Classics Nonnus
Gianfranco Agosti
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0332


Nonnus of Panopolis (approximately 400–460/470 CE) is the undisputed protagonist of the flourishing of Greek poetry in Late Antiquity. He composed the Dionysiaca, the longest extant Greek epic poem on the life of Dionysus, his war and triumph over the Indians, his progress from the Near East to Thebes, and his eventual apotheosis (more than twenty-one thousand verses, in forty-eight books, the sum of the Iliad and the Odyssey). The poem begins with the abduction of Europa and a long section about Cadmus, and then describes the birth and youth of Dionysus (Books 1–12). Books 13–24 are devoted to the first part of the war against Indians, with the catalogues of the troops and the first battles. After a second prologue, the conclusion of the war against Indians is narrated, with the final battle and the death of the Indian king Deriades (Books 25–40). This section “rewrites” the Iliad in a very innovative way. In Books 40–48 the poet deals with Dionysus’ return to Phrygia, his visits to Tyre and Beirut, and also Thebes, Naxos, and Phrygia again, and his apotheosis. Nonnus is also the author of a long metrical Paraphrase of St John’s Gospel, where he displays a deep theological knowledge (around 3,700 hexameters). Recent research demonstrated that the coexistence of a mythological and a Christian poem was perfectly acceptable. Nonnus was a Christian, addressing the cultivated mixed elites of Alexandria. He introduced into the tradition of epic poetry a new style, based on manneristic exuberance and imaginative language, as well as a reform of the hexameter based on regularity and stress accents. Nonnus was very popular in Late Antiquity. His style was followed by several poets of the 5th and 6th century CE, who recognized in him a new classic to imitate. Among these followers, there are Pamprepius of Panopolis, Musaeus, Colluthus of Lycopolis, Christodorus of Coptos, John of Gaza, Agathias, Paul the Silentiary and the “minor” epigrammatists of Agathias’s Cycle, as well as several metrical inscriptions and fragmentary poems transmitted by papyri. In the subsequent centuries, some Byzantine literates found it appealing and profited from its exuberant vocabulary. From the Renaissance onward Nonnus had his admirers (especially during the Baroque age). After a period of classicizing prejudice, in scholarship there is now a growing interest for his works.

General Overviews

The best introductions to Nonnus are Vian 1976 (dealing mainly with the Dionysiaca), Gigli Piccardi 2003, and Accorinti 2013. Livrea 1989 is important for the Paraphrase. Although there are no comparable overviews in English, students can confidently use Shorrock 2005, focused especially on the Dionysiaca, and the sympathetic presentation by Schmitz 2009. Chuvin 2018 is a convenient introduction to the main literary and religious questions. Students should also consult general surveys of Greek poetry in Late Antiquity, which give a broader picture of Nonnus’s cultural and literary context: Agosti 2012, Cameron 2016, Whitby and Roberts 2018.

  • Accorinti, Domenico. 2013. Nonnos von Panopolis. In Reallexicon für Antike und Christentum. Vol. 25. Edited by Georg Schöllgen, 1107–1129. Stuttgart: Hiersemann.

    According to the format of the Reallexicon entries, biographical data, religion, works, and reception are concisely, but exhaustively, treated. In German.

  • Agosti, Gianfranco. 2012. Greek poetry. In The Oxford handbook of Late Antiquity. Edited by Scott Fitzgerald Johnson, 361–404. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Introduction to Greek poetry from the 4th to the 6th century CE, focusing on literary and sociocultural aspects, with a signposted bibliography of editions and translations as well as secondary literature.

  • Cameron, Alan. 2016. Poetry and literary culture in Late Antiquity. In Wandering poets and other essays on late Greek literature and philosophy. By Alan Cameron, 163–184. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Revised edition of the chapter already published in 2004 in Approaching Late Antiquity: The transformation from Early to Late Empire. Edited by Simon Swain and Mark Edwards, 327–354. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Greek and Latin poets in a broader framework are considered.

  • Chuvin, Pierre. 2018. Introduction: Nonnus, from our time to his: A retrospective glance at Nonnian studies (notably the Dionysiaca) since the 1930s. In Nonnus of Panopolis in context II: Poetry, religion, and society. Edited by Herbert Bannert and Nicole Kröll, 1–18. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill.

    An excellent overview of the main critical problems raised by Nonnus’s poems (authorship, religion, style, and literary features) and the scholarly debate since the 1930s.

  • Gigli Piccardi, Daria. 2003. Nonno di Panopoli. Le Dionisiache. Volume I. Canti 1–12. Milan: BUR Rizzoli.

    A detailed introduction to the poet, his works, and cultural project, at pp. 7–101. In Italian.

  • Livrea, Enrico. 1989. Nonno di Panopoli: Parafrasi del Vangelo di San Giovanni, Canto XVIII. Naples, Italy: D’Auria.

    Offers the best introduction to the Christian poem at pp. 1–35. For experienced students of Nonnus. In Italian.

  • Schmitz, A. Thomas. 2009. Nonnus and his tradition. In Reading the Bible intertextually. Edited by Richard B. Hays, Stefan Alkier, and Leroy Andrew Huizenga, 171–191. Waco, TX: Baylor Univ. Press.

    English translation of a German paper of 2005 (“Nonnos und seine Tradition.” In Die Bibel im Dialog der Schriften. Konzepte intertextueller Bibellektüre. Edited by Stefan Alkier and Richard B. Hays, 195–216. Tübingen, Germany: Francke). General introduction to the poet and his works, through an analysis of select passages from both of his poems. Focuses on Nonnus’s engagement with the literary tradition, as well as the purpose of the Paraphrase, and its possible audience.

  • Shorrock, Robert. 2005. Nonnus. In A companion to ancient epic. Edited by John Miles Fowley, 374–385. Oxford: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470996614.ch28

    A suitable introduction to the Dionysiaca written by a great specialist, providing information about the author, the form, and content of the poem, on its intertextuality, metapoetic tendencies, and reception.

  • Vian, Francis. 1976. Nonnos de Panopolis. Les Dionysiaques. Tome I. Chants I-II. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

    A readable and rich survey on the poet and his biography, the structure of the poem, the style, and meter (pp., IX–LV). In French.

  • Whitby, Mary, and Michael Roberts. 2018. Epic poetry. In A companion to late antique literature. Edited by Scott McGill and Edward J. Watts, 222–240. London: John Wiley.

    A survey of late antique epic poetry, organised by literary genres (mythological poetry, panegyrical or occasional, didactic, and Christian), with a rich bibliography.

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