Thursday, October 9, 2014


T. J. Leary, Symphosius: The Aenigmata. An Introduction, Text and Commentary. Bloomsbury classical studies monographs. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. Pp. xiv, 264. ISBN 9781472511027. $100.99.

Reviewed by Christine Luz, University of Berne (

Version at BMCR home site


You wait for ages and then two come along at once – what is it? No, not the proverbial London buses but commentaries on Symphosius' Aenigmata, a collection of one hundred riddles in hexametrical tristichs transmitted in the Latin Anthology. After Manuela Bergamin's 2005 Italian commentary on the oeuvre of this otherwise unknown poet we now have with Leary's work the first English commentary for almost 90 years. However – in contrast to London buses perhaps – the appearance of Leary's study so shortly after its Italian predecessor is fully justified by its different focus and interest; the two books complement rather than compete with each other.

Leary's edition of Symphosius' Aenigmata is preceded by an introduction, which discusses the author and title of the riddle collection, its date and context, order and arrangement, style, language, metre and literary models, as well as its Nachleben and ends with a note on the text and the manuscripts. The major part of the book consists of a line by line commentary with a translation of each poem. In addition, the book contains a short bibliography (with reference to more comprehensive bibliographies in other scholarly literature), an appendix with other attributions to Symphosius and a useful general index as well as a brief index of rare and unusual words.

In the first section of the introduction, Author and title, Leary reaches the conclusion that the title of the riddle collection should contain the words Aenigmata and Symposii (in this spelling) despite fuller headings in some manuscripts. Nevertheless, Leary continues to use "Symphosius" throughout his work as the established form in modern Anglo-Saxon scholarship. The second section, Date, stresses the closeness of the Aenigmata to Ausonius' Griphus Ternarii Numeri (dated to AD 368). Although a direct influence is impossible to prove, Leary points out that if one author drew directly from the other, it must have been Symphosius, in which case the Aenigmata originated after AD 368. A terminus ante quem is provided by the Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri, tentatively dated to c. AD 500, which quotes ten of the Aenigmata. Leary does not follow Bergamin, who infers Christian influence in the Aenigmata. The third section of the introduction, The collection, is divided into several sub-sections: Martial, Symphosius, Riddles and the Saturnalia illustrates Martial's influence on the Aenigmata and demonstrates, in particular, which topics the Aenigmata share with the Xenia and the Apophoreta respectively. Leary then sketches the background of Symphosius' riddles by giving a brief overview of the Roman Saturnalia and its custom of gift distribution and by providing a survey of the Greco-Roman riddle tradition in sympotic contexts. Unlike conventional riddles, however, Symphosius' poems disclose their solution in a lemma, which precedes the actual riddle. Therefore Leary suggests, that the Aenigmata are meant to display the poet's cleverness and erudite skill in "disguising" his objects rather than being actual riddles to be solved. Furthermore, by providing both the riddle and the solution, they imitate an exchange or dialogue between the imaginary dinner guests for the benefit of the (absent) reader. The following sub-section, Order and arrangement, expounds the structure of the Aenigmata: Leary demonstrates in a elaborate table that the riddles are grouped thematically and that each poem relates to the preceding and the following one by links of various forms. The next two sub-sections, Literary style and Latinity and metre, are concerned with Symphosius' language and style: Leary draws particular attention to the poet's fondness for word play, etymologizing and paradox, and names other rhetorical devices and prosodic particularities. The section concludes with a discussion on literary debt (other than to Martial and Ausonius), in which Leary shows Symphosius' allusions to Horace and Virgil. The fourth section of the introduction, Nachleben, contains a brief survey of imitators of Symphosius' riddles in the English-speaking world, among them most notably Aldhelm of Malmesbury, the author of the Enigmata, a collection of one hundred riddles in Latin hexameters dating from the late 7th or early 8th century. The final section of the introduction, The text, justifies Leary's decision to adopt Shackleton Bailey's Teubner text of 1982 (the few exceptions are listed in a table). Also it discusses briefly the most important manuscript families and gives a list of sigla as used in the commentary.

