BATRACHOMYOMACHIA (Battle of the Frogs and Mice): Introduction, Text, Translation, and Commentary

Matthew Hosty

OUP (2020) h/b 304pp £80.00 (ISBN 9780198849902)

Although it is one of the few surviving parodies of antiquity, the Batrachomyomachia (hereafter BM) until recently had not received sustained attention. Now, however, with the appearance of Matthew Hosty’s (henceforth H.) excellent edition and commentary, following on the heels of that of Joel Christensen and Erik Robinson (Bloomsbury, 2018) and succeeding the older editions-cum-commentaries of Reinhold Glei (Die Batrachomyomachie: Synoptische Edition und Kommentar [Lang, 1984]) and Massimo Fusillo (La battaglia delle rane e dei topi: Batrachomyomachia [Guerini1988]) as well as the Loeb-edition by Martin West (Homeric Hymns, Homeric Apocrypha, Lives of Homer [Harvard 2003]), this witty text has been served amply. H.’s study deserves discussion and praise on its own merits and so this review will forego comparison with that of Christensen and Robinson, its English-language competitor (unfavourably reviewed by H. himself in CR 68.2, 315-317; see also R.H. Armstrong in CJ-Online 2019.05.03 and N. Wilshere in BMCR 2019.01.25).

In a very full introduction (pp. 1-81), H. tackles (1) the BM’s status aparte as both the sole surviving example of Greek parody and its popularity in Byzantium, (2) issues of dating (likely Hellenistic) and authorship (anonymous, possibly Ionian in origin), (3) its ties to the multifaceted genre of paroidia (not quite ‘parodic’ in our sense, which implies deliberate subversion through imitation, whereas the BM transfers Homeric language, style, and themes into a foreign context), (4) the place of frogs and mice in the Graeco-Roman literary tradition (predominantly in fable, with in-depth discussion of examples relevant to the BM), (5) language and metre (with valuable statistics comparing the BM to, inter alios, Homer, Hesiod, and Callimachus), (6) reception and influence (mostly in Late Antiquity and Byzantine times), and (7) text and transmission (explaining divergences from previous editions, notably Glei’s, which presents two parallel versions of the text; H. sensibly returns to a single, but hardly unified, stemma). This is followed by the text and translation (pp. 82-117), the former rather conservative and with an impressive apparatus criticus, the latter highly readable, the exquisite commentary (pp. 119-268), understandably focussing on textual issues and matters of intertextuality, a full and international bibliography (pp. 269-287), and three succinct indices (of ‘Mouse and Frog Characters’, ‘Subjects’, and ‘Greek Words Discussed’). 

To address the elephant in the room: H.’s is the best text and commentary (and arguably translation, much as I like West’s literal, yet tongue-in-cheek rendering) available to an Anglophone readership and neatly complements the German and Italian editions of Glei and Fusillo. It far outdoes the immediate competition, Christensen and Robertson’s recent edition, which suffers from various production errors and is not properly speaking, given the absence of a critical apparatus or sustained justification of the inclusion or exclusion of suspect lines, a scholarly text (although beginners will appreciate the glossary). H.’s edition marks the return to a unified stemma: following Ludwich and others, he classes our oldest manuscript into two broad groups, with the occasional outlier (see below). 

The commentary, the meat of the book, is a treat. Like his predecessors, H. focusses on the BM’s reworking of Homeric lexis, themes, and structures. He is a keen appréciateur of the many ways in which the BM has its fun with Homeric vocabulary, formulae, battle scenes (the commentary is particularly strong on the fragmentary final showdown of the frogs and mice), and narrative devices, including the occasional goof (such as Psicharpax’ death at 99, deliberate (?) resurrection at 234, and aristeia at 235-242, before his permanent death at 244, which H. treats as an imitation of similar ‘undead’ fighters in Homer). As H. concludes, ‘[t]he reader (…) must be able not only to recall what Homer does, but to notice what he does not do’ (p. 37).

The book is well-produced, without noticeable typos or slips, and the author clearly has gone to great pains to be as inclusive of scholarship as possible while keeping the commentary succinct. H. carefully places the BM in its Hellenistic context (especially the Archelaus-relief, which possibly includes the BM among its Homeric imagery, and Callimachus’ Aetia, which in the so-called Molorchus-episode features a similarly comical, mock-epic battle between a poor peasant and the mice that eat him out of house and home), points out its sometimes subtle, sometimes overt intertextuality with the Homeric poems, and clarifies both interpretative issues and textual choices. The result is a well-balanced analysis that offers something for everyone: newcomers and those looking for quick orientation will be grateful for the accessible, contextualizing parts of the introduction (esp. sections 1-4) and the lucid discussion of borrowings, Homeric and otherwise, in the commentary; more advanced readers will also enjoy H.’s love of linguistic and metrical detail and his flair for textual criticism. 

There are some items of bibliography that might have merited inclusion, however. Given this book’s ambitions for establishing a better text than previous editions, one would have welcomed engagement with Y. Migoubert, ‘Le ms. Baroccianus 50 et la tradition manuscrite de la Batrachomyomachie,’ Gaia 7 (2003), 405-409. This concerns the oldest manuscript, Hosty’s Z (late 10th, early 11th-cent., discussed on pp. 70-71, 74-76), which Glei and West regarded as an independent codex mixtus—a conclusion that H. underpins statistically and which, given the MS’s unique readings, influences his constitution of the text. In his article (which appeared too late for West to consider and vice versa), Migoubert, who himself produced a small-scale edition (La Batrachomyomachie d’Homère [Editions Allia, 1998] also uncited) and prolegomena (Prolégomènes à l’édition critique du texte de la Batrachomyomachie, 1998, as well as Histoire du texte de la Batrachomyomachie: histoire du texte des origines aux premiers imprimés, his thesis defended at the École pratique des hautes études in 2010) had partially reached the same conclusion. R. Garnier’s (unconvincing) suggestion of Lucian’s authorship of the text deserves mention (‘La Batrachomyomachie: un text polyphonique’, in: B. Acosta-Hughes et al. (eds), Homère revisité: parodie et humour dans les réécritures homériques Pr. Universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2011, 107-121), while G. Bucchi, ‘In tenui labor. Homère comique: réception et traduction de la Batrachomyomachie au XVIe siècle’ (in: S. D’Amico (ed.), Homère en Europa à la Renaissance. Traductions et réécritures (2015), available online at Corpus Eve: Émergence du vernaculaire en Europe) would have rounded out the section of the introduction on the poem’s reception. I. Sticker, ‘Die Rüstungsszenen in der Batrachomyomachie,’ Philologus 161.2 (2017), 329-336 helps to confirm the poem’s Hellenistic background and dating, thus complementing (and complicating) A. Kelly, ‘Hellenistic Arming in the Batrachomyomachia,’ CQ 64 (2014), 410-413 (cited). Curiously, the massive edition by Arthur Ludwich (Die homerische Batrachomachia des Karers Pigres nebst Scholien und Kommentar [Teubner, 1896] subsuming previous publications), cited throughout the book, seems to have slipped from the Bibliography.

Gary Vos

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