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Text and bibliography updated to reflect current scholarship. Keywords added.

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date: 08 August 2020

Nonnus, of Panopolis, Greek epic poet, mid-5th c. CE

Summary and Keywords

The 5th-century ce Greek poet Nonnus of Panopolis (the modern Akhmim, Upper-Egypt) is known as the author of two poems. The Dionysiaca is the longest extant ancient Greek poem, a mythological epic (48 books, 21,286 lines) about the young god Dionysus. The much shorter Paraphrase of the Gospel of John (3,640 lines) closely follows the structure of its gospel model, but renders its story in Nonnus’ impeccable hexameters and florid language.

Keywords: Nonnus of Panopolis, Dionysiaca, Paraphrase of the Gospel of John, mythological epic, biblical epic, hexameter, Christian, Neoplatonic, late antiquity, modern style, baroque

Life, Date, Authorship

Apart from the little that can be deduced from his poems (e.g., the references in Dion. 1.13 and 26.238 to the “neighbouring Isle of Pharos” and “my Nile,” which confirm the author’s Egyptian connection), biographical information about the author behind this remarkable oeuvre is scarce. Nonnus is mentioned as the author of the Dionysiaca in the oldest (partial) manuscript (P. 10567 = Π‎, papyrus of Berlin, 6th century), which at the start of book 15 reads “start of the 15th poem [sic.] of the Dionysiaca by Nonnus the poet from Panopolis.” He is also referred to as the author of the Dionysiaca by the 6th-century historian and poet Agathias (Hist. 4.23.5) and in a book epigram (AP 9.198) that probably adorned an early copy of the poem.1 The Paraphrase (in Greek, “Metabolē”) is attributed to Nonnus in manuscripts from the 13th century (Paris. Gr. 1220) onward. The lemma on νόνναι‎ in the Suda also attests his authorship of the Paraphrase, but strikingly omits any reference to the Dionysiaca. Although a point of dispute in the past, the single authorship of both poems is now generally accepted (on the grounds of metrical and stylistic arguments), and the apparent contrast in subject matter (pagan god vs. Christian Saviour) is no longer regarded a problem. Past speculations about Nonnus’ possible conversion (or apostasy) in between writing the poems have been set aside in line with current ideas on the coexistence and dialogue between pagan and Christian cultures in late antique society and the continuing importance of mythology and classical paideia for the (Christian) educated elite.2 It has been argued convincingly that both poems were intended for oral performance in Alexandrian auditoria attended by a mixed audience of pagans and Christians.3

The lack of more precise biographic details on Nonnus makes it difficult to date his poems, on which he moreover may have worked simultaneously. Safe termini post quem for the Paraphrase are the Council of Ephesus (431) and Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on the Gospel of John (425–8). The Dionysiaca, on the other hand, has left clear traces of influence on later poets writing in Nonnus’ ‘modern’ style, who can serve as termini ante quem. Pamprepius, who died in 483–4, is Nonnus’ earliest (known and datable) imitator. Enrico Livrea’s identification of Nonnus the poet with the bishop of Edessa of the same name († 470-471) remains plausible but difficult to substantiate.

Dionysiaca

The Dionysiaca is an ambitious poem “in rivalry with both new and old” (25.27, second prologue). With many detours, it relates the events leading towards Dionysus’ miraculous birth (books 1–8), his youth (9–12), the expedition to (13–24) and war in India against king Deriades (25–40.250), his return (40.251–48) and—only in the final five lines (48.974–978) —his apotheosis as an Olympian. Whereas it never becomes clear with which contemporaries the Dionysiaca seeks to compete, the challenges it poses to Homer could not be more explicit. He is mentioned six times by name, as a source of inspiration and safe haven for poets (13.50–52), but also as a liar (42.181). Nonnus’ narrator rejects the smelly seal-skin of Menelaus (Od.4.435–446)—clearly a metonymic way of talking about the Odyssey—in favour of Dionysus’ fawn skin (Dion.1.34–38), and claims the superiority of his own subjects (a god fighting Giants) over that of the Iliad, which Thetis is said to have imposed on Homer (Dion.25.258–260). The number of 48 books, alternating between military and travel epic, is surely intended to represent the sum of the Iliad’s and the Odyssey’s 24 books. Of Nonnus’ other literary predecessors, only Pindar is mentioned by name, but as models for imitation Euripides (Bacchae), Callimachus, Apollonius Rhodius, and Achilles Tatius are at least as important. The Greek poets from the imperial age (e.g., Oppian, Pseudo-Oppian, and Quintus of Smyrna), on whose innovations Nonnus builds (especially in the realm of metrics and as rhetorical poetry), are never openly alluded to. Whether or not Nonnus also used Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a model (and Latin sources in general) remains a hotly debated issue.4

