Nonnus’ double-length epic the Dionysiaca presents itself as both mythically prior to, and chronologically posterior to, the poems of Homer. Nonnus’ narrative of the birth and exploits of Dionysus makes much of its narrative precedence to Homeric events, narrating the riverside battles of Achilles’ grandfather Aeacus, for instance, as a knowing ‘prefiguration’ of Achilles’ own quintessentially Iliadic performance (D. 22.384-9). Nonnus, however, advertises the complexity of his relationship with Homeric poetics, a literary (af)filiation that is figured through the continually shifting dynamics of rivalry and refashioning, allusion and supersession (Hopkinson 1994; Shorrock 2001). This intertwining of reverence and rivalry operates with particular force on the temporal plane: Nonnus’ poetry shows itself acutely conscious not only of the narrative and chronological scope of the Homeric epics themselves, but especially of the points at which the later poet can recast his predecessor on a universal scale and exploit his position as simultaneously pre- and post-Homeric.
This paper analyses these dynamics through the representation of Aion (‘Time’) in the Dionysiaca, arguing that Nonnus’ personified Aion encapsulates much of the universal, cyclical or non-linear quality of Nonnian temporal poetics. Aion is a figure of immense significance for Nonnus, the deity who registers imbalances in the cosmos (6.371-2; 24.265-7), who bears witness to history’s most impressive events (12.25; 25.23-4; 38.90-5) and who is capable both of dissolving the very fabric of the universe and of rescuing humanity from oblivion. Aion, moreover, is a figure who points to the confluence of multiple systems of meaning in the Dionysiaca (spanning archaic Greek epic, astrological, Orphic and Christian traditions), and a figure of specifically imperial resonance (Chuvin 1992: 173; Vian 1993: 46-51; Livrea 1996: 399; Spanoudakis 2013; Stegemann 1930; on the interplay of literary and visual representations of Aion in the imperial period see Levi 1944; Zuntz 1988, 1992; Porter 2013).
Aion, crucially, is the god whose supplication of Zeus on mankind’s behalf leads to the birth of the ‘saviour’ Dionysus (7.9ff.), the scene on which the first section of this paper focuses. Aion’s account of destructive war and the short-lived nature of human existence (ταχυφθίμενος, 7.31 ὠκύμορος, 7.35) evokes the Homeric usage of αἰών, which denotes not eternal time but the life or lifetime of an individual, and all too often the life-span of notoriously short-lived or emblematically mortal heroes such as Patroclus, Sarpedon, Hector and Achilles (Il. 19.27; 5.685-6, 16.453; 9.415-6; 22.58, 24.725). For Nonnus and many of his contemporaries, by contrast, Aion may be seen to represent not a human lifetime or (like Chronos) linear time, but eternal, cyclical or seasonal time (cf. Gigli Piccardi 2003: 513-15; Miguélez-Cavero 2013: 353-4; on the changing connotations of αἰών see Keizer 2010). Aion’s intercession in the Dionysiaca draws attention to the ‘Iliadic’ sense of the brevity of human existence only to replace it with a new ‘Dionysiac’ driving force and cosmic scope, an endless, and endlessly renewable, temporal span governed by Aion, orientated towards Dionysus and encompassed in Nonnus’ gigantic epic, which brings about the seamless congruence of old and new.
Nonnus, it is argued, reframes this same Iliadic obsession with the foreshortened lifespan of the individual when, at the programmatic midpoint of his epic, he makes Aion the arbiter of the temporal relationship between Homeric and Nonnian poetic schemes and the pivotal point between old and new. Aion, we hear, has never before witnessed a conflict like this one, nor could the ‘subsequent’ Trojan War match the scope of the Indian War (25.23-8). In each case Nonnus’ evocation of Aion marks the universal force of his epic and the contrast between the events he narrates and those of Homer. Αἰὼν ποικιλόμορφος (7.23) – a figure, we are told, who conjoins youth and antiquity – acts as a foil not only for Dionysus but also for the Dionysiaca itself, a narrative that is simultaneously pre- and post-Homeric, and above all insistently ποικιλόμορφος in form.
Homeric Poetics at the Dawn of Christianity