Philodemus and Poetry: Poetic Theory and Practice in Lucretius, Philodemus, and Horace

By Dirk Obbink | Go to book overview

11
The Impossibility of Metathesis:
Philodemus and Lucretius on Form and
Content in Poetry

David Armstrong

All of us know well enough that the stars and the elements once had magical and divine qualities ascribed to them, and the sober sciences of "astronomy" and "chemistry" were difficult for any but the most determinedly scientific minds to separate from astrology and alchemy. That the mere elements of literacy, the letters of the alphabet themselves, were once equally involved with magic in the popular mind is not so familiar a thought. But, if we think of it, most of us have smiled at the derivation of the word "glamour" by which the medieval Scots expressed their awe at the magical science of grammata, and can remember, if we think of it, that "abracadabra" expresses the belief that the letters of the alphabet read in order cast a spell.

This belief is attested throughout the Greek, Roman, and medieval worlds. The occurrence of Greek alphabets inscribed on archaic shields from the sixth century B.C. onwards (just as the runic alphabet appears on the shields and swords of medieval warriors), and Latin alphabets inscribed round the walls of Pompeian houses, together with many similar phenomena, proves that the alphabet itself had from the beginning in popular belief a magical and apotropaic value.2 Every student of ancient

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1
Nearly all my quotations are from book 5 (ed. Jensen, 1923, with the new column numeration of Mangoni 1993 given in parentheses) and Herculaneum Papyrus 1676 (= with other papyri, Sbordone, Tractatus Tertius in Richerche sui Papiri Ercolanesi 2, Naples 1976). Where I refer to Greenberg's discussion of some other fragment I have indicated its place in Sbordone's or other more recent publications of the texts.
2
Cf. A. Dieterich, "ABC Denkmäler," RhM 56 ( 1901), 77-109; more fully F. Dornseiff, Das Alphabet in Mystik und Magik, 2nd ed. ( Leipzig 1925). Dieterich points out with astonishment at the end of his article that the consecration of a Roman Catholic church in his day, according to the Pontificale Romanum of 1896, still included the solemn drawing on its floor in ashes with the bishop's crozier of the entire Greek and Latin alphabets in an X meeting in the middle at M (one remembers Diels' contemporary theory that elementum comes from LMN, the sacred center-point of the Latin alphabet), followed by a prayer forbidding Satan to enter the holy place and distract worshippers' thoughts. Cf. such comparable phenomena as the Orthodox Church's (still recited) Akathist Hymns to the Saviour and to the Virgin and many others whose alphabetical form, including sacred acrostics on the model of the even more ancient

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