Monday, September 29, 2008


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Gregory Hutchinson (ed.), Propertius Elegies Book IV. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. 258. ISBN 978-0-521-52561-9. $32.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Frédéric Nau, Professeur en Classes Préparatoires au Lycée Camille Guérin de Poitiers

This book is an edition of and commentary on Propertius' Book 4, by the Oxonian scholar Gregory Hutchinson. It belongs to the so-called 'green and yellow' collection of the Cambridge University Press, which regularly includes very extensive and up-to-date works. It also belongs to a strong renewal of Propertian scholarship. While Hutchinson was working on his commentary, Simone Viarre published her edition for the Budé collection and Stephen Heyworth was finishing his long-awaited edition for the Oxford Classical Texts. A Brill Companion has also been published, recently reviewed for BMCR by Christina Shuttleworth Kraus (BMCR 2008.08.31). To be more precise, Book 4 has attracted unprecedented attention, and has been under scrutiny in the works of Micaela Janan, Jeri DeBrohun, and Tara Welch1 to name only a few of the major recent publications. In this respect, Hutchinson's edition and commentary is most welcome as it will provide students and scholars with a very thoroughly documented tool to approach the last collection by Propertius.

The book consists of three main parts: a general introduction, an edition and a commentary. They are followed by a bibliography (which only includes the references that are relevant for the whole book, whereas more specific references are to be found in the sections devoted to the commentary of each poem) and two indices, of Latin and modern words.

In the introduction (1-23), Hutchinson insists mainly upon the manifold presence of discontinuity in Book 4 and relates it to "an aesthetic of meaningful surprise" (2). This applies firstly to the representation of history: while Augustus' policy was aimed at inscribing the prince's innovations into the wider perspective of Rome's greatest traditions, Propertius usually stresses the contrast between past and present, and by so doing, he offers a new treatment of themes that had been or were being handled by Virgil and Horace, and gives them a meaning which is less in accordance with the new regime's agenda. Discontinuity also affects the elegiac genre itself: Propertius breaks with the kind of elegies he had himself created and practiced in his previous collections, and returns to earlier versions of this poetry, like the Hellenistic epigram and Callimachus' Aitia, which in his last book prevail as models over love elegy. Inside the book itself, discontinuity can be perceived through a sequential reading, which reveals the constant presence of opposition and conflict as themes in the poems: the conflict between male and female identities, for instance, pervades most pieces of the collection and the opposition between different elegies is not infrequent either. Finally, the last elegy in which the poet lets Cornelia speak does not elucidate the enigmas of the book which remain open to various interpretations.

This introduction is a valuable general preliminary to the reading of Book 4, and faithfully announces the lines of interpretation which are developed in the commentary of each poem: it mentions the relationship with the historical and literary background, the poetic project of Propertius himself, and the questioning of his poetics and its evolution. It also leaves the reader with an insight into the originality and unity of the book, which does not conceal its enigmatic aspect in defying any attempts at univocal interpretation.

It ends with some explanations about the manuscript tradition, especially acknowledging a debt to Heyworth's researches in the field: the rest of the edition and the commentary shows indeed that the discussions between Hutchinson and Heyworth must have been intense and fruitful, and even though he endorses some reading by his colleagues, Hutchinson's edition remains independent.

All aspects of Hutchinson's editorial work can obviously not be discussed here, but some general tendencies can still be remarked. First of all, Hutchinson's establishment of the texts and the apparatus reflects an admirable ethicof scholarship: it is always considerate, balanced and justified. It is evident that Hutchinson seeks to serve the text and does not contrive to make it his own. He explores Propertius' verses enlightened by the long scholarly tradition, from Heinsius to Heyworth, and intervenes in the text only when it seems necessary (and carefully explains why he thinks he should) so that the reader is never left with the impression that a text has been imposed on her. Some of his conjectures are interesting, such as aeratis (4, 1, 27), exstinctas (4, 8, 85) and quaere (4, 11, 82). These are largely most of the time only suggested but three last examples are supported by detailed and convincing argument. quaere, in particular, resolves a textual problem in a satisfactory way, and is backed by a parallel in the CIL.

But skepticism could probably be described as the main and most original feature of Hutchinson's edition. Many interventions express a suspicion that the verses under consideration might be inauthentic. These doubts can sometimes be doubted themselves. For instance, the argument for the interpolation of 4, 3, 49-50 can be considered as somewhat arbitrary: "The assertion omnis amor magnus is curious" sounds slightly lightweight, since Propertius is often keen on such general maxims; the phrase magnus amor can be found in 1, 19, 12. In other cases, the arguments (grammatical and literary) proposed by Hutchinson are very convincing, as for 4, 4, 35-36. As a whole, these suspicions do not hinder the reader's perception of the text: they should rather create stimulation for further reflection on the text we read and interpret in so far as they open discussion rather than ending it.

The commentary on each poem is preceded by a short introduction, which explains the major questions and interpretations about it, and ends with a specific bibliography. These pages form a valuable guide on the commentary itself and usually represent a relevant synthesis of the research on the poem which is to be read. The bibliographies are up-to-date and rich, even if some references are still missing: one would expect the entire book devoted by John Warden to 4, 1 to be mentioned (and even quoted, given its quality), or the article by Oliver Lyne on Catullus' 682 to enrich the commentary on the pattern of doomed marriage, as it is reinstated by Arethusa (4, 3, 11ff.).

As it could be expected from the general introduction, the commentaries themselves incorporate a wide range of sources, which are literary, epigraphic, artistic, historical...The reader is thus provided with a considerable amount of useful information. The primary purpose of these annotations is to illumine the literal meaning of the text, and allow the development of different interpretations: this is undoubtedly delivered. Hutchinson, for instance, often points out the parallels that can be drawn between one passage and other verses in Propertius (outside Book 4), as for 4, 2, 1 and 3, 11, 1, or 4, 8, 59-60 and 3, 10, 26. Likewise, the historical data are usually given with some references both to the ancient testimonies and to the modern works on the subject: this is especially useful for the national elegies in the book.

The reviewer's main reservation concerns literary interpretation. Some stimulating questions are approached (like the relationship between the lena and the elegiac values in 4, 5, or the comparison between Horos' and Cornelia's genealogies which they both boast about) in the introduction and even in the specific remarks. But it is not clearly apparent according to which criteria Hutchinson judges that one passage requires a fully developed literary explanation, and another does not. For example, elegy 4, 1 starts with ten lines which evoke the rustic simplicity of ancient Roman times and contrast it with the contemporary urban development of the city. Hutchinson, commenting on verses 5-6, writes that "pottery statues of gods and the hut of Romulus often make points against present values (in 2. 16. 19-20 with cheek against Augustus)". Yet, he does not insist more explicitly upon the mischievousness of this opening given that Augustus constantly pretended to strive for simplicity and modesty in his personal life and style of government, whereas this would have been consistent with the remarks which are made in the general introduction on Propertius' original treatment of Augustan themes and values. More generally, most of the time, Hutchinson does not seem to have much sympathy for metapoetical readings of the poems, but sometimes they would have been worth referring to. On 4, 2, 23, the commentary recalls the presence of the Coan cloth pattern in Propertius' earlier poetry and relates it with the genre of love elegy, but, even though the name of Philitas is indeed mentioned, the notion that the statement made here by Vertumnus might be a metapoetical hint at Propertius' Greek model is not considered. It is generally difficult for a commentary with the limited length provided by a collection such as the Cambridge Classics to determine which remarks should be considered as absolutely necessary and which should not. But on some occasions Hutchinson's commentary could leave the reader frustrated. Nonetheless there is satisfaction to be gained with the richness of the information provided.

As a whole, this new edition and commentary of Book 4 is most welcome: it does not only form an introduction to Propertius' last collection, but should also stimulate reflection on the text and permit well-informed interpretations. It is written in a rigorous and elegant style. It is dedicated to the late Professor R.O.A.M. Lyne, and there is no doubt that he would have been deeply pleased with such a remarkable tribute.


1.   Micaela Janan, The Politics of Desire, Propertius IV, Berkeley, Londres: University of California Press, 2001; Jeri Blair DeBrohun, Roman Propertius and the Reinvention of Elegy, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003; Tara Welch, The Elegiac Cityscape. Propertius and the Meaning of Roman Monuments, Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2005.
2.   John Warden, Fallax opus: Poet and Reader in the Elegies of Propertius, Toronto, 1980; R.O.A.M. Lyne, "Love and Death: Laodamia and Protesilaus", CQ 48, 1998, 200-212.

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Franz Cumont, Les Religions orientales dans le paganisme romain. Bibliotheca Cumontiana. Scripta Maiora, 1. volume édité a cura di Corinne Bonnet e Françoise Van Haeperen avec la collaborazione di B. Toune. Torino: Nino Aragno Editore, 2006. Pp. lxxv, 403. ISBN 978-88-8419-289-9. €25.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Chiara O. Tommasi Moreschini, Dipartimento di Filologia Classica, University of Pisa

This book, elegantly printed and well illustrated with colour pictures of a high quality, opens the welcome editorial enterprise of republishing Franz Cumont's works. The project, which involves a large number of talented scholars, is sponsored by the Academia Belgica and by the Institut Historique Belge both at Rome. It is worth remembering that the Belgian Academy inherited Cumont's archives and scientific legacy (for further information visit the webpage The name of this Belgian historian of religions has been the subject of renewed scholarly interests in the last few years--if indeed his fame ever declined (a bibliographic survey cited at page lxix states that Cumont is counted among the most often mentioned scholars in scientific works about the 'oriental religions' in the Roman Empire).

As the two directors of the project--Corinne Bonnet and Walter Geers--state in the prefatory section, the aim of the collection is to provide a re-edition of Cumont's major works, and also of some texts not published before, though up-dating them with the latest advances in scholarship. One can only congratulate the editors of the book for the service they provided and hope that the other volumes will follow soon. The plan of the work, displayed on the last page, seems very rich and promising. Franz Cumont's manifold interests in ancient religions (Mithraism; oriental cults; astronomy; funerary symbolism; magic) make him one of the most important and talented scholars of his generation, both from the philological perspective and the archaelogical and epigraphical one. For example, he played a decisive role in the excavations of Doura-Europos--see the recently publication by G. Bongard-Levine, C. Bonnet, Y. Litvinenko, A., Mongolus Syrio Salutem Optimam Dat. La correspondance entre Mikhaïl Rostovtzeff et Franz Cumont (Paris, 2007), reviewed here, BMCR 2008.09.03.

