BMCR 2022.03.11

Nonnus of Panopolis in context III: old questions and new perspectives

, , Nonnus of Panopolis in context III: old questions and new perspectives. Mnemosyne supplements, 438. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020. Pp. 552. ISBN 9789004443235 €135,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume is the third in the series Nonnus of Panopolis in Context, which presents the proceedings of the Nonnus of Panopolis in Context conferences. The first of these conferences took place in Crete in 2011 and was followed by the first Nonnus of Panopolis in Context, edited by Konstantinos Spanoudakis in 2014[1], whereas the second one took place in Vienna in 2013 and was followed by the Nonnus of Panopolis in Context II, edited by Herbert Bannert and Nicole Kröll in 2017.[2] The volume under review gathers the proceedings of the third conference, which was held at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw in 2015. It is edited by Filip Doroszewski and Katarzyna Jażdżewska and is divided into an introductory chapter and five main parts: 1. Nonnus and the Literary Tradition; 2. Literary Structure and Motifs in the Dionysiaca; 3. Exegesis through Paraphrase; 4. Nonnus and Late Antique Culture; 5. Reception of Nonnus. The introductory chapter is preceded by a preface, in which the editors provide a summary of every contribution and highlight that Nonnus’ poetry continues to be challenging despite the massive number of studies on it. Indeed, the volume represents a long-awaited work.

The introductory chapter, by Gennaro D’Ippolito (pp. 1-41), shows this very well by going through the main stages of Nonnian scholarship and by describing unsolved issues in scholarship. Among the latter, the most interesting is Nonnus’ knowledge of Latin sources, especially Ovid and Virgil, which D’Ippolito once again supports with more examples from both authors.

In the first part, Anna Lefteratou’s work (pp. 87-107) deals with the episode of Aura in the Dionysiaca (book 48), which is proved to be a brilliant case of Nonnian re-elaboration of the classical metamorphosis myths in the light of the Christian tradition. The final purpose is to create a link with the Paraphrase. Aura is turned not into a breeze, as her name would suggest, but into a spring: this means that she is punished by remaining what she hated, i.e. “a female motherly body” (p. 102), as the acquatic body symbolizes “a no longer virginal female body” (p. 91). So, she can be interpreted as an anti-Mary, i.e. “a negative model of female procreation punished in the flesh” (p. 104).

Benjamin Acosta-Hughes (pp. 108-118) takes into account Dionysus’ young loves, especially his love for Ampelus (books 10-11), and emphasizes Nonnus’ debt to Hellenistic poets such as Apollonius and Theocritus in developing this theme. As a matter of fact, Ampelus is characterized in a manner that definitely distinguishes him from the other satyrs and, rather, makes him very close to a human ephebe. However, the poet avoids being too sexually explicit because this would not be appropriate to the tone of high epic.

The episode of Ampelus is studied also by Katerina Carvounis and Sophia Papaioannou (pp. 119-138), who trace in it some thematic affinities with Bion, Ovid and Virgil. Indeed, the scholars believe that, in view of Nonnus’ cultural background, his knowledge at least of Virgil’s and Ovid’s most famous poems (Aeneid and Metamorphoses respectively) is plausible. However, as the authors allow, we cannot forget that, since a considerable part of ancient literature has not survived, many seeming parallels could simply be topoi or derive from a common lost source.

The first part is closed by Gianfranco Agosti’s contribution (pp. 139-157), which points out the importance of investigating the relationship between Nonnus’ poetry and Coptic culture and literature, always bearing in mind two aspects. Firstly, Coptic texts were composed by people trained in the traditional Greek education; secondly, they were connected mainly to religious groups and to monastic movement. The various, illuminating examples presented, from both the Dionysiaca and the Paraphrase, allow us to speak of a “common cultural imagination” (p. 141).

In the second part, Camille Geisz (pp. 178-191) examines the concept of spatial form in reference to the Dionysiaca, considering it a way to understand the structure of the poem. Indeed, Nonnus prefers to create a web of correspondences between episodes and motifs rather than to present the events in a chronological order. In particular, in the several bathing scenes the poet uses the repetition of a theme as a means to introduce many variations, thus exhibiting his creativity, whereas in the episode of Procne and Philomela the story is fragmented into sections throughout the poem and the narratee is invited to reconstruct it. This structure recalls the proximity of the Dionysiaca to the visual arts, as “the reader can approach the poem like a painting” (p. 190).

Marta Otlewska-Jung’s work (pp. 206-225) investigates the function of harmony in the Dionysiaca by focusing on the two personifications of this concept presented in the poem: Lady Harmonia, Ares and Aphrodite’s daughter, who finally becomes Cadmus’ wife, and Allmother Harmonia, a cosmic entity representing eternal peace. The first one symbolizes earthly harmony and the second one celestial harmony, but they are both related to Dionysus’ mission of civilization, which is foreshadowed by Cadmus and can be compared to that of Alexander the Great and of the Roman Empire. So, the poem itself can be seen as intended to embody harmony.

