BMCR 2008.09.58

Quintus Smyrnaeus: Transforming Homer in Second Sophistic Epic. Millennium-Studien v. 17

, , , Quintus Smyrnaeus : transforming Homer in second Sophistic epic. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Berlin/New York: Walter De Gruyter, 2007. 1 online resource (vi, 501 pages).. ISBN 9783110942507. $141.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The late antique Greek poet Quintus of Smyrna produced, as far as we can tell, a single, fourteen-book epic recounting the events at Troy from the death of Hector to the Achaean fleet’s departure for Greece, thus bridging the narrative gap between Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. For these reasons ancient scholiasts called Quintus’ poem Τὰ Μετὰ Τὸν Ὅμηρον, “The Things After Homer”—or, as it is commonly titled now, the Posthomerica. Critical editions, articles, and other scholarly works on the poem were produced from the seventeenth century onwards, but the majority of this work treated Quintus’ poem either as little more than a cache of “what Homer didn’t tell” or as an example of the mediocre imitation and general degradation of Greek literary style in the late antique period. Classicists have been divided on the issue: while some praise the poem’s “considerable intrinsic merit,”1 a number of detractors revile it as an “anemic pastiche.”2 Because critics have generally failed to appreciate Quintus on his own terms, scholarship on the Posthomerica has been relatively unsophisticated, usually limited to superficial forms of philological analysis and Quellenforschung.3

In 2006 Manuel Baumbach and Silvio Bär convened a conference at the University of Zürich to revisit questions about the Posthomerica as well as to encourage new approaches to the text. The subsequent volume embodies their aims commendably well by contextualizing Quintus in the development of late Greek literature. Intertextuality is a major focus for many of the contributors, who examine not only Quintus’ engagement with other authors, as so many have done before them, but also what this engagement portends for the poem’s audience and Quintus’ relationship with his past and present. A number of the contributions consider the intertextual links between Quintus and the usual suspects, Homer and Hesiod, while others focus on late antique works, such as Oppian’s Haleutica and Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, which are more contemporary with the Posthomerica.

The volume also investigates new directions for understanding Second Sophistic literature. Although Ewen Bowie’s seminal 1970 article on the then-neglected Second Sophistic literary climate has resulted in a burgeoning of interest in and investigations of the Second Sophistic, treatments have largely centered on declamations and the novel, and little consideration has been given to poetry.4 However, if we consider Quintus to be a part of the Second Sophistic period—or at least as a product of that period, as Baumbach and Bär suggest in their introduction—we gain a fresh set of insights into its cultural, social, and political workings.

A short introduction by the editors defines the major questions about Quintus and his text and the general approach that guided the conference. In closely scrutinizing the evidence traditionally used to date the poem, they argue for a date somewhere between the end of the second century and third century CE; consequently, they position it within the cultural and political context of the Second Sophistic. This observation, although an obvious one, is rarely made and consequently is a fundamental step for furthering our understanding of Quintus and his poetic aesthetic. Baumbach and Bär then helpfully summarize the major trends in scholarship about the poem, from the earliest critical work by Rhodomann in 1604 to Gärtner’s 2005 examination of the links between Quintus’ poem and Virgil’s Aeneid.

The first section, “The Epic Art of the Posthomerica : Poetics and Narrative Structure,” consists of five chapters. Silvio Bär takes on the puzzling nature of Muse invocations in the poem: the goddesses are not invoked in the proem, as is typical in Greek epic poetry, though they are summoned by the narrator in book twelve to recount a catalog, and the narrator reveals that they inspired him in his native Smyrna. Bär debunks the common assumption that these lines are literally autobiographical, and instead argues that they construct Quintus’ intertextual relationships with his literary predecessors Homer, Hesiod, and Callimachus. Thomas A. Schmitz, who has already profitably explored the political relationships between Greek cities in the Second Sophistic,5 writes about Quintus’ use of narrative material that moves the reader’s focus backwards and forwards between the two Homeric epics. These shifts in time create a metadiscourse on Quintus’ position in the epic tradition, since they draw the reader’s attention to Quintus’ lateness through their references to the “previous” Iliad and the “future” Odyssey. Andrei Gotia focuses on imagery of light and darkness as expressed by the conflict between Memnon, son of the Dawn, and Achilles, son of a sea nymph, in the second book, which he argues provides an overarching thematic structure. Although Gotia’s work is philologically rigorous and thought-provoking, the reader is left to make sense of the often disconnected observations and detailed excursions into material that has little or no direct relevance to the central argument. Manuel Baumbach rounds out this section with his work on the poetics of two shield ecphrases in the poem: that of Achilles in book five and that of Eurypylus in book six. He argues that these passages are intertextual with the Homeric ecphrasis of Achilles’ shield in Iliad 18 and the pseudo-Hesiodic Shield of Heracles, respectively, and intratextual with one another.

