BMCR 2024.02.18

Homer from Z to A: metrics, linguistics, and Zenodotus

, Homer from Z to A: metrics, linguistics, and Zenodotus. Brill's studies in Indo-European languages and linguistics, 24. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2022. Pp. xii, 351. ISBN 9789004522336.



This book by Claire Le Feuvre (hereafter I refer to her as CLF, in accordance with the abbreviation that she herself uses in citing her previous work) will be an inspiration to newer generations of Classicists who study Homer. As they contemplate the numbingly massive bibliography that chronicles so many years of Homeric research published by their elders and, farther back in time, by the intellectual ancestors of such elders, Classicists may be tempted to think, falsely, that nearly everything important that needs to be said about Homer has already been said. As CLF argues most winningly, more needs to be said, much more, about the content and even the artistry of Homeric poetry, which is still in need of further viewing from a vast variety of different angles. A shining example of such a need, as she shows, is all that we have yet to learn about Homer from Zenodotus of Ephesus, who flourished in the third century BCE and who had been appointed the first official director of the Library of Alexandria. Zenodotus curated an edition of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey that differed significantly, in both form and content, from a later edition curated by Aristarchus of Samothrace, director of the Library in the second century BCE, whose reputation as an editor—not only of Homer but also of other Classics—eventually overshadowed the earlier editorial efforts of Zenodotus. In her book, CLF has convincingly rehabilitated the testimony of Zenodotus in his efforts to edit the text of Homer.

Tracing forward in time this testimony, which has survived only in the drastically abbreviated reportage of later ancient sources, transmitted primarily in scholia accompanying medieval Homeric manuscripts, CLF compares the subsequent testimony of Aristarchus as it likewise survived in the same later sources. As we learn from these sources, Aristarchus frequently questioned the edition of Zenodotus, whose Homeric text featured a wealth of alternative wordings—ordinarily described as variants—where the form and the meaning of such variants differed, sometimes radically, from the corresponding forms preferred by Aristarchus. CLF aims to validate the variants that had existed in the Homeric text of Zenodotus—without necessarily invalidating the forms reported by Aristarchus. Her aim is to reconstruct, as far as possible, the Homeric textual tradition by starting from an era that goes farther back in time than the era of Aristarchus. As the title of her book already implies, CLF starts from Z and not from A, that is, from Zenodotus and not from Aristarchus. But then, moving forward in time, her reconstruction of the Homeric textual tradition shows how the edition produced by Zenodotus for the Library of Alexandria in the third century BCE eventually gave way, in the next century, to the edition produced by Aristarchus (for philological background, I would add to her Bibliography at p. 327 an influential article by Franco Montanari 2002).

In Chapter 1, CLF gives a grand overview of her project in reconstructing, as far as possible, the Homeric text edited by Zenodotus, and she finishes off at p. 81 with what she describes as “a perhaps disturbing conclusion.” I quote here her formulation: “reading Homer from Z(enodotus) to A(ristarchus), not the other way around, is the only way to understand the making of the Iliad and the Odyssey.” CLF follows up with a footnote, p. 81n126, where she explains that she is pointedly alluding here to the titles of two books by Martin West, The making of the Iliad (2011) and The making of the Odyssey (2015). As we see from examples cited by CLF in her Chapter 1, she acknowledges that “West did, to some extent, read Homer from Z to A,” but then she adds: “However, as a philologist, he did not apply the methods of linguistics, although in several cases he actually saw that Zenodotus’ text was older.”

The point that CLF is making here is not really negative, since she recognizes the philological acumen of West. Rather, she is emphasizing an additional need for linguistic methodology in determining which variants in the Homeric textual tradition are “older” and which ones are relatively more recent. Nor is CLF claiming that Zenodotean variants are always “older” and that Aristarchean variants are always more recent. Clearly, there are examples where Zenodotean variants are more recent, as we see from her survey at pp. 33–39.

I can make the point more positively: CLF is ideally qualified in undertaking an analysis of “older” as well as more recent Homeric textual variants, since she is a superb linguist. On the other hand, she is also a superb philologist, avoiding mistakes occasionally made by linguists who neglect to consider the conditioning of variants by the formulaic system of Homeric poetry; in this regard, I find particularly instructive her remarks at pp. 12–13 about such mistakes made by linguists.

