Monday, December 22, 2014


Richard Hunter, Antonios Rengakos, Evina Sistakou (ed.), Hellenistic Studies at a Crossroads: Exploring Texts, Contexts and Metatexts. Trends in classics - supplementary volumes, 25. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2014. Pp. viii, 379. ISBN 9783110342895. $154.00.

Reviewed by Tom Phillips, University of Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The preface to this volume emphasises the 'variety of material and methodology' opened up to the critic of Hellenistic literature by scholarly developments over the last quarter of a century, and advocates critical approaches that exploit both avenues. The diverse and rewarding collection of essays that follows is both an exemplification and a protreptic, and will be required reading for anyone interested in the field.

The volume ranges widely across time, place, and texts, and although the contributions are grouped under headings such as 'Genre', 'Style and Narrative', 'Aesthetics', and 'Scholarship', one of the book's signal strengths is to demonstrate the interrelation of these different areas. Guido Massimilla's essay on Callimachus' reworking of early Greek elegy, for instance, focuses on how he adopts motifs connected with speaker positions to new contexts, but also sets these literary manoeuvres against the background of his scholarship (pp. 8-9). Although also included in the 'Genres' section, David Sider's piece on the definition and development of didactic poetry in the Hellenistic period likewise illustrates the complex interaction of formal and contextual issues. He begins by showing that didactic poetry is less specifically conceptualized in the classical period than one might expect, pointing especially to the list of genres considered beneficial and instructional at Aristophanes Frogs 1030-36 (pp. 18-21), and that 'didactic poetry was essentially invented in Hellenistic times, and then retrojected backward in time to include only those earlier poets that conformed to Hellenistic notions' (p. 22). He identifies the importance of versification of technical prose treatises as the crucial differentiating factor in the composition of Hellenistic didactic (pp. 22-4), and draws attention to the relative unimportance of ethical considerations to later work in the genre, as opposed to their primary role in the Works and Days. His conclusions stress the tension between generic and formal variety: from the Hellenistic age onwards didactic 'is a type that purports to teach … but on a formal level can be a congeries of subtypes each capable of bearing its own generic label if found elsewhere' (p. 28). By focusing on the role of intellectual contexts in shaping generic norms and poetic practice, the essay provides a usefully historicized account of formal typologies and their workings.

A different approach to the connections between poetry and prose is elaborated by Gregory Hutchinson, who focuses on structural and stylistic connections between the two. Particularly intriguing are his comments (pp. 33-4) on links between prose rhythm and poetry, and the parallels between the presentation of emotionally charged scenes in Apollonius of Rhodes and Polybius (pp. 36-8). Having made the case for mutual influence at the level of formal structures, Hutchinson proceeds to explore the differences between the uses of 'ego-language' in poetry and prose, instructively differentiating types of self-assertion and their generic inflections (pp. 43-6). Richard Hunter's treatment of Theocritean style is similarly fine-grained in its approach to the minutiae of poetic language. Especially powerful is his reading of Id. 16.51-2 (οὐδ' Ὀδυσεὺς ἑκατόν τε καὶ εἴκοσι μῆνας ἀλαθείς / πάντας ἐπ' ἀνθρώπους) as a kind of 'explanatory gloss' on the description of Odysseus' wanderings at the beginning of the Odyssey. After considering the possibility of Theocritus' representation of poetry being influenced by scholarly accounts such as those preserved in the scholia on Pindar Nemean 7.17-24 (iii 120-1 Dr), he suggests that the ἀκρίβεια of Theocritus' 'one hundred and twenty months' is productively at odds with Homer's stylistic grandeur: 'Theocritus' phrase is … as prosaic a gloss on the opening of the Odyssey as one could imagine … The σεμνότης of Homeric verse can turn the bald facts and numbers of 'what happened' into something memorable' (p. 64).

The rest of the essay is devoted to similarly complex connections between Theocritus' reworking of Homeric language and the techniques of Homeric scholarship. Hunter ends with a sensibly cautionary note on the limits imposed by the evidence on what we can say about such connections (p. 74), but his readings are a valuable addition to the ongoing explication of how scholarly modes of writing in antiquity influenced poetic practice. Alexander Sens's essay on similes in Lycophron's Alexandra patrols similar territory. As well as shedding light on how Lycophron's similes reflect on the literary tradition and his own compositional procedures, he detects various points of possible contact between the Alexandra and Homeric exegesis. One such is the wasp simile at Alex. 180-2, modeled on Il.16.259-65. The scholia report that Aristophanes of Byzantium athetized Il. 16.261, which describes the children taunting the wasps, but Lycophron has included this detail in his comparison (p. 105). Although it cannot be demonstrated with certainty that Lycrophron was responding to a scholarly controversy, the example is certainly suggestive when seen together with other similar passages that Sens cites. Kathryn Gutzwiller's exploration of the use of dialect in Meleager's epigrams considers the historical embeddedness of literary style from a more socio-political perspective, offering a corrective to the prevailing view that dialects in the Garland are of little literary significance. She argues instead that 'dialect choice contributes to the formation of an epigrammatist's poetic self- representation' (p. 94), and demonstrates convincingly that Meleager's use of dialects is linked to specific literary strategies, such as the representation of a realistically Coan voice through use of Doric dialect forms (p. 81). Annemarie Ambühl's analysis of elliptical narrative in Hellenistic epyllion and Catullus is perhaps the volume's most theoretically sophisticated piece. She focuses chiefly on Cat. 61-8, a group which, in common with numerous other scholars, she reads as a coherent whole (p. 118). Her over-arching argument is that narrative ellipses in one poem encourage supplementation by the reader with images or narrative elements from other poems within the group. Examples include the mention of episodes relating to the Trojan war, such as the judgement of Paris at 61.16-20, supplementing the account of the Trojan War in 64 (pp. 121-3). As well as making numerous stimulating suggestions about individual passages, Ambühl's account is an important contribution to our understanding both of the poetics of the book and the reception of Hellenistic narrative techniques.

