edited by Franco Montanari
«It would be hard to deny that the history of ancient scholarship has been one of the most significant innovations of the past century in the panorama of studies on the ancient world, both in the importance achieved by this sector of research in just a few decades, and in the quantity, breadth, and depth of new critical editions of the texts of ancient philological erudition, which were at first rather neglected in modern research but are now the subject of new and philologically robust editions. Indeed we can say without risk of contradiction that by now, in our century, the history of ancient scholarship has gained an indisputable standing within the field of research on ancient culture. Only a myopic and – thankfully – fading aestheticizing approach and outlook could imagine taking the backward step of denying or downplaying its importance.
It is now accepted that the turning point, both intellectually and historically, was the publication of Pfeiffer’s History in 1968. The comprehensive discussion and reflection dedicated to the book’s findings a quarter century after its publication, in the Entretiens Hardt on this topic, demonstrated that Pfeiffer’s work was already securely established as an indispensable point of reference, while also indicating possible expansions, supplements, and adjustments of its position. As regards the temporal range under consideration, many of us hoped even back then that Pfeiffer would give us a second volume dedicated to the Roman Imperial period, but sadly this did not happen. Since Pfeiffer did not do what the scholars expected, the world of research felt as particularly necessary to have a historical framework for the centuries of the Imperial period in continuity with the Hellenistic period and until the end of the Byzantine millennium. The problem of continuity between the Hellenistic and the imperial period is captured by the very title of the Entretiens of 1994 cited above, and is discussed explicitly in their Introduction: “We wanted to avoid a sharp cut-off date at the end of the Hellenistic period, which would be artificial, and to broaden the view as far as possible towards a Hellenistic-Roman chronological span. We are convinced that a unified examination of this period would strongly benefit our understanding of many phenomena and of their historical consequences. These include decisive interventions in the transmission of classical texts; the history of production of Hellenistic commentaries and treatises up to the early stages of the formation of scholiographic corpora; the consolidation of grammatical theory up to Apollonius Dyscolus and Herodian; the development of the lexicographical collections that would flow into the Byzantine compilers; the foundations of the paroemiographical research up to the first major collections; and the evolution of rhetorical thought.”
We believe that the chronological limits marked by the present volume, from the origins to the end of the Byzantine era, are plausible and comprehensible and indicate the crucial historical importance of the Roman Imperial period (including the presence and role played by the Latin world, in dialogue with Greek culture), and of the full contribution of the Byzantine millennium. If these limits open up a path for a historical treatment of subsequent eras, it would certainly constitute a further chapter of “classical scholarship in the making”, to borrow Pfeiffer’s phrase. The passage just quoted from the introduction to the Entretiens of 1994 highlights another series of themes that can, or at least could, be added to the contents of scholarship as represented in Pfeiffer’s book, and which subsequent studies have taken into consideration in various ways. On that occasion a further problem was raised, which is by no means of secondary importance: alongside a treatment with a primarily historical-chronological framework, such as that of Pfeiffer and of the present volume (in which, however, the chronological span extends many centuries beyond the end of the Hellenistic era), is it also possible to envisage a thematic structure? The latter should, so far as possible, follow the separate lines of development of the various currents of research within this field, the vastness and complexity of which is becoming ever clearer. However, I shall not expand on this and repeat what was said in 1994. Scholars interested in the history of classical scholarship can return to those Entretiens and reflect once again on the tangle of problems that were put on the table then and remain there still, and which have been stimulating research of enormous value and quantity ever since.
I would like instead to devote a few pages to recalling some fundamental and indispensable concepts, which both highlight and embody the progress made in roughly half a century of studies and which, I firmly believe, give concrete form to the value of the historical development described by Pfeiffer. The surviving products of ancient exegesis and scholarship were long considered and studied essentially for two reasons and with two basic approaches, though the particular focuses of course varied: 1) as testimonia to fragments of lost literary works and as constituting otherwise unknown information (for example on Realien, historical facts, institutions, and so on); and 2) as a source of information for the modern interpretation and understanding of the work commented upon (or occasionally on other works). The first case is immediately comprehensible: all editions of fragmentary works teem with quotations found in scholiographic corpora, grammatical works, and lexicographical collections; and often studies of various aspects of different historical eras benefit from erudite sources (the example of the FGrHist of Felix Jacoby may here stand for them all). And, in the second case, it does sometimes happen that the exegesis of surviving works of major authors of ancient literature gains some clarification from a scholium or a lexicon lemma.
