Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.09.42

Georgios A. Xenis (ed.), Iohannes Alexandrinus: Praecepta Tonica. Bibliotheca scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana, 2015.   Berlin; Munich; Boston:  de Gruyter, 2015.  Pp. xlix, 219.  ISBN 9783110251562.  €79.95.  

Reviewed by Philomen Probert, Wolfson College, Oxford (


John Philoponus was a Neoplatonist philosopher and theologian of the sixth century AD (c. 490-570), ultimately branded a heretic. ‘His chief claim to fame,’ to quote a distinguished expert, ‘is his massive attack on the Aristotelian science of his day . . . and his provision of alternative theories which helped to fuel the Renaissance break away from Aristotle’ (Sorabji 2010a: p. ix). In addition to an extraordinary output on philosophy (including what we would call science and theology), he is credited with two surviving grammatical treatises on accents: a work on pairs of words distinguished only by their accents (essentially a handy list of pairs such as βίος, ‘life’ / βιός, ‘bow’), and the Τονικὰ Παραγγέλματα or Praecepta Tonica, ‘Precepts on Accents’.1

Medieval and later sources style him variously Ἰωάννης Φιλόπονος (‘John the hard working’) or simply Φιλόπονος,2 Ἰωάννης γραμματικός (‘John the grammarian’), Ἰωάννης γραμματικὸς Φιλόπονος, Ἰωάννης Ἀλεξανδρεύς (‘John of Alexandria’), and occasionally Ἰωάννης σχολαστικός (‘John the scholar’) or Ἰωάννης Τριθείστης (‘John the tritheist’). His hostile contemporary Simplicius tells us that John styled himself γραμματικός, and uses this term to denigrate John: to his enemies John was a mere teacher of grammar, not a real philosopher.3

Modern scholars have done their best to counter this view of Philoponus (as he is often known today), by devoting abundant effort to his philosophical works and largely neglecting his grammatical works. For example, nine volumes in the series Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca (Berlin 1882-1909) provide editions of his commentaries on Aristotle, and thirty-one volumes in the series Ancient Commentators on Aristotle provide translations and commentaries for these works ( By contrast, until 1983 both works on accents were available only in inadequate editions based on single manuscripts (Dindorf 1825; Egenolff 1880). Explicitly stated views on Philoponus’ grammatical works include, for example, Sorabji’s comment that “given their unimportance compared with his philosophical and theological work, it remains a matter of conjecture why the name ‘Grammarian’ was preferred” (2010b: 45).

Philoponus’ grammatical works are important, however, not only as witnesses to grammatical doctrines derived from earlier works now lost, but as witnesses to his own life and times: quite possibly they show us our philosopher at his day job.4 A new edition of the work on the accent of homonyms appeared in 1983 (Daly 1983). The Praecepta Tonica has had to wait until 2015, but in Xenis’ work we now have a very welcome new edition.

The Praecepta Tonica is considered one of the two main witnesses to the most influential but now lost ancient work on Greek accents, Herodian’s Περὶ Καθολικῆς Προσῳδίας (‘On Prosody in General’); the other is an epitome whose author tends to be designated Pseudo-Arcadius.5 The two works are rather different from one another in content and structure; Philoponus makes it clear that his is no mechanical cutting down of Herodian’s work but the result of thoughtful selection and arrangement. He begins by explaining that in order to write accents correctly we need knowledge of practically every other branch of grammar: vowel quantities, patterns of inflection, characteristics of dialects, and so on (§§1-9).6 Nevertheless, he will take this broader knowledge as given and concentrate on accents themselves, in response to requests for the main points that will enable one to write correct accents (§10). Furthermore, he will largely presuppose knowledge of which syllable to accent in what we would call the dictionary form of a word (§§10, 24):7 many people know from simple usage (ἐκ ψιλῆς συνηθείας) which syllable to accent, but they need some accent rules in order to choose between an acute accent and a circumflex (§24)—a distinction that had long since ceased to be audible. Some straightforward rules enable us to decide between acutes and circumflexes on non-final syllables (§§11-18), but on final syllables things are more difficult (§24). For this reason he devotes some space to laying out which nominative singular forms have a circumflex on the final syllable (§§25-40). He suggests several times that he has selected the more useful or more necessary material from Herodian’s very long work (§§10, 24, 131; cf. §§8, 94). He thus envisages an audience wanting to write accents, and thinks about what kinds of information will be most useful to this audience. Accents were not written for everyday purposes in Philoponus’ day, but accentuation exercises were sometimes given to pupils at a fairly advanced stage of education:8 we should probably envisage such pupils as his intended audience.

