BMCR 2023.02.10

Zoilus Amphipolitanus

, Zoilus Amphipolitanus. Supplementum grammaticum Graecum, 6. Boston; Leiden: Brill, 2022. Pp. 277. ISBN 9789004472099

Readers familiar with Zoilus of Amphipolis will most readily associate his name with the pedantic fourth-century BCE grammarian famous for criticizing Homer’s poems. Fogagnolo’s newly commented edition of Zoilus’ fragments successfully dispels this scholarly myth. It shows that generations of ancient critics (from Aristotle to Porphyry, to name but two) seriously engaged with Zoilus’ work, that to this day modern Homerists still puzzle over many of the same interpretative issues as Zoilus uncovered, and that Zoilus’ exegetical approach was, in many respects, ahead of his time.

Fogagnolo’s book is a welcome addition to the Supplementum Grammaticum Graecum (for which she already published the edition of Antimachus of Colophon’s Studia Homerica),[1] and fulfills a long scholarly desideratum. Previously, readers could only count on the old Latin edition of Friedländer (1895)[2] and on the recent Brill New Jacoby online collection by Williams,[3] both of which have significant limitations. The former lacks a translation of the fragments and only includes a handful of notes by way of commentary. The latter is useful especially insofar as it provides an English translation, but both the introduction and the commentary are extremely selective. Fogagnolo’s edition instead includes an up-to-date and insightful introduction, a newly edited text of the fragments with apparatus accompanied by a clear Italian translation, as well as an exhaustive commentary that both consolidates and advances previous scholarly discourse. A lengthy bibliography, concordances, and indexes conclude the volume. It should be noted that unlike Friedländer and Williams, Fogagnolo does not edit all of Zoilus’ fragments but limits herself to those pertaining to Zoilus’ exegetical/grammatical activity. While at first this might appear as a serious drawback, in effect only 5 testimonia (T4; T5; T6; T10; T11 BNJ) are excluded from her collection. These texts are adequately referenced, nonetheless, in the introduction.

Zoilus was active in Athens during the fourth century BCE and wrote on a number of different topics. Aside from his treatise Against Homer’s Poetry, he wrote epideictic speeches (e.g., the Encomium of Polyphemus), works against Plato and Isocrates, possibly also a Techne Rhetorike, a historical treatise, as well as an essay on his hometown (On Amphipolis). Fogagnolo’s relatively short introduction (19 pages) satisfactorily tackles most of the debated issues surrounding his life and works. Given that only one surviving fragment quotes Zoilus’ exact words, I was surprised to find a short section devoted to Zoilus’ style (p. 14-15). In it, Fogagnolo makes the point, expanded in her commentary, that our sources seem to preserve rather faithfully Zoilus’ salacious style as well as technical vocabulary (γελοῖον, οὐ πιθανόν/ἀπίθανον, ἄτοπον). This is no minor claim since the terminology Fogagnolo attributes to Zoilus we would most readily associate with later exegetical endeavors. If, as I think, Fogagnolo is right on this, Zoilus had a much more prominent role in promoting later hermeneutical trends than he is usually given credit for.

The author makes two other important points in her introduction: i) Zoilus did not level moral or theological critiques against Homer (see pp. 12-13); ii) Zoilus’ treatise on Homer belongs to the “zetemata-type studies” (see pp. 10 and 18-19). Both of these issues could have been expanded further. I will start with the former. I agree with Fogagnolo that Zoilus had little to no interest in moral questions and that his approach was eminently aesthetic. In this respect, his criticism of Homer is profoundly different from that of authors such as Xenophanes and Plato. Yet, the nature of Zoilus’ criticisms is a matter of great scholarly contention, and Fogagnolo could have better emphasized the originality of her approach. A cross-reference to the sections of the commentary in which she addresses the issue would have especially helped. For instance, in her commentary on Zoilus’ critique of the scene of Ares’ and Aphrodite’s adultery in Odyssey 8 (F18), she argues at length that Zoilus was not motivated by theological concerns but rather poetical inconsistencies. The point of the critique, according to Fogagnolo, is that the behavior of the gods on this occasion (their unrestrained laughter and Hermes’ sexual joke) is inconsistent with Homer’s usual representation of gods. While I wholeheartedly agree with the essence of Fogagnolo’s analysis, I believe that what makes this passage especially susceptible to Zoilus’ criticism is the fact that Homer has Hermes voice his sexual desire for his half-sister in front of their father! It is almost as if the poet forgot the nature of the relationship between the characters when composing this tale.

The second important issue touched upon in the introduction is the relationship of the Against Homer’s Poetry with zetematic discourse. Zetemata are inquiries articulated in two parts, a question, often in the form of a critique (e.g., it is laughable that Homer did such and such) and one or more solutions to the problem raised. Fogagnolo limits herself to stating that Zoilus’ treatise belongs to both this genre and the kata/pros literature, i.e., ad hominem polemical treatises (see p. 10). I believe that the two options are incompatible as they lead to two opposite views concerning the nature of Zoilus’ work. If the Against Homer’s Poetry were to belong to the kata literature, then its author meant it as a genuine critique of Homer and only later would ancient scholars have used it as a starting point for their zetematic investigation. If instead, as I think, Zoilus conceived of his work in a zetematic fashion, then the critiques he raised were not meant as final, rather they served to jump-start a hermeneutical discussion. As counterintuitive as this seems, Zoilus’ goal might not have been to discredit Homer but rather to create the conditions for a deeper investigation of his text—a radical departure from the biased image of the spiteful critic that much of the ancient tradition promoted.[4]

