Friday, November 6, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Anna Tiziana Drago (ed.), Aristeneto: Lettere d'amore. Introduzione, testo, traduzione e commento. Lecce: Pensa Multimedia, 2007. Pp. 656. ISBN 9788882325503. €38.00.
Reviewed by Owen Hodkinson, University of Wales Lampeter

[The author apologises for the lateness of this review. ]

With this excellent volume Aristaenetus receives his first full commentary.1 As an author who has received very little and selective scholarly attention, he needs a few words of introduction here: Aristaenetus was a writer of fictional letters, firmly in the tradition of Second Sophistic epistolographers such as Aelian, Alciphron, and Philostratus (also alluding to and influenced by Lucian and the Greek novelists), but so far as can be established he was writing much later, probably the 5th/6th century CE. He makes some of the authors he alludes to (Alciphron, Lucian, Philostratus, Aelian) characters and correspondents in his epistolary fictions, just as Alciphron had earlier made Menander and his supposed lover, the courtesan Glycera, write to one another (Epp. 4.18-19), and as Philostratus had made Plutarch the 'author' of one of his letters (Ep. 73). This immersion into a fictionalised and now archaic world makes Aristaenetus ripe for study alongside epistolary and other fictional texts of the Second Sophistic, with which he self-consciously aligns his own text, but his late date has of course largely prevented this; at the same time, this style of writing characteristic of his models and influences--at best, until recent decades at least, labelled as 'creative imitation'2 and studied only in order to find and explain all the references to earlier texts in the later text--has no doubt prevented much interest in his text on its own terms, as a piece of literature . Furthermore, the lack of overt references in his work to Aristaenetus' contemporary world, and the absence of any secure information about him beyond the existence of this text, have rendered him of little interest, in general, to scholars of Late Antiquity. In all these fields, Aristaenetus deserves more attention, which the appearance of this commentary (and some recent articles by its author) should help it to receive. His importance for the growing field of epistolary literature studies3 is obvious; his significance for scholars of the earlier Imperial Greek authors to whom he alludes should not be overlooked either--he is the earliest known reader/receiver of many of these authors and texts, and though writing perhaps 200 years later, he is nevertheless far closer to their literary culture than the next contender, as in many cases these epistolary authors and novelists are not mentioned again before Photius or the Suda. Finally, just as scholars of Imperial Greek literature and culture have now overturned the previous assumption that the archaising fictional works prevalent in the high and late empire can tell us nothing about their times,4 it is surely now worth the while of Late Antique scholars to apply some of their methods to the study of Aristaenetus instead of assuming he has nothing to offer.

Drago's commentary in itself makes a large step towards redressing the balance, laying much of the necessary ground-work for interpreting Aristaenetus' text, and thus making it more accessible to scholars than even the recent Budé,5 with its far slimmer introduction and annotations, as appropriate for that series. To begin with the fundamentals: the text is based on that of the Budé edition, with divergences discussed in the commentary. After the work of Mazal in the Teubner edition6 and Vieillefond's Budé no new edition was needed, and readers can refer to the fuller apparatus to be found in those editions. It would, however, have been helpful to include a list of all the divergences from the base edition in one place here. The translation appears following the text of each letter (thus sometimes on facing pages but not always: would it have been difficult to have facing page text and translation throughout?). This reviewer is not best qualified to judge the style of an Italian translation, but in any case this is the least important part of the book, which is aimed at readers with Greek and in which the translation is therefore present merely as a crib, and in order to show how the commentator understands any tricky points in the Greek: to this end it is perfectly adequate.7