In preparing his new edition Xenis has examined all five known manuscripts, one in photographs (‘C’) and four in the original. Two manuscripts (‘A’ and ‘V’) contain the whole or almost the whole text, while the others (‘C’, ‘T’, and ‘M’) contain extracts only; Xenis is the first to have noticed the extract in M. His preface gives a clear account of all five manuscripts, and shows that A and V are the only two non-derivative manuscripts. His edition is therefore based on those two manuscripts.

The edition is far superior to Dindorf’s. Dindorf had based his edition on manuscript A only, and had not inspected A himself but had relied on a copy made by O. D. Bloch, with a considerable number of errors due to Bloch (see Xenis’ preface, pp. xix-xx). Dindorf also allowed many manifestly corrupt passages to stand in his text, often relegating a conjecture to his apparatus or simply leaving a problem unaddressed. Xenis has verified the readings of both A and V himself, and has really addressed the many problems of the text. He has availed himself of important work done on the text since Dindorf: in particular the attempt in Lentz 1867 to reconstruct Herodian’s Περὶ Καθολικῆς Προσῳδίας (a notoriously problematic work, but a source of good conjectures all the same) and a series of works by Egenolff, who had preceded Xenis in inspecting both the important manuscripts (for details see Xenis’ preface, p. xxi). Xenis derives several good conjectures from (inter alia) Michael Syncellus’ Περὶ τῆς τοῦ λόγου συντάξεως, whose importance for the text is his discovery (see p. xviii), and his independent conjectures too display a fine sense for the text.

Helpful features of the book include a rich (even if necessarily still selective) apparatus of parallel passages and a detailed overview of the structure of the work (pp. xxii-xxxvii). Xenis further helps the reader by presenting the whole text as a series of numbered paragraphs, each conveying a new rule or new point. There are four useful indexes (words treated by Philoponus; ancient grammatical terms; references to dialects; ancient authors cited by Philoponus) and two appendixes (suggested emendations to other grammatical works; additions and corrections to LSJ).

A distinctly unhelpful feature is the complete absence of Dindorf’s page- and line-numbers: no indication of these is given either in the text or in any concordance. Until now the standard way of referring to Philoponus’ work has been by page and line of Dindorf, and therefore anybody wanting to follow up references in (for example) such standard works as Erbse (1969-1988) or van der Valk (1971-1987) will still need Dindorf (1825) to hand. Fortunately Dindorf is now widely available in electronic form, thanks to Google Books. Even so, it is then a fiddly task to find the correct place in Xenis’ edition. It would be very good to see this defect remedied in any future edition or reprint.

Inevitably for a work with many textual problems, readers will find places to argue with a textual decision.9 But Xenis has given us an excellent edition of a work that deserves to be much better known.


