BMCR 2020.04.17

Critics, compilers, and commentators: an introduction to Roman philology, 200 BCE-800 CE

, Critics, compilers, and commentators: an introduction to Roman philology, 200 BCE-800 CE. . Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xviii, 425 p.. ISBN 9780195380521 $29.95.


Some years ago, in a staged conversation about Augustine’s letters to women, I observed that Augustine “assumes in his female correspondents a high degree of literacy, in the sense of the ability to read and write good Latin.”[1]  My interlocutor gently corrected my “virtually classical” definition of literacy, and pointed out that “even if these women could read, they would rarely have to, and”—both for them and for men of their own social rank—“it would always be easier and more natural for them to hear a text read aloud by another person, usually male.” More pertinent to assessing literacy were “their roles as initiators, facilitators, and sustainers of a set of discursive exchanges” involving the interpretation and dissemination of texts.[2]

Somehow or other, though, Romans got their Latin, even in the late empire—indeed, Zetzel describes the “standard goal” of late ancient grammatical writings as being “to teach students to read and write good Latin” (159)—and this book amasses the evidence to show us how, and what they then did with it. Critics, Compilers, and Commentators is a wonderful resource. The works with which it deals “all explain something about Latin texts or the Latin language” (3) and were all written or compiled or otherwise arranged and digested between the beginnings of Latin culture and the end of the eighth century CE. Zetzel has wrestled a billowing mass of material into nine crisp chapters under the rubric “A short history of Roman scholarship”; an extensive bibliographic guide; and forty-seven pages of Works Cited, including digital resources. Just one of these three sections would be worth the price of the book for anyone interested in the teaching and preservation of Latin culture over the longue durée. There is, as far as I know, no comparable work.

The modesty of the introductory chapter (“At one time or another I have read, or at least turned every page of, every ancient text discussed” [13]) belies the capaciousness of the work as a whole—the sheer range of material presented, and the utility of the presentation for pointing the reader onwards. Four chapters follow, taking the history of Roman scholarship from its earliest origins in commentary on legal and religious texts up through the end of the second century, via names both familiar (Varro, Quintilian, Aulus Gellius) and—to most of us—less so (Aelius Stilo, Verrius Flaccus, Remmius Palaemon). After that, the material becomes too extensive and its textual boundaries too complex for a chronological arrangement, and Zetzel pursues his narrative along formal lines instead: the next three chapters treat of “Dictionaries, Glossaries, Encyclopedias”, “Commentary and Exegesis”, and “Grammars and Grammarians”—the latter two approximately representing Quintilian’s fundamental division of the ars grammatica: poetarum enarratio and recte loquendi scientia respectively. The chapter on commentary includes more detailed case studies of three commentary traditions, on Virgil, Cicero, and Horace respectively; I wish I had had the ten lucid pages on Virgil when I first tried to tackle the Servian commentary tradition a few years ago. The final expository chapter deals with the shifting scholarly landscape after the “ ‘classical’ era of Roman philology” of the third to sixth centuries (most prominently from Donatus—300 surviving manuscripts, along with a copious tradition of commentary—to Priscian, with an astonishing 700 manuscripts). There is a cascade of suggestive statements here, any one of which could prompt a new book. To give just a few examples: The way in which the world of learning was defined in antiquity meant that “it easily migrated to an ecclesiastical context” (204). “In a manuscript culture, the distinction between public and private copies is irrelevant, if not non-existent” (208). The persistence of enthusiastic amateur correction of Latin texts represents resistance “not to Christianity, but to the degradation of knowledge of Latin” (208-9).[3]

A couple of important narratives subtend the work as a whole. One is the transition from Latin as a native language to Latin as a second language—and the resultant shift in the kinds of teaching and interpretation required in the Latin grammatical texts and reference works with which this book is concerned. Another is the complex, open-ended nature of those texts themselves. Zetzel observes that Keil, editor of the seven fundamental volumes of Grammatici Latini,like most editors, wanted to believe in the fixity of the texts he edited” (161, my emphasis) but goes on to say that “there is much greater respect for the names of important grammarians … than for the precise words these men actually wrote” (Zetzel’s emphasis). Commentaries and grammars were rewritten and recombined to suit the needs of new audiences. I have already referred to this corpus as billowing, and the implication that texts develop ungovernable bulges in transmission is intended—but I suspect that, though classicists might find the lack of a single authoritative text disturbing, there are few medievalists who are invested in textual fixity even in more “literary” genres. I think of Michael Winterbottom (bridging the two disciplines) on the Gesta Regum of William of Malmesbury:

