Every creator of a literary genre or a trail-blazing form of reasoning inevitably develops an aura of fascination, and such is the case of Theagenes of Rhegium, credited with two long-lasting innovations: being the first to write on Homer’s life and works, and being the founder of the allegorical interpretation (allegoresis) of poetic texts, in addition to being the first prose writer from Western Greece. It is therefore very frustrating not to possess any direct quotations from his book and to have to content ourselves with a mere five testimonia, all but one of them very short in length. Francesca Biondi has done her best to draw maximum information from these meager texts in her book, the first entirely dedicated to the personality and work of Theagenes.
After a brief survey of different scholarly approaches to this author (11-13), she presents the text with critical apparatus and a translation of the five testimonia (18-27), on which she offers in-depth commentary in the remainder of the book (31-114).
-T1 is a testimony of Tatian ( Ad Graec. 31), important for specifying the period during which Theagenes lived: he was a contemporary of the king Cambyses (529-522). He is the first author cited as investigating Homer’s poetry, lineage and ἀκμή. Biondi adheres to the widespread view that Theagenes’s interest in these themes can be explained by his being a rhapsodos. Indeed, it is very likely that the rhapsodoi not only knew the Homeric poems by heart, but that, before or after their performance, they provided biographical information on the poet, as well as explanations of rare and obscure terms and comments on the pedagogical value of certain passages. In this way, they satisfied the audience’s desire to learn more about the poet and better understand his work. Theagenes’ innovation was to put his knowledge of Homer’s life (that is, an outline of his biography) in writing, as well as various explanations of his poetry, in terms of lexicon, grammar and morally problematic passages. In my view, the theory of Theagenes as rhapsodos is convincing, as it succeeds in explaining the various themes found in his work. Lastly, Biondi offers a portrait of two figures close to Theagenes, who are also cited by Tatian in T1: Stesimbrotus of Thasos and Antimachus of Colophon, who dealt with Homer’s homeland and clarified unclear Homeric terms (31-42).
-T2 is a scholium to Dionysius Thrax (p. 164, 23-29 Hilgard), which credits Theagenes with the origin of the kind of grammatiké concerned with hellenismós. The other type of grammar, called grammatistiké in the scholium (codd.: grammatikè; grammati
-T4 comes from Porphyry’ Quaestiones Homericae ( ad Il. p. 240 MacPhail, ap. Schol. Hom. Il. 20.67). As the longest and most relevant testimony on Theagenes, its commentary occupies nearly the half of the book (57-105). T4 focuses on the Iliadic verses that describe the theomachy ( Il. 20.67-74) and interprets them as referring to the predominance of some elements or dispositions over others: water (represented by Poseidon) over fire (Apollo), fire (Hephaestus) over water (Scamandrus), air (Hera) over the moon (Artemis), wisdom (Athena) over madness (Ares) and desire (Aphrodite). Biondi points to some aspects of these gods in the poems that favored their identification with the elements: the connections of Poseidon and Scamandrus with water, of Hephaestus with fire and of the last three gods with their different qualities are evident. Regarding Apollo, his epithet Phoebus is usually connected with light, and from Aesch. Pr. 22 onwards, his name can designate the sun (58-60).
In line with previous authors, the author points out the proximity between the key concepts in Porphyry’ passage and Ionian thought, especially Anaximander’s theories, in which basic qualities such as hot, cold, dry and humid are opposed (A 16 DK), and in which the sea is explained as the result of the drying of the primeval waters by the sun (A 27 DK), similarly to the drying effect of fire on water in the scholium, with reference to Hephaestus’ action on the Scamander. She convincingly argues that Anaximander’s cosmogony must form the basis of the opposed pairings and the structure of Porphyry’s passage (61-63).
The opposition between Hera (= the air) and Artemis (= the moon) can be based on two etymologies, the first inspired by Homer ( Il. 21.6-7: ἠέρα δ’ Ἥρα / πίτνα) and the other, ἀέρα τέμνειν, “to cut the air”, present in the writings of the Stoics. Nonetheless, another of Biondi’s suggestions appears more likely: that Artemis’ interpretation as the moon derives from her brother Apollo’s identification with the sun (63-66).
With regard to three gods’ correspondence with mental dispositions (Athena = wisdom, Ares = madness, and Aphrodite = desire), the author provides various Homeric passages in which similar qualities of these gods are manifest. She correctly emphasizes the fact that this does not constitute a moral allegory (as some authors have stated); rather it is psychological in nature, since it refers to attitudes and makes no value judgement on the actions in question. The interpretation of Hermes as λόγος is due to his function as messenger of the gods in the Odyssey and to his astute character. Although the passage contains no equivalence between Leto and an element, Schrader inserted some words in which she was interpreted as oblivion (λήθη), a reading accepted by Biondi and which appears very likely, since it is present in Ps.-Plutarch Vit. Hom. 102.3 and Heraclit. Alleg. Hom. 55 (66-72).
