BMCR 2007.09.22

Die meta-sympotischen Oden und Epoden des Horaz. Vertumnus. Berliner Beiträge zur Klassischen Philologie und zu ihren Nachbargebieten, 3

, Die meta-sympotischen Oden und Epoden des Horaz. Vertumnus (Göttingen, Germany) ; Bd. 3. Göttingen: Edition Ruprecht, 2007. 97 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 9783897442573. €16.90.

This short book is the published version of Nina Mindt’s (M.) “wissenschaftliche Hausarbeit im Rahmen des Ersten Staatsexamens,” i.e. a thesis presented as part of her final exams at Berlin’s Humboldt Universität. The scope of a “wissenschaftliche Hausarbeit” is similar to that of an MA thesis, and it is rather unusual for these works to be published. But M. was awarded the “Humboldt-Preis” for an outstanding thesis, which seems to have paved the way for its publication. M.’s focus on methodological problems as well as her use of literary theory and its jargon clearly indicate that this book is intended for a readership of experts in Classical literature. Despite its numerous strong points, however, one wonders if the thesis should really have been published in its original form, rather than being condensed into an article.

M. focuses on Horace’s odes with a sympotic setting; despite the book’s title, she discusses only Epodes 9 and 13, and those two only in a short excursus. She points out the symposion‘s double role as a topic of many of Horace’s poems as well as an adequate place of performance — and thus publication — of the odes. To describe poems written by ancient lyric poets about symposia for performances at symposia, M. adapts L. E. Rossi’s term “poesia metasimposiale” ( Seminari Romani di cultura Greca I, 1, 1998, 163-81) and refers to the poems under review as “meta-sympotische Dichtung.” According to M., Horace is a special case in that his poems are sympotic because they have been influenced by a longstanding tradition of sympotic Greek lyric poetry. They need not, however, have been dependent on the symposion as a place of performance. Thus, Horace presents a fictionalised account of a literary tradition, which in itself is a literary version of the symposion. Wisely, M. decides against using the term “Meta-Meta-Ebene” (p. 13, n. 12) when she discusses Horace’s Odes, but leaves it at “meta-sympotisch.” To point out the differences between Horace’s poems and those by archaic Greek poets, she refers to the latter as “(meta-)sympotisch” (p. 13f.). According to M., by writing “meta-sympotische Dichtung,” Horace even creates a “new genre of lyric poetry” (p. 89: “neue Gattung der Lyrik”).

All this sounds quite complicated and that is exactly what it is. In general, M. seems to enjoy juggling with various literary terms, which does not always improve the clarity of her argument and which does not always do the poems justice. One may wonder for how long a tradition of poetry about the symposion must have existed and to what extent fictionalisation must have taken place in order to qualify a poem as “meta-sympotisch,” rather than just “(meta-)sympotisch.” I doubt whether we can exactly pinpoint the “Verlust der face-to-face situation” in sympotic poetry — i.e., the moment when the performance of sympotic poetry at a symposion was replaced by fictionalised accounts of symposia – to the time of Hellenistic epigram, as M. believes (p. 18). Her terminology is even more questionable as M. herself concedes that some of the Greek poems that she calls “(meta-)sympotisch” bear traces of fictionalisation.1

I nurse the suspicion that M. could have come up with her interpretations of Horace’s poems without this elaborate theoretical framework, but what she actually does with the Odes is sensible and often yields interesting results. It is, of course, useful to scrutinise deictic markers and discuss whether they refer to a sympotic setting which may have been the starting point for a poem or the place for its performance. And it is self-evident that the literary tradition of lyric poetry with its references to food and drink as well as its erotic content needs to be taken into account in any study of Horace’s Odes. All this opens up the way towards an interpretation of the poems that deals with their communicative features and modes of presenting real and fictional addressees to the readers. It is an approach that also focuses on different modes of publication.

Before M. gets down to the actual poems, she provides an introduction to previous scholarship in general (p. 11f.), terminology (p. 13f.), Greek symposia and archaic Greek lyric (p. 15f.) as well as Hellenistic epigram (p. 17f.), and mimetic poetry in particular (p. 19f.). She also summarises the historical and literary background of symposia and convivia in Rome (p. 20-25).2 In addition, there is a chapter on literary communication in Augustan Rome, with special focus on oral performance and book publication (p. 26-30).

All this bears traces of the genesis of M.’s book in the exam situation for which this thesis was originally produced. Of course, any academic examinee has to prove that he or she can present the methodological, historical and cultural background of his or her field of research. Therefore, in the context of M.’s “Erstes Staatsexamen,” the first third of her book does make good sense. An expert readership, however, will find much of the information provided by M. either irrelevant or superficial; and some of it is also seriously defective. For example, when she discusses ancient collections of poetry (p. 26-29), M. does not include any reference to Catullus. Also, she states that Horace had to rely on Hellenistic anthologies, produced by Alexandrian critics (p. 28). In the light of the Milan Posidippus and the fact that M. elsewhere quotes from K. Gutzwiller’s Poetic Garlands,3 which deals with author-edited collections of Hellenistic epigrams, this is rather surprising.

