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  • F. Overduin (a1)


The last decades have shown that Nicander's Theriaca (second century b.c.e.), a didactic hexameter poem of 958 lines on snakes, scorpions, spiders, and the proper treatment of the wounds they inflict, is a markedly more playful work than most readers thought. Rather than considering the poem as a vehicle of authentic learning, literary approaches to the nature of Nicander's strange poetic world have focussed on his eye for Alexandrian aesthetics, intertextuality, linguistic innovation, and awareness of the didactic tradition that started with Hesiod's Works and Days, but also on his predilection for horror, voyeuristic sensationalism, and gory details. Although literary-minded readers have found it hard to disprove convincingly that Nicander may have had some professional knowledge of his subject matter, a glance at his arcane language is enough to convince any reader that the Theriaca cannot be concerned solely with its explicit subject. In this article I will make some additional observations on the way in which Nicander has turned the Theriaca into a work of literature, focussing on some of the choices that he has made with regard to his less than veracious depiction of snakes and animals. While Spatafora rightly points to Nicander's eye for detail when portraying floral beauty, I will argue that the poet's play with the topos of the locus amoenus has a darker side. Rather than creating an epic world of beauty, Nicander shows his talent for taking the reader along an unpleasant path of apprehension and negative feelings, portraying a choice selection of afflictions. Not only does he have many ways of giving his quasi-scientific account a markedly negative atmosphere, but his world may well be a deliberate reversal of that other well-known Hellenistic portrayal of the natural world, Theocritus' bucolics.


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I would like to thank André Lardinois, Erik van Dongen, and Bé Breij for their useful comments on different versions of this article.



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1 For a modern introduction to Nicander's poetry and the different approaches it has evoked, see Magnelli, E., ‘Nicander’, in Clauss, J.J. and Cuypers, M. (edd.), A Companion to Hellenistic Literature (Chichester and Malden, MA, 2010), 211–23.

2 This approach is taken by Jacques, J.M., Nicandre: Oeuvres, tome II: Les Thériaques (Paris, 2002), xvixx, according to whom Nicander may have been a real doctor, sharing his interest in venomous animals with his audience, which probably consisted of fellow experts. While certainly allowing for the literary character of the poem, Jacques is convinced that Nicander was as much a medical expert as a poet, a view repeated in Jacques, J.M., ‘Situation de Nicandre de Colophon’, REA 109 (2007), 99121, at 100.

3 Effe, B., ‘Der Aufbau von Nikanders Theriaka und Alexipharmaka’, RhM 117 (1974), 5366, at 54–62; Effe, B., Dichtung und Lehre: Untersuchungen zur Typologie des antiken Lehrgedichts (Munich, 1977), 64. For the idea that the poem's structure is not suited to practical needs, see also Schneider, H., Vergleichende Untersuchungen zur sprachlichen Struktur der beiden erhaltenen Lehrgedichte des Nikander von Kolophon (Wiesbaden, 1962). See also Claus, J.J., ‘Theriaca: Nicander's poem of the earth’, SIFC 4 (2006), 160–82.

4 Toohey, P., Epic Lessons: An Introduction to Ancient Didactic Poetry (London and New York, 1996), 67–9; Overduin, F., ‘The fearsome shrewmouse: pseudo-science in Nicander's Theriaca?’ in Harder, M.A., Regtuit, R.F., Wakker, G.C., and Ambühl, A. (edd.), Nature and Science in Hellenistic Poetry (Leuven, 2009), 7994, at 80–90.

5 See M. Hatzimichali, ‘Poetry, science and scholarship: the rise and fall of Nicander of Colophon’, in Harder et al. (n. 4), 19–40, at 38–9.

6 Spatafora, G., ‘Riflessioni sull'arte poetica di Nicandro’, GIF 57.2 (2005), 231–62.

7 For an analysis of the differences between the Theriaca and its hypothetical prose predecessor, see Schneider (n. 3). See also Stefani, C. De, ‘La poesia didascalica di Nicandro: un modello prosastico?’ in Cristante, L. (ed.), Incontri triestini di filologia classica V 2005–2006 (Trieste, 2006), 5572, who traces the differences between Nicander's modes of expression and medical prose sources.

