Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Kathryn Gutzwiller, A Guide to Hellenistic Literature. Blackwell Guides to Classical Literature. Malden, MA.: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Pp. xv, 261; figs. 11; maps 3. Hardcover: ISBN 978-0-631-23321-3, $84.95. Paperback: ISBN 978-0-631-23322-0, $34.95.
Reviewed by Chad Matthew Schroeder, Emory University (chad.schroeder@emory.edu)

Table of Contents

Kathryn Gutzwiller, the author of a number of important studies on Hellenistic poetry such as Studies in the Hellenistic Epyllion (1981), Theocritus' Pastoral Analogies: The Formation of a Genre (1991), Poetic Garlands: Hellenistic Epigrams in Context (1998) (winner of the APA's prestigious Goodwin Award of Merit), and most recently the editor of The New Posidippus: A Hellenistic Poetry Book (2005), has produced in her Guide to Hellenistic Literature an up-to-date handbook on the literature of the period from the death of Alexander to the Roman conquest of Egypt -- something long needed in the field of Classics. As one of the leading scholars of Hellenistic poetry in North America, Gutzwiller has helped to shape the discourse of the critical issues in that field, and her presentation of poets and poetry in this guide is always well-informed and interesting. But what makes this guide so valuable to the classical community as a whole is the broad scope of the literature it presents: entire sections are devoted to Hellenistic philosophical and scholarly literature, as well as to authors seldom paired with the Alexandrian poets such as Menander and Polybius. And in addition to this inclusive and wide-ranging survey of Hellenistic writing, Gutzwiller situates the literature against a background of dynastic cultural pretensions, history, art and aesthetics. Students of Greek literature, from undergraduates to specialists, will find interesting observations and connections throughout the guide. No Classicist should be without it.

The first of the book's four parts is a broad overview of the "History and Culture" of the Hellenistic period with an emphasis on what each of the four dynasties that arose in the wake of Alexander's untimely death contributed to the world of art. In the section on Macedonia and mainland Greece, Gutzwiller discusses the flourishing Macedonian court of Antigonus Gonatas and the importance of the philosophical schools operating in Athens. Gutzwiller presents the Seleucids, heirs to the largest division of Alexander's empire, as having little time for or interest in literary pursuits except when these "supported dynastic interests" (9). The more enlightened Attalids succeeded not only in the building plan of Pergamum, a city to rival Alexandria, but also in constructing an individualized identity in their art, scholarship and literature that presented an alternative to the cultural achievements of Alexandria. Unsurprisingly the Ptolemies receive more attention than the other dynasties combined. Gutzwiller considers Soter's support for the cult of Serapis and the brother-sister marriage of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II as an appeal to the "dual Greek and Egyptian audiences" of Ptolemaic Egypt (17). The discussion here of Hellenistic literary scholarship skirts contentious and unsettled issues (e.g., the origins of the Alexandrian text of Homer, the nature of scholarly "commentaries"). Those approaching Hellenistic literature for the first time will be especially interested to read Gutzwiller's summary of the astonishing achievements of the Alexandrian scientists, doctors and mathematicians. The decline of the Ptolemies concludes with Cleopatra VII, whom Gutzwiller celebrates as a "brilliant woman, who reportedly spoke nine languages and was the only Ptolemaic monarch to learn Egyptian" (24), who as a figure that mediates between Egyptian, Greek and Roman spheres, endowed with knowledge attainable only in Hellenistic Alexandria, embodies all that is fascinating about the Hellenistic world.

