BMCR 2022.10.02

Teaching through images: imagery in Greco-Roman didactic poetry

, , Teaching through images: imagery in Greco-Roman didactic poetry. Mnemosyne supplements, 450. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2022. Pp. xiv, 388. ISBN 9789004373488 €118.00 / $142.00.


While the search for a unified theory of the didactic genre begins in antiquity with works like the Tractatus Coislinianus and Diomedes’ Ars Grammatica, modern scholars have proposed various classificatory schemata, none of which has won universal approval. This volume provides a welcome redirection of these efforts by starting from the idea that didactic is first and foremost poetry and therefore explicable by the major approaches usually followed in the analysis of ancient poetry (especially intertextuality). In fact, one of the major conclusions the reader must take away from this volume is that, as the editors say in their introduction, “intertextuality is an important aspect of how didactic poetry teaches” (p. 7). Accordingly, this volume opens up the field of inquiry into the didactic genre by insisting that the practitioners of the didactic genre deployed the very same poetic techniques that all other ancient poets use. Moreover, almost every paper in this volume represents an important contribution to the didactic poet under discussion. This is especially true of chapters 6–10, which amount to something of a volume within a volume devoted to Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (more on these papers below). As a result, the book under review will be essential reading for all scholars of ancient hexameter poetry and for those who work on any didactic poet covered in its various chapters (by my count, only Parmenides, Xenophanes, Nicander, and Columella are not treated).

The introduction from the editors surveys the various theoretical accounts of the didactic genre that have been proposed (special attention is justly given to Effe and Volk)[1] but makes its anchoring observation the undoubtedly correct claim that, far from mere embellishment to technical subject matter, the poetic form of didactic poetry represents a “conscious choice to engage with a long literary tradition” (p.6). Since didactic poetry can never exhaust the topic it teaches, didactic poets use poetic tools, especially imagery and intertextuality, to connect the knowledge they do impart with other texts and contexts. As a result, the editors argue, any assessment of the fundamental conceit of didactic poetry (namely, that it purports to educate) must account for the prominent role that imagery and intertextuality play in the establishment of this fundamental conceit. The papers that follow all address this phenomenon in the didactic tradition from Hesiod to Priscian.

Jenny Clay opens the volume (ch 2: 23–38) with a study of binding imagery in Hesiod’s Theogony. Her basic argument is that Hesiod infuses imagery of chains and fetters with double significance. Literally, Hesiod describes how Zeus binds up the enemies of cosmic order, but these descriptions also function rhetorically to cordon off and sanitize the potential of such disruptive figures to undermine the poetic cosmos Hesiod composes at the verbal level. In a similarly metapoetic analysis, Zoe Stamatopoulou (ch 3: 39–62) next considers how Hesiod (in the Works and Days) and Empedocles both use images of deviant corporeality to reinforce the didactic messages of the poems in which they appear. Whereas Hesiod consistently shows restraint in portraying bodies whose form and nature disrupt the expectations of the audience (often to the point of omitting details that would explicitly reinforce the otherness of the characters he creates), Empedocles makes hybridity into a cosmic and poetic principle, regularly showcasing fragmented and hybrid bodies in order to illustrate how the cosmic cycle in his philosophy manifests itself. Ilaria Andolfi (ch 4: 63–81) argues that Empedocles presents his Aphrodite as if she were a craftsman. This procedure has a double effect: the cosmic mechanisms of Aphrodite’s work become more intelligible for the audience who appreciate how the hidden secrets of the universe are connected to what is known in everyday life, while Aphrodite qua craftsman also takes on poetological significance, her creation of the cosmos mirroring Empedocles’ creation of his cosmic poetry. Patrick Glauthier (ch 5: 82–104) offers a characteristically learned essay on the Milky Way in Aratus and Manilius. His footnotes especially showcase his mastery over all manner of material, however unexpectedly relevant for the topic at hand. In both Aratus and Manilius, the Milky Way serves to inspire an experience of contemplating the sublime; Glauthier shows that this experience is marked metapoetically as analogous to reading the authors’ respective poems. While Aratus and Manilius differ in their presentation of the Milky Way–Aratus conveys orderliness; Manilius conveys the chaos of infinity–both poets imbue this celestial phenomenon with oversized poetic implications.

