Tuesday, August 28, 2018


Herbert Bannert, Nicole Kröll (ed.), Nonnus of Panopolis in Context II: Poetry, Religion, and Society. Proceedings of the International Conference on Nonnus of Panopolis, 26th - 29th September 2013, University of Vienna, Austria. Mnemosyne Supplements, 408. Leiden: Brill, 2017. Pp. xviii, 436. ISBN 9789004341197. €121,00.

Reviewed by Guy Walker, Trinity College Dublin (walkergu@tcd.ie)

Version at BMCR home site

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

After many years in critical obscurity, Nonnus now receives his third collected volume in four years, following the first Nonnus of Panopolis in Context (ed. Spanoudakis 2014) and Brill's Companion to Nonnus of Panopolis (ed. Accorinti 2016). Combined with the relatively recent Budé and BUR editions, and the continuing Nonnus of Panopolis in Context conference series, Nonnian studies is certainly experiencing quite the renaissance. This 436 page volume, edited by Herbert Bannert and Nicole Kröll, presents the proceedings of the second Nonnus of Panopolis in Context conference, held at the University of Vienna in 2013. It gathers the work of twenty specialists and is divided into three sections: 1. The Poetry of the Dionysiaca; 2. The Poetry of the Paraphrase; 3. Nonnus of Panopolis in Context. As can be expected, this division is somewhat arbitrary in a few cases, since several papers deal heavily with both of Nonnus' poems.

The introductory section offers a retrospective glance at Nonnian studies since the 1930s by the late Pierre Chuvin (pp. 1-18). The chapter succinctly surveys many of the developments in the field, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, and highlights several of the controversies and impasses that Nonnian scholars still face today, such as the question of the influence of Latin poetry (particularly Ovid) on the Dionysiaca. The opening introduction provides a concise and helpful orientation for the uninitiated reader, commendably condensing over 80 years of Nonnian scholarship into only 18 pages.

The first section is opened by Michael Paschalis (pp. 21-32), who examines the Cadmus narrative in the opening books of the Dionysiaca. The chapter starts from a discussion of Koechly's emendation of ἧς to οὗ in line 3.319 of the Laurentianus MS (1857, Vol. 1, xxvii), which made the bull the object of Cadmus' search, rather than his sister Europa. Chuvin (1976) rejected this intervention, but Paschalis persuasively argues for its validity and demonstrates that in his opening episodes, Nonnus consciously shifts his narrative from Cadmus' search for Europa to the search for the bull, suggesting clear Nonnian innovations throughout the episode rather than an obsequious reliance on the models of Moschus and Achilles Tatius (1.2-13).

Simon Zunelli (pp. 73-85) examines the potential evidence for Nonnus' use of mythographic manuals (non-poetic lists of mythological information dealt with in a systematic manner) in composing the Dionysiaca. The chapter makes a clear and logical case, and identifies numerous structural parallels in Nonnus' lists to surviving mythographic texts, particularly the alphabetical list of metamorphoses at 12.70-102. In his concluding remarks, Zunelli also suggests that alongside mythographic manuals, the use of onomastic and geographical lexica might account for the Dionysiaca's rich vocabulary and Nonnus' predilection for etymological explanations of geographical names.

Camille Geisz (pp. 55-97) begins by comparing the number of similes and comparisons in the Dionysiaca to other epic poems, namely the Iliad, the Odyssey, Apollonius' Argonautica, and the Posthomerica. This quantitative approach offers a springboard for a more comprehensive look at Nonnus' use of comparative devices, where Geisz offers a clear demonstration of Nonnus' innovative strategies. Instead of following his Homeric heritage and providing glimpses of a contrasting world, Nonnus uses comparative devices to expand the narrative with allusions and vignettes.

In the second section, which is devoted to Nonnus' Paraphrase, Jane Lightfoot (pp. 141-55) produces a complementary study to her 'Oracles in the Dionysiaca' chapter in the first Nonnus of Panopolis in Context (ed. Spanoudakis 2014). Her contribution focuses primarily on the depiction of inspiration and inspired prophecy and uses comparative material from the Dionysiaca to demonstrate each poem's independent system. Although inspired writing is more prevalent in the Paraphrase than the Dionysiaca, the chapter's survey of prophetic terminology (ὀμφή, θεηγόρος, ποικιλόμυθος, -θροος compounds, (ἀν)ερεύγομαι) demonstrates that the two poems have a considerable amount of shared vocabulary. Differences can be observed in the poems' modes of anticipation, with the Dionysiaca favouring explicit prolepses to anticipate the career of Dionysus, and the Paraphrase favouring citations of scripture and declarative statements to demonstrate their fulfilment in Christ in the here and now. The author's argument makes a strong claim for Kontrastimitation, rather than syncretism or accommodationism, as the model best suited for explaining these correspondences between the two poems.

