Symphosius: The Aenigmata

edited by T. J. Leary, Bloomsbury Academic 2014, Hb 263 pages, ISBN 978-1472511027 (£21.99).

Not many of us have read Symphosius’ Riddles.  They consist of a hundred three hexameter line verses in the classic riddle form with a solution (or lemma) attached, found in the Latin Anthology.  Not much is known about the author or even his dates.  Leary who specialises in this genre of verse having previously produced editions of Martial’s Xenia and Apophoreta offers a full treatment of the text with translation and detailed commentary.  This may sound very specialised and scholarly and perhaps a little dull, but there are real possibilities for these short pieces in the classroom.  Here is an example picked almost at random:

ipsa gravis non sum, sed aquae mihi pondus inhaeret.

viscera tota tument patulis diffusa cavernis.

intus lympha latet, sed non se sponte profundit.

The answer can be found at the bottom of this review.  The level of language competence demanded means that these verses are quite accessible for an intermediate class, perhaps with some vocabulary help.  Language classes should always try to use authentic texts as soon as possible with their learners, but it is not always easy to find suitable material.  These Aenigmata would work well if presented in an appropriate way.  This means separating the solution from the verses, which Leary does not do in his edition.  The fun of reading riddles consists in having to work out the answer, but here the lemma is printed on the line above the riddle itself.  I resorted to placing a card over the page and sliding it upwards to reveal only the three lines of Latin, and then trying to work each riddle out, before referring to the notes at the back.  Consequently, I should recommend using this edition as a resource and making screen shots or slides of the texts with a separate slide for the solution and perhaps an illustration.  For a class meeting authentic texts for the first time, this could be a good introduction and would increase fluency of reading by encouraging the making of connections.  There is a lot of interesting material to be exploited here about Roman daily life, as the basis of the riddles is derived from everyday objects, such as a boot or a fish-hook.  Other riddles form groups of animals, flowers, vegetables and other food items. The scholarly and most thorough edition provided here by Leary belongs in a library for consultation by future scholars, but it may also serve to promote awareness of these delightful texts and so provide the opportunity to present some new and stimulating material to intermediate learners of Latin.  A sponge is the solution to the riddle above.

John Bulwer