Thursday, March 30, 2017


Simon Hornblower, Lykophron: Alexandra. Greek text, Translation, Commentary, and Introduction. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xxxii, 618. ISBN 9780199576708. $200.00.

Reviewed by Charles McNelis, Georgetown University (

Version at BMCR home site


Full disclosure: As Alexander Sens and I were in the final stages of editing our monograph (The Alexandra of Lycophron: A Literary Study), Simon Hornblower shared with us the proofs of this commentary. We were pleased to learn that our work was in accord with many of his views (e.g. dating), and though we benefitted tremendously from his generosity, larger conclusions had been arrived at independently.

This commentary will be foundational for all future studies on Lycophron and will also prove useful for readers of all Hellenistic and Greek literature. Each page of the commentary is filled with excellent, clear and lucid insights on central issues, addressing traditional scholarly questions about the poem as well as engaging with current critical trends and interests. Specialists will be prompted to (re)consider central interpretative questions of the Alexandra, and a more general audience will find helpful his exegesis of topics such as authorship, dating, literary style, and so much more. One may quibble about occasional cross-references that do not reward the reader with as much information as one would like (e.g. n. 3–4; the cross reference in n. 45–7 should be to 1444 n.), but the commentary is tightly argued and reflects a deep understanding and mastery of the poem.

The Alexandra is self-consciously challenging. A guard, who had been watching over the imprisoned Kassandra, relates, in 1474 trimeters addressed to her father Priam, the prisoner's prophetic utterances about the impending Trojan War and its outcomes. The guard thus functions as a sort of 'messenger' who relates the utterances of (as Hornblower cogently argues on 1–29) a mad woman who, by this point in the literary tradition, will not be believed anyway (see 1454). Unique words, unusual mythological accounts, oblique references to mythological figures and gods, and deliberate play with time (the poem is a stunning example of the so-called 'future-reflexive' phenomenon) and other features all permeate the Alexandra. That said, however, Hornblower helpfully asserts that the syntax of the poem is not difficult in the same way that Pindaric odes or Thucydidean speeches are (p. 3), and throughout the commentary he impressively sets about the task of elucidating and explaining the poem's difficulties.

Despite the nature of the poem, the commentary is easy to work with: the Greek text is on the left-hand pages, Hornblower's English translation on the right-hand (for an excellent note reflecting the nuance of Hornblower's translation, see on 308, σκύμνε), with the notes conveniently located below the text and translation, so there is no need to flip pages. There is a sizable introduction (114 pages) to the poem covering essential topics such as myth, language, religion, history of the text, dating, and authorship. Perhaps unexpectedly, epigraphy and its relationship to the Alexandra merit nearly 30 pages, but the payoff is worthwhile. Hornblower uses his knowledge of history and epigraphy to shed new light on topics pertaining to Greek religion; he examines cult practices to offer "a contribution to the elucidation of a difficult literary text, and to the history of ancient Greek religion" (p. 64), and his discussion of the gods' cult epithets (pp. 74–77) is particularly useful. For Hornblower, the cult titles refer to real religious practice throughout the Mediterranean at the time the poem was composed, and he plausibly suggests that the poem's treatment of religion may be of great importance for scholars working on network theory in the Hellenistic world.

Against that backdrop, the date of the poem emerges as a huge question. Hornblower argues, in my view decisively, for a second century BC date for the Alexandra, specifically around 190 BC. The argument is mounted from several directions. First, he argues that the Alexandra shows a full awareness of poetry written in Alexandria, Antioch and elsewhere primarily during the 3rd c. BC. Hornblower's brand of Quellenforschung builds a cumulative case, examining, for example, the relationship between Lykophron and a range of works by Kallimachos. He plausibly concludes that the Alexandra was written later than all of Kallimachos' works. A second, historically based argument is also revived and enhanced. The Alexandra contains two hotly contested passages that predict Roman power over the Mediterranean. Hornblower takes the view, held in both old (e.g. Beloch, Ziegler) and recent scholarship (K. Jones), that the poem is a product of the 2nd century BC, and counters the argument, perhaps associated most of all with Momigliano, that the poem belongs to the 3rd century because there is no reference to the First Punic War. Hornblower argues that Diomedes' curse upon the Daunian lands, which will end only when the land is dug by people of Diomedes' race, looks to a particular family, the Dasii, claimed to be descended from Diomedes. This family was important at Arpi, as attested by Livy (21.48.9, 26.38.6) and coins, during the Hannibalic Wars; the family is unknown at any other period. Hornblower reasonably takes this oblique reference to the Dasii as evidence that the Alexandra was written after the Hannibalic Wars, thereby discounting Momigliano's objections (for further problems with Momigliano's thesis, see p. 412 and the note on 1447).

The dating of the poem is significant per se, but it also impinges upon the identity of key figures in the poem. The Alexandra notoriously eschews proper names, instead referring to figures through various periphrases. A famous example occurs at 1435–50, where Kassandra makes a prediction about a descendant who will bring an end to the conflict between Europe and Asia. She indicates that Alexander the Great will temporarily end hostilities and also credits her descendant, whom she designates as a 'unique wrestler'. Hornblower, agreeing with previous scholars such as Beloch and Gruen, argues that Kassandra refers to T. Quinctius Flamininus, who defeated Philip V of Macedon at the battle of Cynoscephalae in 197 BC. Hornblower's account is sensitive to literary dynamics throughout. For example, he notes that the designation of Flamininus as a 'wrestler' makes sense in light of Flamininus' proclamation of freedom for the Greeks at the Isthmian festival of 196 BC. In addition, Hornblower notes that Flamininus was the agonothetes at the Nemean festival in 195. However, he adds that the poem exploits and develops broader ideas—such as the wrestling motif—found in epinician poetry and Pindar. In this sense, historical realities are framed by literary strategies.