The edition, translation, and commentary of 11 testimonia and 21 fragmenta follow the introduction. Each text is prefaced by the title of Zoilus’ work from which the fragment arguably stems and the list of manuscripts that preserve the edited text. This is followed by the Greek text, with critical apparatus, and an Italian translation. A general overview of the main themes and topics of the fragments opens the commentary section. Depending on the fragment, here Fogagnolo usually discusses the sources’ tradition and offers more context about the Homeric passage to which Zoilus refers. After the introductory note, the commentary is organized by lemmas and goes deeper into the main interpretative issues raised by the fragment. In general, the commentary excels in philological rigor, painstaking engagement with previous scholarship, and judicious interpretation of the evidence. One element that makes it especially valuable is its broad scope: Fogagnolo does not limit herself to commenting upon Zoilus’ take on a Homeric passage but also looks at how other grammarians dealt with similar issues. This especially helps in grasping Zoilus’ seminal role in the history of ancient criticism.

As a concrete illustration of this portion of Fogagnolo’s book, I summarize her treatment of the relatively straightforward F 12 (pp. 156-158). The text of the fragment reads: φεῦγ᾽, ὁ δ᾽ ὄπισθε ῥέων <ἕπετο>· Ζωΐλος αἰτιᾶται ὅτι ἀθανάτους ἵππους ἔχων ἐν τῷ ἀντικειμένωι καιρῷ αὐτοῖς οὐ χρᾶται. Fognagnolo translates it as: “φεῦγ᾽, ὁ δ᾽ ὄπισθε ῥέων <ἕπετο>: Zoilo critica il passo in quanto (sc. Achille), pur avendo cavalli immortali, non li utilizza nel momento presente.”

The commentary begins by illustrating the Iliadic reference: Achilles’ battle with the river Scamander. It then briefly explains the nature of Zoilus’ critique: Achilles would have been better off using his immortal horses to escape from Scamander. The first lemma the author comments upon is Ζωΐλος αἰτιᾶται. After noting that αἰτιάω is a very frequent verb in the context of epitimemata (literary criticims), Fogagnolo points out that the critique Zoilus leveled against Homer here is similar to the one he advanced in the context of book 5 of the Iliad where Idaeus leaves his horses and flees Diomedes on foot (see F 7). This leads her to consider the hypothesis that Zoilus discussed the two Iliadic passages together, perhaps in a section of his work devoted to heroes’ escapes from their enemies. References to the scholia that note how Achilles does not make use of his proverbial speed when trying to catch Hector in book 22 of the Iliad conclude the analysis of the lemma. The second lemma commented upon is ἐν τῷ ἀντικειμένωι καιρῷ. Fogagnolo observes that the expression recalls a specific type of exegetical solution: the λύσις ἀπὸ τοῦ καιροῦ. Interestingly, a second-century CE critic, Ammonius, responded to Zoilus’ criticism by using the very notion of καιρός. In the situation in which Achilles was, suggests Ammonius, a chariot with horses would have been an impediment, not an advantage.

While Fogagnolo’s readings are mostly convincing, there are a few instances where I find myself in disagreement with her. One such case is her analysis of Zoilus’ critique of Il. 10.272-295 (F 9). In this passage, Odysseus and Diomedes are setting off for their nocturnal expedition into the enemies’ camp when Athena sends a heron on their right. It is dark so the heroes do not see the bird but recognize it from its sound. Considering the bird to be a favorable omen, Odysseus rejoices. Zoilus takes issue with Odysseus’ reaction. According to Fogagnolo, Zoilus found it unrealistic that Odysseus, who was trying not to be heard by the enemies, would rejoice at the loud screeches of a bird. In my opinion, Zoilus’ criticism is of a different nature: Odysseus should have interpreted the omen as an unfavorable sign. The fact that the bird is not seen but heard should have led Odysseus to believe that while he and his companion would not be seen, they would, nonetheless, be heard by the enemies. In short, here Zoilus does not critique Homer for his lack of realism; rather he takes issue with the way he deploys poetic devices, such as omens.[5]

As the case of the omen shows, it is often difficult to define with certitude the nature of Zoilus’ criticisms. Fogagnolo is well aware of this difficulty and often discusses different interpretative possibilities side by side, leaving it up to the reader what alternative to choose. At times, I wish Fogagnolo had taken a stronger stance and better underscored her opinion, but overall her cautious methodology suits the type of evidence she has in front of her. Her approach is also particularly apt for a genre—commentary—that, despite often being used by scholars primarily as a receptacle for their personal views, should first and foremost aim to summarize the main issues surrounding the interpretation of the commented text as well as the relevant scholarship on it. In that respect Fognagnolo’s work is exemplary.

In sum, Fogagnolo’s meticulously researched and comprehensive book provides a strong foundation upon which scholars interested in Zoilus, as well as in the history of ancient criticism and rhetoric, can fruitfully build. Her commented edition will remain a standard reference for years to come and will also be of interest to Homerists as well as scholars interested in the ancient reception of archaic poetry.



[1] BMCR 2021.05.19

[2] Friedländer, U., De Zoilo aliisque Homeri obtrectatoribus, Königsberg 1895.

[3] Williams, M. F., Zoilos of Amphipolis (71), in I. Worthington (ed.) Brill’s New Jacoby, 2013.

[4] While Fogagnolo does not explicitly argue for this position, she is open to the possibility that Zoilus’ treatise may have included solutions to the criticisms raised against Homer (see pp. 159-161).

[5] I defend this interpretation at length in Réal, M. Noisy Omens and Enslaved Gods: Interpreting Zoilus’ Criticisms of Homer, Mnemosyne, forthcoming.