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The astrological poem Περὶ καταρχῶν ‘On initiatives’ (i.e. when is the right moment to take action) by Maximus of Ephesus treats the influence of Selene (Moon) and the zodiac signs on human activities; the work is divided in chapters such as marriage, diseases, recapture of fugitive slaves or agriculture. Of the original twelve chapters only eight and a half chapters survive, a total of 610 verses. An idea about what is missing can be gleaned from four paraphrases of which the first (I) is the most important and the only one complete[1]. The paraphrases were apparently necessitated by the demanding language of the poem. The first paraphrase is dated to the ninth century, when also L, the single manuscript transmitting the poem, was copied. The proem of the poem (fr. 1 Zito, 3 verses) is known from the first Byzantine paraphrase. It is, nonetheless, precarious to use Paraphrase I to postulate lacunas in the text, since it appears to incorporate information from other astrological texts.[2] The poem itself is likely to have been a paraphrase of a lost prosaic treatise. It is dated by Zito to the first half of AD 362, when Julian and Maximus, the Emperor and his consultant, sojourned together at the court of Constantinople.[3] The poem is profoundly erudite but traditional, i.e. it does not display the features of the ‘novel’ style, as it is exemplified by Nonnus of Panopolis.

The Περὶ καταρχῶν is attributed to ‘Maximus’ by its single witness (L) and toΜάξιμος Ἠπειρώτης ἢ Βυζάντιος, φιλόσοφος, διδάσκαλος Ἰουλιανοῦ Καίσαρος by Suidas (μ 174 Adler). It is by common consensus ascribed to Maximus of Ephesus (c. 310-372), the Neoplatonic philosopher who taught Julian and whose decapitation is lamented in the Orphic Lithica 71-74.[4] The Orphic Lithica is a ‘magical’ poem believed to reflect the same philosophical ambience around Julian as the Περὶ καταρχῶν.[5] The Περὶ καταρχῶν is dedicated to Julian, as appears from fr. 2 Νῦν δ’ ἄγε μοι, κούρη Κωνσταντινιάς, ἔννεπε Μοῦσα, ‘Come on now Muse, daughter of Constantine, tell me’. Maximus is reported by the Suidas-vita to have penned a number of other works, among which the rhetorical treatise Περὶ ἀλύτων ἀντιθέσεων (‘On irrefutable objections’) survives.[6]

Nicola Zito’s book under review began as a Florence/Paris Ouest Nanterre PhD supervised by Enrico Livrea and Pierre Chuvin respectively, defended and approved in 2012. It provides an Introduction, where all issues associated with the poem and its author are discussed. In the first chapter, the authorship of Maximus of Ephesus is argued on internal and external indications. Then the author offers an analysis of the content of the poem and its relation to astrological and didactic poetry. The wide-ranging literary sources of the poem and its reception in later poetry (especially Nonnus) and in Byzantine literature are given a thorough treatment. This is a didactic poem, a genre stemming from Hesiod’s Works and Days with which it interacts (XLI-XLII). Both ‘teach’ when to do what, yet Maximus’ poem centers on the sky rather than on the earth, even if the sky is conceived as fixed just as solidly as the earth. Of Maximus’ attention to the great Hellenistic poets (including Aratus and Apollonius of Rhodes) particular attention deserves Nicander in whose condensed and obscure expression, generic affiliation and metrical habits Maximus would envisage a true precursor. One section of this chapter is concerned with Homeric scholarship (LII-LIV: Philologie homérique).

Then the language, style, metre and manuscript tradition are methodically examined in the best tradition of the filologia classica. For the zodiac signs and constellations Maximus employs a formulaic system of his own making, e.g. Σκορπίος αἰθέριος, Ἰχθὺς εἰαρινός, or inventive designations such as Νεμειήτης ‘from Nemea’ = the Lion, Χηλαί ‘Claws (of the Scorpion)’ = Libra. Many of these are directly brought in association with mythology: the Lion is from Nemea, the Hyades from Maeonia (83, former maenads from Lydia, the land of Dionysus), the Gemini from Therapnai (96), the place of origin of the Dioscuri. This relies on the good tradition of Aratus which brings the perennial sky in direct association with the legends of the earth. The entity looming large in the poem is, of course, Selene. Like a little goddess, she is at times propitious and helpful and at times destructive and menacing. A large number of synonyms is employed to render her ποικίλον manifestations: Μήνη, Θειαντίνη, Ἄνασσα, et al. Her round shape and her luminosity, repeatedly and variously pointed out, represent her metaphysical influence on human affairs.

