Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.28 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.28

Paola Volpe Cacciatore (ed.), Seminario di studi su Richard Porson. Università degli studi di Salerno, 5-6 dicembre 2008. Collectanea, 28.   Napoli:  M. D'Auria editore, 2011.  Pp. 189.  ISBN 9788870923223.  €60.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Geert Lernout, University of Antwerp (

Table of Contents

In most histories of the discipline Richard Porson (1759-1808) is considered to be one of the major British classical scholars, whose work bridges the gap in classical textual studies between Richard Bentley and the Kantian new philology of Gottfried Hermann of Leipzig. In England too, Porson was a bridge between generations: James Henry Monk, Bentley’s biographer, was Porson’s successor as Regius Greek professor in Cambridge and he published part of the latter’s miscellaneous notes.

Porson, who evidently wanted to be remembered in the first place as an editor of Euripides (“I am quite satisfied, if, three hundred years hence, it shall be said that one Porson lived towards the close of the eighteenth century, who did a good deal for the text of Euripides”), might be gratified to learn that some of his contributions to textual studies survive into the twenty-first century.

The present book demonstrates that Porson’s stature has been recognized in Italy too. In the wake of the “national edition” of the tragedies of Aeschylus (sponsored by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in Rome), the University of Salerno organized a conference in recognition of the importance of Porson’s 1806 edition of the Greek tragedian’s work. This interest in Porson is part of a larger European project about the history of classical scholarship in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in which Porson and Hermann play a significant role.

Paola Volpe Cacciatore has edited a volume with a number of revised papers from the conference on Porson’s work, mostly by Italian scholars, a fitting tribute from abroad to an editor whose work was, as Cacciatore writes in her brief “premessa”, “il fondamentale trait d’union tra il proprio Maestro, Richard Bentley, e il grande filologo di Lipsia” (7). Guido Avezzù opens the volume with a general assessment of the man and his work that can function as a general introduction.

In the first essay, Alexander F. Garvie reconsiders Porson’s Law, which he here defines as “that there cannot be word-division between the two longs of a spondee in the so-called fifth foot of iambic trimeter, or at the end of a trochaic tetrameter” (21). Garvie looks in particular at instances in a number of Greek plays where the law is broken, concluding that we should grant the great Aeschylus the right to break the famous law at least once.

Enrico Medda then looks at Porson’s work on Aeschylus. He is not the first and not the last contributor in the volume to discuss the English classicist’s famous quarrel with Gottfried Hermann, which Medda has discussed elsewhere in greater detail.1 Here he goes through the discussion , showing e.g. the different kinds of interventions in the text of Agamemnon or the exact timing of some of the emendations in Hecuba, the obscure wording of one of which then led Hermann to the first formulation of what would only later become known as Porson’s Law. He concludes that Porson played a decisive role in the edition of the plays of Aeschylus, with to his credit a number of lasting conjectures on textual details.

Liana Lomiento looks more particularly at Porson’s work on The Suppliants and Eumenides in order to describe Porson’s “scientific method” in more detail, but without much explicit commentary, with the exception of the case of what she herself describes as the “famous” Supplementum to his edition of Hecuba. Lomiento studies and compares in detail the different versions and sources that were available to Porson, in order to arrive at a typology of his various conjectures.

The exact context of the publication history of Porson’s work on the text of of Aeschylus is studied with care and in great deal by Marina Caputo, who defended her doctoral dissertation on this topic in 2009 and who was able to work on the library of Porson’s books now at the Wren Library in Trinity College, Cambridge, which has in the meantime been described in more detail by P.G. Naiditch in BMCR 2012.02.52. In addition, she makes use of the correspondence in order to describe exactly how these different versions came into being. This is an excellent contribution to book history.

Luigi Battezzato then looks at Porson’s work on Hecuba, because this is the place where Gottfried Hermann first enters the scene. According to Brink the young German philologist brought out his own edition of the play in 1800 with many “severe criticisms of Porson, many of them ill-judged” (quoted on p. 93). Battezzato compares the text of Porson with that of Hermann, but he also looks at a number of other nineteenth-century editions of the plays. The comparison allows him to put the exact differences in opinion between the Cambridge and the Leipzig scholar in their proper perspective, He is thus able to point out that the differences are much more nuanced than was hitherto assumed and to conclude that Porson’s edition of the play in 1797 represents an important stage in the study of Greek drama.

In the first of a series of in-depth studies of Porson’s conjectural work, Matteo Taufer looks at Prometheus Vinctus. Giovanni Pace studies his work on Rhesus, finding that on three different occasions Porson was able to conjecture forms that were later confirmed in the manuscript record. Olimpia Imperio studies posthumously published notes on Aristophanes. Finally, Renzo Tosi looks at Porson’s lexicographical notes on Photius. Porson was not interested in the work as an example of Byzantine encyclopedism, but solely as a “vehicle of indirect transmission” (183) and in this context he was especially interested in the Greek author’s Lexicon. Tosi is thus able to place Porson’s work in the context of the development of lexicography in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century

Scholarship on scholarship is an exacting historical discipline, and the contributors to this volume write themselves into a complex and demanding tradition. The amount of detail, the ample documentation and the great care in the coverage of these different aspects of Porson’s career are timely and useful. With just a few minor mistakes, the editing of Greek, French, Latin and German quotations is adequate: especially in the latter case this is only appropriate in the case of scholar who seems to survive on the internet mostly with his comment “Life is too short to learn German.”


1.   See Enrico Medda, “Quid sit illud, quod regulam dicimus: Hermann e la critica inglese.” In Kurt Sier/Eva Wöckener- Gade, eds. Gottfried Hermann (1772-1848): Internationales Symposium in Leipzig, 11.-13. Oktober 2007). Tübingen: Narr Verlag, 2010. 221-53.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010