Parthenius of Nicaea, Testimonia

LCL 508: 468-469




As with Euphorion, our main biographical source for Parthenius is the Suda entry. It does not give a date of birth, though it does tell us that he was captured by Cinna “when the Romans defeated Mithridates”. The third Mithridatic War lasted from 74–63 BC, but we do not know for certain whether Parthenius was captured at the beginning of the war or at the end; nor can we be sure of the identity of the Cinna who captured him. It could have been the neoteric poet himself, whose epyllion Zmyrna (celebrated in Catullus 95) seems to have been influenced by Parthenius. Or it could have been his father, particularly if Parthenius was captured earlier, rather than later, in the war. At any rate, Parthenius was one of numerous firstcentury Bithynian men of culture (doctors, poets, grammarians) who left their homeland for Rome, and he was not the only one to have been brought there as a prisoner of the Mithridatic Wars.

The tradition about his servile status seems also to be known to Erycius (Test. 2), who portrays him with a slave’s collar round his neck. But, like other distinguished prisoners of the war, Parthenius was freed “on account of his paideia”. Witnesses to his subsequent career are short on detail, but tantalising. The obvious inference is that he went to Rome, in whose vicinity his tombstone was apparently



discovered (Test. 4); but it is also possible that he spent time in north Italy, where the Cinnas had their estates,1 and/or Naples, Virgil’s home for many years. Wherever they met, Macrobius reports that Parthenius was Virgil’s teacher (Grammaticus) in Greek (Test. 9a),2 and there are scattered indications of Parthenius’ influence on Virgil’s poetry (Test. 9b–c; cf. also 25). Two testimonia concern Roman emperors known for their unorthodox literary tastes and their favour for Parthenius: Tiberius had his portrait included with those of other litterati in public libraries, and Hadrian (apparently) renovated his grave (Test. 3–4).3 Several times he is bracketed together with other Hellenistic literary celebrities, whose recherché subject-matter and minuteness of detail he is said to share: Euphorion (Test. 3, 6), Rhianus (Test. 3), Callimachus (Test. 5, 6), Lycophron (Test. 7).

Given his celebrity, the yield of fragments and citations is disappointingly meagre. The longest continuous fragment is only six lines long, and the largest part of the fragments are single words quoted in grammarians and Stephanus of Byzantium. However, the indications are interesting. First, to judge from the Suda (cf. also Test. 7), his fame rested largely on his elegies (otherwise, of the “various metres” that the Suda credits him with, there are traces only of hexameters). In fact, evidence for elegy largely dries up after the third century, and nonhexametric poetry from then on mostly takes the form of

DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.parthenius_nicaea-testimonia.2010