BMCR 2005.11.09

The Classical Commentary. History, Practices, Theory. Mnemosyne Supplement 232

, , The classical commentary : histories, practices, theory. 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.. Leiden: Brill, 2002. 1 online resource (xxi, 427 pages).. ISBN 1417536454. $115.00.

This splendid book offers a varied and thoughtful meditation on the role of the commentary in contemporary classical scholarship. It follows on from the volume edited by Glenn Most in the Aporemata series in 1999,1 and on many occasions the contributors are in dialogue with some of the pieces in that collection. Like Most’s volume, it derives from conference presentations and at the same time manages to overcome the problems associated with conference volumes through the coherence and indeed the general high quality of the contributions.

At this point, readers wishing to make ‘hit-and-run’ use of the volume (a phrase used by a number of contributors in describing the common way in which many commentaries are read, with an eye to a particular note on line x which has some interesting information on author y or problem z) may welcome a list of the contributors and themes. There is an introduction by Christina Kraus, foregrounding some of the key areas of discussion later in the volume, such as lemmata, tralaticiousness, and parallels. This is then followed by pairings of papers:2 a piece by Stephanie West on issues raised in the ‘Oxford’ Odyssey commentaries, Irene de Jong on her experience of writing a narratological commentary on the Odyssey, Susan Stephens on fragments, Richard Hunter on the Theocritean corpus and pseudo-authors, Heinrich von Staden on commentaries on medical texts, Felix Budelmann on John Tzetzes, Andrew Laird on La Cerda’s Virgil commentary, John Henderson on R. G. Austin’s successive (re)editions of the Pro Caelio, Albert Rijksbaron on school commentaries on Xenophon in the nineteenth century, Rhiannon Ash on commentaries on historical texts, with a particular focus on historiographical aspects of Tacitus, Histories, Christopher Rowe on commentary on Greek philosophical texts, Andrew Dyck on commentaries on Cicero’s philosophic works, Roy Gibson on the use of parallels in commentaries, with particular reference to his own work on Ovid, Ars amatoria 3, and Willard McCarty on the future of electronic commentary. There is then an epilogue by Elaine Fantham which picks up on themes from the earlier papers in offering a postscript on the role of the commentary today. The overall tone is designed to encourage optimism, or at any rate, discussion about the role of the commentary, as noted by Kraus (p. 24), and for the most part contributors have a positive slant to offer.

As can be seen, the range of areas covered by the contributors is impressive, covering many areas of the discipline. Many of the contributors are of course published authors of commentaries, and it is certainly a very good thing for commentators themselves to reflect on the processes in which they are engaged. Particularly valuable, since they provide samples of exemplary commentary of their own, are Ash and Gibson in this regard; in his excellent treatment of the underlying assumptions behind the collection of parallels, and the side effects that sometimes result, Gibson even provides earlier versions of notes which reflection caused him to change when publishing his acclaimed commentary on Ovid, Ars Amatoria 3.3 And though there is much discussion of contemporary commentary practice, there are also many insights into the work of earlier commentators as well: the articles by Budelmann and Laird are particularly rich in this respect. It is another general strength of the volume that the contributors have clearly engaged with each other’s work during the period of the book’s production.

In what follows, it may prove more satisfactory to range across the contributions in a synoptic fashion, rather than offering comments on the individual contributions sequentially. This is because a number of the same themes are raised throughout the volume, such as the status of commentaries, tralaticiousness, lemmata and segmentization of a text, the individual voice of the commentator, the need (or not) for abundance ( copia, to use the term used by Gumbrecht in the Most volume and adopted by many contributors to this one).4

Kraus raises the issue of tralaticiousness in her introduction to the volume. She makes the valuable general point that as well as repeating material available in earlier commentaries, commentators are also prone to repeat their predecessors’ lemmata as well, offering as an example the lemmata used in three commentaries on Liv. 1.47. Certainly, commentators do take up the problems that have been bequeathed to them by their forebears. I am not quite so sure, though, that unlemmatized text disappears entirely, even if it is disregarded by the tradition of commentators: although I once heard one classical scholar remark on another that no one could be taken seriously who had not read the whole of Fraenkel’s commentary on the Agamemnon,5 there are surely very few readers nowadays who solely read a commentary and not the text which it elucidates (though it is worth noting, as Budelmann’s contribution on John Tzetzes shows, that this has not always been true), and even fewer who would actually say that they had read the text in question after simply reading the commentary. At least as powerful a force as the lemmatization practised by commentators is the frequent exasperation of readers and reviewers that there is no note on the particular passage which they had hoped would be dealt with by a commentary.