The essays gathered under the heading 'Aesthetics' are similarly wide-ranging in scope and subject matter. In her exploration of how emotions are represented in Hellenistic literature, Evina Sistakou focuses chiefly on Moschus and Apollonius, arguing that Hellenistic poetry is distinguished by a focus on sensation as opposed to the more cognitive conception of emotions found in Aristotle. Filippomaria Pontani's piece is the book's sole foray into post-classical reception, a fascinating exploration of 'Alexandrianism' as a literary category in the long twentieth century and its applications to figures such as Mallarmé, Cavafy, and Eliot. Reception of a different sort is at issue in Évelyne Prioux's essay on epigram, which highlights how the genre combines literary and artistic allusions. The metapoetic use of ecphrasis in Posidippus and other early epigrammatists is now well established, and she argues for similar uses of this technique in Antipater of Sidon, Philip, and Meleager. Meleager's funerary epigram for Antipater (122 G-P), for instance, is shown to borrow the techniques of disposition of related images in contemporary art (pp. 188-91), while Antipater's epigrams on Apelles' and Praxiteles' sculptures of Aphrodite (44 and 45 G-P) act as aesthetic self-positioning (pp. 200-2).

The section on 'Scholarship' contains two essays with very different aims and agendas. Andrew Faulkner's piece explores connections between Jewish and Greek literature, focusing on the appropriation of Greek poetic vocabulary evident in Philo Senior's hexameter versions of biblical narratives. Faulkner subjects these fragments to attentive close readings, leading to a convincing textual suggestion for Supplementum Hellenisticum 682.1 (p. 246-8), and several arguments that deepen our understanding of Philo's poetic practices, including a case for appropriation of Apollonius Rhodius Argonautica 4.627-9 at SH 683 (pp. 254-6). Marco Fantuzzi's essay on the tragic scholia is more directly focused on ancient scholarship. The majority of the piece is taken up with an analysis of how the scholia deal with the issue of potentially comic moments in the tragedians. Fantuzzi highlights a marked difference between the scholiasts on Euripides and Sophocles, the latter tending to commend their author for avoiding an excessively comic mode, the former tending to focus on failures to achieve tragic sublimity, a tendency particularly marked in comments on plays such as Orestes. While the analyses of tragic heroism found in the scholia are indebted to Aristotle, there are also crucial differences between the philosopher and his critical successors with regard to their treatment of comic material in tragedies: whereas Aristotle was apparently not concerned with the possibility that tragedy might be contaminated by comedy, the only exception being his discussion of Cleophon at Rhet. 3.1408a (p. 223), the impulse to police the generic distinction becomes more pronounced in the Hellenistic period. One instance of this is the difference in the treatment of interrupted catastrophes in Euripides' plays by Aristotle and Aristophanes of Byzantium. Aristotle sees interrupted catastrophe as perfectly compatible with tragedy, whereas Aristophanes censures it (p. 226). These criticisms are couched in generic terms: whereas Aristotle sees 'double structure' plays as producing a weaker form of pleasure that resembles that of comedy, Aristophanes goes further and criticises tragedies without a final catastrophe as too comic (pp. 230-1). He then posits a connection between the poetic practice of blurring genres and the scholarly impulse to clarify generic typologies, suggesting that Menander's use of tragic structural motifs such as reconciliation and anagnorisis may have played an especially important role, prompting 'critics [to] assum[e] the task of demarcating Euripides' happy-ending tragedy from Menander's tragically infused comedy' (p. 233).

The final group of essays is concerned with contextualization, although again with a good deal of methodological variety. Annette Harder argues that the choice of locations and the disposition of narrative material in the Aetia reflects the networks of social and geographical association that regulated polis interaction in the Hellenistic period, while Ivana Petrovic sees connections between Persian ruler-discourse and that of the Ptolemies, mediated by direct personal contact from the time of Alexander onward, and by the historiographical interest in things Persian that reaches back to the fifth century. She suggests that Posidippus' depiction of the Ptolemies' riches, and the 'ideology of universal rule' in other Hellenistic authors, can be traced back to representations of the Achaemenid dynasty. Examining different social strata, Sylvia Barbantani analyses the commemorative strategies at work in funerary epigrams for soldiers during the Hellenistic period and uncovers numerous instances of epigrammatic conventions being skillfully attuned to specific local and individual circumstances.

The diversity of approaches and subjects explored in this volume make it resistant to summary, and some readers, especially those less familiar with the field, may regret the absence of an introduction offering an overview of the approaches on display and putting them (however provisionally) into a coherent picture.1 However, the volume's success in opening up new directions of travel for students of Hellenistic literature, as well as the excellence of much of its content, ought to ensure it a wide and attentive readership.


1.   The volume is generally well presented, but quite a few typos and errors intrude, e.g. 'growns' p. 106, 'complete insensate' p. 111, 'she awaits for' p. 143, '1900 s' p. 165, 'presentify' p. 171, 'Jonn' p. 260, 'examples on' p. 302, 'revealing on' p. 302, 'rhetoric device' p. 311, 'indulgence on' p. 329. On p. 132, n. 53 contains a reference to a paper not included in the volume; 'fig. 10' at p. 207 n. 61 should read 'fig. 9'; p. 220 n. 11 contains a misspelled name. On p. 228 'most drastically' should read 'more', on p. 232 'easily ring' should read 'rings', and on p. 322 'exemplar' should be 'exemplary'.

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