In any case, the core of this book by CLF, extending from Chapter 2 through Chapter 10, is a sustained linguistic as well as philological analysis of selected variants deriving from the Homeric edition of Zenodotus, where we see her analyzing, systematically, both the archaisms and the innovations of these variants—and then comparing them with alternative variants recorded in the later Homeric edition of Aristarchus. In these chapters, CLF consistently refutes various tired old arguments by philologists who insist on thinking that most Homeric variants reported by Alexandrian editors, especially variants attributed to the testimony of Zenodotus, are mere conjectures.

In the case of variants recorded by Aristarchus for his own Homeric edition, I should add, we need to take into account the distinctive format of his base text as transcribed into his own papyrus scrolls. In this base text of his, Aristarchus recorded not his own version of what he thought was the real poetry of Homer but rather a version of this poetry that derived from the so-called Vulgate, which was the Homeric textual tradition that had been current in the city-state of Athens ever since the fifth and the fourth centuries BCE—here I give merely the roughest dating for the relatively stable textual transmission of the Athenian Vulgate. The text of this Vulgate was further stabilized in the base text of Aristarchus, who collated commonly available papyrus manuscripts of such an Athenian Homer—manuscripts that he called koinai or ‘common’. My translation here is meant to convey the Athenian ideological sense of ‘common to all’.

The textual consensus produced by collating such common texts can be viewed as a Koine—that is, as a text that was not only common to all, notionally, but also standard for all. For a rough analogy in semantics, I think of the evolving but relatively stable textual tradition of the Book of Common Prayer, which was a common text in the sense that it was a standard text for the evolving Church of England.

For Aristarchus, the Athenian Vulgate—or, if I may describe it more accurately, the Athenian Koine—was the base text for his standardized edition of Homer. Nevertheless, according to Aristarchus himself, such a base text was not the text that had supposedly been written by Homer himself, in Athens, around 1000 BCE (scholia A at Iliad XIII 197)—I am converting here the date, as calculated by Aristarchus, to the equivalent date in terms of our own contemporary system of dating.

So, the base text of Homer in the standardized edition of Aristarchus was not the text originally written by Homer—which is how Aristarchus had thought of such an original text. Rather, the Homeric base text as edited by Aristarchus was merely his starting point in his effort to reconstruct such an original text. For purposes of this reconstruction, Aristarchus went far beyond the process of merely collating koinai or ‘common’ manuscripts of Homer, which were still plentifully available in his time—a process that culminated in his base text, which was a standardized and regularized reconstruction of the Athenian Koine. Far more than that, Aristarchus also collated rare manuscripts of Homer that deviated from the Athenian standard. And the most prestigious of all these Homeric manuscripts was none other than the base text of Zenodotus himself.

The textual variants to be found in non-Koine manuscripts of the Homeric text—CLF would describe them as non-Vulgate manuscripts—presented Aristarchus with a daunting variety of choices in his attempt to reconstruct what he thought had actually been written by an original Homer. In some cases he preferred the Koine variants, while in other cases he thought that one or another of the alternative variants he found in the non-Koine manuscripts was closer to what Homer himself had supposedly written. In recording and commenting on these non-Koine variants, Aristarchus evidently did not have sufficient space in the margins of the papyrus scrolls containing his base text. So, he produced a second set of papyrus scrolls containing his Hypomnemata or ‘Commentaries’. His base text was keyed to these Hypomnemata by way of sigla, which were markers placed in the left-hand margin at the beginning of any Homeric verse in the base text where Aristarchus commented, in his Hypomnemata, on sources of alternative variants found in alternative manuscripts—including the manuscript containing the base text of Zenodotus. Whereas these alternative manuscripts were indicated in general by way of the siglum known as the diplē (shaped “>”), the manuscript of Zenodotus merited a special siglum, known as the diplē periestigmenē (shaped “>:”).

