BMCR 2013.01.06

Asclepiades of Samos. Epigrams and Fragments

, Asclepiades of Samos. Epigrams and Fragments. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. cxiv, 353. ISBN 9780199253197. $150.00.

This is the third commentary devoted to Asclepiades of Samos to appear in less than a decade, following those by L.A. Guichard (Bern 2004) and I.S. Nastos (Heraklion 2006); given the complexity of Asclepiades’s poetry, this is not surprising, and Sens’s book is a very welcome addition. With its insightful, learned, and sensitive literary treatment of the poems it will become an indispensable tool for those interested in epigram and Hellenistic literature in general.

Sens’s rich introduction deals with Asclepiades’s life and work, the development of Hellenistic epigram, language and style, metrics, and the transmission of the text (xxv-cix). The testimonia are presented with Greek text, critical apparatus and a translation (cx-cxiv). The book’s main part consists of a new critical edition, accompanied by a translation and a detailed commentary of 52 poems (1-345). Among these we also find poems whose authorship is debated, including fragments of doubtful generic status. Sens is well aware that the problem of ascription is a thorny one, and that arguments based on language, prosody and style are slippery: not only is he very cautious in his discussion of the poems’ authorship, but (unlike Guichard) he also provides a full literary and philological analysis in each case.

The book is concluded by a subject index and an index of Greek words and phrases (347-53). Like Guichard and Nastos, Sens basically adopts Gow-Page’s enumeration of the poems, but there are also differences, and a comparatio numerorum with previous editions, together with an index of sources, would have been useful. The bibliography is disappointing: a selective list of abbreviations opens the book (xiii-xxiv), and this is complemented by a list of the main editions of the Greek Anthology and of Asclepiades’s work (cvii-cix),1 while other contributions are quoted in the relevant places. Nevertheless, many bibliographical references are never given in full: for conjectures only the name of scholars is provided. This makes it hard to track down where the suggestion was made. Trying to establish the πρῶτος εὑρετής of a given emendation can be a time-consuming and not always rewarding exercise, but some of the information provided by Sens even adds to the confusion: in *XXXIV.2, for instance, instead of the manuscripts’ ἐρχόμενοι the author prints the emendation ἐρχομένην, which he attributes to Martorelli; the same suggestion is in F. Jacobs, Anthologia Graeca sive Poetarum Graecorum lusus ex recensione Brunckii, Leipzig 1794-1814, II.1: 138-9, a fact the reader would have deserved to know.

Sens’s text is based on a fresh look at the most important textual witnesses; for some of the apographa he reasonably relies on Guichard’s thorough examination. Only the most important conjectures are included in the readable apparatus, while others are discussed in the commentary. Although this is a reasonable choice, one might wish that Sens had at least registered more of the new attempts at textual reconstruction in this edition – as exempli gratia as they might be – so as to allow the reader more immediate access to them (cf. e.g. the conjectures proposed ad *XLVIII). In general, those interested in the critical fortunes of the poems will find Guichard’s work more informative: Sens passes over in silence many of the emendations proposed throughout the centuries. Some of them might not have been worth mentioning, but a less selective choice would occasionally have been welcome: in XXVI.3, for instance, an epigram which invites the reader to treat the numbers mentioned as a puzzle, Sens brilliantly explains the superficially banal parenthesis ἀριθμήσει δέ σοι αὐτός as a means of calling attention to the cardinal number postponed to the beginning of l. 4; it would have been worthy of note that this apparent superficiality led some scholars to emend the text (ἀριθμῆσαί σε δεῖ αὐτάς: Gow; ἀριθμήσῃ δὲ σὺ καὐτός: Waltz).

