The Dionysiaca is an ancient epic poem and the principal work of Nonnus. It is an epic in 48 books, the longest surviving poem from antiquity at 20,426 lines, composed in Homeric dialect and dactylic hexameters, the main subject of which is the life of Dionysus, his expedition to India, and his triumphant return to the west.
The poem is thought to have been written in the late 4th and/or early 5th century CE. The Dionysiaca appears to be incomplete, and some scholars believe that a 49th book was being planned when Nonnus stopped work on the poem, although others point out that the number of books in the Dionysiaca is the same as the 48 books of the Iliad and Odyssey combined. It has been conjectured that a possible conversion to Christianity or death caused Nonnus to abandon the poem after some revisions. Editors have pointed out various inconsistencies and the difficulties of Book 39 which appears to be a disjointed series of descriptions, as evidence of the poem's lack of revision. Others have attributed these problems to copyists or later editors, but most scholars agree on the poem's incompleteness.
The primary models for Nonnus are Homer and the Cyclic poets; Homeric language, metrics, episodes, and descriptive canons are central to the Dionysiaca. The influence of Euripides' Bacchae is also significant, as is probably the influence of the other tragedians whose Dionysiac plays do not survive. His debt to fragmentary poets is far harder to gauge, but it is likely that he alludes to earlier poets' treatments of the life of Dionysus, such as the lost poems by Euphorion, Peisander of Laranda's elaborate encyclopedic mythological poem, Dionysius, and Soteirichus. Hesiod's poetry, especially the Catalogue of Women, Pindar, and Callimachus can all be seen in the work of Nonnus. Theocritus' influence can be detected in Nonnus' focus on pastoral themes. Finally, Virgil and especially Ovid seem to have influenced Nonnus' organization of the poem.
Nonnus seems to have been an important influence for the poets of Late Antiquity, especially Musaeus, Colluthus, Christodorus, and Dracontius. Although it is difficult to determine whether Claudian influenced Nonnus or Nonnus influenced Claudian, the two poets have some striking similarities in their treatments of Persephone. Nonnus remained continuously important in the Byzantine world, and his influence can be found in Genesius and Planudes. In the Renaissance, Poliziano popularized him to the West, and Goethe admired him in the 18th century. He was also admired by Thomas Love Peacock in 19th-century England.
Metrics and style
The metrics of Nonnus have been widely admired by scholars for the poet's careful handling of dactylic hexameter and innovation. While Homer has 32 varieties of hexameter lines, Nonnus only employs 9 variations, avoids elision, employs mostly weak caesurae, and follows a variety of euphonic and syllabic rules regarding word placement. It is especially remarkable that Nonnus was so exacting with meter because the quantitative meter of classical poetry was giving way in Nonnus' time to stressed meter. These metrical restraints encouraged the creation of new compounds, adjectives, and coined words, and Nonnus' work has some of the greatest variety of coinages in any Greek poem.
The poem is notably varied in its organization. Nonnus does not seem to arrange his poem in a linear chronology; rather, episodes are arranged by a loose chronological order and by topic, much as Ovid's Metamorphoses. The poem states as its guiding principle poikilia, diversity in narrative, form, and organization. The appearance of Proteus, a shapeshifting god, in the proem serves as a metaphor for Nonnus' varied style. Nonnus employs the style of the epyllion for many of his narrative sections, such as his treatment of Ampelus in 10–11, Nicaea in 15–16, and Beroe in 41–43. These epyllia are inserted into the general narrative framework and are some of the highlights of the poem. Nonnus also employs synkrisis, comparison, throughout his poem, most notably in the comparison of Dionysus and other heroes in Book 25. The complexity of organization and the richness of the language have caused the style of the poem to be termed Nonnian "Baroque."
