Luca Bruzzese’s well-researched book is the third monograph dedicated to Philemon after Rapisarda (1939) and Gobara (diss. Ioannina 1986). Undoubtedly, Bruzzese advances substantially our understanding of what (little) is known about this significant older contemporary of Menander, capitalising both on the succinct annotations of the Poetae Comici Graeci (especially in volume VII, 1989) and on the fresh knowledge and methodology produced by the numerous studies on Middle and New Comedy fragments which saw the light of day in the last thirty years. Although on and off in the book Bruzzese is tempted, as anyone would be, to make more out of Philemon’s decontextualized shards than they might actually allow (especially in terms of generalised inferences), these instances are few and their tentative nature is always duly acknowledged.
Bruzzese’s goal is to analyse the traditional as well as the innovative elements of Philemon’s art, with a view to showing that in the history of Greek comedy Philemon occupies an intermediate position between the tastes of the earlier generation and the new tendencies represented by Menander. Chapter 1 collects and discusses all the available evidence regarding Philemon’s biography. Chapters 2 and 3, respectively, isolate those “traditional” elements that connect Philemon with earlier comedy, and those features that bespeak the novel trends. Chapters 4 and 5 are case studies, first of the cook and then of the playwright’s language and style, both illustrative of Philemon’s postulated “posizione mediana” .
Most usefully, Bruzzese’s book is an interesting combination of thematic analysis and commentary (detailed, albeit not word-by-word) on selected fragments of Philemon.1 These commentaries, printed in smaller font, comprise for the most part speculations on the plots and the personae loquentes (fruitful and restrained, as a rule), 2 as well as disquisitions on other significant issues of interpretation. Commentaries are preceded by philological and critical apparatuses, which update the ones in the PCG, and translation. A large number of footnotes accumulate further valuable data.
Chapter 1 discusses the biographical testimonies on Philemon. Commendably, Bruzzese is guarded against reifying the myths of anecdotic literature. He argues, for instance, that Aelian’s story that Philemon dreamt of the Muses leaving his home at the moment of his death is, pace Arnott, another traditional exitus illustrium virorum, not evidence that Philemon was theatrically active until his very old age.
Bruzzese focuses particularly on two stories related to Philemon’s life: the trial that Philemon allegedly underwent and his reputed shipwreck and subsequent stay at the court of Magas in Cyrene. Regarding the first, Bruzzese denies that ἀπηλλαχότος in test. 21 can refer to a theatrical victory, and accepts that Philemon stood trial and escaped condemnation to exile. As for the Magas story, he sees in it the anecdotal reworking of themes and motifs found in Philemon’s own work (tempest, shipwreck), including a reference to Magas himself in fr. 132. Bruzzese does not doubt, though, that Philemon spent some time in the court of Ptolemy Philadelphus ( not Soter) in Alexandria and that his Πανήγυρις was staged there. Because of that he tentatively assigns fr. 132 to this play.
Bruzzese also ventures a new dating for several of Philemon’s plays. He dates Λιθογλύφος around 330 BC; Βαβυλώνιος between 330-320; Μετιὼν ἢ Ζωμίον between 318-300; Νέαιρα between 300-294; Φιλόσοφοι “in the first years of the 3rd century”; and, “con una certa dose di audacia”, Πανήγυρις between 278-274 BC.
Chapter 2 positions Philemon in the context of comic tradition, analysing three elements of his art with a long history in earlier comedy: mythological parody, parody of philosophy and philosophers, and ὀνομαστὶ κωμῳδεῖν.
Regarding mythological parody, Bruzzese expounds on fr. 60. He accepts that this play may be a send-up of a particular tragic play, namely Euripides’ Παλαμήδης (albeit without the erotic theme customary in mythological parodies), and suggests that the fragment may come from a scene caricaturing the hero’s famous apology. However, he rejects the theory that Philemon’s Palamedes is a thin disguise of Demosthenes, who had been accused of being Harpalus’ accomplice.