In the previous five paragraphs here, I have summarized the basic arguments that can be made for thinking of the base text of Aristarchus as a close approximation of the Athenian Koine (Nagy 2004, especially Chapter 1; online 2nd ed. 2023.12.07). That said, however, we now run into a major complication in the history of Homeric textual transmission. It involves two editors of Homer, Aristonicus and Didymus, followers of the Aristarchean editorial tradition, who can both be dated, roughly, to the first century BCE extending into the first century CE. Both these editors, whose lifetimes postdate Aristarchus by well over a whole century, are the primary sources, by way of Homeric scholia, for surviving information about the Homeric variants analyzed by Aristarchus in his Hypomnemata. But the major complication here, as analyzed more fully elsewhere (Nagy 2010:33–37), is this: whereas Aristonicus was relocated from Alexandria to Rome, together with the original base text and the original Hypomnemata of Aristarchus, the situation was different for Didymus, who stayed in Alexandria and no longer had access to these original texts. So, Didymus was forced to depend on secondary Aristarchean base texts and on secondary Aristarchean hypomnemata. It was such a lack of accessibility in Alexandria that eventually resulted in uncertainties and even confusions about a basic question: which non-Koine variants were preferred by Aristarchus but cited only in his Hypomnemata? Only where the testimony of Aristonicus is clearly reported in the scholia can we be sure about which given Homeric form existed in the original base text of Aristarchus and which alternative form was simply cited as a variant in his original Hypomnemata. The uncertainties and confusions about this basic question had led, already in the era of Didymus, to the occasional replacement, in post-Aristarchean base texts, of Koine forms by non-Koine variants originally found only in the Hypomnemata. A prominent example was a set of two different post-Aristarchean base texts known to Didymus simply as the Aristarkheioi.

Such a trend of replacing Koine forms with non-Koine variants in a given Homeric base text has persisted even into our own times. In modern editions of Homer, Aristarchean preferences that live in the apparatus criticus or the basement, as it were, of some editors can make their way into the text proper or the living room, as it were, of other editors.

In the midst of such confusion, the book of CLF brings clarification. Her book makes it clear that we cannot reconstruct completely the base text of any of the ancient editors of Homer—and I have in mind here not only Zenodotus but also Aristarchus. Even the Athenian Koine—the “Vulgate” for CLF—can hardly be reconstructed in any sense of completeness. On the other hand, what can in fact be selectively reconstructed, by way of sound linguistics combined with sound philology, are relatively earlier and later variations in the formulaic system that generated Homeric poetry. A most telling example, to my mind, is the formulaic analysis, by Leonard Muellner (1976:57–62), of the Zenodotean reading ἔλπομαι εὐχόμενος at Iliad VIII 526 as opposed to the Aristarchean reading εὔχομαι ἐλπόμενος (noted by CLF p. 40n51).

Besides such prestigious texts of Homer as exemplified by the base text of Zenodotus, there were also “commercial copies” (CLF p. 9) of non-Koine versions circulating by way of the “book trade,” as reflected in papyrus fragments of the Homeric text that date from the early Hellenistic period—the era of Zenodotus. Such early Homeric texts, preserved in fragments of what are sometimes called “wild papyri” or “eccentric papyri” have been expertly analyzed by Graeme Bird (2010, noted by CLF p. 1n4) as witnesses of genuine formulaic variation.

In the case of Zenodotus himself, what is of special interest to Classicists is that his non-Koine edition of Homer, veering from the Athenian standard, was an inspiration for contemporaries like Callimachus and Apollonius of Rhodes, whose Hellenistic poetry is replete with non-Koine Homeric variants, as we can see most clearly from the informative research of Antonios Rengakos (1993 and 1994). Besides the Homeric scholia, the Hellenistic poets thus provide another major source for appreciating the Homer of Zenodotus.



Bird, G. D. 2010. Multitextuality in the Homeric Iliad: The Witness of Ptolemaic Papyri. Hellenic Studies 43. Cambridge MA, and Washington DC.

Montanari, F. 2002. “Alexandrian Homeric Philology: The Form of the Ekdosis and the Variae Lectiones.” ΕΠΕΑ ΠΤΕΡΟΕΝΤΑ: Beiträge zur Homerforschung, eds. M. Reichel and A. Rengakos, 119–140. Stuttgart.

Muellner, L. 1976. The Meaning of Homeric EYXOMAI through its Formulas. Innsbruck.

Nagy, G. 2004a. Homer’s Text and Language. Chicago and Urbana IL. Online 2nd ed. 2023.12.07.

—. 2009. Homer the Classic. Hellenic Studies 36. Cambridge MA and Washington DC.

Rengakos, A. 1993. Der Homertext und die hellenistischen Dichter. Hermes Einzelschriften 64. Stuttgart.

—. 1994. Apollonios Rhodios und die antike Homererklärung. Munich.

West, M. L. 2011. The making of the Iliad: disquisition and analytical commentary. Oxford.

—. 2015. The making of the Odyssey. Oxford.