Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Antonietta Gostoli (ed.), Omero. Margite. Testi e commenti, 21. Pisa/Roma: Fabrizio Serra Editore, 2007. Pp. 96. ISBN 97888622703823. €32.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Chad Matthew Schroeder

The Homeric Margites was a charmingly obscene little poem about an impetuous simpleton who was even unaware of how to have intercourse with his wife. And, although readers of this review may not realize it, each probably already owns a copy of its fragments. The fifth volume of Thomas Allen's ubiquitous Oxford Classical Text of Homer (1912) contains testimonia and fragments; the handy but now superseded old Loeb of Hesiodea and Homerica by Hugh Evelyn-White (1914, 19362) does as well. Martin West has also published the fragments of the poem, including previously unedited papyri (P.Oxy. 3963-3964), in the second volume of his Iambi et Elegi Graeci (Oxford, 19922). West revisited this material in his 2003 Loeb edition of Homerica. But the first--and I imagine the last--edition, complete with commentary and facing translation, of the Margites is Antonietta Gostoli's. Her edition has many strengths but one large shortcoming: it completely overlooks what is quite possibly a three-line fragment, attributed to the poem over twenty years ago.

In her introduction, Gostoli discusses the nature of the remaining fragments and the competing theories about their interpretation. Obviously two central, but not necessarily related, issues in understanding the Margites are the poem's date of composition and its attribution in antiquity to Homer. Sections of the introduction treat each question in depth. If we are to trust the twelfth-century Byzantine bishop Eustratius of Nicaea (T 1), as Gostoli thinks we should (11), Archilochus believed the poem to be Homer's, evidence that the poem existed already by ca. 650 B.C.E. Gostoli herself takes the view that the poem was composed a generation or two earlier at the end of the eighth or the beginning of the seventh century B.C.E. (13). Authorship of the poem is an equally complicated matter, as Gostoli discusses in the longest section of the introduction (16-23). She highlights the importance Aristotle placed on the poem in his Poetics, and sees wide attribution of the Margites to Homer in the fourth century B.C.E. Gostoli is probably correct that third-century Hellenistic literary scholars were the first to argue that Homer was not the author of the poem (19), but we have no direct evidence of their actual views (though in T 6, Dio's νεωτέρου is redolent of Alexandrian Homeric scholarship). Gostoli also sets forth a novel interpretation of fr. 1 (22-25), which she suggests is not in fact the beginning of the poem but rather a sphragis of sorts added by a later poet, similar to the compositional claim made in the Hymn to Delian Apollo (165-178).

Gostoli includes nineteen untranslated testimonia concerning the poem and its author, numerically a few more than other editors of the Margites. Her higher count comes from making Eustratius do triple duty as testimonia for Archilochus (T 1), Cratinus (T 2), and Callimachus (T 7), all of whom, according to the bishop, thought that Homer was the author of the poem. Gostoli's first seventeen testimonia are grouped chronologically, while the final two fall under the heading of Margitae persona in auctoribus antiquis. An organizing principle other than temporal might have served the reader better.

Gostoli's text of the fragments differs in few points from that of previous editors. The exception is her fr. 4 (fr. 6 West2), where Gostoli has fashioned a trimeter out of what earlier editors have supposed is a prose paraphrase of the Margites by Theodore Metochites. She explains in the commentary that although her emendations for fr. 4 first appear in later non-Homeric sources, we should expect that the comic Margites drew from other genres than simply heroic poetry (76). Her text of the papyri fragments is very conservative, and she is generally reluctant to print supplements of more than a letter. Although little can be done with P.Oxy. 3963 (fr. 8 West2 = fr. 10 Gostoli) or P.Oxy. 3964 (fr. 9 West2 = fr. 11 Gostoli), her treatment of P.Oxy. 2309 (fr. 7 West2 = fr. 9 Gostoli) results in a rather lean text. Even θερμά of line 8, which she calls "piü probabile" in a note (83), does not get printed. Each fragment is followed by a very ample critical apparatus, which also includes welcome references to loci similes. While it was certainly a good idea to include a facing translation of the text, the exiguous remains of the Margites results in translations that often look lonely as they hover on nearly blank pages. A note on Ionic dialectal elements and meter precedes the well-executed commentary.

The commentary involves a careful analysis of each poetic fragment, with due consideration given to the context of each quotation. In general, more attention is devoted to each fragment as a whole than to specific points of diction. For these, the critical apparatus is handy, especially notice of loci similes. Gostoli's notes on the papyrus fragments are particularly full, and take up nearly half the commentary. Two indices complete the volume.

In 2008, the year after Gostoli's edition appeared, Martin West published a short article which argued that a three-line description of a vagina, preserved in the Refutation of All Heresies attributed to the Roman bishop Hippolytus, may come from the Margites.1 West points out that whenever the author of the Refutation of All Heresies refers to an author as ὁ ποιητής he has Homer in mind, and that this is the same phrase he uses to introduce praise of the vagina. Moreover, as West observes, a description of the location and use of a vagina fits in well with the general silliness regarding sexual functions and erotic relationships found in the Margites. As it turns out, back in 1987 Walter Burkert also suggested that the vagina Hippolytus mentions may have come from the Margites.2 Since it seems quite probable that these three lines were once part of the Margites, should Gostoli ever revise her edition, then these lines must appear in it.

Despite this omission, Gostoli's edition and commentary on the Margites will remain the standard reference work on the poem unless there appear new papyri.


1.   M. L. West, "A Vagina in Search of an Author." Classical Quarterly 58 (2008) 370-375.
2.   W. Burkert, "Die betretene Wiese: Interpretationsprobleme im Bereich der Sexualsymbolik." In H. P. Duerr, ed., Die wilde Seele: Zur Ethnopsychoanalyse von Georges Devereux, 40-42. Frankfurt, 1987.

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