BMCR 2022.06.16

Periegetai nel Mondo Antico: Usi e Interpretazioni del Termine in una Prospettiva Cronologica

, Periegetai nel Mondo Antico: Usi e Interpretazioni del Termine in una Prospettiva Cronologica. Studi e Ricerche. Milan: LED Edizioni, 2021. Pp. 142. ISBN 9788879169745 €29,00.

Open access

Some words can actually outline (what we recognise as) nodal concepts or still images from the multifaceted Graeco-Roman world. Their epigraphic, literary etc. origin may be somewhat revealing in many respects, especially as regards cultural contexts. This brief yet valuable and comprehensive book aims to analyse the literary and epigraphic evidence of the term periegetes (Greek: περιηγητής, «one who guides strangers, cicerone» according to a standard definition by Liddell and Scott), and its usage from the 1st century BC until the late antique testimonies – namely the emperor Julian’s age, with a broader look at later times. It is a rather ambitious task, as are many researches developing from lexical issues. Drawing on her deep interest in literary sources about ancient art and in the reception of Greek art in the Imperial Age, Eva Falaschi (who is, inter alia, the scientific coordinator of the project OltrePlinio / Beyond Pliny, dedicated to the study of books 33-36 of Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia) has succeeded in it very well. Furthermore, Falaschi states that the purpose of her study is a semantic one. By examining περιηγητής, περιηγέομαι, περιήγησις, περιηγητικός and even ἐξηγητής in their historical-literary context – that is, the setting of their transmission – she has set out to define and critically evaluate what periegetai, so often mentioned by authors such as Plutarch and Pausanias, represented to our sources.

The first two chapters constitute a useful introduction to the core of the problem by focusing on differences and alleged links between periegetes and exegetes in more than one area. In Chapter 1, Falaschi reviews the usage of exegetes in reference to people in charge of something, or people illustrating / describing situations and texts (in e.g. ps.-Demosthenes, Aeschines, Dionysius of Halicarnassus). The term is also applied to interpreters of oracles, dreams, ominaand (sacred) laws in passages from Herodotus, from the Delphic inscriptions and Plutarch’s Lives, as well as supervisors of the rites and guides for the celebrants in the Inschriften von Olympia, officers in charge of vulnerable people and of other business, but also local people providing travellers with information, in Roman Egypt. Unlike the verb periegeomai and the noun periegesis, attestations of the nomen agentis in -τής seem to date back only to the Imperial age. Starting from this discussion, Chapter 2 comments on various senses of the verb: ‘to draw in outline’, but also ‘to lead people around’. However, the most interesting examples concern periegesis, thanks to the far from trivial dialectic existing between word and place, as this emerges from the authors briefly examined. Thus for instance Strabo employs periegesisas ‘path’ or as ‘discourse’ depending on context, while it is argued that Aelius Aristides must refer to every kind of periegesis (including “description of the city”) both in writing and in orations, in his Monody for Smyrna (pp. 19-20).

The rest of the book is devoted to the occurrences of periegetes in a diachronic perspective. Chapter 3 is a critically insightful contribution to the study of this word among Greek compilers of geographical and antiquarian works, and of works certainly or allegedly designated as Periegeseis – since ancient titles were handed down «in maniera piuttosto fluttuante» and «generica» (p. 36). We read about Hecataeus, about Diodorus and Heliodorus of Athens, the stelokopas (‘epigraph-glutton’) Polemon of Ilium[1], Sokrates of Argos, Dionysius of Alexandria – known as the Periegetes par excellence in Byzantine times – and many others. Falaschi does a fine job in evaluating indirect testimonies of lost periegeses, especially when their titles are not certain (e.g. Nymphodorus of Syracuse, ps.-Skymnus). Stephanus of Byzantium and the Suda are, of course, privileged sources here. Pausanias’ well-established nickname, ‘the Periegetes’, is introduced through a historical overview on his acquisition, since the time of Jacob Spon and George Wheler[2], of the status of companion to scholars travelling through Greece (except for Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, who went astray between Elis and Arcadia in 1873[3]). Falaschi concludes that both authors of actual periegeseis and Hellenistic antiquarians were known as periegetai in the Imperial age. The distinctions proposed by Giorgio Pasquali and Felix Jacoby between geographic and antiquarian / historical periegeseis are also discussed in light of Pausania’s stature as a historian and an innovator. The matter is further discussed in Chapter 6 in a knowledgeable ritardando.

