The Scroll and the Marble: Studies in Reading and Reception in Hellenistic Poetry


"One of the most prominent figures in American Hellenistic poetry scholarship, Peter Bing has long served as a model for acute criticism and careful reading. He has a marvelous ability to make readers rethink their preconceptions; his work is always beautifully argued and documented and his writing style is a pleasure to engage with."
---Benjamin Acosta-Hughes, Ohio State University

While people of previous ages relied on public performance as their chief means of experiencing poetry, the Hellenistic age ...

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"One of the most prominent figures in American Hellenistic poetry scholarship, Peter Bing has long served as a model for acute criticism and careful reading. He has a marvelous ability to make readers rethink their preconceptions; his work is always beautifully argued and documented and his writing style is a pleasure to engage with."
---Benjamin Acosta-Hughes, Ohio State University

While people of previous ages relied on public performance as their chief means of experiencing poetry, the Hellenistic age developed what one may term a culture of reading. This was the first era in which poets consciously shaped their works with an eye toward publication and reception not just on the civic stage but in several media---in performance, on inscribed monuments, in scrolls. The essays in Peter Bing's collection explore how poetry accommodated various audiences and how these audiences in turn experienced the text in diverse ways. Over the years, Bing's essays have focused on certain Hellenistic authors and genres---particularly on Callimachus and Posidippus and on epigram. His themes, too, have been broadly consistent. Thus, although the essays in The Scroll and the Marble span some twenty years, they offer a coherent vision of Hellenistic poetics as a whole.

Peter Bing is Professor of Classics at Emory University and editor, most recently, of the Companion to Hellenistic Epigram: Down to Philip (coedited with Jon Steffen Bruss).

Jacket illustration: Film still from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, directed by Frank Capra, Columbia Pictures 1939.  Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472116324
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 5/5/2009
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

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The Scroll and the Marble

By Peter Bing

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2009 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11632-4

Chapter One

The Unruly Tongue


* * *

Philitas of Cos stands as a gray eminence at the start of Alexandrian scholarship and literature. Described as "simultaneously a poet and a critic" (Strabo, he was picked by Ptolemy I Soter to be tutor to his son Philadelphus and is said to have taught Zenodotus of Ephesus, first librarian of the Library of Alexandria (Suda s.v. "Philitas"). His comments on epic vocabulary in his pioneering lexical study, Ataktoi Glossai, caused Aristarchus, the great Homeric scholar and Alexandrian librarian, who lived more than a century later, to write a work entitled Against Philitas (schol. A ad Il. 1.524). As to his verse, its artistry was celebrated in programmatic poems by Callimachus (Aetia 1.9-10, with the Florentine Scholia) and Theocritus (7.39-41), eminent poets of the next generation working in Alexandria; and Roman poets cite him as an authoritative model for elegy (Propertius 3.1.1-6, 3.51-52, 9.43-44; Ovid Ars am. 3.329-48; Ovid Rem. am. 759-60; Statius Silv. 1.2.252).

As all this suggests, Philitas' activity and impact loom large-in the work of others. Regrettably, he says very little to us in his own voice, since his oeuvre has mostly vanished, surviving only in brief citations and fragments. I want to turn to these, however, so as to explore in what sense Philitas may in his age have served as a model of a poeta doctus.

In one of his surviving poems (10, p. 92 Powell = 12 Sbardella = 25 Spanoudakis), a female speaker discriminates between ignorant rustics and those versed in song; the latter stand out by virtue of their laborious, hard-won knowledge: "No benighted rustic from the mountains / will take me ... toting his mattock, / but only an expert in song's ordered verses, who through much toil / knows the way of every kind of tale." Here poetry is considered the product of toil, of diligent skill and learning as much as of inspiration. This attitude toward poetry was embraced by subsequent poets in Ptolemaic Alexandria.

