BMCR 2003.04.25

Interpreting a Classic: Demosthenes and His Ancient Commentators

, Interpreting a classic : Demosthenes and his ancient commentators. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 1 online resource (xii, 261 pages).. ISBN 9780520927308 $55.00.

In this readable book, Craig Gibson investigates the scholarly industry on the speeches of Demosthenes from the first century B.C. to the fifth century A.D. The resulting study produces an introduction to ancient commentators, their methods, audiences, and surviving texts (Part 1, pp. 1-69). This part of the book, though concerned with ancient commentaries on Demosthenes, especially Didymos, should be read by all those interested in ancient scholarship. The second half of the book, Part 2 (pp. 72-199), presents the relevant ancient texts, translations, and commentary and should be consulted by everyone working on the Demosthenes tradition, but it will also be of great value to all readers as a collection of detailed case studies on fragmentary ancient commentaries. Of most importance for Didymos scholarship is Gibson’s thesis (p. ix) that P. Berol. 9780 preserves not the full text but a collection of excerpts from Didymos’ original commentary on Demosthenes’ Philippics, a sound hypothesis that Gibson persuasively presents with clarity.

In his introduction (pp. 1-9) Gibson sets the groundwork for his study of the “philological and historical commentators” on Demosthenes (p. 3). He excludes rhetorical and biographical texts because their interests and uses of Demosthenes’ speeches are quite different. In response to earlier scholarship on these philological and historical commentators Gibson allows that there is value in the traditional focus of modern scholars on the competence and accuracy of the commentators and their value for the study of Demosthenes and the fourth century B.C. His goal, however, is to see what “these commentators tell us about commentators, about commentaries, and about the ancient readers who consulted them” (p. 5).

Part One: The Ancient Commentaries on Demosthenes (pp. 13-69) is divided into three chapters, “Form and Transmission” (14-17), “Sources, Agenda, and Readership” (pp. 26-50), and Chapter 3, “Didymus” (pp. 51-69). In “Form and Transmission” Gibson characterizes, with examples from the texts in the second half of the book, the form, goals, and methods of ancient commentaries as they are found in surviving papyri (pp. 14-18). He then describes the fate, or excerpting, of these commentaries by later scholarship and the integration of these excerpts into lexica and their relationship, or rather lack thereof, to the scholia (pp. 18-25). Those approaching such texts for the first time will find the chapter accessible and useful.

Gibson introduces Didymos more fully in Chapter 2 and explains his views on this oft-mentioned figure. He wants to free Didymos from the burden of being the only ancient commentator on historical and philological matters in Demosthenes to be known by name. Gibson describes and rejects the habit of attributing all anonymous texts and fragments to Didymos. In assessing Didymos’ methods and use of sources, Gibson persuasively responds to the generally accepted negative portrait of Didymos in which his methods and competence are maligned. Gibson corrects what he calls “the portrayal of Didymus as a third-shift custodian to Hellenistic scholarship, who swept up around the worktables of his more illustrious predecessors and guarded their collective achievement through mindless copying and compilation” (p. 28).1

Gibson sees Didymos as actively involved in an ongoing, academic conversation about philological and historical details in Demosthenes’ speeches. For instance, he interprets Didymos’ frequent use of potential optatives as evidence of Didymos’ own opinions. When considering the observations of his scholarly predecessors, Didymos names none but refers to them with the vague “they,” and refers to them, at times, merely to record their opinions, it seems, and, at times, to reject their interpretations. Subsequent commentators will cite Didymos, by name, for these same two purposes. Gibson catalogues how all these commentators cite and quote other authors, from Homer to Timosthenes (3rd cent. B.C.), to clarify obscure historical references to people, places, and events, to raise issues of authenticity (at least of Dem. 11), and to explain difficult vocabulary.