The book's second part is a short but perceptive excursus into the "Aesthetics and Style" of Hellenistic literature, with subsections on general aesthetic principles, the language of poetry and the materiality of the written word. Some of these areas are covered in greater depth later in the guide's fourth part, "Topics in Hellenistic Literature." Given what little remains of Hellenistic prose it is hardly surprising that Gutzwiller's focus throughout this section is primarily on poetry. As one of the key hallmarks of third-century literary sensibilities, Gutzwiller points to the rise of and experimentation with new "generic forms" in Hellenistic poetry, especially mime, bucolic poetry, "epyllia," didactic poems closely aligned to prose scientific treatises, and literary epigram. Gutzwiller also calls attention to a shift in poetry's focus from gods and heroes to common individuals, as well as to poets who perceive of their craft as the result of study rather than as being divinely inspired. Another important development in literature of the third century which Gutzwiller outlines is the turning away from composing poetry for performance in favor of an increased focus on the poetry book as literary artifact. 1 Hellenistic exposition of literary styles, and especially of Callimachus as the champion of a poetic style defined as leptos, is treated in detail. In relationship to the 'slender' style Gutzwiller also offers a reading of Callimachus' programmatic opening to book one of the Aetia, which she labels the "the single most important passage in Hellenistic poetry" (33) -- an identification few would challenge. A compact subsection on meter, dialect and diction surveys the verbal dexterity of Hellenistic poets without giving in to aridness, and through clear description and well-chosen examples Gutzwiller presents this material in a way that even the Greekless reader can understand and appreciate. I should add here that the clarity of Gutzwiller's description of these subtleties and nuances of the Greek language, which sometimes go unnoticed even by those who can read Greek, is representative of the author's fearlessness in taking on difficult topics. This part concludes with a discussion of the materiality of literature. Here Gutzwiller presents some basic information about the physical nature of papyrus rolls and writing in the ancient world as well as an overview of the direct (e.g., papyri and medieval manuscripts) and indirect (e.g., later citation, palimpsest and cartonnage) routes Hellenistic literature has reached us. By describing the physical nature of ancient texts Gutzwiller tries to recreate for her readers the aesthetic experience of ancient readers. Gutzwiller's interest in the realia of the book can be detected in her discussion of individual authors in the next part of the guide, and surely stems from her recent work on inscribed epigrams and on the New Posidippus papyrus. One takes away from this section on aesthetics and style a sense of what is 'Hellenistic' about Hellenistic literature, ready to appreciate the specific contributions of individual authors in the next part.

The guide's third part is the longest in the book and is devoted to specific Hellenistic "Authors and Genres." As there is no larger narrative arc for this part, my review will address each section individually.

A dense section on Menander may come as a surprise to some readers, because, as Gutzwiller notes, it is debatable if Menander can even be called a "Hellenistic" author. Yet he fits in chronologically (his early Dyskolos won first prize in 316 B.C.E.) and his "thematic focus on intimate family drama and erotic complications" (50) accords with other trends in the period's literature. Amid Gutzwiller's plot summaries and her discussion of Menander's dramatic technique we learn also about the continuing recovery of Menander in the modern era -- announcement of the "New" Menander even made it into the guide -- and the lasting impact his comedies had on the Western theatrical tradition through their adaptations by Plautus and Terence. Gutzwiller briefly points out the connection between Menander's Dis Exapaton and Plautus' Bacchides, but perhaps could have said a bit more about the fascinating and unique overlap between these two plays that allows us to see a few different ways in which Plautus adapted Menander's comedies for the Roman stage.

Gutzwiller's presentation of the difficult and divisive Callimachus follows the order that his poetic works took as they circulated in antiquity, an arrangement that treats the reader to a sense of the materiality of his poems. Just as Callimachus' works point to the past and the future, as well as to his contemporary world, in this section Gutzwiller brings Hesiod, Antimachus of Colophon, Horace, Ovid, the Suda, and a host of others all to bear on the poetry of Callimachus. Callimachus' many such ties again underscore one of the Gutzwiller's larger themes in this guide: Hellenistic poetry is poised between the Greek and Roman worlds, being both poetry of the past and of the future. Most of the familiar facts about Callimachus are trotted out (he did not become chief librarian, there was friction between him and his colleagues), as is necessary in such a guide, but there is much refreshing and perceptive in Gutzwiller's discussion of the Callimachus' Hymns, especially about their overarching and internal structures, as well as the narrative voices.

Ptolemaic politics and avenues of literary representation new to the Hellenistic period underscores much of what Gutzwiller has to say about Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica. Written into that unusual poem (as Gutzwiller reminds her reader, the only epic poem to survive from a seven or eight hundred year span) are Ptolemaic political interests in the intermingling of Greek and Egyptian cultures, the foundation of new cults and establishment of city centers, as well as the rise of powerful Hellenistic queens. Gutzwiller delves also into Apollonius' novel psychological presentation of the heroic deed-challenged Jason and the besotted indecisiveness of the teenaged Medea. By considering Apollonius' poetry in its political context, Gutzwiller presents Jason as a character whose "problematic moral choices. . . reflect those of contemporary monarchs" (79), especially those who in the manner of Jason would marry more for self-interested political expediency than love (apparently Arsinoe's reasons for marrying both her half-brother Ptolemy Keraunos and her full-brother Ptolemy II Philadelphus), or who like Medea would do away with their own family members (Arsinoe II and Ptolemy Keraunos again come to mind).