Philitas' erudition gave rise to an entirely new comic type: the spindle-thin professor so engrossed in study that he quite forgets to eat and drink, being himself rather consumed by his researches until he becomes a feeble shadow of a man. This new comic type seems to have appeared specifically in response to the personality and interests of Philitas, whose particular obsession was with words. Already his younger contemporary, the elegist Hermesianax, describes how there was a statue of him set up by the people of Cos, in which he was portrayed as "frail with all the glosses, all the forms of speech" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], fr. 7.77-78, p. 100 Powell). A similar picture emerges in one of the newly published epigrams of Posidippus, a near contemporary (col. X.16-25 BG = 63 AB). The poem depicts another statue of Philitas, commissioned from the sculptor Hekataios by none other than Ptolemy Philadelphus and perhaps intended for display in Alexandria-a devoted pupil's tribute to his distinguished tutor.


[Hekataios made this bronze like Philitas in every way, accurate down to the tips of his toes in size and frame alike describing this investigator [?] on a human scale. He included nothing from the physique of heroes. No, with the straightedge of truth, and all his skill he cast the old man full of cares. He seems like he's discoursing-how fully his features are elaborated!- alive, though of bronze, this old man. "I stand here dedicated by Ptolemy, god and king at once, for the sake of the Muses, the Coan man."]

As in Hermesianax' image of the scholar "frail with all the glosses," Posidippus' statue portrays this "investigator" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], v. 4) on a human scale, as an emphatically old man ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], v. 6; [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], v. 8). He is, moreover, "extremely anxious," "full of cares" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], v. 5). The adjective is otherwise unattested but aptly describes the absentminded intellectual, engrossed in thought. According to the Hellenistic epigrammatist Dionysius (1.3 GP = AP 7.78.3), another well-known personage, the scholar-poet Eratosthenes, died [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. In our poem, words in =??- describing the sculptor's painstaking realism-[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (v. 2)-suggest an affinity with the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (vv. 5-6). Likewise the artist's deployment of all his skill ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], v. 5) in the accomplishment of his task seems appropriate to the creation of an image of the meticulous scholar-poet. Finally, Philitas is not idealized in any way. On the contrary, he cuts a wholly unheroic figure-a point Posidippus drives home with the striking formulation in verse 4 that the sculptor "blended in nothing from the form of heroes" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), a metaphor doubtless evoking the metallurgical act of making a compound. There is in Philitas no alloy of heroism.

This picture of Philitas is embellished in stories preserved for us in various sources. Aelian, for instance, relates the following (Varia Historia 9.14):

They say that Philitas grew extremely thin. Thus as the slightest thing could easily send him sprawling, he put lead weights in his soles, so as not to be blown over if there happened to be a stiff wind.

And in Athenaeus we learn of the tragicomic denouement when one of the characters humorously admonishes the host of the great banquet at which the work is set (9.401d-e):

Ulpian, you always refuse to take your share of food until you've learned whether the word for that dish is ancient. Like Philitas of Cos, therefore, ... you risk withering away some day. For he became utterly emaciated through these studies and died, as the epigram in front of his memorial makes clear:

"Stranger, I am Philitas. The deceiving word caused my death, and the evening's thoughts extended deep into the night."

As Alan Cameron has recently noted, "thin-jokes" were a staple of ancient comedy, the counterpart to our modern-day "fat-jokes." Yet the emaciated professor is something new. It is as yet unknown to Theophrastus' Characters. Nor is it the brainchild of Attic comedy. Rather, it seems to emerge in elegy and epigram-a genre for whose learned practitioners Philitas was an important model.

Philitas was evidently famous already within his lifetime for his research on words. But what was the nature of these lexical researches, and in what way did they figure in his poetry and in that of the scholar-poets who succeeded him? Much work on the erudite poets of Alexandria has focused on their reception and creative reuse of the epic tradition, in particular of Homer. That is not surprising given the wealth of Hellenistic hexameter and elegiac poetry, where we can trace how these poets mined early epic for the rare and atypical. It is tempting to suppose that Philitas did the same, devoting his lexical interests mainly to Homer. After all, in a comic fragment of Strato (Kassel-Austin PCG VII fr. 1), a contemporary of Philitas, a master of the house sputters in exasperation as he describes being driven to distraction because the cook he hired for a party possessed the peculiar and hilarious tick of speaking almost exclusively in Homerisms: "one would have had to use the books of Philitas and look up every word to check its meaning" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The assumption here is that "the books of Philitas" dealt with Homeric vocabulary (but cf. my appendix to the present essay). We recall as well that Aristarchus, the great Homeric scholar, wrote the work Against Philitas.

