheus’ abuse of Eumaeus and Odysseus) and the Ician’s small cup with the Cyclop’s massive kissubion ( Od. 9.346). Helen’s “good drug” ( Od. 4.219-32) is contrasted with poetic memory. Collectively the connections illustrate that the Aitia’s intertextual affiliation with Homer is deep and pervasive. The claim that the story has a programmatic function in the manner of the “Telchines” is attractive, but a more thorough discussion of the links between the two would have made the suggestion more substantial and persuasive. 2.8 Poems for a Princess (pp. 83-8)

H finally turns to two poems which are thought to stand (more or less) outside of the general framework of books 3 and 4. Whether frames, bookends or playful illustrations that aetiology has no real beginning or end despite the poet’s best efforts to create boundaries (cf. however, “the real poet has one power at least… ” p. 88), the “Victoria Berenice” and “Lock of Berenice” both speak to specific historical occasions while addressing wider poetic concerns that H has traced within the previous sections. The “Victoria” is replete with aitia surrounding Heracles’ visit to Molorkos while on his way to destroy the Nemean lion. Displacing the central event of the labor and foregrounding the humble peasant’s entertainment of the hero exemplifies the Hellenistic penchant for both intertextuality (Eumaeus’ entertainment of Odysseus ( Od. 14.45ff.) and the everyday (e.g. Hecale, Theocritus Idyll 24). H’s discussion of the “Coma” cleverly employs Catullus 65 and 66 to suggest the position of the “Coma” in the Aitia while avoiding a dry comparison of the “Coma” with its Latin “translation.” H especially takes note of the Graeco-Egyptian symbolism and the poem’s ideological register within the Ptolemaic court while offering the provocative analogy between the voice of the lock and the voice of the poet.

3) The Argonautica of Apollonius and Epic Tradition (H)

This essay is a very useful summary of many of the issues surrounding the criticism and the interpretation of the Argonautica that H has discussed over the years. No less than thirty times are readers directed to H’s previous work, and those interested in Apollonius would do well to consult them. In this essay, H shrewdly selects features of the poem that exemplify Apollonius’ relation to the past, import to the future and, perhaps most usefully, the nature of his own peculiar poetic accomplishment within his own milieu.

3.1 Epic Song (pp. 89-98)

H offers an overview of the Argonautica qua epic. From the opening announcement the poem’s generic affiliation, which decidedly fixes the poem as “epic,” H traces how Apollonius inscribes within his poem a new model for the recollection, preservation, and transmission of heroic kleos. In particular, Apollonius harnesses the power of allusion (and so also his audience’s literary competence) and exploits “cyclic motifs” to create (perhaps!) an epic that is “a cyclic poem done in the ‘modern,’ non-cyclic style” (p. 97).

3.3 Heroic Anger (pp. 104-17)

Jason’s emotions are a much used and fiercely debated index for the nature of Jason (and by implication the Argonauts) as a “hero.” Arguing that “any simple distinction between ‘heroic’ and ‘non-heroic’ behaviour misrepresents the complexity of both texts [i.e. Iliad, Argonautica ]” (p. 106), H suggests that Jason’s surface deficiencies are not nearly as pronounced as a first glance might suggest. Jason’s quixotic emotional life (p.112) also testifies to the Argonautica‘s “exploration of the Homeric text, concerned to tease out what is important and what is elided in the archaic text’s creation of a (? flawed) heroic world” (p 105). H rounds off his survey with a subtle and refined discussion that touches upon Ajax’s and Jason’s tears and prayers, the contrasting natures of Achilles and Odysseus (and Aeschylus and Euripides in the Frogs !) along with the festal scene turned ugly by Idas’ drunken vaunts.

3.5 An Epic Leader (pp. 126-32)

H takes up the long-standing issues surrounding models for leadership and organizational structure that so problematize the Argonautica. Is Jason a good and effective leader? Is Heracles the suppressed ideal leader to whom Jason is always implicitly contrasted to the latter’s detriment? Is the band of Argonauts an idealized political/military unit that arrives at policy through constructive debate and eventual consensus? Does Aietes embody all the evils of tyranny? This truncated discussion of these and other issues presents Jason as effective though not ideal and Heracles as inadequate for this job but useful as a back-room political boss. The Argonauts do embody a positive political model. Aietes is bad. Most interesting are the suggestions that historiography helps shape Apollonius’ thinking. H closes his discussion by comparing how Xenophon’s Anabasis offers the Argonautica models for leadership.

4) Theocritus and the Bucolic Genre (F)

This essay falls into two distinct parts. The first two sections focus on Theocritus’ bucolic world and the poems that invent it, mostly by articulating parts of a whole that is presumed but never fully expressed. The latter two show an interest in how Theocritus’ successor’s reified his elliptical expression of a bucolic world into a poetic genre with explicit conventions.