The scientific legacy of a researcher like Cumont (and most of his contemporaries from Europe and the United States) should stand as an example for every scholar and should be regarded with admiration and respect in itself, but also because he was a generous and open-minded person, according to those who were in contact with him. I will not discuss in detail Cumont's work, for it was reviewed by the most important personalities of his times when it first appeared and because the editors outline the salient points in their vast and detailed introduction. I limit myself to pointing out that reading Les Religions Orientales is a mandatory task for everyone who is interested in the subject, though in some respects Cumont's views may appear old fashioned or questionable. However, this "little book about a great topic", as Cumont himself labelled it, is still worth reading, and recent surveys (like that by A. Tripolitis, Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Age, Grand Rapids-Cambridge 2002) if compared to that work look shabbier and much more superficial.

The idea of 'oriental religions' has been subjected to a transformation, both in the sense of 'oriental', which appears too inclusive and general, and in that of 'religion', compared to which the word 'cult' has become preferable (since the 1981 volume edited by Ugo Bianchi and Maarten J. Vermaseren, La soteriologia dei culti orientali nell'Impero romano. Atti del Colloquio internazionale, Roma 24-28 settembre 1979; see also the reassessment by R. Turcan, Les cultes orientaux dans le monde romain, Paris 1989). Further discussion on this topic is provided by J.Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine (Chicago, 1994), 107 ff. (who notes that the choice between 'cult' and 'religion' is not without important implications in the comparison of Christianity and other ancient religions). According to Bonnet, who also criticizes Cumont's diffusionist approach, it is more correct to speak of 'Greco-Oriental' cults, for, in their first phase, they were subject to a deep Hellenization. (However, I am not sure whether Cumont wasn't aware of that also, since Droysen's broad concept of Hellenism was surely well known and assumed). Nevertheless the term 'oriental religions' can still be used as a practical way of labelling the spreading of a large number of religious forms of worship during late Hellenism and the imperial age, as the editors wisely state in the last page of their preface. They quote an interesting passage by Georges Dumézil about the survival of scholarly labels which, in the end, acquire autonomous life. Perhaps the most significant witness of this term's success is the well-known collection E.P.R.O. (Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l'Empire romain), founded and directed by the late Maarten J. Vermaseren for the publisher E.J. Brill in Leiden. A reconstruction of this collection is provided by J.M. Pailler, "Les religions orientales, troisième époque", in Pallas 35 (1989), 95-113.

Many questions the book poses are fascinating, and one will read with delight the literary elegance of Cumont's prose (the essay was intended as the result of a series of lectures and maintains a discursive tone, even though one can perceive the massive erudition underlying it). Page after page, the book discloses a lavish fresco of the saffron-clothed priests of Attis and the Great Mother; the pure and chaste initiates to the mysteries of Isis and the Hellenistic god Serapis; the struggle between Mithras and the primordial bull, namely between light and darkness (Mithraism was a central subject in Cumont's interests); the solemn ritual pomps; priests, enchanters, and charlatans; the frantic sounds of drums and cymbals of the adepts to Ma and Sabazios; the chiaroscuro of the Bacchanals; the speculative astronomical lore, astral determinism and the soul's ultimate destiny (Cumont would later write again on these themes and must be reckoned among one of the specialists of ancient astronomy); its intermingling with magic; the mystical stream of Platonism and its contaminations with theurgy; the splendour of solar veneration; the riddles about fate; the solitary figure of the 'unknown' God of the Jews and of the Christians, worshipped with a zealous monotheistic attitude. The book is superb in considering the so-called Oriental religions within the global perspective of the Roman Empire, with its acculturative strength. At the same time he tried to emphasize how Christianity in some respects might be foreshadowed by these cultic forms.

In the present review, however, I'll concentrate mainly on the rich and precise introduction, which is due to Corinne Bonnet and Fran�oise van Haeperen. Bonnet, in particular, is currently acknowledged as the major specialist on Cumont. Writing an introduction to books that are considered 'classics' and benchmarks of scholarship is always both a tantalizing task and a major commitment, as I myself found when I worked on the Italian edition of Norden's Agnostos Theos (Brescia, 2002). One has to reckon with almost a century of scholarly discussion resulting in a huge amount of bibliography, not to mention new textual and epigraphical discoveries and interpretations. At the same time, readers expect a precise contextual reconstruction of the origin of the book, its place in the contemporary debate and scholarly trends.

The two editors have accomplished their task well. The reader will learn much about the genesis of the book and of the transformations it underwent in the editions that followed the first one of 1906 (see also the final synopsis, L'atelier de Cumont, pp. 367-403). These transformations are partly due to the criticism Cumont had to reckon with, even though he did not change the backbone of his thesis. In particular, besides the main objections put forward by Jules Toutain, which concerned the importance accorded to literary sources more than to the epigraphic ones, criticism came mostly from Catholic scholars: they reproached Cumont for having considered Christianity as a form of 'oriental' religion, undistinguished from the other cults. The most conservative Catholic lobby eventually succeeded in casting Cumont out of the chair in Ghent, perhaps also because of his penchant for modernism. From page xxiii onwards the authors discuss the historical horizon of the book, namely the status of the studies in Cumont's own times and in particular the oriental vogue which inspired not only artistic works but also scholarly trends. These pages are perhaps the most interesting of their introduction.

The history of scholarship has been increasing in the last decade, so it would be impossible to cite everything about so wide a topic like that of the 'oriental religions'. Nonetheless, if one has to put forward some reservations about the introduction, these concern the basically francocentric attitude displayed in citing secondary literature. Just to cite some examples, this introduction could have profited from Mario Mazza's introduction to the Italian edition of Nock's Conversion (Rome and Bari, 1974), which deals with analogous questions (and the same Nock would have been worth quoting on p. xli, among the most significant scholars, even though slightly posterior to Cumont). Mario Mazza is also the author of an important essay about the notion of 'syncretism' and the coexistence of various religions in imperial age and late antiquity, where he clearly outlines the dialectic between the approaches of Toutain and Cumont, the former position being reprised in recent times by MacMullen: I refer to his "Le religioni dell'impero romano. Premessa ad una considerazione storica della religiosityà ellenistico-romana", in Storia, letteratura e arte a Roma nel II sec. d.C. Atti del Convegno (Mantova 23-24 maggio 1992) (Florence, 1995), 109-138. The epoch-making book by Robin Lane Fox on Pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean World from the second century A.D. to the conversion of Constantine (London and Harmondsworth, 1986) perhaps deserved more than a simple mention. At the same time, it is surprising that the name of a perceptive and acknowledged influential master of Italian scholarship in the study of oriental religions like Ugo Bianchi is quoted only once, and, furthermore, just to criticize him (p. xliii).

Besides these shortcomings, I might suggest other complements to the introduction's bibliography: on the importance of Creuzer (p. xxxi) one can now read the monograph by Francesca Marelli, Lo sguardo da Oriente: simbolo, mito e grecità in Friedrich Creuzer (Milan, 2000). The (correct) criticism of E. Said's well-known thesis concerning Orientalism (p. xxx) should have taken into account Giovanni Casadio's forceful and brilliant article: "Studying Religious Traditions Between the Orient and the Occident: Modernism vs. Post-modernism", in Unterwegs. Neue Pfade in der Religionswissenschaft. Festschrift für Michael Pye zum 65. Geburtstag = New Paths in the Study of Religions. Festschrift in honour of Michael Pye on his 65th birthday (München, 2004), 119-135. Casadio is the author also of "Franz Cumont, historien des religions et citoyen du monde", in Imago Antiquitatis. Religions et iconographie du monde romain. Mélanges offerts à Robert Turcan (Paris, 1999), 161-165, a paper which could have been profitably cited as well.

Minor faults are some repetitions here and there, probably due to the fact that the essay is written by two different persons (see p. xxiv and xxxi, about Renan and his theories). I noticed only a few editorial mistakes and a curious error: the so-called Religionsgeschichtliche Schule had its see in Güttingen, not in Tübingen, as stated at p. xli.

Despite these criticisms, however, the work as a whole looks excellent, and the editors deserve our deep gratitude.

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Werner Suerbaum, Handbuch der illustrierten Vergil-Ausgaben 1502-1840: Geschichte, Typologie, Zyklen und kommentierter Katalog der Holzschnitte und Kupferstiche zur Aeneis in Alten Drucken; mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Bestände der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek München und ihrer Digitalisate von Bildern zu Werken des P. Vergilius Maro. Bibliographien zur klassischen Philologie, Bd. 3. Hildesheim/New York: Georg Olms, 2008. Pp. 684; 2 DVDs. ISBN 9783487135908. €89.00.
Reviewed by Patricia A. Johnston, Brandeis University

Werner Suerbaum has produced yet another impressive bibliography, this one a handbook of the history, types, cycles and a detailed catalog of woodcuts and engravings found in more than 550 early editions of Vergil published all over the world from 1502-1840, particularly those found in the Bavarian State Library in Munich. The reasoning behind this publication is (and I paraphrase p. 7) that the development of pictures for the Aeneid (including the frontispieces to the collected works) in earlier, pre-1840 printed editions of Vergil has until now been insufficient. Bibliographies of Vergil (cf. G. Mambelli Gli annali delle edizioni virgiliane, 1954) tend to announce the existence of illustrations in the respective books but are not clear whether these comprise a single picture or to dozens of them in a given work, while descriptions which are more precise give the number of enclosed illustrations but are silent about the subject or artists. Such information is rarely supplied for woodcuts, and for etchings only the most famous are identified. Suerbaum maintains that there is a tendency to focus on the reception of Vergil-themes in art, but that the role of the graphic arts, except for those that are the most influential on subsequent reception, is practically passed over.

Consequently, Suerbaum has examined extensive bibliographies, monograms, manuscripts and various reference texts as well as European and British internet catalogs, and compiled an extensive catalog of illustrations accompanying publications of Vergil's works during these three and a half centuries. He has included most of these illustrations (about 4000 of them) in the two DVDs that accompany this handbook, making it a very convenient reference text.

Suerbaum arranges the text, after an introduction, with instructions on how to use the handbook (15-20), identifying the rubrics, the symbols and bibliographical references. He then disputes the date of the Lyon 1483 incunabulum of 61 wood engravings, which Mambelli had identified as the first English Aeneid, translated by William Caxton. Suerbaum argues that the first illustrated edition of the works of Vergil was the 1502 edition by Sebastian Brant, the "Strasburg Vergil," which contains between 50 and 138 pictures. He then proceeds (131 et seq.) to examine the VP 1502 ("VP" = "Vergilius Pictus," the title on the DVDs). There is an extensive discussion and bibliography about this edition, followed by detailed identification of each of the woodcuts in sequence, arranged by book number, including the six pictures in book XIII of by Mapheus Vegius, which are included in this edition of the Aeneid. He includes not only the pictures but also a PDF of this and other books' entire contents, sometimes including the books' covers, followed by separate files of each of the pictures. In the case of the Brant edition, he includes Brant's introduction, the Vita Maronis, Servius' commentary, and the Eclogues and Georgics as well as the Aeneid.