All told, Hornblower's account of the poet rightly departs from the Suda entry that correlates the activity of the Alexandrian Lykophron, who lived in the early part of the 3rd c. BC in Alexandria, and who wrote tragedies as well as a treatise called On Comedy , with the author of the so-called 'dark poem' (τὸ σκοτεινὸν ποίημα).1 Hornblower provides a thoroughly consistent account that puts the Alexandra in the period 197–168 BC. Alternative views are generously cited, but hereafter his study of the entire poem, amounting to a comprehensive and synthetic view of the poem's historical details and literary strategies, will be the starting point.

In terms of themes in the poem, Hornblower consistently calls attention to the female voice and, more generally, the role of women (though a discussion on possible female authorship for the poem, pp. 40–1, does not seem to amount to much). Hornblower points out that counting by generations recalls the stylized speech of the female Sibyl (1446 n.), and that learned women, soaked in Homer, are part of the poem's literary background (p. 45). In a more general discussion about the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women and the Alexandra, Hornblower argues that a concern with female suffering at the hands of men as well as the general form of a catalogue create a strong connection between the two poems, though he properly notes, for example, that the dark treatment of Helen in the Alexandra is internally consistent and differs from the Hesiodic work. Hornblower's analysis of form and content come together to make larger points about the Alexandra as a whole. At the local level, the note on 1118, a verse in which Kassandra predicts she will not be heard by Agamemnon as she is killed by Klytaimestra, captures the pathetic nature of the prophecy, noting that while it was Kassandra's fate not to be believed, it is even more moving that at the end of her life she should not even be heard. Against that grim backdrop, however, the ultimate triumph of Kassandra and her descendants (i.e. the Romans) becomes even more impressive, and amounts to a stunning kind of reversal that, as Alexander Sens and I have argued, reflects a deep interest in the central prophecy of Kassandra in Euripides' Troades (427–44).

Literary appreciation of the tone of the Alexandra informs Hornblower's lengthy analysis of the Lokrian Maidens (1141–73). The section has its own introduction that covers bibliography as well as the thematic and structural place of the episode in the poem as a whole. However, Hornblower discusses the rite as described in the Alexandra in light of the 'Lokrian Maidens Inscription', properly noting that the depiction of the rite in the poem is unmatched in terms of expressing the myth in extreme and violent form (p. 406). Moreover, in a subsequent discussion Hornblower offers that 'the Lokrian myth is handled in a distinctive, sombre, and poetic fashion…' (p. 412). Hornblower's respect for the poem's overall design will provide an important model for future work on myth, ritual, and religious practice.

A limited apparatus is provided, with variants reported for approximately 85 lines. Hornblower sees his text as a 'companion' (p. 113) to the commentary and limits the apparatus to issues that relate to the commentary. The choice is sensible, as Hornblower rightly claims that the apparatus in the 2008 edition of Hurst/Kolde is 'excellent' and detailed (p. 111). No need to reinvent the wheel, then, but Hornblower corrects their apparatus in places (see p. 113, n. 322), is fully aware of the extensive textual tradition, and makes meaningful contributions to that tradition (e.g. on 367, where Hornblower adduces epigraphic support for an otherwise rare word). In terms of the text itself, some of Hornblowers' choices exemplify his command of the poem's nuance. For example, in verse 31, for the opening word of Kassandra's speech, Hornblower prints αἰαῖ instead of αἴ αἴ, explaining that the one-word opening offers a programmatic gesture towards the importance of Ajax in her narrative; meter merits excellent attention (the note on 763 ἵκτης is superb) and is used to explain textual choices (see in particular p. 2, n. 7 and n. 263). On 948, Hornblower even offers a worthwhile view on the rare noun βρέτας, which occurs twice in the Alexandra. He argues that the usage of the noun in Lykophron may support the reading at Euripides, Troades 13 given the importance of that play, and its Kassandra, for the Alexandra.

A section on the 'History of the Text' written by P. M. Fraser has been updated by Hornblower The section on MSS is handled in a straightforward manner, and the account of the exegetical tradition, starting with Theon, helpfully unravels the complex scholarly literature that grew up around the Alexandra (in connection with the readership of the poem, it is noteworthy that Hornblower indicates that a new inscription, SEG 51.641 (Chaniotis), marks that the emperor Hadrian surely had access to the poem). Excellent points on lexical issues are found everywhere. On the verb τρήσουσι (665), Hornblower first explains that this unique form of the future comes from τετραίνω, adds that the scholia noted the intertextual connection with Od. 10.124, but then he adds the key points that Lykophron varies every word as well as altering the construction and word order of the Homeric verse. These kinds of notes put the poem's intertextual relationship with Homeric poetry on a fresh footing and open up opportunities for further research (see similarly the tragic backdrop in the note on 1111). Hornblower is also helpful on potential points of linguistic confusion throughout the commentary (e.g. on 204, 317, 624). Lexical items are regularly discussed in light of larger stylistic practices, so the manner in which the Alexandra taps into, for example, historical conventions (see on 164) or hymnic strategies (see on 1474) becomes clear at the micro level, thereby enriching an understanding of the poem's mixing of genres (cf. p. 26).

The Alexandra, as Hornblower notes, has benefitted from much scholarly criticism since around 1990. His work stands out and will go a long way towards stimulating even more interest in an important and brilliant poem.


1.   It would have been useful to consider the description of the poem as 'dark' in light of Statius, Silvae 5.3.157 latebras Lycophronis atri (an opportunity passed over as well in the note on v. 12).

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