Nonnus (Egyptian for "saint"), Greek epic poet, a native of Panopolis (Akhmim) in the Egyptian Thebaid, probably lived at the end of the 4th or the beginning of the 5th century AD.

His principal work is the Dionysiaca, an epic in forty-eight books, the main subject of which is the expedition of Dionysus to India and his return. The earlier portions treat of the rape of Europa, the battle of the giants, the mythical history of Thebes, and it is not until the eighth book that the birth of the god is described. Other poets had already treated the subject, and since the time of Alexander it had gained popularity from the favourite comparison of the king with the god and of his enemies with the giants.

In its vast and formless luxuriance, its beautiful but artificial versification, its delineation of action and passion to the entire neglect of character, the poem resembles the epics of India. Like his countryman Claudian, Nonnus is a writer of copious learning and still more copious fancy, whose faults are those of the age in which he lived. His chief merit consists in the systematic perfection to which he brought the Homeric hexameter. But the very correctness of the versification renders it monotonous. His influence on the vocabulary of his successors was likewise very considerable.

We also possess under his name a paraphrase (js€ra/3oX1~) of the Gospel of St John, which is chiefly interesting as apparently indicating that Nonnus in his later years was a convert to Christianity. The style is not inferior to that of his epic, but, employed in embellishing the simple narrative of the evangelist, it produces an impression of extreme bombast and want of taste. According to an epigram in the Palatine Anthology (ix. 198), Nonnus was also the author of a Battle of the Giants, and four lines of the Bassarica (also on the subject of Dionysus) have been preserved in Stephanus of Byzantium.

Editio Princeps (1569); H Kochly ("Teubner" series, with critical introduction and full index of names, 1858); the most generally useful edition is that by the comte de Marcellus (1856), with notes and prolegomena, and a French prose translation. On the metre, see JG Hermann, Orphica (1805), p. 690; A Ludwich, Beitrage zur Kritik des Nonnus (1873), critical, grammatical and metrical; C Lehrs, Quaestiones epicae (1837), pp. 255-302, chiefly on metrical questions; on the sources, R Kohler, Uber die Dionysiaka des Nonnus (1853), a short and connected analysis of the poem, with a comparison of the earlier and later myths; see also I Negrisoli, Studio critico ... Nonnus Panopolita, with short bibliography (1903). The paraphrase on St John (editio princeps, c. 1505) is edited by F Passow (1834) and A Scheindler (1881), with complete index.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.