Two aspects of the poem seem to receive little attention in the Introduction: possible models in visual art and the poem’s idiosyncratic humor. In 206-207, the image of Epione’s healing hand, as Zito notes (p. 113), may have a model in art. A model in visual art is also conceivable for the description of the abduction of Eirytheia by Boreas in 418-420. Concerning the poem’s occasional humor, to confine myself to the chapter On Marriage, the brawls between the estranged husband and wife in 78-79 (a concordia discors: the couple ‘agree’ to divorce) and in 110-112 in three consecutive tetracoli are meant to be utterly humorous, cf. also below on 493, 559-560. – p. LXXXII n. 176: on the end of the Neoplatonic school at Athens see now Alan Cameron’s thoroughly revised paper[7].

There follows a critical text with facing translation in French and a section of loci similes, meticulously collected, yet more conveniently consulted by the reader when below the text rather than after it. The Bibliography, awkwardly placed before the Commentary, is followed by a detailed line by line Commentary and Indices of names and words (updating Ludwich’s Index verborum). The volume thereby provides the first translation in a modern language (the editio princeps and Kœchly’s edition provide renditions in Latin) and the first ever commentary. Hopefully these tools will boost interest in this very neglected poem.

Typos in accents or spirits in the Greek text must be corrected in an eventual revue et corrigée edition: 117 ἀυτή τ’, 356 δήθυνει, 385 δειρὴν.; other typos in the Greek are negligible.[8] – In a number of cases (e.g. on 19 [Σκορπίου] αἰθερίοιο, 106 εὐπειθῆ) discussion of words or terms in the Commentary is confined to references to other books/articles, but the reader would be better served were he be given a clue as to exactly what the reference given claims or discusses.

From an editorial point of view the Περὶ καταρχῶν has had little fortune. The codex unicus witnessing it (L: Laurentianus Pluteus 28, 27) is part of the so-called philosophical collection, a group of eighteen manuscripts copied in the third quarter of the ninth century, transmitting, among others, Plato, the chief Neoplatonists and, as a pendant, poems of philosophical and astrological orientation. L turns out to be of generally good quality but even so the text poses several challenges. The editio princeps appeared only in 1717 by J. A. Fabricius followed about a hundred years later by the edition of E. Gerhard (Leipzig, 1820) and most importantly by that of A. Koechly (Paris, 1851). The text used up to now (and the one available in TLG) is the Teubneriana of A. Ludwich (Leipzig, 1877). Koechly’s edition, the last section of the volume Poetae Bucolici et Didactici (1851), intervenes freely in the text. Ludwich (p. VI) claims to have endowed his text ‘virorum doctorum curis criticis, inter quas eminent emendationes Dorvillii et Koechlyi’ in a poem most corrupt (‘in corruptissimo carmine’) ‘ut Maximus permultis locis emendatior evaderet’. Practically Ludwich accepted all of Koechly’s conjectures and added others of his own, of which only a handful deserve a place in the text. Moreover, both Koechly and Ludwich ascribe the Περὶ καταρχῶν to a recentior Alexandrian poet rejecting Fabricius’ earlier attribution to Maximus of Ephesus. Yet, one would think that critics who have replaced L’s ἀρχήν (: Ἄρην D’Orville, ἀκμὴν Koechly, ὁρμὴν Ludwich) in v. 7 (Θειαντίδος … κύκλα) λοίγιον εἰς ἀρχὴν ἰχνεύμενα Θηρὸς ἐν αἴγλῃ ‘(the rim of Theia [Moon]) driving you to a fatal beginning amidst the splendor of the Beast [Lion]’, in the section <Περὶ ὁδοιπορίας> and in a poem Περὶ καταρχῶν, certainly laid a heavy hand on the text and went too far into the territory of conjecture. In another line, in 327 μετ’ εὐσκόπου Ἀρνειοῖο was emended by Lobeck into εὐπόκου which was subsequently introduced into the text by both Koechly and Ludwich. Yet Maximus is making a point on the debated luminosity of the constellation of Aries (feeble for Aratus 228‑230, bright for Hipparchus 1.6.5-7). Contrary to his predecessors, Zito values L and proves its quality, restituting the transmitted/correct text in a number of instances. The TLG (which sadly has yet to incorporate Ps‑Apollinarius’ Metaphrasis Psalmorum despite the outbreak of interest in Late-antique poetry) should now replace Ludwich’s text with the much more reliable text of Zito.

