You are here


Greek didactic poetry enjoyed remarkable success and influence in the Roman imperial period, yet such poetry remains surprisingly understudied even within scholarship on the Greek literature of the Roman Empire (despite, e.g., Bowie). This paper examines the treatment of Homer and the Homeric epics in Dionysius’ Periegesis, Oppian’s Halieutica and Ps.-Manetho’s Apotelesmatica, second- and third-century AD didactic poems on geography, fishing, and astrology, respectively. Didactic poetry is a form of literature which operates at the intersection between epic poetry and ‘technical’ literature, and this paper takes as its starting point the generic position of didactic epic as a form both intimately related to, yet constitutively distinct from, heroic epic poetry (thus, e.g., Lausberg 1990, Volk 2002, Gale 2004). Whilst the influence of Homer on late Greek epic tradition can hardly be overstated, the imperial period also witnessed widespread scrutiny of Homer’s relevance to disciplines such as geography, astrology, medicine, and fishing (see, most recently, Kim 2010). This paper traces three key ways in which imperial Greek didactic poets articulated the complex relationship between the Homeric epics and the technical disciplines treated in their own didactic poetry.

The first section of my paper briefly sets out the framework for this discussion by demonstrating that, as in Latin didactic poetry (see, e.g., Thomas 1986, Gale 2000, and Schindler 2000), many of the similes in later Greek didactic poems draw closely from Homeric material, yet advertise their generic divergence and technical focus by inverting the relationship between the Homeric tenor and vehicle. This tendency, I argue, encapsulates the manner in which these didactic poets both evoke and distinguish themselves from Homeric precedent in their systematic treatment of fields mentioned only incidentally by Homer.

The next strand of my argument focuses on Ps.-Manetho’s discussion of Homer in the proem to Book 5 of his Apotelesmatica (5.12-24). Praising Homer for his wisdom and divinity, Ps.-Manetho quotes Homer’s verses on the fates of men and associates them with his own poetry. This, I suggest, is indicative of the manner in which Homer was exploited by later poets as a powerful symbol of cultural authority, Hellenic identity, and affiliation with long-standing epic traditions. Yet in systematically treating a demarcated field of technical knowledge, Ps.-Manetho, like other didactic poets, also markedly distinguishes the scope and aims of his poetry from those of Homeric epic. This is epic poetry with a new compositional aesthetic, a body of factual information drawn primarily from archived knowledge and technical prose treatises. By explaining his decision to include these Iliadic verses in his astrological poem, Ps.-Manetho not only uses Homer to articulate a complex Greco-Egyptian cultural identity (cf. the proem to Book 1 of the Apotelesmatica) but explicitly probes the relationship, and the hierarchy, between Homer’s authority and his own (see esp. 5.21-24).

The association between Homeric heroes and the technical information disseminated in didactic poetry is further developed in the final section of my paper, which examines the depiction of Odysseus in Dionysius’ Periegesis (DP 205-207) and Oppian’s Halieutica (Hal. 2.497-505). Whereas Dionysius’ reference to the travels of Odysseus, like his verses on the city of Troy (DP 813-819), locates his poetry within a familiar Homeric (and more broadly mythical) geography, Oppian’s treatment of these Odyssean travels subversively highlights the hero’s demise. Odysseus’ ‘death from the sea’ is recounted by Oppian in his discussion of venomous fish, and I argue that the poet’s repeated allusions to both Homer and Nicander in this passage (see Bartley 2004 pp.155-158) juxtapose the relative values of heroic and didactic epic poetry, displacing the authority of the Homeric epics in favour of a more practical, technical mode of learning. Here, as throughout this paper, we witness the ways in which imperial Greek didactic poets exploit, adapt, and question the authority of the Homeric epics vis-à-vis the disciplines which underpin their own poems, interrogating Homer’s role in a world shaped by new cultural and institutional forces.

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy