Tuesday, September 27, 2016


Delphine Lauritzen, Jean de Gaza: Description du tableau cosmique. Collection des universités de France. Série grecque, 515. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2015. Pp. ciii, 279. ISBN 9782251005997. €65.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Elizabeth M. Conner, University of Maryland (econner1@umd.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

This volume is the first modern critical edition exclusively focused upon John of Gaza's verse ekphrasis, the Tabula Mundi, a text which constitutes our sole evidence for a megalograph of the cosmos that adorned a lost winter bath in late ancient Gaza. Delphine Lauritzen's masterful contribution offers the first translation of the text into a modern language, making accessible to students and specialists alike this understudied text consisting of 703 hexameters and two iambic prologues that shows substantial Nonnian influence as well as the imprint of Neoplatonic and scientific texts. The present work consists of a substantial introduction to the text and its transmission, text with facing-page French translation, commentary, glossary, list of passages cited from the Dionysiaca, and a substantial bibliography.

As Lauritzen emphasizes, the uneven quality of the modern critical editions (the most recent of which was that of Friedländer, published in1912), and the absence of a complete translation into a modern language has meant that the Tabula Mundi has remained fairly obscure and has not received the diffusion it merits (p. LXXXVIII). The text is transmitted by the single witness of the Supplementum Graecum 384, the second part of the Palatinus Graecus 23 which famously preserved the Palatine Anthology(AP), commonly dated to the first half of the 10th century (p. LXXII). The present edition establishes its text based on the Supplement held at the Bibliothèque Nationale and the 1608 apograph of Joseph Scaliger (Leidensis BPG 11). In fact, one of the principal contributions of this volume is to render due acknowledgment to Scaliger for his magisterial work as the premier editor of the Tabula Mundi, a role that has remained largely ignored, to the detriment of the text (p. XCVI). Lauritzen's fascinating synopsis of what may be known of the journey of the Supplement in the Early Modern period demonstrates how intellectual friendships in the "Republic of Letters" facilitated early paleographical work on the text. For example, because he could not leave his academic chair at Leiden, Scaliger never worked first hand on the portion of the antigraph transmitting John's ekphrasis but based his remarkable apograph on installments of copies sent to him from Paris by his friend Jean Gruter (1560-1627) and the young savant Claude Saumaise (1588-1653) (p. LXXXIII). Lauritzen's discussion of the posterity of John's description in late antiquity focuses on Paul the Silentiary, with some remarks about the influence of John's ekphrasis on Agathias and Dioscorus of Aphrodito. One regrets, however, that Lauritzen omits in this volume an overview of the reception of John's description among earlier Byzantine savants as well, an important subject for a reference work.

Concerning the identity of the author, Lauritzen's biographical discussion focuses less on the historical person than on elucidating a context valuable for understanding the poem (p. VII). It is unclear from the titular toponym of the Supplement, which refers to "John of Gaza" as author, whether John hailed from Gaza, whether he simply taught as a grammarian at Gaza (and originated elsewhere), or whether he both originated at Gaza and remained there to teach (as in the example of Procopius of Gaza). This superscription, however, does allow us to situate the poet in the greater context of the intellectual flowering of the School of Gaza in the 5th -6th centuries C.E., whose other leading figures, Christian rhetoricians writing classicizing prose, included Aeneas, Procopius, and Choricius. Lauritzen accepts as highly likely the identification of John author of the Tabula Mundi with the homonymous author of the six anacreontic poems. The content of the anacreontic poems and John's ekphrasis— encomiastic pieces meant for public declamation—share in common the pedagogical content of the progymnasmata, and a scholium on the Supplement testifies that John was one of a circle of celebrated anacreontic poets at Gaza. Based upon her analysis of the recently-discovered Epithalamia for Mēlēs and Antoniana of Procopius of Gaza, Lauritzen has proposed the identification of John of Gaza with the homonymous father of the groom mentioned in the oration as responsible (along with his brother Timotheus) for repairs on a bath house quite similar to that of the Supplement's superscription.1 Such a hypothesis identifying a grammaticus as a member of the Gaza boule invites us to consider perhaps a more fluid conception of these intellectual elites and their liturgical contributions to the late ancient city than predominates in modern scholarship. Ultimately, Lauritzen establishes the dates of John's activity, 500-530 C.E., on the basis of two termini post quem of Nonnos and Proclus, and, the terminus ante quem of Paul the Silentiary, as well as a scholium in the Supplement mentioning John along with Procopius of Gaza and the grammaticus Timotheus as belonging to a coterie of intellectuals (ellogimoi) at Gaza. The absence of Choricius in this list and the reference to Procopius likely indicates that John was anterior to the former and a contemporary of the latter (pp. XVI-XVII).

