BMCR 2021.04.37

L. Annaeus Cornutus: Greek theology, fragments, and testimonia

, L. Annaeus Cornutus: Greek theology, fragments, and testimonia. Writings from the Greco-Roman world, 42. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2018. Pp. xiv, 242. ISBN 9780884142942 $53.00.

[The author apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

Cornutus is not well known among students of ancient philosophy. Yet this first-century Stoic philosopher is a very interesting figure and deserves more attention than he has hitherto received. Boys-Stones’ book does much to counteract this disregard. He prints and translates into English Cornutus’ sole extant work, Greek Theology (Ἐπιδρομὴ τῶν κατὰ τὴν ἑλληνικὴν θεολογίαν παραδεδομένων), and collects and translates all fragments and testimonies of Cornutus, adding succinct footnotes. The forty-page introduction enlightens us about Cornutus’ philosophical profile and explains what makes him distinctive. The book is rounded out by an index of sources, concordances, bibliography, and a general index.

Why, then, does Cornutus deserve our attention? One reason is his focus on poetry and language from a philosophical point of view. Stoics had a reputation in antiquity for their interest in studying poetry and language from a (distinctive) philosophical standpoint. Indeed they were often criticized for trying to harmonize the stories of early poets, such as Homer and Hesiod, with Stoic doctrine (Cicero, De nat. deor. I.41, Philodemus, De pietate col. vi, Plutarch, De aud. poet. 31d).[1] Cornutus exemplifies an intriguing variation of this Stoic tendency. Like other Stoics, Cornutus had a deep interest in poetry, as is suggested by his composition of commentaries on Virgil (pp. 182–94), and it is no accident that his students in Rome included the poets Lucan and Persius (see Life of Persius and Persius, Satura 5, Boys-Stones pp. 198–215). Cornutus was in fact renowned as a critic of poetry in late antiquity (Augustine, De Utilitate Credendi 17; F37 Boys-Stones). The evidence suggests that Cornutus’ focus on poetry was part of his broader interest in language. This becomes evident in his treatise on orthography, of which we only have the Latin excerpts of Cassiodorus (collected and translated by Boys-Stones pp. 142-155). Cornutus’ interest in language also motivated his engagement with Aristotle’s Categories—yet another reason for which Cornutus deserves our attention. For, while contemporary Platonists such as Lucius and Nicostratus conceived the Categories as an ontological work, that is, as a work that distinguishes kinds of beings, and contemporary Peripatetics understood it as a work of semantics, that is, a work concerned with words that have meaning, Cornutus instead considered the Categories to be a work of grammar dealing with words as such (περὶ τῶν λέξεων καθὸ λέξεις, Porphyry In Cat. 59.10 Busse), and accused Aristotle of leaving out certain classes of words. This interpretation of the Categories is peculiar to Stoicism. Cornutus was preceded by Athenodorus in criticizing the Categories as a deficient treatment of verbal expressions, in the same way that contemporary Platonists considered it as a deficient work of ontology, but Cornutus went further than Athenodorus in also challenging the coherence of Aristotle’s work. Cornutus’ interpretation has recently been well presented by Griffin,[2] yet now Boys-Stones has collected and translated the relevant evidence (pp. 167–76).

The nature of Cornutus’ interest in language becomes evident when we focus on his extant work on Greek theology, of which Boys-Stones now publishes the first English translation. The work’s aim is to examine the origins of the Greek gods, but this task is carried out by focusing on the Greek poets, Homer and especially Hesiod. Cornutus sets out to explain divine names and epithets in terms of their alleged etymology. Ouranos, “heaven”, for instance, the term with which the work begins, is explained as the upper limit (οὖρος) of all things, or as the one that cares for (ὠρεῖν) or cares about (ὠρεύειν) things (ὄντα). Cornutus informs us of alternative etymologies, too. “Others”, he claims, “find its [sc. Ouranos’] etymology in the words for looking upwards (ἀπὸ τοῦ ὁρᾶσθαι ἄνω)”. Cornutus then moves on to Zeus, whom he identifies with the soul of the world, and who is so called because he lives preeminently and in everything and is the cause of life (πρώτως καὶ διὰ παντὸς ζῶσα καὶ αἰτία οὖσα τοῖς ζῶσι τοῦ ζῆν). Similar etymological explanations of the names Dias, Hera, Rhea, and so on follow.