Cribiore, R. 2001. Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. Princeton.
Daly, L. W. 1983. Iohannis Philoponi de vocabulis quae diversum significatum exhibent secundum differentiam accentus / On the accent of homonyms. Philadelphia.
Dickey, E. 2007. Ancient Greek Scholarship. New York.
Dindorf, W. 1825. Ἰωάννου Ἀλεξανδρέως Τονικὰ Παραγγέλματα - Αἰλίου Ἡρωδιανοῦ Περὶ Σχημάτων. Leipzig.
Egenolff, P. 1880. Ioannis Philoponi collectio vocum, quae pro diversa significatione accentum diversum accipiunt. Breslau.
Erbse, H. 1969-88. Scholia Graeca in Homeri Iliadem (Scholia Vetera). Berlin.
Kaster, R. A. 1988. Guardians of Language: the Grammarian and Society in Late Antiquity. Berkeley.
Lentz, A. 1867. Herodiani technici reliquiae, vol. 1. Leipzig.
Robichaud, D. J.-J. 2010. ‘Angelo Poliziano’s Lamia: Neoplatonic commentaries and the Plotinian dichotomy between the philologist and the philosopher’ in C. S. Celenza (ed.), Angelo Poliziano’s Lamia: Text, Translation, and Introductory Studies (Leiden), 131-89.
Schmidt, M. 1860. Ἐπιτομὴ τῆς Καθολικῆς Προσῳδίας Ἡρωδιανοῦ. Jena.
Sorabji, R. 2010a. ‘Preface to the first edition’ in R. Sorabji (ed.), Philoponus and the rejection of Aristotelian science, 2nd edn. (London), pp. ix-xi.
Sorabji, R. 2010b. ‘John Philoponus’ in R. Sorabji (ed.), Philoponus and the rejection of Aristotelian science, 2nd edn. (London), 41-81.
van der Valk, M. 1971-87. Eustathii archiepiscopi Thessalonicensis commentarii ad Homeri Iliadem pertinentes. Leiden.


1.   For other grammatical works ascribed to Philoponus see Kaster (1988: 338); Dickey (2007: 81-2).
2.   The term may or may not imply an association with the group of lay Christians called philoponoi: see Sorabji (2010b: 45).
3.   For Philoponus’ titles and epithets, and Simplicius’ hostility, see Kaster (1988: 334-8). On the latter see also e.g. Robichaud (2010: 175-6).
4.   On the question of whether Philoponus actually worked as a teacher of grammar, see Kaster (1988: 337-8). Kaster inclines to think that this was indeed his profession, although possibly not for his entire career.
5.   For the time being the current edition is Schmidt (1860); a new edition is forthcoming from Stephanie Roussou.
6.   Paragraph numbers are Xenis’ (see below).
7.   Xenis obelizes the clause in §10 that I paraphrase with ‘largely’, on the grounds that it is inconsistent with Philoponus’ statement that he will presuppose knowledge of each word’s accented syllable. However, for some dictionary forms the treatise does include information on which syllable to accent: it would not be out of place for Philoponus to acknowledge that fact here.
8.   See Cribiore (2001: 141, 191), and for a sixth-century example especially her p. 141, n. 52.
9.   For example, in §2 Xenis prints, καὶ προσέτι <πῶς> τὸ μὲν ἵζω βραχὺ τὸ ι- ἔχει, τὸ δὲ ἷζον μακρόν, ὅθεν καὶ προπερισπᾶται κατὰ τὸ κοινὸν ἔθος; (‘And again, <how> does ἵζω have its iota short, but ἷζον long, whence it is also properispomenon in the Koiné?’) Xenis notes that he has added <πῶς> on the basis of §3, but πῶς there introduces facts about accents, not facts about other features with implications for accents. Xenis also quotes Dindorf’s note ‘Post προσέτι apertum est quaedam excidisse, quorum extrema haec verba fuisse videntur, ἀγνοῶν ὡς —’ (Dindorf 1825: iv), but does not mention the supplement printed by Lentz (1867: 6, lines 9-11), καὶ προσέτι <πόθεν τὸ μὲν προστακτικὸν ἵζε παροξυνεῖ, τὸ δὲ παρῳχημένον ἷζε προπερισπάσει, ἀγνοῶν ὡς> τὸ μὲν ἵζω βραχὺ τὸ ἔχει, τὸ δὲ ἷζον μακρόν, ὅθεν καὶ προπερισπᾶται κατὰ τὸ κοινὸν ἔθος (‘And again, <on what basis will he make the imperative ἵζε paroxytone and the imperfect ἷζε properispomenon, if he does not know that> ἵζω has a short iota and ἷζον a long one—whence the latter is also properispomenon in the Koiné?’). While Lentz’ supplement must be taken exempli gratia, it illustrates and expands on Dindorf’s idea and gives the kind of sense that the context leads us to expect. It would seem to deserve a place at least in the apparatus. Incidentally, I wondered whether the text might not, alternatively, stand as transmitted, with an abbreviated version of the thought: ‘And again (he needs to know that) ἵζω has a short iota and ἷζον a long one—whence the latter is properispomenon in the Koiné.’

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