Bruzzese’s overall conclusion regarding mythological parody is that in this respect, too, Philemon occupies an intermediate position between Diphilus, who was fond of the genre, and Menander, where the genre left little, if any trace. Whereas fr. 60 evokes the paratragic mode of Middle Comedy, fr. 102, which refers to Niobe, resembles more closely the way Menander deals with tragic myth. Bruzzese finds that: (a) Philemon’s tragic parodies are more mechanical and less elaborated than Menander’s, closer to Aristophanes’ Euripidean spoofs (what Bruzzese calls “vera e propria parodia”); (b) Philemon’s main interest in tragedy lies in the vocabulary rather than in the “stage dynamics”; and (c) that he employs tragic parody mainly in order to achieve farcical characterisations. If one agrees that frr. 60, 82, 102, 118 and 153 can support all that (it does take a certain leap of the imagination, admittedly), then indeed Philemon’s engagement with tragedy is very different than Menander’s.
Pertaining to philosophical parody, Bruzzese hypothesises that the play Φιλόσοφοι continued the old strain of explicit and sustained philosophical burlesque. Philemon’s Πύρρος receives more attention. Bruzzese is enthusiastic about fr. 74, “uno splendido pastiche ” (p. 73) combining two traditional motifs: philosophical parody ( comic polemic, perhaps, would be a more accurate term for what Philemon’s character is doing here) and the praise of country life. Bruzzese argues that in this motley assortment of jibes, the parody of Epicureanism is the one that prevails, because of the emphasis on ἡδονή. As to the identity of the persona loquens, Bruzzese puts forth the clever suggestion that rather than a γεωργός or a slave the person idealising the country here may actually be a city type, who has just discovered the country’s merits.
On the question of ὀνομαστὶ κωμῳδεῖν, Bruzzese’s assessment is that Philemon shows more vivid contact with contemporary reality, a stronger predisposition to pour it into the stage illusion, and a willingness to satirise that is clearer and more aggressive compared to Menander’s (the same greater inclination is shown also when it comes to scurrilous language). Still, Philemon, too, evinces that both ὀνομαστὶ κωμῳδεῖν and scurrility decline as the decades go by (pp. 77-8).
The force of this conclusion rests mainly on the longish but engaging analysis of Philemon’s use of aposiopesis in fr. 65 (pp. 96-7). Whereas Menander, Bruzzese contends, uses aposiopesis to suppress scurrility and enhance the finesse of the character speaking, Philemon sets his sights for the opposite effect: his aposiopesis highlights the insinuated sexual joke. Similarly, in fr. 3 (perhaps from the speech of a πορνοβοσκός), the frankness whereby this vulgar character speaks about sex is analogous, in Bruzzese’s view, with nothing in Menander, but only with similar fragments in Eubulus.
Again, based on such evidence and their inevitably subjective interpretation, one must be a bit chary of drawing the wider inference that, contrary to Menander’s refinement, Philemon goes for the “estemporaneo, il fuoco d’artificio, per cattivarsi un sicuro favore del pubblico, e, diremmo oggi, per ‘strappare un applauso’ durante lo svolgersi della piacevole e composta trama ‘borghese’” (pp. 101-2). This remains likely, but the question cannot be settled.
Having asserted Philemon’s ‘traditionalism’ in Chapter 2, Bruzzese goes on to examine typical New Comedy features in Philemon, in order, once more, to pinpoint continuities and discontinuities between his practice and Menander’s. These features are: divine prologues; various motifs and topoi (anagnorisis, παροινία, exilium amoris); and various themes (τύχη and the antithesis between εἶναι and φαίνεσθαι).
The discussion of fr. 95 is especially penetrating. Fr. 95, a divine prologue by the figure Ἀήρ, shows clearly that Philemon, too, adopts the divine prologue as an expository mechanism. Nevertheless, before getting into the exposition, Aer presents himself in a clearly self-referential way, parodic of “elevated contexts”. Thus this prologue exhibits more convergences with the speech of Arcturus in Plautus’ Rudens (based on a Diphilus original) than with any of Menander’s prologues.