A section on "Theocritus and Other Bucolic Poets" devotes twelve or so pages to the former and only a longish paragraph to Moschus and Bion, which some may feel is a little out of balance. One of the repeated themes in this section relates to the old scholarly chestnut of which poetic genre Theocritus composed in -- bucolic or pastoral. Gutzwiller's Theocritus comes across as an originator and poet of both genres2. Gutzwiller goes through some of the unclear evidence for the ancient edition(s) of Theocritus, pursuing again the theme of ancient poetry books and collections that runs throughout this guide. Welcome is the brief discussion of Theocritus' epigrams, as well as the sometimes neglected pseudo-Theocritean Idylls -- all precious evidence for the ancient delight in the escapist bucolic-pastoral genre and its association with Theocritus.

Hellenistic didactic poetry has not really stood up to the test of time, and the guide's section on this genre necessarily focuses on the extant poems of Aratus and Nicander. Gutzwiller situates both authors as working within a tradition of didactic literature extending from Hesiod's poems to technical prose treatises of the fourth and third centuries by Eudoxus, Theophrastus and Apollodorus, and continuing down into the literature of Rome. As Gutzwiller notes, the popularity of Hellenistic didactic poetry, especially Aratus' Phaenomena, does strike many today as "odd" (98) and she attempts to explain its vogue. Since so little survives of Hellenistic didactic poetry, we have a difficult time understanding its appeal and tracing its influence, yet Gutzwiller reminds us that standing somewhere behind works such as Vergil's Georgics and Ovid's Metamorphoses is an influential, though lost, genre of literature.

Although Gutzwiller has published widely on Hellenistic literature, the majority of her past and present work has been on Hellenistic epigram, and the guide's section on this material -- "the only poetic genre originally written to be read, rather than orally performed" (107) -- is rich and useful. A brief history of the genre and a typology of epigrams serve to remind the reader that we are here dealing with the only form of Greek literature whose production has abated but never really ceased. (Thus Gutzwiller, among others, have treated the Alexandrian Cavafy as an heir to Hellenistic epigrammatists 3.) Posidippus, Callimachus and Meleager all loom large in this section, as do the guide's recurrent themes of author-crafted epigram collections and anthologizing tendencies, as well as the relationship between inscribed and literary epigram. Gutzwiller's work on the "New" Posidippus from the past decade underscores much in this section, and points to what we can expect in her forthcoming edition of Meleager.

A section on dramatic literature presents a grab-bag of various poets and their poems, some of which need never have actually been acted out on a stage. The tenuous thread that links them together here is performance or its conceit. Gutzwiller begins with a list of the best-known practitioners of Hellenistic tragedy and comedy, which reminds us how much we have lost in the near-total disappearance of this poetry. On the other hand, we are reasonably well-informed about the occasions or contexts for the performance of these poems, and throughout the section Gutzwiller notes who would have been in the audience for, say, Ezechiel's Exagoge (123). Besides a description of and excerpt from this unique and fascinating Judaeo-pagan drama, Gutzwiller offers summary and analysis of Lycophron's enigmatic Alexandra, the Mimiambi of Herodas, as well as the broad category of "mime." The mysterious nature of the Alexandra casts its shadow even over its author, and Gutzwiller briefly lays out the evidence for dating him to either the third or second centuries, noting also that the poet seems to have worked somewhere besides Alexandria. Pergamum is suggested, but Gutzwiller might also have noted the attractive theory that places him in southern Italy, which (to my mind) neatly explains the looming inevitable specter of Roman domination. 4 A "Hellenistic" poet at work in southern Italy would, moreover, underscore the fact that Greek literature in the Hellenistic period is a Mediterranean-wide phenomenon.

