Kanellakis, Dimitrios. "New Mimnermus." CHS Research Bulletin 11 (2023). https://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HLNC.ESSAY:103377758

Early Career Fellow in Hellenic Studies 2022-23


I was awarded a CHS Early Career Fellowship for 2022-2023 in support of my research on Mimnermus, the outcome of which is a new, literary commentary on the elegist, just published in Aris and Phillips Classical Texts—indeed the first volume on lyric poetry in the series. Filling a thirty-year gap, my book aspires to reintroduce the much important, yet much understudied, archaic poet to the academic community. 


The last full-scale commentary on Mimnermus’ poems by Allen is now thirty years old and, although particularly strong on technical aspects (hence immensely helpful for my own work), was thin and conservative on the hermeneutical side.1 The same applies to the much recent, copious thesis by Emiliani, which covers eight fragments and has exhaustive critical apparatus and bibliography—a treasure for specialists.2

But why does Mimnermus merit (or rather need) our hermeneutical attention? And why in our times has “the greatest poet among the elegists”,3 “the most accomplished and the most musical” one,4 failed to receive a prominent place in the (modern) canon, despite his value being theoretically acknowledged by everyone? For example, while an Augustan elegist would wish to become a new Mimnermus more than a new Callimachus (Hor. Epist. 2.2.99), the comparative fame of these two poets has evidently been reversed today, if we are to judge from scholarly production, university syllabi, translations on the market, online presence, and so on—as I am writing these lines, Google returns c. 86.900 results for ‘Mimnermus’, ten times fewer than those for ‘Callimachus’! How likely is that an undergraduate will be taught more than one or two, if any, Mimnermian fragments? How many people from the educated general public have heard of Mimnermus at all, or have heard more of him than of Sappho or Pindar?

These questions are, of course, rhetorical. Part of the explanation for our poet’s limited popularity lies in how slim his corpus is; nor has it been added to by any recent papyrological finds (unlike Sappho or Archilochus). Yet the main reason, I argue, is the long established—if unjust—fixation on a monolithic view of the poet, which makes one instinctively assume that his poetry is not challenging. Indeed, our impression of the poet remains the same more-or-less since Bowra, who in turn echoes a centuries-old chain of receptions; that is the image of a pessimist poet, a melancholic hedonist who lamented the fleetingness of youth and the terror of old age. In other words, a synonym of depression. My work, on the contrary, introduces a new Mimnermus, whose melancholy is only a generic (i.e. pertinent to elegy) convention or pretext. Behind that façade lurks a very playful poet, not just verbally and metrically spirited, but also ironical and risqué on occasions. 

The context

The introduction of the book offers an extensive, coherent, bibliographically updated and (whenever possible for an introduction) original framing, useful both to students and specialists. First I describe “What?”, i.e. elegy as a literary genre: its history, metre, themes, music and performance (public and sympotic). Particular emphasis is placed on  the fluidity of the genre, even in its most defining element, i.e. the ‘rigid’ elegiac couplets (which Mimnermus often undermines with his bold enjambments). Then I discuss “Who?”, i.e. Mimnermus’ biography and works, focusing on his high-or-low dating (I confidently accept a birthdate in c. 670, rather than 630 BC) and the ‘rumour’ that he also composed iambs (I ascribe the dubious fr. 25W to the 4th-century-BC tragedian Mamercus, and explain why the confusion emerged). 

Moving on to “When and Where?”, I point out those historical developments of the 7th century BC, especially in Smyrna, which became the catalyst for the shaping of elegy, and whose impact has left a mark on Mimnermus’ fragments. Apart form the (much discussed in bibliography) relations between Smyrna and Colophon / Pylos / Lydia, the crucial role of art is also highlighted; thus I link Mimnermus’ taste for (verbal and thematic) decor, exoticism and grace to Orientalising pottery and the emerging Ionian order in architecture. Finally, in “Why?”, I present Mimnermus’ reception from his era to date, tracking the milestones in (and the reasons for) the distortion of his reputation. His erotic aspect was highlighted by Euripides and appropriated by Hellenistic poets to advertise their own works; the theme of youth/old age was singled out by Stobaeus, who wanted to fit Mimnermus into his Anthology (a book addressed to his son); and his melancholy was amplified by Victorian and Romantic poets, who sought / fabricated a predecessor for their own aesthetic biases. My commentary comes precisely to challenge all these ‘givens’. 

The text and translation

The core of the book are Mimnermus’ surviving elegiac fragments, printed with facing translation. I follow West’s numbering and text,5 with minor deviations explained in the commentary. The dubious iambic fragments are discussed (and rejected from Mimnermus’ corpus) in the Introduction, while the testimonia of lost fragments are given (also with facing translation but without commentary) as an appendix. 

In my translation, considering the series’ scope and intended audience, I have tried to stay as close as possible to the grammar and syntax of the original text, where this is possible in English—a language much less flexible than Greek in word order—and, secondarily, to cater for some striking stylistic and rhythmical features, such as enjambments and internal pauses. It should go without saying that translations are the product of, and a means for, interpreting a poem (rather than an impartial take on the original text), hence my translation makes room for several ambiguities, wordplay, and irony.