In an effort to recreate the readership of these philological and historical commentaries, Gibson summarizes one ancient reader’s (Harpokration’s) use of and response to Didymos. From the twenty-one references to Didymos in Harpokration, we find a situation much like modern scholarship in which the earlier scholar is cited but often corrected or rebuked. In the case of other readers, such as young students or Romans studying Demosthenes, Gibson imagines that they would have little use for such focused notes. For ancient biographers, teachers and practitioners of rhetoric he imagines that use of the philological and historical commentaries is possible but probably rare. In other words, Gibson is wary about seeing more than a specialized, academic audience as the foremost readers of these texts, but in the process of reaching this conclusion he offers a useful sketch of the possible and likely participants in the ancient tradition about Demosthenes.

In Chapter 3, “Didymus,” Gibson draws on his earlier chapters to develop his thesis that P. Berol. 9780, Didymos’ commentary on Demosthenes’ speeches 9, 10, 11, and 13, consists of excerpts from Didymos’ original, and fuller, commentary. Gibson retraces the history of this suggestion from its original appearance in Diels and Schubart’s edition of the Didymos papyrus in 1904 down to, in particular, the more recent rejection of the suggestion and castigation of Didymos by S. West, the continued castigation in a note by L.J. Bliquez, and the demotion of Didymos from the status of scholar to that of dilettante in a short paper by H. Yunis.2 Through an examination of the Rezeptiongeschichte of Didymos in antiquity, especially in Seneca, Quintilian, and Juvenal, Gibson argues that the modern negative opinion of Didymos and this papyrus may have more to do with the denunciations of certain ancients than with an untainted reading of the surviving text. This argument does not, of course, prove that the Didymos papyrus is a collection of excerpts. It does, however, allow us to reconsider Diels and Schubart’s hypothesis, which is, now expanded and viewed in the light of Gibson’s introductory chapters, all the more plausible and, I believe, correct. Gibson has, in a clear and evenhanded manner, constructed a pathology of P. Berol. 9780 that should serve as a touchstone for anyone studying ancient scholarship.

In Part Two: Texts, Translation, and Notes (pp. 73-199) Gibson offers introductions, Greek texts (except in the case of P. Berol. 9780), translations, and notes on what he has collected as the extant evidence for ancient philological and historical commentaries on Demosthenes’ speeches. These consist of six texts: Text 1 (pp. 77-136), P. Berol. 9780, the lengthy, and fragmentary, papyrus text on speeches 9, 10, 11, 13; Text 2 (pp. 137-56), twenty-one passages in Harpokration in which Didymos’ comments on Demosthenes are cited; Text 3 (pp. 157-71), P. Berol. 5008, a fragmentary page from a papyrus codex, fourth or fifth century A.D., that contains six entries in a lexicon of words or short phrases in Dem. or. 23, Against Aristokrates; Text 4 (pp. 172-4), P. Berol. 21188, a brief papyrus text (15 lines in main fragment) on the “shadow at Delphi” phrase in Dem. 5.25, On the Peace; Text 5 (pp. 175-89), P. Stras. 84 (Anonymus Argentinensis), a much-discussed, half-preserved, twenty-six line column of a papyrus text on phrases in Dem. 22, Against Androtion; and Text 6 (pp. 190-9), P. Rain. 7, a page from a papyrus codex which contains on its recto and verso annotated passages from Dem. 21, Against Meidias, arranged, for the most part, alphabetically after the first word in the quoted phrase (pp. 190-9). Gibson includes, in an appendix (pp. 201-9), P. Lond.Lit. 179 (also known as P. Lond. I 131), which contains sixty-six lines of a rhetorical introduction and comments on Dem. 21; Gibson presents this text here to illustrate how the interest and content of rhetorical commentaries differs from the philological and historical commentaries.