4.1 Theocritus and the ‘Realism’ of Everyday Life: In Search of New Worlds for Poetry (pp. 133-41)

F finds “the root of Theocritus’ description and opposition between rural and urban environments” in the Sicilian mime (p. 133). Idyll 7 articulates most clearly Theocritus’ bucolic program. A succinct, yet rich, discussion of the poetic registers of Lycidas’ and Simichidas’ songs leads to a cautious assertion of Idyll 7 as foundational of a new poetics: “the poetic choices of Simichidas/Theocritus and his bucolic ‘master’ enact some of the choices by which Theocritus constructs his bucolic poetics in other idylls” (p. 138). F quickly enumerates some of those choices in glancing references to Idylls 2, 3, 10, 11 and 14 before panning back to a broader discussion of the alternative to high epic offered in the everyday verisimilitude of Theocritus’ bucolics.

4.2 Verisimilitude and Coherence (pp. 141-67)

The boy weaving his cricket cage in Idyll 1 becomes a point of departure for extended discussion of the nature and coherence of Theocritus’ bucolic world. Links with Plato’s Phaedrus are seen in the discussion of crickets/cicadas and the mythology of musical production as well as in the extended description of a locus amoenus (p.148). F then turns his attention to the interplay between Theocritus’ idealized rustic world and the elements of realism that creep into it. F shrewdly discloses how Idyll 6 mediates the tragedy of Idyll 1’s Daphnis and the low-comic buffoonery of Idyll 11’s Cyclops in love. The closing discussion of Theocritus’ careful manipulation of his “rustic pantheon” (p. 151) is very perceptive and a very useful summary of a very intricate bit of poesis on the part of Theocritus.

5) Epic in a Minor Key (H)

This essay mostly focuses on the long-standing questions surrounding the “genre” of epyllion and poems that have come to be called “epyllia.” This chapter also includes a truncated, yet illuminating discussion of Aratus’ Phainomena.

5.1 The Epyllion (pp. 191-6)

H conveniently introduces the problems surrounding the term “epyllion” and suggests three criteria by which poems can be identified as such: “scale” (p. 191), “poetic form” (p. 192) and “metre” (p. 193). The scale that characterizes and epyllion is not pinned down, but the narrative portion of Idyll 13 (Theocritus’ “Heracles and Hylas”) seems a bit too compressed— Idyll 22’s narrative appears more in keeping with the size H has in mind. Next, H suggests that a strongly marked (“once upon a time”) beginning followed by a linear progression to a decided end is the preferred form of the epyllion. Hexameter is the normative meter. Whether or not these criteria will gain wide adherence, H brings a deft touch and acute sensitivity to the poems he examines.

5.6 The Phainomena of Aratus (pp. 224-45)

Although an overview of Aratus seems uncomfortably placed here, the section itself furnishes a very helpful introduction to critical questions concerning the nature of “didactic” poetry in an era in which prose has emerged as the dominant mode for technical discourse. H offers the broad template of interpretive problems with Aratus. Does he purport to teach at all? If he does, what lessons does he wish to disseminate? H suggests that Aratus was most adept at “acquiring knowledge. . . and the exploitation of that knowledge in poetic modes” (228). Aratus is not a specialist but a poet interested in showing the coherent, intelligible structure of at least a portion of the universe discerned by a sophos long ago. The form of the poem itself reveals that agenda. The reader detects acrostic patterns in the poem just as an observer identifies constellations among the initial apparent randomness of the stars. H moves on to explore the Phainomena‘s connection with early didactic works, especially the Works and Days (230-8). A close reading of Hesiod’s “Ages of Man” and Aratus’ “Myth of Dike” is the capstone of this discussion. H suggests Aratus’ “Dike Myth” depends on Aratus’ “reading Hesiod’s Golden Age as the origin of the stars” (p. 241) and so illustrates the manner in which Hellenistic poets read prior texts. H closes by noting the uses of myth as hermeneutic for what a reader “sees” in the text and in the sky.

6) The Style of Hellenistic Epic (F)

F provides a very useful morphology of the epic style of Callimachus, Theocritus and Apollonius Rhodes as gleaned from close readings of specific texts. F focuses particularly upon how each engages Homer. The real strength of the chapter is the careful explication of specific passages in relation to their Homeric antecedents and analogs, as the section concerned with Apollonius best illustrates.

