BMCR 2008.01.16

Eratòstenes de Cirene, Catasterismes; Eratosthenes, Sternsagen

, Eratòstenes de Cirene, Catasterismes. Barcelona: Fundació Bernat Metge, 2004. 264 pages. ISBN 9788472258433.
, , Eratosthenes, Sternsagen (Catasterismi). Oberhaid: Utopica, 2007. 258 pages. ISBN 9783938083055.

In comparison with other Hellenistic poets, the transmission of Eratosthenes’ works has fared badly, despite the breadth of his interests and his fame in antiquity.1 Aside from some 350 fragments and a dedicatory epigram, only the Catasterisms has survived: a collection of myths that end with cases of astral metamorphosis, including catalogues of stars. Have you always wanted to read this text, but refrained because no modern edition was available? Well, now the time has come.

After more than a century,2 in 2004 Jordi Pàmias published a new edition of the Catasterisms with Catalan translation, full critical apparatus and ample notes. Pàmias’ text supersedes the nineteenth-century editions, and is likely to become the standard text for decades, perhaps centuries, to come. His text is now available in a Greek-German version, with abridged apparatus and commentary—a joint work, carried out by Pàmias along with the leading expert in Eratosthenic studies, the German Klaus Geus. The latter edition aims at wider audiences, but without giving up scholarly standards in presentation or explanation. Although the Anglophone gap remains, Eratosthenes’ Catasterisms is now more accessible than ever before.

I remain skeptical, however, as to whether this means that from now on wide circles of readers will feverishly peruse this text. For, as one works through the chapters, two responses emerge: first, quite quickly one understands why this text is almost forgotten. Unlike, say, Parthenius’ Erotika Pathemata which, despite its equally derivative status, provides an often fascinating read, the Catasterisms is not a particularly attractive reading as far as the collected stories are concerned. The stories are stripped to their plots, and their predictable gist is presented in the direst prose. Perhaps, the post-Eratosthenic abridgement caused this effect. Classicists will find some quotations here, especially from the tragic poets. Unfortunately, whoever abridged the original text cleansed from it verbatim quotations in favor of brief passing remarks or paraphrases. (Pàmias and Geus always provide references to the most recent collections of fragments.) Second, the collection’s instrumental character becomes increasingly clear. This character may or may not derive from the text’s attempts to explain Aratus’ Phaenomena, an objective for which Eratosthenes’ text has been shortened and re-arranged. For example, this focus explains why the Catasterisms favors Aratus’ explanation of Virgo over Eratosthenes’ own as given in his Erigone.

The Catasterisms as we read it today, exists in two versions (the Epitome and the so-called Fragmenta Vaticana), both the result of separate acts of abbreviation and re-organization of the original work. Both are supplemented by scholia to Germanicus’ Aratea, the Latin Aratus, and Hyginus (see the stemma in Pàmias p. 33). Pàmias has based his edition on more manuscripts than preceding editors had at their disposal, some of which he has collated for the first time,3 which allows for a new stemma (Pàmias p. 45) and many improved readings, mostly in the text of the Fragmenta Vaticana. Pàmias and Pàmias-Geus both print the Epitome and the Fragmenta Vaticana in two columns. Although the procedure is recommendable for scholarly purposes, I am not sure that the audience targeted in the Greek-German edition will appreciate this.

As far as the translation is concerned, I cannot judge the stylistic quality of the Catalan version. I found that the German one gives a good impression of the slightly pedantic Greek.4 As far as I can see, both translations are always reliable.

The two volumes provide thorough introductions, helpful notes, bibliography, indexes, and maps of stars (the modern map in the German version is more instructive, however, than Pàmias’s reproduction of a eighteenth-century map, beautiful as it may be). The Catalan volume is more comfortable to use, because the ample notes are located on the right page facing the Greek text. The notes in the German edition are shorter, but include occasional references to Babylonian astral lore. Both introductions make a number of important points, mostly when tracing the emergence of star signs within an orientalizing frame and when contextualizing the Eratosthenic project in Hellenistic times. As one would expect, the introductions provide the best introductory reading on Greek catasterisms and their aetiological or religious background. Pàmias and Geus discuss the few indications of pre-Hellenistic religious belief in stars but convincingly treat systematic catasterism as a Hellenistic innovation not related to religious practices. Catasterisms seem to provide an interesting exception to the general rule that many of the metamorphoses and aetiologies in Greek myth find their explanation in local cult. A brief treatment of non-Greek influences, perhaps Egyptian or Babylonian ones, would have been useful. Moreover, one misses an assessment of the text of the Catasterisms as such, that is in the context of Hellenistic ‘sub-literary’ works such as Callimachus’ prose fragments. Furthermore, Pàmias and Geus do not touch upon questions of how seriously Eratosthenes and his peers might have taken such aetiologies.

These two books are indispensable reading for scholars working on the tradition of Aratea and useful to anybody interested in Greek mythological concepts. For students of Hellenistic poetry, the Catasterisms, besides the prose fragments of Callimachus, Parthenius, and other mythographical traditions, provide one more opportunity to study the ‘grey’ literature that lies behind poems like the Erigone or the Aetia.


1. Klaus Geus now provides the best general survey of what we know about Eratosthenes ( Eratosthenes von Kyrene. Studien zur hellenistischen Kultur- und Wissenschaftsgeschichte. Munich 2002).

2. Up until now, the most recent editions of the Epitome have been C. Robert, Eratosthenis Catasterismorum Reliquiae (Berlin 1878) and E. Maass, Commentariorum in Aratum Reliquiae (Berlin 1898); of the Fragmenta Vaticana A. Olivieri, Pseudo-Eratosthenis Catasterismi (Leipzig 1897).

3. See Jordi Pàmias, “El manuscrito Edimburgensis Adv. 18.7.15 y los Catasterismos de Eratóstenes.” Faventia 26/1 (2004), 19-25.

4. I noted only three minor slips (on p. 57, p. 119, p. 188).