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Review Reviewed Work(s): Isis among the Greeks and Romans by Friedrich Solmsen Review by: Michael N. Nagler Source: Classical Philology, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Jan., 1983), pp. 81-83 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/269923 Accessed: 09-05-2017 11:36 UTC

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Review Reviewed Work(s): Isis among the Greeks and Romans by Friedrich Solmsen Review by: Michael

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Classical Philology

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evaluation and operating with the dubious assumption that the individual poems

can be properly understood (and appreciated) without reference to their position

in the book. Given this attitude toward structure, it is not surprising to find that

W.'s structural analyses of the individual poems are either imperceptive (e.g., in

Ecl. 2 he makes lines 19-55 into one section!) or entirely lacking (Ecl. 3, 4, 5, 6,

9, 10). Nor does W. fare better with his interpretation of the Georgics. He twice

states that "source-material is used only as a basis for Virgil's expression of his

own practical knowledge of the countryside" and calls this insight "the essence of the Georgics" (p. xi; cf. p. 133). Again we have a false antithesis, now between source material, on the one hand, and personal love and knowledge, on the other.

As for Virgil's own knowledge of the countryside, K. D. White's sober assessment

should have tempered W.'s enthusiasm:

". . .

the Georgics is a work of genius,

but for accurate information the reader must go to the technical writers."8 W.'s

insistence on the accuracy of Virgil's practical knowledge and his fidelity to the sources leads him not only to miscalculate Virgil's utility to the farmer but also

to miss a key point about "the essence" of the poem that can only be discerned

by attending to Virgil's deliberate departures from the truth, namely, that the

Georgics are as much about man's mindscape as nature's landscape, and they are

just as concerned with culture as with nature. With such a trivial and sentimental

view of the poem, it is natural for W. to reduce whole sections of the text to

barely recognizable propaganda pieces on the virtues of country life and the

Roman state. Thus, in his comments about the laus Italiae section in Georgics 2. 136-76, W. strangely hears "the proud imperial note of the Aeneid" (because

of the incidental mention of triumphos in verse 148?) but says practically nothing about the utopian motifs that begin to be sounded with the mention of Panchaia

in verse 139 (on which see Richter ad loc.).

The book is well printed. I noted only the following typographical errors: ad Eclogues 1. 15, the Horace Ars Poetica reference should be to line 301, not to

302; ad Eclogues 2. 32, read Ovid Metamorphoses 1.689ff. instead of 1.698ff.;

ad Georgics 1. 451 1tt&XXoz is incorrectly accented in the Aratus passage; and, on

page 212 ad Georgics 4. 315-424, read ai2tLOV not aULLov.9

  • 8. Roman Farming (Ithaca, 1970), p. 41.

Bernard Frischer

University of California,

Los Angeles

  • 9. I dedicate this review to my teacher Viktor Poschl on the occasion of his 70th birthday. I wish to

thank the following graduate students in my Fall 1980 seminar on Virgil for giving me the benefit of

their perceptive reactions to Williams' commentary: Donna Girard, Bruce McMenomy, Elizabeth Pe-

terson, Bruce Thornton, Charitini Velissariou, and Joyce Wagner. I must also thank my colleague Philip

Levine for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of this review. Of course, responsibility for the

opinions expressed here is mine alone.

Isis among the Greeks and Romans. By FRIEDRICH SOLMSEN. Martin Classical Lectures, vol. 25. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press

(for Oberlin College), 1979. Pp. xi+ 157. $12.50.

Professor Solmsen's latest book is a uniformly interesting investigation of the

major stages of the reception of Isis in Greco-Roman areas. The point of departure

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was his impression that "of all Oriental deities whose power expands in late

antiquity, Isis established by far the closest contacts with the traditions of classical

civilization," and he sheds new light on this process, although it has received able attention from Dunand, Cumont, L. Vidman, and many others. S. draws freely and expertly on epigraphical, papyrological, and literary evidence, but the in-

vestigation begins and ends with Apuleius and concentrates rather more dispro- portionately than the title might suggest on literary questions: what did Isis really

mean to Herodotus, the love elegists, Plutarch, and Apuleius? To this reviewer

the impression of distinct historical stages of reception was less clear than the differing reception of the goddess in Greek and Roman territories (characterized in ch. 3 as "Greek thought" versus "Roman feeling") or even the literary uses to which her figure lent itself for certain writers. Yet a number of documents are

discussed, such as the Andros inscription (IG, 12. 5. 739) and an important second-

century aretalogy (P. Oxy. 11. 1380), which may not be familiar to the reader

who is not a specialist in late antiquity. Although the notes are few and hardly

obtrusive, there is a sense of lively interaction with the other scholars who have

trodden this ground (the only ones whose absence I regretted were M. Astour on

Jo and the Danaids and Kerenyi on Demeter).

