STESICHORUS: THE POEMS

by M. Davies and P.J. Finglass

Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries (2014) h/b 691pp £120 (ISBN 9781107078345)

The Greek lyric poet Stesichorus was active in the first half of the 6th century BC. Dismally little of his work, which straddled the border between epic and lyric, survives, but it was admired by Horace, and praised by Quintilian (‘if he had exercised restraint, he might have closely rivalled Homer’: Inst. Oratoria, 10.1.62) and (rather similarly) by Dio Chrysostom. As it is, we have scattered testimonia and fairly liberal—but, for the most part, desperately fragmentary—extracts from eight papyri.

This edition by Davies and Finglass (hereafter D/F), a work of truly formidable scholarship, provides us with an Introduction (roughly 100 pages), the text of the testimonia and papyri (again roughly 100 pages), a Commentary, including translations of all the Greek that it is possible to translate (about 400 pages) and a Bibliography and Indexes (80 pages). Of the papyri, F. examined all but the Lille papyrus ‘online and in situ’ (in Oxford). It will be noted that, inevitably, over the years problems concerning numeration have arisen: thus the Lille papyrus, numbered in Campbell’s Loeb edition (1991) as 222A, appears here as 97 (222(b)): for a full and clear account of the approach employed by D/F, see pp.86-90, and there is also a full Comparatio Numerorum with D.’s edition (1991) of the fragments of the melic poets. 

The Introduction’s ten sections cover (inter alia) the poet’s Life (but very little can be regarded as certain or even probable), Works (we know of twelve titles, such as Geryoneis, Helen, Eriphyle, but there may well be more from this prolific author), Performance (for a possibly panhellenic audience), use of Myth (‘an impressive range’), Language (‘a combination of Doric and epic Ionic’), Metre (mainly dactylo-epitrite), Style (redundancy is a notable feature), and the Text and Transmission. This is followed by the text of the fragments (apospasmata, to use the term employed by D/F), which of course incorporates a generous apparatus criticus, and by detailed commentaries on each of them.

Insofar as Stesichorus can be said to be at all widely known, it is for his Palinode, in which, in order to regain his sight, he recanted—as the story goes—an earlier attack on Helen: in it, he criticised Homer for setting Helen, rather than her eidolon, at Troy. Of this Palinode, besides a number of references, we have the three famous lines quoted by Plato (‘This story is not true; You did not set sail in the sturdily-benched ships, Nor did you go to the towers of Troy’). However, D/F also examine the (relatively substantial, if hardly of the highest standard) evidence, starting with Chamaeleon of Heraclea in the late 4th century BC, that there was not one Palinode, but two, with Hesiod rather than Homer coming in for the poet’s criticism, and not necessarily having Helen as its subject; the argument is complex, but see especially pp.308-319 and 335-343, and, since the subject is broadly speaking self-contained, it provides an admirable specimen of D/F’s methods and scholarship.

This work has been about 40 years in its making: its origin stems from D.’s Oxford DPhil thesis in the 1970s, followed by the arrival of F. in 2006 and the proposal of a joint commentary. Ascriptions to the two editors are given in the Contents pages (thus, the Introduction is by F. and the Commentaries on each poem are by D/F, except for Thebais? [the question-mark is the editor’s], which is by F.). Praise for, and detailed appraisal of, this work can appropriately be given only by one of the rather small number of scholars whose own scholarship matches that of the authors; here let it be said only that it is hard to see how it will ever be superseded, unless the Fayum brings forth another papyrus to match the Lille papyrus (editio princeps de facto 1977). CUP must also be congratulated on a production of the very highest standard.

Colin Leach

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