Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.04.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.04.35

Francesca Schironi, The Best of the Grammarians: Aristarchus of Samothrace on the Iliad.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2018.  Pp. xxvi, 908.  ISBN 9780472130764.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Eleanor Dickey, University of Reading (


The very name of Aristarchus is enough to strike fear into the hearts of modern scholars. One knows that he did things of great importance in the history of Homeric scholarship, but exactly what did he do, and how do we know, since his work is lost? Answers have certainly been given to these questions, but those answers are so difficult to understand, are based on such an intimidating body of evidence, and are debated with such fire and vigour that most of us have little confidence even in our ability to grasp what has been argued, let alone to evaluate the different arguments and their evidence base to decide which is right. Schironi’s work will change that situation completely, for in this book she lays out with total clarity what she believes Aristarchus’ scholarly methods were, what the evidence for and against her views is, and how other scholars have interpreted the same evidence. This clarity constitutes an act of unusual courage and will revolutionise the study not only of Aristarchus but also of Alexandrian scholarship more generally: since there is now an authority that everyone can actually understand well enough to follow, from now on anyone who wants to propose alternative explanations will have to present them with equal clarity or face being ignored.

Aristarchus, who lived from 216-144 BC, was the greatest of the fabled group of scholars at the Library of Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt; indeed he was arguably one of the most influential Classical scholars of all time. He worked on a wide range of texts, producing editions and commentaries that were crucial in guiding the future direction of scholarship; all that work is now lost in its original form, but much survives indirectly in the form of scholia (i.e. notes in the margins of manuscripts). The scholia in the tenth-century Iliad manuscript Venetus A are particularly rich in material drawn (ultimately, not directly) from Aristarchus, making his work on the Iliad more accessible to us than his work on other texts. Schironi’s arguments are therefore based on a corpus of more than 4000 Iliad scholia, comprising all the ones attributed by Erbse1 to Aristonicus (a scholar of the Augustan period who wrote a treatise on the reasons why Aristarchus marked particular lines with critical signs) and all others that explicitly mention Aristarchus’ name. The privileging of Aristonicus seems surprising at first glance but is convincingly argued on the grounds that Aristonicus focussed exclusively on recording what Aristarchus said in his commentary, while Didymus and the other writers quoted in the scholia used other sources besides Aristarchus and/or sometimes did their own thinking. The corpus of scholia is not given as such in this book, but individual scholia are constantly quoted, translated, and referenced, so that ample evidence is provided for each of Schironi’s claims; material from outside the corpus is also used where relevant.

Schironi’s focus is on Aristarchus’ methodology: how did he decide which readings to accept or reject, which lines to athetize (mark for deletion), and which features to praise or condemn? Her conclusion is that he started from three assumptions: that Homer was a flawless poet, that he was internally self-consistent, and that he was the sole author of both the Iliad and the Odyssey (pp. 736-7). Aristarchus also had four methodological rules: to read the text attentively, to make use of contextual information, to have a full knowledge of the Homeric poems, and to consider the Homeric poems as a self-sufficient microcosm (pp. 738-41). Schironi argues that everything Aristarchus said about Homer followed with relentless consistency from those assumptions and rules.

Of course, neither these assumptions nor these rules are explicitly stated as such in Aristarchus’ surviving writings; they emerge from Schironi’s meticulous examination of his editorial and critical choices and arguments, as preserved in the scholia to specific passages. The core of that examination, chapter 3, is organized around the canonical six parts of grammar, as laid out by Dionysius Thrax: reading aloud, interpretation of poetic tropes and figures, explanation of glossai (difficult words) and historiai (characters, customs, and places of the heroic world), discovery of etymology, calculation of analogy, and the judgement of poems. (The six parts of grammar do not ultimately have much relevance to the argument, but they form a good framework in which to organize the vast amount of material that needs to be presented.) This chapter 3, which at 454 pages makes up half the book, convincingly proves Schironi’s main points and gives the reader much other useful and interesting information along the way. For example, we learn exactly what ‘reading aloud’ entailed in antiquity (determining the right vowel quantities, accents, and breathings as well as deciding where each word ended and the next began), that Aristarchus drew his standards for judging poetry from Aristotle, and that in the case of the Iliad ‘judgement of poems’ mainly meant deciding which lines were genuine and which not: the pre-eminence of Homer’s poetry was so well established that there was no need to argue for it. We also get some impressive diagrams, such as one laying out Aristarchus’ use of two-, four-, and six-part analogies (pp. 394-5), one showing the locations of different contingents in the Greek camp at Troy according to Aristarchus (p. 312), and one showing Aristarchus’ explanation of Homer’s organisation of the cosmos (p. 324).