On the whole S. succeeds well in suggesting answers to the central question of

the study, the reasons for the spread of the worship of Isis. Her advantages over

any member of the Olympian pantheon, and notably Demeter, in the late antique "age of anxiety" are well expressed: "August yet benevolent, majestic yet close, queen as well as mother, powerful and magnetically attractive, unlimited in her

. . . appeal to different people for different reasons" (p. 61). One might almost have said "mother as well as queen": late antiquity was a period of turning inward. Men and women were looking for a divinity with whom they could establish an intense personal relationship such as was forbidden the worshipper of the Olym-

sphere of domination yet not too closely defined either

she was bound to

pians, even of the Demeter of the mysteries. At the same time an ecumenical culture was establishing itself, and Demeter, while not as ethnocentric as Jahweh

or Zarathustra, did not travel as well as Isis (proficiency in Greek was always a criterion of initiation at Eleusis, for example). S. touches on both these points. Both bear resemblances to our own era, incidentally, and the reception of Eastern religions in our own time, for reasons ranging from a taste for the exotic to a

genuine desire for a system that offers more method and less dogma, might have

made an interesting comparison if it would not have marred the admirable econ-

omy of this book. I

The discussions of the Isis passages in Tibullus and Propertius (pp. 68-71) are

illuminating. They illustrate well S.'s characterization of "Roman feeling" as

opposed to "Greek thought," but I think a precaution is in order. While he is far

from the biographical fallacy (p. 81), S. may not have taken quite fully enough

into account that for love elegy, as for the later European sonnet, nearly everything

is subordinated to the erotic topic; a good love elegy does almost nothing but ring

changes on subthemes of this topic, and the appearance of Isis in such a context

1. The maternal Isis may also have risen as one of the periodic assertions of "folk" religion against

the imposition of male-centered Aryan systems, as Demeter did before her (according to G. R. Levy)

and Mary after.

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almost reduces her to the thematic significance of sexual abstinence, which is how

Tibullus, Propertius, and, in a slightly different way, Catullus use her. Why

should S. think that the elegists "almost accidentally" discovered this usefulness

(p. 71) when that kind of usefulness was how they looked at practically everything?

We should perhaps be a trifle more cautious about using their evidence not only

for their personal biographies but for what a figure like Isis could mean to a

citizen of the Augustan period.

A similar oversight figures more seriously in the otherwise excellent discussion

of the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, the "Problematic Convert" (ch. 4), with whom

it is so difficult to know whether, as S. points out, "the goddess teases him or

whether Apuleius teases his readers" (p. 93). Clearly one of the main topics in

the conversion to the Isis r'eligion, however much Apuleius did or did not acc

plish that conversion, was the conversion (or "spiritualization") of sexual desire. By leaving this brusquely out of account (p. 96) in favor of the discussion of

Lucius' curiositas about magic, which admittedly is parallel, S. does not come

to grips with the model of psychagogic redemption presented in the Amor and

Psyche allegory or in the rest of the Metamorphoses, even while he discusses so

brilliantly how seriously and how autobiographically Apuleius may or may not

have intended that redemption. By his reading, the rich ambiguity of an adventure that begins in darkness with a woman named Fotis and ends, after much puri-

fication, with a child called Voluptas is missed. S. criticizes Festugiere's summary of the work-as the story of a soul which fell, suffered, and was raised up by

Isis-as introducing a Christian element into the story (p. 101). Does it? Was not the model of a descent of the soul as an explanation of man's present condition

and its ascent as his potential destiny common to Neoplatonic, Jewish, Gnostic, Orthodox Christian, and other sectaries of those syncretistic centuries? When S.

argues that the story "contains no reference to 'soul"' (p. 101), one wonders if he

has forgotten the name of the heroine in the central episode for which the story

is largely remembered.2

It would be misleading, however, to dwell on minor disappointments. In these

pages the reader gains a better appreciation of the kind of transition Isis-and

the less successful importations-must have provided between the old polytheistic

systems and the intensely personal and psychagogic religion of Jesus that was to

succeed her in turn. One appreciates more fully why Augustine admired Apuleius.

The same qualities which enabled Isis to gain ground over Demeter would make her cede that ground to Jesus (and, later still, his virgin mother). The last para-

graph of the volume, in which S. describes the new religion's main advantage-

"love of a more outgoing kind and broader scope, love between man and his

neighbor, love for the poor and the downtrodden, even, in principle at least, for

one's enemy"-and points out that by contrast the only textual association of Isis

with the quality of agape may even be a mistake, is typical of his effective balance

of larger issues and philological detail.

Michael N. Nagler

University of California,


2. Cf. also the use of animae at the beginning of 6. 15 and at the end of 6. 2, in the context of

Proserpina's descendings and ascendings.

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