Another aspect of tralaticiousness is discussed by Stephens, in her article on fragmentary texts. Stephens considers how editing and commenting on papyrus fragments has been characterised by the repetition of material from earlier work, both in apparatus and in commentary. Her treatment of Adrian Hollis’ edition of Callimachus, Hecale is particularly valuable for showing in miniature how commentators and editors tend to approach fragmentary texts in a manner which offers little help to inexperienced readers and redundant material for serious scholars.6 Stephens is also cautious about the use of Latin in the editing of texts, and of course the edition of the fragments of the Greek novels published by Stephens herself and John J. Winkler illustrates admirably how it is possible to produce an critical apparatus in English. However, it seems preferable to allow scholars to make a choice between editing texts with an apparatus in a modern language or in Latin. An important work such as Bernabé’s edition of the Greek epic fragments7 probably reaches more readers with a Latin apparatus than it would have done with an apparatus in Spanish, a language regrettably ignored by most graduate programmes, even in the United States with its large numbers of Spanish speakers. It is unlikely that presses noted for publishing critical editions would not impose a consistency of their own, with a perhaps inevitable tendency towards the publication of texts which are only edited in English. Throwing out the possibility of a Latin apparatus may throw out the possibility of other languages as well. And, as Laird’s discussion of La Cerda’s Latin commentary on Virgil shows, there are more positive approaches that can be made to Latin scholarship. Stephens does however have some good suggestions for the use of computers in dealing with commentaries, such as the idea that photographs of a papyrus could be made available at the click of a mouse (pp. 85-7). Other thoughtful comment on computers within the volume is also offered by Fantham (pp. 418-19), though McCarty’s lengthy and over-technical treatment of ‘Commentary in the Electronic Age’ is unlikely to attract anyone other than the converted, in spite of the delightful idea that the next commentator on Eur. Bacchae 661-2 might want to have a video clip attached by hyperlink to his note on the evanescence of the snows of Cithaeron (p. 395).8

Related to the issue of the tralaticiousness of commentators is a much wider concern in the book with the authority of the commentator. This perhaps goes back to Most’s volume, whose preface asserted that ‘the author about whose text one writes a commentary is always an authority’,9 and that ‘By writing commentaries, such professionals help regulate access to their institutions and movement within them by reference to their own vision of the particular ideals of scholarship to which they, unlike some of their colleagues at least, subscribe, legitimated by appeal to the founding texts which authorize these institutions in the first place’.10 But, as Tennyson noted, authority forgets a dying king, and as Fantham’s contribution at the end of the volume shows clearly (cf. also Dyck, pp. 325-6), with her realistic reflections on the place of the commentary amid the aspirations of the modern graduate school, the sociology of power described by Most is unrecognizable today. The contributors to the Gibson and Kraus volume focus on authority much more productively. Thus von Staden, dealing with Galen’s commentaries on Hippocratic texts, shows how in ancient commentators on medical texts ‘acts of supplementation and assimiliation’ (p. 115) are always going on, as the medical commentator is not simply engaging in a philological exercise but is also engaged in a deeper exercise with its own ‘plot’ (p. 136), in showing his own expertise in the field.11 At the same time, in spite of commentators’ concern to show their own prowess, there is also a centrifugal tendency going in the other direction: West’s discussion of the ‘Oxford’ Odyssey series shows what happens when a large scale project is undertaken by several authors, with resulting variations in interest and emphasis, a clear illustration if ever there was one that there can be no such thing as a degree-zero objective ideal commentary on a single text.12 Similarly, de Jong (whose piece on her narratological commentary on the Odyssey is usefully paired with West’s) makes a compelling case for the need for more specialised commentaries, while also noting that a commentary such as hers is to be envisaged as being read not only with the text of the Odyssey itself, but also alongside other commentaries as well.13 Ash makes the same point effectively when considering what a historiographical commentary might look like, and who it might be aimed at. And Henderson reminds us of how even the works of such an apparent establishment figure as Roland Austin, a good candidate for an authoritative commentator if ever there was one, betray a strand of self-criticism, manifested most clearly in the three editions of his commentary on the Pro Caelio.

A quite separate and methodologically daunting question, but one related to the question of authority, is raised by Rowe in his article on commenting on philosophical texts. Rowe meets head on the claims that have been made for the polyvalence of all texts, arguing that in writing on ancient philosophical texts there can be a correct interpretation. I give an example:

It is frequently the case that a particular way of reading a phrase / sentence / section / chapter is so clearly appropriate — because of Aristotle’s own clearly signaled anxiety to get his point across — that the only reason for disputing it will be allegiance to a general theory about the nature of texts (i.e., that all are by their very nature polyvalent); and it is in any case at least an open question whether such a theory gains or loses by being presented as holding absolutely, without exceptions, especially in light of its — admittedly non-necessary — affiliation to anti-authoritarianism. (pp. 304-5)

It will be interesting to see whether this essay will in due course be part of a process of accentuation or diminution of the divide which may be emerging between literary and philosophical scholarship. How would scholars react to this passage if one were to replace a reference to Aristotle with one to Polybius, for example? One suspects that some ancient historians, at least, would not be too unhappy at such an outcome. But where would the line be drawn? Cicero? Lucan? Few Latinists today would be content to insert Lucan’s name in the passage cited above. Tacitus? Ash’s illustration of her own excellent historigraphical commentary on Tac. Hist. 2.93 makes it even harder to posit a monadic Tacitus.