Two chapters precede this core. Chapter 1 provides the necessary background on Aristarchus and his context as well as an excellent explanation of our evidence for Aristarchus and his work. Chapter 2 gives more depth on certain key points: the critical signs employed by Aristarchus and other Alexandrians (which, Schironi argues, are the same as those visible today in the Venetus A manuscript), the manuscript evidence for Aristarchus’ work, and the role of paraphrase in ancient interpretation in general and Aristarchus’ work in particular. Highlights of this chapter include a full list of Aristarchus’ critical signs with their shapes and meanings (pp. 50-1), a picture of what an ancient edition and commentary on Iliad 2.109-124 would have looked like (p. 55), and the information that Aristarchus’ famous injunction to ‘clarify Homer from Homer’ (Ὅμηρον ἐξ Ὁμήρου σαφηνίζειν) is actually not found in the fragments of Aristarchus at all, but in Porphyry (p. 75).

There are also a final three chapters, which collect and synthesize information on certain over-arching questions. Chapter 4 concerns Aristarchus’ agreements and disagreements with other scholars; despite external evidence suggesting that Aristarchus’ main opponent was Crates of Mallos, there is little in the scholia to indicate that Aristarchus was even aware of Crates’ views. The scholar with whom Aristarchus most often disagreed was Zenodotus, whom he mentions far more frequently than anyone else. But of course in a larger sense Aristarchus’ views were more fundamentally opposed to those of Crates, who interpreted the Homeric poems allegorically, than to those of Zenodotus, who basically shared Aristarchus’ goal of restoring Homer’s original text.

Chapter 5, in many ways the most interesting part of this interesting book, summarizes Aristarchus’ views on particular points. The first of these is Homer’s language; here we learn that Aristarchus thought Homer must have been an Athenian because he used the dual number (p. 607). Of course, Homer’s variety of Attic was not the same as that used by the Classical Athenian writers, because Homer was earlier: he ‘spoke ‘ancient Attic’, which was very similar, if not identical, to Ionic’ (p. 622). There is also a section on the Homeric Question: some ancient scholars believed that the Iliad and Odyssey had been composed by different people, but Aristarchus was convinced that the two poems had the same author. (The modern idea of orally-composed poems not written down at all by their ‘authors’ did not occur to ancient scholars.) In a fourth section we find that Aristarchus considered Homer to have presented the original version of any myths he mentioned; when post-Homeric poets used myths in versions different from those found in Homer, this was due to their mistakes in not paying close enough attention to what Homer said. Aristarchus applied this principle even to Hesiod, apparently never allowing for the possibility (now commonly accepted) that both Homer and later poets might have drawn on the same stock of orally-transmitted mythological material, each shaping and adapting that material to fit their own goals. A final section discusses Aristarchus’ views of individual Homeric characters; like many ancient and medieval writers he had a more positive view of Agamemnon than do Homer’s modern readers.

As these examples show, Schironi is refreshingly open about the respects in which Aristarchus’ methodology and results were different from our own. Far from trying to find in Aristarchus a straightforward mirror of modern critical activity, she does not shy away from pointing out the wide gulf between his way of looking at myths and poetic tradition and our way (p. 706), nor from saying that by athetizing lines in which Homer apparently departed from Aristarchus’ standards for poetry, ‘Aristarchus was correcting the text in order to make it as his own Homer would have written it.’ (p. 495) Nevertheless, she argues persuasively that his approach represented a huge milestone in the development of scholarship (p. 496). The sixth chapter, ‘Conclusions’, not only offers an excellent summary of Aristarchus’ method as reconstructed by Schironi, but also a section entitled ‘Some problems in Aristarchus’ method’ (pp. 756-8)—as well as one entitled ‘Aristarchus’ legacy’ in which it is argued that despite his flaws, Aristarchus laid the foundations of the discipline of scholarship by ‘adding rational principles and following them consistently’ (p. 759).

The work concludes with a glossary of technical terms (short, owing to Schironi’s restrained use of such terms, but nevertheless very useful in pinning down the precise meanings of words that are often used unclearly in both ancient and modern scholarship), a bibliography, and five very detailed indices totalling over 100 pages.

The book is very well written, lucid and at the same time elegant, with remarkably little jargon considering the subject matter. Nevertheless, some readers may have difficulty with ‘Neoteroi’, which refers to all poets later than Homer, including Hesiod and the fifth-century tragedians (e.g. p. 228); this is Aristarchus’ usage of the term, and Schironi repeatedly reminds readers of its meaning in his work, but the unwary may still have a tendency to confuse it with the modern expression ‘Neoteric poets’. Individual chapters and sections within chapters have their own conclusions sections, making it easy to understand where the argument is going, and between the table of contents, the frequent cross-references, and the indices the book is very easy to navigate. It does not really feel to the reader as long as it actually is.

The book is well proofread, with very few errors, and is in many ways well produced. Nevertheless it is unfortunate that the running headers include only the titles of chapters, not their numbers, while all cross-references are by chapter numbers: in order to follow up the cross-references readers need to refer to the table of contents, which (fortunately) is extremely detailed and helpful.

In short, this magnificent work has set a new standard against which all studies of Alexandrian scholarship will now be measured.


1.   Hartmut Erbse, Scholia graeca in Homeri Iliadem (Berlin 1969-88).

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