BMCR 2007.07.62

Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus

, Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus : text, translation, and commentary. Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum ; 33 = Studies and texts in antiquity and Christianity ; 33,. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005. viii, 207 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3161486609 €50.00.

This little book is a gem and a model of clear, careful, and detailed scholarship. Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus is widely recognized as a text whose importance is often undervalued. The short hexameter poem (39 lines) is a rare case of a direct and (more or less) complete text from one of the early scholarchs of the Stoa. Most of the remaining evidence for early Stoicism comes from fragments of longer, lost texts or testimonia from later sources. Thom’s work presents an exhaustive and up-to-date analysis of the text and scholarship.

Thom begins the book with a justification of his project: “Although the Hymn to Zeus is often cited as one of the most important documents of early Stoic philosophy — indeed the only text to survive more or less intact — it has not yet received a detailed treatment in a monograph by itself.” While this is true, one should also note that there exists no significant monograph devoted to the philosophy of Cleanthes (excluding Gerard Verberke’s 1949 Dutch monograph Kleanthes van Assos and an 1814 monograph Kleanthes der Stoiker by G.C.F. Mohinke, which this reviewer has never seen); so the fact that we now have an entire monograph devoted to a single poem of a neglected philosopher is a surprise. For the same reason I welcome this book.

Thom’s monograph is the thirty-third volume of the Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum series edited by Christoph Markschies and published by Mohr Siebeck. This text and the plan of the work closely follow Thom’s 1995 edition of the Pythagorean Golden Saying (Brill, 1995). The first section of the book offers a concise introduction to the author, composition, and literary, religious, and philosophical context of the poem. Thom points out that the poem claims to be a hymn and that it follows the standard tripartite hymnic structure of Invocation, Argument, and Prayer (using Bremer’s now standard terminology). In this section Thom also raises some of the questions and problems relating both to the genre and the content of the poem. What was the hymn’s original setting and purpose? Was is it a literary preface, a sympotic poem, or did it play a genuine role in some ritual associated with the school? Although Thom cannot answer these questions definitively, he outlines, effectively and in a fair manner, the various arguments put forward in the secondary literature. Thom also raises other philosophical concerns such as why there is so little technical Stoic terminology present in the poem, the function and value of poetry to philosophy according to Cleanthes, and most importantly, whether prayer makes any sense in the context of the Stoic views on determinism and self-sufficiency (cf. Epictetus’ discussion of divination). There is also an unsatisfactorily brief discussion of his other poetic fragments. One wonders why Thom chose to limit his analysis to the single Hymn to Zeus and did not expand the monograph to include a broader study of the other half dozen or so poems and poetic fragments attributed to the philosopher from Assos.

The second section of the book consists of the text and translation of the poem. This is preceded by a beautiful and legible photograph of the Codex Farnesinus. In contrast to his similarly structured work on the Pythagorean Golden Verses where Thom presented the text with a facing translation, in this edition the translation is placed after the complete text. The text is supplemented with abundant footnotes. There is no true critical apparatus since the poem survives only in a single manuscript, the Codex Farnesinus, and there are no transmitted variants. The footnotes are therefore mostly literary and philosophical parallels, many of which are also discussed in the main commentary section. A second apparatus lists emendations and conjectures offered by modern editors and commentators, provoked either by difficult readings or in a few cases where the text suggests a lacuna. A clear, faithful, and surprisingly fluid translation follows the text.

The commentary constitutes the final and most extensive section of the book (140 pages). The line-by-line commentary follows the tripartite structure of the poem outlined in the introduction. Conveniently the author prefaces his analysis by reprinting the lines of text under discussion and its translation; this saves the reader from flipping back and forth in the text. The commentary itself is executed with extreme care and attention to detail. It is difficult to find relevant secondary sources not consulted and Thom is not one to skim over difficulties or problems.

Thom identifies three major themes with which he frames his study: he looks at the philosophical, religious, and literary context of the poem. His primary focus is philological and literary; unfortunately we do not know more about the role of cult practices in Hellenistic philosophical schools. Although he regularly points out philosophical issues as they arise (theodicy, determinism, physics, etc.), the author wisely avoids taking strong positions on most; likewise, his bibliography is a limited resource on the philosophical implications of the poem. Consequentially, the major contribution of this work to philosophy will rest less in Thom’s conclusions than in the historical and philological tools he offers subsequent scholars, who will cash out the philosophical implications more exhaustively. One exception relates to the problem of theodicy, which he argues is the main theme of the poem. Zeus’ ability to harmonize and incorporate even the foolish and wicked behavior of human beings for a greater good is a central justification for praising God. But even here, Thom prudently makes no attempt to explain how the Stoics can justify their position while maintaining a hard or soft determinism.

The commentary returns to many of the themes and problems brought up in the introduction and sorts through the textual controversies with much adroitness. In general, the author is rather conservative in his emendations and conjectures; if there is a way to read the text without altering it, even if strained, he will likely take it. All the major alternative readings are discussed in some detail and for the most part dismissed as unnecessary or problematic.

The work concludes with an apparently exhaustive philological bibliography and indices of ancient texts, subjects and names, and Greek words. Although this is the first (and probably last) monograph to be devoted to the poem, there has been a significant amount of commentary on the text in secondary literature, including numerous editions of the text and translations. Much of the literature however is scattered, often difficult to chase down, or in obscure publications. Therefore, Thom has performed a great service in collecting and outlining the major scholarly positions and interpretations on this important text. In the future, any serious work on Cleanthes and/or Hellenistic philosophical poetry must respond to Thom’s work.

In summation, this is an excellent and disciplined piece of scholarship that will surely be a great assistance to a wide range of scholars for years to come. It is an essential tool for scholars working in Stoic philosophy and Hellenistic poetry; it is also accessible to upper level undergraduates with no Greek or Latin.