These are two indispensably important aspects which should certainly not be underestimated, far less brushed aside, given the exceptionally important function that they fulfill. But for some time the approach has been deeply changed, and this shift should now be consolidated as an established advance in research and knowledge. We can formulate it as follows: as well as being important for what they tell us about everything other than themselves in their own right, the products of ancient scholarship are important, indeed fundamental, for what they tell us about themselves. We can appreciate the great importance of an unknown fragment of a lost work or an otherwise unknown fact or phenomenon about the ancient world, but at least as important and significant, or perhaps even more so, is what these texts, albeit difficult and complicated to understand, tell us about the methods of the ancient exegetes, the cultural assumptions, ideas, settings and intentions of their times and environments. It is a fact – and we can no longer deny or ignore it – that all that we usually include under the general term “ancient philology” or “ancient scholarship” should be accepted as an essential and indispensable aspect of the historical and cultural framework of the ancient world, and also as the final major step in the escape from an aestheticizing classicism (for which the products of ancient scholarship were usually late trivial works of little or no value in themselves), whose scientific findings are irremediably ephemeral and entirely subjective.
Let us therefore ask of the texts of ancient scholarship, above all, what they tell us about themselves, and let us adopt as a basic principle that it does not matter whether what they tell us is correct or mistaken in a modern view and interpretation, whether their interpretations are good or bad from our point of view and with our “scientific” methods: what matters, rather, is what they imply and what they mean in their own right. That a scholium to Homer or Aeschylus selects a mistaken reading is entirely secondary as compared to our understanding of the methods and assumptions that are brought to bear in making the selections. To defend the ‘usefulness’ of the texts of ancient scholarship does not mean to observe that sometimes they are right and interpret well according to our philology, methods and ideas. It means understanding the reasons why they have interpreted in a certain way and have made certain choices: in short, again, to understand what they tell us about themselves, their era, and their setting, to understand their culture.
In Pfeiffer’s book scholars’ attention (some of it critical) was drawn at once by, among other things, the title and content of the first part of his book: “Prehistory of Greek Scholarship,” divided into three chapters that run from the epic poets to Aristotle and the Peripatus (that is to say, the first generations of students of Aristotle). The concept of historical development which Pfeiffer thus applied very explicitly to the sphere of scholarship as a cultural field, by assigning to it a long and complex phase of preparation and, in a sense, of progressive incubation, had crucial intellectual implications. To disentangle and illuminate these aspects and phenomena, which are by no means of secondary importance in Greek cultural history, was to appreciate in a new way the fact that ancient scholarship did not spring miraculously out of nothing, nor was it a series of independent or only loosely connected events and personalities. Rather, it was the result of a deep cultural need, linked to the most important and essential developments of a civilization, which took note of the importance and value of its own heritage in literature and thought, and acknowledged the need to acquire tools to study it, preserve it, interpret it, and understand it for its own sake and for that of future generations.5 And this is true of the whole two millennia chronological span considered in this book, until the end of the Byzantine era marked a further historical and cultural transition.
In this context, one of the aspects of Pfeiffer’s History that have been debated the most is the reduced role that he ascribed to Aristotle and his school as bearers of the decisive impulses in the birth of philology at Alexandria. Pfeiffer criticized the view, held already in antiquity, and traditionally, if rather automatically, repeated in modern studies, which identified Aristotle as the “father” or “founder” of Alexandrian philology. With this Pfeiffer opened up a problem and a debate which continue to stimulate new analyses and studies in ever greater depth. It seems worth underlining one more time that in Pfeiffer the elements that link Aristotle and the Peripatus with Alexandria are in fact present, and in good number, and are even noted explicitly. That is, Pfeiffer by no means omits to mention Aristotle and the work of the Peripatetics when the topic leads him to do so, but he then downplays any deeper connection: Aristotle was not the master of the first philologists, the Alexandrian philologists were not Aristotelians, Aristotle was not the founder or father of philology. I believe it is clear that Pfeiffer’s approach arises from having privileged to an excessive degree and having even, as it were, in a sense isolated the Pfeiffer showed that he was perfectly aware of this fact (and how could it be otherwise?) when he wrote in the Preface (p. viii): “There have, of course, been earlier attempts in this field since the days of Henri Estienne who wrote in 1587 De criticis veteribus Graecis et Latinis. But only one really comprehensive book exists: J. E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship, in three volumes of 1.629 pages … But as a whole Sandy’s work is rather a catalogue of classical scholars, century by century, nation by nation, and book by book than a real history of scholarship itself; there is no leading idea, no coherent structure, no sober discrimination between the transient and the perennial.” relationship between poetry and philology (philology was born from poetry, and is in a certain sense its child), instead of the much more complex and nuanced picture given by the whole sphere of erudite activity, with its search for documentation concerning literature and language and its interpretation.