This being said, Sens’s literary sensitivity results in a better understanding of many passages, and his edition is often an improvement on previous ones. Some examples: in VIII.4 Sens’s conjecture ἔδακεν provides the epigram with a plausible conclusion; in XIV.2 the paradosis of a debated text is convincingly retained on the grounds that the expression οἶνος καὶ Βορέης is “a slight but readily comprehensible zeugma, the very oddity of which calls attention to the importance of wine to the speaker’s state” (91); in *XLVI.3 a new punctuation, which makes the sentence interrogatory, is proposed; in *XLVIII.2 the lacunose text of the papyrus is brilliantly supplemented as παῖ]δ᾿ ὑποδεξαμένα, on the basis of Call. h. 5.118. In deciding among different dialects – another thorny issue, given that the manuscripts of the Greek Anthology are problematic witnesses to a poet’s dialect practice – Sens’s choices are well-reasoned: he always considers whether a certain dialect is appropriate to the subject of a poem, or is designed to capture the voice of the narrator.

Sens does not limit himself to analysing the epigrams individually, but he also carefully investigates how they are linked. At the same time, he is cautious with regard to reconstructing the broader context of a hypothetical original book of epigrams: since a poet famous as Asclepiades is likely to have assembled more than one collection in his lifetime, we cannot be sure that all the epigrams we have come from the same source. Furthermore, Sens notes that a poem like I, a programmatic piece often read as the proem of Asclepiades’s book of epigrams, could also have opened an individual section, as the parallel of Posidipp. 62 A-B shows – a programmatic poem we could have interpreted as standing at the beginning of Posidippus’s collection, were it preserved via Meleager, but which, in the papyrus, just opens a section. Sens treasures the lesson taught by the New Posidippus, repeatedly stressing how Meleager’s selection affects our perception of Hellenistic epigram as a whole.

Sens’s tendency to enrich his discussion with methodological considerations will make this book excellent reading for students, while more advanced scholars will appreciate the richness of ideas found on almost every page. Particularly brilliant is Sens’s treatment of the history of the epigrammatic genre: he shows that Hellenistic epigrams are “literary constructions that play with the formal and thematic conventions of inscribed epigram or that expand the limits of the form to include elements from other literary traditions, including epic, elegiac, lyric, and dramatic poetry” (xxxvi). The interplay with the conventions of the genre is particularly clear in poems such as VI and *XXXV, which jocularly engage with epigrams celebrating equestrian victories, as those honouring the successes of the Ptolemaic house preserved by the Milan Posidippus papyrus. Sens’s sensitive analysis of these poems indirectly illuminates an aspect of the history of the genre which remains to be fully explored: the paradox according to which a poetic form which was by its very nature eulogistic – inscriptional epigrams were born in order to record, and thus celebrate, the dedication of an object, or the death of a man – became the genre of mockery and abuse.

Sens’s focus on the way in which Asclepiades engages with the Greek literary tradition leads to many brilliant interpretations, although not all of them are equally convincing: when the speaker in XIII wishes that the beloved might suffer what he is suffering, i.e. that she might find herself in the position of the exclusus amator, Sens reads this as a self-reflexive allusion to the convention of the epigrammatic genre: “the curse… amounts to a wish that Pythias be forced to play the role not only of excluded lover but of epigram-writer as well” (87), but this is far-fetched at best; in XXVII I do not think that the expression καλὰ γράμματα, with γράμμα possibly to be understood as “poem”, is sufficient to read the dedication of a comic mask by a boy who won a school competition for handwriting as “a reflection of the poet’s own achievement in the agonistic literary world in which he operated” (181). In *XXXV Sens is right in pointing out that the epigram engages with previous poetry and can thus be read as a self-reflexive comment on its relationship to the literary past, but it is difficult to accept his suggestion that the two competing courtesans are analogous to two competing poets, with the loser representing the author of VI, an epigram on a similar theme with which *XXXV engages.

Some minor quibbles, the collection of which is in the nature of a review, though they should not obscure the excellence of Sens’s book:

VII.1-2: for the interpretation of εἰς Ἀφροδίτης as “to the house/temple of Aphrodite” a reference to M. Brioso Sánchez, Asclepíades y el templo de Afrodita: AP 5.207 (7 Gow-Page), Fortunatae 2005, 16: 41-7 is missing.