Although most of the contributions, to a greater or lesser degree, examine the relationship between Quintus and his literary models, the second section, “Quintus and his (Homeric) Models: Imitation and Innovation”, focuses specifically on this issue. While earlier commentators concluded that Quintus imitated the Aeneid closely and poorly, Alan W. James, who has produced the best and most sensitive translation of Quintus in English,6 argues that while Virgil and Ovid influenced the Posthomerica, Quintus made skillful use of his Latin sources, including the Aeneid and Georgics. James’ overall argument, that Quintus’ relationship with Latin literature is a much more complicated issue than scholars have generally thought, is convincing; however, his citation of and approaches to the evidence do not have much more to offer than traditional studies. This chapter consequently indicates the need for further reflection on this exceedingly complicated issue.

As in the Iliad, female laments play a large role in this poem of human misery and suffering, and Georgios P. Tsomis examines three of them: Briseis for Achilles, Tecmessa for Ajax, and Oenone for Paris. He reads these laments from an intertextual perspective, arguing that each scene refers to antecedents in the Iliad and in Sophocles’ Ajax. The reader is rewarded for knowing previous treatments of “the female lament at Troy”, but, as Tsomis is at pains to point out, Quintus is not content to simply refer to his literary predecessors: he also interprets them retroactively through the intertexts. This, he concludes, is part of Quintus’ attempt to surpass his predecessors. Leyla Ozbek scrutinizes the representation of medicine, human anatomy, and descriptions of physical wounds and disease in the poem in order to show that through them Quintus encodes a tension between dutifully following his most important models, the Homeric poems, and his own contemporary aesthetic and sources of scientific knowledge. She claims that Quintus draws on both the traditional epic manner of describing wounds received in battle as enshrined in the Iliad and more contemporary medical knowledge in, e.g., Celsus and the Hippocratean corpus.

The third section, “Cosmology, Ethics, and Heroism”, is the most diffuse in focus. Ursula Gärtner, who investigated Quintus’ relationship with the Aeneid in 2005,8 treats the poem’s personification of fate, a traditional piece of evidence for scholars who argue that Quintus’ epic has an overwhelmingly Stoic backdrop. She attempts to differentiate the various physical manifestations of Fate in the poem, principally Ἀῖσα, μοῖρα, and κήρ, which have a much larger role than they do in Homer and Apollonius of Rhodes. The conclusion of the final book of the Posthomerica is the subject of Aikaterini Carvounis’ sensitive intertextual analysis, in which she argues that Quintus is consciously echoing the end of the age of heroes in the Hesiodic Works and Days. These intertextual resonances are made to underscore the growing divide between gods and mortals in the post-heroic age. Calum A. Maciver treats the image of the mountain of Ἀρετή, which he finds in two separate passages in the Posthomerica : first in the ecphrasis of Achilles’ shield in book five and second in the advice given by the shade of Achilles to his son in book fourteen. Maciver reads this image in terms of reader-response theory, considering how Quintus’ intended audience read the image through a combination of Homer, Hesiod, and Stoic philosophy (via Lucian and Herotimus). Drawing attention to the large amount of didactic wisdom presented by the primary narrator and intradiegetic characters, he concludes that the mountain of Ἀρετή is not a literal mountain, but a metaphorical mise-en-abîme for the entire poem. Emily Kneebone brings the near-contemporary epic poem the Haleutica into her analysis of two fishing similes in the latter half of the poem. She concludes that the fishing similes demonstrate a more contemporary notion of δόλος, heroic endeavor characterized by skill and craftiness. Quintus puts the Iliadic conception of heroic might-makes-right, βίη, into dialogue with δόλος in the person of Neoptolemus, who is combines his father’s βίη with δόλος. Kneebone claims that Neoptolemus is a metapoetic representation of Quintus himself, a figure who deftly combines his Homeric models with his contemporary context. Neoptolemus is also the central interest of the following chapter by Bellini Boyten, who explores Quintus’ idealized representation of Achilles’ son vis-à-vis the hero’s generally negative depiction in other Trojan war sources. Although Boyten does not come to any definite conclusions as to why Quintus idealizes Neoptolemus, his findings can be profitably read with Kneebone.