8 Effe (n. 3 [1974]); Hopkinson, N., A Hellenistic Anthology (Cambridge, 1988), 230; O'Hara, J.J., True Names: Vergil and the Alexandrian Tradition of Etymological Wordplay (Ann Arbor, MI, 1996); Jacques (n. 2 [2002]), lxv–cxxiii; E. Magnelli, ‘Nicander's chronology: a literary approach’, in Harder, M.A., Regtuit, R.F., and Wakker, G.C. (edd.), Beyond the Canon (Leuven, 2006), 185204, at 187–91.

9 Nicander's awareness of Hesiod here is indisputable, if only because Hesiod is mentioned at the poem's outset (Ther. 12). There, however, his presence is connected to his status as a didactic or catalogue poet, not as a knowledgeable authority with regard to the natural world.

10 For the contrast between practicality and Hesiod's dramatic enactment of farming, see Nelson, S., ‘The drama of Hesiod's farm’, CPh 91 (1996), 4553.

11 Although Zeus is depicted in a somewhat negative way (particularly as opposed to the positive Zeus painted by Aratus in the Phaenomena as the counterpart of Hesiod's Zeus), this does not count for the general depiction of life in the natural, agricultural world of Hesiod.

12 For this purpose I count Theocritus' Idylls 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 11 as bucolic. Though Idyll 10 is not bucolic, I do include it here as one of his rural poems, as it provides a relevant background for comparison to the Theriaca.

13 For the techniques used by Theocritus to create this fictionality, see Payne, M., Theocritus and the Invention of Fiction (Cambridge, 2007), 2448, and passim.

14 Translations of Nicander are borrowed from Gow, A.S.F. and Scholfield, A.F., Nicander: The Poems and Poetical Fragments (Cambridge, 1953).

15 See Bernsdorff, H., Hirten in der nicht-bukolischen Dichtung des Hellenismus (Stuttgart, 2001), 187.

16 Herdsmen are found in Ther. 5, 48, 49, 74, 473, 554, 898. The woodcutter appears in 5, 48–9, 74, 473, 554, 898. The ploughman does not reappear after the proem, but instead harvesters (752), beekeepers (808), fishermen (704, 793, 823), and threshers (29, 114) are presented by the poet, all as rural representatives. Urban, or at least less evidently rural, representatives occasionally occur as well: tanners (423), a spearmaker (170), and perfumers (103).

17 It is, of course, true that the Theriaca does not present herdsmen as key figures, as other rural types feature as well. But this is also true of, e.g., Idyll 10, which deals with harvesters, but can still be considered to be of a nature type. Fishermen appear, indirectly, in Theoc. Id. 1.39–44 and 3.26. A woodcutter (δρύτομος) is found in Theoc. Id. 5.64.

18 See the revised interpretation of the adjective in the Lexicon des frühgriechischen Epos: ‘der die anderen, d.h. die Gegner, abwehrt’ (LfgrE, s.v. ἑτεραλκής).

19 E.g. the interpersonal and love-related issues in Id. 5.41–2 and 5.116–17, and Theoc. Id. 6 and 11 in general, or petty inconveniences such as stepping on a thorn (4.57), or getting butted by a goat (3.5).

20 See G. Schönbeck, ‘Der Locus Amoenus von Homer biz Horaz’ (Diss., Heidelberg, 1962), 18–60; W. Elliger, ‘Die Darstellung der Landschaft in der griechischen Dichtung’ (Berlin and New York, 1975), 318–64; Hunter, R., Theocritus: A Selection. Idylls 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11 and 13, (Cambridge, 1999), 1214.

21 Alternatively, the scholia ad Ther. 28a explain this Nicandrean hapax as ‘dark’ (σκοτεινώδεις); see Crugnola, A., Scholia in Nicandri Theriaca (Milan, 1971), 45–6.

