- Iambic Poetics in the Roman Empire by Tom Hawkins
Although the broad title of Iambic Poetics (even with the coda in the Roman Empire) might well be expected to herald a volume devoted to well-rehearsed authors and their works, readers will be pleasantly surprised to find here careful and compelling studies of Ovid’s Ibis, Babrius’ Mythiambi, Gregory Nazianzen, Dio Chrysostom’s First Tarsian, Lucian’s Pseudologista, and Julian’s Misopogon.
Hawkins begins by elucidating the nature of Ovid’s Ibis as a prelude to further attack, a stance appealingly termed “iambus delayed.” Although the discussion has speculative moments, it is by pursuing every philological and ornithological possibility afforded by the peculiar bird for which the poem is named that Hawkins is able to do justice to this multifaceted work. As he traces the “ibidic” tradition back through Horace and (especially) Callimachus to Aristophanes and Plato, Hawkins brings to light how this rich nexus of antecedents makes meanings for the exiled elegist. The role of empire as essential to iambus is naturally prominent in this dense and detailed opening chapter, for Hawkins’ focus is not merely iambic poetics in the empire but iambic poetics and empire.
In his chapter on Babrius, Hawkins strives to resurrect the poetic integrity of the Mythiambi, which suffers from being quarried for individual fables. This “new Aesop” is shown engaging with Hesiod, Hipponax, Plato, and Callimachus; as for Babrius himself, these weighty models contribute depth and complexity to his work. Concluding the book’s first half is Gregory Nazianzen, responsible for synthesizing Hellenic and Christian: after being deposed from the See of Constantinople, far from withdrawing into a guileless “meditative retirement” (144), he reinvented for himself a persona of both ascetic saint and efficacious iambist. Making use of Callimachus’ Aetia preface and the notion of poetry as a pharmakon, Gregory crafted “new and hybrid forms” (143), such as verse epistles in Greek and lengthy poetic autobiographies, in order to counter his rivals and reassert his place as a Nicene spiritual leader.
The second half of the book explores how, perhaps counterintuitively, three authors of Greek prose—Dio Chrysostom (in his First Tarsian), Lucian (in the Pseudologista), and Julian (in the Misopogon)—made use of iambic poetics. The argument that these figures activated the possibilities of the Archilochean poetic tradition in their oratory is convincing, though the role of empire recedes into the background. These five later chapters are, understandably, structurally rather different from the first, as the average reader requires a great deal more in the way of context and step-by-step explication in order to follow and evaluate the arguments.
Hawkins is careful to explain in his introduction the feature that unites this eclectic selection of authors: “Their combination of an overt denial of any iambic agenda with a pronounced reliance on iambic poetics” (9–10). This seems clear enough, but at times it is hard not to feel that the project is somewhat artificially circumscribed, particularly when the first, meaty chapter on Ovid’s Ibis is followed by five more on authors who, as Hawkins admits of Babrius, have “trouble finding readers today” (87). Nevertheless, Hawkins has produced a book that is both wide-ranging and focused, and that accomplishes the enviable task of treading new ground. He displays an easy command of an admirably broad range of authors, both Latin and Greek, along with their at times substantial secondary literatures, and his prose is lively and engaging. While most readers are [End Page 270] unlikely to study the entire volume, each individual chapter will prove indispensable to scholars and students interested in the particular works treated therein.