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Maronian Nectar: Nonnus, Homer and Vergil

Tim Whitmarsh

In the first half of Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, a substantial amount of space is given over to Dionysus’s charioteer, Maron. This paper considers why. The long-standing poetological significance of the chariot (Choerilus SH 317.4-5, Astydamas II TGrF 60 T2b, Callimachus, Aetia 1.25-8; Nünlist 1998, 255-64 for earlier examples) prompts the reader to explore the wider literary significance of this figure. What drives Nonnus’ Dionysus? This question is posed all the more urgently since Nonnus in his preface asks the Mimallons (Maenads) to wrap around his shoulders a fawnskin ‘full of the perfume of Maronian nectar’, and to leave the rancid seal-skins to Homer (1.34-8). Nonnus opposes his own Maronian poetics to Homer’s, here (using a different poetological image) implicitly assimilating the Dionysiac contents of his own oeuvre to the powerful wine given to Homer’s Odysseus by Maron of Thracian Ismarus (Hom. Od. 9.197). It is a characteristically Nonnian paradox that the very image used to mark distance from Homeric aesthetics is itself Homeric in origin (see e.g. Hopkinson 1994, 11).

Yet another poetological cue – an unmissable one – comes in book 19, where at the funeral games of Staphylus Maron competes in pantomime dance with Silenus (on the poetic resonances here see Shorrock 2001, 156-8). Maron now becomes a non-verbal narrator, ‘etching out a multi-mythed (ποικιλόμυθον) silence with wordless hand’ (19.200). This ‘poetic’ contest (already, of course, a Dionysiac retooling of Iliad 23) also results in what is in effect a Bloomian parricide, since Silenus is (in Nonnus) Maron’s father: Maron’s victory is complete when Silenus loses control, the metaphorical fluidity of his dance is literalised, and he metamorphoses into a river. The theme of relative ages is strongly brought out in this section (Delavaud-Roux 2009). Silenus was initially introduced as a γέρων, his sons also needing staves to support the ‘sluggish bodies of these weakening men’ (14.96-104). In the dance competition, it is Silenus’ frailty that does for him: his ‘knees tired, his head wobbled and he fell headlong, tumbling to the ground’ (19.285-6). Maron, meanwhile, chooses as his theme not (the narrator emphasizes) what you would expect from ‘an old man carrying the blood of the Titans’ (19.205): no, ‘leaving aside that whole stream of ancient material (ἀρχαίης ... ὕλης)’ (19.209) he opts to depict Ganymede and Hebe instead – presumably a ‘younger’ theme because of both its youthful protagonists and its erotic content.

So Maron represents an aged poetic tradition, but not the most aged. He is in one sense Homeric (his ultimate hypotext is Odyssey 9), but in another anti-Homeric (in that his sweet wineskin is opposed to Homer’s malodorous sealskin). What is going on here? In this paper I develop a passing suggestion of Robert Shorrock’s (2008, 105) that ‘Maronian nectar’ might refer to the works of Publius Vergilius Maro. Vergil’s own homophonic interest in the Homeric Maron has been noted (Savage 1965; Mac Góráin 2012-13, 213-14). Vergil was known to late-antique Greeks both in the original and in translation (Fisher 1982, 177-89; d’Ippolito 1984), and had been designated Μάρων from the second century onwards (Phlegon FGrH 257 F12; Cass. Dio 75.10; Anth. Gr. 16.151). That Nonnus knew Vergil has been argued on independent grounds (D’Ippolito 1991). This paper will explore the proposition that, for Nonnus, Vergil/Maron represented the first stage in a process of youthful regeneration of Homeric poetics. Not only did Vergil combine the epic with the pastoral (like Nonnus himself: Harries 1994), but also, as the poet of the fourth Eclogue, he could be coopted as the prophet of a Christian empire (as in Constantine’s Oratio ad Sanctorum Coetum).

Maron, however, fades from view in the second half of the Dionysiaca, where Nonnus returns to reemphasising his directly agonistic/emulative relationship with ‘father Homer’ (25.265). Vergil is thus cast as a liminal figure, a midpoint between the more significant poles of the Homeric and the Nonnian. 

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Homeric Poetics at the Dawn of Christianity

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