Friday, August 20, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Ferruccio Conti Bizzarro, Comici entomologi. Hellenica; 30. Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2009. Pp. 238. ISBN 9788862741002. €20.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Andrea Capra, Università degli Studi di Milano

The title of the book is both laconic and intriguingly ambiguous, inasmuch as "comici entomologi" can mean either of the following: "comic entomologists" or "comic playwrights as experts in entomology". To be sure, the second meaning should be preferred: by and large, the book is a commentary on passages from Greek Comedy dealing with insects. However, the playwrights are often credited with a quasi-technical, if grotesque, expertise in entomology, so that the first meaning should not be discarded altogether. After a short foreword and a substantial introduction, the book is divided into ten chapters, followed by conclusions, indexes (see below, no. 3) and a vast bibliography. I translate the chapter titles as follows:

1) War and Peace
2) Insects as flute-players
3) Cleon and the flowers of bribery
4) Oracular insects
5) Insects as orators
6) Laws as cobwebs
7) Babbling insects
8) Insects and envy
9) Pauper insects
10) Sophoclean insects

All but three chapters (2,5,9) were previously published between 2001 and 2006, either in general collections or in Italian journals (a full list is given at p. 1, no. 1). This explains why -- as the author readily admits (p. 2) -- the book does not provide a systematic survey of the subject. Rather, each chapter ingeniously focuses on a given cluster of passages, revolving around some feature or quirk of a given insect. Thus the book is both less and more informative than one might expect. The lack of a systematic treatment is an obvious drawback, which is particularly evident in the selection of the material: most of it is drawn from Old and Middle Comedy, whereas much less attention is given to Menander (except for ch. 8 on fr. 761 Kassel-Austin) and his contemporaries (not to mention Plautus and Terentius or others: no subtitle defines the chronological limits of the book). On the other hand, this somewhat haphazard structure is counterbalanced by an astonishing richness in detail, and when it comes to individual passages some of Conti Bizzarro's readings are truly illuminating.

Itself a reworking of a recent lecture (Bologna, 2/2009), the introduction ("Notes on insects in Greek poetry") focuses firstly on epic, tragic and lyric insects, secondly on insects in comedy. The first part provides some general background, with a few good points on Homeric similes and on several more or less well-known passages from tragedy and lyric poetry. Apparently, the aim of these introductory remarks is to reaffirm the importance of insects throughout early Greek poetry, and as such they surely get the job done. The second part focuses on "irritable insects", then turns to fleas and bedbugs as signs of poverty, then tackles the relationship between comedy and scientific literature, to conclude with a few notes about the "song" of mosquitoes as explained by Socrates in the Clouds. To be sure, "irritable insects" (mainly Aristophanes' wasps along with particularly aggressive ants and some kind of midges featuring in Aristophanes and Cratinus) and "poverty-insects" (well-known passages from Peace and Clouds) are two categories that partially overlap with those found in the following chapters (see especially ch. 9), with the result that the introduction has an odd connection to the rest of the book. The last two points, namely the relationship between comedy and scientific literature and Socrates' mosquitoes, are by far the most interesting.

Conti Bizzarro maintains that ancient comedies reveal a deep entomological knowledge, so that their descriptions sometimes overlap with those provided by scientists such as Aristotle and Theophrastus. This is the case for a number of rather obscure insects: πρασοκουρίδες (literally "leek-destroyers", possibly a species of millipede), σκνῖπες ("an insect found under the bark of trees, eaten by the woodpecker", so LSJ), πηνία (a sort of stinging midge) along with more common flies and locusts. In all of these cases, Conti Bizzarro's introduction provides a useful comparison between comic and scientific texts, to the effect that comic playwrights are sometimes presented as proto-biologists, possibly influencing the scientists themselves: for instance, we are told that the term πρασοκουρίδες, first found in Strattis 71 Kassel-Austin, is "echoed" or maybe "taken up " (Italian "ripreso") by Aristotle and Theophrastus (p. 15). However, the examples are far from homogeneous, so that it would be difficult to draw any general conclusions. Contrary to his title and to some of these suggestions, Conti Bizzarro himself, in his own conclusions at the end of the book, discards the possibility of seeing the playwrights as precursors of Aristotle's biological treatises (p. 207), so that the whole question remains unsettled.

At this point one may note that, in fact, Aristotle's attitude towards the animal world changed significantly over time: if the early Historia animalium pays much attention to the behaviour of animals (what we would call ethology), his late treatises (De generatione animalium, De partibus animalium) reveal an almost exclusively anatomical interest, something that was bound to condition western biology for many centuries to come.1 Needless to say, the playwrights have hardly any interest in anatomy, and this is precisely the point where Aristotle takes his farewell of the traditional Greek attitude, whereby humans and animals were constantly compared for their behaviour, and animals, far from being the object of scientific interest, were part of the landscape of everyday life.

