1902 Encyclopedia > Oppian


OPPIAN. The literary history of the three Greek poems on fishing, hunting, and fowling respectively which have come down to us from antiquity under the name of Oppian involves several perplexing questions. According to Suidas, Eusebius, and Syncellus, the author was a native of Anazarbus or Corycus in Cilicia, and flourished in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Athenaeus also, who almost certainly wrote under Septimius Severus, speaks of Oppian as a predecessor and near contemporary. According to an anonymous biographer, he was the son of a philosopher of Anazarbus named Agesilaus, who having incurred the dis-pleasure of Severus by neglecting to wait upon him was banished to Malta. Young Oppian accompanied his father, and by the exercise of his poetical talents obtained his re-call, and was further rewarded by a piece of gold for every line he had written. He died prematurely upon his return to his native country, and was honoured by an epitaph, which has been preserved, celebrating his precocious genius, but affording no clue to his works or his date. On turning to Oppian himself we find that his poem on fish and fishing (Haliéutica) is actually addressed to an emperor Antoninus who can have been no other than Marcus Aurelius, since the monarch's son is frequently mentioned, and the other Antonine princes were childless. The author seems to speak of himself as a Cilician. On the other hand, the poem on hunting (Cynegetica) is no less unmistakably addressed to the successor of Severus, Antoninus Caracalla, and the writer represents himself as a citizen of Pella or Apamea in Syria. The style of the two poems, moreover, is dis-similar, the former being polished and poetical, the latter inelegant and commonplace. If the Cynegetica had been the earlier this might have been explained, but the reverse is the fact. There seems no alternative, therefore, but to divide the authorship, and the allusions of the author of the Haliéutica to Commodus make it almost certain that he must have written between the elevation of that prince to the dignity of Augustus and the death of Marcus (177-180 A.D.), while the Cynegetica seem to have been composed after the death of Severus (211 A.D.). The improbability of two poets of the same name and writing on such simi-lar subjects having been such near contemporaries may be escaped by the supposition that the later writer was not really named Oppian, but has been confounded with his prede-cessor from their poems being transcribed together. This is the more probable as the poem on fowling (Ixeutica), which seems to resemble the Cynegetica in style, but is only extant in a prose epitome, is attributed in some MSS. to a certain Dionysius. In this case Oppian's premature death and his epitaph may be accepted as historical and genuine, The story of his deliverance of his father must be apocryphal, and the imperial reward is probably founded upon a too literal interpretation of the epithet "golden" applied to his verses. •
The Haliéutica are indeed excellent verses, Oppian has made the most of his subject, which he has adorned with all the resources of aquatic fancy and fable, and to which he has ingeniously imparted human interest by constant parallels between the existence of fishes and the pursuits and perils of human life. His matter is arranged to the best advantage: "he loves descriptions," says M. Henri Martin, " but not digressions." Though careless of fact in comparison with poetic embellishment, he has a first-hand acquaintance with his theme as a sportsman and a lover of nature. His diction is choice, his style animated, and his versification sonorous. Rhetorical display, the accumula-tion of detail, and an occasional inaptness in his compari-sons are his only serious faults. The writer of the Cyne-getica, who sometimes copies and spoils him, is a far in-ferior writer, frequently tasteless, generally awkward and dry. Some of his descriptions, however, possess merit; he is a naturalist as well as a poet, and his observation of nature is often remarkably close, although, like his pre-decessor, he abounds in fables. His poem seems to want a final book, in which the stratagems of the chase would have been more fully described. The poetical qualities of the Ixeutica, if any, have evaporated in the paraphrase; the descriptions of the fowler's snares are clear and precise.

The Haliéutica were first printed in 1478, in the metrical Latin version of L. Lippus. The editio princeps of the original was published by Junta at Florence in 1515 ; the Haliéutica and Cynegetica were printed together by Aldus in 1517 ; the Ixeutica did not appear till 1704. The principal modern editions are those by Schneider (Strasburg, 1776), who first distinguished between the two Oppians, and by Lehrs (Paris, 1846, along with the Bucolic poets), who adopted a number of ingenious emendations by Koechly. Copious scholia on the Haliéutica were edited by Bussemaker (Paris, 1849). The best authorities on the literary questions connected with the Oppians are Ferdinand Peter, Commentatio, Zeitz, 1840 ; Henri Martin in the Journal general de l'Instruction Publique, vols, xxxi. and xxxii.; and Ausfeld, He Oppiano, &c, Gotha, 1876. The English translation of the Haliéutica by Diaper, completed by Jones (Oxford, 1722), is not deficient in spirit, but much too diffuse. The French prose translations by Limes and Belin de Ballu have been superseded by Bourquin's, Coulommiers, 1877. (R. G.)

The above article was written by: Richard Garnett, LL.D.

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