A didactic kettle of fish? Literary dimensions of Marcellus’ De Piscibus (GDRK 63)
In this paper I will demonstrate that the extant fragment from De piscibus (101 hexameters, GDRK 63 Heitsch), which was part of the medical corpus of the Greek physician Marcellus of Side (second century C.E.), should not be considered merely medical or paedagogical, but is also a positive example of refined literary didactic epic in the age of Hadrian, nodding to the Hellenistic didactic tradition, and alluding to Hesiod’s Works and Days.
The extant poetry of Marcellus has so far received very little attention. The poet’s topic, the use of all kinds of fish for preparing medical prescriptions, may not seem particularly exciting, which has been the prevailing view so far (Wilamowitz 1928, Effe 1977, Bowie 1990). But whereas other epic poetry on prescriptions (Nicander’s Theriaca and Alexipharmaca) or on varieties of fishes (Oppian’s Halieutica, but cf. the poetry of Archestratus’ Hedypatheia, or Ausonius’ Mosella) have lately come to be considered highly accomplished specimens of what was once an exciting and flourishing genre, Marcellus’ fragment and its particular value has so far gone all but unnoticed. Unfortunately, Arena & Cassia’s recent monograph (2016), despite being well-informed as to the historical context, hardly pays attention to the poetical dimensions of Marcellus at all.
In his approach (didactic, rhetoric of knowledge), structure (catalogue, bipartite, ring composition), lexical originality (Homerisms, epithets, coinages, geonymic rarities) and general style (use of paraprosdokèton, sensitivity to variatio), Marcellus strives to be a true didactic epicist, in the vein of his Hellenistic model Nicander of Colophon (cf. Jacques 1977 and 2007). The view that Marcellus should be considered an artful poet, concerned with literary aesthetics and the didactic literary tradition, is not only suggested by the fragment itself, and by the revealing details of Marcellus’ epitaph (AP 7.158, in which he is praised both as a doctor and a poet), but it is, moreover, corroborated by an allusion to Hesiod’s Works and Days 519, which has thus far gone unnoticed. This clever allusion shows again how all later Greek didactic rooted itself in the tradition initiated by Hesiod, even if this tradition only became a tradition in retrospect (cf. Sider 2014).
Marcellus’ practical concern as a doctor with breast-milk, haemorrhoids and striae thus goes hand in hand with Homeric diction, strong awareness of the didactic-epic tradition, lexical innovation, a carefully designed fish catalogue, and markers of didactic teacher-student constellation. As such, Marcellus’ poetry gives us a glimpse of what may have been the missing link between Nicander and Dionysius ‘Periegetes’ of Alexandria. This extant fragment may be brief, but in its versatility, it is a post-Hellenistic testimony not to be ignored within the ongoing study of Greek didactic epic.