BMCR 2019.01.25

The Homeric Battle of the Frogs and Mice. Greek texts, 54

Joel Christensen, Erik Robinson, The Homeric Battle of the Frogs and Mice. Greek texts, 54. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. xiii, 198. ISBN 9781350035942 $114.00.

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Introducing the Batrachomyomachia in his Oxford text of Homer, T.W. Allen described it as a ‘pusillum poemation’ and expressed some wonder at the considerable efforts expended by Ludwich on the text of a ‘miserum poema’ so afflicted with variant readings.1 Such views of the poem as both insignificant and intractable meant that it was not until the 1980s that it began to be considered more seriously ‘as a complex and sophisticated text… rather than as a “subliterary” comic curio’.2 The result of this situation is that, although there are modern commentaries in German and Italian,3 Anglophone undergraduates are most likely to be familiar with the poem only from M.L. West’s Loeb translation.4 Christensen and Robinson write that their commentary ‘seeks to fill this void partially’ (p. xi), and the publication of a commentary in English will certainly help to excite wider interest in this fascinating and enjoyable survival of Homeric parody.

Christensen and Robinson explain the genesis of their project (pp. x-xiii): their original plan was simply to produce a translation, but the questions they found themselves asking about the poem led them to create a commentary ‘for students setting out with just a bit of Greek to read something a little different’. They therefore aim their volume at readers unfamiliar with the poem and the traditions that influenced it, and suggest that their commentary is especially suitable for ‘intermediate and early-advanced reading of Greek’. They provide an introduction, bibliography, Greek text, English translation (in a separate section, rather than facing the Greek), commentary and glossary.

The introduction (pp. 1-37) is divided into sections on: date and authorship; the manuscript tradition; ‘our poem’; the tradition of fable; epic parody; parodic epic; Homeric language and meter; formulaic language; some conclusions about date and authorship; a summary of epic divergences from Attic Greek; and a brief note on the translation. One feature of the introduction that will be especially helpful for students is the full text and translation of the two variants of the Aesopic ‘frog and mouse’ fable.5 Similarly, as part of the useful discussion of key features of the ancient parodic tradition, illustrative passages are provided from Hipponax and Hegemon.

On the basis of the poem’s style and diction, Christensen and Robinson conclude that it is by an author who ‘worked in a center of Greek learning and culture, but lived in an increasingly “Roman” world’, and imply that the 1st century CE is its most likely date (pp. 32-4). The question of the text’s date is picked up at various points in the commentary itself, which highlights those linguistic features that scholars have adduced as dating evidence. The section on formulaic language seems rather too detailed for the intended audience, but nonetheless makes clear how the treatment of formulaic material has been used by scholars as a means of determining that the poem is by a literate poet imitating the oral style.

This volume does not offer a critical edition, but rather an unadorned Greek text that is principally based on the editions of Allen and Ludwich (p. 4). Strikingly, Christensen and Robinson have included in the main text the majority of those lines that have usually been considered interpolations. These are not indicated by square brackets, even when the present editors conclude that they are most likely interpolated; rather, one must turn to the discussion in the commentary to discover which lines have come under suspicion. On the one hand, this has the advantages of prompting students to reflect on the problems of establishing a text, to assess the merits of different readings and to highlight the ways in which the text was received and remodelled by different audiences (this being the rationale given on pp. 4-5). On the other hand, the commentary’s references to simply ‘some MSS’ or ‘several MSS’ as the source of readings obscure both the complexity of the tradition and the principle that certain MSS are more likely to preserve better readings than others. And I fear that, despite the undoubtedly good intentions behind such a presentation of the text, it is likely to prove confusing to students, who will need further guidance from their teacher on textual questions. On balance, perhaps a clearer way of helping students to develop skills in textual criticism would be to guide them through a simplified apparatus along the lines of that in West’s Loeb.

With pedagogical aims to the fore, the translation is ‘mostly literal’ (p. xii) and is intended ‘to convey the sense and the content of the original Greek without considerable concern for polish’ (p. 36). This might lead one to expect a rather functional ‘translationese’, but I find the translation a readable and engaging version in its own right, with just a few awkward moments. I noticed a couple of errors: in line 6, where the printed text has the aorist participle ἀριστεύσαντες (and where the note ad loc. implies this is preferable to the variant reading ἀριστεύσοντες), the translation has ‘went forth to best the frogs’, which seems to translate the rejected future participle. And at 194 τις ὑμείων becomes ‘one of us’, rather than ‘one of you’.

The thorough glossary appears to contain every word in the Greek text — even the likes of εἰ, καί and ἐν — and will be a valuable reference for students reading the text. Furthermore, various tricky forms have separate entries with parsing: e.g. εἶπον is identified as the aorist of λέγω, while ὄσσε is identified as a dual form and translated as ‘the two eyes, both eyes’.

Similar help with grammar, epic forms and translation appears throughout the commentary itself. This guidance is pitched appropriately for intermediate-level students, although I imagine they will sometimes seek clearer justification; e.g. in line 1, why should we translate σελίς as ‘page’ (as the commentary advises), not ‘a column of writing’ (as the glossary advises)?