Critical responses to the Dionysiaca
The size of Nonnus' poem and its late date between Imperial and Byzantine literature have caused the Dionysiaca to receive relatively little attention from scholars. The contributor to the Encyclopædia Britannica (8th edition, 1888), noting the poem's "vast and formless luxuriance, its beautiful but artificial versification, its delineation of action and passion to the entire neglect of character," remarked, "His chief merit consists in the systematic perfection to which he brought the Homeric hexameter. But the very correctness of the versification renders it monotonous. His influence on the vocabulary of his successors was likewise very considerable," expressing the 19th-century attitude to this poem as a pretty, artificial, and disorganized collection of stories. As with many other late classical poets, newer scholarship has avoided the value-laden judgments of 19th-century scholars and attempted to reassess and rehabilitate Nonnus' works. There are two main focuses of Nonnian scholarship today: mythology and structure.
Nonnus' compendious accounts of Dionysiac legend and his use of variant traditions and lost sources have encouraged scholars to use him as a channel to recover lost Hellenistic poetry and mythic traditions. The edition of Nonnus in the Loeb Classical Library includes a "mythological introduction" which charts the "decline" of Dionysiac mythology in the poem and implies that the work's only value is as a repository of lost mythology. Nonnus remains an important source of mythology and information to those researching classical religion, Hellenistic poetry, and Late Antiquity. Recently, however, scholars have focused more positively on Nonnus' use of mythology within the poem as a way of talking about contemporary events, as a way of playing with generic conventions, and as a way of engaging with predecessors intertextually, leading to an encouraging reassessment of his poetic and narrative style.
The unconventional structure of the Dionysiaca encouraged harsh criticism of the poem in scholarship. Robert Shorrock and Francois Vian have been at the forefront of reexamining the structure of the poem. Earlier scholars have looked to elaborate ring composition, a prophetic astrological program in the tablets of Harmonia, rhetorical encomium, or epyllion as structural concepts behind the poem to make sense of the unconventional narrative. Others have felt that the style of the poem relies on dissonant juxtaposition for effect, using the so-called "jeweled style" of detailed narrative cameoes within a loose structure akin to Late Antique mosaics. Vian has proposed looking at the poem's encyclopedic content as paralleling the full range of the Homeric cycle poetry. Shorrock's contention is that the Dionysiaca employs a variety of narrative organizational principles and viewpoints, attempts to narrate all of classical mythology through the myths of Dionysus, and uses allegory and allusion to challenge his readers to draw meaning from his unconventional epic.
Book 1 - The poem opens with the poet's invocation of the muses, his address to Proteus, and his commitment to sing the various episodes of Dionysus' life. First book is about Zeus and Europa. This is a start of Cadmeia.
Book 2 - Zeus steals the lightning from Typhoeus and the Battle of the Gods and the Giants is described along with the havoc it wreaks in the natural world. The two gods engage in single combat and Zeus defeats Typhon burying him in the earth. While the earth repairs itself, Zeus bids Cadmus to found Thebes.
Book 3 - Cadmus' ship wanders the sea and stops at Samothrace where he is met by the procession of Corybantes. He arrives at the marvelous palace of Electra and Emathion where he tells his lineage at a banquet. Hermes bids Electra give her daughter Harmonia to be Cadmus' bride.
Book 4 - A reluctant and plaintive Harmonia is given to Cadmus who sails with her to Greece. Cadmus' knowledge of Egyptian lore is described and he finds the cow-omen which leads him to the site of Thebes. There he slays the dragon, sows its teeth, and reaps the crop of sown-men.
Book 5 - The founding of the city of Thebes is described with its magical symbolism, as is the wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia and the necklace given to her by Aphrodite. Cadmus' son Aristaeus is described, followed by his son Actaeon and his death. The ghost of Actaeon appears to his father and asks for burial. Zeus falls in love with Persephone.
Book 6 - Demeter, upset by Zeus' attention goes to Astraeus, god of prophecy, who casts Persephone's horoscope which tells of her imminent rape by Zeus. Demeter hides Persephone in a cave, but Zeus sleeps with her in the form of a snake and she bears Zagreus. At Hera's bidding the Titans kill Zagreus and eat him. In anger, Zeus floods the world, causing havoc to the pastoral deities and the rivers.
Book 7 - Aion, god of time, begs Zeus to ease mortal life by giving birth to Dionysus. Eros' quiver is described and he makes Zeus fall in love with Semele. Zeus stalks the girl in the form of an eagle and sleeps with Semele in the form of a bull, then a lion.