He follows this plan for subsequent editions, some more briefly than others, depending on the number of illustrations, and identifies, where possible, the artists as well as the other vital statistics. At the end of the volume he includes separate detailed Indices, of Artists; of Editions; of Printers; of Editors/ Commentators/ Translators; and of Illustrated Scenes of the Aeneid (Subject-Catalog). The final index (H) contains a listing of the contents of both DVDs.

This is really a wonderful collection, and will be of enormous scholarly value to those who emphasize this aspect of Vergilian manuscripts. It is also a joy to work through. I found that a few of the files on my copy are damaged and unreadable (e. g. VP 1502.b 1879-853 through -861), but considering the vast number of files collected here, and the wealth of information in the text itself, this is nevertheless a most useful collection with many applications.

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Tankred Howe, Vandalen, Barbaren und Arianer bei Victor von Vita. Studien zur alten Geschichte, Bd 7. Frankfurt: Verlag Antike, 2007. Pp. 411. ISBN 9783938032176. €57.90.
Reviewed by B. N. Wolfe, Wolfson College, University of Oxford

Victor of Vita was a fifth-century orthodox bishop of Byzacena who recorded the persecution of orthodox Christians by the Arian Vandal rulers of North Africa. In his 'History of the Persecution in the Province of Africa', he details the violent measures taken during the reigns of Geiseric (AD 429-477) and his son and successor Huneric (477-484) to repress the Trinitarian (catholic, orthodox) religion of the conquered, native majority. The book under review deals first with general questions concerning this account, and then discusses tropes in Victor's treatment of the Vandals. It is thus a study of the interaction between barbarians and provincial Romans in the Migration Period.

The Vandals invaded Roman North Africa under Geiseric in 429, and although peace was made in 435, it was soon broken by Geiseric, who in 439 took Carthage. Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearic islands fell to the invaders, who established one of many pirate kingdoms in North Africa's history. An important and handy enumeration of the local sources for this period is found on pp. 16-27 of the introductory chapter. One key event during the Vandals' rule, which is at the heart of the 'Historia', was the religious conference of Arian and catholic bishops held in 484. Included in the main text of the 'Historia' is the catholic confession of faith presented to King Huneric at these discussions. In all manuscripts two other documents are attached, the 'Passio beatissimorum martyrum qui apud Carthaginem passi sunt sub impio rege Hunerico (die VI. Non. Julias 484)' and a 'Notitia Provinciarum et Civitatum Africae' (enumerating the catholic bishops attendant at Huneric's rather stage-managed colloquy). These are treated together with Victor's work, but are generally supposed to be of different authorship.

In the first part of the second chapter (28-60), Howe addresses textual questions such as the composition date of the 'Historia Persecutionis', arguing for AD 488. Howe's thorough method immediately becomes clear: while he has read and cites all of the secondary literature on the subject, he is careful always to base his conclusions upon the primary sources. He gives the reader the state of research without repeating shibboleths.

Victor's biography is the subject of the latter half of Chapter 2 (61-119). Howe traces the roots of much modern literature on the subject to Jean Liron, who wrote in the 18th century, and whose ideas have been accepted, perhaps, too uncritically. On the basis of the Notitia's list of catholic bishops affected by Vandal penal measures, some have suggested that while Victor was a witness to and a participant in the key debates of 484, he was not called upon to cast a vote. Liron interprets Victor's use of the first-person plural to describe events as the reporting of an eye-witness; Howe argues that the combined witness of all catholics in Africa may be signified thereby.

Chapter Three (120-182) introduces the main themes of the book. It outlines the nomenclature with which the persecutors and the persecuted are identified. Howe condemns a simplistic parallel between confessional and political terminology: for Victor, Vandals and Arians are near synonyms, as are catholics and Romans. The Vandal king is contrasted with the Emperor, both at the head of their religious-ethnic communities.

The central argument appears in Chapters Four (183-282) and Five (283-318). The former, "The Negative Portrayal of the Persecutors", is concerned with the topoi of greed, brutality, and impetuousness with which Victor presents the Vandals. Victor, in Howe's eyes, wishes the Vandal government and Arian persecution to be understood as phenomena interlocking in a comprehensive attack on the Roman value system. "Romanitas" and "Vandalitas" as Victor uses them convey a unity of ethnic-political-cultural and religious identities (229).

February 4th, AD 484 is depicted as the pivot on which the Vandals' religious politics shifted paradigms, when the religious talks between the two parties failed, though this date is the punctuation to a more gradual shift. Howe's Huneric hoped to unify the entire Vandal realm religiously, and so to create an ideological analogy to the Roman Empire. Related to this is his attempt to secure his own dynasty, abolishing the seniority principle that had formerly governed succession among the Vandals. Huneric's aim, according to Howe, was a Vandalia in North Africa, as a rival to "Romania". One may compare this to the Visigothic king Ataulf's rejected ambitions for a Gothia that would supersede the Roman Empire in the West. Such an endeavour would indeed account for the persecution of the catholics unwilling to convert to Arianism, and is, as Howe posits, a believable political background to Victor's text.

"The Positive Portrayal of the Persecuted" is Chapter Five. Howe argues that Victor does not make a clear distinction between Vandal and Roman catholics. This deliberate confusion seems surprising at first glance, since the Vandal catholics were no doubt a good advertisement for the convincingness of Trinitarian theology, and their treatment by the Vandal government good evidence of the regime's brutality. However, Victor was following in august footsteps in making his heretics barbarians: Howe illustrates this point with St Augustine's treatment of the Donatists (who were largely Berbers). The ethnic elements are secondary and suggestive: The persecutors' negative portrayal borrows but is not uncomplicatedly derived from the traditional depiction of barbarians. Howe concludes from this that Victor exemplifies a key step in the religious re-interpretation of the word 'barbarian' to mean 'unbeliever, heretic'.

Howe's conclusions are presented in Chapters Six (319-356) and Seven (the Conclusion, 357-398), with two major points stressed. First, he argues that the relation between persecutors and persecuted was borrowed from the two cities of St Augustine. If one thinks in purely eschatological terms, then the ethnic specifications of the two groups are unimportant. However, as historical outworkings of eschatology they are noteworthy.

Second, Howe argues that Victor's work is both apologetic and parakletic: It is apologetic to the beleaguered African catholics in its presentation of the heroism of their fellows, and parakletic in calling on them to resist the attacks they face. The 'Historia' is a record of Catholic resistance, but also a historico-theological interpretation of catholic-Arian conflict. Turning once again to the wider, Imperial ecclesiastical situation at the end of the 5th century, Howe notes that the Acacian schism had paralyzed Eastern religious policy, and the council of Rome had just addressed itself to successful Arian proselytizing in North Africa. Particularly in face of this last, Victor wished to document the orthodoxy and resistance of African catholics. Howe concludes from all this that Huneric's religious policy was largely a success, and that Victor's representation testifies more to its effectiveness than to its methods.

Vandalen, Barbaren und Arianer bei Victor von Vita is a worthy book, valuable both for its argument and its reference potential. It is well printed, and the presentation on the page is clear, and aided by occasional text-boxes and charts. However, the chapter organization is odd to the English-speaking eye (and should be changed if the book is translated). Howe's conclusions are measured, reasonable, and well-supported by the extensive evidence he offers. Revisionist scholarship is often to be deplored when it attempts to make works of wide-ranging significance into petty, locally-concerned documents. Howe does the opposite. His Victor sought to convince his readers that becoming Arians represented not only changing their views about the structure of the Trinity, but also vandalizing their very Romanitas, and thereby abandoning all the civilized virtues of reason and law. The 'Historia' thus presented is not just a chronicle of horrors, valuable to the modern scholar only for what it accidentally reveals about day-to-day life in Late Antiquity, but is rather a powerful, subtle piece of argumentation and persuasion.

The book under review does not exhaust all the possible developments of its own interpretation, which leaves room for further work to be done. One potentially fruitful approach would be questioning the success of Victor's methods: Does equating the Vandal king with the Emperor benefit his argument overall, or is it too great a concession to Vandal propaganda? Indeed, to what extent are Victor's and the Vandal rulers' interests aligned in presenting religion and ethnicity as co-referents? For these and other such investigations, Tankred Howe's 'Vandalen, Barbaren und Arianer bei Victor von Vita' will be a useful starting point.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008


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Reviel Netz, William Noel, Der Kodex des Archimedes. Das Berühmteste Palimpsest der Welt wird entschlüsselt. München: C.H. Beck, 2007. Pp. 303. ISBN 978-3-406-56336-2. €20.50.
Reviewed by Eugene Afonasin, Novosibirsk State University

The book under review is a German translation of The Archimedes Codex: Revealing the Secrets of the World's Greatest Palimpsest (Weidenfeld and Nicolson / Orion Publishing Group, London, 2007).

In 1910-1913 Johan Ludvig Heiberg published two volumes of his revised edition of the Archimedes opera omnia cum commentaria Eutocii, which for many years become the standard reference for works of the greatest ancient mathematician. For this edition he utilized a newly discovered palimpsest dated to the tenth century, then kept in the famous Metochion library of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Constantinople, and mostly containing the works of Archimedes. He studied the original for a short period only but later managed to transcribe the text on the basis of photographs and published the results in 1907-1909.1 Though he recovered quite a lot of extremely difficult text, the works of Archimedes which thus came to light were still very lacunose. Besides, Heiberg was not able to read some of the text because of the later binding of the book.

Then the manuscript was lost -- apparently stolen from the library during or after the First World War -- until it had recently appeared again and, despite protests from the Greek government, sold by American auctioneers to an anonymous "collector" ("Mister B.") in 1998 for more than $2 million, and deposited by its new owner at the Walters Art Museum (Baltimore, USA) for conservation, imaging and scholarly study in 1999. Discussion of this event (as such a typical example of shameless speculation on the cultural heritage), and the scholarly work which has been going ever since, are conveniently available at the web site of the Archimedes Palimpsest project .

I will just briefly recollect the circumstances and outline the book content.

The oldest surviving manuscript of Archimedes suffered at least twice, first being covered with prayers and all these things which replaced science and culture in the dark ages of European civilization and then mutilated by contemporary barbarians, its new owners, who covered some of its pages with forged pictures, taken from a printed book, apparently to make the book more valuable and kept it in such bad condition that the manuscript was on the edge of complete destruction when it finally was given to the specialists.

