Sunday, August 4, 2013


Eleni Manolaraki, Noscendi Nilum Cupido: Imagining Egypt from Lucan to Philostratus. Trends in classics: Supplementary volumes, 18. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2013. Pp. x, 379. ISBN 9783110297676. $154.00.

Reviewed by Nick West, University of Reading (

Version at BMCR home site


Three of the most significant historical events to mould the Romans' literary imaginings of Egypt and the Nile were the battle of Actium, Pompey's assassination and Cleopatra's affair with Antony. Manolaraki argues (p. 4) that works influenced by Augustan propaganda are comparatively well-known, in contrast to those composed in the following centuries, which either go unnoticed or are assumed to follow in the same "'Actian' vein". Manolaraki's work demonstrates that many valuable comparative insights available from these later sources are denied expression and that the commonly held assumption that these texts follow in the same vein as their Augustan forebears is too simplistic.

The prevailing undercurrent of Manolaraki's work is a demonstration of "the creative potential of the Nile for poetic and prose narratives" (p. 5) expressed in a diverse array of interrelated themes. These themes are: "the allure and threat of the unfamiliar; the collaborative dynamic between conquest and knowledge; the tension between political pedagogy and imperial authority; the ability and validity of human desire to master the unknowable; the humanocentric personification of the natural world; the immanent presence of the divine; the transience of humans within space and time; the process by which human meaning is mapped onto plain geology; and the relationship between nature and artifice, or reality and perception"(p. 6). The texts selected range from Lucan's Civil War to Philostratus' Life of Apollonius and form a diachronic survey of Egyptian imaginings from the Julio- Claudian, Flavian, Antonine and Severan dynasties.

The first chapter outlines the historical and social factors that shaped the various literary approaches to the Nile (including Tibullus, Ovid, Vitruvius among others) composed during the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Similarly chapters 5 (with reference to Pliny the Elder's Natural History) and 9 (introducing Pliny the Younger's Panegyric and the letters of Fronto) cover the Flavian and Antonine-Severan dynasties respectively. The remaining chapters analyse individual literary works.

Chapters 2 to 4 are devoted to Lucan's Civil War; the purpose of this subset is to "integrate Lucan's disparate Nilotic instances into a coherent system of signification and knit them into the tapestry of the epic as a whole"(p. 45). The Nile as the scene of Pompey's murder is one of the river's most frequent depictions but Manolaraki demonstrates that this is neither the sole, nor even the most relevant, representation. Rather, "Lucan juxtaposes contesting identities of the Nile as historical-political battleground and as natural phenomenon" (p. 46) and "to view the Nile solely as the culprit of Pompey's assassination, to consider Pompey's 'Nile' the only Nile of the epic, is to gloss over alternative modulations of the river that look both back and forward from the dramatic apex of Pompey's death" (p. 49).

Chapters 3 and 4 present further instances in which the Nile's portrayal contrasts with its characterization as the scene of Pompey's murder. Lucan's boating digression, the comparison of the Nile with other rivers and his portrayal of crane migrations from the Nile all establish the river's polyvalent character in the epic as a whole. Manolaraki argues that "the Nile signals historical persons and events and transcends them by virtue of its identity as natural environment unrelated to the Roman drama of the Late Republic. As a micro-text, it summarizes the death of Pompey, the climactic event of Lucan's epic, and predicts the fait accompli of Actium. On the other hand, the Nile of boats, floods and migrations posits a macro-text of expanded space and time, a wishful escape from the historical present of the civil war into a timeless utopia" (p. 78).

Caesar's encounter with the Egyptian priest Acoreus is the largest Nilotic encounter of the Civil War. Previous scholarship tends to speak of this portion of Lucan's work as an anomaly which resists integration into the work as a whole (pp. 81-82). Manolaraki examines this section in three stages. First, "the Nile digression is compared to other references to the Nile to show that Acoreus' cosmological view of the river contrasts to, and resists, Roman perspectives voiced in previous books" (p. 82). Second, the contrasting perspectives of the Nile are profitably compared with Stoic ideas, as expressed in Seneca's Natural Questions, concerning the necessity of knowing about the natural environment in which one resides. Manolaraki suggests that Lucan thematizes the principle "that living in ignorance of the natural environment constitutes an intellectual and moral inadequacy" (pp. 82-83). Third, Manolaraki revises previous interpretations of the Nile digression; it "is more than a barely disguised invective against imperial rule as embodied by Caesar and his descendants, and more than an opportunity for the poet to regale his audience with ethnographic and fluvial erudition. Through the Nile Lucan instead explores human and cosmic perspectives on the natural world, asserts his authority as poet, and responds to his contemporary Neronian aesthetics of Rome" (p. 83).

Chapter 6 examines the highly significant role the Nile performs throughout Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica. The overall content of the chapter is succinctly expressed by Manolaraki: "Valerius' Nile thus emerges as a structuring device attuning the reader to the semantic plurality of the poem. In its cumulative metaphoric capital through the epic, the Nile simultaneously embodies origins and destinations, outbound and inbound itineraries that render the epic geographically, politically and morally polycentric. Locations featured as a string of landmarks in the story (Cyzicus, the Bosphorus, Colchis, Egypt, Corinth, Danube) are drawn together in the map of the narrative by their common Nilotic attributes. Through its identity as geographically and historically 'in the middle', the Nile carves out a liberating space for the reader to experience cultural relativism and alternate ethnic identifications" (p. 162).