The overall structure of the Dionysiaca has been the subject of much scholarly discussion, especially because of the varying pace of the narrative, the abrupt transitions between loosely connected episodes and the apparent contradictions and anachronisms, which today are no longer put down to the unfinished state of the poem, but interpreted as typical late antique features of Nonnus’ “mosaic” composition.5 Roughly, the structure is that of an encomium (cf. Menander (4) Rhetor’s basilikos logos) with an epic regularity in the division of books in the first half of the poem (major parts consisting of 6, 8, and 12 books), which is abandoned in the second part.6 Within this basic structure, individual episodes can often be read (and performed) independently (as ‘epyllia’).7 The poetics of variation (1.15: ὅτι ποικίλον ὕμνον ἀράσσω‎ “because I strike a varied/many-coloured hymn”)—connected in the first prologue to the metamorphosing figure of Proteus—are active on all levels of the narration: subject matter, generic mode, repetition with variation of story elements, and endless wordplay with synonyms and antonyms. Direct speech (mostly long rhetorical set speeches, no real dialogue) is not used to drive forward the action, but mainly to vary the perspective of the narrative. Unity is generated not so much by the main story line but by the regular re-evocation of certain important themes (hospitality, competition, voyeurism, metamorphosis, deception) and rhetorical patterns that interconnect individual episodes.8 In David Hernández De La Fuente’s Neoplatonic reading of the poem, the theme of cyclic life and resurrection is foregrounded as an overarching theme.9 On the level of vocabulary it is omnipresent in the constant—obsessive—references to circular shapes (tendrils, curls, cups, breasts, vaults of heaven, etc.) and movements (esp. of coiling snakes and dancing feet).

For several passages (e.g., the Ampelus episode, in books 10–12, the healing of the blind man, and the shield of Dionysus in book 25), Christian interpretations have been suggested.10 Whereas specific episodes certainly resonate with Christian motifs, which will also have been recognized as such by Nonnus’ contemporary audience, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to read the poem as a whole as a Christian allegory.

Paraphrase

In contrast to the Dionysiaca, with its two very informative prologues (in books 1 and 25), and pseudo-Apollinaris’ Psalm Metaphrasis (the closest Greek parallel for Nonnus in terms of genre) with its extensive verse preface, the Paraphrase lacks any introductory section informing its reader of its poetic goals and ambitions. Because of its Biblical subject matter and epic metre, it can be regarded as a Greek example of Biblical epic (cf. the more extensive Latin tradition, for Nonnus especially compare Iuvencus’ and Sedulius’ Gospel re-narrations), although, apart from metre and language, the epic stylization remains limited to a micro-structural level and is visible—for example, in the use of epithets, speech introductions, colourful descriptions of the passing of time, and ekphrasis.

From the perspective of poetic or rhetorical technique it is in the first place a metrical paraphrase (commonly paralleled in school exercises). Each line is the result of a search for an alternative phrasing for the content of the equivalent Gospel passage. The pre-determined content of the poem and the demanding technique of the metrical paraphrase may seem to restrict Nonnus’ poetic creativity (in contrast to the exuberant Dionysiaca), but the challenge to create poetry within this framework of restrictions must have particularly appealed to the ambitious poet.

Although the style of the Paraphrase is very similar to that of the Dionysiaca, its tone is strikingly different. “Whereas the mythological poem is humorous, mocking, self-referential, metatextual, the Paraphrase uses the same verbal range in a sensitive, subtle, and sympathetic elaboration of the mysteries and miracles set out in simple style in the biblical text.”11 By means of small but significant additions (esp. meaningful adjectives), the paraphrase presents an explanation of the gospel in the line of Cyril’s Commentary, which is its most important theological source.