6.4 Apollonius (pp. 266-82)

F illustrates well his opening declaration: “The Argonautica. . . provides the most significant example of the paired Hellenistic techniques of analogical variation from the Homeric model, and partial dissimulation of that debt” (p. 266). F documents in great detail Apollonius’ consistent variation of repetitive features in his narrative to attain variety. The ensuing discussion is among the finest you will read. F’s penetrating analysis of various forms of repetition in the Argonautica offers an enormously useful index of Apollonius’ poetics. F’s survey of how the “heroic potential” of Jason’s aristea“is activated in non-traditional material . . . in non-traditional ways. . .” (p. 271) forms the bulk of his discussion. I would strongly commend this section to anyone with the least interest in Apollonius.

7 The Epigram (F)

F’s overview of the genre’s “pre-history” and history is another welcome entree to an understudied genre.1 Moving from inscribed to written epigrams, F explores the development of and play on the conventions and topoi of the genre as it moves from actual to imaginary commemoration. Extended discussions of a number of epigrams focus upon how written epigrams do or do not create a monumental context especially in terms of the nature of the dialog created within the epigram between the imagined monument and fictional passerby. F’s discussion of Callimachus’ epigram for Timonoe (AP 7.522= HE 318-20) perhaps best exemplifies the rewards of approaching literary epigrams as ever more elaborate departures from the topoi and conventions of inscribed epigrams. Proceeding analogically from tombs to love, F’s discussion of erotic epigrams focus upon conventional features of the type such as love as a sickness with discernible symptoms and no certain cure and the power of love to cloud even the clearest minds as well as variations on sympotic and komastic occasions.

8 The Language of Praise (F/H)

Reflecting an increased interest in the relationship between Alexandrian poetry and its Graeco-Egyptian cultural, social and political context, H (sections 1 and 2) and F (section 3) here unravel the encomiastic threads wound through the hymns of Callimachus, Theocritus’ Idyll 15, and the recently published epigrams of Posidippus of Pella.

8.1 Callimachus’ Hymns and the Hymnic Traditions (H) (pp. 350-71)

Opening with a discussion of the little-known hymns to Isis by Isidorus, H underscores the resonance between traditional Greek themes of just gods rewarding the upright and Egyptian royal ideology. These become the primary sources for “a kind of ‘lingua franca’ of praise” (p. 353) which Callimachus adeptly exploits within his Hymns. Close readings of specific passages such as Callimachus, Hymn 4 (to Delos) exhibit how “traditional modes of praise were clearly adapted to meet changed political rhetoric and changed poetic tastes” (p. 359).

8.3 Posidippus and the Ideology of Kingship (F) (pp. 377-403)

F’s survey of Posidippus’ encomiastic streak begins with the epigrams devoted to Ptolemaic queens, in particular the Anathematika concerned with Arsinoe II. AB 36, which recounts the Macedonian maid Hegeso’s dedication of linen in response to the now departed divine Arsinoe’s appearance to the servant in a dream, particularly exhibits the political undercurrents of Posidippus’ art. His epigrams on the temple of Arsinoe Aphrodite Zephyritis and to the nauarch and devotee of the divinized Arsinoe II Callicrates, as well as the lighthouse keeper Sostratos, celebrate Ptolemaic maritime policies while echoing their purported interest in “freedom of the Greeks” (p. 389). Posidippus’ Hippika emphasize the Ptolemies’ Greek/Macedonian identity and so point to a political orientation that promotes the Ptolemies as the legitimate successors of Alexander. F closes his survey by exploring the two Hippika, 87AB, written on the occasion of Berenike I’s Olympic victory, and 78AB, which celebrates the chariot victory of Berenike II or Berenike the Syrian. Ultimately, their intricate affiliation with archaic epinician highlights Posidippus’ greater emphasis upon perpetuating the ruling dynasty’s corporate kudos beyond the immediate glory of the individual victor.

9) Hellenistic Drama (H)

H’s discussion is divided into three sections: New Comedy, Tragedy, and, interestingly, Lycophron’s Alexandra. The section on New Comedy obviously focuses upon Menander. H offers a survey of New Comedy’s social, ethical and even political (see esp. pp. 412-3) character while also illustrating how Menander adeptly incorporates tragic forms and devices into his plays. H’s brief survey of Hellenistic drama emphasizes its textual nature. The scanty remains make positive assertions difficult but H is inclined to see Hellenistic drama as “increasingly marked as a literary product” which is as much designed for reading as performance (p. 434). Perhaps to underscore this final point, H closes the chapter with Lycophron’s Alexandra. Something of a proto-tragedy that presupposes a corpus of classical tragedy, the Alexandra well exhibits several of the themes H has been developing: a) a text exhibiting a intense engagement with prior myth and literature while reflecting a self-conscious awareness of changed aesthetic circumstances (pp. 441-3); (b) formal experimentalism (esp. p. 439 but also passim); and c) cross-cultural engagement with other literary traditions (p. 440).