The international team of researchers in their attempts to recover the content of the invaluable manuscript had to overcome numerous obstacles and had to apply a variety of advanced research techniques. Recent study and recovery of the text revealed that the manuscript in question, a prayer book (the Euchologion), completed in April 1229, apparently in Constantinople and now containing 174 parchment folios, was made of at least seven treatises by Archimedes (the Equilibrium of Planes, Spiral Lines, The Measurement of the Circle, Sphere and Cylinder, On Floating Bodies, The Method of Mechanical Theorems, and the Stomachion). For three ("On Floating Bodies", "The Method of Mechanical Theorems", and the "Stomachion") the palimpsest is the unique source.2 Another five leaves, palimpsested for the Euchologion, were taken from a work by the fourth century B.C. Attic Orator Hyperides, previously known only from papyrus fragments and from quotations of his work by other authors.3 Six folios came from a philosophical treatise,4 four folios belonged to a liturgical book, and twelve further pages came from two different books, the text of which has yet to be deciphered.5

The book under review outlines both the story of the Archimedes palimpsest studies and the works by Archimedes in a very simple interpretation, accessible to general reader with no special education. It contains, for instance, interesting though elementary information on the technique of book production in antiquity and the Middle Ages and could be of interest to undergraduates approaching the history of ancient civilization for the first time, and some readers would probably enjoy an introductory story, illustrated by personal observations and specimens of e-mail correspondence, told by Noel in the first chapter of the book, entitled "Archimedes in America" (pp. 9-29).

This story is followed by an introductory chapter by Netz (30-67), outlining the life and works of Archimedes in the light of new studies. Netz believes that the most interesting features of Archimedes' thought, still of interest today, are his approach to infinity and his developing mathematical models on the basis of physical world. Netz gives simple examples of Archimedes methods and techniques (squaring of the circle, indirect proofs, quadrature of a parabola, potential infinity, etc.), and continues the subject in consequent chapters: the fourth chapter (pp. 91-120) turns to Archimedes diagrams; Chapters six (141-159) and eight (184-203) deal with "The Method of Mechanical Theorems", while Chapter ten (230-256) is concerned with the "Stomachion". This matter is sufficiently well known both to specialists and general reader, and the highly original although often speculative and over-generalizing position taken by Netz, is amply presented in his recent publications and the first volume of his translation of the works of Archimedes.6

The third chapter (pp. 69-90) concisely outlines an imaginary story of the transmission of Archimedes' works from Syracuse and Alexandria to Constantinople and the translation of them first from a roll to a codex and then from majuscule to minuscule script. The subject is continued in Chapter 5 (pp. 121-140) where attempt is made to sketch a (more sizable but still quite shady) modern history of Archimedes' works, starting with the Constantinopolitan tragedy of 1204 and a Latin translation of Archimedes by Wilhelm of Moerbeke (1269) and finishing with a detailed description of how it was discovered and published by Heiberg, lost and then recently "rediscovered" and came under the hammer. In the seventh chapter (pp.161-182) we find a detailed description of the physical condition of the manuscript as well as difficulties which the scholars (especially Abigail Quandt of the Walters Art Museum) faced in the process of its conservation and restoration.

The ninth chapter (206-229), about imaging of the manuscript, I find the most fascinating. After the process of restoration was complete in 2000, several groups of scholars tried to apply various imaging techniques intended to bringing out the under text of the palimpsest. The method of multispectral imaging consisted of creating a large number of pictures of a given area taken at different wavelengths of light which allowed the scholars, applying certain algorithm, first, to highlight the Archimedes ink and make it more discernable and, second, to make the prayer book ink look like the parchment. Another and more successful method was applied by Roger Easton, Keith Knox, and William Christens-Barry, who devised a special apparatus for imaging the Palimpsest in a more effective way. They realized that the solution was not to make the prayer book text disappear as people thought before.but to clearly differentiate this text from the Archimedes text which lies underneath it. The imagers combined two different wavelengths of light: the Red channel of the visible spectrum (RGB light), which makes the Archimedes text disappear almost completely; and the blue channel from Ultra-violet florescent light (i. e. the light invisible as such but which emits in the blue part of the visible spectrum when directed against parchment). Combining an image taken in the Red channel of RGB light with an image of the blue channel of Ultra-violet fluorescent light, the imagers succeeded in separating texts which now appeared in three different colors: the parchment become white, because it reflects both of these lights, the prayer book appears black, because it absorbs both red light and blue light, and the under text comes out red, because it absorbs the blue light but reflects the red light. The results are illustrated here, and the process is described in all necessary technical details on the website.

This method did not help in case of the text that was hidden on the four pages containing the forged 20th-century paintings. The results, as described in the last chapter of the book (pp. 257-274, esp. 260ff), were achieved by Uwe Bergmann of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California by means of a considerably more advanced technique, the so-called X-ray fluorescence method. Cf. this page -- a most extraordinary achievement.

On the basis of some editorial descriptions found in the Internet I gather that the original English edition of the book contains 16 pages of color photos, which are entirely omitted in the present German translation. The publisher must have had its practical reasons for this, but in this case the omission is truly unfortunate, since only color pictures can properly illustrate the technique of its imaging.

To sum up, in the book under review a Stanford historian of ancient science R. Netz, and the director of the Archimedes Palimpsest Project W. Noel make the story of discovery, conservation and imaging of the manuscript, as well as some preliminary scholarly results, accessible for the general reader interested in the history of science and new technologies of recovering ancient texts. The book can be recommended to the libraries and individuals and constitutes a welcome addition to our understanding of the ancient science.


1.   Cf. Heiberg J. L. "Eine neue Schrift des Archimedes", Hermes XLII (1907) 235-297, the edition referred, and some other works.
2.   Aside from some parts of four works by Archimedes, known from other sources, the palimpsest contains substantial passages of the Method; the treatise On floating bodies, previously known only in Latin translation, and a fragment of the Stomachion, partially preserved in Arabic.
3.   Cf. pp. 225-227 of the book under review; N. Tchernetska, "New Fragments of Hyperides from the Archimedes Palimpsest", Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, vol. 154, 2005, pp.1-6; and an outline by J. Hermann.
4.   R. W. Sharples suggests that this could even be a fragment of a lost commentary to the Categories by Alexander of Aphrodisias.
5.   The manuscripts of Archimedes, we know today, are reasonably traced back by the scholars to the circle of Leo the Mathematician (died after 869) who taught at the Magnaura school and who is said to collect a great library of mathematical works, while the Prayer book is dated to April 14, 1229 on the basis of a colophon on the bottom of folio 1 verso of the manuscript (cf. p. 183 and 273ff).
6.   Some anachronistic and propagandist statements by Netz mar the overall very favorable picture (passim, esp. 282ff). He believes for instance that Archimedes anticipated both the integral and differential analysis, knew and used in his mathematics actual infinity, etc. Cf. a detailed review of Netz' methods and approaches: Acerbi F., "Archimedes and the Angel: Phantom Paths from Problems to Equations", Aestimatio 2 (2005) 169-226, and his recent works:

1. Reviel Netz, The Works of Archimedes: Translated into English, together with Eutocius' Commentaries, with Commentary, and Critical Edition of the Diagrams. Vol. 1: The Two Books On the Sphere and the Cylinder. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004 (reviewed by Eleanor Dickey at BMCR 2004.07.14 and at by N. Sidoli Aestimatio 1 (2004) 148-162)
2. Reviel Netz, The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics. "Ideas in Context", 51. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999 (reviewed by Daryn Lehoux, BMCR 2000.02.17)
3. Reviel Netz, The Transformation of Mathematics in the Early Mediterranean World: From Problems to Equations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004 (reviewed BMCR 2004.10.25).
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Kaveh Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert. Ancient Persia at War. Oxford: Osprey Publishers, 2007. Pp. 320. ISBN 9781846031083. $29.95; £14.99.
Reviewed by Jona Lendering, Livius Onderwijs

One of the last lines of Kaveh Farrokh's Shadows in the Desert. Ancient Persia at War is that "there has been an overall decline of programs and studies of Iranica in western Europe and the United States since 1980". If his book were indicative of the quality of modern-day Iranian studies, that decline could only be lauded, because Shadows in the Desert is an exceptionally bad book. Osprey Publishers have obviously invested a lot of energy in producing it, and the book is very attractive indeed,1 but all their care cannot hide that the manuscript ought to have been returned to its author.

Bad books deserve no reviews. However, this one illustrates a serious problem from which Iranology itself is suffering. I will return to that subject at the end of this review and will first describe what's wrong with Shadows in the Desert.

As the second title indicates, the book is about ancient Persia at war. It covers three periods: the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and the Sasanians. (To prevent this review from becoming too long, I will focus on the first part.) The century-and-a-half of the Seleucids, who were the strongest power in Iran from 311 to 141 BCE, receive ten pages, because Farrokh believes that the Macedonians "never managed to establish a loyal political base among their Iranian subjects" (p. 115).

This is a bit exaggerated. The Seleucid armies, following the precedent by Alexander, employed loyal mounted archers from Sogdia (e.g., at Raphia). Iranian troops from Carmania, Persis, Media, Cissia, and Cadusia were also employed, which means that the Seleucids could recruit their soldiers from the same areas as the Achaemenids. Once the Parthians had seized power, they learned a thing or two about urbanism from the Seleucids and appreciated the military significance of the Greek cities. Since the publication of Kuhrt and Sherwin-White's From Samarkhand to Sardis (1993), it is no longer possible to ignore the Seleucids as irrelevant to Iranian history. Even though the Greeks and Macedonians remained -- as Farrokh correctly observes -- "basically Hellenic islands in a vast Iranian realm" (p. 115), ten pages is insufficient.

If the reader is surprised about what is left out from Shadows in the Desert, he will be astonished to discover what is included: linguistics, Babylonian astronomy, the Silk Road, the Baghdad Battery, and the Alanic origins of the King Arthur legend. These digressions make for pleasant reading, surely, but are irrelevant to ancient Persia at war.

The strangest inclusion is the Cyrus Cylinder, a document from Babylon in which the conqueror presents himself as the ideal king:2 chosen by the supreme god, he restores order, repairs buildings, allows exiles to return home, and redresses malpractices. In the past, this text -- which is absolutely topical -- has been taken as evidence for Cyrus' illuminated policy, especially by the government of Mohammad Reza Shah, which even called it "the world's first human rights charter". Farrokh repeats this propaganda verbatim on page 44, apparently unaware of the extensive secondary literature on the subject.3

I think that Farrokh inserts the digressions and propaganda because he believes that the Iranian legacy deserves more attention. I also think he is right about that; the eighteenth-century Winckelmannian paradigm that all civilization started in Greece should indeed be abandoned. However, Farrokh's praiseworthy attempts to stress the historical importance of Iran lead to absurdity. What to think of the statement that "Western scholarship has yet to acknowledge or investigate the role of Mithraic influence on the formation of European culture and Christianity"? (p. 192) This is preposterous. Famous scholars like Cumont and Vermaseren were more than willing to accept Iranian influence on the rise of Christianity. In fact, western scholarship is now returning from its overconfident first identifications.

