CRITICS, COMPILERS AND COMMENTATORS: an Introduction to Roman Philology 200 BCE – 800 CE

James E.G. Zetzel

OUP (2018) p/b 425pp £19.99 (ISBN 9780195380521)

‘Knowledge of correct Latin speech’ (recte loquendi scientia) and ‘explanation of the poets’ (poetarum enarratio) were, said Quintilian (1.4.2), the two standard duties of Roman teachers, much as they are today. Glosses and comments to elucidate language, meaning and content were added to texts and then these comments were themselves commented on, and in an oral and rhetorical culture such as Rome the use of words could be a matter of success and failure or even life and death. Legal texts, in particular, needed commentary and explanation for the obvious reason that, in law, words have to hold water as well as convey significance. In a working political system where the spoken word could lead to power, the correct use of Latin was vital for aspiring leaders, and it is fascinating to note that Julius Caesar himself composed an influential text (de analogia) about language: it is difficult to imagine our own current leaders engaging in this sort of research. 

This book falls neatly into two halves, a narrative looking at one thousand years in the history of Roman philology and then a biographical and bibliographical list of all the texts and authors whose works are known or attested. Z. has done a splendid job of breathing life into the apparently dry pedantic world of the schoolroom, and his account of a vast array of literature manages to be both helpful to the scholar and of value to the interested reader whose own grammar studies perhaps began (and ended) with B.H. Kennedy.

The first half of the book is a Cook’s tour of the subject and looks in detail at the world of the ancient scholar such as Varro (116-27 BC), whose de lingua Latina (dedicated to Cicero) is a vital text in this enquiry. Varro’s distinction between impositio (‘naming’ words) and declinatio (inflecting words within semantic groups) reveals a quest to find order within the living language of his city and sets up the critical distinction between the glossary and the grammar. Much of the science of philology concerns itself with meanings of words—especially obscure words—and etymology can play a part in this, such as was done to good effect by Isidore of Seville, who also earns a section to himself here (117-119).

Pupils rely on teachers, and scholars rely on reference works, and it is pleasing to read about the big names such as Palaemon, who was the Romans’ go-to grammarian, albeit with an inflated sense of his own importance—he called Varro a pig—and the arch textual critic Probus. It is also sobering to read that Palaemon was an ex-slave and Probus an ex-soldier. Fronto, the teacher of Marcus Aurelius, showed that in selecting and placing words (in verbis … eligendis conlocandisque) there is nowhere to hide, and his work is surely as vital to journalists and writers today as Thucydides is said to be to the budding generals of West Point. The ‘earliest significant piece of Roman exegesis’ (p. 143) is Asconius’ commentary on Cicero, and the most often cited is probably Servius on Virgil, and in both cases the commentaries matter greatly: Asconius (3-88 AD) helps us to make sense of Cicero and Servius (4th century AD) gives us insight into what early readers made of Virgil, especially when his commentary was later augmented by other hands into what is now known as Servius Auctus or DS. Virgil and Cicero were school texts from the very beginning and so attracted attention from teachers: Horace was less of a school classic but was also much studied, and the commentaries of Porphyrio and Acro concentrated on the areas where exegesis was most needed, namely metre and content. They do (like the rest of us) sometimes get things wrong—Varius in Odes 1.6 was not an orator pace Acro, for instance—but both of them alert readers to meanings and readings which they might otherwise have missed. We are fortunate to know something about these named commentators, but most of what are now termed scholia on authors such as Juvenal, Statius, Lucan, and Persius started life as marginal comments written onto manuscripts in the 5th and 6th centuries AD by authors unknown.

Schoolrooms furnished grammarians with a living and an audience, and Z. quotes (pp. 169-170, 193-4) some splendid examples of the sort of linguistic catechesis which went on if you were taught from (say) the ars minor of Donatus. Metre was a standard topic of instruction, although this was only applicable to the study of poets and would not in itself kit you out as an orator: for that you needed rhetorical tropes, and the genre known in Greek as progymnasmata was translated into Latin (by e.g. Priscian) and used to equip the trainee orator with exhaustive (and exhausting) practice in sounding spontaneous and fluent. The interesting relationship between Christianity and paganism also entered the schools, where Christians needed to learn Latin but did not wish to do so through the medium of pagan authors and religions, and looked for what Z. calls ‘God’s grammar’: for every Christian who thought that Virgil’s Eclogue 4 prefigured the birth of Christ there was a Gregory the Great excoriating the work of Donatus who made pupils decline the pagan word Musa. Grammars went wherever Latin went, which means that such texts were needed all over the empire and beyond—even Ireland can attest at least eighteen grammatical works in the 7th-8th centuries AD. 

The second part of this book is a portrait gallery of the scholars themselves, divided up into three categories: (a) dictionaries and encyclopaedias (Festus, Nonius Marcellus and Isidore), (b) commentaries on ten key specific authors, and (c) no fewer than ninety named authors of grammars and reference works. This may seem unduly neat for what is a very scattered field of reference, and Z. does acknowledge the difficulty in placing a text such as Macrobius’ Saturnalia or Aulus Gellius’ Noctes Atticae. For each named author in this second part of the book, Z. tells us where to find the best text and translations, indices, bibliographical information and background information. 

The book has a full bibliography and index, and it also contains abundant information on the available online resources to assist the modern day Priscian in his labours. Palaemon, who asserted that litterae would die with him, will be no doubt happy to be found sitting on the Google Cloud for the rest of digital time.

John Godwin

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