A parade of poets, some obscure even by Hellenistic standards, and perhaps better-known philosophers fill a section on "Parodic and Philosophical Literature." The guide situates Hellenistic parodic literature in a tradition stretching back to the fifth-century B.C.E., although the Homeric Margites does not appear alongside the works of Hegemon, Euboeus, or Archestratus as a possible model. Gutzwiller does an excellent job in demonstrating how parodic literature takes part in the broader literary dialogue of Hellenistic aesthetics: moralizing themes, animal stories, sexual jokes, and the "exaltation of the 'low' over the 'high'" (135) place authors such as Cercidas, Machon, and Phoenix of Colophon in favorable comparison with sophisticates like Callimachus and other Alexandrians. In regard to Hellenistic philosophy, in three and a half pages Gutzwiller offers little more than brief summary -- not least because philosophical writing from the period is "now mostly reduced to tatters" (141). The strength of this section then, reflected elsewhere throughout this guide, lies in the contextualization of both parodic and philosophical writers within larger literary and political trends and the broadening of geographical horizons of Greek literature in the Hellenistic period. Thus, the Gadaran Philodemus filters Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience, Callimachus "tangled" with the Peripatetic Praxiphanes (142 -- no better verb than this!), and Sotades wholly overestimated his familiarity with Ptolemy II.

A section on the aristocratic exile Polybius underscores again the breadth of Gutzwiller's guide. Discussion here covers the events in the life of Polybius which made possible the composition of his history, his mediation between the Greek and Roman spheres of influence, and the tenor of his writings. What emerges is an engaging portrait of the macrobiotic Polybius, who traced the footsteps of Hannibal through the Alps to disprove divine intervention, was an eye-witness to the fall of Carthage and an explorer of the Atlantic seacoast. Gutzwiller concludes by charting the influence of Polybius, through later Greek and Roman historians, down to Machiavelli and the American Constitution.

Technical prose writing is treated in a rich section -- part description, part biography, part anecdote -- and concludes this part of the book. Given the highly specialized nature of most of the material covered here, Gutzwiller wisely opts for a discussion of the "manner of presenting technical material in textual form, rather than the content" of the works (154). Despite her focus on the style and presentation of this literature (e.g., in prose, accompanying illustrations, organization following a catalogue format, etc.), Gutzwiller still offers many details about the methods and writings of Euclid, Aristarchus of Samos, Philo of Byzantium, Eratosthenes and a number of less well-known scholars and scientists.

Summary doesn't trump analysis in this third part of the guide: Gutzwiller liberates Menander's plots from Peripatetic doctrines, elevates parodic literature by showing how poets engaged broader literary trends, and has interesting things to say about how the character of Jason in Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica may reflect the moral preoccupations of the reigning monarchs. What these summaries all have in common is a near-seamless interweaving of these many genres of literature, written across the span of three centuries for Greek and foreign audiences, into a larger fabric of "Hellenistic" literature.

The final part in the guide treats "Topics in Hellenistic Literature" in sections dealing with erudition and novel forms of poetry, readership, the cultural background of literature and the reception of Hellenistic literature in Rome. A section entitled "Learning and Innovation" starts off with an eloquent elaboration of Hellenistic poets' anxiety that they were latecomers in the history of Greek literature, and a defense of the use of allusion in Hellenistic poetry by showing how it can be artful in its own right. Genre is another preoccupation in this section, and Gutzwiller describes how new forms of poetry arose, how pre-existing ones were merged (the oft-mentioned "Kreuzung der Gattungen"), and further how poets used prose sources in order to elaborate their own creations or produce "innovative generic hybrids" (176). Missing here is a discussion of the importance of epistles as a subgenre of literature. Gutzwiller elsewhere brings up the importance of the letter of Aristeas (194-95) and the letters of Epicurus (143), but in connection with these she might have mentioned the twenty-four pseudepigraphic letters of Hippocrates, some of which are probably early Hellenistic in date. 5 The section "Book Culture and Performance" ranges widely over certain and possible contexts for the recitation of poetry, the "writtenness" of Hellenistic poetry (whether through the mention of poetic craft within poems or the visuality of technopaegnia), and the importance of author-organized collections or the anthologizing tendencies of later collectors. Gutzwiller's earlier work on the craft of collecting and publishing is apparent once again. In the section "Social and Political Background" Gutzwiller presents an overview of some of the most productive recent trends in the study of Hellenistic poetry. Multicultural elements assuredly exist in Greek literature transplanted onto alien shores -- especially in literature composed in Ptolemaic Egypt -- but Gutzwiller notes that tracing them and understanding who their audience was remain difficult and controversial topics. More productive have been the trends which study the political and ideological dimensions of Hellenistic poetry, as well as the increased appreciation of the roles women played as poets and as characters within poems written by men. This part of the guide concludes with two additional sections: one a brief foray into theories of literary and artistic criticism, the other a glance ahead at the ways in which Hellenistic literature influenced the literature of Rome. Gutzwiller shows how considerations of mimêsis continued throughout and after the Hellenistic period, as well as the ways in which new avenues of literary critical inquiry opened up in the areas of euphony and allegory. Just as Philodemus preserves for us knowledge about earlier Hellenistic critics, so he was also an important mediating figure of Hellenistic literature in first-century B.C.E. Rome. In the section on the reception of Hellenistic literature in Rome, Gutzwiller describes how Ennius, Catullus, Vergil and a host of other poets pursue literary projects little different from the Greek authors who worked in previous centuries. Again, breadth and depth characterize this section and the guide as a whole.