The “pagan elements” in the poem (the personified Aeon and Hades, the “Dionysiac” colouring of passages referring to wine and the vine) are not at odds with the Christian content but show the strong intertwining of classical culture and late antique (Neoplatonic) spirituality, both of which are logically incorporated in Nonnus’ rendering of the most “Greek” and spiritual of the Gospels.12

Reception

The early reception of Nonnus is inextricably bound up with his influence as a metrical reformer and his creation (after the Homeric and Callimachean) of a third “modern” hexameter type with very strict rules (also regarding the position of word accents) and little variation (many dactyls, only nine possible combinations of dactyls and spondees as opposed to 32 in Homer).13 After Nonnus, all refined hexameter poetry is generally written according to his reforms (except for those deliberately using an archaizing Homeric style) and also imitates Nonnus’ poetry in terms of style and language, borrowing his neologisms, expressions, and entire lines. Important “Nonnian” poets (5th–6th century) are Musaeus, Colluthus, Christodorus, John of Gaza, Agathias, and Paulus the Silentiary. As the hexameter fell into disuse (with only few exceptions) in the Byzantine period, Nonnus’ influence lessened. George of Pisidia (7th century), who wrote both hexameters and iambic trimeters (cf. the Byzantine twelve-syllable verse), can be regarded as both the last “Nonnian” and the first truly Byzantine poet. Later authors did (or could) not write Nonnian hexameters, but his poetry was read and alluded to by learned authors throughout the Byzantine period. Readers include John Geometres (10th century), Theodore Prodromos (12th century), and Maximus Planudes (13th century). The latter was the commissioner of the important Laurentianus plut. 36.16 (L) manuscript of the Dionysiaca.

In the Renaissance, Poliziano extensively studied Nonnus’ poetry. The Paraphrase in particular enjoyed great success in humanist circles after its editio princeps by Aldus Manutius (14 editions in the 16th century alone) until the severe condemnation by the Dutch humanist Daniel Heinsius, which abruptly dampened interest in the poem. The Dionysiaca (editio princeps, 1569, by G. Falkenburg) became well known in 16th- and 17th- century Italy and France. Alongside Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Dionysiaca was used as a source of mythological stories by various artists and authors, like the baroque poet Giambattista Marino (who also imitated Nonnus in terms of style) and his friend the classicistic painter Nicolas Poussin. Later enthusiasts include the British novelist and poet Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866) and the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (1863–1933).

The scarcity of biographical details on Nonnus, meanwhile also inspired several creative minds. Between 1854 and 1861, the versatile forger Constantine Simonides presented a false biography to Nonnus’ French admirer and translator, the Comte de Marcellus. In 1888, Richard Garnett, librarian of the British Library, published a short story “The Poet of Panopolis,” devoted to Nonnus’ life, and in 1970, Margarete Riemschneider, author also of several scientific contributions on Nonnus, published the historical novel Im Garten Claudias with a different take on the same subject.14

Primary Texts

Nonnus. Dionysiaca. Edited by Rudolf Keydell. 2 vols. Berlin: Weidmann, 1959.Find this resource:

Nonnus. Dionysiaca. Translated by W. H. D. Rouse. 3 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940–1942.Find this resource:

Nonno. Le Dionisiache. Annotated and translated by Daria Gigli Piccardi, Fabrizio Gonnelli, Gianfranco Agosti, and Domenico Accorinti, 4 vols. Milan: Bibliotea Universale Rizzoli, 2003–2004.Find this resource:

Nonnos. Les Dionysiaques. Edited and translated by Francis Vian, Pierre Chuvin, Gisèle Chrétien, Bernard Gerlaud, Joëlle Gerbeau, Neil Hopkinson, Hélène Frangoulis, Bernadette Simon, and Marie-Christine Fayant. 19 vols. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1976–2006.Find this resource:

Nonnus of Panopolis. Dionysiaca. Translated by Robert Shorrock, Camille Geisz, Mary Whitby, Tim Whitmarsh, and Berenice Verhelst. In Collected Imperial Greek Epics. Vol. 1. Edited by Tim Whitmarsh and Robert Shorrock. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020.Find this resource:

Nonno. Parafrasi del Vangelo di San Giovanni. Canto XX. Edition and commentary by Domenico Accorinti. Pisa, Italy: Scuola Normale Superiore, 1996.Find this resource:

Nonno. Parafrasi del Vangelo di San Giovanni. Canto quinto. Edition and commentary by Gianfranco Agosti. Florence: University of Florence, 2003.Find this resource:

