Wednesday, October 28, 2015


M. Davies, P. J. Finglass, Stesichorus: The Poems. Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries, 54. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xiv, 691. ISBN 9781107078345. $180.00.

Reviewed by Giambattista D'Alessio, Università di Napoli 'Federico II' (

Version at BMCR home site


Stesichorus is arguably the most elusive among the lyric poets of the Greek literary canon. His name (roughly 'the one who sets up the chorus') sounds like an indicator of professional capacity. Ancient sources are discordant about his fatherland, the most frequent candidates being Himera in Sicily and Mataurum in Southern Italy. The focus of his activity was claimed by Himera, Locri, Catane. His chronology was also uncertain: for some he was the son of Hesiod (8th or 7th century); for others a contemporary of the tyrant Phalaris (active in the 6th century); the poet Simonides (late 6th/early 5th century) refers to him by name; one entry in an important chronological inscription mentions his arrival in Greece around 485; a further one indicates a victory of 'Stesichorus of Himera the Second' around 368, a datum compatible with another source (PMG 841) mentioning a Dithyramb of Stesichorus on the Cyclops in a context suggesting a 4th century date. As far as we can see, Stesichorus' poems offered no explicit link to their historical or biographical context. Most of them were absorbing and innovative mythological narratives, in lyric metres and epic style and scale, that enjoyed popularity and exerted influence on audiences and poets for centuries. Very little of this, though, survived the end of antiquity, and it was only with 20th century papyrological discoveries that, to some extent, these works came back to life. Most finds were published between the 1960s and 1990. While many fragments have attracted considerable studies, a new comprehensive critical edition, with full introduction and commentary, was obviously needed. The rich work of Davies and Finglass now fills the gap. Davies produced an Oxford DPhil thesis in 1979, covering the texts available then. This has now been enlarged and updated in collaboration with Finglass, who has covered also the texts published since then, and is entirely responsible for the critical edition (with a new and much improved numeration of the fragments) and the introduction (that includes a good section on style).

Like most scholars, Davies/Finglass are confident that the poems that went under the name of Stesichorus (apart from later insertions due to homonymy or other reasons) were the work of a single individual, whose biographical details became confused in later tradition. Their Stesichorus was probably born at Himera, and was active during the first half of the 6th century. A comparison in these and other matters with the conclusions reached in the recent, even more voluminous collection of the ancient testimonies by M. Ercoles, who is convinced that our poet was born in Mataurum and moved later to Himera, is instructive.1 Taking into account the cultural dynamics of the transmission of Greek lyric poetry in the archaic period, it seems to me that the impersonal nature of Stesichorus' poems provides a good explanation for the vagaries of such traditions. The corpora of the other Greek melic poets have a potential focus in their literary personae, as articulated through the poems themselves, and in their being textually linked to historical contexts. Lacking this focus, Stesichorus' works (collected in 26 books, far more than any other lyric poet) look rather as a collection of narrative poems, mostly impersonal, and attributed to a 'professional' name apparently used by mainly western poets from the archaic period onward. Finglass curtly rejects this possibility as 'the surviving fragments show similarities of style, content and form beyond what might have been expected for poets working in a similar genre' (61). And yet, the preserved fragments are no more similar to each other than any piece of archaic epic would be to another one. Within the same 'generic' narrative style, making use of an often thoroughly traditional diction in simple metres belonging to broad families (mostly dactylic, anapaestic, and 'dactylo-epitrites'), there are obvious variations: the 'Thebais' can be easily distinguished from the Homeric quasi-paraphrases of the Nostoi, and the polemical correction of previous versions in the Palinode. The assumption that the poems of Stesichorus are all or mostly the work of a single individual should be treated with more caution than it usually is. This is not without consequences for another issue, that of the attribution of papyrus fragments, a point to which I shall return.

The new edition is very thoroughly researched, as it is to be expected from such distinguished editors, and offers a mostly sensible assessment of the work of previous scholars, with some useful progress on points of detail. The sections on mythological traditions are particularly rich, devoting plentiful space to literary and visual testimonies. As is usual with fragmentary texts, interpretative and textual problems abound and the editors are well-informed on the discussions of the various, often complex alternatives. Occasionally, however, the way in which this information is conveyed is less than satisfactory. A remarkable example is what might have been Stesichorus' most famous and most debated poem, his Palinode on the story of Helen, where the evidence is presented in such a way that alternative approaches are effectively obscured to the non-initiated reader. The editors are in good company in their assumption that there were two separate Palinodes (though their idea that the second one might have had nothing to do with Helen is more idiosyncratic).2 The alternative view, however, shared by a good proportion of scholars, that there was a single poem articulated in two 'palinodes', with two distinct proems, hardly receives a fair hearing.3 Some of the arguments advanced by its proponents are discussed piecemeal, but never do we find a coherent summary of their positions. A piece of evidence used by some of these scholars, for example, is provided by F 296, where the orator Aristides says that he 'will move to another proem in the manner of Stesichorus'. The potential relevance of this fragment, though, is not mentioned in the context of the reconstruction of the Palinode(s), nor do we find any cross-reference to the issue in the commentary on the fragment itself. In this, and in other cases, the editors may well feel justified in preferring their own reconstructions to alternative ones, but the state of the evidence would have required them to provide more transparent treatment of different views especially in a work so rich in other informative details.