I append here some notes from my reading of the poem, most in dialogue with Zito’s commentary, a few making an independent contribution:

In fr. 1.2-3, Maximus’ proem, the expression ὅπως ἄνδρεσσιν ἕκαστα / σημαίνει is a recollection of Aratus’ proem 5-6 ἀνθρώποισι / δεξιὰ σημαίνει supplanting Zeus with Mene (to be added to pp. XLIII‑XLIV discussing Aratus and Maximus). Note in Maximus’ proem (fr. 1.1-2) the allitteration Μοῦσα / Μήνην. 57 ξείνης ἐπὶ ἤθεα καλὰ πόληος ‘to the pleasant whereabouts of a foreign town’: the juxtaposition of ξείνης and ἤθεα creates an oxymoron. On ἤθεα ‘familiar places’ see Francis Vian, REG 82 (1969), 594 on Colluth. 110 ἐς ἤθεα … ὁδεύων/. 67 ἀνέρι καὶ ποθέοντι θοῶς ἤχθηρεν ἄκοιτιν ‘even if the husband desires his wife, he will soon hate her’: man and desire, hate and wife are chiastically placed to express the volatility of the marriage. 71 ἐλεύθερον ἦμαρ/ strictly speaking does not occur ‘uniquement chez Homère’ before its employment in Imperial poetry (p. XLVIII), cf. Phylarchus SH 694A.2 ἐλεύ<θε>ρον ἆμαρ ἔχοντες/. 94 ἤθεα καλὰ διασκίδνησι γυναικῶν ‘disperses the good morals of women’: cf. Call. Hy. Del. 297 (ὑμέναιος) ἤθεα κουράων μορμύσσεται ‘(hymenaeus) disrupts the habits of virgins’. 207 Ἠπιόνη χείρεσσιν ἀκεστορίην {γ’} ἐπάγουσα: cf. Crinag. AP 16.273.2-3 = GPh 2071-72 (Asclepius transmits the art of medicine to Praxagoras of Cos) πανάκῃ χεῖρα λιπηνάμενος / … στέρνοις ἐνεμάξατο. 224 ὑγίην (: ὑγίειαν Koechly) at the caesura may be further supported by the rhyme with ἀνίην at line-end, a stylistic feature which expresses the balance between the two alternative fates. 320 δμώων ὀλοφώια ἔργα πύθοιο: the introductory line of the section Περὶ δραπετῶν may be reminiscent of Nicander’s incipit in Theriaca 1 σίνη τ’ ὀλοφώια θηρῶν (φωνήσαιμι), cf. Apoll. Rhod. Arg. 4.476 ὀλοφώιον ἔργον. 330-331 (recaptured slave) ὦπας / ταρβαλέοις δακρύοισι πεφυρμένος: an ταρβαλέας? The accusative seems more expressive; enjambement in Maximus tends to become a mannerism (Zito LXXVIII-LXXIX). 359 δηναιόν ‘belated’ (= μεταχρόνιον) is attractive. 362 (a fugitive slave returns) αὐτόματος: this is meant as a ‘magic’ word implying the control of the Moon over the run-away slave. 381 (military officer) τῷ στρατιαί τε βοηδρομίαι τε μέλονται ‘whose business is expeditions and battles’: βοηδρομία is indeed a hapax explained in Etym. Magn. β 200 L.‑L. (*Lex. rhet.) βοηδρομίαις· βοηθείαις, συμμαχίαις whence LSJ s.v. ‘helping, aiding’ with reference to Maximus. However, this is not helpful for our passage but rather Etym. Gen. β 163 L.-L. βοηδρομεῖν· … ἀντὶ τοῦ βοηθεῖν, τουτέστιν ἐπὶ μάχην δραμεῖν. Zito’s note creates a storm in a teacup and his instinctive translation ‘rassemblements’ is remotely correct. 399 κενεῇσιν ἐπ’ ἐλπωρῇσιν γεγηθώς is indeed an Imperial and Late-antique form of expression. Add Nonn. Dion. 35.246 τέρπεται ἀπρήκτοισιν ἐπ’ ἐλπωρῇσιν in eadem sede. 461 σκαπάνῃ τε λαχαινέμεν ἄμβροτον αἶαν ‘dig the immortal land with a spade’: even if hit with an iron instrument the land never dies. Ἄμβροτον ends up meaning ‘inexhaustive’, perhaps a play on φερέσβιον meant as ‘bringer of life’. 493 λυγρὰ Διωνύσοιο ἕκητι constitutes an oxymoron (instead of τερπνά) full of irony for the unfair punishment inflicted on Icarius who first introduced wine in Attica. 542 /ξυνὴν … κέλευθον/ is a rahmende Stellung followed by /ἀρχὴν καὶ τέλος in the next verse. For the cluster, other than Apoll. Rhod. Arg. 1.337, cf. Greg. Naz. Carm., Anon. SGO 18/01/21.2 (Termessos, before AD 212). 559560 (in the section Περὶ τῶν ἐν δεσμοῖς) ‘and many even until the end of their life, endured painful bonds [ἰλλάδας ἀργαλέας] on their limbs’: could this be a humorous allusion to the ‘bonds’ of flesh? 566 φρουρεῖται †συναπτῷ? ἀδάμαντι/: ‘locus desperatus’ (Zito). As Zito notes, συναπτῷ is very possibly a gloss which supplanted the original attribute to ἀδάμαντι. I might consider ἀμειλίκτῳ cl. Hes. Theog. 659 ἀμειλίκτων ὑπὸ δεσμῶν/, then Or. Sib. 2.227 ἀμειλίκτοιο καὶ ἀρρήκτου ἀδάμαντος/; for the hiatus cf. Quint. Smyr. PH 10.299 ἀμειλίκτῳ ὑπὸ πότμῳ/. 600-602 ‘and often you will hear about what has been stolen from you, but most of it are stories as vain as the air charming the ear with empty promises’: Could this be inspired by a yet unidentified contemporary event?