Book 8 Semele becomes pregnant with Dionysus. Envy tells Hera of the deed and she disguises herself and tricks Semele into asking to see Zeus lightning. She is burned alive, but Zeus saves baby Dionysus and immortalizes Semele.
Book 9 Dionysus is born and given to Hermes who gives him to Ino to nurse. As Dionysus matures, Semele taunts Hera who drives Ino mad.
Book 11 After a race, Ampelus and Dionysus go hunting, during which Hera causes a bull to kill Ampelus when he tries to ride it; Dionysus makes a long lament.
Book 13 Zeus orders Dionysus to conquer India, and there is a catalogue of his forces gathered by Rhea.
Book 14 Rhea adds supernatural creatures to the allies while Hera arms Deriades for the Indians. The army takes its weapons and sets forth. The first battle occurs in which Dionysus makes the Indians drunk.
Book 16 Dionysus falls in love with Nicaea and woos her, doggedly pursuing her on her hunts. He has sex with her while she is asleep and she gives birth to his daughter Telete. Dionysus founds the city of Nicaea.
Book 17 Dionysus travels through the east and is entertained by a shepherd, Brongus.. The Indian Orontes[disambiguation needed], son of Deriades, leads his army into battle and kills himself when he is defeated.
Book 18 The Assyrian Staphylus, his wife Methe, and his son Botrys invite Dionysus to a feast where they all get drunk. Dionysus has prophetic dreams. The next morning, Staphylus talks about the gods and giants and the origin of the Indians, and then dies.
Book 20 In a dream, Eris drives Dionysus to war. He arrives in Arabia, where king Lycurgus has been stirred to fight by Hera. Lycurgus drives Dionysus and the Bacchantes into the sea with a massive pole-axe.
Book 23 Dionysus and Aeacus fight the Indians in the river and the army crosses the Hydaspes. The river attacks Dionysus and his army.
Book 24 Deriades attacks the army as it crosses but is badly defeated. Leucus tells the story of Aphrodite's weaving contest with Athena and her defeat.
Book 25 The poet invokes the Muse in his second prologue, saying that in emulation of Homer he will skip over the first six years of the war, and compares at length Dionysus' Indian War with the deeds of Perseus, Minos, and Heracles, concluding that Dionysus is better than the heroes. Dionysus makes the city of the Indians drunk and sacks it. His shield is described covered with constellations and depicts Ganymede and Zeus, the walls of Thebes, the feast of the Gods, the nurses of Dionysus, Cybele, and the Lydian myth of Tylos' slaying of the giant.
Book 27 Deriades exhorts his troops and they attack Dionysus at the Indus. Zeus arrays the gods on the side of the Indians or Dionysus.
Book 29 Dionysus and his wounded lover Hymenaeus battle the Indians, while Ares sleeps.
Book 32 Hera charms Zeus with the girdle and puts him to sleep. Megaira drives Dionysus mad. Deriades and Morrheus rout the Bacchantes.
Book 33 A Grace tells Aphrodite about Dionysus' madness; she goes to Eros, who is playing kottabos and sends him to cause Morrheus to fall in love with Chalcomedia. Morrheus spends the night with her.
Book 34 Morrheus and Deriades attack the Bacchantes and Morrheus takes some captive as a gift for Deriades, whom Deriades tourtures and kills in various ways. They drive the Bacchantes inside the city walls.
Book 35 The Indians slay the Bacchantes in the city while Morrheus remembers Chalcomedia and loses his will to fight. Orontes' wife slays Bacchantes. Morrheus gives up battle and tries to rape Chalcomedia, and Hermes lets the Bacchantes out of the city. Zeus awakens and forces Hera to cure Dionysus' madness.
Book 36 There is a battle between the gods in favor of the Indians and those in favor of Dionysus. Deriades makes his attack with elephants and fights one-on-one with Dionysus who changes into a pine tree, a fireball, and a lion and attacks him with a vine. Deriades escapes and calls a council which decides to fight Dionysus, who has ships built by Rhadamanes, at sea.
Book 39 There is a sea-battle in which the cyclopes and marine gods participate, and the Indians are routed by a burning ship sent into their line.