The commentary

As is customary, the commentary on each fragment opens with an introductory note; there I outline the fragment’s theme, structure, lyrical subject, style, likely place within the poet’s  corpus, reception, and previous interpretations. Then each verse receives its own entry. Figurative language, alternative meanings, authorial markers, implied audience, performative clues, program of composition, narrative, intertextuality and reception are my main focus; technical issues such as textual transmission, metre and grammar are discussed only when deemed necessary to explain to (advanced) students, or when they affect interpretation. For example, in fr. 2.1-2 W the word “leaves” (φύλλα) is syntactically ambiguous: is it the object of the verb “produces” (φύει), whose subject is “the season” (ὥρη), thus meaning “the season produces leaves”? Or is it the subject of the verb “blooms” (αὔξεται), thus meaning “the leaves bloom”? [Singular verb with a neuter-plural subject is perfectly acceptable in Greek.] Bergk eliminated this ambiguity by intervening in the transmitted text,6 and Allen (following Bergk’s emendation) called it “an uncomfortable change of subject” (1993: 42). On the contrary, I take it as a conscious and witty anacoluthon, which not only highlights the theme of the poem, i.e. the violent passage of time, but also exemplifies Mimnermus’ linguistic games: the “leaves” can perfectly be a subject and an object at the same time, the nominative and the accusative cases being identical for neuters.

Hermeneutical originality is best shown in the analysis of fragments 9 and 12 W. I read fr. 9 as an allusively pornographic version of the founding myth of Smyrna—a reading which solves the ‘mystery’ of why the fragment was included in the sympotic collection Nanno (probably named after a prostitute), rather than the heroic Smyrneis (as the theme of the poem would make one assume). The fact that ‘Smyrna’ was an Amazon after whom the city was named, according to legend (Strabo 11.5.4), in combination with the naval imagery of the poem, its openly erotic vocabulary (v. 2 ἱμερτὴν, “longed for”; v.3 ἐρατὴν, “lovely”),7 its double entendres and potential puns (v.1 Πύλος ≈ πύλη, “the gate”; v. 3 βίην…ἔχοντες, “we took by force” ≈ “raped”; v.5 ἀπορνύμενοι, “setting off’ ≈ “abandoning the prostitute”; v. 6 εἵλομεν, “we seized” ≈ “picked as a sex slave”) support this reading. Indeed, tales of Euro-Asian rapes were already an old traditionin Herodotus’ time—the historian attributes the conflict between Europe and Asia to reciprocal rapes—hence Mimnermus’ pornographic mythology of the Pylian-Lydian conflict appears to be our earliest testimony to that tradition!

Fragment 12, I argue, constitutes an ironical narrative of the supposed toils (v.1 πόνος) that Helios (god Sun) suffers during his daily journey to the West, i.e. during sunrising, and his nightly return to the East, i.e. during sunset. His voyage in a winged chariot and a luxurious bed (anything but suffering!)8 crystallise the privilege of time which gods enjoy, unlike mortals. Unlike us, gods will always have another day to shine—and yet, Sun complains! Thus vv. 1–4 are Helios’ outrageous complaint in free indirect speech (“No rest is ever possible for him [=for me]!”), followed by the mortals’ / the poet’s equally sarcastic response (≈“Indeed / Sure, a lovely bed carries him [=carries you]…”). For the ironic use of γὰρ (v. 5), to pretentiously support but actually to undermine a statement, cf. Od. 21.402; Eur. Med. 309; Ar. Ach. 71.

The book concludes with three appendices: one with metrical notes on the trickiest verses; one with the testimonia of lost fragments; and one discussing the potential attribution to Mimnermus of some lines from the Theognidea, as suggested (but not argued for) by several scholars in the past. Resorting to stylometric analysis, I conclude that even the most ‘suspicious’ passage (vv. 1129–32)9 must remain with the Theognidea.


This commentary introduces the Archilochean spirit and technique of Mimnermian poetry: a poetry much wittier, sexier, more experimental and more self-conscious than our iconolatry towards the ‘gifts of Aphrodite’ (fr. 1 W) and the ‘scattering leaves’ (fr. 2 W) allows us to see. Even these thematically pessimistic moments are manifestos of ambitious and playful poetics.

1 A. Allen, Fragments of Mimnermus, Stuttgart 1993.

2 A. Emiliani, Studi per una nuova edizione critica commentata dei frammenti di Mimnermo, PhD. Diss., University of Messina 2021.

3 G. Murray, A History of Ancient Greek Literature, London 1987: 81

4 C. M. Bowra, Early Greek Elegists, Cambridge, MA, 1938: 34

5 M. West, Iambi et elegi graeci, vol. II, Oxford 1992 (2nd ed.)

6 Th. Bergk, Poetae Lyrici Graeci, Leipzig 1853 (2nd ed.) He changed πολυάνθεμος ὥρη to πολυανθέος ὥρῃ (i.e. an adjective qualifying ἔαρος + a dative of time = “leaves which come forth in the season of much-blossoming spring”).

7 In that vocabulary, Bowie sees “perhaps clichéd eroticising language” (where I see “eroticising language chosen wisely so as to ‘betray’ the pornographic subtext”). See E. Bowie, “Wandering Poets, Archaic Style”, in R. Hunter and I. Rutherford (eds) Wandering Poets in Ancient Greek Culture, Cambridge 2009: 113.

8 The few attempts so far to address that contradiction were in the direction of covering it up: “Strictly speaking, the toil is continual, not continuous” (Allen 1993: 100); “The peace now enjoyed by the sun is only the ultimate result of tiredness, of abandonment, of resignation in the face of fatigue” (G. Bonelli, “Lettura estetica dei lirici greci”, Rivista di Studi Classici 25, 1977: 67, my transl.)

9 Mimnermian authorship suggested by van Groningen, after Bergk and Renner. See B. A. van Groningen, Theognis. Le premier livre, Amsterdam 1966: 413.