Still on the subject of privileged sources, Chapter 4 turns to Plutarch. The previous chapter showed how preservation, transmission or loss of texts affects our understanding. Plutarch is no exception, as his usage of periegetes encompasses dull and routine tour guides (De Pythiae oraculis), the keepers of mainstream opinions (De E apud Delphos), but also good connoisseurs of local traditions. The latter is the case of Plutarch’s friend Praxiteles: a periegetes, a philologos and a character not too different from the famous Pausanias (Quaestiones conviviales). Falaschi regards a reference to periegetika byblia in this last work as a decisive testimony in favour of the existence of a standardized «genere letterario periegetico a carattere storico-antiquario, legato a tradizioni e luoghi» (p. 54) in the Imperial Age. As background to Plutarch and Pausanias, Chapter 5 goes on with various literary and epigraphic testimonies of periegetai from the 1st-3rd centuries AD. Some passages from Lucian, and a small corpus of 5 epigraphs from Hermione, Hierà (Lesbos) and Athens, are useful for reconsidering the status of those men whom Ludwig Preller defined as «homines infimos, mercedula ad quaestum ignobiliorem faciendum adductos, litterasque neglegenter doctos» back in 1838.[4] A more nuanced picture is now available. Also, a peculiar meaning, designating a religious office in Olympia and elsewhere, should be recalled here. Finally, Falaschi proposes a historical schema of the meanings of the term (pp. 72-3) which is surely worth considering.

An organic essay on exegetes as Pausanias’ local informants, Chapter 6 probably constitutes the dialectical core of the book. The term periegetes, and its cognates, are absent from the work of this antonomastic Periegetes, nor does the traditional title Hellados Periegesis seem to be the original one[5]. Nonetheless, after a substantial status quaestionis on the absence of periegetai / presence of exegetai on the route of Pausanias, Falaschi goes on identifying his ‘specialty’ on a lexicological basis. In fact, the exegetes of Pausanias constitute a diverse range of people, with the shared characteristic of being tradition keepers: people he actually met, writers, professional guides, learned men or religious officers.

It is a compelling topic, subtly interlinked, I’d say, to Pausanias’ quoting-criteria and, ultimately, to what Maria Elena De Luna has outlined as the strategies he applied in order to establish his own ethos as a reliable author[6]. Falaschi reviews, more intensively than extensively, some of the most significant occurrences of exegetai both as Pausanias’ oral or written sources: the poet Lykeas of Argos (1.13.8), the anonymous local guides – exegetai ton epichorion – of Megara (1.42.2), Patrai (7.6.5), Plataea (9.3.3) and elsewhere. Since some references to the Elian and Olympian ones seem to shed a special light on the historical method of Pausanias, Falaschi examines them more in depth as part of a focus on his «agone erudito» (p. 84) against misinformed, unhelpful or even expressly admired exegetes. She is right: as concerns their identity and Pausanias’ own Selbstdarstellung, the way they are subject to the latter’s critical hints is somewhat revealing. As at the end of the previous chapter, Falaschi includes a practical proposal

«ritengo che nel tradurre il testo della Periegesi sia più corretto utilizzare per il termine ἐξηγητής la traduzione ‘esegeta, espositore’ piuttosto che ‘guida’, anche laddove è evidente che la persona in questione ha accompagnato Pausania sul luogo»

in order to respect the decision – or rather the strategy, on which I agree with De Luna – to represent the exegetes as experts in local traditions (p. 102).

Pausanias’ earthly journey ended in about 180. In a couple of pages, Chapter 7 delineates, rather than examines, two examples from the 4th century AD: a visit to Cumae from the Cohortatio ad Gentiles attributed to Justin Martyr, and another one to Ilium from the emperor Julian’s 79th epistle. It may appear as a substantial epilogue to the previous chapter, although it lacks – quite understandably – a further insight into the 3rd century AD. The book ends with an appendix of 5 plates (photographs and apographs of inscriptions discussed in Chapter 5[7]).

Stemming from a PhD thesis defended at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa in 2015, Periegetai nel mondo antico is a useful study. Falaschi delves into the topic avoiding longwindedness while dealing with an exquisitely cultural issue of the Graeco-Roman world: words and their longue durée.[8]


[1] For whom see now R. Capel Badino (ed.), Polemone di Ilio e la Grecia. Testimonianze e frammenti di periegesi antiquaria, Milano 2018.

[2] It is, indeed, a compelling story. See, importantly, J. Spon, G. Wheler, Voyage d’Italie, de Dalmatie, de Grèce et du Levant: fait aux années 1675 et 1676. I-III, Lyon 1678.

[3] See U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, Erinnerungen 1848-1914, Leipzig 1928, pp. 153ff, cited by C. Habicht, An Ancient Baedeker and His Critics: Pausanias’ “Guide to Greece”, PAPhS 129/2, 1985, pp. 224 n. 14.

[4] L. Preller (ed.), Polemonis periegetae fragmenta, Lipsiae 1838, p. 167.

[5] On titles see now E. Castelli, La nascita del titolo nella letteratura greca. Dall’epica arcaica alla prosa di età classica, Berlin-Boston 2020.

[6] M.E. De Luna, Due frammenti “di seconda mano” nel libro IX di Pausania, QUCC 118/1, 2018, p. 74.

[7]  IvO nrr. 77, 83, 110 and 120; IG IV 723; IG XII.2 nr. 484; IG II2 nr. 7447; Hesperia 10/3, p. 259, nr. 63 and IG II2 nr. 3563 (the caption «Fig. 9» does not appear in the chapter).

[8]  It is understood, in my opinion, that it has some link with a wider recent trend: that of the ‘long Hellenistic Age’ as defined by A. Chaniotis, Age of Conquests: The Greek World from Alexander to Hadrian, Cambridge MA 2018.