BMCR 1994.09.18

1994.09.18, Schlunk, Porphyry: The Homeric Questions

, Lang Classical Studies 2. New York: Peter Lang, . Pp. 100. $35.95.

Porphyry’s Homeric Questions are very little known or read, and yet they are the last surviving example of one of the most common intellectual exercises of the ancient world, the zetemata known from both the grammarian’s school and the symposia of the educated. Philosophical, legal, and theological examples of such books survive, but only Porphyry preserves the philological genre of these Questions, destined from the time of the sophists to have a long life in east and west, and finally to metamorphose into the Quaestiones of the early universities. My impression is that the second sophistic saw an increased emphasis on the genre.

The scholia to many ancient authors as well as the tabletalk of sophists preserve the remnants of this once widespread intellectual game, condemned even in antiquity and often denigrated since. Nowadays—if one can judge by the antics of homo ludens at the MLA—we ought to have more understanding for literature as a source of cultural play, and can more readily appreciate both the attraction such investigations held for professional educators and for cultivated society. But there is at present no book that gives any real idea of what this question-and-solution exegesis meant to the paedagogy and culture of the ancient world. More has been achieved by patristic scholars than by classicists, e.g. Christoph Schaeublin, Untersuchungen zur Methode und Herkunft der antiochenischen Exegese (Köln-Bonn 1974).

Porphyry’s adventurous and sometimes perverse excursions into Homer have been particularly badly served. The edition used here is that of L. Sodano, Porphyrii Quaestionum Homericarum liber I (Naples 1970), who after writing a number of articles in obscure journals, edited the sole Vatican manuscript, providing in a second column the parallel and often inaccurate tradition which is inserted into more or less appropriate points in the bT scholia of Homer’s Iliad and also into the Odyssey scholia. Here the only numbering in common with Sodano is chapter number, and since Sodano’s chapters cover several pages and are not noted at the top of his pages, looking up the passage in Sodano is a labour. I have some doubts about Sodano’s stemma, but the text is sensible enough as a basis for a translation. A number of passages were bracketed by Sodano as interpolations, and these are duly bracketed, and translated; the reasons for their athetization are however not always given or discoverable. More annoying is that Sodano never gave us any edition of the Porphyrean scholia that are not preserved in the Vatican manuscript but only in the Homeric scholia. As a result we have only the incomplete first book as preserved in the Vatican manuscript and not the very considerable scholia fragments that came from a more complete text. For these we can hunt in the antiquated and muddled edition of Schrader from 1880-90, which includes much that is learned but also much that is not Porphyry. Erbse of course omitted the Porphyry fragments, though one must regret that decision.

Schlunk now provides a text and translation in a book of modest size though perhaps, even considering the Greek font, not price. He has therefore rendered a considerable service to the many students who would not be able to read the original, even if they could find it. Yet the Greek words in the translation are oddly not transliterated, which makes for unnecessary difficulty for those unable to read them, especially since the discussion often revolves about their etymology; but partly because of this a classical scholar has to revert to the Greek text in order to understand the translation at many points. The translation will be especially valuable for medievalists, biblical scholars, and those wishing to have some inkling of the complexity of ancient philological exegesis, and even the professional classicist in a hurry will find the accompanying text useful. But they should also note that Porphyry is quoting often from memory and inaccurately, and Sodano did well to leave the text, and not “correct” it to suit our manuscripts.

For those interested more seriously in ancient scholarship there is little here, as the idiosyncratic and inaccurate bibliography on p.95 reveals. The text has no apparatus and is inaccurately printed. The translation is careless, and sometimes incomprehensible. Porphyry’s text, especially when discussing Greek philology, can not really be understood without considerable footnoting, which is minimal, not even at the level of the OCD, and even then inaccurate, e.g. Philemon (p.31) is 200 A.D. not B.C., and indeed Sodano ad loc. refers to the appropriate RE article; in any case Philemon is writing against Alexander of Kotyaion (Kotyaia in the index!). Of this scholar (p.23) we are told correctly that he taught Marcus Aurelius, but also that his only known work was on Homer, and that this quotation by Porphyry is the only fragment: both statements are untrue of the revered friend of Aristides, whose most forgettable work was entitled: Twenty Four Books on All Sorts of Stuff, whose zetema -nature we can guess from the similar language of Aristotle fr.712 Gigon. On p.29 the ‘schema Alcmanicum” (cf. Alcmaeon in the index) is incorrectly defined. The important polemic about Herodotus’ Branchidae on p.31, most revealing for ancient methodology, esp. its wrong-headed assumption of a scriba stultus, is completely incomprehensible on both sides of the page: the reader needs help. In the introduction we are referred to Sodano’s apparatus generally for discussion, but Sodano does not help here, and for Homer Sodano could not know Erbse’s scholia edition and seldom provides exegetical help anyway; yet, to be sure, S.’s notations of the Homer quotations can now usually give immediate access to a wealth of ancient discussion there, at least for the Iliad.

Those however who do have the chalcentery to pursue these “questions”, will have their reward in a truly fascinating glimpse of classical scholarship from Aristotle to Neo-platonic times, for practically all our fragments of Aristotle’s Homeric philology come from this work,—(To be sure, S.’s index s.v. Aristotle gives only two references, one false, but cf. frr. 366-404 Gigon.)—and there is a coherence of argument so often missing from the disiecta membra of scholia. It is sobering to think that veritable mountains of such scholarly works lie behind the wretched fragments of Homeric learning that now survive.

I give here, exempli gratia, my comments on the first eighteen lines of the translation, quoting the printed text first:

1. “read into him rather than reflect on what he is saying” is poor grammar: translate “overinterpret rather than grasp his meaning.”

2. “such as the exercise preparatory to the competitions in his honour”: read rather: “—this (i.e. this book) being a sort of progymnasma for the competitions to do with him (sc. Homer).” Porphyry is thinking about his present book versus the major treatments that he is postponing till later; cf. the cliché agonisma for a literary work at Polybius 3.31.12; Thuc. 1.22.4. S. gives a strange footnote about “rhetorical and philological contests preceding the gymnastic contests.”

3. “much of what concerns his expression is not only misunderstood, but goes unnoticed by many because they are intent on pursuing what seems to them the overall clarity of the poems” suggests some early concept of organic unity, and should rather be: “Many details of interpretation are ignored, and escape most people’s notice because they have their minds on the overall lucidity that seems to pervade the poems”; i.e., they are misled by the apparent simplicity of the Homeric narrative.

4. “the verses which stand before us under indictment.” should be “the verses under examination”, with the usual meaning of proballo in zetemata.

5. In the last Greek sentence on the page gnous has become nous and so nonsense. The odd English: “(He) will be of benefit for having set us straight when we have gone astray.” should rather be “He will benefit us, by correcting us in our error.”

There is much to be done with Porphyry’s text, especially now that Erbse’s scholia with their valuable notes and indices are available. Perhaps some classical scholar may be inspired by S.’s book to provide us with the history, exegesis, and background that would make this remote document come alive as a central testimony to classical culture. The thousand year life of these zetemata / aporiai / problemata / epitimemata gave a solid backbone to the literary culture of antiquity, a feat which we in our times have notably failed to match, or perhaps even to understand, largely because, unlike Porphyry, we could and would not make the connection between literary scholarship and tabletalk.