One notable, if only apparent, exception in the playwrights' overall disregard for anatomy is found in the scene that is examined towards the end of the introduction, where Socrates discusses the shape and nature of the intestine of mosquitoes, in a grotesque attempt to explain the cause of their " singing" (Clouds 144 ff.). According to Conti Bizzarro, the passage reflects Socrates' early interest for natural science as recorded in the Phaedo (96a-d), that is a scientific interest in finding out the "causes" of things. Moreover, Conti Bizzarro aptly refers to a piece of evidence reported by Diogenes Laertius, who mentions a work by Democritus entitled αἰτίαι περὶ ζῴων (IX 47 = 68 A 33 Diels-Kranz). As for the latter, we have no idea of the contents of Democritus' work, and it would be interesting to know in what sense he used the word ζῷα . Back to the Phaedo, it is very doubtful - one may object - that the historical Socrates ever took an interest in such enquiries, and the whole story of Socrates' juvenile interest in physics may be construed as a polemic reply to Aristophanes' mocking scene.2

Be that as it may, Aristophanes is clearly eager to ridicule the philosophers' quest for "causes", which is why he chooses such a trivial and futile example as the "song" of mosquitoes (on a par with the technicalities of flea jump a few lines earlier). This very scene is clear proof of the fact that the mere idea of studying the nature of insects was ludicrous: it was Aristotle who invented zoology, i.e. the study of animals as a field of interest in its own right, and by his own admission such an activity was deemed absurd and disgusting by his contemporaries, especially when it involved obscure and unpleasant creatures (see De partibus animalium, 645a5ff.). On the contrary, the playwrights are firmly within the Greek tradition, with an interest in ethology rather than in zoology, to use a couple of anachronistic words.

As we have seen, the introduction is a good starting point to discuss the merits and limits of Conti Bizzarro's book. The same features - richness in detail combined with a certain lack of coherence - are found in the rest of the book. Thus, for example, in the third chapter Conti Bizzarro discusses a strange image in the Knights, involving Cleon and the "flowers of bribery" (402ff.)

You've got your fingers in everyone's pie, Mister Paphlagon! Inside everybody's business! There you are, gobbling up its profits with bribes. By Hermes! I hope you puke up all those profits, puke them up as quick as you pluck them out! That'll be the moment I'll be able to sing, "Drink, drink and drown your misfortune!" (transl. G. Theodorides)

As is the case with many other translations, Theodorides' otherwise brilliant version conceals the curious entomological image of the original: literally, Cleon "in all things and on every occasion alights on the flowers of bribery" (περὶ πάντ' ἐπὶ πᾶσί τε πράγμασι δωροδόκοισιν ἐπ' ἄνθεσι ἵζων ), and the poet wishes he may "throw up" (ἐκβάλοις) what he has swallowed. Conti Bizzarro shows that such an image gives a curious entomological turn to the whole passage: Aristotle (in the Historia animalium rather than in his mature treatises, not surprisingly) describes the behaviour of bees as consisting of two distinct activities, namely the alighting on all sorts of flowers and the "vomiting" (ἐμεῖ) of honey inside the hive (554a11-18). After this brilliant demonstration, rather more tentatively, Conti Bizzarro suggests that Cleon is represented as a very strange bee, closely resembling a drone, and in order to illustrate the point he embarks on a rich, if longish, survey of the opposition bee/drone in Greek literature. The game comes full circle when Conti Bizzarro eventually plays his trump card: nobody less than Plutarch, through a Platonic quotation, compares Cleon to a drone (Praecepta gerendae rei publicae, 818c), and Conti Bizzarro concludes that in all probability Aristophanes conflated bees and drones into a single image.

The remaining chapters of the book are very similar in scope and method: Conti Bizzarro is always keen on interpreting individual passages pertaining to insects, and he resorts to long lists of parallels to make his case stronger. More than once, however, this comparative material, complete with dense footnotes often outweighing the main text, develops into a series of almost independent digressions. Thus, the fifth chapter discusses Eupolis' imaginative description of Pericles (102 Kassel-Austin), the orator who has Persuasion on his lips and, unlike his colleagues, leaves the sting in the mind of his hearers. After a very good discussion of the entomological overtones of Eupolis' passage, the reader gets lost in a forest of loci paralleli, the trees being allusions to and quotations from Eupolis' passage, Pericles' rhetoric, πειθώ and so on. All in all, Conti Bizzarro steers clear from the book's alleged main subject for no less than twelve pages (85-97), until the digressions suddenly come to an end with a long-waited "let us go back to entomology" (p. 97).

Such a digressive style, complete with the occasional remainder that it is time to go back to the main theme, is entirely typical of Conti Bizzarro's style. Along with a certain amount of repetition and some editorial inconsistencies,3 this seriously weighs down the book, especially - I suspect - for non-native readers of Italian, who may find it far from reader-friendly. Nevertheless, the book is well worth the effort. Conti Bizzarro's digressions, however erratic, are a mine of information, often including intriguing incursions into modern reception, and his somewhat convoluted style betrays a very humane passion for literature, leading him to follow little-trodden paths. What is more, Conti Bizzarro's readings are penetrative and original, and their cumulative effect - despite the lack of a systematic account - is impressive: indeed, entomology proves to be an important ingredient of Attic Comedy, and Conti Bizzarro should be credited for restoring it into the fabric of that comedy.


1.   See M. Vegetti, "Figure dell'animale in Aristotele, in S. Castiglione - G. Lanata (eds), Filosofi e animali nel mondo antico, Genova 1994, 123-137. This is a strange omission in Conti Bizzarro's otherwise extensive bibliography.
2.   See now M. Rashed, "Aristophanes and the Socrates of the Phaedo", OSAP 36 (2009), 107-136.
3.   The footnotes sometimes translate the Greek in the main text, and yet, inexplicably, sometimes Conti Bizzarro adopts the opposite solution, with the Greek in the footnotes (and in one case the translation covers some extra words not included in the printed Greek text: see p. 68, no. 4). The two indexes are a bit limited: loci from Attic comic playwrights and a list of insects. There are also occasional misprints in the Greek text (e.g. p. 9, οὐὲ pro οὐδὲ; p. 111 ἐχαπαθήσας pro ἐχαπατήσας). However, the book is on the whole well produced.

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