BMCR 2024.05.34

Mimnermus: elegies

, Mimnermus: elegies. Aris and Philips classical texts. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2023. Pp. 200. ISBN 9781837642601.

Dimitrios Kanellakis, who has written on drama, mostly comedy, now offers a text (with facing translation) and commentary on Mimnermus’ elegies, aimed primarily at undergraduates, although there is much in it of interest to more experienced classicists, since Kanellakis has read widely in the scholarship produced since Archibald Allen’s more thorough text and more recent scholarship, which now includes a recent Messina dissertation by Andrea Emiliani, an extremely thorough study of the fragments.[1] There are, however, times when Kanellakis’s comments surpass that of Allen’s, most notably on those fragments of only one distich; and of these especially fr. 6, to which Solon later responded directly. His more literary approach has its own rewards.

Kanellakis’ English style, furthermore, is quite lively, more suited for undergraduates than Allen’s more scholarly register. His colloquial style and frankness of expression make one want to see what he would do with Archilochus in this series. The introduction at fifty pages is perhaps longer than it need be, but does cover the necessary topics, including Mimnermus’ place in the history and nature of early elegy, most notably matters pertaining to its etymology, history, meter, and typical subjects and venues. Kanellakis aims for a more literary commentary—“while issues of textual criticism and metre are discussed only insofar as they affect interpretation” (p. vii)—and largely succeeds, but he occasionally forces the issue, finding significance where there is none. The main fault of the book is that the author does not explain the syntax of many passages sufficiently for his undergraduate audience, but only rarely to the point of confusion or error.

On fr. 1: Kanellakis’s introductory analysis is excellent, touching on pertinent points of vocabulary (assonance, studied ambiguity, etc.), style, and structure. He also points out that the δέ of v.1 suggests that the poem (which he thinks very likely complete)[2] was part of a roundtable challenge to write a poem on a topic announced by the symposiarch. Since, however, he gives no example of a particle at the beginning of one of these roundtable responses, we should still allow for these lines to be fragmentary—which in turn does not forbid it belonging to a poem that nonetheless was part of such a challenge. Kanellakis goes no further, but even though the poem starts with the wonders of Aphrodite, the second half is ringed by the word and the idea of γῆρας, so that the challenge could have been to sing on this, with the loss of love being an artful introduction to the subject on the part of Mimnermus. Although Kanellakis nicely describes the somewhat mixed conditional construct of the Greek in the first sentence, his translation “when I will no longer mind” lacks the uncertainty of the optative that allows for the possibility that one will not live that long. Kanellakis furthermore argues that τεθναίην means “I wish to die,” arguing against Perotti, who argues for “I wish I were dead,” but dying is a progressive act calling for the stem θνησκ-. Since Mimnermus surely wanted the stronger statement, Perotti is correct. In any event, Kanellakis, along with others, misses the rhetorical force of 2 τεθναίην, ὅτε μοι μηκέτι ταῦτα [i.e., τὰ δῶρα] Ἀφροδίτης] μέλοι, “I wish that when I reach this point I’m already dead,” which is illogical but perfectly expressive of his fearful state. Mimnermos, in other words is (or is willing to paint himself as) something of a neurotic, who thinks here and again in fr. 2 that γῆρας (mentioned 5 X in his 80 extant lines) follows immediately upon ἥβη.[3] Other lusty people wait for old age to arrive[4] before complaining about its failings. Strangely, while arguing that κρυπταδίη φιλότης refers to “the clandestine love-affairs of the young” (his quotation of Allen) and not (as it probably does) to adultery, Kanellakis cites Il. 6.161 describing the adulterous plans of Proetus’s wife, which provides not only a linguistic parallel but also the likely intertext that would explain in part why Mimnermus describes, somewhat surprisingly, hidden love along with gifts and bed as delights for both men and women, which in this context cannot be dismissed a mere polar expression. This in turn leads one to wonder why Mimnermus follows 5 ἀνδράσιν ἡδὲ γυναιξί by matters of concern only to males (6 ἄνδρα). Stobaeus could well have tailored his selection, designed for the edification of his son, so as to exclude a continuation on the pleasures felt by women—all the more likely in the (however much fictionalized) case of a poet who loved and named his collection Nanno.

