Greek Commentaries – Francesca Schironi


“One of the main problems in working with Greek scholarship is that almost no original work from Hellenistic and early Roman period has been preserved in full.”

Manuscripts and Versions of the Second Century

Constantine Tischendorff




This article provides an overview of the genre of “commentary” in ancient Greece. I will first briefly discuss ancient Greek scholarship and, above all, its sources and the issues that modern scholars have to face when dealing with them. Next, I will focus on the physical appearance of Greek commentaries (hypomnemata), and then I will survey some of the most important contents of ancient exegesis (intra-lingual translations, variant readings, questions about myths, geography and rea-lia, authenticity of lines and entire texts, style and poetics, specific interests of some commentators). Finally, I will highlight the differences between commentar-ies on literary texts and commentaries on scientific texts and will focus on the two most important legacies ancient Greek commentators left to biblical and Chris-tian exegetes: the allegorical reading and the principle that the words of an author must be interpreted in terms of the author’s words themselves.

commentaries; scholia; hypomnemata; papyri; Alexandrian scholarship; Aristarchus; allegory


For our modern literary standards, the “commentary” is a quite well defined genre-category, both in formal and functional terms: commentaries explain other texts considered “canonical” for a particular discipline (function) and they discuss the text following the order in which it is written, from the beginning to the end (form). However, such a definition may be inadequate from the functional point of view: commentaries are not the only works that explain a text: other genres, like lexica or monographs on par-ticular authors, also aim at clarifying texts. This ambiguity in the definition becomes even more of an issue when discussing Greek commentaries: Greek scholarly genres are much less differentiated in their content—at least for us—, because of the peculiar history and development of Greek scholarship. In fact, we can define rather precisely how an ancient commentary (hypomnema) looked like physically (form), but its content (function) is not easy to distinguish from the content of other scholarly products. Hence, even if technically speaking only hypomnemata are real commentaries, a survey conceived from a comparative perspective needs to include other texts “commenting on” canonical authors in order to have a sufficiently complete picture of what Greek commentators were doing. For this reason, I will distinguish here between a specific product with specific formal characteristics (the commentary or hypomnema in Greek) and the function of commenting upon canonical texts (which is common to many scholarly products).

In what follows, I will first give a very brief overview of Greek scholarship and, above all, I will discuss its sources and the issues that modern scholars have to face when dealing with them (§1). Then I will introduce some important commentaries and sources which will be used as examples in this survey (§2). The core of the paper will have two main sections. In the first (§§3–4), I will briefly describe the physical appearance of a real commentary (hypomnema) in antiquity. As I have explained, we can cer-tainly define a hypomnema from a formal point of view, and we have enough examples from papyri to be able to identify some general charac-teristics of Greek “commentaries” in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Then (§§5–7), I will survey some of the most important contents of ancient exegesis; the examples will be taken from the hypomnemata on papyrus, and from the other exegetical texts mentioned in §2. Given the nature of the present volume, I will concentrate on Homeric scholarship, since the Homeric poems are the closest parallel to the sacred texts of the Jews and of the Near East; moreover, it is also the field for which we have most material. However, examples of commentaries on other authors will be also mentioned in order to give a more complete picture of the genre of commentaries in ancient Greece.

1. Greek Scholarship and Its Sources

The need of privileging the content/function of texts rather than focusing on the specific genre of commentary arises from the peculiar historical development of Greek scholarship and from the sources at our disposal.

The beginning of scholarship in Greece1 occurs rather early and concerns the most important Greek author: Homer. The need for “explana-tions” in Homer was due to the fact that Homer’s poetry, which was at the basis of Greek education, was written in an artificial language that was Ionic-based but with elements of other dialects (especially Aeolic and Attic); moreover, Homeric language had many archaic formations. As a consequence, Homeric poems sounded odd and were difficult for Greeks of the classical period to interpret; therefore, among the first forms of exegesis to be developed there was glossography: the translation of Homeric words into “modern” Greek. The first testimony of such an activity derives from a fragment of the Banqueters of Aristophanes, in which a father asks his son to explain to him.2