Bruzzese has fine points to make also about anagnorisis in Philemon, showing strong awareness of how important Middle Comedy is as the trait d’union between fifth-century tragedy and New Comedy. He examines especially Philemon’s Ὑποβολιμαῖος in the light of Clement of Alexandria’s claim that both Philemon and Menander, who wrote a play of the same title, hark back to Aristophanes’ Κώκαλος.
When it comes to the themes of τύχη and εἶναι-φαίνεσθαι, Bruzzese demonstrates that Philemon and Menander are largely aligned. Only in fr. 9 from Ἀποκαρτερῶν, where it is argued that τύχη is an individual, congenital attribute similar to δαίμων, does Bruzzese see an original Philemonian elaboration. The originality is arguably overstated. The passages from tragedy and Menander himself which Bruzzese cites are not that dissimilar. Similarly, when it comes to the contrast between reality and appearance, the “maggiore espansione retorica del tema” in Philemon in comparison to the “più sintetico Menandro” is not clearly visible at least to this reviewer.
Chapter 4 surveys the cook in Philemon, concluding again that this playwright lies in the middle. Philemon, like Menander, presents the cook in brief dialogical exchanges with the person who commissioned his services or with his τραπεζοποιός. At least once, however (in fr. 82 from Στρατιώτης), Philemon gives the cook a longwinded ῥῆσις of the sort known from earlier comedy. Bruzzese notes that this fragment is introducing variations, which were picked up by later authors, and foreshadows especially Archestratos’ Hedypatheia, where the cook’s virtue lies precisely in the simplicity of his cooking (p. 217). This is an excellent observation.
The final chapter consists of four sections: the first deals with the famous comparison between Menander and Philemon by Pseudo-Demetrius; the second and third examine the use of polysyndeton and other rhetorical devices in the fragments of Philemon; and the fourth is concerned mainly with Philemon’s vocabulary.
Bruzzese is right to denounce Demetrius’ schematic thesis that Philemon was seen as best for reading and Menander for staging, because Menander’s language was διαλελυμένη, hence ἐναγώνιος, whereas Philemon’s λέξις was γραφική, hence εὐανάγνωστος. Bruzzese argues convincingly that Demetrius’ position is a misguided application of Aristotle’s remarks in Rhet. 1413b3ff. His most valuable point, though, is that Menander’s and Philemon’s successes (or failures) on the Athenian stage need not necessarily reflect their respective fortunes in other parts of the Greek world: it is always very important to remember that in this era “Paris n’est pas la France”.
Bruzzese does find that Philemon is fond of polysyndeton, but this is part and parcel of a whole arsenal of rhetorical devices (metaphor, polyptoton, hyperbaton, enjambment, anadiplosis, anaphora, paronomasia, etc.) used for a variety of theatrical, not readerly effects. He uses asyndeton, too, to an equal extent as polysyndeton: asyndeton is not the exclusive property of Menander. So far Bruzzese is totally persuasive. He is aware (see p. 265), though, that he steps on unsteady ground when he argues that Philemon’s “rhetorical abundance” (242), or what Bruzzese terms “modalità pirotecniche” (257), had neither precedents in Aristophanes and Middle Comedy nor a future in Menander or Plautus. Unfortunately, the state of the evidence allows only impressions and intuitions in this respect, not conclusions.
All in all, despite the understandable urge occasionally to overgeneralise his conclusions, Bruzzese has given us an informative study, full of ideas and excellent individual discussions: a thought-provoking and useful research tool.
1. Roughly 20% of Philemon’s fragments collected in the PCG receive such extensive commentary.
2. Inevitably, however, such speculations need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Regarding fr. 31 K.-A., for instance, Bruzzese accepts that the persona loquens is a slave pontificating pretentiously περὶ δεσποτῶν καὶ δούλων (pp. 239-41). However, if we remember Pamphile of Menander’s Epitrepontes (esp. 705-6, 713-4 Furley), a woman, too, referring to the institution of κυριεία, can be talking about freedom and slavery in similar terms, and for that matter in a serious tone. The lack of context must always give one pause.