Some notes on Parthenius of Nicaea, and his “Peri Erotikon Pathematon”

Until a few weeks ago, I had managed to go through life without ever encountering the name of the ancient writer Parthenius of Nicaea, or being aware of the absence.   However today I found myself looking at his work, and so obliged to discover who he was, when he lived, and so forth.[1]

Our best information on Parthenius comes from the Suda.  Under the headword Παρθένιος (Adler number pi,664) we find the following text:

Son of Heracleides and Eudora (but Hermippus says Tetha was his mother). From Nicaea or Myrleia. A poet writing elegies and in various metres. He was taken by Cinna as war booty, when the Romans defeated Mithridates [sc. VI Eupator] in war. Then he was freed by reason of education and lived until the time of the Emperor Tiberius. He wrote elegies, Aphrodite, the funeral elegy for the wife Arete, an Encomium of Arete in three books, and many other works.

He wrote about metamorphosis.

The Stoa Online project adds helpfully:

See generally Oxford Classical Dictionary(3) p.1116.

and that Nicaea was enslaved in 73 BC.[2].

From this we learn that he was brought to Rome as a young man as a slave in 73 BC, and lived into the lifetime of Tiberius (born 42 BC, but who only became emperor in AD 14), and that he was famous as a poet.    From the 5th century writer Macrobius we learn that he was Vergil’s Grammaticus in Graecis,[3], which may mean his teacher of Greek, or possibly merely a literary consultant.  Aulus Gellius quotes a line of Parthenius which Virgil imitated.[4].  He was the favourite poet of the emperor Tiberius[5] and the emperor Hadrian thought highly of him and restored his grave in Tivoli.[6]

The only work surviving, however, is his prose Erotica pathemata, or The Sorrows of Love, a collection of 36 stories, all more or less mythological.  Consequently he may be included among the mythographical writers.

The work is dedicated to Cornelius Gallus, with a prefatory letter, indicating that Gallus might find it useful:

Thinking, Cornelius Gallus, that the collection of suffferings in love was very appropriate to you, I have selected them and sent them to you in as brief a form as possible. For those among the present collection that occur in certain poets where they are not narrated in their own right, you will find out for the most part from what follows. You too, will be able to render the most suitable of them in hexameters and elegiacs. Think none the worse of them because they lack that quality of refined elaboration which you pursue. For I have collected them after the fashion of a little notebook and they will, I trust, serve you in the same way.[7]

Gallus himself was a poet, and nine lines of his verse, lamenting an unhappy romance, turned up in a manuscript from the dusty Roman fort at Qasr Ibrim in Nubia.[8]

The text of the Peri Erotikon Pathematon is extant in a single manuscript, Vaticanus Palatinus gr. 398, of the 10th c. AD, which also contains the work of the mythographer Antoninus Liberalis.  In both writers each story is preceded by a heading, which states from which work the story had been obtained, and even the book number of that work.  Effectively both works are divided into chapters, and, since it is hard to believe that anyone but the author could have annotated the work with its sources thus, the division is authorial.  But of course a compendium must inevitably be divided into sections.

An English translation exists, thankfully, by S. Gaselee (1916), in the volume of the Loeb Classical Library series which contains Daphnis and Chloe.[9]  It is undoubtedly a minor piece of literature.  But it adds something to our knowledge of the literature of the late Republic.

  1. [1]The Loeb volume supplies some information; more came from the Suda Online entry; finally from Jacqueline J. H. Klooster, “The erotica pathemata of Parthenius”,  here.
  2. [2]The Stoa Online entry, to which I wish I could link directly, also gives the following useful bibliography: Clausen, Wendell, Virgil’s Aeneid and the Tradition of Hellenistic Poetry (Cambridge, 1987) 5-8; Dyer, Robert R., “Where did Parthenius Teach Vergil?” Vergilius 42 (1996) 19-24; Lightfoot, Jane L. Parthenius of Nicaea: the extant works (Oxford, 1999); Brodersen, Kai, Liebeslieden in der Antike: die Erotica Pathemata des Parthenios (Darmstadt, 2000)
  3. [3]Macrobius, Saturnalia, book V, 18: rendered by the Loeb as: “The following verse is by Parthenius, who was Virgil’s tutor in Greek.”
  4. [4]Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, book XIII, 27: “…lines of Homer and Parthenius which Virgil seems to have imitated.”
  5. [5]Suetonius, Tiberius, 70.2.
  6. [6]IG xiv 1089 (Kaibel Ep. gr.1089; GVI 2050; Page, FGE p.568-571), an epigram to commemorate the restoration of Parthenius’ grave in Tivoli.
  7. [7]Klooster, p.314; “οἱονεὶ γὰρ ὑπομνηματίων τρόπον αὐτὰ συνελεξάμεθα, καὶ σοὶ νυνὶ τὴν χρῆσιν ὁμοίαν, ὡς ἔοικε, παρέξεται”. The translation is by Jane Lightfoot.
  8. [8]R.D. Anderson, P.J. Parsons, & R.G.M. Nisbet, “Elegiacs by Gallus from Qasr Ibrim”, Journal of Roman Studies 69 (1979) p.128
  9. [9]The Loeb translation may be found at here. Most usefully it translates the quotations or references in later literature.

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