On fr. 2, Kanellakis is right not to be bothered by the slight anacoluthon produced by the subject of 4 τερπόμεθα being like φύλλα, even though the leaves are in the accusative case as the object of transitive φύει, although it should be pointed out how easy it is to read φύλλ᾿ ἅ, “(like) the leaves (nominative, like ἡμεῖς) which spring produces.” which is essentially Kanellakis’s translation: “like the leaves which the much-blossoming spring produces.” Nor does he point out that οἷα here is adverbial, not adjectival; and that τε (here and six times elsewhere in Mimnermus) has generalizing force—both points undergraduates would need to know (or be reminded of if they have forgotten it from their Homer class the year before). He does, however, astutely point out the etymological play of φύλλα (or φύλλ᾿ ἅ) φύει, but here, as occasionally elsewhere, Kanellakis demonstrates a tendency to read too much into common metrical and syntactic practices. Thus, line 2 “brilliantly captures the shortness of youth with a synizesis in ἔαρος and an epic shortening in αὔξεται͝ ἠελίου,” when these practices are too frequent to convey such meaning. His analysis of Mimnermus’ two Keres is odd: not, he says, one or the other, as in Homer, the agreed-upon model, but one after the other, first the “Fate” that is old age, then biological death. Rather, Ker, like Moira, indicates not death itself, but a way of dying; and once again, Mimnermus favors Achilles’ choice, however less heroic it is; namely a short but glorious one (filled as it is with many instances of la petite mort), or a long period ἄτερ χρυσέης Ἀφροδίτης before death.

On fr. 4, Kanellakis, perhaps correctly, supplements v.1 with <ὁ Ζεύς>, crediting Gesner (Zurich 1543) with the conjecture, although, as now clarified by A. Emiliani, “Una lacuna in Mimnermo, fr. 4.1 W2,” Prometheus 47 (2021) 24-8, Ζεύς alone appears in the Vittorio Trincavalli’s ed. princeps of Stobaeus (Venice 1536), most likely a supplement suggested by Michael Apostolius. Kanellakis points out that the syntagm ἄφθιτον … γῆρας is unexpected, but it should also be noted how particularly awful this fate is to someone who often says, in effect, that old age should last but a moment, yielding immediately to death.

On fr. 5, Kanellakis’s exposition of the somewhat complicated transmission is exemplary, giving the readers all the information needed to make up their own minds, an important goal for any commentary. His argument that all eight lines belong to Mimnermus is convincing, even if not in every detail. In brief, the last three lines of a six-line passage in the Theognidean corpus overlap with the first three of a six-line passage attributed to Mimnermus by Stobaeus. As I see it, Stobaeus’ fragment is coherent, while the former, after v.3, jumps from a description of sweaty passion modeled on that in Sappho, to, in the overlapping distich, a more general and familiar Mimnerman complaint about old age. Fr. 5, therefore, although it should still be printed as belonging to one poem of Mimnermus, may well contain a lacuna in the Theognidean selection; that is between lines 3 and 4 of the Mimnermus fragment.

For many of the Mimnerman fragments, Kanellakis adds an endnote on what he considers a relevant work of art. The first connecting Phrasiklea to fr. 1 is largely irrelevant, but in this case he argues that a vase alludes to Tithonus as young on one side and old on the other on the basis of the phrase ΟΙΟΝΟΚΛΕΣ ΚΑΛΟΣ by each figure, but these phrases far more often than not identify the recipient of the vases and not, as a so-called tag-kalos, a nearby figure.[5]

On fr. 8: This fragment is an excellent example of how the Greek mind can speak of something as both a deity and a concept simultaneously. In arguing that Truth cannot be a deity here, Kanellakis must ignore the prefix παρά in his analysis and in his translation, “Let there be truth between you and me,” which seems to import an existential sense to the compound verb. That Truth then become truth when Mimnermus calls it a χρῆμα presents a problem only for those of us who have to decide between upper- and lower-case letters.

On fr. 9. While others read the words as a poetic but otherwise straightforward historical account, Kanellakis, building on a remark by E. Bowie on Mimnermus’ “eroticizing language” in this fragment,[6] offers an intriguing reading that sees sexual metaphors in all of the military terms used to describe the conquest of Colophon and Smyrna. A second, openly tendentious, translation in the commentary (page119), turns innuendo into more explicit terms. He may well be right, but, since much of masculine braggadocio sees sexual conquest in macho terms, we may still doubt that this was in Mimnermus’ mind. He does his argument no favor, though, when he reads the stem πορν- into 5 ἀπορνύμενοι. On v. 5 he sensibly prints Brunck’s δ᾿ Ἀλήεντος for the gibberish of the codd.; cf. now A. Emiliani, “Mimn. 9.5 W2,” Cuadernos de Filología Clásica 30 (2020) 95-110, esp. 101–5, who makes an excellent case for reading Δι̯αστενέεντος.