It is noticeable that Cornutus cites more than one etymology and does not insist that a given alternative is correct. This is an important feature, for it suggests that Cornutus does not adopt a form of linguistic naturalism, according to which each word has a natural meaning that can be traced in its etymology; he rather appears to believe that ancient poets had various insights into the true meaning of words pertaining to Gods, insights which are philosophically substantial. Unlike earlier Stoics, Cornutus does not try to align names with Stoic doctrine. Of course, like earlier Stoics, Cornutus also believes that the ancients’ stories about the Gods are exegetically important for us and that ancient poets often put forward allegories in the form of stories in order to communicate their philosophical reflections about the divine. But Cornutus apparently maintained that divine names are by themselves illuminating with respect to the way the world is structured. As Boys-Stones points out (p. 28), Cornutus seeks to appreciate how language works and what message it reveals to us. Language is not neutral for Cornutus; nor is ancient poetry. Both reflect a certain wisdom about the world’s nature and structure, and it is the job of the philosopher to appreciate and explain it. If this is the case, then we can understand why Cornutus takes an interest in poets such as Virgil as well. Cornutus’ special interest in Virgil may well have been motivated by his wish to show that certain truths about the world are not peculiar to the Greek tradition and language but can also be found in Latin. Apparently, in Cornutus’ view the Latin language also contains such truths about the presence and the shaping effect of the divine in the world, and Latin poetry also contains allegories about the role of Gods (see FF50, 55, 56).

Yet Cornutus’ work on theology is not a work that introduces Stoic physics; as Boys-Stones rightly suggests, it already assumes some knowledge of it—of essentially Chrysippus’ physics (p. 31). It is of course a work of physics because for a Stoic the natural world is permeated and shaped by the divine. Yet the Greek Theology is also quite importantly a work of ethics to the extent that it aims to show that the structure of the natural world implies ethical principles. Cornutus does not then have to offer an ethical account, because he takes his account of theology (that is, of physics) to contain an ethical message.[3] This approach displays Cornutus’ skill as a teacher and philosopher; his work has many layers and can also have many effects on his students. It is not an accident that Cornutus had a reputation as a grammaticus (Gellius, Noctes Atticae II.6.1, F41), a term meaning not just “grammarian” but also “teacher” (see Boys-Stones ad loc. n. 77).

Thanks to the meticulous work of Boys-Stones, we are now in a position to appreciate the profile of an ancient philosopher who practiced philosophy in a manner different from what we today understand it to be and who yet stayed loyal to the ancient idea of philosophy as a search for wisdom and a prosperous life. Boys-Stones’ care for the texts that he prints, his careful tracing of the poetic references, and his readable, intelligible translation yields impressive results, for we now have a sound basis for understanding an important side of ancient Stoicism, indeed the side that presumably made Stoicism so popular in antiquity. Boys-Stones’ book also shows how us the truth of Michael Frede’s dictum, that in order to understand the history of ancient philosophy, we often need to search through other histories, such as those of science and literature. Boys-Stones’ book on Cornutus is destined to become a standard reference book on the subject.


[1] See A. Long, “Stoic Readings of Homer”, in R. Lamberton and J. Keaney (ed.), Homer’s Ancient Readers, Princeton 1992, 41-66.

[2] M. Griffin, Aristotle’s Categories in the Early Roman Empire, Oxford: Oxford Classical Monographs 2015, 139-173. Griffin also shows how Cornutus differs from Athenodorus in his criticicsm of the Categories.

[3] Boys-Stones has underlined the pedagogical dimension of Greek Theology in his earlier study, “Fallere Sollers: The Ethical Pedagogy of the Stoic Cornutus”, in R. Sharples and R. Sorabji (ed.), Greek and Roman Philosophy 100 BC-200 AD, London: Institute of Classical Studies, BICS Suppl. 94, 77-88.