de Gruyter (2020) h/b 541pp £109 (ISBN 9783110295030)

This is the first volume (of four projected) in a truly herculean enterprise. The aim is to assemble and (re)edit hundreds of ‘orphan’ hexameter texts scattered over many disparate sources (papyri, ostraca, tablets) or published, again in a wide and sometimes inaccessible variety of places, over the past two centuries. The project, we are told, has (in brief) three main objectives: (i) to determine how many and what type of unidentified hexameter poems reached us via papyri; (ii) to restore a readable and reliable text (often difficult to reach in print format); (iii) to discuss issues of style, metre and attribution. This first volume contains fragments of Cosmogonic Content and Foundation poems; Didactic and Technical poetry; Hymns; Erotic poetry; Epithalamia; two Hexameter Anthologies: forty-six poems in all. There is an immense Bibliography, lists of digital reproductions of papyri online and of Plates, and four substantial Indexes (including a 28 page Index Verborum) and Concordances. Transcriptions of all papyri are given with full apparatus critici and an English translation.

The Publication Plan lists—in sixteen pages—the many kinds of poetry that are planned for the remaining three volumes. The long Introduction (quoted from above) is essential—and indeed enjoyable—reading, covering (inter alia) Structure and Content of the work; Anonymized Authorities?; Adespota in the Age of Technology; When Attribution Fails; Limits to Interpretation and the Challenges of Attribution. Is there a hint of sharpness when P. refers to the ‘unstoppable desire of identifying authorities’ on the part of twentieth century scholars? Later he cites a remark of Lobel: lapidem in mare magnum iacit sannio [‘clown’, nom.): et quis tam sapiens ut eum extrahere possit?

It would take the talents of the book’s dedicatee—Peter Parsons—or the late Denys Page or Martin West to review this book’s contents with the attention and knowledge that is assuredly called for. As it is, it may at least be helpful to see an account of how one major papyrus (P.Strasb. 481, ‘Hermes Founder of the Cosmos’) is handled. (Incidentally, D.L. Page’s work is not cited in the Bibliography, but is to be found in the list of ‘Major Corpora and Reference Works’ on pp. xiii-xv).

After basic description of the papyrus (location etc.), a list of eight scholars’ ‘primary’ work establishing the text (cf. Page’s Alcman’s Partheneion) is followed by a separate and much longer list of what one may term ‘secondary’ work by 42 scholars. The text is published (with photographs of the papyrus) in two sections, accompanied by an apparatus of generous detail and a translation.

The commentary on the 45 lines which are (more or less) transcribable—it is less lacunose than many other poems—amounts to about 34 pages, starting by telling us the mythical origins of Hermoupolis, traced back to the creation of the universe by a god, Hermes. Authorship? Names put forward include Antimachus of Heliopolis and Andronicus of Hermopolis; but highly technical considerations complicate matters, and Sotericus of Oasis has also been proposed. Much of the commentary concerns the readings of the papyrus, with explanations along the lines of any difficult Greek text, and illustrations from (among others) Homer: polyphloisb[oio] at line 20 is notable. The editor believes that the poem ‘is best understood when read under a Neoplatonic lens’, with striking consonances between the text here and the commentary by Proclus to the Timaeus: this theme is persuasively developed, and would accord with the provisional dating of the papyrus to the 5th C AD. (Any reader who looks for a less demanding introduction to this formidable book should perhaps start with P.Oxy XX 3358, number 8 here, which is a hexameter composition embedded in a scholion to Callimachus’ Coma Berenices: Annette Harder is among the ‘secondary’ scholars listed).

That this work is the product of one man’s efforts is scarcely credible, yet such appears to be the case; he does not say anything about the editorship of the following three volumes. The editor and de Gruyter deserve the highest praise for the superlative production of a long, complex and supremely scholarly volume which must have demanded and received attention of the very highest order. The author of this brief and inadequate note is indeed fortunate to be able to add this book to his shelves.

Colin Leach