Scholars have at times wondered if the notorious repetitions and inconsistencies in Cicero’s De Officiis can be explained on the hypothesis that our transmitted text contains marginal notes and alternative versions that go back to Cicero himself. And similar views have been expressed, for example, in connection with the poet Juvenal. … In the case of the Gesta regum there can be no doubt. There are four families of manuscripts, and each family represents a particular stage in the development of the whole work.[4]

The illusion of textual fixity in a manuscript culture—especially in prose works—is harder to sustain at closer chronological quarters. This makes it even more of an achievement for Zetzel to have organized these names and texts into a clear, coherent, workable sequence. The achievement is most apparent in the bibliographic guide that forms the latter third of the book, especially the two sections on Grammars (classical and late antique; early medieval, which often constitute the primary source of access to a particular author in the earlier grammatical tradition). These cover about 100 precise and orderly pages, giving—in alphabetical order, first of author, then of collection title—a brief description followed by a summary indication of where to find the text, related reference works, key secondary studies and so on.

A refreshing touch of Latin (or Latinist’s?) chauvinism rises occasionally to the surface. For example, discussing the bilingual hermeneumata for low-level language instruction: “in antiquity, bilingual education was much more likely to take place in the West than the East, and Latin speakers tended to learn Greek at a much earlier age than Greek speakers learned Latin” (112). This lends some context to Zetzel’s earlier identification, and fierce correction, of a regular pattern of stories that Romans told about themselves, which all “reflect the enduring belief that no Roman could have had an original idea without a Greek whispering it in his ear” (24). The subject here is Crates’ ostensible importing of textual philology to Rome in the second century BCE. The next section begins a generation earlier, with the commentary on the Twelve Tables of Sextus Aelius Catus Paetus (cos. 198). So much for Greek originality.

Zetzel acknowledges that his choice of end date is necessarily arbitrary. “In contrast to the tradition of Greek scholarship, which reaches a sudden and violent end in 1453, the tradition of Roman philology has no sharp conclusion, just as the frontier between Roman culture and the cultures of the early Middle Ages has no wall” (10). The exclusion from the book of Christian texts and educational traditions (how many volumes would have been necessary had they been included?) makes the extension of the narrative to the beginning of the ninth century a generous decision. It also makes it possible to end with the mise-en-abyme of “grammatical” texts, that of Virgilius Maro Grammaticus. At least, that is what it seems to me: a flagrant, joyful parody, reflecting back in a funhouse mirror all the learning and earnestness that went before it.[5] VMG’s list of grammarians begins with Donatus, but not the one we know—the one “at Troy, who lived, they say, for a thousand years.” There are three Virgils, one being himself, but no mention of the poet; Virgilius of Asia, however, wrote “a splendid book on the twelve Latins,” of which “the first is the kind in common use in Roman eloquence” (how helpful!) and the others are apparently completely invented, from their names to their spheres of operation. We can almost hear the gleeful laughter of schoolboys down the centuries as the sacred grammatical cows are overturned; those who had bettered their status through the anxious study and interpretation of Latin will have been less amused. Then the Carolingians restored “[t]he boundary between text and commentary, between past and present” (227). Philology is dead; long live philology.


[1] Subsequently published as Catherine Conybeare, “Spaces Between Letters: Augustine’s Correspondence with Women,” in Voices in Dialogue: Reading Women in the Middle Ages, ed. L. Olson and K. Kerby-Fulton (Notre Dame, 2005); quote from p. 59.

[2] Mark Vessey, “Response to Catherine Conybeare: Women of Letters?”, in Voices in Dialogue (as above); quotes from pp. 81-82.

[3] Contra Zetzel’s late colleague Alan Cameron, of course; the full breadth of Cameron’s argument is laid out in The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford 2011).

[4] Michael Winterbottom, “The Gesta regum of William of Malmesbury” JMLat 5 (1995), 158-73; quote from p. 160.

[5] See the edition of Bengt Löfstedt, Virgilius Maro Grammaticus, Opera Omnia (Munich 2003). Vivien Law comments, in her study of Virgilius Maro Grammaticus, “his is the wilful usage of a disciplined and word-happy mind”: Wisdom, Authority and Grammar in the Seventh Century: Decoding Virgilius Maro Grammaticus (Cambridge 1995), 106.