Many of these themes are found in the following chapters (7 and 8) devoted to the works of Statius. In the Thebaid "Statius' Nilescapes are escapist retreats; civil war battlefields; theaters of lamentation; and links between elegiac and tragic intertext and his genus grande" (p. 170); "the Statian Nile is an effective medium of generic experimentation between epic and tragedy and Greek myth and Roman history" (p. 183). Manolaraki outlines a very different presentation of Egypt in Statius' Siluae. "The intimidating Cleopatran Alexandria is normalized by Statius as a business hub and an eager provider of grain for the capital" (p. 187) and "By setting his Alexandrian sojourn within a rich network of cultural and literary referents, Statius assimilates Celer's voyage to his own poetic journey in re-visiting traditional views of Egypt" (p. 216). Manolaraki profitably compares the contrasting associations of Egypt and the Nile found in the Thebaid and the Siluae, demonstrating the pitfalls of conflating textual representations of Egypt with the supposed feelings of the author as a methodology of inquiry.

Chapters 10 and 11 examine Plutarch's On Isis and Osiris and Philostratus' Life of Apollonius respectively. The brevity of chapter 10 seems rather out of place in an otherwise detailed, penetrating and stimulating analysis. Manolaraki states that: "Plutarch leads his readers through three interpretive levels, moving from a 'lower' symbolism attributed to Egyptians to a higher exegesis that casts Isis and Osiris as supernatural beings (daemones), to their ultimate – and unabashedly Greek – exegesis through logos and philosophia" (p. 253). The multiple and cumulative levels of interpretation have long been recognised by scholars although the exact number of levels is debatable. The problem with Manolaraki's (and others') approaches result from assigning different levels of interpretation to particular ethnic categories such as Greek or Egyptian. This results in the assertion (not unique to Manolaraki) that in Plutarch's treatise " the correct guide to religious mysteries is 'reasoning from philosophy' . . . nothing less than the supreme intellectual expression of Greek thought" (p. 256).

This seems an oversimplification of the treatise's contents. First, at several junctures throughout the work (not just in the early interpretative levels) Plutarch emphasises the rational underpinnings of Egyptian practices (7-8: 353d-f; 68: 378a-b) and does not simply criticize them (70-71: 379c-d). At one of the most apparent breaks between interpretative levels (32: 363d-e), Plutarch explicitly states that Egyptians also number among those Greeks found to expound at the next (and 'higher') level of interpretation. The key argument that appearances do not reflect the true votary of Isis (11: 355d) makes no assertions about particular ethnic categories and seems to number among the universalizing features that Manolaraki correctly identifies in other portions of the treatise (p. 255). Second, the wisest Greek philosophers are explicitly said to have sat at the feet of Egyptian priests (10: 354d-e) and this statement very much seems to pose as an Egyptian 'endorsement' of the Middle-Platonic concepts which Plutarch, via Plato, presents in the treatise. Other statements are found in the work (56: 373f; 77-78: 382d-e) crediting Egyptians (or more usually Egyptian priests) with knowledge of concepts expounded by Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Third, and most importantly, the term philosophia itself is not reserved exclusively for Greeks. Plutarch mentions (9: 354b-c) that Pharaohs were chosen from either the priestly or warrior caste; if one of the latter was chosen he would be made a participant in their philosophy (philosophias). For these reasons I feel this chapter would have benefited from a larger allocation of space in Manolaraki's overall work.

The eleventh and final chapter is a much clearer demonstration of how Philostratus privileges Greek philosophy by means of universalizing techniques in his Life of Apollonius. Manolaraki explores how "by destabilizing the geographic divisions and ethnic categorizations that separate various characters, the Nile shores up the universal reach of Apollonius' Hellenism" (p. 259). There are many profitable observations about the function of the Nile as a 'compositional device' (p. 259) such as the discussion of Apollonius' encounter with Vespasian. "The implicit contrast between (Vespasian's) Lower Nile in Alexandria and (Apollonius') Upper Nile sources embodies the narrow space and time of monarchy as opposed to philosophy. The Nile enters geography and history out of a timeless nowhere that remains beyond reach of even the most ambitious autocrat. Apollonius yields the well-trodden, material realm of the Delta to the emperor, but keeps for himself the geographically and philosophically higher part of the Nile, its prized sources. By claiming access to that unknown and timeless region, Apollonius establishes the mystic power of philosophy over the transience and limited scope of imperial power" (p. 269).

The book succeeds in reinforcing the point that the use of the categories 'self' and 'other', a generally fruitful approach, has its limitations. One cannot help thinking that the "self/other binary" has had the effect of somewhat distorting the lens through which modern scholars have perceived these sources. The entrenched characterization of Lucan's 'Nile digression' as an anomaly out of keeping with the overall tenor of the epic (i.e. the 'otherness' of the Nile passage itself), which Manolaraki successfully refutes, seems to me a prime example of this phenomenon. In addition, the work highlights the problems that arise when one attempts to determine an author's attitude to Egypt from his writings; the oeuvre of Statius is an excellent case in point.

Manolaraki's work is a valuable contribution alongside Phiroze Vasunia's Gift of the Nile, Danielle Bonneau's La crue de Nil, Le fisc et le Nil, Le regime administrative de l'eau du Nil, Brigitte Postl's Die Bedeutung des Nil in der römischen Literatur and Ian Moyer's The Limits of Hellenism. Throughout she demonstrates the intertextual connections and renegotiations in the sources; the book shows very comprehensively the advantages of reading Greek and Latin sources together rather than treating them as if they were part of separate literary traditions. Manolaraki proposes an analysis of the Nile in the ancient novel as well as other imperial historiographers (p. 310) and this would be a welcome sequel. Another potentially fruitful area of study is the Nile in other late antique sources such as the Greek and Demotic magical papyri. Manolaraki demonstrates that it would indeed be a grave mistake to treat post-Augustan Egyptian discourse as a river flowing from its Actian sources devoid of subsequent new tributaries.

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