Fabian Sieber's contribution (pp. 156-65) revisits vocabulary that has been used in efforts to connect Nonnus' poems and pin them within the literary milieu of the 5th century CE. These include Joseph Golega's attempt to situate the Paraphrase within the Christological debate, analysing the use of θεοτόκος to establish the first Council of Ephesus (431 CE) as a terminus post quem; and Francis Vian's examination of μάρτυς, which argued that Nonnus' use of this term was developed primarily in the Paraphrase, and then applied to the Dionysiaca, thereby stressing the chronological priority of the Paraphrase. The author raises some objections to Vian's argument, arguing that the Christian concept of μάρτυς is based on the New Testament and cannot be found in the Dionysiaca. The author also suggests that Nonnus uses both Nestorian and Cyrillian terminology, and argues that this supports a post-Chalcedonian date when such terms were well integrated in dogmatic thought but had shed their controversial connotations. As the author admits, it is difficult to draw definite conclusions from such a brief study, but he certainly succeeds in challenging some established interpretations of the Paraphrase.

Konstantinos Spanoudakis' chapter (pp. 216-51), although included in the Paraphrase section, offers a potential connection between the Staphylus/Botrys episode and the problematic Secret Gospel of Mark (SGM). This mystic gospel was attested in the Mar Saba Letter, a document of disputed authenticity attributed to Clement of Alexandria, which was discovered by Professor Morton Smith and subsequently lost, and is now preserved only in photographs. Although previous analyses have suggested that Nonnus modelled the Staphylus/Botrys episode on the Biblical story of Lazarus, the author suggests that Nonnus uses a precedent from the SGM as a subtext to construct several elements of his account, particularly the ending. Arguing against Nonnian embellishment in this episode, the author argues that the baptismal context, the sleeping of Dionysus and Botrys together in the same chamber, and the episode's nuptial elements recall the SGM's account of Christ's resurrection of a youth of Bethany, who is taught the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. The conclusions are attractive, but perhaps asserted too strongly given that the source myth that Nonnus reshapes here is otherwise unknown to us. The chapter per se may have little to add to the question of the authenticity of Clement's letter, but, short of the original document's miraculous re-appearance, a general accretion of similar contributions might tip the scales in the deadlocked discussion on the SGM's historicity.

Opening the final section on Nonnus in Context, Gigli Piccardi provides a thorough discussion of the question of Nonnus' imitation of Pindar in the Dionysiaca (pp. 255-70), with particular focus on the two proems (Books 1 and 25) and the influence of Pindar on some of Nonnus' metaphors. She concludes with remarks on structural principles in Nonnus that according to tradition were generally considered Pindaric. The chapter benefits from thoughtful engagement with Callimachus and the Byzantine scholar Eustathius for a balanced view of the reception of Pindar from the Hellenistic era through Late Antiquity. Given Nonnus' identification of Pindar as a new Amphion (25.18-19), and Pindar's role as a 'champion of inspired poetry' (p. 257), there does seem to be a potential Orphic connection, potentially mediated through Neoplatonism.

David Hernández de la Fuente's contribution, 'The Quest for Nonnus' Life' (pp. 355-73), offers a survey of the Nonnian biographical traditions, focussing primarily on fictional biographies of the poet, ranging from forgery to popular fiction. The chapter demonstrates the popular fascination with Nonnus' near anonymity, as well as the creative attempts to fill in the gaps. The stories within this chapter, whether that of the 19th-century forger Constantine Simonides, or Richard Garnett's The Poet from Panopolis (The Twilight of the Gods, 1888), not only help to elucidate Nonnus' reception before his critical re-appraisal in the 20th century, but also entertain.

The final chapter in this volume, contributed by Robert Shorrock (pp. 374-92), identifies a painting of Nonnus' 'abduction of Europa' by the 18th century French rococo artist Noël-Nicolas Coypel. Shorrock produces a brief survey of Nonnus' own embellishments on the popular myth, as well as a brief history of the Laurentianus MS in Italy during the Renaissance. He then turns to two paintings of Europa's abduction by Coypel, the first clearly derived from the Ovidian tradition, and a later attempt featuring a striking number of parallels and resonances with Nonnus' account. This discovery is, as Shorrock says 'just a start, but an exciting one' (p. 391), and he concludes his chapter with the following questions: 'did Coypel read any more than the opening episode of Nonnus? And did he choose to keep his mythological 'key' quiet or was it shared and enjoyed by others?' (p. 392). These questions could provide a great starting point for a more in-depth study of Nonnus' reception in Renaissance art.

