Greek Mythography in the Roman World

Greek Mythography in the Roman World

Greek Mythography in the Roman World

Greek Mythography in the Roman World


By the Roman age the traditional stories of Greek myth had long since ceased to reflect popular culture. Mythology had become instead a central element in elite culture. If one did not know the stories one would not understand most of the allusions in the poets and orators, classics and contemporaries alike; nor would one be able to identify the scenes represented on the mosaic floors and wall paintings in your cultivated friends' houses, or on the silverware on their tables at dinner.

Mythology was no longer imbibed in the nursery; nor could it be simply picked up from the often oblique allusions in the classics. It had to be learned in school, as illustrated by the extraordinary amount of elementary mythological information in the many surviving ancient commentaries on the classics, notably Servius, who offers a mythical story for almost every person, place, and even plant Vergil mentions. Commentators used the classics as pegs on which to hang stories they thought their students should know.

A surprisingly large number of mythographic treatises survive from the early empire, and many papyrus fragments from lost works prove that they were in common use. In addition, author Alan Cameron identifies a hitherto unrecognized type of aid to the reading of Greek and Latin classical and classicizing texts--what might be called mythographic companions to learned poets such as Aratus, Callimachus, Vergil, and Ovid, complete with source references. Much of this book is devoted to an analysis of the importance evidently attached to citing classical sources for mythical stories, the clearest proof that they were now a part of learned culture. So central were these source references that the more unscrupulous faked them, sometimes on the grand scale.


Despite an extraordinary surge of interest in Greek mythology over the last few decades, there has been no corresponding interest in our sources of information about the myths. Books on mythology have been appearing at an alarming rate in most modern languages, but not a single comprehensive study of the mythographers. Of course, we know many famous episodes in the great mythical sagas direct from the classics (Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, the Attic tragedians), not to mention monuments of archaic and classical art. But any alert reader who has tried to follow up earlier or later stages of even the most familiar stories in a carefully documented handbook like Timothy Gantz’s indispensable Early Greek Myth (1993) must be aware that countless details we take for granted are first mentioned not by Homer or Aeschylus or even Callimachus but by some anonymous Roman or even Byzantine hack. Where did they get their information, and how reliable is it?

Those who teach Greek mythology in American colleges usually assign their students the Bibliotheca ascribed to Apollodorus, a convenient survey of most of the main stories. It is indeed a handy, well-arranged, comprehensive manual, with many virtues. But what are its credentials? A precise date is out of reach, but it is not likely to be earlier than the first century of our era and might be as late as the third. In the Bibliotheca’s defense, critics often confidently assert that it is “drawn from excellent sources,” a claim based on its frequent direct citation of specific texts from archaic and classical poets and mythographers, citations we can in one or two cases actually verify ourselves. That is to say, the writer gives the appearance of an easy, firsthand familiarity with the entire range of relevant texts. But this is an illusion. In all probability he came by most of his citations at second (or third) hand and had never even seen an original copy of many of the texts he quotes (Ch. V. 3). The same will usually apply to the scholiasts, however much we might like to think that some particular scholion bristling with plausible details and . . .

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