Contributions in the fourth section, “Quintus, the Second Sophistic, and the Imperial Period”, break new ground by exploring the “cultural poetics” of the Posthomerica. Studies of the Second Sophistic have often noted the strong presence of Athens in the literature of this period, from declamations to the novel.7 Paul Schubert seeks to place Quintus in this context by arguing that the narrative of Aethra and her grandsons in book 13 replaces the movement from Troy to Rome, which is so often lauded in Roman literature, with Troy to Athens. Quintus is thus using his poem to re-assert Greek cultural authority over and against the dominant Roman model of Troy-Rome power transfer. Despite the intriguing nature of this proposal, the evidence simply cannot support the weight of the argumentation. Fotini Hadjittofi’s chapter follows a similar train of thought: she reads the prophecy of Calchas about Aeneas and the future Roman empire in book 13 and the depictions of Aeneas and Sinon as counter to the corresponding portrayals in Virgil’s Aeneid. Quintus makes the Greeks look good, whereas Virgil puts them in a negative light. The nuance of these observations is augmented further in the second part of the chapter, in which Hadjittofi compares Quintus’ agenda of “redefining” Greek identity with Nonnus’ fifth century Dionysiaca : rather than being rooted in any specific set of cultural values, Nonnus reflects the discourse of “cultural pluralism” of the late empire. Hadjittofi’s productive comparison of Quintus and Nonnus on a cultural level is paralleled by the Nonnus scholar Robert Shorrock.9 He shrugs off the considerable disparities between the Posthomerica and Dionysiaca in terms of narrative material and overall poetic style and argues for an intense engagement on a generic intertextual level. Shorrock argues that Nonnus is actively engaging with the Homeric poems via his self-representation as a literary descendent of πατρὸς Ὁμήρου (25.265) and with Quintus’ poetic program by reducing the fall of an Indian city to the death of Deirades, the “Indian Hector.” Nonnus does not describe the actual fall of the city, which precisely describes the narrative place of the Posthomerica in the Homeric Trojan war tradition, but rather skips immediately to the celebration of Dionysus’ triumphant army. Shorrock’s conclusions are well-argued and supported, although—and this is more of a compliment than a criticism—the essay suggests much more than it reveals. Knut Usener’s contribution rounds out the volume with a general overview of Quintus’ reception of the Trojan war narrative in the context of the Roman empire and late antiquity. He compares the overall structuring and specific details of Quintus’ narrative with the likes of Dictys, Dares, Ausonius, and Fulgentius—an important contextualization, since Quintus is typically only considered in light of prominent literary predecessors like Homer, Hesiod, and Apollonius of Rhodes. Usener is disappointingly pessimistic about his overall findings, however, stating that no definite conclusion can be drawn from what he admits is only a “sketch” of reception of the Trojan war narrative in late antiquity.

The volume is well-edited, although I did find some fairly minor typographical errors: for instance, on p. 299 n. 57 “form” should be “from”; on p. 275, “longsuffering”; on p. 344, “ennemies” and “fourty.” Another minor quibble I had was the excessive quotation of unwieldy blocks of Greek text and accompanying English translations in many of the chapters. A number of quotations could have been trimmed considerably, or, in the case of arguments that are not close readings, eliminated altogether. Five of the contributions are written in German and one in Italian, and, helpfully, English abstracts for all of the chapters are included at the end of the volume.

Overall, this volume is a welcome addition to scholarship on imperial Greek poetry and provides fresh and exciting new directions for the study of Quintus of Smyrna and late Greek literature generally. It is highly recommended for readers interested in intertextuality/reception studies, the Second Sophistic, or late antiquity generally.

