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Comptes rendus

Peter Bing, The Scroll and the Marble. Studies in Reading and Reception in Hellenistic Poetry / The Well-Read Muse. Present and Past in Callimachus and the Hellenistic Poets

Benjamin Acosta-Hughes
Bibliographical reference

Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 304 p.

Ann Arbor, Michigan Classical Press, 163 p.

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1One of the most prominent figures in American Hellenistic poetry scholarship, Peter Bing, has long served as a model for acute criticism and careful reading. He has a marvelous ability to make readers rethink their preconceptions; his work is always beautifully argued and documented and his writing style is a pleasure to engage with. He was one of the scholars who figured prominently in the reawakening of interest in Hellenistic poetry that occured in the 1980’s and 1990’s; a consistent and encouraging presence at the Groningen Hellenistic poetry workshops, he has served as a mentor now to two generations of younger scholars, scholars who have the advantage of engaging in a field that has now garnered a great deal more interest and recognition than it previously had. In no small part this change of scholarly perspective in Hellenistic Poetry is due to the work of Peter Bing. 2009 saw the re-issue (with Michigan Classical Press) of his 1988 Göttingen monograph The Well-Read Muse. Present and Past in Hellenistic Poetry, as well as the publication of his collected essays The Scroll and the Marble. Studies in Reading and Reception in Hellenistic Poetry with the University of Michigan Press. These two works are not so much complementary as they are a continuum, and their appearance in the same year is a happy circumstance indeed.

2The Well-Read Muse really consists in two parts, two chapters on what the role of the literary in the Hellenistic world constituted, and then a long chapter on Callimachus’ Hymn to Delos, which evolved out of Bing’s dissertation on the same poem. Both parts of the book have proven to be fundamental in Hellenistic poetry scholarship in the past decades. Bing’s work on Callimachus’ fourth hymn, which bears the clear influence of his director, Ludwig Koenen, was one of the first studies of Hellenistic poetry in English to acknowledge not only the importance of its compositional setting, early Ptolemaic Alexandria, but also the strong presence of Egyptian kingship traditions and rituals set within a Greek hymn. The large body of subsequent work on cultural interplay in Hellenistic poetry owes much to this study. The early chapters of The Well-Read Muse, which highlight the literary as a novel cultural phenomenon of the Hellenistic period, have come under some degree of fire since the publication of Alan Cameron’s 1995 Callimachus and His Critics, and have, this reviewer would emphasize, withstood the attack rather well. While Cameron is correct in his emphasis on Hellenistic culture as a world of on-going festival and symposiastic occasions for poetic performance, at the same time this is a culture in which the book-roll had a new place, brought about in part by the avid collection and edition of literature in Alexandria (and elsewhere). By now the seeming disparity between the two stances can be seen much more as two parts of the same picture that logically complement rather than contradict each other.

3It is not standard for the articles of a not so senior scholar in my field to be published together, indeed this is usually something that would happen at the conclusion of a career, but this particular case is different. Bing is the author of some of the most seminal articles in Hellenistic poetry scholarship, particularly on epigram, and in the recent “boom” in epigram scholarship, occasioned in large part by the publication of the new epigrams attributed to Posidippus, scholars have turned in particular to Bing’s work as a hermeneutic guide to the genre of literary epigram. All of the articles in this volume are excellent, some are seminal works (e.g. “Between Literature and the Monuments”, “Ergänzungsspiel in the Epigrams of Callimachus”). With literary epigram and its complex relationship to earlier epigram tradition, including the “reality” of inscription, Bing’s work has been essential reading for anyone engaged in this area. Among Peter Bing’s many valuable contributions, this book  includes chapters concerning the understanding of the intellectual challenge in which some epigrams engage their readers (Ergänzungsspiel) and the play on the tradition of inscription that continues even when a particular poem, or collection of poems, is no longer itself “inscribed”. His treatment of Callimachus’ fragmentary poem, The Lock of Berenice (“Reconstructing Berenice’s Lock,” originally published in 1997, pages 65-82 of the present volume) showcases the breadth of Bing’s technical and interpretive skills. His discussion of how the restoration of the Greek fragment has been conditioned by Catullus’ Latin translation is very impressive because of his mastery of technical detail as well as the way in which he teases out the a priori assumptions held by modern scholars about translation and original composition in antiquity. In this article he demonstrates how a thorough understanding of the nature of fragmentary texts is essential not only for Hellenistic poetry but also in Latin studies. Indeed the article is essential reading for any scholar of Callimachean presence in Roman poetry, and serves as a very important cautionary scholarly narrative, a very timely one, given the growing interest in Callimachean reception in later literature.

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Electronic reference

Benjamin Acosta-Hughes, “Peter Bing, The Scroll and the Marble. Studies in Reading and Reception in Hellenistic Poetry / The Well-Read Muse. Present and Past in Callimachus and the Hellenistic PoetsAitia [Online], 1 | 2011, Online since 07 July 2011, connection on 20 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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Benjamin Acosta-Hughes

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