10) Roman Epilogue (F/H)

In this closing chapter, H and F assay the critical reception of Hellenistic poetry and its influence on Roman literary culture.

10.1 A Critical Silence (H) (pp. 444-9)

H begins with observing that Hellenistic poetry was not at first critically distinguished from its predecessors. Only later as critics developed notions of cultural periods did distinctions start to be drawn, as in the treatise On the Sublime. H closes this section with the manner in which Hellenistic poetry encapsulated the terms of its own critical reception within its own production and the significance of Callimachus’ self-presentation as an abstemious water drinker.

10.2 Philodemus and Hellenistic Poetics (F) (pp.449-61)

F examines the resonance between Philodemos and Hellenistic poetics. F detects within Philodemos indications “that some Hellenistic poetical theory had in fact a much more marked ‘Hellenistic’ flavour than we might otherwise have imagined” (p. 451). Specifically, “suggestive indications of a distinctly ‘Hellenistic’ aesthetic” (p. 451) are to be found in Philodemos’ polemical summaries and rebuttals of the 3rd- and 2nd-century critics, most notably Heracleodorus, Pausimachus of Miletus and Crates of Mallos. F’s reconstruction of their arguments and the whispers of a Hellenistic poetic discerned amidst the shouts (particularly his account of the relation of C’s “slender Muse” to one of P’s nameless opponent’s image of engraving as an analog to poetic sunthesis) is an intricate bit of literary forensics that will stimulate specialists to consider how early and intensely the critical apparatus embedded within Hellenistic poetry influenced philosophic debates surrounding the nature of literature and literary production.

10.5 Catullus’ Attis (H) (pp. 477-85)

Like Lycophron’s Alexandra, the Attis offers a specific locus where H can explore the problems raised in the preceding sections. Again, H’s incredibly broad scholarly ambit leads to a condensed yet very detailed discussion of the poem’s metrical form and narrative structure relative to its models, as well as its thematic links and allusive relationship with Greek texts. H positively dazzles while forging links between the Attis and Catullus’ own 64. For H, Catullus 64 provides the “authorizing pattern” from which 63 departs in its “galliambic lamentations of the notha mulier” (p. 484). Translation and appropriation thus become even further tangled by the Roman author’s intratextual games. More broadly, the creation of a Catullus 64 to serve as the “Classic” text from which Catullus 63 can divert and also self-consciously measure its own distance from its referent offers a microscopy of the dynamic so central to the Hellenistic poets and poetry surveyed in this book.

In general, this is not a book but a collection of essays. Each one does consider the relationship between “tradition” and “innovation” but more in its particular expression by the individual authors and works scrutinized. As they promised, H and F resist generalizations (p. viii). With that said, the detailed discussions of particular problems in specific texts are very stimulating particularly if a reader is interested in trying to draw a trend-line through the data set that F and H have so carefully mapped. As for quibbles, the indexes are less than complete.2 The bibliography should bear the title “Select.” Readers are strongly encouraged to read the footnotes. F and H have opinions. They often state them most clearly and forcefully within the notes. Greek and Latin are generously provided, translations are clear, straightforward, and errorless to my eye, but some of the infelicities in the printed Greek and Latin noted by Beck (BMCR 2003.01.01) persist.3 A spot check of 100 references found all to be accurate. Nice cover, sturdy binding.

In sum, Tradition and Innovation in Hellenistic Poetry is essential reading for the specialist. The less advanced will find this a very useful step beyond introductory studies in Hellenistic poetry, written by two gifted scholars who have done so much to advance its study.


1. At least until recently. Several recent studies and texts of epigrams have come out, including: (a)Acosta-Hughes, Benjamin, Elizabeth Kosmetatou, and Manuel Baumbach. 2004. Labored in Papyrus Leaves: Perspectives on an Epigram Collection Attributed to Posidippus (P. Mil. Vogl. VIII 309). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; (b) Nisbet, Gideon. 2003. Greek Epigram in the Roman Empire: Martial’s Forgotten Rivals. Oxford: Oxford University Press; (c) Colin Austin, and Guido Bastianini. 2002. Posidippi Pellaei quae supersunt omnia. Milano: LED; (d) Kathryn J Gutzwiller. 2005. The New Posidippus: a Hellenistic Poetry Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

2. For example, Herondas appears on p. 446, but is not in the General index. Also missing is the reference to him on p. 417 where he goes by his more generally accepted name, “Herodas.” The Homeric Hymn to Demeter is discussed on pp. 207-8. Reference to it is found in the General index, but is absent from the Index of passages discussed. Neither index mentions the discussion of the hymn on p. 193.

3. The second οὐδέ τι (p. 115), γὰρ (the first one; 10 lines from the top. p. 410), the speaker distribution in the Greek (p. 410 twelve lines from the top), avet (p.475).