Schizophrenides: Dactylomachia

THIS EPIC IN twenty-four books, which described the climactic battle of a war fought by finger-puppets, is one of the few works of classical antiquity known to have been delib­erately misplaced rather than lost in the strict sense.

Little is known of Schizophrenides’ life. The Doric peculiarities of his dialect were de­nounced by contemporary critics as an affectation rather than a genuine relic of his native speech. It is known from surviving Athenian police blotters that he attempted, without invitation, to participate in a number of poetic competitions; in these he would doubtless have been defeated but for the technicality that he was thrown out before he could read his poems. We also have a surprisingly large number of ostraca that bear his name surrounded by a wide range of Greek obscenities, on the basis of which historians believe he was ostracized not very long after he arrived in Athens. Of his subsequent career nothing is known.

Very little of the Dactylomachia survives today. The grammarian Euphues, in his book On the Abuse of the Greek Tongue, quotes a few lines from Schizophrenides that, from their multiple references to knuckles, are assumed to have come from the Dactylo­machia; and a unique graffito in the ruins of Ephesus quotes one line of the poem beside a crude drawing of a poet with an ass’s head. These fragments incline us to agree with the gen­erally harsh judgment of the antique critics.

The Dactylomachia was not unknown to students of literature even centuries after the time of Schizophrenides. A fragment of Petronius describes a literary soiree in which a round of quotations from the Dactylomachia is followed by a trip to the vomitorium.

It was the great Apuleius who held the last known copy of the work. Having spent an evening reading from it to a group of drunken literary acquaintances, he felt so ashamed of himself the next morning that he secreted the manuscript some­where in a villa which he was about to abandon. Since then the work has not been seen, which is just as well.