David Hernández de la Fuente (pp. 226-247) focuses on the metaphysical and salvific implications of the awakening of Ariadne in Nonnus’ poetry. Ariadne is awakened by Dionysus twice: in Naxos, where she has been abandoned by Theseus (book 47), and after her death, through catasterism, which immediately precedes Dionysus’ apotheosis (book 48). Starting from these passages and taking into consideration also interesting evidence of the visual arts, the scholar shows how this theme is linked to that of resurrection, which proves to be the main trait d’union between the Dionysiaca and the Paraphrase.

In the third part, the chapter by Margherita Maria Di Nino and Maria Ypsilanti (pp. 332-354) concerns the parable of the Good Shepherd in Nonnus’ Paraphrase (book 10). By carefully examining both the vocabulary and the content, the scholars show how this is a perfect example of the typically Nonnian interweaving of classical and Christian tradition and of the poet’s paraphrastic technique. Indeed, it combines epic, bucolic, epigrammatic and theological motifs. Particularly significant is the attribution of human feelings to the sheep, which reminds us of bucolic poetry, in order to express a Christian idea, i.e. to communicate how Christians should follow only Christ, ignoring false prophets.

The following chapter, by Michael Paschalis (pp. 355-368), deals with the most common Nonnian paraphrastic technique, namely the amplification, displayed also by Juvencus in the Evangeliorum libri quattuor. An in-depth comparative analysis of the episode of Lazarus’ resurrection proves that there is a fundamental difference between the two poets. Juvencus employs the amplification for merely stylistic purposes, as he amplifies a single aspect of the narration, stressing the emotional element in a Virgilian fashion. Nonnus resorts to this technique in order to clarify concepts that are not developed in the original, filling in both narrative and exegetical gaps respectively.

Laura Franco and Maria Ypsilanti (pp. 369-379) close this section with a contribution regarding two different characters of the Paraphrase: John the Baptist and Pontius Pilate. Both are interpreted in the light of classical culture and Christian doctrine. Just to give an example, the former is defined as “pure” with reference to his role in the Christian world (to baptize with water), but also recalling pagan deities and priests. The latter is depicted in a complex manner, combining positive features like wisdom, which makes him close to pagan deities, and negative aspects like rage against Christ, which makes him close to Dionysus’ opponents.

The fourth part begins with Ewa Osek’s chapter (pp. 383-398), which offers a gaze on the esoteric background of the Dionysiaca through a comparative analysis of the killing of the Dircean dragon by Cadmus and the sacrificing of a snake by Helenus in the Orphic Lithica. Despite the various differences, the two passages have three motifs in common: the hunting and the sacrifice of a dragon/snake, and a cathartic rite, which in both cases is not successful. This seems to be due to the fact that Nonnus and the author of the Orphic Lithica rely on the same source, which, however, is difficult to detect. Osek proposes Julian the Chaldean or his son Julian the Theurgist, who composed the Chaldean Oracles. Anyway, this study reveals the interest in theurgy in the mid-fifth century.

Konstantinos Spanoudakis (pp. 399-418) focuses on the great importance of Theocritus in Late Antiquity and notes that in this period he tends to be spiritualized, as the pastoral world is considered a prefiguration of the paradise by Christian poets (Nonnus included). It is especially the seventh Idyll that lends itself to spiritual or mystic readings, so it seems to have been taken as a model for the Orphic Lithica and for the Orphic Argonautica, in which it is possible to trace the same narrative patterns. For example, in the Orphic Lithica the meeting between two poets is preceded and followed by the description of an idyllic scenery, that is connected with the encounter of a poet as a boy with a snake, whereas in the Orphic Argonautica a young poet is ashamed to rival an older one. This contribution offers valuable clues for the study of the presence of Theocritus in Nonnus.

Enrico Magnelli (pp. 431-448) opens the last part focusing on a Nonnian poet, namely John of Memphis, author of a poem in eighteen hexameters. The scholar, by providing a new critical edition, an English translation and a commentary of this work, shows very well that John’s verses perfectly follow the principles of the Nonnian hexameter, as regards to caesurae, bridges, prosody and word accent. Consequently, he proposes to place the poet not long after Heraclius’ age, as the last Greek author who can be classified as “Nonnian” is George of Pisidia (first half of the seventh century). This contribution is another proof of Nonnus’ success among Late Antique and early Byzantine poets, an issue that certainly deserves to be further investigated.

Domenico Accorinti (pp. 467-486) turns to the matter of the Byzantine reception of Nonnus, trying to explain the scarcity of evidence in this regard. As to the absence of Nonnus in Photius’ Bibliotheca, Accorinti thinks that the poet’s works were not read and discussed in the context of Photius’ circle. As to Eustathius, who inaccurately quotes only some verses from book 1 of the Dionysiaca and adds a gloss on Nonnus as the author of the Paraphrase in the manuscript containing the Suda, the scholar argues that he copied the Suda and then, only in the final period of his commentary on Homer, did he know Nonnus as the author of the Dionysiaca. A similar hypothesis can be formulated as regards to Planudes’ silence on the authorship of the Dionysiaca: he identified its author only after having transmitted it as an anonymous poem and, in particular, when he knew that Nonnus was probably the author of the Paraphrase.