Brief notes, a chronological list of Hellenistic monarchs, bibliography and an index round out the volume. A section on suggested readings will prove particularly valuable for students and non-specialists.

The study of Hellenistic literature, and especially poetry, has undergone a renaissance in the last two decades. This guide consistently offers elegant proof of how modern discoveries and the application of critical theories have enriched our knowledge and appreciation of Hellenistic literature. Gutzwiller's guide expertly summarizes what we know about this period's literature, charts scholarly approaches to it, and should -- I hope -- help to plot the path for future research. 6


1. Gutzwiller explores this issue further on pp. 178-88, with due attention paid to Alan Cameron's views.

2. N. Krevans offers a clear description of the problem in "Is there Urban Pastoral?: The Case of Theocritus, Id. 15" in M. Fantuzzi & T. Papanghelis, eds., Brill's Companion to Greek and Latin Pastoral (Leiden: Brill, 2006), pp. 126-29

3. K. Gutzwiller, "Visual Aesthetics in Meleager and Cavafy," Classical and Modern Literature, 23 (2003), pp. 67-87.

4. An Italian location is suggested by A. Erskine, Troy between Greece and Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 155-56; the city of Rhegium is specified by G. Lambin, L'Alexandra de Lycophron - Etude et traduction. (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2005), pp. 16-29.

5. See the introduction (pp. 1-44) in W. D. Smith's Hippocrates' Pseudepigraphic Writings: Letters, Embassy, Speech from the Altar, Decree. Studies in Ancient Medicine 2. (Leiden: Brill, 1990).

6. Missteps are inevitable in a book with as broad a scope as this guide. Gutzwiller oddly places Cyrene "just to the east of Egypt" (61), though it's really almost five hundred miles to the west. Scholarly consensus seems now to prefer the titles Epitaph for Adonis for Bion 1 and Epitaph for Bion for pseudo-Moschus 3, literally translating the Greek title ἐπιτάφιος, yet Gutzwiller refers to both as "Laments" (97). Neither poem, for instance, is called a "Lament" in Brill's Companion to Greek and Latin Pastoral (note 2), though this may be a sign of editorial fiat. One also wonders why Gutzwiller says that Arsinoe erected a building to the Dioscuri "at their cult site on Samothrace" (191), as though the Dioscuri were equivalent to the Megaloi Theoi who were worshipped there (they were not). I'm also puzzled why Gutzwiller calls the famous oyster riddle (983-84 Lloyd-Jones and Parsons) an "epigram found on a potsherd" (210) which, as she correctly observes in a footnote, is actually preserved on a papyrus. Happily these quibbles add up to little and in no way detract from the value of this guide.

1 comment:

  1. To add two points to n. 6:
    1) "Choliambic hexameter" of Philicus should be "choriambic" on p. 39 (a misprint, of course).
    2) P. 202: "Aristotle ... redeemed poetic mimesis as a natural human pleasure, originating as musical imitation of bird song..." Correct me if I am wrong, but does Aristotle actually say that? That music is imitation of bird song is Democritus' theory (B 154 DK, cf. Lucr. 5.1379-81).