Aratus. Phaenomena

edited with an introduction, translation and commentary by Douglas Kidd, Cambridge University Press, 1997. xxiii + 590 pp., Hb ISBN 0 521 58230 X

reviewed by J. H. Hordern

University College Dublin

Aratus' Phaenomena is a hexametrical astronomical treatise of just over 1,000 lines, which owes much generically to the didactic poetry of Hesiod, and much of its theory to Stoic cosmological observations and speculations. Apart from the proem and conclusion, it has three main parts: a section on the constellations, one on the usefulness of the constellations and the planets to mark the passage of time, and a third on signs appearing as natural phenomena, or in the behaviour of animals and birds, useful for predicting the weather. All this is interspersed with occasional mythological aetia of the sort favoured in Hellenistic poetry. Stylistically, Aratus is notable for his clever manipulation of Homer, both in the usage of obscure Homeric words and in his deliberate reminiscences of Homeric passages. Despite its apparently practical subject, this is a poem for an extremely erudite audience.

K.'s succinct, but informative, introduction deals with general issues such as Aratus' date (early third century B.C.) and life, and more particular literary subjects such as possible sources, style, language and metre, and his relationship to contemporary and later poets, especially Callimachus and Vergil. Although it is unclear whether Aratus ever visited Alexandria, he seems to have been familiar with Callimachean poetic ideals (but in connection with this I doubt K.'s too ready acceptance of the supposed evidence provided by the acrostic at 783-7), and the poem was praised for its elegance by Callimachus and others. This is followed by an account of the ancient commentaries on the work, especially that of Hipparchus of Nicaea, and a discussion of the textual tradition. I missed here a general discussion of the genre, despite the brief account of earlier Greek interest in astronomy, and in particular of the work of Eudoxus of Cnidus, whom Aratus clearly used as a source. I wonder whether some account of Mesopotamian astronomical theories might also have been of interest.

However, K. is strong on the subject of the influence of Hesiod and Stoic astronomy, and the possible purposes for which the poem was written. However, though Aratus was clearly writing for highly educated literary circles, it may also have been useful to have examined, for instance, the poem's relationship with subliterary didactic poetry, some of which is astrological and therefore possibly germane to K.'s subject, and which often appears to have been written with a practical audience in mind. But this can only be a minor criticism, and in general the introduction is scholarly, authoritative and very much to the point. Stoic theology, the influence of which can be identified in Aratus' treatment of Zeus, is also briefly examined. Many of these points are dealt with in more detail in the commentary, and the introduction thus provides a good summary of K.'s views.

The text is conservatively constituted, and generally well supported by the commentary, although occasionally some issues might have justified more detailed textual discussion. I would also have welcomed a chart of the constellations, with the modern equivalents which are frequently given in the commentary, in order to clarify their relative positions, a subject on which Aratus can be rather verbose. On astronomical matters K. himself seems remarkably well informed, though in this area the non-specialist can hardly be a reliable judge, but the discussion of the section on weather signs might have been more extensive. There is an impressive number of parallels from other ancient texts.

K. has produced an excellent edition with commentary for the professional scholar, although the impressive scale of the work will make it somewhat unwieldy for the beginner. However, the welcome inclusion of a translation, a feature of several recent volumes in the Cambridge series, means that it may also be of some use to those with only a little Greek. This is a major achievement which appears, from K.'s preface, to be the culmination of thirty years' work, and his time has clearly been well spent.

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