Sunday, October 4, 2015


Kai Brodersen (ed.), Solinus: New Studies. Heidelberg: Verlag Antike, 2014. Pp. 224. ISBN 9783938032862. €39.90 (pb).

Reviewed by Christopher Michael McDonough, Sewanee: The University of the South (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

For even the learned readers of Bryn Mawr Classical Review, the intellectual trends concerning the work of Solinus are probably not familiar territory; indeed, even the mere existence of this late antique compiler of marvels is not generally well known. "There are some that terme Solinus by the name of Plinie's Ape," wrote Arthur Golding in the introduction to his 1587 translation (still the only published one available in English), in reference to the fact that so much of the paradoxographical material in Solinus depends upon the Natural History. The dismissive epithet has stuck with Solinus, as has the academic scorn from which it grows. In a review of Theodor Mommsen's critical edition of 1895, Carl Weyman openly reflected that the great classicist's dedication "um einen schwachköpfigen Kompilator wie Solinus ... kann als ein Akt der Selbstverläugnung bezeichnet werden" (Berliner philologische Wochenschrift 16 [1896] 911). As one of the contributors to the volume under review here notes, "the entry on Solinus by E. H. Warmington stands virtually unchanged in all four editions of the Oxford Classical Dictionary" (Hillard, 45). With the publication of Solinus: new Studies, under the capable editorship of Kai Brodersen, the time for a scholarly re-evaluation of this long-neglected and badly maligned author is finally at hand.

Most of the essays in the present volume were presented at a colloquium held at the University and Research Library at Gotha/Erfurt in June 2013, the point of which was to recast the nature of the academic discussion surrounding Solinus (the title of whose work, it should be noted, is uncertain: eight of the contributors refer to it as Collectanea rerum mirabilium, Mommsen's preferred designation, while the other four use its other attested name, Polyhistor). In the opening essay, Zweder von Martels blames the discredit into which Solinus has lapsed on the work's "silly and unoriginal contents" and the author's "clumsy and bad style" (10). Concerning the latter, it may be that the limited taste of later readers is to blame, as Latinists before the modern period "were trained in a much larger variety of authors," he notes. "In those ages, complaints as to Solinus' Latin did not occur" (21). In the contributions of both Barbara Pavlock and Arwen Apps, the issue of style versus substance is considered more fully, with each noting that Solinus himself contrasts fermentum cogitationis with bratteas eloquentiae in his introduction, helpfully reprinted as the first item in the book (8-9).

A number of contributors address the subject of the Collectanea's contents, derived largely, as noted, from Pliny as well as from Pomponius Mela, without acknowledgement. By way of analogy, Apps compares him to "a student writing an essay with the aid of a history textbook, and footnoting the primary sources quoted rather than the authors of the textbook itself" (41). She argues, however, that his overarching interest was in constantia veritatis rather than a fastidious scholarly methodology. Tom Hillard likewise notes that "the modern world would characterize [Solinus' failures of proper attribution] as plagiarism" (50) but ascribes this instead to ancient habits of note-taking (of which Pliny himself is a well-known practitioner). He makes much of the divergences between Solinus and Pliny in matters of prosopography: arguing convincingly against Mommsen's thesis that Solinus is based on an unattested Chorographia Plininia, Hillard concludes that the later author was at times simply if subtly correcting errors in his source material. A similar argument is made by Francisco Javier Fernández Nieto regarding Solinus' alteration to Ceos of the certainly wrong name, Cos, in the selection of the Natural History from which the Collectanea cribs its depiction of the island. While Hillard and Fernández Nieto may seem to be pursuing very fine points, taken together they outline the idea that this late antique author is not simply an unoriginal copyist but a careful editor exercising a certain judicious discretion. "¡Formidable operación, aunque así se mecen las glorias y las miserias en la tarea del compilador!" as Fernández Nieto concludes (95).

Debates over from whom Solinus derived his material and in what spirit he did so have blinded scholars to seeing the value in how the contents of his work are arranged; it is significant that Solinus re-organized the memoribilia which he had taken from Pliny and others in a systematic geographic fashion, beginning with Rome and spiralling out in a counter-clockwise direction over the Empire. This is probably the right place to note that Solinus' dates are disputed: Brodersen has argued for a floruit before 300 A.D., though other scholars favor a time later in the fourth century, as von Martels observes (22). If the exact century is uncertain, however, it is evident that Solinus' work strongly reflects the influence of the Roman Empire in its maturity, as both Frank E. Romer and Caroline Belanger discuss in their contributions. "While the original publication of the Collectanea did not contain a map, its author did have a map in mind as he wrote," Romer states (86), and it is worth noting, in light of this, that the term Mediterranea maria is Solinus' coinage. Though he was an imperial Roman writer, Solinus' Empire was not the same as that of Pliny the Elder, Romer notes, and the ambiguities implicit in his "collection of marvelous things" reflect the anxiety of the third century rather than the triumphalism of the first. In her detailed discussion of Solinus' association of the Axumites of Ethiopia with the esteemed Macrobians described by Herodotus, Belanger states "the Collectanea gives, as it were, a nod of respectful recognition to an important economic neighbour" (117). Imperial realities, in other words, seem to filter into the bookish armchair geographer's depiction of the world in which he lived.

