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Nonnus

(fl. 450—470)


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(fl. ad 450–70),

the main surviving exponent of an elaborate, metrically very strict style of Greek epic poetry that evolved in the Imperial period. His huge Dionysiaca is in 48 books, the sum of the books of the Iliad and Odyssey; Nonnus' stated intention is to rival Homer, and to surpass him in the dignity of his divine, not human, subject (25. 253–63). The poem describes at length the antecedents of Dionysus' birth, the birth itself, and the new god's fight for recognition as a member of the pantheon in the face of hostility from Hera; the central section (books 13–40), which describes the war of Dionysus and his Bacchic forces against the Indians and their king Deriades, is Nonnus' equivalent of the Iliad. Nonnus' highly rhetorical and extraordinarily luxuriant style is an attempt to create a new type of formulaic composition, recognizably similar to that of Homer but with greater variety and with far more lexical permutations. In his mythological learning and countless allusions to earlier poetry he is a true successor to Hellenistic writers of the Callimachean school (see CALLIMACHUS); the episodes that describe Dionysus' love affairs with youths and nymphs are influenced also by the novel.

Nonnus' other extant work is a hexameter version of St John's Gospel. Stylistic analysis suggests that it may be earlier than the Dionysiaca; but the Dionysiaca clearly lacks final revision. These two facts have led scholars to make ingenious conjectures about Nonnus' life, religion, and possible conversions. But there is evidence that amongst intellectuals in the 5th cent. it was not felt contradictory for a Christian to write heavily classicizing verse.

Neil Hopkinson

Subjects: Classical Studies.


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