Tuesday, January 22, 2019


Pascale Linant de Bellefonds, Évelyne Prioux, Voir les mythes: Poésie hellénistique et arts figurés. Antiqua, 18. Paris: Éditions Picard, 2018. Pp. 384. ISBN 9782708410367. €69,00.

Reviewed by Kathleen Kidder, College of William and Mary (kkidder@wm.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

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

An interest in the relationship between text and image has motivated several studies in recent years.1 In response to this growing interest, Voir les myths: Poésie hellénistique et arts figurés offers a stimulating look at the ways poets, Hellenistic as well as Augustan, activate the formation of visual images for a reader. Such a mental evocation of visual images was called in ancient rhetorical terminology enargeia. In investigating this notion in the poems studied, the authors blend textual and iconographical evidence, demonstrating not just the role of decorative arts in eliciting mental images in poetry, but also the inspiration provided by poems for decorative scenes. The authors, as a result, present multiple strategies for using iconography and material culture to better comprehend poetic texts in their sociopolitical and intellectual contexts. Indeed, such an approach is especially useful for the poetic material treated in the book, as many of the texts are fragmentary, lack a definitive date, and/or display innovations with respect to genre.

The book is divided into four parts, each dedicated to a specific "modality" (p. 8) of understanding the relationship between text and image. The first section (chapters 1 and 2) addresses poetic works that have ekphrastic qualities. An analysis of Posidippus' epigrams on statuary takes up the first chapter, while the second chapter is devoted to the Tattoo Elegy (I. Brux.inv. E 9834 + P. Sorb. inv. 2254), an anonymous elegy cataloging the scenes the speaker intends to tattoo on various parts of a victim's body. In the case of Posidippus' epigrams on sculptures in the Milan Papyrus (62-70 AB), Prioux observes a relative paucity of physical description (p. 33). To address this difficulty and the fragmentary condition of certain poems (e.g. 69 AB), Prioux relies on Roman copies of Greek originals and art historical information that has been preserved in Pliny's Natural History. This information allows her to identify in the Milan collection a series of oppositions embodied by the various sculptors: leptotes vs. semnotes, phantasia vs. symmetria, and akribeia vs. megethos. Likewise, in the second chapter, Linant de Bellefond and Prioux couple textual and iconographic evidence to reconstruct and analyze the impossible image of an elaborate tattoo described in the elegy. As they conclude, the three scenes in the fragment (a Centaur fight, Tantalus' rock, and the Calydonian Boar Hunt) deal with the themes of punishment and curses, while also recalling famous ekphraseis, such as the Shield of Achilles and pseudo-Hesiod's Shield.2

In the subsequent section, chapters 3 and 4, the authors argue that well-known iconography can aid the reader in envisioning the mental images evoked by two innovative Callimachean poems: Hymn 5 and the Hecale. Both poems contain novel myths, such as Athena and Artemis punishing mortal men (Tiresias and Actaeon, respectively) for seeing them naked at the bath (Hymn 5). For this reason, Praxiteles' Aphrodite of Cnidus, when interpreted as the goddess surprised at being seen bathing, acts as a visual analogue for the situations of the goddesses in the Hymn. Similarly, for the Hecale, Hellenistic depictions of old women and scenes of Theseus can help a reader visualize the narrative of the aged Hecale warmly receiving Theseus in her humble abode.

In the third section (chapters 5 and 6), the authors explore how iconography might assist in the dating of poems. Confronting the tortuous question regarding the authorship and date of the Alexandra, Linant de Bellefond, Pouzadoux, and Prioux in chapter 5 defend the thematic importance of Italy in the poem.3 Maintaining Lycophron's connection with Southern Italy, they propose dating the poem to the end of the fourth/early third century BCE.4 This date is endorsed on the basis of Apulian vase paintings from the period that depict numerous myths featured in the Alexandra, particularly ones concerning the conflict between East and West. The sixth chapter returns to the topic of ekphrastic epigram, specifically to poems of a dubious date that are devoted to carved gemstones. By noting the thematic similarities between two gem carvers, Tryphon and Sostratus, Prioux approximates the date of AP 9.544, an epigram that mentions Tryphon carving a beryl gem of the goddess Galene, to the Augustan period.

The final section (chapters 7 and 8) covers poems that contain innovations in myth and that also directly inspired works of art: Theocritus' Idyll 24 and Pyramus and Thisbe in Ovid's Metamorphoses (4.55-166). For instance, in their reading of Idyll24 in chapter 7, the authors discern an unexpected emphasis on Alcmene's activeness in attempting to rescue her babies from the snakes, and such an image appears in a recently discovered Severan mosaic from Emesa that illustrates the scene. The final chapter concerns Ovid's unique telling of the Pyramus and Thisbe myth and its subsequent inspiration of Pompeian wall painting.

In studying this varied material that spans several centuries, the authors consistently keep their focus on the concept of enargeia. Despite the dearth of extant Hellenistic theorizing on this concept, rhetorical treatises like Demetrius' On Style (date uncertain, see p. 57) serve as evidence for distinguishing the strategies for cultivating enargeia. Since Demetrius identifies harsh sounds and onomatopoeia as some of the techniques for enargeia (Eloc. 219-20), the authors frequently call attention to the effect of sound patterns in their readings, such as the harsh series of sigmas and iotas in col. II, lines 17-18 of the Tattoo Elegy (p. 103). Aside from astutely noting these sound patterns and other techniques for enargeia (e.g. repetition in Posidippus' epigrams, p. 37), the authors emphasize the importance of Iliad 21.257-62, the simile comparing the river Scamander to the waters in a garden canal system. Not only did this passage stimulate critical discussion for its remarkable ability to evoke an image (Duris fr. 89; Demetr. Eloc. 209), but Callimachus (Hecale fr. 74), Lycophron (Alex.434), and Ovid (Met.4.121-24) all allude to the simile. This combination of evidence effectively endorses the poets' strong interest in enargeia. The first chapter, in particular, offers an excellent discussion of Posidippus and enargeia (p. 38-41), as Prioux touches upon the relationship between art and poetic critical terminology (p. 30-31) and the poet's possible affiliations with the critic Duris of Samos (p. 34). Somewhat wanting, however, is a discussion with this level of detail for the other poets. That is, what larger cultural and intellectual factors caused enargeia to endure as a topic of critical discussion and an aspect of poetic practice?