The last set of contributions to Solinus: New Studies focuses on the work's Nachleben. To what degree Solinus was known among fourth-century Christian authors is a matter of debate addressed by David Paniagua, investigating an old consensus that Solinus was "quoted by St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine" (as William Smith has in his entry from the 1849 Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology, although the idea goes back to Johannes Camers three centuries earlier). Only Augustine ultimately can be proven to have been familiar with Solinus, Paniagua concludes, though indeed, in the City of God, Augustine had extensively if disapprovingly employed Solinus' collection of mirabilia so as to dispute pagan scoffing at the Christian belief in miracles. This is a theme on which Karin Schlapbach ably expatiates in her chapter concerning Augustinian curiositas. She even wonders, "Perhaps it is also owed to Augustine's own remarkable attention to strange matters of the natural world that despite his critique, Solinus remains popular through the Middle Ages ..." (150). Whatever the author's reputation might have been in later times, it is certainly true that Solinus was wildly popular among medieval readers, as Brodersen's revised handlist of 250+ manuscripts amply attests (Appendix, 201-208). The uses to which the Collectanea was put in the Late Antique and early Middle Ages are well illustrated by Félix Racine in his contribution about Martianus Capella and Priscian. For each of these authors, he demonstrates, Solinus offered a worthwhile pedagogical model, especially with regard to geography. "Although the Collectanea never became a school text in antiquity, ... [Solinus] had perhaps unwittingly written the perfect manual of geography for teachers, a collection of school-flavored facts they could dispense as needed" (170). Priscian too had perused Solinus for matters of style and vocabulary as well as geography in a way that was to become the standard practice of reading Solinus for the next millennium, it seems. Marginal annotations in the copies of Solinus owned by the sixteenth-century humanists, Heinrich Bullinger and Joachim Vadian, are knowledgeably discussed by Paul Dover (with whom, I should note in the interest of full disclosure, I have co-authored a piece on the glosses of an Italian Solinus manuscript). What is revealed in this analysis is a concentrated engagement with not just what Solinus writes about but also how he has written it. Unusual terminology is transcribed in the margins, as are a wide-ranging set of cross-references to other classical texts, a procedure, Dover notes, "that appears frequently in the margins of other early printed copies of Solinus" (183).

From St. Augustine to the Swiss Reformation, Solinus' Collectanea rerum mirabilium was deemed a work of great cultural significance, one that gathered vast amounts of remarkable information about the world from trusted classical authorities into an orderly and easily-referenced guide. But, as tastes changed in the style of Renaissance Latinity toward a "purer" Ciceronianism, and as dependence upon traditional authority gave way toward empirical observation in the rise of the sciences, the fortunes of Solinus precipitously declined. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was an undisputed communis opinio that the work of Solinus was derivative, ungainly, and generally worthless. Over the past decade or so, many of the scholars represented in this volume have labored mightily in re-assessing Solinus' reputation. These efforts find their capstone in Solinus: new Studies, and it is hard to recall a moment in the recent history of classical scholarship when a figure so reviled has been the subject of so wholesale a rehabilitation. What is ultimately on offer here is not just a new appreciation of this particular author, but a cautionary tale generally about the lesser-known texts in the corpus of extant ancient literature that have fallen out of favor. While it is unlikely that this volume will lift its subject back to the level of popularity he enjoyed in the Middle Ages, perhaps it will cause classicists of the twenty-first century to wonder what other authors critical prejudice have obscured from view.

Table of Contents

Gaius Iulius Solinus, Praefatio, p. 8
Zweder von Martels, Turning the Tables on Solinus' Critics: The Unity of Contents and Form of the Polyhistor, p. 10
Barbara Pavlock, Paradox and the Journey in the Dedicatory Preface of Solinus' Collectanea, p. 24
Arwen Apps, Source Citation and Authority in Solinus, p. 32
Tom Hillard, Prosopographia shared by Pliny and Solinus: The question of Solinus' Source(s), p. 43
Frank E. Romer, Reading the Myth(s) of Empire: Paradoxography and Geographic Writing in the Collectanea, p. 75
Francisco Javier Fernández Nieto, Incidentes de una corrección geográfica de Solino a Plinio: La isla de Cos, p. 90
Caroline Belanger, Solinus' Macrobians: A Roman Literary Account of the Axumite Empire, p. 96
David Paniagua, Iisdem fere uerbis Solini saepe sunt sententias mutuati: Solinus and late Antique Christian literature from Ambrose to Augustine - An old assumption re-examined, p. 119
Karin Schlapbach, Solinus' Collectanea rerum memorabilium and Augustine's curiosa historia, 141
Félix Racine, Teaching with Solinus: Martianus and Priscian, p. 157
Paul Dover, How Heinrich Bullinger read his Solinus: Reading Ancient Geography in 16th-century Switzerland, p. 171
Appendix (by Kai Brodersen)
A Survey of the Contents of Solinus' Work, p. 196
A Revised Handlist of Manuscripts transmitting Solinus' Work, p. 201
Afterword, p. 209
Bibliography, p. 210

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