Ash’s article raises questions of readership, as do nearly all of the other contributions to the volume. On the basis of the good sampling of ‘practising’ commentators represented here, it would be hard to suggest that commentators nowadays are not concerned about readership and about what a commentary might do. Thus Laird’s discussion of La Cerda, as well as showing how La Cerda’s commentary on Virgil is in fact stronger for being situated in its own time and place, goes on to suggest that this can be a model for modern commentary as well, and that, instead of merely being acknowledged and then ignored, cultural and temporal difference can actually become a virtue of modern commentary. This is a far more productive approach to past commentators than Rijksbaron’s piece on school editions of Xenophon, which, though offering useful insight into commentary writing on Xenophon in the nineteenth century, ends up with endorsement of Gildersleeve’s view, written in 1930, that many school editions were of little use for the advanced student, with the further rider that they are of little use for the beginner (p. 263). If one has readership in mind, one may legitimately wonder how many contemporary students of Greek need to saved by being told that ‘The positive genitive of Krüger 1854 and 1889, and presumably inspired by him, of Goodwin-White, cannot be defended either’ (p. 260). Nineteenth-century scholarship is more helpfully treated by Dyck, whose article deals with historical developments in commentaries written on Cicero, whilst also being relevant to contemporary commentary practice.

Perhaps it is useful to conclude with a word on the divide not between commentaries and the texts they comment on (as several contributors show, this is ultimately a divide which collapses) but between the commentary and other forms of scholarship. There are some excellent insights offered by Kraus, where she points out that commentaries cannot be separated from other forms of scholarship on classical literature, since they often contain more discursive passages of discussion; equally, there is a tradition in some journal articles of exhaustively documenting instances of a phenomenon (or even modern bibliography) in footnotes as a means of demonstrating that the author has done the spadework required to be taken seriously. There are of course all kinds of parallels to be drawn between commentaries and not only monographs but also articles (not just ‘shorter notes’, I hasten to add), and one hopes that Kraus’ observations will make those who see a divide (from either side) ponder a little on their own polemical positions. And the book itself provides a valuable instance of how fluid the distinction actually is in Hunter’s provoking article on commentary on texts of uncertain authorship. Taking as his example the poems that appear in the Theocritean corpus but are generally felt to be false, Hunter shows how notions of Theocritean authorship (or lack of it) have crept into the assumptions made by commentators. His discussion of Idyll 23 illustrates what one might do to go against such assumptions, but it also demonstrates instructively how commentary and more discursive writing need not be polar opposites, a salutary reminder to us all.


1. G.W. Most (ed.), Commentaries – Kommentare. Aporemata. Kritische Studien zur Philologiegeschichte Band 4 (Göttingen 1999).

2. The structuring in terms of pairs is explicitly announced by the editors in their preface, pp. x-xi.

3. R.K. Gibson, Ovid Ars Amatoria Book 3 (Cambridge 2003).

4. H.U. Gumbrecht, ‘Fill Up Your Margins! About Commentary and Copia‘, in Most (n. 1), 443-53.

5. Contrast the different — but similar — position of Simon Goldhill in his ‘Wipe Your Glosses’ contribution to Most (n. 1), 405: ‘Certainly, a few days spent reading Fraenkel’s Agamemnon carefully is not a bad thing for graduates to be encouraged to do.’

6. For a more favourable view of Hollis’ Hecale, see the review of Hollis by James Clauss at BMCR 02.03.07, which praises Hollis’ edition as ‘certainly more “user-friendly” than Pfeiffer’s’.

7. A. Bernabé, Poetarum epicorum graecorum testimonia et fragmenta. Pars I (Stuttgart and Leipzig 1996), Poetae epici graeci testimonia et fragmenta. Pars II Fasc. 1 (Munich and Leipzig 2004), Poetae epici graeci testimonia et fragmenta. Pars II Fasc. 2 (Munich and Leipzig 2005).

8. The interface of computers and commentary is explored much more effectively by Don Fowler, ‘Criticism as commentary and commentary as criticism in the age of electronic media’, in Most (n. 1), 426-42.

9. Most (n. 1), viii. It is hard to see how this might apply to modern work on New Comedy, for example.

10. Most (n. 1), ix.

11. Cf. also John T. Vallance, ‘Galen, Proclus and the Non-submissive Commentary’, in Most (n. 1), 223-44.

12. One thinks also of a joint-authored commentary such as A.J. Woodman and R.H. Martin, The Annals of Tacitus, Book 3 (Cambridge 1996), where disagreements between the two authors are helpfully indicated by the use of initials. Cf. also Dyck’s observation that one might need more than one commentator to work on texts in such technical areas as philosophy (p. 324).

13. de Jong (p. 62): ‘This is clearly a meta-commentary, i.e., a commentary which can only be profitably consulted after or alongside other commentaries which offer the necessary clarification of the problematic aspects of the text, and a full survey of the extant scholarship.’