Along with considering the poetic and rhetorical dimension, Linant de Bellefond and Prioux give numerous sociopolitical readings of the poems. In chapter 3, for example, they convincingly argue for the connection between Athena in Callimachus Hymn 5, Egyptian goddesses (Neith and Isis), and Ptolemaic queens. The support for this reading includes the Athena-Neith-Isis assimilation, the importance of the poem's setting in Argos for Ptolemaic ideology, and the presence of a temple to Isis in the Argolid (p. 108-9). Similarly, in chapter 7, the authors connect the portrayal of the active Alcmene to the prominent Ptolemaic queens, establishing the political relevance of Idyll 24 for the Ptolemies (p. 278-92). At the same time, the authors conjecture that Alcmene, in the context of the Severan mosaic at Emesa, can stand for Julia Domna (p. 296-306). For this claim, as with others, the authors are careful to admit to the uncertainty of their arguments, especially on the basis of iconography alone. Indeed, as is acknowledged in the introductory chapter (p. 7-8), not only does iconography often develop independently from texts, iconographical types can persist for a long amount of time. Gaps in the material record only increase the difficulties. For this reason, one could argue that the overlap, though extensive, between the rare myths in Apulian vase paintings and those in the Alexandra does not necessarily confine the poem to the late fourth/early third century BCE. That is, a poet composing a century later could have still been aware of such myths either through written or even (now lost) visual sources. Nevertheless, the fifth chapter constitutes an invaluable contribution to the Lycophron question, successfully proving the poet's interest in Southern Italy and making an impressive case for the argued date.

The book boasts numerous full-color illustrations, as suits the subject matter. Moreover, throughout the text are supplementary sections, such as inserts on the careers of particular artists, discussions of scholarly issues, and charts summarizing arguments. For the epigrams of Posidippus and the Hecale, the Greek text, translation, and some commentary appear at the end of the respective chapters. Several helpful sections to the end of the book: an alphabetical list of cited artists with their time period and major works, a glossary of key terms and people, and four separate indices (mythological figures, artists, monuments and art works, and ancient sources). An index listing political figures and key terms would have been useful. Ultimately, however, the supplementary material is beneficial for furnishing the reader with both background and additional information, without disrupting the flow of the arguments.

Although some of the book's arguments have appeared elsewhere,5 the authors have done a remarkable job of collating this material to produce a cohesive work about a varied set of poems, many of which are challenging and seldom studied. While examining the relationship between text and image, the authors have succeeded in striking a balance between scholarly rigor and accessibility.

Authors and Titles

1. Évelyne Prioux, Posidippe: l'évidence et l'occasion
2. Pascale Linant de Bellefonds and Évelyne Prioux, Crime et châtiment dans l'Elégie du tatouage
3. Christophe Cusset, Pascale Linant de Bellefonds, and Évelyne Prioux, L'Hymne pour le Bain de Pallas: récit d'une épiphanie impossible
4. Pascale Linant de Bellefonds and Évelyne Prioux, Le projet esthétique de l'Hécalè
5. Pascale Linant de Bellefonds, Claude Pouzadoux, and Évelyne Prioux, Lycophron l'Italien?
6. Évelyne Prioux, Épigrammes et camées: la culture d'une reine amie de Rome, entre influences alexandrines et art augustéen?
7. Pascale Linant de Bellefonds and Évelyne Prioux, L'Idylle 24 de Théocrite: d'Alexandrie à Émèse
8. Pascale Linant de Bellefonds and Évelyne Prioux, Pyrame et Thisbé: les métamorphoses d'un mythe entre textes et images


1.   See, for instance, M. Squire, Image and Text in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (Cambridge, 2009).
2.   A handy color-coded chart on p. 60 summarizes these parallels. For instance, Heracles' struggle with a Centaur (col. I, 5-col. II, 3) is reminiscent of the conflict between the Centaurs and the Lapiths in pseudo-Hesiod's Shield (178-90).
3.   As has been long noted, the poem's emphasis on Roman power does not easily fit with the evidence of the Suda, which attributes the poem to Lycophron of Chalcis in the third century BCE under Ptolemy II. See S. Hornblower, Lykophron Alexandra (Oxford, 2015), 36-38 for the argument for dating the poem to the second century BCE.
4.   In this way, the authors follow the arguments of G. Amiotti, "Lico di Reggio e l'Alessandra di Licofrone," Athenaeum 60 (1982), 452-60. Aside from emphasizing the connection between Lycophron and Lycus of Rhegium (his adoptive father according to the Suda), Amiotti proposes that Lycophron composed the work in Southern Italy, before arriving in Alexandria.
5.   E.g. C. Pouzadoux and É. Prioux, "Orient et Occident au miroir de l'Alexandra et de la céramique apulienne" in C. Cusset and E. Prioux (eds.), Lycophron: éclats d'obscurité (Saint-Étienne, 2009), 451-85.

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