Overall, the volume is well organized. Although it is often difficult to draw boundaries between the topics, the subdivision of the contributions into the five parts is perfectly acceptable. Furthermore, sometimes the papers gathered in the same section not only concern the same field of Nonnian scholarship, highlighted by the title of the section, but also develop the same theme. For example, in the first section the Ampelus episode is the subject of Benjamin Acosta-Hughes’ and Katerina Carvounis and Sophia Papaioannou’s contributions, both dealing with its literary sources, or, in the third part, the amplification as a typically Nonnian paraphrastic technique is investigated in Margherita Maria Di Nino and Maria Ypsilanti’s chapter as well as in Michael Paschalis’ work. In sum, this collection, which is accompanied by, inter alia, a wide bibliography and useful indices, marks another step forward in the studies on Nonnus’ poetry and, at the same time, demonstrates once again how deep and complex it is by providing many starting points for further research.

Authors and Titles

Gennaro D’Ippolito, Introduction: Solved and Still Unsolved Issues about Nonnus and His Works, 1-41
Berenice Verhelst, “Breaking the Fourth Wall”: on Literariness and Metalepsis in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, 45-66
Laura Miguélez-Cavero, Junctures of Epic and Encomium in the Dionysiaca: The Episode of Staphylos, 67-86
Anna Lefteratou, Aura’s Metamorphosis in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus: A Tale of Classical and Christian Resonances, 87-107
Benjamin Acosta-Hughes, I Alone Had an Untimely Love: The Ephebic ‘Epyllia’ of Dionysiaka 10-11, 108-118
Katerina Carvounis and Sophia Papaioannou, Nonnus’ Dionysiaca and the Latin Tradition: The Episode of Ampelus, 119-138
Gianfranco Agosti, Nonnus and Coptic Literature: Further Explorations, 139-157
A. Sophie Schoess, Visualizing Actaeon: The Motif of Recognition in Nonnus’ Treatment of the Metamorphosis, 161-177
Camille Geisz, Structure and Meaning through Analogy: Remarks on the Use of Spatial Form in the Dionysiaca, 178-191
Nestan Egetashvili, Some Aspects of Nonnus’ Poetics: Antitypical Poetry in the Dionysiaca, 192-205
Marta Otlewska-Jung, Ἁρμονίη κόσμου and ἁρμονίη ἀνδρῶν: On the Different Concepts of Harmony in the Dionysiacaof Nonnus, 206-225
David Hernández de la Fuente, The Awakening of Ariadne in Nonnus: a Deliberate Metaphor, 226-247
Cosetta Cadau, Female Characterization and Gender Reversal in Nonnus and Colluthus, 248-262
Fotini Hadjittofi, Nonnus’ Europa and Cadmus: Re-configuring Masculinity in the Dionysiaca, 263-281
Roberta Franchi, Ἀληθείῃ καὶ πνεύματι (Par. 4.114): Some Doctrinal Issues in Nonnus’ Paraphrase and Their Theological Implications, 285-316
Jane Lucy Lightfoot, Nonnus and the Book, 317-331
Margherita Maria Di Nino and Maria Ypsilanti, Shepherding the Past: Nonnus’ Parable of the Good Shepherd between Pagan Models and Christian Exegesis, 332-354
Michael Paschalis, Amplification in Juvencus’ Evangeliorum Libri IV and in Nonnus’ Μεταβολὴ τοῦ κατὰ Ιωάννην ἁγίου εὐαγγελίου, 355-368
Laura Franco and Maria Ypsilanti, Presentation of Biblical Figures in Poetic Paraphrase: John the Baptist and Pontius Pilate in Nonnus’ Paraphrase of St. John’s Gospel, 369-379
Ewa Osek, Sacrificing a Serpent: Nonnus’ Dionysiaca 2.671-679 and the Orphic Lithica 736-744, 383-398
Konstantinos Spanoudakis, The Mystic Reception of Theocritus in Late Antiquity, 399-418
Nicole Kröll, Sites and Cities in Late Antique Literature: Athens, Berytus, and Cultural Self-Identification in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Panopolis, 419-428
Enrico Magnelli, An Unknown “Nonnian” Poet: John of Memphis, 431-448
Mary Whitby, Nonnus, Christodorus, and the Epigrams of George of Pisidia, 449-466
Domenico Accorinti, Photius, the Suda, and Eustathius: Eloquent Silences and Omissions in the Reception of Nonnus’ Work in Byzantine Literature, 467-486
Fabian Sieber, Boom Years of Nonnian Studies: On the Reception of Nonnus in Germany (1880-1976), 487-499


[1] Spanoudakis, K. (2014) Nonnus of Panopolis in Context: Poetry and Cultural Milieu in Late Antiquity. De Gruyter.

[2] Bannert, H. and Kröll, N. (2017) Nonnus of Panopolis in Context II: Poetry, Religion, and Society. Brill.