The next five chapters represent something of an inset volume on the use of imagery in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. Written by a combination of long-established experts (Joseph Farrell and Monica Gale) and rising stars in Lucretian studies (Abigail Buglass, Eva Marie Noller, Noah Davies-Mason), each of these papers should remain mandatory reading for anyone working on Lucretius or Epicureanism. Abigail Buglass (ch 6: 104–136) solidifies her place at the forefront of our current resurgence in Lucretian studies with a chapter that takes up an age-old question regarding the repeated atoms-letters analogy and what it tells us about the relationship between poetry and philosophy in the DRN (Farrell and Noller will also center this analogy in their chapters). Building on well-known ideas like Friedländer’s “atomology” and Schiesaro’s assessment of analogy,[2] Buglass provides a genuinely new and very welcome analysis of the way that Lucretius constructs his arguments to resemble the Epicurean understanding of atomic configuration. Starting from initial and basic propositions, Lucretius builds on these to construct more elaborate and overarching accounts of atomic phenomena in the universe. This procedure mirrors the way that individual atoms, the basic components of nature, combine into larger compounds that ultimately give rise to all the existent phenomena that we perceive. The cumulative effect here is that Lucretius guides his readers’ visual understanding of the world he describes in order to foster their credence in his system. The basic question that Joseph Farrell explores (ch 7: 137–171) is whether or not Lucretius aims for clarity in his poetry. In the course of this well-argued and convincing exposition of Lucretian claritas, Farrell makes important contributions to our understanding of Lucretius’ version of Epicureanism and his relationship to other Epicureans like Philodemus. When Lucretius boasts that he endows his poetry with claritas (1.933–934=4.8–9), Farrell shows that this cannot mean the same thing as Epicurean saphēneia (“transparency”), but rather that it must mean something closer to the rhetorical term enargeia (“vividness”). Farrell then shows that these terms are the very ones that Philodemus deploys in his On Poems 5 in his disagreement with earlier compositionalist critics. While Farrell judiciously side-steps the logical next step, namely to say explicitly that Lucretius’ loaded language about “clarity” is meant to endorse Philodemus’ rejection of saphēneia as a universal criterion of good poetry, the implications of his argument are very clear: he has brought Lucretius and the Philodemus papyri into yet another point of contact (however esoteric and nuanced the point may be) that has not previously been appreciated in the scholarship. In the next paper (ch 8: 172–189), Eva Marie Noller continues her excellent work on Lucretius that began with her 2019 monograph on Order in the DRN.[3] Here, she provides a trenchant discussion of “broken” images in Lucretius (images from the perceptible world that illustrate an aspect of the atomic world only partially). Such images work in two ways: first, they provide direct illustration of something that is invisible; second, they require knowledge of the object or fact that is being illustrated. This second mode of signification, however, often serves to stimulate the reader to rethink the presentation of the issue in Lucretius’ hands. Broken images require a “two-way movement”[4] from illustration to knowledge, then back from knowledge to illustration. Once readers have attained the necessary knowledge, however, they are in a position to recognize how incomplete or deviant Lucretius’ illustration of the phenomenon actually turns out to be. Noah Davies-Mason (ch 9: 190–204) considers the image of harmony theory in Lucretius’ exposition of Epicurean psychology, arguing that Lucretius implicitly corrects psychological dualism (specifically as presented in the Phaedo) and ultimately implies his disdain for sonic and musical imagery as a means of instructing the reader about the nature of the soul. Monica Gale’s paper (ch 10: 205–230) functions as a bridge between Lucretius and the subsequent didactic poets treated in the last chapters of this volume, exploring plague narratives as productive for the articulation of didactic authority. Gale’s basic argument is that Lucretius’ plague-narrative had a genre-altering effect on subsequent didactic poetry: plague passages in post-Lucretian didactic represent the new generic convention that Lucretius had established, while also functioning as prominent loci of intertextual engagement. Gale thus offers readings of passages in Lucretius, the Georgics, Grattius, and Manilius that handle the concept of disease with these considerations in mind, arguing finally that they all detail manifestations of real-world occurrences and serve as opportunities for the reader to put the poet’s teaching into practice.