VII.3: the euphemistic expression εἰς ἕτερ᾿, which indirectly alludes to female homosexual practices, is paralleled by Lucillius AP 11.216.4 ἑτεροζήλων, where it refers to passive homosexuals.

XI: Sens takes the reference to Danae as an indication of the feminine sex of the speaker’s beloved; this is sensible, but see at least Iul. Leon. AP 12.20, where the myth is used in a pederastic context (also Strato AP 12.239, if the epigram is indeed by him).

XV.4: ἄφρονες is taken as “heedless, without a thought”, a sense not paralleled for the adjective, and the usual meaning of “foolish” can be retained, if one follows M. Di Marco, Asclepiade 15 G.-P. (= A.P. 12. 46): una reinterpretazione, in R. Pretagostini-E. Dettori (eds.), La cultura ellenistica: il libro, l’opera letteraria, l’esegesi antica, Roma 2004: 113-20.

XXII: I do not share Sens’s confidence that Damis is the older in the homosexual couple celebrated in the epigram: as Sens himself notes, a basic strategy of the poem is to collapse the traditional distinction between erastes and eromenos in order to stress the reciprocality of affection between the two partners. This emphasis on equality could also aim to eliminate the traditional distinction between older and younger, so as to suggest a relationship between coevals: such a relationship between male partners of the same age could be alluded to in epigrams such as Asclep. XXIV and Meleager AP 12.164, as suggested by K.J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality, London 1978: 86 (disappointingly, there is no mention of this interpretation in Sens’s discussion of XXIV. Sens also missed M. Di Marco, Un amore perfetto: Asclep. 24 G.-P. = AP 12, 163, in L. Belloni, L. De Finis, G. Moretti (eds.), L’officina ellenistica: poesia dotta e popolare in Grecia e a Roma, Trento 2003: 145-67, which offers a conjecture for the problematic line 2). XXII.4: as examples of κεράννυμι and its cognates in erotic contexts, at least Polemon or Lucillius AP 5.68.2 ἢ λύσῃς τὸν πόθον ἢ κεράσῃς should have been mentioned; XXII.4 (147): some confusion in reporting the readings of the manuscripts for Antip. AP 6.208.6: εὐκρήτου is the reading of Pl (not of P, as Sens reports), while P b has εὐκταίης (εὐκταίου, assigned by Sens to Pl, is not in the mss.).

*XXXVI: on the first distich, see M. Di Marco, AP 5, 209 (= Posid. *128 A.-B. = Asclep. *36 Guichard), in P. Arduini, Studi offerti ad Alessandro Perutelli, Roma 2008, I: 413-24. *XLVI.2 (p. 322): adesp. AP 12.40.3-4 presumably refers to anal, not facial hair, as the author seems to think.

There are a few typos and misprints: among the less trivial ὶπαίζει for παίζει (xxix); καἰ for καὶ (V.3); Braccia for Broccia (29); in the text of IX the pentameters are not indented; ᾦ for ᾧ (XI.5); οἶά for οἷά (XIII.1 and p. 84); ὧ for ὦ (119); Heck for Hecker (169); at 171 Ihm 18 should be Ihm 81; οὑχ for οὐχ (178); φερ᾿ for φέρ᾿ (266); ἔρπει for ἕρπει in the quotation of Philostr. Ep. 1.13 (322); 4 for 3 in the apparatus of *XLVIII; αἐίδω for ἀείδω, έπιβαίνω for ἐπιβαίνω (351); μυωψ for μύωψ (352); πρόπετῶς for προπετῶς, ὑψἰλοφος for ὑψίλοφος (353).


1. At least two titles referred to only by name are not given in the lists of abbreviations: S. Ihm, Eros und Distanz. Untersuchungen zu Asklepiades in seinem Kreis, Muenchen/Leipzig 2004, and D.L. Page, Epigrammata Graeca, Oxford 1975.