Shadows in the Desert is not only unbalanced, it is also uncritical. On p. 33, Herodotus' statement that the Median army was formally reorganized by Cyaxares (Histories 1.103) is accepted without any discussion, even though scholars are sceptical about the reliability of Herodotus' Medikos logos.4 We are also to believe that the Median state was more centralized than the Achaemenid Empire (p. 39); if this were true, archaeologists would find some kind of common state architecture all over the Median realms, but they have not been able to establish which objects are indicative of Median presence. (Finds below the Achaemenid stratum are almost by definition called Median, but this does not mean that they resemble each other).

On p. 41, Farrokh presents Croesus as one of Cyrus' courtiers. Herodotus' story of the Lydian king's miraculous survival of the pyre, however, looks suspiciously like folkloristic tales about beloved leaders who have not really died (e.g., Nectanebo II, King Arthur, Constantine XI, and Elvis Presley), and it is disquieting that Herodotus presents Croesus in the role of "tragic warner" only. Herodotus' Croesus looks like fiction and the historicity of the king's survival has rightly been questioned.5 Farrokh is unaware of this, just as he is unaware of the fact that Herodotus' story of Cyrus' being killed by the Massagetae was already contested in antiquity (p. 48): in Xenophon's Cyropaedia, the great king dies of natural causes, and Ctesias states that Cyrus was mortally wounded during an expedition to the far east.

Farrokh is not only uncritical towards the sources, he also has an amazing trust in old secondary literature. He still claims that Alexander the Great was aiming at "unity between Iranians and Greeks" -- that old canard of Droysen (Verschmelzungspolitik), repeated by W.W. Tarn in the 1927 edition of the Cambridge Ancient History, and famously refuted by Badian half a century ago.6 Another example is the statement that Croesus was defeated in the year 547 (p. 41), which has become untenable since the 1977 edition of Grayson's Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles.

Generally speaking, Shadows in the Desert contains many outright errors -- I counted dozens of them -- that might have been avoided if the author had better checked the sources. The Athenian involvement in the Ionian Revolt did not start after the sack of Sardis (p. 71); the Athenians took part in the raid. Xerxes did not take with him the statue of Marduk when he sacked Babylon in 484 (p. 74): Herodotus 1.183 does not allow this interpretation. Inarus did not revolt in 495, but in c. 464 (p. 86). Cyreschata was not spared but sacked by the Macedonians (p. 107).7

I will not digress on the spelling errors (which may be the result of poor editing),8 topographical mistakes,9 and logical fallacies,10 and will concentrate instead on what I think is the main weakness of Shadows in the desert: it ignores the Iranological Revolution of the 1980s. Today, Achaemenid studies are dominated by one man: the French scholar Pierre Briant. In the 1970s, Iranology was a divided discipline, still in its infancy and -- in Iran -- sponsored by a government that wanted to present Cyrus the Great as an ideal, secular leader. (When Mohammad Reza Shah offered a copy of the Cyrus Cylinder to the United Nations, he added a translation from which all religious references had been left out.) Briant found a discipline in its preparadigmatic stage, and in the 1980s created Iranology's first real paradigm. His magnum opus is the Histoire de l'empire Perse. De Cyrus à Alexandre (1995).11

At the same time, Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg organized several workshops, the results of which were published in a series of publications called Achaemenid History. For the first time, Achaemenid studies have a clear structure and this is -- even according to more relativistic philosophical theories about the quality of scholarship -- progress. One may regret the sometimes exaggerated admiration for Briant, but his accomplishment is real. Farrokh's statement that "there has been an overall decline of programs and studies of Iranica in western Europe and the United States since 1980" could not be further from the truth.

Instead of referring to the Histoire or Achaemenid History, Farrokh relies upon the internet. For instance, he quotes articles of the notoriously lackadaisical CAIS12 on p. 60, 106, and 230. As could be expected, the use of information from the web leads to errors. After the description of the battle of the Persian Gate (based on Speck's identification of the battlefield with a mountain pass north of modern Yasuj), we read that "the Persian Gates are known today by the locals as the Tang-e Ariobarzan" (p. 107). This is from an article by Abuzar Hemati, who proposes a pass south of Yasuj, called Tangeri, which he believes to be derived from *Tang-e Ariobarzan. Farrokh not only ignores that the two theories are incompatible, but also confuses a hypothetical etymology with a fact. All this could have been prevented if Farrokh had actually read the articles; instead, he misrepresents information from a webpage.13

Ignoring recent scholarship, relying on the internet, confusing hypotheses with facts, and repeating propaganda: this is why Shadows in the Desert is a bad book. And that is a pity, because Farrokh's goal to give to ancient Iran its rightful place in historiography is a good one. However, his sincere enthusiasm is matched by his ignorance of the Iranological revolution of the 1980s.

Unfortunately, Iranologists cannot afford to think that Shadows in the Desert, being written for a larger audience, is irrelevant to their own, academic activities. If a discipline can reinvent itself and reach a higher level, that ought to have been noticed by its greatest fans. This has not happened. And it is not just Farrokh who is unaware of the Iranological Revolution; Tom Holland's best-selling Persian Fire (2005) contains the same errors. Even a serious magazine like the National Geographic repeats remarks about the Cyrus Cylinder as a "human rights charter", and quotes a notorious internet hoax.14

The public and scientific journalists are unaware that the study of ancient Iran has improved. Maybe professional Iranologists ought to move from Geschichtsforschung to Geschichtsschreibung -- in other words, abandon the study of Persia for some time, and devote their energies on writing for the larger audience. Hopefully, a less drastic solution is possible, but as things stand, Iranology is in deep, deep trouble. Fortunately, there are better books than Farrokh's and I hope that the interested reader will find the references in the notes useful.


1.   I may be biased: I took several of the photos that were used in this book. Still, I think only a professional grumbler will deny that this lavishly illustrated hardback is a bibliophile's dream.
2.   The most recent edition is Die Inschriften Nabonids von Babylon und Kyros' des Grossen (Münster 2001) by Hanspeter Schaudig. Claims that the Cylinder, if it is not "the world's first human rights charter", at least proves that Cyrus allowed the Jews to return home, have been challenged by Diana Edelman, The Origins of the 'Second' Temple (London 2005).
3.   E.g., J. Harmatta, "Les modèles littéraires de l'édit babylonien de Cyrus", in: Acta Iranica 1 (1974) 29-44; A. Kuhrt, "The Cyrus Cylinder and Achaemenid Imperial Policy" in: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 25 (1983) 83-97; R.J. van der Spek, "Did Cyrus the Great Introduce a New Policy Towards Subdued Nations?" in: Persica 10 (1982) 278-283.
4.   E.g., H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg, "Was there ever a Median Empire?" in: Achaemenid History 3 (1988) 197-212; H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg, "The Orality of Herodotus' Medikos Logos" in Achaemenid History 8 (1994) 39-55; R. Rollinger, "The Median 'Empire', the End of Urartu, and Cyrus' Campaign in 547" in: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Ancient Cultural Relations between Iran and West Asia (2004).
5.   E.g, by J. Wieshöfer, Das antike Persien (1993), 82: "gänzlich unhistorisch"; tr. Ancient Persia (1996, 2002), 150.
6.   E. Badian, "Alexander and the unity of mankind", in: Historia 7 (1958) 425-444.
7.   A small selection from the remaining factual errors: on p. 68, we learn that Darius created an imperial navy; it was Cambyses (H.T. Wallinga, Ships and Sea Power before the Great Persian War [1993]). On p. 81, we read that the Persians never challenged the Greeks at sea after Salamis; in fact, the mere threat of Persian naval intervention was in 355 sufficient to determine the outcome of the Social War. The fourth king named Artaxerxes was Arses, not Bessus (p. 108; cf. the famous Xanthus trilingue). Alexander did not die on June 7, but four days later (p. 111; cf. Leo Depuydt, "The Time of Death of Alexander the Great" in: Welt des Orients 28 [1997] 117-135). The relief of Gotarzes II at Behistun does not stand today (p. 147): it is heavily damaged and is only known from a seventeenth-century drawing.
8.   E.g., Oriontes for Orontes (p. 54), Atoosa for Atossa (p. 74), Nochus for Nothus (p. 88), Longimans for Longimanus (p. 297).
9.   E.g., Drangiana is moved from the east to the southwest of Iran (p. 36); the Pillar of Jonah is not south, but north of modern Iskenderun (p. 100); Nehardea was not a part of Ctesiphon (p. 151). Miletus is confused with Melitene (p. 99), Babylon with Arbela (p. 105), and Thermopylae with Marathon (p. 227).
10.   A textbook example of a secundum quid can be found on page 61, where it is stated that "it is a little-known fact that one of the most important functions of Persepolis was the celebration of the Persian New Year festival". The main evidence is that on the reliefs on the stairs of the Apadana, people are shown bringing presents, which suggests that gifts were offered to the great king. But it does not prove that this happened at the New Year Festival. There's another secundum quid on page 78.
11.   English translation by Peter T. Daniels, From Cyrus to Alexander. A History of the Persian Empire (2002). According to the preface, the text "differs very little from the French edition". Updates had in the meantime been published in the Bulletin d' Histoire Achéménide (I: 1997; II: 2001).
12.   The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies maintains a website on ancient Iran that has in the past falsely claimed to be affiliated to the London School of Oriental and Asian Studies. The quality of the website is uneven: some pages are fine, but one must not be surprised to find a photo of a cuneiform inscription upside-down. Worse, the authors seem to think that maintaining a scholarly resource is compatible with consistently blackening the Islamic authorities of Iran. An example is the statement that a dam in the river Sivand will endanger the site of Pasargadae, a report that often surfaces in the blogosphere. It was repeated on the CAIS website with a remark that "Iran's pre-Islamic past and Iranians' non-Islamic national identity and heritage have always been the subjects of abhorrence for the clerics. This diabolical plot by Ayatollahs in Tehran was set in motion in 1979 to destroy and erase all pre-Islamic Iranian past from the consciousness of the Iranian nation as part of their de-Iranianisation campaign"). This is innuendo, not scholarship. (The report about the flooding is probably a hoax).
13.   My own webpage, to be precise, where references and more adequate summaries can be found.
14.   The National Geographic of August 2008, p. 49. I have discussed the internet fraud here. As far as I can reconstruct the history of this piece of propaganda, it surfaced in 2002 at the CAIS website. It may be older, though. It must be noted that the National Geographic will rectify its error in the October or November issue.

