Alexandrian Book Division (G. Bitto)

It remains a matter of debate when the two Homeric poems were divided into 24 books each. A wide range of suggestions has been offered: from a division that ultimately goes back to the poet himself, to an attribution solely to the Alexandrian editors. Apollonius’ Argonautica, after Iliad and Odyssey the first ancient epic poem to survive in its entirety, exhibits clear characteristics of a book division very consciously made and one that refers back to the aforementioned predecessors. Its substantial reduction of book numbers, from 24 to 4, adds special weight to each book in terms of unity and separation. Additional proems to Books 3 and 4 underline the segmentation and its potential to create narrative meaning.

Composing an epic poem with special attention to book division becomes fashionable for Roman epicists, at least since Ennius: Livius Andronicus is likely to have adopted the book division of his Greek original; there is evidence for a posthumous, post-Ennian book division in Naevius’ Bellum Punicum (Suet. de gramm. 2). Ennius’ 18 books of the Annales show a division into triads. Fragments of the proems to books 7 and 10 display metapoetic statements that emphasize the book division and make use of the special attention readers give to beginnings.

The prime importance of book division for the macrostructure of an epic poem is most prominent in the 12 books of Virgil’s Aeneid, without being employed schematically or pedantically: For example, the double structure of an Odyssean and an Iliadic half is suggested, but the proem in the middle in book 7 is not situated directly at the beginning but a little later, thus undermining a clear-cut division. The reception of Virgil transformed his Aeneid into the model Roman epic. Just to mention two examples: Playing with book divisions is characteristic for Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the 12-book structure serves as a benchmark for Statius’ Thebaid.

Accordingly, my paper focuses on the reception of the (Alexandrian-)Homeric book division in subsequent epics (including, of course, the reception of such receptions) in order to highlight how this structuring device, totally disconnected from its originally primarily pragmatic function, is employed by later epicists in order to add layers of meaning to their narrative.