Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 10.

N. M. Kay, Epigrams from the Anthologia Latina: Text Translation and Commentary. London: Duckworth, 2006. Pp. vii + 388. ISBN 0-7156-3406-2. UK£45.00.

Sven Lorenz
Munich, Germany

Following the publication of his seminal works on Martial's Book 11 and the Epigrams of Ausonius,[[1]] N. M. Kay has again produced a commentary on a collection of epigrams. We do not know when the group of poems from the Codex Salmasianus which are numbered 78-188 in D. R. Shackleton Bailey's Teubner edition of the Anthologia Latina[[2]] were written and by whom. We cannot even be certain that they were all written by one single author. Furthermore, there is no conclusive proof that all these poems belong together and were ever intended to form a collection that, as a whole, has been incorporated into the Anthologia Latina. It is therefore inevitable that working on this text involves a great deal of speculation. Even though not everybody will agree with all of Kay's numerous theses and ideas, his commentary paints a coherent and overall plausible picture of a fascinating collection of epigrams from late antiquity.

Kay offers a new text and very readable prose translation. That Kay's text is not based on a collation of the manuscripts and that all problems of textual criticism are discussed in the commentary (and not in a critical apparatus) are not problems. His comments on the individual poems and the collection are extremely helpful. The introduction (pp. 1-37) on the nature of the collection, its date and place of origin, the history of the text and its metrical features is concise and highly informative. Finally, the indices (pp. 377-88) are certainly not overloaded and contribute to the impression that this is a very useful piece of work.

Starting from the observation that AL 78 is the preface to a collection of an anonymous author's juvenilia, Kay believes AL 78-188 to be the work of a single author, who wrote in North Africa in the sixth century, that is, under Vandal rule. In a thankfully clear manner, he provides short discussions on the nature of the prefatory poem, on the arrangement of poems in the Codex Salmasianus in general, on the collection's closure (or rather the absence of a closural marker), on the length of ancient books of epigrams, on typical epigrammatic topics as well as thematic and formal variation in epigrammatic collections, and on their structural arrangement. All these factors lead Kay to the conclusion that 78-188 originally were 'a libellus like a book of Martial' (pp. 1-5).

Kay goes on to discuss all the evidence that can be adduced to determine the date and place of the collection's composition (pp. 5-7). He accepts W. Schetter's[[3]] suggestion of the early sixth century Vandal North Africa. Kay acknowledges that there is not much evidence, but -- as he puts it -- 'what there is either does not contradict or supports a likely North African genesis' (p. 5). It will be hard to find conclusive proof for this dating and what Kay tells his readers about the political and cultural situation in Vandal Africa (pp. 7-13) offers no particularly strong support. That Roman culture, as it features in this collection of epigrams, had a strong influence on Vandal Africa and that 'the outward trappings of baths, circuses, hunting and gambling remained and were enthusiastically taken up by the Vandals' (p. 8) will not be doubted. Such popular topics as the baths, however, which play a crucial role in this collection, can certainly not be exclusively connected with one specific place or time; as we see from S. Busch's extensive study of the topic of bathing and the baths in epigrammatic poetry.[[4]] That aspects of traditional Roman culture are treated in these epigrams may also be the result of the inspiration from the works of classical Latin poets -- an influence that, as Kay makes clear, was indeed considerable (p. 12f.). However, even though Kay's arguments will not convince everyone, I doubt that it will be possible to come up with a more convincing date and place for the collection. There is just not enough evidence at hand.

No matter what their exact date and place of origin were, the epigrams in question are a fascinating collection, bearing the strong influence of other late Roman epigrammatists, as well as such classical authors as Vergil and Ovid and, of course, Martial. And Kay's manner of presenting these poems, explaining the relevant realia, discussing linguistic problems, and analysing their intertextual content is admirably to the point. Like Kay's earlier commentaries, this one is written for classicists rather than a non-specialist readership. Kay meets the needs of undergraduate students (for example, he retells Livy's account of the story of C. Mucius Scaevola, p. 271 on AL 144), but his commentary is not for absolute beginners (Kay expects his readers to be familiar with mythology, for example, with the story of Leda and the swan, pp. 240f. on AL 130). He certainly provides all necessary information needed by the specialist reader, for example, there is a long introduction to the ancient board game tabula, which is described in epigrams 182-85 (pp. 348-52). He does not, however, repeat facts that advanced scholars of epigram will have read many times before; often Kay sensibly refers his readers to his two earlier commentaries. A case in point is that he spares us yet another long list of passages to illustrate the use of the verb ludo in Latin epigrammatic poetry (p. 65).

Given the necessarily speculative nature of any work on these poems, Kay wisely refrains from offering excessively far-fetched interpretations whenever he can avoid them. It is typical of his approach that -- apart from a few skeptical sentences on the possibility that the poems could be assigned to Florus (pp. 19f.) -- Kay does not indulge in any speculations about the authorship of his collection. He is equally careful when it comes to questions of the composition of the liber. As in Martial's books,[[5]] there are recurrent themes and motifs in the epigrams, which may hint at the collection's unity. Of course, there is the danger that one may trace connections between poems just because one has been looking for them. Kay's examples, however, are very convincing. For instance, he points out that there are poems 'on animals and the natural world . . . , and those which highlight the value and usefulness of things they describe'. Both groups, as Kay makes clear, connect in AL 96 which deals with 'the dual benefit of the cuttlefish as food and provider of writing-ink' (pp. 118f.). Further examples for epigrams advertising the value of specific objects include, among others, AL 90 (on a sedan chair) and 95 (on a goose). And AL 95, of course, also belongs to the numerous poems on the natural world. Thus, the epigrams in the collection form a complex network of themes and motifs. No doubt more instances for such connections could be found. AL 90, for example, discusses the moral values of the Roman matrona (who is carried in the sedan chair), whereas the collapse of family values is portrayed in 91 on Medea murdering her children. On the unity of the collection -- especially on metrical features and the structure of the book -- see now L. Zurli's study[[6]] which appeared too late to be used by Kay.

Epigrams from the Anthologia Latina is an excellent commentary and it is a pleasure to work with it. As Kay tells his readers in the preface, one of the reasons he chose AL 78-188 for closer investigation was that, 'at least comparatively speaking, little has been written about them' (p. vii). His commentary is so inspiring that this will change soon.


[[1]] N. M. Kay, Martial Book XI: A Commentary (London 1985); Ausonius, Epigrams: Text with Introduction and Commentary (London 2001).

[[2]] D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Anthologia Latina I: Carmina in codicibus scripta, Fasc. 1: Libri Salmasiani aliorumque carmina (Stuttgart 1982).

[[3]] W. Schetter, Review of A. J. Baumgartner, Untersuchungen zur Anthologie des Codex Salmasianus (PhD Zürich, Baden 1981) in Gnomon 58 (1986) 300-304.

[[4]] S. Busch, Versus balnearum. Die antike Dichtung über Bäder und Baden im römischen Reich (Stuttgart/Leipzig 1999).

[[5]] Cf. S. Lorenz, ‘Waterscape with Black and White: Epigrams, Cycles, and Webs in Martial's Epigrammaton liber quartus’, AJPh 125 (2004) 255-78.

[[6]] L. Zurli, Unius poetae sylloge: verso un' edizione di Anthologia Latina cc 90-197 Riese2 = 78-188 Shackleton Bailey (Hildesheim 2005).