The commentary contains many stimulating observations. For example, at line 91 Christensen and Robinson point out that when the mouse is rather implausibly weighed down by waterlogged fur this seems to reflect the human experience of waterlogged clothing. (But they characteristically impose no judgement on their reader about the author’s intention here — is the ‘error’ down to simple ignorance, or deliberate humour?) Attention is drawn to the likely pun on μῦς in καταμῦσαι (191), with an ingenious further suggestion that this word might be ‘an echo of the similar-sounding Katamyomachia (“battle of cats and mice”)’. A more subtle use of mouse-punning is suggested for ἀγχέμαχοι (195), an epithet applied in Homer to the mousey- named Mysians. It could be added that the very fact that the word is used here in a slightly odd way (as noted in the commentary) might be a sign of the poet’s desire (desperation?) to find some way of including this clever allusion. At 158, the reader’s appreciation is enhanced not only by the commentary’s identification of ‘grim irony’ in Physignathos’ plan to drown all the mice despite his claim to be innocent of the original drowning of Psicharpax, but also by its reference back to line 60, where Physignathos said that the frogs have the power ἐν ὕδασι σῶμα καλύψαι, which is now reinterpreted as a ‘grim foreshadowing’ of the frogs’ underwater concealment not of their own live bodies but of the dead mice.

In some places, though, the discussion of individual lines could benefit from the inclusion of additional points that would help to bring out more of the poem’s playful intertextuality. For example, West’s suggestion that καλύβῃ in line 30 is a parody of the Homeric city Alybe (and should therefore have a capital letter, creating the place-name Kalybe, or ‘Hidey-Hole’) seems plausible and deserves discussion.

Throughout the commentary indications are given of the Homeric phrases and episodes on which the text appears to be modelled, but again these could sometimes be taken further. Two examples: Fusillo sees in lines 86-91 ‘una precisa allusione parodica’ to Od. 5.319-23, which would nicely complement the reference to a less precise parallel (5.352) given here. At 255 Christensen and Robinson identify τετράχυτρον (‘four pots thick’, describing a helmet) as ‘a clear parodic neologism’, and sensibly suggest that the form is inspired by the ‘four-layered’ shield at Il. 15.479, but Glei also points to the descriptions of helmets as τετραφάληρος at Il. 5.743 and 11.41. At 159 the commentary brings out a possible ‘metapoetic conceit’ — is the μυοκτόνον τρόπαιον actually the poem itself? — but more could be made of the similarly metapoetic laughter of Zeus at 172 (only mentioned in passing in the note on line 256 but not ad loc.).6

The volume unfortunately suffers from numerous typographical errors, which some readers will find annoying although they do not generally affect comprehension; however, problems with the Greek diacritics might confuse less experienced students.7 There are also some formatting problems in matching up the Greek lines and their scansion in the section on metre (pp. 23-27). But what is more serious is the state of the line-numbering in the Greek text, which (presumably as the result of a wayward automated process) begins to go awry at line 97a. This simply becomes line ‘98’, and similar difficulties with other such lines (e.g. 261a, 261b and 261c) mean that the numbers become increasingly divorced from those used in the translation and commentary. The result is that the Greek text ends at line ‘315’, whereas the translation has the correct 303 (although a further error means that the number ‘300’ has become attached to line 301 there). The problem will no doubt be easy to correct in a paperback edition.

The authors’ enthusiasm for the poem is clear, and their comments will encourage new readers to think about its parodic techniques and to make their own further explorations. The book therefore fulfils its intended purpose, but one still looks forward to a fuller critical edition and English commentary.

Notes

1. T.W. Allen (ed.), Homeri Opera Tomus V, Oxford 1912, 161, referring to A. Ludwich, Die Homerische Batrachomachia des Karers Pigres, Leipzig 1896.

2. The quote is from M. Hosty, ‘The Mice of Ithaca: Homeric Models in the Batrachomyomachia ’, Mnemosyne 67 (2014), 1008-13, n.2, where references to the relevant articles can be found.

3. R. Glei (ed.), Die Batrachomyomachie. Synoptische Edition und Kommentar, Frankfurt 1984; M. Fusillo (ed.), La Battaglia delle rane e dei topi. Batrachomyomachia, Milan 1988.

4. M.L. West (trans.), Homeric Hymns. Homeric Apocrypha. Lives of Homer. Loeb Classical Library, 496, Cambridge, MA, 2003.

5. From the differences between this fable and the Batrachomyomachia Christensen and Robinson argue that the fable is the older text, while acknowledging the existence of an opposing view (pp. 8-12).

6. Glei ad loc. : ‘Das Lachen des Zeus ist das des Dichters…; Zeus lacht über den Götterhimmel des homerischen Epos, ja auch über sich selbst’. Fusillo adds that there is a possible allusion to the laughter directed at Thersites ( Il. 2.270).

7. E.g. ‘sing’ has become ‘sin’ on p. 64, ‘scholiast’ is ‘scholist’ on p. 84, and ‘mousetrap’ has spawned ‘mousestrap’ on p. 87 (a word which finds its way into the index as a separate entry!). Examples of more confusing errors: ‘it lends some support to the omission of lines 22-3 should be omitted’ (p. 79), ‘for a the lacuna in th text’ (p. 138), ‘This phrase seems gains in popularity’ (p. 139). Diacritics: Πιερεἱᾳ, Έλικῶνι and ὁιονεὶ (p. 65), ζῶᾳ (p. 68). One item mentioned in the commentary does not appear in the bibliography: ‘Kelly 2014’, referred to on p. 118, is A. Kelly, ‘Hellenistic arming in the Batrachomyomachia ’, CQ 64 (2014), 410-13.