Leary's is a well-rounded literary commentary aiming at an expert audience. The entry on each poem begins with a prose translation, followed by a list of the relevant manuscripts. Then Leary provides information on textual variants in the style of a critical apparatus, diligently and convincingly justifying his choices, cf. e.g. the preference of the transmitted recto over the emendation certo in 24.2 (as adopted by Shackleton Bailey), where Symphosius' concern is clearly to point out the right name of the weevil he is describing and not its being uncertain. Considerable space is devoted to linguistic and semantic aspects: the use of particular expressions and meanings is thoroughly documented with parallels. Leary likewise exploits both ancient literary and archaeological sources in order to illustrate contemporary ideas about the objects described and enriches them with references to discussions and depictions in modern scholarship. A particular concern of Leary's commentary, however, is the literary appreciation of the Aenigmata. In demonstrating the literary and intellectual heritage the riddles reflect or play with, Leary is able to point out ironic or playful effects. For instance, in poem 6, tegula, an ordinary roof tile claims cosmic significance by associating itself with the four elements of Pre-Socratic philosophy; or in poem 7, fumus, the protagonist alludes to Virgil's famous sunt lacrimae rerum. Furthermore, Leary carefully examines the interrelation of the poems, their verbal and thematic links, allusions and associations of various kind, which determine and justify their order and placement within the whole collection. (Cf. e.g. poem 39, centaurus, which forms the transition from larger animals, poems 32-38, to plants with medicinal associations, poems 40-44: being horse-like, centaurs belong to the former; at the same time, the most famous representative of that species of semi-humans is Chiron, the mythological inventor of the arts of healing). The same close attention is paid to the internal structure of the poems: features such as juxtaposition, chiasmus, alliteration and parallelism often reflect the poem's content and stress, for instance, the frequently paradox message of the riddles. Thus in his comment on 83.3(2), Leary points to the juxtaposition of several contradictory forms of esse: ...fuerat - non est; ... non erat – (sc. coepit) esse, and he suggests that the carefully balanced word order in poem 5 might mirror the "inter-linked nature of a chain" (p. 74), which is the object of the riddle. Thus more than any other scholarly study before it, Leary's commentary brings out and does justice to Symphosius' potential for sophisticated literary play and humour.

Leary's book is pleasant to read, written in a clear, well-chosen and unpretentious language. His argument is concise and to the point, leaving aside unnecessary information and referring to fuller treatment in other scholarship instead, which he treats with due respect and due criticism. To conclude I shall mention two technicalities, which might cause some inconvenience to the reader: first, the bibliography is divided into two sections, "Editions, translations and commentaries" and "Other works and abbreviations". In both sections, books are usually abbreviated by the name of the author, and the date is only added when there are several works by the same author. Thus there is no formal distinction between the items of the two sections, so a reader who is not familiar with scholarship on Symphosius may have to check them both to find a reference. And secondly, despite there apparently being restrictions of format, it would seem desirable for the convenience of the reader to have the critical apparatus and perhaps also the translation opposite the Latin text rather than in the commentary. Especially for a non-classicist readership, whom a book on an interdisciplinary subject such as riddles is likely to attract, it would have been useful to have the English text close to the original, so that the two can easily be compared. And this brings me to a last point to be considered: on a subject as this, it might have been worthwhile to make a commentary accessible to a wider generally educated audience (perhaps not last in the view of the recent publication of Bergamin's scholarly commentary). This could easily have been achieved without any loss to the book's academic quality and value (e.g. by translating the Greek and Latin passages that are not merely textual and linguistic parallels etc.). But, at any rate, Leary's commentary is a most useful book and will be an essential point of reference for any future scholarship on Symphosius and beyond.

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