One appealing contribution is Biondi’s observation that Helios’ presence in Porphyry’s passage seems to involve an allegoresis of Od. 8.266-366, the narration of the adulterous love affair of Ares and Aphrodite voiced by Demodocus. She bases this observation on Ps.-Plut. Vit. Hom. 101-102, which interprets the theomachy using terms very similar to T4 and also includes the allegoresis of said passage from the Odyssey. The similarities of content and terminology indicate that T4 and the Ps.-Plutarch text share a common source. Since Helios is mentioned in both texts, but does not appear in the theomachy and does appear in Demodocus’ song, in their source there must also have been an allegoresis of the latter passage, which is equally problematic and requires an interpretation eliminating impious elements (74-78).
The author then offers a very illuminating account of the beginnings of allegoresis in Greece. She sets apart three main spaces proposed by scholars: philosophical, political and mystic, which share the common factor of distinguishing two levels of meaning: one obvious to the majority and the other hidden and reserved for the few, be they philosophers, aristocrats or initiates. According to Biondi, the tendency towards allegory derives from internal factors, since the epic tradition itself uses myths to communicate a symbolic and paradigmatic message. Even Homer contains elements of philology, since he occasionally introduces explanations of rare terms or proper nouns and even etymologies. She also observes allegories in certain passages, such as Il. 16.676-683, 19.91-94, 9.502- 512, but one might object that these are more personifications of concepts such as fear, obfuscation and pleas, rather than terms or passages with a deeper meaning (78-85).
In the section entitled “The scandal of the theomachies”, she considers various topics: allegoresis as defense of a text subject to criticism (Theagenes appears to respond to Xenophanes’ attacks on Homer for his impiety); the parallel between Theagenes and Stesichorus, who composed three versions of the myth of Helen, no doubt in order to appeal to an audience critical of the traditional version of the epic; the possible connection between Theagenes and the allegorical explanations in the Orphic and Pythagorean milieus in Magna Graecia (one of the weakest parts of the book due to the lack of testimonies from the 6th and 5th centuries) (85-98).
In the final section, Biondi examines the possibility that Pythagorean philosophy may have inspired Theagenes’ allegoresis. She astutely argues that there is no sufficient basis to support this view. In line with previous publications, she does concede the resemblance between T4 and fr. 4 DK of Alcmaeon of Croton, which alludes to various opposed pairings (98-105).
T5, derived from the Suda and two scholia on Aristophanes, distinguishes between several authors called Theagenes, one of whom wrote about Homer. This is a likely indication of the title that Theagenes’ book must have had, Περὶ Ὁμήρου. Due to a lack of clear evidence, Biondi does not accept either A. Debiasi’s proposal that this work (thought to contain ancient Euboean traditions) is the source for Alcidamas’ Μουσαῖον, or that scholar’s attribution of an edition of the Iliad to Theagenes (107-108).
In a brief section (108-110), Biondi considers as possible the proposal that the grammarian Seleucus of Tirus (1 st century AD) was the source of various scholia containing mentions of Theagenes. In my view, the data is too scant to allow us to make sure statements in this regard.
The book’s conclusions are presented in two pages (113-114): Theagenes was, in all likelihood, a professional rhapsodos concerned with defending Homer against the criticisms leveled at him by contemporary philosophers such as Xenophanes. His main innovation was the writing of a prose work on Homer (T5), dealing with his life (T1), language (T2) and text (T3), as well as eliminating unseemly elements from certain episodes, such as the theomachy and the love affair between Ares and Aphrodite, through an original use of allegorical interpretation.
The author’s ample bibliography shows a natural preference for publications in Italian and, to a lesser degree, in English (115-123). It lacks several valuable articles on Theagenes in French, German and Spanish, which can now be found in Pedro Pablo Fuentes González’ excellent entry “Théagénès de Rhégium”, in R. Goulet (ed.), Dictionnaire des Philosophes Antiques, VI, Paris, 2016, 801-811, an ideal complement to Biondi’s book. The work concludes with three indexes: quoted passages, names and topics (125-140). The editorial production of the book is exquisite in all material and typographical aspects. I have not found any misprints.
To summarize, this is an intelligent, solid and well documented book, with a rigorous and subtle treatment of the details of its topic. Not only does it offer a very coherent and plausible portrait of Theagenes, it also provides a fascinating study of the circulation of the Homeric poems in Magna Graecia, the diversity of attitudes towards them and the conditions and motivations which gave birth to their allegorical interpretation.