22 With this in mind, the depiction of the plane tree in Ther. 584 as θερειλεχέος (a hapax legomenon: ‘good for sleeping under’) acquires a bitter taste: the spot just beneath the tree may be ideal as a seat for Theocritean herds, but in the world of the Theriaca sleeping under a tree unprepared is very unwise.

23 Translations are borrowed from Gow, A.S.F., Theocritus. Vol. 1 (Cambridge, 1952 2).

24 For summer's heat, cf. Theoc. Id. 6.4 (θέρεος, ‘in summer’), 9.12 (θέρευς ϕρύγοντος, ‘when summer scorches’), 10.51 (ἐλινῦσαι δὲ τὸ καῦμα, ‘rest out the heat’), 12.9 (ἠελίου ϕρύγοντος, ‘when the sun is scorching’). By comparison, in Ther. 121 summer in particular is the season of danger: ἀλλ' ἤτοι θέρεος βλαβερὸν δάκος ἐξαλέασθαι (‘But chiefly in summer must you be on your guard against harmful snakes’).

25 For noontide as the resting hour for herdsman, cf. Theoc. Id. 1.15 (τὸ μεσαμβρινόν, ‘at noontide’), and 6.4 (μέσῳ ἄματι, ‘at noonday’). Theoc. Id. 10.48 is a special case, as threshers are advised not to rest at noon, as herds (and most other people) would.

26 For large and shady trees as topical of the locus amoenus, cf. Theoc. Id. 1.1 (ἁδύ τι τὸ ψιθύρισμα καὶ ἁ πίτυς, αἰπόλε, τήνα, ‘sweet is the whispered music of yonder pinetree’), 5.32 (τεῖδ' ὑπὸ τὰν κότινον καὶ τἄλσεα ταῦτα κιτίξας, ‘here beneath the wild olive and these trees’), 5.45 (τουτεὶ δρύες, ὧδε κύπειρος, ‘Here are oaks and galingale’), 7.135–6 (πολλαὶ δ' ἄμμιν ὕπερθε κατὰ κρατὸς δονέοντο | αἴγειροι πτελέαι τε, ‘many a poplar and elm murmured above our heads’).

27 For the topos of shepherds seeking coolness in Theocritus, cf. Id. 5.47–8 (ἔνθ' ὕδατος ψυχρῶ κρᾶναι δύο … | … καὶ ἁ σκιὰ οὐδὲν ὁμοία τᾷ παρὰ τίν, ‘here are two springs of cold water … and the shade's beyond comparison’), 6.3–4 (ἐπὶ κράναν δέ τιν' ἄμϕω | ἑσδόμενοι, ‘and at a spring the pair sat down’), 7.136–7 (τὸ δ' ἐγγύθεν ἱερὸν ὕδωρ | Νυμϕᾶν ἐξ ἄντροιο κατειβόμενον κελάρυζε, ‘and near at hand the sacred water from the cave of the Nymphs fell splashing’), 9.9 (ἔστι δὲ μοι παρ' ὕδωρ ψυχρὸν στιβάς, ‘by the cool stream is my coach’).

28 Forsaking one's goats for a short spell is typical of bucolic poetry: cf. Theoc. Id. 1.14. Special cases are Theoc. Id. 3.1–2 and 4.1–2, where the care of the flock is given over to someone else for other reasons. In Theoc. Id. 10.21–2 it is reapers who put down their work for a while to sing songs.

29 As summarized in Hinds, S., Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry (Cambridge, 1998), 41–2.

30 Pace Bernsdorff (n. 15), 187–9, who does not sense any influence from bucolic poetry, only elements too common to have particular significance.

