BMCR 2020.09.27

Batrachomyomachia (battle of the frogs and mice): introduction, text, translation, and commentary

, Batrachomyomachia (battle of the frogs and mice): introduction, text, translation, and commentary. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. 304 p.. ISBN 9780198849902 $105.00.

The old adage that explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog, in that the process is inevitably something of a coup de grâce, although clichéd, is a rather apt analogy for the study of the Batrachomyomachia (or BM). If the poem is content to kill off frogs left, right, and centre, what difference would it make to add another to the pile, even if it is a metaphorical one? Any commentator on the BM has to wield the scalpel with extreme care, as the poem always poses many challenges to its interpreter. Far from butchering his prey, in this new commentary Matthew Hosty has breathed new life into this remarkable little poem. In addition to presenting an updated text of the poem, the book has a lengthy and detailed introduction and is replete with valuable comments.

The introduction (pp. 1-81) addresses numerous important issues for dealing with the text, including dating, the use of parody, the portrayal of the animals in the context of the fable tradition, the poem’s reception, and linguistic, metrical, and textual issues. One of the most important contributions in the introduction is the discussion of the poem’s date. Hosty accepts that the BM must be Hellenistic on the basis of references to, for example, Callimachus (discussed in notes at ll. 3, 116-7, and 177-96). More specifically, in his survey of the available evidence, and in particular his reassessment of the value of the Archelaus relief, Hosty suggests that ‘it becomes extremely unlikely that the BM can have been composed later than 150 BC’ (pp. 10-11). Hosty’s account is well reasoned but there are two points where there is some room for debate. To be clear, however, I make these suggestions to further the debate on this issue rather than because I have a better answer than Hosty offers.

First, Hosty argues that the depiction of the mice on the Archelaus relief is a reference to the BM.[1] While two mice could refer to the poem, one objection might be that, if mice were a common feature of animal epics generally (as argued at pp. 30-2) and if the poem was referred to in antiquity primarily as the Batrachomachia (e.g. by Martial and Statius), two frogs might be a more natural choice of animal to represent the poem. Hosty himself does recognize this possibility, but objects that ‘it is unlikely that any would have been as well known as the BM’ (p. 10 n. 19). This may be true, but it doesn’t answer why Archelaus would choose mice over frogs, which would have avoided any potential for confusion.

The second consideration follows from if the Archelaus relief does indeed allude to the BM. The Archelaus relief has been variously dated, depending on whether we see portraits of Ptolemy IV Philopator (224-201 BC) and Arsinoe III in the faces of the personifications Chronos and Oikoumene. If we were to accept some of the earliest estimates for the relief’s date, c. 225-20 BC, this would mean that the BM would have to be written after Callimachus, Aratus, and Apollonius but also early enough in the 3rd cent. BC that Archelaus could present it as genuinely Homeric. This would leave a narrow window for both the composition and the misattribution of the poem. (Personally, I do not see any grounds to believe that it was written as a forgery, which might explain how the BM could have been attributed to Homer in a short space of time.) Neither of these points contradict Hosty’s arguments, which are presented with care and attention to detail. The issue of the poem’s dating will most likely never be completely settled.

The introduction also makes Hosty’s own approach to the poem clear. He sees the poem as broadly humorous, but suggests that ‘very little in the BM would have made an audience laugh out loud’ (p. 21). While he is right to point out that previous descriptions of the poem as an ‘unfunny parody’ are predicated on the assumption that it should be funny, it is equally true that a funny poem need not be ‘laugh out loud’. This honest statement of his impression of the poem nevertheless reflects how the poem’s aesthetic value has (sometimes unfairly) always been defined by different audiences’ expectations of it. Hosty’s own assessment of the poem is based on the claim that ancient parody was not necessarily funny. This might be true, but depends largely on what counts as funny. Additionally, Hosty’s account of ancient parody downplays the humorous and satirical elements of ancient parody. As early as Aristoxenus (4th cent. BC), the genre παρῳδία is clearly associated with humour (fr. 136 Wehrli), and numerous writers of παρῳδία were clearly satirical (e.g. Hegemon, Euboeus, and Matro).[2] While he is right that ancient ideas of parody are not associated with the satire of the parodied text, this is not a universally accepted feature of modern parody either.[3] Of course, one does not have to find the text funny to appreciate its qualities, but as for any commentary on a humorous text Hosty’s approach to the BM is shaped by his response to it.

The text and apparatus are perhaps the most important contributions of the book. Hosty provides a remarkably clear summary of the vett. MSS in the introduction, which is especially important given how frequently the MSS differ (pp. 62-81). The edition draws on nine of the oldest manuscripts (dating from the tenth to early fourteenth centuries) and thanks to modern digitization Hosty has been able to analyse the MSS himself. The result of this is that Hosty’s edition updates earlier analyses of the manuscripts, most notably Ludwich’s. Not only is the text itself often a considerable improvement on earlier editions, but thanks to Hosty’s approach the apparatus will be an invaluable aid to future readers of the poem.