On fr. 11–11a: An excellent introduction to one of the earliest extant accounts of the Argonautica, supplying more background material than is found in Allen, as well as presenting pertinent parallels to Euripides’ Medea drawn from a recent article by M. Gemin.[7]

On fr. 12, Kanellakis, following the mss., says that Athenaeus specifies “the fragment as Nanno,” a too-literal rendering that explains little to those unfamiliar with the way passages are identified. Rather, for Athenaeus’ Μίμνερμος δὲ Ναννοῖ, read Μίμνερμος δ᾿ ἐν Ναννοῖ, as Allen does. In a metrical appendix (p. 153), Kanellakis says that γάρ here has a long alpha, when, as readers of epic know, it is rather the case that rho, like all continuants, could be (and in early epic regularly were) doubled (geminated) in pronunciation in order to lengthen the preceding syllable for metrical purposes, a doubling that shows up in print only internally, as at fr. 14.4 φερεμμελίην.[8] He deserves credit for his account of the aorist 11 ἔβη, which usually goes unremarked and translated as a present, but it is not quite, as he says, a gnomic aorist as the term us usually understood, but, in Smyth’s words, something “akin to it … in imaginary scenes” (¶1932). He is also to be congratulated for his defense of the mss.’ reading ἐπέβη ἑτέρων ὀχέων, against Gentili-Prato, Gerber, Campbell, Diehl, and Emiliani’s ἐπεβήσεθ᾿ ἑῶν ὀχέων.

On fr. 14: On the whole, Κ.’s comments are helpful on what he well argues may be a second fragment from Mimnermus’ Smyrneis (along with the explicitly so-identified fr. 13a), but are open to question on a number of points. Here, as elsewhere, he is too ready to label quite normal poetic word order as hyperbaton, which should be reserved not for mere separation of words that go closely together, but for statistically abnormal word order; e.g., 2–4 οἵ μιν ἴδον | Λυδῶν ἱππομάχων πυκινὰς κλονέοντα φάλαγγας | Ἕρμιον ἂμ πεδίον, φῶτα φερεμμελίην, 7 αἱματόεν<τος ἐν> ὑσμίνῃ πολέμοιο, 8 πικρὰ βιαζόμενος δυσμενέων βέλεα, none of which would strike a reader of early poetry this way.

In sum, then, a very welcome volume. Its main fault is that the author does not explain the syntax of many passages sufficiently for his undergraduate audience, but only rarely to the point of confusion or error.



[1] A. Allen, The Fragments of Mimnermus: Text and Commentary, Stuttgart 1993; A. Emiliani, Studi per una nuova edizione critica commentata dei frammenti di Mimnermo, Diss. Messina 2021. Kanellakis has also benefited from W. Allan’s Green & Yellow volume on Greek Elegy.

[2] I would keep this question open. The reference on v.5 to ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξίν is followed by an account only of the former (6 ἄνδρα). Thinking it inappropriate for his son to hear, Stobaeus may have omitted a following passage on old women, whose vanished sex appeal was the subject of several poems; cf. A. Richlin, The Garden of Priapus (New Haven 1983) 109-16; cf. Emiliani 85.

[3] The same illogical point is made again in fr. 2.9–10 αὐτὰρ ἐπὴν δὴ τοῦτο [i.e., ἥβη] τέλος παραμείψεται ὥρης, | αὐτίκα δὴ τεθνάναι βέλτιον ἢ βίοτος.

[4] ἐπέλθῃ, which Kanellakis translates “is about to attack,” ignoring the subjunctive and giving it an unnecessary hostile meaning, since γῆρας ἐπερχόμενον is a “dactylic cliché”; M. S. Silk, Interaction in Poetic Imagery (Cambridge 1974) 93 n. 15.

[5] As I am kindly informed by Alan Shapiro; cf. his “Kaloi, tag-kaloi, and non-kaloi in Attic red-figure,” forthcoming.

[6] E. Bowie, “Wandering poets, archaic style,” In R. Hunter and I. Rutherford (eds), Wandering Poets in Ancient Greek Culture (Cambridge 2009), 105–36. Kanellakis should have noted that this and the six other articles on poetry by Bowie cited in his volume are now conveniently available in E. Bowie, Essays on Ancient Greek Literature and Culture, vol. 1: Greek Poetry before 400 BC (Cambridge 2022), while his article on Herodotus is similarly available in vol. 2 (2023).

[7] Marco Gemin, “Mimn., fr. 11 West e Eur., Med. 1-10,” Giornale Italiano di Filologia, 72 (2020) 19-23.

[8] And on this same page his comment that the alpha in καλός is always long in epic should be limited to Homer.