Book 40 Deriades returns to battle and is killed by Dionysus, ending the war. Orsiboe mourns her dead husband, and Dionysus buries the dead, appoints Modaeus as governor of India, and distributes spoils. Dionysus travels to Tyre, admires the city, and hears the story of its founding from Heracles.
Book 41 This book describes the mythical history of the city of Beroe (Beirut). The poet tells the story of the nymph Beroe, daughter of Aphrodite. He describes her birth and her maturation. Aphrodite goes to Harmonia to find out the destiny of Beirut, and she prophesies its future prosperity in the Roman Empire under Augustus.
Book 42 Dionysus and Poseidon both fall in love with Beroe. Dionysus pursues her through the forests in love, meeting with Pan, and wooing the nymph with demonstrations of his abilities. Dionysus and Poseidon decide to fight over the girl.
Book 43 The army of Poseidon's sea gods and the army of Dionysus battle each other. Zeus gives Beroe's hand to Poseidon who consoles Dionysus.
Book 45 Teiresias and Cadmus try to propitiate Dionysus but Pentheus attacks the god who tells him the story of the Tyrsenian pirates. Pentheus imprisons Dionysus, but the god destroys the palace and escapes.
Book 46 Dionysus tricks Pentheus into spying on his mother and her sisters in their frenzy and is killed by them.
Book 47 The thiasus arrives at Athens and the city rejoices. Dionysus teaches Icarius viticulture, and the farmer gives his neighbors wine. When they are drunk they kill Icarius. His daughter Erigone informed by a dream finds her dead father and hangs herself, but is then made into a constellation by Zeus. Ariadne bewails her abandonment by Theseus and Dionysus weds her. Dionysus drives the women of Argos to kill their children for refusing his rites. Perseus is incited by Hera to attack the Bacchantes and turns Ariadne into stone after which the Argives accept the rites of Dionysus at Hermes' demand.
Book 48 Hera stirs the giants to fight Dionysus and they are slain. Dionysus wrestles with the daughter of King Sithon to win her hand and then slays the king when he wins. Dionysus goes to Asia Minor where he meets the nymph Aura. Aura vies with Artemis in a beauty contest, and Artemis, in spite, has Nemesis make Dionysus fall in love with Aura and pursue her. Ariadne appears to Dionysus in a dream and complains that he has forgotten her. Dionysus rapes Aura as she sleeps; when she awakes she goes mad and slaughters shepherds and destroys a shrine of Aphrodite. Artemis mocks the pregnant Aura as Nicaea helps her give birth to twins after which Mt. Dindymon is named. Aura tries to get a lion to eat the children, but they are saved and she is transformed into a spring. One of the children, Iacchus is given to Athena, Ariadne's crown is made a constellation, and Dionysus is enthroned on Olympus.
- Hopkinson, N. Studies in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus (Cambridge, 1994) pp.1–4.
- Hopkinson, pg.3
- Fornaro S., s.v. Nonnus in Brill's New Pauly vol. 9 (ed. Canick & Schneider) (Leiden, 2006) col.812-815, col. 814.
- Shorrock, R. The Challenge of Epic: Allusive Engagement in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus (Leiden, 2001) pp.1–2
- Lind, L. "Nonnus and his Readers" in RPL 1.159–170
- See Fornaro, col.813–814
- Fornaro, col.813 and Shorrock, pg.20ff.
- Rose, H. J. Nonnus' Dionysiaca (London, 1940) pp.x–xix
- Chuvin, P. "Local Traditions and Classical Mythology in Nonnus' Dionysiaca in ed. Hopkinson, N. Studies in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus (Cambridge, 1994) pg.167ff.
- Harries, B. The Pastoral Mode in the Dionysiaca in ed. Hopkinson, N. Studies in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus (Cambridge, 1994) pg.63ff
- Hopkinson, N. "Nonnus and Homer" and Hollis, A. "Nonnus and Hellenistic Poetry" in ed. Hopkinson, N. Studies in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus (Cambridge, 1994) pg.9ff. and 43ff.
- Shorrock, pp.10–17
- Shorrock, pp.17–19
- Shorrock, pg.26
- Shorrock, pg.23