The progress achieved with a new edition of Περὶ καταρχῶν by Nicola Zito is not small, and it will not be neglected by any scholar interested in the poem or in Maximus’ cultural ambience. It is only that, for Maximus himself, one is left to wonder whether he advised Julian, when he set out for his campaign against the Persians, what he claims in 45-46: ‘In the Pisces, heralds of the spring, do set out for expedition and war.’

Konstantinos Spanoudakis


[1]. These can be consulted in the edition of P. Radici-Colace, Le parafrasi bizantine del Περὶ καταρχῶν di Massimo, Messina 1988. Earlier P. Radici-Colace had published two articles ‘towards a new edition’ of the poem: BollClass 5, 1984, p. 138‑149 and ibid. 6, 1985, p. 78-85.

[2]. See Zito’s note on v. 480.

[3]. See N. Zito, « Sull’autore del poemetto Περὶ καταρχῶν attribuito a Massimo di Efeso », Eikasmos 23, 2012, p. 162-163 and the book under review p. XVIII-XIX.

[4]. See E. Livrea, « Nonnus and the Orphic Argonautica » in K. Spanoudakis ed., Nonnus of Panopolis in Context, Berlin-Boston 2014, p. 55-57.

[5]. N. Zito, « Massimo di Efeso e i Lithica orfici », RFIC 140, 2012, p. 134-166 examines the links between the two poems.

[6]. Edited by M. Patillon (Pseudo-Hermogène, La méthode de l’habileté ; Maxime, Les objections irréfutables ; Anonyme, Méthode des discours d’adresse [Corpus Rhetoricum V]) in the same series, 2014.

[7]. « The Last Days of the Academy at Athens » in Wandering Poets and Other Essays on Late Greek Literature and Philosophy, Oxford-New York 2016, p. 205-245. Originally published in PCPhS 15, 1969, p. 7-29; for an assessment see L. Miguélez-Cavero, AHB Online Reviews 6, 2016, 45.

[8]. P. XV φιλοσοφίσς, 39 πολυηχεῖ (-ηχέι), 135 βαμβαίνωντα, 138 -εω (-έω), 142 Ἠπειίρου, 149 στάτον (this reproduces a misprint in the Nonnus Budé edition).