In reality I think that, if we put together all the elements that imply deep and concrete connections between Aristotle/Peripatus and the work of the scholars of the Hellenistic period, we are led, rather, to emphasize and realize ever more fully that it was that environment and that line of development which provided the key impulses and inspirations. This is what has been stressed and confirmed by sound arguments in many studies since Pfeiffer, and today I believe it can be regarded as established and as a significant change in perspective, or perhaps better a change of emphasis. Through his reflections, activity, and teaching Aristotle brought about a cultural shift and gave to the Peripatus a direction that is clearly evident among his pupils, despite the near-total loss of their writings, of which unfortunately only rather meager fragments survive.
In substance, thanks to a renewed and reliable historical outlook, the historical and intellectual problem of whether we should hold that in our civilization the phase of Alexandrian philology was or was not a decisive intellectual turning point (based on a question of method and ideas established once and for all) and whether or not it constituted the birth of a way of studying literary texts that lies at the origin of the discipline that we today call (classical) philology, finds an incontrovertibly positive reply. On this dimension a debate has developed and has become especially lively in recent times. Some scholars have wanted to deny to the Alexandrian philologists any kind of activity involving collating copies and selecting variants, and have maintained that their readings were only conjectures, thus substantially downgrading their historical and cultural significance in the discipline of philology. This is the central aspect in the evaluation of Alexandrian scholarship from the point of view of cultural history. It would perhaps be all too easy to begin by pointing out that conjecture is one of the fundamental instruments of the practice of philology, which would highlight an insoluble contradiction in that point of view, and be sufficient to discredit it. But, anyway, there are some clear and indisputable testimonia to the fact that collation was done from copies and choices were made among variant readings. To the objection that this was an occasional phenomenon and not an established practice, we may respond that this is a problem of principles and methods, not of the quantity of data (the number of copies collated and the number of variants discussed), or of the quality of the results (whether correct or mistaken from our point of view). We should not be trying to establish a minimum number of copies to be compared to each other or of variants to be considered, nor to determine how many ‘correct’ readings or ‘good’ interpretations would be necessary in order to speak of philology. Rather, in a historical approach, all that is necessary for there to be a crucial step forward – a “turning point,” we said – in terms of an intellectual advance, is the very fact that the problem is addressed and understood, even if in a partial, desultory, or incoherent manner: a literary text had had a multifaceted history of transmission, during which it could have been distorted; it was possible to restore the correct text (that is, which was an authentic line of verse and which a spurious one, and what was the original wording) by conjecture or by choosing the best reading among those offered by a discordant tradition. Without any doubt the work of the Alexandrian philologists encompassed both variants drawn from the comparison of copies and also conjectures ope ingenii, that is, exactly the instrumentarium of modern philology, despite all the defects that may be found.
A further consideration has decisive force: it concerns the invention of the critical sign termed obelos by Zenodotus. He performed two different operations, which mark an important intellectual point: on the one hand the material deletion of lines regarded as certainly not authentic, and on the other hand the indication that a line could be suspected of being spurious, but without sufficient certainty to eliminate it physically and permanently from the text: such a line therefore remained in the text, with a mark of doubt that drew attention to the textual problem and left to the readers the possibility of forming their own opinion. It was the codification of philological doubt, which we indicate in our critical editions with the marks of expunction that signal the words that are regarded as uncertain and debatable, but which remain in the text, available to its reader. The idea of recognizing damage, and that a way and instruments need to be found to repair it, reveals that the organic unity between interpretation and textual criticism had been achieved. This point of view, far from being an anachronism, is the historical assessment that a crucial step was made in the period between Zenodotus and Aristarchus. Just as Pfeiffer argued, this is precisely a discrimination between the transient and the perennial.6 The wider chronological perspective encompassed by this volume has reinforced the ideas summarized above, and it has confirmed in a definitive way the significance and historical and cultural value of a History of Ancient Greek Scholarship with a vision from the Beginnings to the End of the Byzantine Age.»