BMCR 2015.12.21

Studies in Colluthus’ “Abduction of Helen”. Mnemosyne supplements. Late Antique literature, 380

, Studies in Colluthus' "Abduction of Helen". Mnemosyne supplements. Late Antique literature, 380. Leiden: Brill, 2015. 324. ISBN 9789004279506. €126.00.


As the first English-language monograph dedicated entirely to Colluthus’ epyllion, this book is very aware of its mission to re-evaluate a text which hitherto has received little attention and even less praise (as is noted in the introduction in a brief survey of preceding secondary literature). It comprises four chapters of varying length, of which the first provides basic information and the other three focus on different aspects of style, whilst also following the poem’s structure fairly closely. Cosetta Cadau mostly examines the Abduction as a product of its time that demonstrates resemblances to near-contemporary works, but also offers some nuanced original readings. However, one might raise two issues with the execution of the project. First, the author enters into guesswork as she tries a little too hard to reconstruct Colluthus as an individual and the circumstances in which the text would have been written, read and performed, which is not very fruitful given the limited evidence we possess for these things. Secondly, there is a substantial imbalance in the attention paid to the different parts of the text, and in particular the scene of Hermione’s lament has not received the treatment it deserves. While the prose is generally clear, I must highlight a number of minor inaccuracies which can be puzzling to the reader.

The short chapter 1 (‘Colluthus in His Context’) begins by stringing together the very limited knowledge we have about Colluthus’ vita. It then proceeds with a useful overview of literary activity during the reign of Anastasius I, in which Colluthus flourished. Moreover, the poem’s genre is discussed. Cadau acknowledges the problems associated with the conceptualisation of the epyllion, but makes a good case for the Abduction‘s classification as such, employing acceptable criteria.

Chapter 2 (‘Colluthus and His Models’) explores the influences of other genres on the text, which are exemplified from passages from the beginning of the poem up to the judgement episode (lines 1-191). The proem and the shepherd Paris are inspired by bucolic, the Eris scene by epic, and Aphrodite’s victory speech by invective. There is little to disagree with here, since the argument mostly relies on a great number of strong parallels with other texts (some new, others pointed out by scholars before). The discussion of the models for the Eris section is particularly impressive and includes two tables which help to visualise the verbal links. We also find an intriguing comparison of Aphrodite’s hairstyle in the Abduction with examples from both literature and art. I am, however, not persuaded by the attempts to establish a metapoetic (and metaleptic) correspondence or rivalry between Colluthus and Paris presented on pp. 46 f. and 50 f. Furthermore, the exposition on the latter pages seems to contain a logical flaw (why does Paris necessarily lose to Colluthus, and why is Colluthus therefore better than the god Pan?). On page 72 it is claimed that in Nonnus, Dionysiaca 25.197, Heracles ‘kills the Lerna’, although of course it is the hydra that is killed by the hero, while Lerna is the name of the region in which the monster had its lair.1 On p. 82 Cadau contradicts herself within a single paragraph by first stating, incorrectly, that ‘Strife is not present in the Cypria ’ , amongst other texts (in fact, she is mentioned right at the beginning of Proclus’ summary; at line 6 of M. Davies’ edition, which is present in the bibliography) and four lines later referring to two fragments of the Cypria in which Eris is essential to the plot.

With chapter 3 (‘Colluthus’ Visual Epyllion’) we move into the middle section of the narrative, from Paris’ journey to Sparta up to his encounter with Helen (lines 192-325). Its prevailing idea is that the Abduction reflects the fascination with visual experiences in Colluthus’ time. This is both the longest and in my opinion the most stimulating part of the book. After a careful discussion of literary visuality and terminology, it is argued well that appearance and the act of looking are driving forces within the poem. The chapter features a sophisticated reading of the first meeting between Paris and Helen, with the central observation that, contrary to expectations, Paris’ words betray that he is not actually very romantically inclined towards the woman. Meanwhile, Helen shows herself to be the active lover through her gestures, speech and especially her gaze. Finally, Cadau deals with possibilities for the performance of the piece. She shows that the poem contains traces of ethopoeia and progymnasmata which were a popular part of late antique paideia. On grounds of style and structure, the suggestion is cautiously brought forward that the Abduction could have been performed as a pantomime, which is interesting, but not fully convincing, owing to the lack of external supporting material.

