Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Nonnus of Panopolis
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Nonnus of Panopolis
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Nonnus (2) of Panopolis. The name is very common, being properly an Egyptian title equivalent to Saint. Consequently confusion has arisen between this writer and others of the same name. He has been identified, with some probability, with a Nonnus whose son is mentioned by Synesius (Ep. ad Anastas. 42, ad Pyl. 102); and, with very little probability, with the deacon Nonnus, secretary at the council of Chalcedon, a.d. 452; with Nonnus, the bp. of Edessa, elected at the synod of Ephesus, a.d. 449; and with Nonnus the commentator on Gregory Nazianzen (vide Bentley, Phalaris, ad in.).
Life.— He was a native of Panopolis in Egypt; cf. Eudoxia, s.v. Agathias, iv. p. 128; and an epigram in Anth. Graeca, i. p. 140. He is classed by Agathias among οἱ νέοι ποιηταί, and this, supported by a comparison of his poems with other late epic writers, makes it probable that he wrote at the end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th cents. a.d. Beyond this nothing is known for certain. His Dionysiaca shews frequently a knowledge of astronomy (cf. vi. 60; xxv.; xxxviii. 4), and a special interest in Berytus (xli.), Tyre (xl.), and Athens (xlvii.), but whether from a personal acquaintance with these towns is uncertain.
In iv. 250 the discoveries of Cadmus are traced to Egypt, but otherwise there is no reference to his native country. The whole tone of the Dionysiaca, with its delight in the drunken immoralities of Dionysus, makes it hard to believe the poem written by a Christian. Probably it was written early in life, and Nonnus converted to Christianity after it, and the paraphrase of St. John written after his conversion, possibly, as has been suggested, as a contrast to the Dionysiaca, portraying the life and apotheosis of one more worthy than Dionysus of the name of God. Possibly too, as has also been suggested, Nonnus may have been one of the Greek philosophers who accepted Christianity when the heathen temples were destroyed by decree of Theodosius (Socr. H. E. v. 16).
Works.— Of his literary position it is possible to speak with more certainty. He was the centre, if not the founder, of the literary Egyptian school, which gave to Greek epic poetry a new though short-lived brilliancy, and to which belonged Quintus of Smyrna, John of Gaza, Coluthus, Tryphiodorus, and Musaeus. This school revived the historical and mythological epic, treating it in a peculiar style of which Nonnus is the best representative. While frequently proclaiming himself an imitator of Homer, and shewing traces of the influence of Callimachus and later writers, he yet created new metrical rules, which gave an entirely new effect to the general rhythm of the poem—that of an easy but rather monotonous flow, always pleasant, but never rising or falling with the tone of the narrative. The style is very florid, marked by a luxuriance of epithets and original compounds (often of very arbitrary formation), elaborate periphrasis, and metaphors often piled together in hopeless confusion; and many unusual forms are invented.
The Dionysiaca attributed to Nonnus by Agathias (u.s.) is a history of the birth, conquests and apotheosis of Dionysus, spun out at great length. The poem has been regarded "as an allegory of the march of civilization across the ancient world"; but it would be simpler, and we hope truer, to describe it as "the gradual establishment of the cultivation of the vine and the power of the Wine-god."
The chief modern editions of the Dionysiaca are Graefe (1819–1826); Passow (1834); Le Comte de Marcellus, with interesting introduction, French. trans. and notes, in Didot's Bibl. Graeca (1856); Köchly with apparatus criticus (1857), cf. Ouwarow (1817); Köhler, Ueber die Dion. des Nonnus (1853).
The Paraphrase (Μεταβολή) of St. John's Gospel, attributed to Nonnus by Eudocia (Viol. 311) , is a fairly faithful paraphrase of the whole of the Gospel. The text of the Gospel that lies behind the paraphrase has been reproduced by R. Jannsen (Texte und Untersuchungen, N. F. viii. 4, 1903). The text is faithfully treated. The omissions, except when he has MSS. authority (e.g. v. 1, 4, vii. 53 sqq.), are rare (v. 1, 29, iv. 27, 41, 42, vi. 41, 53, viii. 38, xviii 16, 18). The additions are chiefly those of poetical expansion. Homeric epithets form a strange medley with the Palestinian surroundings, and in many cases the illustrations are drawn out into insipid details (cf. iv. 26, vii. 21, xviii. 3, xx. 7). At other times we have interpretations suggested, in most of which he agrees with the Alexandrine tradition as represented by Cyril and Origen cf. i. 16, 24, 42 (Peter's name); vi. 71 (the motive of Judas); vii. 19 (the reference to the sixth commandment); viii. 40 (the hospitality of Abraham); xii. 6, 10; xviii. 15 (ἰχθυβόλου παρὰ τέχνης); xix. 7. In some he seems obviously wrong, e.g. ii. 12 (δυωδεκάριθμος); ii. 20, x. 12 (the reference to Solomon); vii. 28 (ὐψῶν); xi. 44, σουδάριον explained as a Syrian word; while in ii. 4, τί μοι γύναι ἠὲ καὶ αὐτῇ looks like an attempt to avoid a slight to her who is constantly called Θεοτόκος. He shews, too, a looseness in using theological terms (cf. i. 3, μύθος; 1, 50, xi. 27, λόγος) which, with the luxuriance of periphrasis, forms a striking contrast to the simplicity and accuracy of St. John. The chief modern editions are Passow (1834); Le Comte de Marcellus, with French trans. and notes (1860); A. Scheindler (1881), with text of the Gospel and criticus apparatus; Migne, vol. xliii. (with the notes of Heinsius and of Le Comte de Marcellus); Mansi, Bibl. Patr. vi. (ed. 1618), ix. (ed. 1677). See also a series of arts. in Wiener Studien for 1880–1881 and Theolog. Literaturzeitung, 1891, where the authorship is attributed to Apollinaris.