Contents Manuel Baumbach and Silvio Bär: An Introduction to Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Posthomerica
Section 1: The Epic Art of the Posthomerica : Poetics and Narrative Structure
1. Silvio Bär: Quintus Smyrnaeus und die Tradition des epischen Musenanrufs
2. Thomas A. Schmitz: The Use of Analepses and Prolepses in Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Posthomerica
3. Andrei Gotia: Light and Darkness in Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Posthomerica 2
4. Manuel Baumbach: Die Poetik der Schilde: Form und Funktion von Ekphraseis in den Posthomerica des Quintus Smyrnaeus
Section 2: Quintus and his (Homeric) Models: Imitation and Innovation
5. Alan W. James: Quintus of Smyrna and Virgil – A Matter of Prejudice
6. Leyla Ozbek: Ripresa della tradizione e innovazione compositiva: la medicina nei Posthomerica di Quinto Smirneo
7. Georgios P. Tsomis: Vorbild und aemulatio: An der Kreuzung von intertextuellen Bezügen in den Totenklagen dreier Frauen in Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Posthomerica : Briseis, Tekmessa und Oinone
Section 3: Cosmology, Ethics, and Heroism
8. Ursula Gärtner: Zur Rolle der Personifikationen des Schicksals in den Posthomerica des Quintus Smyrnaeus
9. Aikaterini Carvounis: Final Scenes in Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica 14
10. Calum A. Maciver: Returning to the Mountain of Arete: Reading Ecphrasis, Constructing Ethics in Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Posthomerica
11. Emily Kneebone: Fish in Battle? Quintus of Smyrna and the Halieutica of Oppian
12. Bellini Boyten: More “Parfit Gentil Knyght” than “Hyrcanian Beast”: The Reception of Neoptolemos in Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Posthomerica
Section 4: Quintus, the Second Sophistic and the Imperial Period
13. Paul Schubert: From the Epics to the Second Sophistic, from Hecuba to Aethra, and finally from Troy to Athens: Defining the Position of Quintus Smyrnaeus in his Posthomerica
14. Fotini Hadjittofi: Res Romanae : Cultural Politics in Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Posthomerica and Nonnus’ Dionysiaca
15. Robert Shorrock: Nonnus, Quintus and the Sack of Troy
16. Knut Usener: Wege und Formen, Umwege und Umformungen: Quintus Smyrnaeus und die Rezeption der Trojasage in Kaiserzeit und Spätantike


1. Duckworth, George E. “Foreshadowing and Suspense in the Posthomerica of Quintus of Smyrna.” The American Journal of Philology 57.1 (1936): 58.

2. Jones, Hugh Lloyd. Review of Combellack 1968. The Classical Review 19.1 (1969): 101.

3. E.g. Heather White’s treatment in Studies in Late Greek Epic Poetry, Amsterdam: J. C. Geiben, 1987, and Malcolm Campbell’s commentary on book twelve, Mnemosyne supplement 71, Leiden: Brill, 1981.

4. Bowie, Ewen. “Greeks and Their Past in the Second Sophistic.” Reprinted in Studies in Ancient Society, ed. M.I. Finley. London: Routledge, 197, pp. 166-209. He has also treated the vast number of epigrams and other occasional poetry of late antique Greece in “Greek Poetry in the Antonine Age.” Antonine Literature, ed. D. A. Russell. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1990.

5. In his Bildung und Macht: Zur sozialen und politischen Funktion der zweiten Sophistik in der griechischen Welt der Kaiserzeit. Munich: Beck, 1997. Reviewed by Heinz-Guenther Nesselrath, BMCR 1998.6.18.

6. The Trojan Epic: Posthomerica. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004. Reviewed by Martijn Cuypers, BMCR 2005.07.37.

7. On the novel, for instance, Steven Smith’s Greek Identity and the Athenian Past in Chariton: The Romance of Empire. Ancient Narrative Supplementum 9. Groningen: Barkhuis and Groningen University Library, 2007. Reviewed by Johanna Akujärvi, BMCR 2008.03.25.

8. Quintus Smyrnaeus und die Aeneis : zur Nachwirkung Vergils in der griechischen Literatur der Kaiserzeit. Munich: Beck, 2005.

9. Shorrock’s book The challenge of epic: allusive engagement in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus (Leiden: Brill, 2001) has established him as one of the most interesting and sensitive critics of Nonnus’ work.