This approach does, although only very occasionally, mean that the readings of more recent manuscripts are not always considered. In the most problematic example, at line 264 Hosty prints: ἀγχοῦ δ᾽ ἑστήκει μενεαίνων ἶφι μάχεσθαι. In both the apparatus and in the note on the line, ἑστήκει is given as Hosty’s correction for Z’s reading, ἑστήκεν. However, Martin West’s Loeb edition already printed ἑστήκει (due to differing editorial practices and manuscript confusion, it is line 263 in West’s edition), and he listed ε(ἱ)στήκει as the reading of the recc. This error aside, Hosty’s text and apparatus does a remarkable job in making sense of the highly contradictory manuscripts. Taken as a whole, Hosty’s text is a great achievement and will no doubt become the standard in the field.

The addition of the translation is also welcome and importantly makes the volume more accessible to readers without a knowledge of Greek. As he explains (p. 85), the translation gives a sense of epic grandeur and consciously echoes Lattimore’s translation of Homer, which appropriately for a parody gives a familiar ring to some of Hosty’s turns of phrase. To give one example from early on in the poem, Physignathus’ opening line, ξεῖνε, τίς εἶ; πόθεν ἦλθες ἐπ᾽ ἠϊόνας; τίς ὁ φύσας (13), is rendered as: “Stranger, who are you? Whence come you to this shore? Who begat you?” The translation is clear and accessible throughout, for which Hosty is certainly to be commended.

The commentary provides a wealth of information, focusing especially on textual readings and variations in the manuscript tradition as well as on literary parallels in epic poetry. Perhaps unsurprisingly given Hosty’s view of the poem as humorous but not that funny, some might find Hosty sparing in his explanation of the poem’s humour. Nevertheless,there is a trove of information and analysis, and every reader will benefit from the detail provided throughout. One feature of the commentary that is especially welcome is the close attention paid to later allusions to the BM. Comparatively little work thus far has been done on the reception of the poem, and Hosty’s comments will undoubtedly help guide future work.

Throughout the commentary, Hosty gives detailed notes on the poem’s use of epic language and intertexts. In general, Hosty puts more emphasis on Homeric parallels than other examples from epic, such as Hesiod. In doing so, he is able to highlight important structural parallels (e.g. between BM 101-22 and Od. 2.1-24), but very occasionally potential Hesiodic parallels are not included where they might prove useful. At the reveal in the riddling description of the crabs, for instance, the BM’s phrase οἳ δὲ καλεῦνται καρκίνοι (298-9) could be taken as reminiscent of Hesiod’s metrically equivalent introduction of the demigods (οἳ καλέονται ἡμίθεοι, Op. 159-60). Other aspects of the commentary gesture towards problems that every reader of the BM will face. Hosty often points to the contrast between Homeric and later meanings of particular words. For example, in line 291 Hosty favours reading ἵετο over ἔλπετο (or Z’s ἔπλετο), noting in the commentary that ἵετο meaning “to be eager to do x” is widely found in Homer but not later. Such cases raise the question of how intimate not only the poet but also the audience were with the Homeric meanings of particular terms, and the commentary does very well to discuss these issues clearly for the reader.

I noted very few errors, although the reader should note that line 196 is missing from the translation. Additionally, while in both the introduction and the commentary Hosty provides up-to-date references to the majority of the most significant work on the poem since the commentaries of Fusillo and Glei, there are a few absences which are noted here for the benefit of the those interested in the poem.[4]

Given the complexity of the manuscript tradition, Hosty’s ability to make sense out of the chaos and produce an excellent new text of the BM is the volume’s greatest achievement, but readers will find new insights in every corner of the book. One can only hope that Hosty’s book stands on a pivotal threshold: just as the book is in many ways the culmination of increased attention and a re-evaluation of the BM over the past couple of decades, Hosty’s work also points forwards to the possibilities for future research, both on the poem itself but also its reception. Hosty may have dissected some frogs to get us this far, but the BM hasn’t croaked yet.


[1] Contra West, M.L. (1969) ‘Near Eastern Material in Hellenistic and Roman Literature,’ HSCPh 73, 113-34 and Wölke, H. (1978) Untersuchungen zur Batrachomyomachie, Meisenheim am Glan.

[2] For the genre of parôidia, Degani, E. (1983) Poesia parodica greca, 2nd. ed., Bologna still provides the most important overview.

[3] See for example Hutcheons view of 20th-century parody as repetition with ironic critical distance(Hutcheon, L. (1985) A Theory of Parody, New York, xii).

[4] Readers may wish also to consult Scodel, R. (2008) ‘Stupid, Pointless Wars,’ TAPhA 138.2, 219-35 and Camerotto, A. (1992) ‘Analisi formulare della Batrachomyomachia: Formularità di un testo epico letterario,’ Lexis9-10, 1–54. For those interested in the poem’s reception, see also Bucchi, G. (2015) ‘In tenui labor. Homère comique: réception et traduction de la Batrachomyomachie au XVIe siècle,’ in D’Amico, S. (ed.) Homère en Europa à la Renaissance. Traductions et réécritures. Corpus Eve. Online at Corpus Eve. Sticker, I. (2017)Die Rüstungsszenen in der BatrachomyomachiePhilologus 161.2, 329–336 may have appeared too late to be mentioned in Hostys otherwise very useful discussion of the arming scenes.