When we turn to consider the material reality of the painting, and the location of the bath itself, the ekphrasis and scholia are not particularly helpful, but Lauritzen provides a useful overview of the main issues and current scholarship in her introduction (pp. XVIII-XXX). John's ekphrastic interpretation of the painting iconography is itself an allegorical cosmography, a description of the interrelationships among 60 personifications of the various physical elements and principles that structure the cosmos. The central portion of the poem describes the forces of nature (including Ocean, Earth Sea, the Winds, the Storm, as well as seven angels) and the superior order of the stars, including the star par excellence, the Sun. The cycle of the sun—symbolized by the allegories of the Seasons—is supported by ordering principles as in Wisdom (Sophia) and Excellence (Aretē) as well as the figure of Atlas. Framing the personifications are two sets of symbols; namely, the Cross and the Trinity, and Ether crowning the World for its victory over Nature. These two sets of symbols are mingled in a hymn devoted to the cosmic god at lines 44-53. The range of Hellenic and Christian allegories in the description may well reflect, as Lauritzen suggests, a type of reinterpretatio Christiana (p. XXVIII). This allegorical mode is well attested at Gaza in the writings of Procopius on Dialexis on the Rose in which the sophist likely offers a Christian interpretation of elements of the Gaza festival of the Day of the Roses.2

The vibrant intertextuality of the Tabula Mundi enriches greatly our knowledge of the literary tastes and training of Gaza literati, of whom John appears to be our sole extant poet, and the diffusion of Egyptian poetry in late antiquity, most likely underscoring a lively intellectual exchange between Gaza and Alexandria. Perhaps the poet learned Nonnus' poetry during study at Alexandria, and it seems likely that John played a critical role in popularizing Nonnian verse among Gaza and Palestinian literati. Lauritzen's scholarship has contributed greatly to contemporary understanding of the innovative elements of John's vivacious mimesis of the Dionysiaca (and to a lesser extent, the Paraphrase), yet the introduction and notes in this edition could communicate her most interesting analysis on this issue far more explicitly.3 In addition to the towering presence of Nonnus, John interweaves references to standard texts and authors of the grammatical-rhetorical repertoire (Aristophanes, Euripides, Homeric Hymns, Hesiod, Homer [also a by-product of Nonnian mimesis]), as well as citations of Hellenistic authors Theocritus, Apollonius of Rhodes, Callimachus, epigrams surviving in the Greek Anthology, and Gregory of Nazianzus (Carmina moralia, Carmina dogmatic). Of particular interest also are John's quotations of scientific authors in passages related to astronomical or atmospheric phenomena (Aratus, Phaenomena; Pseudo-Manethon, Apotelesmata), a fairly unusual feature in works associated with the Gaza School.