The introduction is divided into three sections which cover (1) the manuscript tradition and earlier editions and translations; (2) the difficult question of the text's authorship and, bound up with that, its date; and (3) allusion and intertextuality in the letters. The last section (pp. 36-77) is far the longest, rightly for a commentary of this kind, and provides the fullest and best general introduction to Aristaenetus now available in any language. On the issue of dates Drago is rightly cautious, concluding that the terminus ante quem for the text's composition remains an open question, but that the most likely date is not long after its terminus post quem in the 5th century CE; and its author probably moved in the circles of the literary elite in Justinian's Constantinople among writers such as Procopius. The third section further introduces Aristaenetus' epistolary style and technique, and brings out very well the great range and sophistication of his allusions, from archaic poetry through Callimachus8 to Musaeus as well as the Roman-Greek imperial prose authors mentioned above. Drago goes through each significant genre and author to examine their importance for the text. The way his intertexts' authors become fictionalised epistolary authors is also discussed where allusions to these authors are the focus of investigation during the introduction, and again in individual cases at the beginnings of commentaries on the relevant letters; similarly, the question of possible allusions to Latin authors (a possibility to which Drago is rightly very open) is treated where appropriate throughout this section of the introduction and further in the commentary. These latter themes, special or more difficult cases within the larger picture of Aristaenetus' allusive technique, might have merited their own sub-sections in the introduction for greater ease of reference, but the strategy pursued for this section of the introduction as a whole is a sensible one and they have their place within it.

Finally the commentary: this is split up throughout the book, appearing after the text and translation of each letter; it would have been preferable to print the commentary in one block at the end to facilitate finding points in the text more quickly. After an introductory comment on each letter as a whole, lemmatic entries are not given by word or phrase but by the line numbers in this edition, which is also unfortunate, especially for a prose text: this makes it harder to find at a glance which words, phrases or sentences have a comment specifically about them, making quick, selective consultation of the commentary (as opposed to reading it through continuously, which is rarely how commentaries are read) more difficult than it need be. The commentary itself is excellent: its major strength is allusion and intertextuality, treated very fully and equally throughout the range of genres, authors and eras of composition of Aristaenetus' intertexts. Literary technique, style, and unusual points of language and syntax are also handled well; and the (possible) tell-tale references to contemporary phenomena and the scholarly controversies over dating that they raise are given their due share when they arise. The commentary on each letter is usually quite full, within the bounds of a manageable and affordable edition, and on some letters (e.g. the first in each book) very full indeed; of course there is always more that could be said in a commentary, but especially for the first one to appear on a text, this is a more than adequate starting point. The volume concludes with a list of bibliographical abbreviations (for works cited at least twice), a general index, an index of Greek and Latin terms discussed, and an index of passages discussed.

In summary, Drago's introduction and commentary is a very welcome addition to the relatively meagre scholarship and Aristaenetus, and an excellent starting point for further research. The reservations mentioned above are all matters of layout rather than the content itself, and are all fairly minor, although the issue of lemmata will be something of an irritant to readers. There will always be disagreements over individual points in a commentary, and there is much more that could be said in a commentary on some of the less fully treated letters here, but I cannot fault this one on its approach to the task, nor on its scholarship.


1.   C.D.N. Costa's Greek Fictional Letters (Oxford, 2001) gives very brief commentaries on a few of Aristaenetus' letters.
2.   Cf. J. Bompaire on Lucian: Lucien Écrivain: Imitation et Création (Paris, 1958).
3.   See especially P.A. Rosenmeyer, Ancient Epistolary Fictions: The Letter in Greek Literature (Cambridge, 2001), and R. Morello and A.D. Morrison, Ancient Letters: Classical and Late Antique Epistolography (Oxford, 2007).
4.   See especially S. Swain, Hellenism and Empire (Oxford, 1996) and T.J.G. Whitmarsh, Greek Literature and the Roman Empire (Oxford, 2001).
5.   J.-R. Vieillefond, Aristénète: Lettres d'amour (Paris, 1992).
6.   O. Mazal, Aristaeneti epistularum libri II (Stuttgart, 1971).
7.   Italian readers looking primarily for a translation are already well served by the BUR edition, also with facing Greek text and selective annotation: F. Conca and G. Zanetto, Alcifrone, Filostrato, Aristeneto: Lettere d'amore (Milan 2005).
8.   Indeed for non-specialists in Greek epistolography or Late Antiquity, the most likely reason for encountering Aristaenetus is his apparent re-working of Callimachus' narration of the story of Acontius and Cydippe in the Aitia (fr. 67-75 Pfeiffer) in Ep. 1.10, discussed at length by Rosenmeyer, 'Love letters in Callimachus, Ovid and Aristaenetus, or the sad fate of a mailorder bride', MD 36 (1996) 9-31, and in her book (above n.3).

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