Chapters 11–16 cover the use of imagery in didactic poetry from Vergil’s Georgics to Priscian’s Perihegesis. Zackary Rider (ch 11: 231–256) demonstrates that Vergil uses gigantomachic imagery throughout the Georgics to confuse the ideas of order and chaos. Anke Walter (ch 12: 257-271) shows that in the Fasti Ovid uses imagery of metamorphosis both to illustrate the aetiological effects of time and to highlight the relationship between the Fasti and the Metamorphoses, which naturally becomes implicated in the temporal dynamics of the calendrical poem. John Miller (ch. 13: 272–289) offers a detailed analysis of the pedagogical impact produced by the exemplum of Pasiphae in Ars Amatoria 1. The highlight of Miller’s study is a convincing explication of the intertextual relationship between Ovid’s Pasiphae and Vergil’s account of her story in Silenus’ Song in Eclogue 6. At every turn, Vergil’s presentation is purified of any sympathy by Ovid, who adduces Pasiphae as the quintessential manifestation of female eroticism. Arnold Bärtschi (ch 14: 290–320) next explores the construction of imaginary landscapes in the geographical poetry of Dionysius Periegetes and its reception in Avienus and Priscian. The major upshot of this argument is that readers must read all three poems against each other in order fully to appreciate the complexity of the worlds given expression by each poet. The late Chrisoph Leidl, who passed away while this volume was going to press, explores the cultural warfare of hunting in Grattius’ Cynegetica (ch 15: 321–337). He shows that implicated in the military imagery so often deployed by Grattius are political, cultural, and intertextual questions that cannot be disentangled and that speak to the very core of Augustan ideology. Most useful in this chapter is the appendix, which gathers together every instance of military language in Grattius’ poem. Just as Jenny Clay opened this volume, so does her co-editor Athanassios Vergados conclude it (ch 16: 338–357). Vergados analyzes the imagery of the path in Pseudo-Oppian’s Cynegetica, showing convincingly that the poet uses this imagery to emphasize both the actual paths that his hunters must take to perform their work and all manner of metapoetic and poetological pathways that allow Pseudo-Oppian to agonistically claim his own poetic authority in the shadow of so many predecessors. In the final analysis, Vergados adduces an intricate web of intertextuality via imagery that caps off via illustration the major argument of this volume as a whole.

This book is well produced and generally free from major typos and errata. The editors are to be commended for providing a remarkably cohesive volume of papers written by a group of renowned scholars at the top of their powers. Cumulatively, these essays make an important contribution to most of the major scholarly issues involved in the study of didactic poetry. Essential reading, then, that will remain so for the foreseeable future.


Authors and titles

Jenny Strauss Clay and Athanassios Vergados, Introduction

Jenny Strauss Clay, Ties That Bind: Verbal Fetters and Ring Composition in Hesiod’s Theogony

Zoe Stamatopoulou, Constructing Other Eras in Didactic Poetry: Two Case-Studies

Ilaria Andolfi, Designing a Cosmic Architecture: Craftsmanship in Empedocles’ Poetry

Patrick Glauthier, An Image Sublime: The Milky Way in Aratus and Manilius

Abigail Buglass, Atomistic Imagery: Repetition and Reflection of the World in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura

Joseph Farrell, Are Lucretius’ Images Clear?

Eva Marie Noller, Grain, Atoms, and Didactics: “Broken” Images in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura

Noah Davies-Mason, A Quiet Soul: The Suppressed Image of Harmony-Theory in De Rerum Natura

Monica R. Gale, Plagues and the Limits of Didactic Authority: Lucretius and Others

Zackary Rider, Gigantomachy and Spontaneous Growth in the Georgics

Anke Walter, Tempora Mutantur: Metamorphic Imagery in Ovid’s Fasti

John F. Miller, Teaching through Exempla in the Ars Amatoria: The Case of Pasiphae

Arnold Bärtschi, Thinking in Images: The Construction of Imaginary Landscapes in Dionysius Periegetes, Avienius, and Priscianus

Christoph G. Leidl, The Cultural Warfare of Hunting: Military Imagery in Grattius’ Cynegetica and Augustan Didactic

Athanassios Vergados, Pseudo-Oppian’s Didactic Paths in the Cynegetica



[1] B. Effe, Dichtung und Lehre: Untersuchungen zur Typologie des antike Lehrgedichts, Munich 1977 and K. Volk, The Poetics of Latin Didactic: Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid, Manilius, Oxford 2002.

[2] P. Friedländer, “Pattern of Sound and Atomistic Theory in Lucretius”, in AJP 62 (1941): 16-34 and A. Schiesaro, Simulacrum et Imago. Gli argomenti analogici nel De rerum natura, Pisa 1990.

[3] E. M. Noller, Die Ordnung der Welt. Darstellungsformen von Dynamik, Statik und Emergenz in Lukrez’ De Rerum Natura, Heidelberg 2019.

[4] To use Philip Hardie’s term: Virgil’s Aeneid. Cosmos and Imperium, Oxford 1986, p. 221.