31 E.g. the poet's choice of ϕῶτες (752) instead of ἄνδρες, the dual ὄσσε (758), and the remarkable collocation of γλῶσσα and ἄτακτα (758), which, as Bing, P., ‘The unruly tongue: Philitas of Cos as scholar and poet’, CPh 98 (2003), 330–48, at 339 observes, is only found elsewhere in the title of the work Ἄτακτοι γλῶσσαι of the fourth-century b.c.e. grammarian poet Philitas of Cos, a famous collection of glosses. Bing may be right in suggesting that Nicander is playfully alluding to Philitas' work here, considering Nicander's fascination for obscure words (he wrote a work called Γλῶσσαι himself), and Philitas' status as an eminent proto-Hellenistic scholar.

32 For the idea of Nicander's world as a world of horror, see Toohey (n. 4). The latter's focus is, however, on the wounds resulting from snakebites and the macabre display of pain and suffering, rather than the negative depiction of the snakes and other dangerous animals themselves.

33 A third instance is Od. 8.281, where the adjective describes the fine nets spread by Hephaestus above the bed of Aphrodite in order to snare her together with Ares.

34 See also Overduin (n. 4), 91.

35 A possible explanation can be found in obscure mythology, e.g. through Call. fr. 296 Pf. (= fr. 59 Hollis) from the Hecale; Gow and Scholfield (n. 14), 183. Nicander may be thinking of the murderous sea-turtle at the Scironian cliffs (which are mentioned in Ther. 214), which ate its victims when they had been pushed over the cliffs into the sea. It is known from many late sources, e.g. Apollod. Bibl. Epit. 1.2; Plut. Vit. Thes. 10; Paus. 1.44.8, Hyg. Fab. 38; Ov. Met. 7.443–7. Diodorus (Diod. Sic. 4.59.4–5) tells us that the villainous Megarian tyrant Sciron, an enemy of Theseus, took pleasure in forcing passers-by to wash his feet near the Scironian cliffs, after which he pushed them over the edge into the ‘sea named the Turtle’, which is Diodorus' euhemeric solution to the presence of a Χελώνη in the story.

36 All Greek text is quoted from Jacques (n. 2 [2002]). All translations (with slight adaptations) are taken from Gow and Scholfield (n. 14).

37 Cf. the parallel opposition between deer and vipers in Ther. 139–44, showing the same emotions.

38 E.g. the incorporation of mythical lore from the Trojan saga, the neo-Homeric adaptation of Helen's name (e.g. Il. 3.39; Od. 19.260), the self-confident use of εἰ ἔτυμον, questioning the credibility of ancient myth, and the topos of the death of the helmsman. The multiple aetiology pertains to the crooked movement of the ‘blood-letter’ snake as a result of the punishment of Helen, and the eponymous Canobic mouth of the Nile. These, however, are beyond the scope of this article.

39 Of course, the snake in the story above could be considered a denizen of the realm of myth, and therefore somewhat exceptional. Yet the aetiological story does show a clear continuity from myth to reality: the point is that the ‘blood-letter’ in this story is the very same as the crookedly moving species still found in Nicander's day and age, and it is not essentially different from other snakes represented in the Theriaca.

40 In the passage dealing with the death of the Argonaut Mopsus (Ap. Rhod. Argon. 4.1502–36), Apollonius Rhodius tells us that Perseus, after beheading the Gorgon, flew across Libya to bring Medusa's head to King Polydectes. Cf. Ov. Met. 4.616–20; Lucan 9.697–701. A similar story was told in Apollonius' Foundation of Alexandria: Ἀπολλώνιος δὲ ὁ Ῥόδιος ἐν τῇ τῆς Ἀλεξανδρείας κτίσει [ϕήσιν] ἀπὸ τῶν σταγόνων τοῦ τῆς Γοργόνος αἵματος (fr. 4 in Powell, J.U., Collectanea Alexandrina [Oxford, 1925], 5 = scholion ad Ther. 12a). There are no verbal echoes from this passage in the Theriaca, but Nicander may have had different versions of the creation of snakes in mind in which blood played a role. For the interpretation of ‘Titans’ here see Gow and Scholfield (n. 14), 171.