Papyri have been inspected in the originals and new readings are occasionally reported. Based on a random sample, not all of them look convincing to me. For example, at F 103.27 and 32 (Sack of Troy) Finglass's readings are not supported by what I can see in available reproductions. At l.32 Finglass prints undotted nu instead of the undotted kappa printed by all editors since Lobel, but there is a well visible trace of a rising oblique joining the following lambda, compatible with kappa, not with nu. At l.27 Finglass reads Ν]ε̣οπτόλ̣[εμ- but the first trace, described by Lobel as 'a dot level with the top of the letters, some way from ο', clearly visible in the photo printed in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri volume (but not on the one available on line at the P.Oxy. website), suggests much more readily the top of a lambda (Schade: φι]λ̣οπτόλ̣[εμ-) than that of an epsilon, and, anyway, the surface below and to the right, apparently preserved, has no trace of the expected cross-bar of epsilon. Neoptolemus' mention is problematic in the context, a section of speeches of the Trojans regarding the Horse: the possibility that the focus shifted 'to consider the Greeks inside the horse' sounds unlikely in the short compass of the text.

A particular problem raised by the papyri is that of their attribution to different poems, or indeed to different authors. This is an issue that has very important implications for our understanding of literary history. An interesting example is provided by the treatment of P.Oxy. 2359, 3876 and 2735. P.Oxy. 2359 had been tentatively attributed by Lobel to Stesichorus' Boarhunters, a poem on the story of Meleager and the Calydonian Boar (with doubts on fr.1.ii). Further discussions have strengthened the hypothesis and Davies/Finglass print its fragments (F 183, 185–6) accordingly. P.Oxy. 3876, published in 1990, on the other hand, preserves some fragments that almost certainly belong to a narrative on the same subject and in similar style (at least F 189 and 191): attribution to the same poem, though, is ruled out by metre. 3876, which may have represented more than one roll, also includes, along with other narrative fragments, at least one piece (F 214) praising an apparently non-mythical addressee in a style reminiscent of later erotic and epinician lyric, while F 219 might mention Delphi and a victory.4 Do both poems on the Boar belong to the same poet? And if this is the case, as Davies/Finglass think, how do we know which papyrus represents a copy of Stesichorus' Boarhunters? Both of them narrated key-moments of the story in a detailed style and with 'epic' pace. Did Stesichorus also compose encomiastic poems? Finglass thinks that such poems might be more appropriate to Ibycus, whose tradition was often confused with that of Stesichorus,5 and in their commentary on F 299 (a group of testimonies construable as implying that Stesichorus composed praise poems for Himera) Davies/Finglass write that 'we have no evidence for encomiastic poetry by [Stesichorus] of any kind'. Yet this is potentially contradicted by F 214, 219 and perhaps also 222, and there is more than a little danger of unacknowledged circularity in the argument. In this context it would have been important to be reminded also of the debate regarding the attribution of the encomiastic poems of P.Oxy. 2735 to Ibycus (barely mentioned by Davies/Finglass in a different context, 606) rather than to Stesichorus (M. L. West). On the other hand, there is no parallel among the fragments currently attributed to Ibycus for the detailed style and 'epic' pace (including a messenger speech) of the narrative sections of 3876: this alternative attribution would have significant consequences in the assessment of his place in the poetic tradition. The third alternative, i.e. that the papyrus represents rolls of different authors, would simply impose current (and weakly grounded) assumptions on the new evidence. The issue of the attribution of this group of papyri (whose fragments should perhaps more correctly have been labelled as 'of uncertain author') would have required a comprehensive multi-faceted treatment, taking into account also the possibility that the Stesichorean corpus at Alexandria might have been considerably more varied than the picture emerging from this edition.

These misgivings aside, this is a very substantial and serious work, making for the first time available all the fragments with a critical edition and full scale commentary. Anyone interested in Greek literature and culture should be grateful to the editors for their endeavour.


1.   Stesicoro: Le testimonianze antiche, Bologna 2013.
2.   Other scholars have pointed out potential Hesiodic passages on Helen that might have led to Stesichorus' second Palinode: these may well be dubious or debatable, but the reader should have been informed about this (316f.).
3.   Davies/Finglass briefly refer to 'the view that the Helen and the Palinode were two parts of a single poem' at 309 n. 57. Contrast Ercoles (309, with ample bibliography), who thinks there was a single poem with two different palinodes (a slightly different view, not even mentioned by Davies/Finglass).
4.   The text of F 214.15f. (mentioning 'many crowns') still awaits satisfactory explanation, Finglass' idea that the passive πλέχθεν may 'stand for the middle' (546) would require some sort of corroboration to be plausible (contrast M. Haslam, Oxyrhynchus Papyri, 57, 1990: 38: 'Surely ἐπλέχθεν is unthinkable as middle').
5.   The standard work on this is E. Cingano, AION 12, 1990, 189–224, published too late to include a full discussion of 3876. The importance of the problem was concisely highlighted by G. Schade, Stesichoros. Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2359, 3876, 2619, 2803, Leiden/Boston/Köln 2003: 45–8, 79 and G. Ucciardello , 'Sulla tradizione del testo di Ibico', in S. Grandolini (ed.), Lirica e teatro in Grecia, Perugia 2005: 22–3 (slightly misunderstood or misreported by Finglass 534 n. 1: Ucciardello does not attribute only the 'encomiastic' fragments to Ibycus but considers the possibility that the whole papyrus may be Ibycean).

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