M.’s interpretations of individual poems are definitely the strongest part of her book. Starting from the convincing assumption that the poet’s persona is fashioned by literary genre as well as social circumstances (p. 31), she provides short readings of twenty-two odes and the two Epodes. Her argument is at its best when she illustrates in what way a linear first reading shapes the recipients’ opinion of the individual poems. In her discussion of Odes 3.19, for example, M. makes clear that the readers who come across the poem for the first time have no idea of the poem’s setting until the sympotic frame is gradually revealed (p. 64-66). In addition, M.’s decision to discuss Ode 4.15 in comparison with 1.6 makes sense, for it highlights the contrast between the erotic content of the earlier poem (1.6.17: proelia virginum) and Horace’s praise of Augustus’ proelia (p. 77f.).

However, again the good impression conveyed by many of M.’s readings is blemished by their presentation. Most notably, M. has a rather selective way of dealing with previous scholarship. It is not essential for the author of a “wissenschaftliche Hausarbeit” to mention all the relevant literature. In a scholarly publication on Horace’s Odes, however, it is irritating that the bibliography does not contain any works by such prolific scholars of Horace as F. Della Corte, F. Klingner (not even his edition) or P. Fedeli (not even his and E. Romano’s commentary). M.’s discussions of the Odes often lack references to important forerunners, especially those who themselves have come up with close readings of the poems. For example, in her interpretations of Odes 1.7, 1.9, 1.37 and 3.29, the influential articles by V. Pöschl are not mentioned at all, even though his Kleine Schriften are cited in her bibliography.4 She does quote Pöschl on a possible connection between 1.37 and 38, but does not draw any further conclusions from that (p. 53). The role of the sympotic theme in Horace’s Odes could have been made clearer if M. had paid more attention to the context of the poems in the published books.

Finally, the book lacks careful proofreading. It is surprising that the text of an exam thesis, which must have been read by at least two examiners, plus a committee of people responsible for awarding the “Humboldt-Preis,” and maybe also a copy editor at the publisher’s, contains such an exceptionally high number of misprints, stylistic blunders and incomplete sentences that, at times, it makes uncomfortable reading: while going through M.’s approximately eighty text pages, I noticed some thirty mistakes.5 Of course, the number of mistakes is not a crucial factor in determining whether a publication is a useful contribution to scholarship or not. But the bad state of M.’s text is another hint that publication of her thesis might have come too soon.

Considering that M. has written this book at the time of her graduation, her knowledge and her inspiring ideas deserve great praise. That a “wissenschaftliche Hausarbeit” as a whole does not (yet) meet the standards of a scholarly publication is not unusual. But M. took the ill-advised decision to have her thesis published as a book and it seems that not much revision of her original text took place in that process. It would have been wiser to shorten the thesis, concentrate on some of the individual interpretations and publish those in the form of an article.


1. Cf. p. 19: “Ein gewisser Raum für Imagination und Fiktion bestand sehr wohl.”

2. Even though M. provides a chapter on “Symposion versus convivium” (p. 20-22), there is no adequate treatment of the difference between the two. She compares Greek and Roman dinners, but her use of the adjective “sympotisch” for very different occasions makes it hard to follow her ideas.

3. K. Gutzwiller, Poetic Garlands: Hellenistic Epigrams in Context, Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1998.

4. Cf. on 1.7: WJA 7, 1981, 139-47; on 1.9: WS 79, 1966, 365-38; on 1.37: H. Krefeld (ed.), Interpretationen lateinischer Schulautoren mit einer didaktischen Einführung, Frankfurt am Main, 1968, 106-37; on 3.29: Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, 1961,1. For Pöschl’s Kleine Schriften see Horazische Lyrik. Interpretationen, 2nd edition, Heidelberg, 1991.

5. The following paragraph is a case in point; one wonders if any proofreader ever set eyes on it (p. 30): “Bei der Interpretation der einzelnen Oden und Epoden soll stets beachtet werden, dass man sich, auch wenn Adressaten angesprochen werden, die real existierten und mit denen Horaz auch tatsächlich in amicitia verbunden haben mag [sic!], keine allzu reale Situationen [sic!] ausmalen darf. Doch die ‘piani di destinatori’ werden bei den Einze-luntersuchungen [wrong word division] eine wichtige Rolle spielen, da sie Auswirkungen auf die narratologischen Mittel des Horaz ausüben [sic!].”