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Mary Jaeger, Archimedes and the Roman Imagination. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008. Pp. xiv, 230. ISBN 978-0-472-11630-0. $65.00.
Reviewed by Serafina Cuomo, Birkbeck College

Archimedes of Syracuse is perhaps the most famous scientist of antiquity. In recent years, he has enjoyed renewed popularity, thanks to the discovery in 1998 of a long-lost palimpsest containing some of his most important works. The palimpsest is being examined with state-of-the-art techniques, that have allowed further insights into Archimedes' mathematical genius, while the story of how the document came to be written, erased and written over, found, lost, then found again, reads like a compelling detective story.1 Indeed, the life of Archimedes, designer of powerful weapons who ended up killed by a Roman soldier as the city of Syracuse was taken in 212 BC, is itself compelling material, and it constituted a rich resource for ancient writers, from Cicero to Livy to Vitruvius.

Mary Jaeger's book is the first detailed exploration of what Archimedes signified for these authors -- she thoroughly and convincingly demonstrates that he was "good to think with" (9), and therefore that understanding the nuances of the Archimedes 'myth', as we could call it, leads to a better understanding of cultural life in the Roman era, and of "how the Romans presented themselves as thinkers" (7). More specifically, Jaeger concentrates on what the fragments of Archimedes' life found in the works of Polybius, Cicero, Plutarch, and others, can tell us about the writing of biography, and what the transmitted memory of him can tell us about the construction and representation of monuments, literary and material, in Roman culture.

No complete life of Archimedes is extant from antiquity. The authors in Jaeger's book all talk about him in the course of talking about something else or someone else, so his biography is a string of episodes, around which the various chapters revolve. The first deals with the story of the crown, or 'Eureka' story. Archimedes was asked by the king of Syracuse to find out whether a crown he had commissioned from a craftsman was made entirely of gold, as expected, or in fact fraudulently composed of gold and silver. In uncovering the deception while immersed in a bath, Archimedes also discovered one of the principles of hydrodynamics. Jaeger has interesting things to say about the figure of the wet, naked Archimedes running down the streets while shouting 'I have found! I have found!'. He emerges from the various versions of the story as an "intellectual athlete" (22), but at the same time as a parody of the traditional athlete. Two of the recurrent features of the book are well exemplified here: Jaeger is adamant that the Archimedes she analyzes is a construction, and not necessarily the 'real thing' (6, 7, 10, 12). Consequently, she does not spend too much time assessing the sources' reliability, or the plausibility of the Eureka story. Secondly, she is clear from the beginning that her focus is not on Archimedes' scientific contributions, such as are to be found in his extant treatises, but on what his scientific aura meant to others. Consequently, in chapter one she does not embark on a reconstruction of Archimedes' crown experiment -- something that was attempted by, among others, Galileo Galilei. Instead of the contents of his mind, refreshingly, attention is drawn to Archimedes' body and its depictions in Vitruvius and Plutarch.

Chapter two discusses Cicero's account of his discovery of Archimedes' tomb while he was a quaestor in Sicily.2 Jaeger dissects the story in great detail, and situates it persuasively within the wider contexts of the "Tusculanae Disputationes" (where it is contained) and of Cicero's late work. She shows how Cicero identifies with Archimedes, and how the story allows him to reflect on the role of memory, on happiness, and on death, as well as on the relationship between Romans and Greeks, and Sicilian Greeks in particular. Chapter three is about the two astronomical spheres allegedly built by Archimedes and brought to Rome as war booty by Marcellus, the general responsible for taking Syracuse. Cicero mentions them in his "De re publica", and again Jaeger offers a nuanced analysis of what purpose the two scientific objects serve in the dialogue, and more generally in Cicero's view of knowledge and politics. She writes: "[t]he image of the two spheres is emblematic of Cicero's way of casting the Roman appropriation of Greek cultural capital as both inheritance and rediscovery" (68). After a short coda on what Archimedes' sphere is doing in the fourth-century astrology treatise by Julius Firmicus Maternus (answer: it "performs the same role in producing cultural capital as did Cicero's description of two spheres", 72) chapter four tackles the crucial question, "Who killed Archimedes?" (77). It was a Roman soldier, despite Marcellus' order that the scientist's life be saved. This much we know -- but Jaeger also manages to show that Archimedes' death meant different things to different people. The various versions of the story are reflections on the theme of Roman v. Greek identity, especially in the fraught context of conquest, and on moral responsibility in war. The death of Archimedes in fact was manipulated, to the point of 'Romanizing' him, for purposes that may have included justifying Marcellus' behaviour. Manipulation is again patent in the case of Plutarch, who, along with Polybius, is the focus of chapter five. By examining the story of the siege of Syracuse, Jaeger reaches the conclusion that "both Polybius and Plutarch use the story to represent the "'true' and ancient Roman character" at a crucial point in its development, by showing its limits." (122) A coda on Claudian (who wrote a short poem on, again, Archimedes' sphere) is followed by chapter six, on Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), whose Archimedes derived from the classical authors previously discussed by Jaeger, and was used for the Italian humanist's own reflections on memory, mortality and the value of knowledge.

"Archimedes and the Roman Imagination" is teeming with ideas, subtle observations and stimulating remarks that prompt further thought. It would be fair to say that Jaeger's book does not have an overarching 'big thesis' (14), but that is no bad thing. Take the pervasive theme of the significance of Archimedes for the question of Roman v. Greek cultural identity. The issue suffers somewhat from over-exposure at present -- Jaeger, sensibly, eschews a monolithic discussion of it, preferring to remark on it here and then, whenever appropriate.

Sometimes, as I mentioned, one wishes some issues had been developed further. Like many ancient scientists and technologists, Archimedes is a socially ambiguous figure. He is described as close to the kings of Syracuse, and yet humble, even obscure. Jaeger is aware of this ambiguity, and speculates (unconvincingly, in my view) that he was represented or perceived as being of low status, or portrayed as a comic slave (27-28). But wider questions are at stake here, and more evidence, from a wider range of sources, needs to be brought into the picture. As Jaeger must be aware, the highly literate tradition she concentrates on, and even the image of Archimedes as the epitome of Greek abstract thinking, are not the only tradition or image of him available. Arguably, writers from a more technical background (Hero of Alexandria for instance) portray him rather differently, and emphasize those aspects of his work that lead to the solution of practical problems. It would be interesting to see what light is gained by juxtaposing and contrasting all the different Archimedes-es that have come down to us from antiquity.

The most intriguing aspect for me, however, is when Jaeger grounds the main moment of coagulation of the 'Archimedes myth' in the very process that led to the formation of Latin literature and the emerging of a Roman cultural identity (9), around the second half of the third century BC. This theme resurfaces in her discussion of Cicero in chapters two and three, and in the conclusion, where she writes: "Cicero. . . incorporates Archimedes' technology into his own program of creating an aristocracy of Romans linked not by noble ancestors but by intellectual achievement" (151). This is a fascinating thread. The contrast between Roman traditional aristocratic values and intellectual achievement is crucial to our understanding of late Republican Roman society, but, as per my point above, it is also crucial that we realize the multiplicity of voices involved. Cicero was not the only author to argue for the primacy of intellectual achievement over more traditionally aristocratic measures of worth. Greater perusal of the French and Italian literature on Vitruvius, which Jaeger largely omits, would have shown that Vitruvius, too, is dealing with this question. Obviously, Cicero and Vitruvius entertained different notions of intellectual achievement, and embodied intellectual achievement in their own careers with widely different outcomes. And yet, they both used Archimedes to 'think with'. In sum, the reader is left to ruminate whether a big (or bigger) thesis on the role of intellectual achievement -- specifically scientific and technological achievement -- in the late Republic and early Empire was not in there somewhere, for Jaeger to draw out and fully articulate.

Overall, this is an important and stimulating book. Historians of science who may be only familiar with Archimedes' scientific contributions will learn a lot from it, and those ancient historians and classicists who still break out in a rash at the mention of 'science' or 'mathematics' will see that there is nothing to fear, and (again) a lot to learn. Jaeger writes interestingly and accessibly for both constituencies. My expectation is that her book will push Archimedes into the mainstream of ancient cultural history, where he belongs, while adding the Syracusan genius to the repertoire of iconic figures that we know to have been central to the Roman imagination.


1.   See R. Netz and W. Noel, The Archimedes Codex. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007.
2.   An earlier version of this chapter was published as "Cicero and Archimedes' Tomb." Journal of Roman Studies 92 (2002): 49-61.

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Version at BMCR home site
Antonio La Penna, L'impossibile giustificazione della storia. Un'interpretazione di Virgilio. Roma/Bari: Laterza, 2005. Pp. xii, 580. ISBN 978-88-420-7639-2. €40.00. Niklas Holzberg, Virgilio. (Der Dichter und sein Werk, 2006. Edizione italiana a cura di Camillo Neri). Le vie della civiltà. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2008. Pp. 310. ISBN 978-88-15-12039-7. €21.00.
Reviewed by Giampiero Scafoglio, Naples

L'esigenza di dare una sistemazione (nella duplice prospettiva della selezione e della sintesi) alla mole imponente ed eterogenea delle ricerche virgiliane è alla base di due monografie pubblicate quasi contemporaneamente: L'impossibile giustificazione della storia di Antonio La Penna (virgilianista di lungo corso, autore di contributi importanti su questo poeta) e Vergil. Der Dichter und sein Werk di Niklas Holzberg (al quale si deve, come lavoro preparatorio, un'ampia e accurata bibliografia virgiliana, pubblicata su internet). Quest'ultimo volume adesso è disponibile in italiano, a cura di Camillo Neri, con l'aggiunta di una breve presentazione e con qualche integrazione bibliografica: un servizio utile non tanto per i classicisti quanto per gli studenti e per un pubblico più vasto, a cui il libro si rivolge -- pur non così vasto come vuole l'autore, che include i lettori "che non abbiano né frequentato un liceo classico né studiato latino" (p. 9 dell'edizione italiana, da cui attingerò tutte le citazioni).

Si tratta di due libri alquanto diversi nei presupposti e nello sviluppo: tradizionale e solidamente filologico il primo; innovativo il secondo, erede aggiornato di canoni e metodi strutturalisti e avanguardisti. Non sorprende dunque la divergenza in alcune conclusioni e implicazioni ideologiche. L'immagine del poeta è tratteggiata da angolazioni differenti, che consentono di coglierne aspetti distinti su uno sfondo psicologico e culturale comune. Ne sortiscono due ritratti per così dire sfalsati, ma compatibili e riconducibili a un profilo unitario.