The final chapter 4 (‘Colluthus’ Polyphonic Epyllion’) is concerned with narratological aspects of the Abduction. First we get a comprehensive overview of the different modes of speech within the poem, in comparison with other texts.2 Then follows a fascinating sub-chapter on ‘Auctorial Addresses’, which investigates Colluthus as an overt narrator when he apostrophises Dionysus and Phyllis. The next sub-chapter, ‘Characters’ Addresses’, juxtaposes the ways in which Hermione and Paris respectively talk to Helen (the former as though Helen were there when she is not, the latter as though she were not present when she is in front of him). At the end the figure of Helen is chosen as a case- study for the revelation of a character’s psychology through their utterances and behaviour.

At this point the book left me disappointed: the author does not fulfil the expectation raised by the previous chapters, which focus on specific portions of the poem, stage by stage. Rather, the section describing Hermione’s lament is very much neglected. The scene dedicated to Helen’s daughter is Colluthus’ single most innovative contribution to literature and arguably the very climax of his work, yet unfortunately the book does not do it justice.3 The monograph is, of course, not a commentary and is under no obligation to treat each episode equally, but surely much more could and should have been said about the extraordinary portrayal of the young princess. This is particularly regrettable, since it would have been very easy to reconcile it with the exciting theme of this last chapter. For instance, Cadau could have used it to illustrate Colluthus’ appeal for reader-response, which she promotes on various occasions,4 as the passage lends itself to such readings on account of the scarcity of spatio-temporal indicators within Hermione’s monologue.5

Overall, the book is successful in filling a research gap and bringing new life to the scholarship of the Abduction with modern approaches. Cadau has found a large number of lines from earlier poetry which may have functioned as both literal and thematic models for the epyllion. Apart from adding more parallels from Nonnus, whose style Colluthus is widely recognised to have copied, she is the first to advocate Claudian as another late antique source of inspiration. This significantly leads the author to declare herself in favour of the poet’s knowledge of Latin which has been the object of much debate, although—perhaps wisely—she does not take a stance on the question of his familiarity with Ovid. The next step from here would be to investigate the importance of these newly revealed relationships for the poem as a whole and to examine whether the fact that Colluthus emulates writers who lived about a century before him means that we should view him in their category or whether marked imitation is rather a sign of remoteness and thus of a rapid, conscious transformation of the poetic scene at the time.


1. The error is perhaps caused by a mistranslation of the phrase λύσατο Λέρνην as ‘he destroyed [the] Lerna’ instead of ‘he freed Lerna [from the hydra]’.

2. Here, a confusion of characters has occurred twice within two pages; on p. 226 one reads: ‘Zeus and Paris ask their interlocutors whether they have ever heard of Hermes, Troy and Priam (71, 280, 282)’, but ‘Hermes’ should be corrected to ‘Paris’ who is the real subject of Zeus’ question at line 71, while Hermes is his interlocutor. On p. 228 Cadau writes: ‘Athena also makes a statement’, but then proceeds to quote lines 151-3 which are in fact Hera’s words.

3. In simple terms of space, Hermione occupies 61 out of 392 lines (over 15%) of the epic, but the author grants only 6 pages to her exclusively (in comparison, even Eris, who only appears in 25 lines, is given 14 pages).

4. The fourth chapter lays emphasis on the ways in which the narrator invites the narratees to interact with the text (e.g. pp. 229 f., as well as p. 31 in ch. 1).

5. With regard to the book’s primary interest, Colluthus’ position in his social context, this part of the epyllion also would have had much to offer: Hermione is the very first female human child represented in such depth in literature (and by this I mean an a-sexual pre-teenage girl who does not yet care for marriage, but rather for her parents), which poses the question whether society now took children and their cares more seriously, and whether this may have had anything to do with the rise of Christianity.