As these select examples show, the volume boasts a broad and diverse range of contributions. However, on occasion these feel more disparate than they actually are. The Nonnus in Context section, perhaps unavoidably due to its wider scope, feels less focused than the preceding sections. Furthermore, although the introduction serves to summarise nearly a century of Nonnian scholarship, it lacks sustained engagement with many of the themes and questions addressed in this volume. This feels like a missed opportunity to help synthesise and draw together these conference proceedings, especially when there are in fact many points of contact between chapters. For instance, Shorrock and Paschalis' chapters nicely bookend the volume with the abduction of Europa. In fact, as the same episode is visited also in Carvounis' contribution, which analyses Boreas and Europa, and Verhelst's, which explores witnesses and interpreters of the scene, Nonnus' Europa myth is the most prominently discussed episode in this volume.

Overall however, this collection, completed by a robust bibliography and indices, represents another step forward for Nonnian studies and makes a strong case for continuing the Nonnus of Panopolis in Context conference series, demonstrating the vivacity and relevance of a poet who may have once been consigned to obscurity, but surely will be claiming scholars' attention for quite some time to come.1

Authors and Titles:

Pierre Chuvin, Nonnus, from Our Time to His. A Retrospective Glance at Nonnian Studies (Notably the Dionysiaca) since the 1930s, 1–18
Michael Paschalis, The Cadmus Narrative in Nonnus' Dionysiaca, 21–32
Katerina Carvounis, Dionysus, Ampelus, and Mythological Examples in Nonnus' Dionysiaca, 33–51
Laura Miguélez-Cavero, Nonnus' Catalogic Strategies. A Preliminary Approach to the Dionysiaca, 52–72
Simon Zuenelli, Mythographic Lists as Sources of the Dionysiaca of Nonnus, 73–85
Camille Geisz, Similes and Comparisons in the Dionysiaca: Imitation, Innovation, Erudition, 86–97
Berenice Verhelst, What a Wonder! Looking through the Text-Internal Observer's Eyes in Nonnus' Dionysiaca, 98–119
Joshua Fincher, The Tablets of Harmonia and the Role of Poet and Reader in the Dionysiaca, 120–137
Jane L. Lightfoot, In the Beginning was the Voice, 141–155
Fabian Sieber, Words and Their Meaning. On the Chronology of the Paraphrasis of St John's Gospel, 156–165
Maria Ypsilanti and Laura Franco, Characterization of Persons and Groups of Persons in the Metabole, 166–183
Filip Doroszewski, The Wise Mysteries of the Sacrificial Hour. Nonnus' Exegesis of John 4.23, 184–194
Roberta Franchi, Flumina de ventre eius fluent aquae vivae. Nonnus' Paraphrase 7.143—148, John 7.37–38, and the Symbolism of Living Water, 195–215
Konstantinos Spanoudakis, The Staphylus Episode. Nonnus and the Secret Gospel of Mark, 216–251
Daria Gigli Piccardi, Nonnus and Pindar, 255–270
Mary Whitby, Christodorus of Coptus on the Statues in the Baths of Zeuxippus at Constantinople. Text and Context, 271–288
Nestan Egetashvili, An Attempt to Remove the Asia-Europe Opposition. Καύκασος in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Panopolis, 289–298
Claudio De Stefani, Metrische Beobachtungen zum Hexameter der Disticha des Kyklos, 299–326
Domenico Accorinti, Die Versuchung des Nonnos. Der Mythos als Brücke zwischen Heiden- und Christentum, 327–354
David Hernández de la Fuente, The Quest for Nonnus' Life. From Scholarship to Fiction, 355–373
Robert Shorrock, Ut poesis pictura. Nonnus' Europa Episode as Poetry and Painting, 374–392
Michael Zach, Note on Panopolis in Upper Egypt (Now Akhmim, Governorate Sohag) in Late Antiquity and After, 393–394


1.   Works Cited:

Accorinti, D. ed. (2016) Brill's Companion to Nonnus of Panopolis. Brill.
Lightfoot, J. (2014) 'Oracles in the Dionysiaca.' In Spanoudakis, K. ed. Nonnus of Panopolis in Context: Poetry and Cultural Milieu in Late Antiquity. De Gruyter: 39-54.
Shorrock, R., review of Nonnos de Panopolis, Les Dionysiaques. Tome XVI. Chants XLIV-XLVI, Bernadette Simon/ Nonno di Panopoli, Parafrasi del Vangelo di S. Giovanni. Canto tredicesimo, Claudia Greco/ Nonno di Panopoli, le Dionisiache (Canti XXV-XXXIX). Volume terzo. Introduzione, traduzione e commento, Gianfranco Agosti/ Nonno di Panopoli, le Dionisiache (Canti XL-XLVIII). Volume quarto. Introduzione, traduzione e comment, Domenico Accorinti. BMCR 2006.03.37.
Spanoudakis, K. (2014) Nonnus of Panopolis in Context: Poetry and Cultural Milieu in Late Antiquity. De Gruyter.

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