Il libro di Antonio La Penna preannuncia il proprio approccio con Virgilio fin dal titolo, se non che mantiene più di quanto promette: il taglio saggistico-dimostrativo (riferito allo sforzo d'inquadrare il sangue e il dolore umano in un disegno positivo superiore, politico e religioso al tempo stesso) s'innesta infatti su un impianto sistematico di ampio respiro, che contempla un disegno d'insieme su Virgilio: dall'architettura delle opere alla loro finalità, dai contenuti ai rapporti con i modelli, dal significato ideologico ai principali orientamenti dello stile. Le prime due parti, dedicate rispettivamente alle Bucoliche (pp. 3-66) e alle Georgiche (pp. 67-112), sono state già pubblicate come pagine introduttive alle edizioni divulgative di queste opere con traduzione italiana a fronte nella Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli (Milano 1983). Entrambi i capitoli si concludono con un paragrafo di aggiornamento bibliografico, curato dal compianto Alessandro Perutelli (pp. 62-67, 109-112). La sezione sull'Eneide, di gran lunga più ampia e approfondita, (pp. 113-495: più di tre quarti dell'intero volume), anch'essa in parte già pubblicata come introduzione a un'edizione divulgativa della stessa collana (Milano 2002), è stata riveduta e cospicuamente ampliata.

La parte sulle Bucoliche muove dalla formazione giovanile del poeta (pp. 5-11), con le esperienze documentate dalle testimonianze antiche (specialmente la frequentazione della scuola epicurea partenopea) e le letture d'influenza più forte e duratura: il poema lucreziano e i carmi dei poetae noui. I rapporti con Teocrito sono vagliati nei contenuti e nel linguaggio, ma è messa in luce altresì la profonda frattura esistente nell'interpretazione della natura e nella psicologia dei personaggi (pp. 12-39). Con lucidità e moderazione sono affrontate le controverse relazioni della poesia con l'attualità storica, che si concretizza nell'espropriazione delle terre (Buc. I e IX), ma anche nelle diffuse speranze di palingenesi e di pace (Buc. IV e V); nettamente ridimensionata, se non negata completamente, la presenza dell'allegoria vera e propria, fonte di "speculazioni e fantasticherie" (p. 50). Sintetica ed essenziale la trattazione dell'architettura della raccolta e della forma dell'espressione (pp. 53-61). Ne risulta un'immagine delle Bucoliche sospesa tra la rappresentazione fantastica e letteraria di ascendenza alessandrina e una concezione di vita più profonda, provata dalla forza tormentosa della passione amorosa e dall'irruzione distruttiva della storia. L'Arcadia come fuga dalla realtà e patria appartata dell'anima si rivela dunque impossibile.

L'idea di un'evoluzione coerente o di una "continuità organica" dalle Bucoliche alle Georgiche è decisamente rifiutata, alla luce della "rottura" segnata dall'opera didascalica, maturata in una presa di coscienza legata alla congiuntura storica: il conflitto tra Ottaviano e Antonio e il successo del primo come campione del mondo italico, da celebrare insieme da ricostruire nei suoi antichi valori (pp. 69-73). Evidenti le conseguenze nella concezione di vita (più seria e sofferta), nel rapporto dell'uomo col mondo vegetale e animale, nella visione stessa della natura (dotata di una più vasta gamma fisica e psicologica, ma anche più concreta e autonoma), alimentata altresì dalla consistente influenza lucreziana (pp. 74-92). L'epillio di Aristeo e Orfeo nel finale del libro IV è oggetto di un esame raffinato, che rende conto dei diversi atteggiamenti stilistici dei due episodi: fiabesco il primo, esterno; tragico il secondo, interno (pp. 93-99). Se è giusta e ben argomentata la confutazione delle interpretazioni correnti (spunti soteriologici; contrasto tra Aristeo eroe positivo e Orfeo idolo polemico), si sente la mancanza di una proposta alternativa, che vada oltre le movenze estetiche e sentimentali per attingere motivazioni più profonde. Veloce ancor più che per le Bucoliche e ugualmente efficace la trattazione dell'architettura e della forma dell'espressione (pp. 100-108). L'immagine delle Georgiche proposta da La Penna è quella di una vigorosa sintesi letteraria e ideologica (non incrinata dalle dissonanze, pur presenti), lievitata sotto la spinta congiunta dell'attualità storica e della tradizione letteraria: Esiodo e Lucrezio sono infatti gli auctores principes, il primo per il messaggio etico-religioso (soprattutto per il concetto del lavoro), il secondo per il pathos ispiratore di toni intensi e quadri grandiosi (La Penna parla suggestivamente di "sublime"), per la vena pessimistica (acquisita solamente in parte), per la temperie alternata ad arte tra luci e ombre.

La parte sull'Eneide è così ampia e approfondita che in questa sede se ne possono tracciare appena le linee generali: la genesi dell'opera, a partire dall'idea originaria di un'epica storica celebrativa, felicemente abbandonata per abbordare una prospettiva più universale e feconda (pp. 115-120); l'introduzione della leggenda di Enea in Italia e la sua rielaborazione in funzione della storia romana (pp. 121-135); la fusione di mitologia e storia, sorretta dall'ideologia augustea (pp. 136-140); i rapporti con Omero (pp. 141-151), anche con l'eventuale mediazione dell'esegesi omerica antica (pp. 152-162); le relazioni con l'epica ciclica (pp. 162-163), con la tragedia greca (pp. 164-172), con l'epica e con la tragedia romana arcaica (pp. 196-217), con Lucrezio (pp. 218-224); l'influenza della poetica e della letteratura alessandrina e neoterica (pp. 173-195), ma pure della storiografia e dell'antiquaria (pp. 232-241); la religione come concezione e come ritualità, feconda di poesia (pp. 225-231, 242-250); la configurazione e le funzioni delle singole divinità (pp. 283-293); la cultura filosofica (pp. 258-265); la visione ambivalente della guerra, oscillante tra attrazione (sotto la suggestione epica) e repulsione, sulla scorta della condanna morale (pp. 251-257); l'ispirazione ideologica augustea, sincera e solida, centrale nella struttura dell'opera, ma non tale da esaurirne la significazione e da assorbirne le contraddizioni (pp. 270-282); il carattere di Enea e dei suoi antagonisti, con speciale riguardo al loro ruolo di vinti nel sistema ideologico del poema (pp. 294-320); la bipartizione dell'architettura in esade odissiaca ed esade iliadica, legate da alcune corrispondenze di figure e vicende (per esempio, tra Didone e Amata), ma con accentuazione delle tinte cupe nella seconda parte (pp. 321-325); il disegno dei singoli libri (pp. 326-364) e i loro collegamenti, spesso sopravvalutati dai critici e investiti di presunti significati segreti, in termini di simbolismo (pp. 365-374); la cronologia della composizione delle singole parti, che rimane comunque oscura (pp. 375-383). Il libro si chiude con diversi paragrafi sullo stile: dagli elementi propriamente epici ai discorsi, dal pathos all'espressionismo, dalle similitudini alla sensibilità auditiva e cromatica, per arrivare alla metrica nella sua "ingegneria" e nella sua espressività (pp. 383-495). Un'appendice ricostruisce infine la biografia virgiliana, con informazioni topografiche e fini considerazioni psicologiche (pp. 497-505). Le note (collocate scomodamente alla fine dell'opera) sono seguite da una bibliografia essenziale, senza pretese di esaustività.

Un discorso a sé, che purtroppo deve essere molto breve, merita il paragrafo XVII, incentrato sui "tre piani non coerenti" del poema (pp. 266-269): questo mi sembra il cuore del libro sotto il rispetto saggistico-dimostrativo, che del resto s'inserisce docilmente nel più ampio schema monografico, per emergere di tanto in tanto (a seconda della tematica in questione), portando un considerevole arricchimento. Il nucleo ideologico del poema si trova nel discorso di Giove (I, 257-296), che profetizza il governo di Augusto come trionfo dei valori positivi (ragione, civiltà, concordia, etc.) sul Furor impius, al culmine del lungo e difficile percorso storico avviato da Enea. Sul piano cosmico si delinea quindi "un contrasto irriducibile tra il bene e il male, affine a quello fra Augusto e i suoi nemici", che trova un riscontro paradigmatico nell'episodio di Ercole e Caco (VIII, 185-272). Questo conflitto cosmico si rispecchia, sul piano divino, nella contrapposizione tra Venere e Giunone, "divinità passionale, ma mai ripugnante o esecrabile", che alla fine cede alla superiore necessità e accetta la conciliazione: perciò nel mondo degli dei "il contrasto non è mai tragico". Il dualismo cosmico tra bene e male si rifrange però, sul piano umano, nel conflitto di Enea con i suoi antagonisti (soprattutto Turno, ma anche Didone), che "non sono personaggi negativi": al contrario, sono portatori di valori positivi, pur inconciliabili col fato e destinati per questo motivo a essere schiacciati. Il contrasto sul piano umano è irriducibile, come quello cosmico e diversamente da quello divino: "il mondo degli uomini e degli eroi resta, quindi, un mondo tragico". Il sovrapporsi di questi tre piani non coerenti (ma interdipendenti e non isolabili) determina e nel contempo illumina l'approccio complesso e perfino enigmatico di Virgilio col nerbo ideologico del poema e con gli antagonisti di Enea, i "vinti", la cui sorte ingiusta e infelice è partecipata con profonda compassione.

Questa di Antonio La Penna è insomma un'opera di vasta portata, sorretta da lucida intelligenza, cospicua cultura e viva sensibilità. Marginali le critiche. Per esempio, si poteva concedere più spazio (e magari meno scetticismo) ai rapporti di Virgilio col ciclo epico, specialmente alla luce della grande attenzione accordata all'influenza della filologia omerica antica (anch'essa più ipotetica che solidamente dimostrata). Forse anche le relazioni dell'Eneide con la tragedia greca meritavano una discussione più spregiudicata: l'influsso di Eschilo è liquidato in poche righe (pp. 165-166), con esclusivo riferimento al commento di Aen. II curato da V. Ussani nel 1952. Si poteva considerare (quanto meno, per confutarne gli argomenti) il pregevole contributo di Ph. Hardie, The Aeneid and the Oresteia ("PVS" 20, 1991, 29-45). In generale sarebbe stato interessante il confronto con altri lavori, come quelli di A. Wlosok (Vergils Didotragödie, nel volume miscellaneo Studien zum antiken Epos, Mannheim am Glan 1976, 228-250) ed E. Lefèvre (Dido und Aias, Wiesbaden 1978).