Nonno. Parafrasi del Vangelo di San Giovanni. Canto I. Edition and commentary by Claudio De Stefani. Bologna, Italy: Pàtron, 2002.Find this resource:

Nonno. Parafrasi del Vangelo di San Giovanni. Canto IV. Edition and commentary by Mariangela Caprara. Pisa, Italy: Edizioni della Normale, 2005.Find this resource:

Nonno. Parafrasi del Vangelo di San Giovanni. Canto Sesto. Edition and commentary by Roberta Franchi. Florence: Nordini, 2013.Find this resource:

Nonno. Parafrasi del Vangelo di San Giovanni. Canto tredicesimo. Edition and commentary by Claudia Greco. Alessandria, Italy: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2004.Find this resource:

Nonno. Parafrasi del vangelo di S. Giovanni. Canto XVIII. Edition and commentary by Enrico Livrea. Naples, Italy: d'Auria, 1989.Find this resource:

Nonno. Parafrasi del Vangelo di san Giovanni. Canto B. Edition and commentary by Enrico Livrea. Bologna, Italy: Edizioni Dehoniane Bologna, 2000.Find this resource:

Nonnus. Nonni Panopolitani Paraphrasis S. Evangelii Ioannei. Edited by Augustin Scheindler. Leipzig, Germany: Bibliotheca Teubneriana, 1881.Find this resource:

Nonnus of Panopolis. Paraphrasis of the Gospel of John XI. Edited by Konstantinos Spanoudakis. Oxford: Oxford Universtiy Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Nonnus of Panopolis. Paraphrase of the Gospel According to John. Translated by Fotini Hadjittofi. In Collected Imperial Greek Epics. Vol. 3, Didactic and Christian Epic. Edited by Pavlos Avlamis and Emily Kneebone. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020.Find this resource:

Bibliography

Keydell, Rudolf. Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, s.v. “Nonnos (15).” Vol. 17.1 (1936): 904–920.Find this resource:

Accorinti, Domenico, ed. Brill’s Companion to Nonnus of Panopolis. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016.Find this resource:

Agosti, Gianfranco. “Greek Poetry.” In The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity. Edited by Scott Fitzgerald Johnson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Bannert, Herbert, and Nicole Kröll, eds. Nonnus of Panopolis in Context II: Poetry, Religion and Society. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016.Find this resource:

Chuvin, Pierre. Mythologie et géographie dionysiaques: Recherches sur l’ oeuvre de Nonnos de Panopolis. Clermont Ferrand, France: Adosa, 1991.Find this resource:

D’Ippolito, Gennaro. Studi Nonniani: L’Epillio nelle Dionisiache. Palermo, Italy: Presso L’Accademia, 1964.Find this resource:

Fauth, Wolfgang. Eidos poikilon: Zur Thematik der Metamorphose und zum Prinzip der Wandlung aus dem Gegensatz in den Dionysiaka des Nonnos von Panopolis. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1981.Find this resource:

Frangoulis, Hélène. Du roman à l’épopée: Influence du roman grec sur les Dionysiaques de Nonnos de Panopolis. Besançon, France: Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2014.Find this resource:

Geisz, Camille. A Study of the Narrator in Nonnus of Panopolis' Dionysiaca: Storytelling in Late Antique Epic. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2018.Find this resource:

Gigli Piccardi, Daria. Metafora e poetica in Nonno di Panopoli. Florence: University of Florence, Dipart. di Sc. dell'antichità Giorgio Pasquali, 1985.Find this resource:

Golega, Joseph. Studien über die Evangeliendichtung des Nonnos von Panopolis. Breslau, Germany: Müller & Seiffert, 1930.Find this resource:

Hernández De La Fuente, David. Bakkhos Anax: Un estudio sobre Nono de Panópolis. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2008.Find this resource:

Hopkinson, Neil, ed. Studies in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Philological Society, 1994.Find this resource:

Miguélez Cavero, Laura. Poems in Context: Greek Poetry in the Egyptian Thebaid 200600 AD. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008.Find this resource:

Shorrock, Robert. The Challenge of Epic: Allusive Engagement in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001.Find this resource:

Shorrock, Robert. The Myth of Paganism: Nonnus, Dionysus, and the World of Late Antiquity. Bristol, UK: Bristol Classical Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Spanoudakis, Konstantinos, ed. Nonnus of Panopolis in Context: Poetry and Cultural Milieu in Late Antiquity, with a Section on Nonnus and the Modern World. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014.Find this resource:

Smolak, Kurt. “Beiträge zur Erklärung der Metabole des Nonnos.” Jahrbuch der Osterreichischen Byzantinistik Wien 34 (1984): 1–14.Find this resource:

Verhelst, Berenice. Direct Speech in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca. Narrative and Rhetorical Functions of the Characters’ “Varied” and “Many-Faceted” Words. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2017.Find this resource:

Wifstrand, Albert. Von Kallimachos zu Nonnos: Metrisch-stilistische Untersuchungen zur späteren griechischen Epik und zu verwandten Gedichtgattungen. Lund, Sweden: H. Ohlssons, 1933.Find this resource:

Notes:

(1.) According to Enrico Livrea this epigram refers to both the Paraphrase and the Dionysiaca. See Enrico Livrea, Nonno di Panopoli. Parafrasi del Vangelo di San Giovanni, Canto XVIII (Naples, Italy: d’Auria, 1989), 32–35.

(3.) See especially Gianfranco Agosti, “La voce dei libri: Dimensioni performative dell'epica greca tardoantica,” in Approches de la Troisième Sophistique: Hommages à Jacques Schamp, ed. Eugenio Amato, Alexandre Roduit, and Martin Steinrück (Brussels, Belgium: Latomus, 2006), 35–62.

(4.) See e.g., Peter E. Knox, “Phaethon in Ovid and Nonnus.” The Classical Quarterly 38, no. 2 (1988), 536–551; and more recently Michael Paschalis, “Ovidian Metamorphosis and Nonnian poikilon eidos,” in Nonnus of Panopolis in Context: Poetry and Cultural Milieu in Late Antiquity with a Section on Nonnus and the Modern World, ed. Konstantinos Spanoudakis (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014), 97–122; and Berenice Verhelst, “‘Narres, si poteris narrare’ (Ov. Met. 3.192–193): Nonnus’ (Dion. 5.287–551) response to Artemis’ challenge to Actaeon in Ovid,” Latomus 77 (2018): 773–786.

(5.) See Paul Collart, Nonnos de Panopolis: études sur la composition et le texte des Dionysiaques (Cairo, Egypt: Institut français d'archéologie orientale, 1930); Rudolf Keydell, “Zur Komposition der Bücher 13–40 der Dionysiaca des Nonnos,” Hermes 62 (1927): 393–434; and Rudolf Keydell, “Eine Nonnos-Analyse,” L’Antiquité Classique 1 (1932): 173–202.

(6.) See Viktor Stegemann, Astrologie und Universalgeschichte: Studien und Interpretationen zu den Dionysiaka des Nonnos von Panopolis (Leipzig, Germany: Teubner, 1930); Edward D. Lasky, “Encomiastic Elements in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus,” Hermes 106 (1978): 357–376; and Pierre Chuvin, “Nonnos de Panopolis et la ‘déconstruction’ de l'épopée,” in La poésie épique grecque, ed. Bernard Grange, Franco Montanari, and Antonios Rengakos (Geneva, Switzerland: Fondation Hardt, 2006), 249–268.

(10.) E.g., in Konstantinos Spanoudakis, “Icarius Jesus Christ? Dionysiac Passion and Biblical Narrative in Nonnus' Icarius Episode (Dion. 47, 1–264),” Wiener Studien 120 (2007): 35–92; and Spanoudakis, “The Shield of Salvation: Dionysus’ Shield in the Dionysiaca 25.380–572,” in Nonnus of Panopolis in Context, ed. Spanoudakis, 333–371.

(11.) Mary Whitby, “Nonnus and Biblical Epic,” in Brill’s Companion to Nonnus, ed. Accorinti, 215–239, p. 215.

(12.) See Konstantinos Spanoudakis, “Pagan Themes in the Paraphrase,” in Brill’s Companion to Nonnus, ed. Accorinti, 601–624.

(14.) See Francesco Tissoni, “The Reception of Nonnus in Late Antiquity, Byzantine, and Renaissance Literature,” in Brills Companion to Nonnus, ed. Accorinti, 691–713; and David Hernández de la Fuente, “The Influence of Nonnus on Baroque and Modern Literature,” in Brills Companion to Nonnus, ed. Accorinti, 714–754.

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