Yet the surviving fragments of Philitas' researches, and some of his verse, point in another direction, toward a different area of intense learned and poetic interest: namely, exotic diction and local customs. This is where I believe he had his greatest impact on subsequent poetry. From what we can tell from citations of his famous lexical work, the Ataktoi Glossai, Philitas often took Homer as his starting point. But let us have a look at some examples to see where he went from there.

Our first is the word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which probably refers to Homer's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] at Iliad 18.553. That term is a Homeric hapax legomenon, one of five treated by Philitas out of a total of twenty-five surviving glosses (i.e., 1/5). I am of course assuming that he chose to treat these words because they were Homeric hapaxes, though none of the citations makes explicit reference to Homer. Nevertheless it is a reasonable assumption since Homeric language overall was privileged, and such words in particular provoked perennial discussion and so, for all their rarity, were culturally marked.

The word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] occurs in the description of that part of Achilles' shield on which there is a royal precinct with reapers harvesting the grain (Il. 18.552-57).


[Some sheaves fell to the earth in a row, one after another, some the amallodeteres bound with cords. Three amallodeteres attended to the job, and behind them children gathered the sheaves, and carried them in their arms, and quickly brought them over. And silent beside them the king along the swath stood holding his scepter, rejoicing at heart.]

Broken into its constituent parts, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] means "those who bind the amalla." This substantivized "binding" is immediately repeated, and so explained, in the verb d=?t and its object [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]: "those who bind the amalla" tie sheaves together. The resulting bundle, then, is the amalla. Here we have a case of instant exegesis-a nice example of the interpretive maxim, often linked with Aristarchus, that Homer is his own best interpreter, or, in Greek, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (literally, "explaining Homer through Homer"). In the world of the shield-a synoptic, pars pro toto world, where homely scenes are crammed with universalizing meaning-no further explanation is required. We need know nothing more about the amalla.

Yet Philitas commented on the word, as we hear in the following citation in Hesychius (s.v. = 46 Kuchenmüller = 18 Dettori = 46 Spanoudakis):


[Amalla. Sheaves, bundles of grain ... a bunch; one hundred sheaves, according to Istros, but Philitas says it consists of two hundred.]

Now where would Philitas have come by such a fact? Not in Homer, that's for sure. Kuchenmüller's hunch was that he'd asked the farmers themselves, presumably on Cos ("haec ab ipsis rusticis quaesivit Philetas"). One may balk, of course, at picturing the scholar-especially the Philitas of biographical lore-exiting his study, blundering down the road to a local farm (flattened several times, no doubt, by nasty gusts; he'd left his weights at home) to ask the farmers (whom no one could have mistaken, for they looked beyond all like farmers), "Just how many sheaves make up an amalla?" But stripped of the biographical caricature, the basic supposition that he learned from a source with firsthand knowledge is not farfetched. Perhaps it was a farmer, perhaps a treatise on farming, such as those mentioned in Plato's Minos (316e: "farm manuals," [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). In any case, what the gloss of Philitas is clearly not is an attempt at "explaining Homer through Homer" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). It is not intended, I think, to explain Homer at all. Rather, here, as elsewhere, Philitas reveals an interest in rustic life for its own sake. The Homeric word is merely the cue. What appeals to him is the specialized knowledge, the figure two hundred, which tells us something about actual farming, not about the remote heroic world of epic.

Our next example likewise takes its cue from Homer but suggests, too, that Homer-far from being just a springboard-is a crucial foil against which the scholar sets his gloss. The word in question is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], another hapax legomenon, whose one appearance in Homer comes at Iliad 16.642. There it clearly means "milk pail" and is part of a rustic simile in which soldiers swarming over the dead Sarpedon are likened to flies "whirring through a sheepfold, about the pails [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] overflowing with milk [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]." Here is how the word is glossed by Philitas (Athen. 9.495e = 33 Kuchenmüller = 5 Dettori = 33 Spanoudakis):

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Cleitarchus [of Aegina, first century B.C.] in his Glosses says the Thessalians and Aeolians call a milk pail pellêtêr, but a drinking cup pella. Philitas in his Ataktoi says a wine cup (kylix) is call pella by the Boeotians.]