The literal translation is clear, and effective. I suggest only a few, minor corrigenda/addenda: Col. 1.21 (p. 83), the participle κατάξοντες is translated “the Athenians . . . restored the democracy, and besieged Clitarchus” but it is a future participle expressing purpose, thus “the Athenians . . . , in order to restore the people, besieged Clitarchus.” Col. 1.62-3 (p. 84), Zeus has been excluded from the quotation from Dem. 11.17, or at least the oath “By Zeus.” Col. 4.49 (p. 85), “having been dragged off” is not in Pearson-Stephens’ text, though it does appear in the app. crit. Col. 9.27-28 (p. 91), “courthouse” for δικαστήριον might better be “courtroom.” Col. 10.18 (p. 93), “to take action” for ἐπιβουλεύειν seems bland, especially if Didymos’ use of the verb arises from Demosthenes’ frequent use of it with regard to Philip (e.g., or. 6.2, 6.18, 8.35, 8.40, 10.11, 10.13, 10.49, etc).

The notes on Didymos’ text (pp. 101-36) serve as a thorough commentary. Some notes and glosses offer help to readers lacking Greek or those new to Classical studies, such as introductions to Philochoros (p. 102), the Theoric Fund (pp. 119-20), and even the mythical Marsyas and Tereus (pp. 123-24). The notes draw together ancient comparanda and cite and discuss the modern scholarship on Didymos and related topics. All the resources for further study are here assembled, and Gibson presents the texts, topics, and the scholarly debate in a clear and evenhanded manner.

The next five texts repeat the format designed for the Didymos papyrus except that these all contain the Greek text. For the printing of these Gibson has considered the published editions and emendations to these texts, and his Greek text must be examined by anyone working on these texts. (I found only one, minor typographical slip in the Greek; on p. 178, last line of the text, a bracket is left out after a line break is marked.) In his commentary on these later texts, Gibson gives background information on the text or topic under consideration by the ancient commentator, then probes deeper to uncover the interests and methods of each of the commentators. With these later texts he compares the concerns and habits of Didymos, especially with the quotations of Didymos in Harpokration (Text 2), where Harpokration comments on Didymos, as do the authors of two of the other texts (P. Berol. 5008 [p. 160] and P. Berol. 21188 ([p. 172]). Gibson’s comments are, as on the Didymos papyrus, informative and prudent, and collect relevant ancient and modern comparanda and scholarship without ever being dismissive or dogmatic—the ideal balance for a commentary that establishes the foundation and sets the standard for continued work on the delicate reconstruction of interplay between these ancient commentaries and scholars.

The book concludes with a bibliography (pp. 211-23), a concordance of proper names and significant words in the translations (pp. 225-9), a very useful General Index (pp. 231-5), an Index Locorum (pp. 237-47), and an Index Verborum (pp. 249-61) which consists of four indices of Greek proper names, Greek words, transliterated Greek words, and Latin words (!). The text is exceptionally well printed and thoroughly proofed; aside from the minor missing bracket noted above, I have found a quotation mark absent from the close of a citation (p. 2, n. 4). The insignificance of these typographical slips well illustrates the thoroughness with which this book was produced.


1. From the beginning and end of the last century we could add two additional examples: the condescending praise of the (unsigned) entry in the great 11th ed. of the Encylopaedia Britannica (1910/11), “In spite of his stupendous industry, Didymus was little more than a compiler, of little critical judgment and doubtful accuracy, but he deserves recognition for having incorporated in his numerous writings the works of earlier critics and commentators.” Cf. OCD, 3rd ed. (1996), “A papyrus fragment of his commentary on Demosthenes’ Philippics illustrates his compilatory method; the quality of the discussion leaves a great deal to be desired.” (Compare the equivalent sentence in the 2nd ed. [1970].)

2. S. West, “Chalcenteric Negligence,” CQ 20 (1970) 288-96; L.J. Bliquez, “A Note on the Didymus Papyrus XII.35,” CJ 67 (1972) 356-7; H. Yunis, “What Kind of Commentary is the περὶ Δημοσθένους of Didymus?” in Akten des 21. Internationalen Papyrologenkongresses, 2 vols., ed. B. Kramer et al., (Stuttgart 1997) 2: 1049-55.