Il libro di Niklas Holzberg non è rigorosamente metodico, ma fluidamente dinamico. La premessa (pp. 9-12) ne mette in luce le linee-guida: i rapporti di Virgilio con Augusto, la rappresentazione di Roma, il "sottile gioco intellettuale" intrattenuto con i modelli, l'introspezione psicologica. Colpisce l'interesse per un aspetto spesso trascurato, l'humour del poeta. L'impostazione divulgativa preclude tuttavia la possibilità di prestare attenzione alla lingua e alla forma dell'espressione.

Il discorso si sviluppa in quattro capitoli, il primo dei quali (pp. 13-91) affronta problemi di ordine generale. Dal "personaggio" di Virgilio (sapiente, mago, profeta cristiano), costruito fin dal periodo tardoantico e soprattutto nel Medioevo, si tenta di risalire al suo profilo storico (pp. 13-29). Gli elementi forniti da Donato (ovvero da Svetonio) sono sottoposti a un attento vaglio critico, sconfinante in uno scetticismo sistematico (anche su notizie generalmente condivise, come la confisca delle terre o la volontà di bruciare l'Eneide). Ragionevole la diffidenza per l'Appendix Vergiliana e per la ricostruzione della cronologia relativa delle Bucoliche e delle parti dell'Eneide, necessariamente arbitraria, in mancanza di prove cogenti. Sgombrata la strada dalle pretese infondate, l'attenzione si sposta sull'intertestualità e sulla polifonia della scrittura virgiliana, a partire dalla "grammatica" delle forme letterarie, rivisitata trasgressivamente mediante una relazione costante (anche nell'epica) con la poesia minore (pp. 37-44). Il rischio di ridurre il rapporto di Virgilio con i modelli a un gioco tecnico-formale di stampo alessandrino è stornato dal peso attribuito a buon diritto all'impegno politico: l'ordine cosmico governato da Giove si rispecchia nel sistema politico instaurato da Augusto, che trova riscontro nel lavoro ordinatore del contadino nei campi (pp. 45-57, 65-79). Elemento di disturbo nel mondo rurale come in quello storico-politico è l'amore, che suscita gli scontri tra gli animali per l'accoppiamento non meno che i conflitti tra i popoli (cf. la follia passionale di Didone o la seduzione insidiosa di Cleopatra). Il corso storico, considerato un progressivo superamento del male e del disordine (pur al costo carissimo di lutto e dolore), culmina col trionfo di Augusto. La cifra dell'Eneide tuttavia è l'empatia, l'immedesimazione del poeta nelle sofferenze umane, a prescindere dal ruolo positivo o negativo dei personaggi rispetto a Enea e al destino. Ma la manifestazione della sensibilità virgiliana, della sua umanità, non autorizza un'interpretazione antiaugustea dell'Eneide, che comunque è alimentata dalla sincera condivisione della politica augustea (pp. 79-87). Il profilo storico di Virgilio quindi è il fondo comune dei diversi ruoli da lui assunti: "quello di poeta doctus, di Romano nel suo cosmo, di augusteo e di osservatore degli uomini capace di immedesimarsi in essi" (p. 90).

Il secondo capitolo (pp. 93-118) riguarda i carmi bucolici, i cui principali temi sono individuati nel canto (specialmente in forma di competizione), nell'amore (spesso foriero di dolore) e nel lavoro del pastore, paradossalmente marginale rispetto ai primi due. Il quadro d'insieme (struttura della raccolta, richiami tra i componimenti, posto d'onore per Ottaviano, etc.) presto lascia spazio a tre elementi di spicco: "variazione tematica, teoria del genere e intertestualità", con speciale riguardo a Teocrito. In questa prospettiva si colloca la lettura sia della Bucolica II, in cui è messa in luce anche l'influenza elegiaca (pp. 107-111), sia della X, considerata una fusione di Sicilia e Arcadia, per il collegamento con Teocrito e Cornelio Gallo (pp. 112-118). Nondimeno il caloroso elogio rivolto a quest'ultimo ispira un commento azzardato e bizzarro: Virgilio (o meglio, il pastore-poeta da lui impersonato) trova Gallo "attraente non solo come poeta elegiaco, ma anche come uomo", tanto da proporsi come suo "partner erotico" (sic p. 118).

Il terzo capitolo (pp. 119-169) verte sul poema didascalico, inquadrato fin dall'inizio nel sistema ideologico augusteo: protagonista è infatti il contadino, che lotta per sottomettere il campo come l'esercito romano combatte per assoggettare il mondo e come il principe stesso si cimenta nell'esercizio del potere, sconfiggendo i nemici e ripristinando l'ordine. La sottomissione della natura in forma di coltivazione della terra non deve avvenire esclusivamente con la forza, ma pure con l'educazione, che anzi diviene gradualmente la via privilegiata. Il poeta si fa maestro del contadino, il quale da allievo assurge poi lui stesso a maestro degli elementi naturali da "educare". Il contadino-soldato, discepolo del poeta didascalico, costituisce un modello morale per Ottaviano, a cui Virgilio non si limita a tributare elogi e incoraggiamenti, ma ardisce impartire insegnamenti (pur indirettamente, con la mediazione della poesia): questo mi sembra il punto più importante del libro. L'epillio di Aristeo e Orfeo è oggetto di un esame articolato (pp. 163-169), che muove dagli elementi intertestuali per arrivare al significato ideologico e sentimentale: Virgilio partecipa emotivamente al destino di Orfeo e, come poeta, s'identifica con lui; non disapprova però Aristeo, che "simboleggia contemporaneamente i contadini... e Ottaviano" (p. 166): con gli uni e con l'altro infatti egli ha in comune l'impegno nel lavoro, teso a ripristinare l'ordine nel campo da coltivare come nell'impero da governare.

Il quarto capitolo (pp. 171-278) concerne l'epos, in cui "il protagonista gioca un ruolo così eminente come in quasi nessun altro poema" (p. 171). L'Eneide è considerata "continuazione" sia dell'Iliade che dell'Odissea, come dimostra un'accurata rassegna dei fenomeni intertestuali (pp. 173-183). Analogamente all'Odissea, l'Eneide è divisa in tre tetradi, corrispondenti alle fasi di un'evoluzione psicologica (Enea rivolto al passato; Enea eroe-fondatore; Enea guerriero vittorioso) e simultaneamente di un'evoluzione storica, in una sorta d'interpretazione figurale della materia mitica (le guerre puniche; l'ascesa di Roma a potenza mondiale; il conflitto tra Ottaviano e Antonio). In questa prospettiva dunque la tempesta scatenata da Giunone è prefigurazione sia della trama dell'Eneide sia della storia romana (specificamente della guerra civile); i dipinti del tempio cartaginese, nonostante commuovano Enea non meno che i lettori moderni, rappresentano il compiacimento di quel popolo bellicoso per i mali commessi dagli Achei "nei confronti degli antenati dei Romani" (p. 190). Tra i commenti dedicati ai singoli libri spiccano il IV, definito "dramma elegiaco in tre atti" (pp. 199-203); il V, denso di elementi figurali, come il rapporto di Enea con Anchise, corrispondente a quello di Augusto con Cesare (pp. 217-221); l'VIII, in cui le tradizioni romane sono anticipate mediante l'eziologia, una tecnica attinta dalla poesia minore, ma anche da Apollonio Rodio (pp. 230-234). Non mancano osservazioni sottili e sofisticate, non sempre condivisibili: il collegamento di un intertesto catulliano (nell'episodio di Didone nell'Averno) con Cesare e col suo figlio adottivo Augusto, per mezzo di un gioco etimologico legato a fenomeni astrali (pp. 234-238), rivela un cerebralismo difficile da prendere sul serio. Suggestive, seppure anch'esse da maneggiare con prudenza, le considerazioni psicoanalitiche, come l'analisi della morte prematura (Eurialo, Niso, Pallante, Lauso), che "evoca ogni volta l'associazione con una deflorazione", specialmente mediante l'interterstualità (pp. 248-251); ancora più densa di implicazioni la morte di Camilla, che richiama la fine della verginità dell'amazzone e "la sua evoluzione in sposa e madre allattante" (p. 259). Notevole infine la discussione della scena conclusiva dell'Eneide (pp. 270-278). Virgilio è critico nei confronti di Enea, che uccide Turno in un accesso di furor (invece che lucidamente, per ragioni di convenienza politica)? Ed è critico verso Augusto, rappresentato in qualche modo da Enea? Holzberg risponde di no: infatti il poeta s'immedesima negli antagonisti (come Didone e lo stesso Turno), ma la sua umana comprensione è lontana dalla condivisione e ancor più dalla celebrazione; così nel punto culminante del poema egli "invita il lettore a identificarsi tanto col supplice Turno quanto con l'infuriato Enea" (p. 277). Nella scena finale come nell'intera Eneide dunque la cifra virgiliana è la uox umana, non disgiunta da una "pregevolissima e ambiziosa arte poetica" (p. 278).

Pur nell'evidente diversità d'impostazione e di metodologia, La Penna e Holzberg si trovano d'accordo su un punto importante: il superamento del dualismo manicheo vigente negli studi virgiliani da mezzo secolo, tra approccio augusteo e antiaugusteo o, in termini più generali, tra ottimismo e pessimismo. La dicotomia tra la scuola europea e quella di Harvard, già di per sè riduttiva (cf. La Penna, pp. 319-320), continuerà a conservare una valenza storica (cioè per la storia della critica e della fortuna virgiliana), ma si deve evolvere (come tuttora avviene) in una visione più complessa e articolata, più densa di implicazioni e sfumature non necessariamente coerenti. Mentre sembrano convergere nell'elaborazione di una tale prospettiva, le due monografie si distaccano nuovamente nella percezione della dialettica tra l'adesione all'ideologia augustea (non negata né sminuita da nessuna delle due parti) e le riserve morali, generatrici di dissonanze pur sempre presenti nell'Eneide. La Penna scorge in Virgilio un travaglio interiore, che preclude un abbandono fiduciosamente incondizionato, un'accettazione piena e serena della storia con la sua logica crudele: la giustificazione in chiave morale in definitiva si rivela impossibile. Di contro, Holzberg non ridimensiona gli atteggiamenti solidali del poeta nei confronti dei personaggi sconfitti, ne contesta però il presunto significato ideologico in contrasto con i principi fondanti del poema: la sensibilità tesa alla compassione è una risorsa preziosa dell'Eneide, ma non ne sfalda e neppure ne intacca la compattezza ideologica, consistente nella teodicea e nella concezione teleologica della storia. Anche in questa circostanza dunque emerge la diversità delle due monografie, che vale a rendere l'idea della complessità della personalità e dell'opera virgiliana. Il mutare del chiaroscuro da un volume all'altro illumina alternamente i tratti del poeta in modo da offrirne un quadro sfaccettato e, nel contempo, più completo.

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