John's references to the hymns of Proclus in the context of his cosmography merit comparative study with the inclusion of Proclus in the writings of other members of the Gaza School, especially the discussions of the creation of the cosmos in the Gaza rhetoricians Aeneas (Theophrastus), Procopius (Commentary on Genesis), and Zacharias (Ammonius). Proclus' powerful defense of the eternity of the world, articulated with precision in his Eighteen Arguments on the Eternity of the World and his Commentary on Plato's Timaeus, did much to rankle these Christian sophists from Gaza, who each responded to the diadoch in a separate treatise.4 In contrast, John deploys Proclus' verse to add both poetic and philosophical inflection in his ekphrasis. In contexts in which he is beseeching the favors of the gods of poetry (the Muses, the Sirens, Apollo), John refers to verses from Proclus' Hymns that indicate poetic inspiration (Tab.40; cf. Hymn to the Muses), and the metaphor of the breath of inspiration that navigates the ship of the poet (Tab.; cf. Hymn to Athena). Elsewhere, John makes use of Proclus' poetic personifications of the Winds (Tab. 250; cf. Hymn to Athena), the sun as the heart of the sky (Tab.74; cf. Hymn to the Sun1.6) and the rays of the sun as generating life (Tab.76; Hymn to the Sun1.10). Numerous other passages contain language and concepts replicated in various texts of Proclus (pp. LXI-LXIII). John's inclusion of Proclus confirms again the engagement of Gaza literati with Neoplatonic thought, even if late ancient Gaza, as far as we know, did not produce philosophers (famous or otherwise).

The issue of the context of performance and the audience of theekphrasis could have received greater attention here. It seems likely that John declaimed his poem publicly (p. 56n9), and if the bathhouse was indeed located in Gaza, then the audience was likely comprised of Gaza and Palestinian literati. Lauritzen's suggestion that John's references in his initial iambic prologue (Tab.2 and 12) to the figure of the philosopher "exalté par la hauteur de son sujet," drawn from Aristophanes Clouds (810 and 225), represents the Gaza poet's attempt to distance himself from the role of interpreting the allegorical figures of the Hellenic tradition, a role she judges "délicat voire risqué" in the context of 6th c. Gaza, may require qualification (p. XLV). Christian Gaza literati seem to have participated in unapologetically "Hellenic" public oratory with comfortable enthusiasm. One needs only to refer to the delightfully folksy mythological language of the Ekphrasis tou horologiou, probably delivered publicly in the Gaza city center (the clock's location), by John's contemporary, Procopius of Gaza. John's assumption of the philosopher's persona may well be similar to the posturing of Procopius as sophist-philosopher used frequently in his letters.

John's genius, which Scaliger rated more highly than that of Nonnus, has regrettably stood for far too long in the Panopolitan's shadow. One hopes that this fine edition will stimulate new literary, textual, and historical study of this long-neglected ekphrasis associated with the cultural blossoming of late antique Gaza, a subject of burgeoning scholarly interest.


1.   On this, see Lauritzen, "Sur l'identité de Jean de Gaza: grammatikos et notable," RET 5 (2015-16): 177-210. It would have been helpful if Lauritzen could have shared in the present volume her reasoning on this matter.
2.   See Eugenio Amato, Notice, pp. 3-39 at 32-39, in idem, ed., comm., and Pierre Maréchaux, trans., Procope de Gaza. Discours et fragments. Collection des universities de France. Série grecque, 503. (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2014).
3.   Cf. Lauritzen's excellent essay, "Nonnus in Gaza: the Expansion of Modern Poetry from Egypt to Palestine in the Early Sixth Century CE," pp. 421-33, in K. Spanoudakis, ed., Nonnus of Panopolis in ContextTrends in Classics Supplement 24 (Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2014).
4.   For discussion of the response of the Gaza rhetoricians to Proclus' thought on creation and eternity, see Michael W. Champion, Explaining the Cosmos: Creation and Cultural Interaction in Late-Antique Gaza Oxford Studies in Late Antiquity (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

1 comment:

  1. The identification of John of Gaza with the homonymous father of the groom mentioned in the "Epithalamium for Mēlēs and Antoniana" of Procopius of Gaza has been first proposed by E. Amato, 'Sur l’identité de Timothée, commanditaire de la fresque de Gaza,' RET 3 (2013-2014), 71 n. 8.


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