Now milk and wine are virtual opposites in the Greek imagination. And the shallow, broadly flaring kylix, a wine cup, could scarcely be more different from a milk pail. Yet [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] can be used to signify either. What strikes us are the widely (and wildly) divergent meanings of a single word-homonyms but in jarring antithesis. Add to that Philitas' concern with local usage (in this case, Boeotia's): on the one hand, there is the culturally authoritative Homeric meaning; on the other, the regional peculiarity. Significantly, Philitas appears to present the Boeotian meaning for its own sake, not to illustrate that of the Homeric hapax. Was he interested in the lack of uniformity, in semantic dissonance itself?

I should emphasize that that would be quite contrary to the practice of the anonymous gloss writers, the Glossographoi, in the Homeric scholia. While they too occasionally fix on a dialect usage, they do so in order to suggest that this is what Homer meant by a certain term in a given passage under discussion. To be sure, the citations of Philitas provide us no context; we cannot tell what he intended by noting that a Homeric hapax was used in a certain way in a regional dialect. Yet nothing suggests it was meant to illustrate the sense in Homer (can one even argue that [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] can be glossed as "wine cup" in the Iliadic simile?). On the contrary, what leaps out at the reader of the gloss when set against the Homeric use is its irreducible difference-an opposition so neat as to suggest a deliberate strategy and interest in semantic dissonance.

Another example reinforces that impression and adds a new dimension. It is a further Homeric hapax, the word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which occurs at Iliad 9.206 in the sense of "butcher block" or "tray for cutting meat." There it is described as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a great butcher block, big enough to hold a sheep's chine and used by Patroclus and Achilles in preparing the meal for the embassy of Greeks. Here is what Philitas says about it (Athen. 14.645d = 37 Kuchenmüller = 9 Dettori = 37 Spanoudakis):

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Krêion is a flat cake or loaf that the Argives bring from the bride to the groom. It is baked on charcoal, and the friends are invited to partake of it, served with honey. So says Philitas in the Ataktoi.]

Again the meaning is strikingly anomalous and local in origin. But this time Philitas reveals his interest not just in regional words but in customs. Among other things, that custom may serve here to highlight the difference from the Homeric context. For while Homer describes the manly preparation of meat for the feast of heroic friends in a council of war, Philitas recounts how the Argive bride bakes cakes for her groom and his friends, to be served with sweet honey. The single word thus carries connotations of both marriage and butchery, love and war.


Excerpted from The Scroll and the Marble by Peter Bing Copyright © 2009 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Figures....................ix
List of Abbreviations....................xi
CHAPTER 1. The Unruly Tongue: Philitas of Cos as Scholar and Poet....................11
CHAPTER 2. Impersonation of Voice in Callimachus' Hymn to Apollo....................33
CHAPTER 3. Callimachus and the Hymn to Demeter....................49
CHAPTER 4. Reconstructing Berenike's Lock....................65
CHAPTER 5. Ergänzungsspiel in the Epigrams of Callimachus....................85
CHAPTER 6. Text or Performance / Text and Performance: Alan Cameron's Callimachus and His Critics....................106
CHAPTER 7. The Un-Read Muse? Inscribed Epigram and Its Readers in Antiquity....................116
CHAPTER 8. Allusion from the Broad, Well-Trodden Street: The Odyssey in Inscribed and Literary Epigram....................147
CHAPTER 9. Reimagining Posidippus....................177
CHAPTER 10. Between Literature and the Monuments....................194
CHAPTER 11. Posidippus' Iamatika....................217
CHAPTER 12. Posidippus and the Admiral: Kallikrates of Samos in the Epigrams of the Milan Posidippus Papyrus (P. Mil. Vogl. VIII 309)....................234
CHAPTER 13. The Politics and Poetics of Geography in the Milan Posidippus Section One, on Stones 1-20 AB....................253
Index of Ancient Passages Cited....................293
Subject Index....................302
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