Homeric poems also presented another problem: their gods behaved very much like humans and showed an almost complete lack of moral standards. When philosophical and ethical thinking started to develop in the sixth century B.C.E., thinkers like Xenophanes questioned the Homeric depiction of the gods (21, frgs. B 11–12 D-K). To “save” Homer from accusations of immorality, the Greeks developed a specific tool: the allegorical exegesis, whose first representative is Theagenes of Rhegium (middle of the sixth century B.C.E.). If glossography and allegory are the earliest forms of scholarship on Homer, Greek scholarship becomes a fully developed discipline with Aristotle (fourth century B.C.E.) and then, above all, with the foundation and development of the Library and the Museum of Alexandria (third–second centuries B.C.E.). This is the time of the great grammarians, including Zenodotus of Ephesus,

Aristophanes of Byzantium, and Aristarchus of Samothrace, who produced editions, commentaries and exegetical works on archaic and classical authors. Another important center was Pergamum with scholars such as Crates of Mallus and his pupil Zenodotus of Mallus, who, around the same period, combined the standard philological interests with allegorical readings that were also influenced by Stoic philosophy. Alexandrian and Pergamean scholarships continued to thrive during the Roman period and expanded in the Mediterranean reaching Rome and beyond; commentar-ies and other exegetical works were then continuously produced into the Byzantine period when scribes and erudition played a fundamental role in preserving Greek scholarship.

One of the main problems in working with Greek scholarship and exegesis is that almost no hypomnemata of the Hellenistic and early Roman period has been preserved in full by direct tradition. There are only two exceptions: Hipparchus’ commentary on Aratus’ Phaenomena (second century B.C.E.) and the commentary on the Hippocratic treatise On Joints by Apollonius of Citium (70 B.C.E.); these two texts, however, are very peculiar and not representative of the genre of commentary (see §6). The situation is partially remedied by other sources that more or less indirectly preserve fragments of more ancient commentators. The most direct and important sources are the fragments from papyri preserved either by the dry climate in Egypt and few other places, or because they were carbonized as in Herculaneum. Even if these fragments consist only of a tiny fraction of the original roll, they sometimes preserve significant amounts of text which open a window into the most ancient phase of the genre of the commentary—from the fourth century B.C.E. (with the Derveni papyrus, a commentary on an Orphic theogony; see §7.1) to the third to fourth centuries C.E. The papyrus fragments show how scholarship flourished and developed during the Hellenistic and Roman period: commentaries and exegetical texts were copied and recopied, often excerpted or comple-mented with additional material. This exegetical content was eventually transcribed in the margins of codices carrying the text of the author commented upon: this way, scholia, marginal annotations in medieval manuscripts, were born.3 Scholia are one of the most important sources for

3 How and when scholia were born is a very debated question. Generally, scholars think that the formation of scholiastic corpora dates back to late antiquity (fifth century C.E.): see N. G. Wilson, “A Chapter in the History of Scholia,”

ancient commentaries and commentators; in fact, even if a long time separates scholia from the original Hellenistic or early Roman exegesis, the process of continuous copying and excerpting has often maintained almost literally the content of these notes, as is clear when we compare fragments belonging to different times but strikingly similar in Wortlaut and content.

Ancient grammarians did not produce only commentaries (hypomnemata), but also editions (ekdoseis) of texts, collections of words used by literary authors (lexeis or glossai) as well as monographs on a specific argument (syggrammata). Even though the ancients did distinguish between these different types of texts (and we can too, at least from a formal point of view), their boundaries were easily crossed, as excerpts from texts of different types could be combined in other learned products. Therefore, in later scholia we can find material that originally was distributed among syggrammata, hypomnemata and glossaries, and which at a certain point was gathered together to comment on a specific text.

It has now become clear why it is almost impossible to discuss Greek commentaries and at the same time limit the analysis to hypomnemata: first, because we do not have many hypomnemata fully preserved; second, because the main sources for ancient hypomnemata are later texts that collect material also from other exegetical texts like exegetic monographs and lexica in a process of osmosis, which started quite early, among contig-uous sub-genres of scholarship;4 and, third, because issues and topics thatwe would consider unique realms of commentaries were often addressed by the Greeks in other exegetical texts.

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