41 The creature is difficult to identify. Gow and Scholfield (n. 14), 83, chose to translate ἴουλος as ‘woodlouse’. Scarborough, J., ‘Nicander Theriaca 811: a note’, CPh 75 (1980), 138–40, concludes that the ἴουλος must be a millipede, ‘probably of the Spirobolidae’, species that are not poisonous to humans, although they do have defensive chemicals that may stain the skin.

42 E.g. Il. 10.52, 21.19, 21.413: Od. 3.303, 11.474.

43 LSJ s.v. μήδομαι Ι.2. Cf. LfgrE, ‘planen, ins Werk setzen’, indicating calculation, not instant reaction.

44 For a similar depiction of the ‘fearsome’ shrewmouse, which appears in Ther. 811, see Overduin (n. 4), 90–1.

45 For the value of the epic adjective σμερδαλέος, see Lonsdale, S.H., ‘If looks could kill: παπταίνω and the interpretation of imagery and narrative in Homer’, CJ 84.4 (1989), 325–33; Spatafora (n. 6), 243–4; A. Karanika, ‘Medicine and cure in Posidippus’ Iamatika', in Harder et al. (n. 4), 41–56, at 44.

46 Ther. 715–836 does not deal with snakes, but with other kinds of venomous animals, such as scorpions, spiders, and the like.

47 Both the Greek names are mentioned in the scholia ad Ther. 763a; Crugnola (n. 21), 275.

48 The adverb is used similarly in Ther. 457 for the so-called dragon, which too is said to look ὑποδράξ despite the snake's obvious lack of physiognomic possibilities. For the Alexandrian ὑποδράξ, see Call. Iamb. fr. 194.101 Pf.; Hec. 374.1 Hollis. For ὑπόδρα ἰδών, see Hom. Il. 1.148, 2.245, 4.349, 4.411, 5.251, 5.888, etc. (26 instances); also Holoka, J.P., ‘“Looking darkly” (ϒΠΟΔΡΑ ΙΔΩΝ): reflections on status and decorum in Homer’, TAPhA 113 (1983), 116.

49 See similar observations by Magnelli (n. 8), 189–90, who notes an intertextual connection to another mythical monster, the dragon guarding the golden fleece in Ap. Rhod. Argon. 4.143–5.

50 Touwaide, A., ‘Nicandre: de la science à la poésie. Contribution à l'exégèse de la poesie médicale grecque’, Aevum 65 (1991), 65101, at 70–7.

51 See ibid., 86–7.

52 Il. 2.401, 7.147, 16.245, 18.134.

53 Touwaide (n. 50), 88.

54 Spatafora (n. 6), 240; see also Ther. 59–62, 65–9, 503–4, 509–12, 537–8, 630–1, 869–71.

55 The idea of the loss of our original state of bliss occurs elsewhere in the poem as well: in the proem, the infestation of the unspoiled earth by the appearance of poisonous animals in the age of the Titans (Ther. 8–12), and the loss of youth (reminiscent of the ‘Golden Age’) at least partly due to a snake (Ther. 343–58).

56 I take the title to be elliptical for Θηριακὰ ϕάρμακα, although the neuter plural allows for interpretations similar to e.g. Ἀργοναυτικά or Ἁλιευτικά as well, which would yield ‘matters pertaining to wild animals’.

57 See ἐσθλὴν … ῥίζαν (541); μάλα δ' ἂν καὶ ἀμάρακος εἴη | χραισμήεις (575–6); πανάκτειόν τε κονίλην (626); ἀλεξιάρης … ῥάμνου (861); σίσυμβρα πέλει μειλίγματα νούσων (896). Νext to these plants that are specified as efficacious, Ther. 493–714 and 837–956 in general offer dozens of plants that are presented as effective.

58 Cf. the second Alcibius story in Ther. 666–75, which is similarly constructed.

59 E.g. Ther. 1–4, 282, 528, 636, 769–70, 825, 811, 829, 837, but passim.

60 Schneider (n. 3), however, signals minor yet relevant differences of structure and approach between the two poems.

* I would like to thank André Lardinois, Erik van Dongen, and Bé Breij for their useful comments on different versions of this article.

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