Homer in the Margins: Literary Citation and the Ancient Commentary

Joshua Smith

Citation with persistent identifier: Smith, Joshua. “Homer in the Margins: Literary Citation and the Ancient Commentary.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:SmithJ.Homer_in_the_Margins.2019


My project is an analysis of how and why Homer was cited by ancient Greek scholars in their commentaries to other authors, as evidenced by the extant scholia. On a formal level, I address the language and manner in which these citations are presented, as well as their distribution across both Homeric epics and the fields of knowledge that they address.  In more conceptual terms, I explain the methods and assumptions that underlie these citations. To what extent did ancient scholars consider Homer a literary authority worthy of application as a metric for the interpretation and aesthetic evaluation of other authors? Furthermore, how did scholars conceive of the ways in which other authors dealt with Homer’s work, whether through imitation, parody, or other modes of engagement? How do their assumptions about this engagement affect their reading methods? The project thus seeks to mark out new intellectual territory within the field of Classics by providing the first wide-ranging assessment of Homer’s place in the exegetical margins, and it does so by relying significantly on digital tools for the organization and assessment of such a vast corpus of citations.


Commenting on the canonical works of Greek literature was as vibrant an activity in antiquity as it is today. From at least the 3rd century BCE onward, scholars applied their wide-ranging knowledge and reading experience to the creation of substantial collections of notes that were intended to explain the meaning (broadly conceived) of some literary text. To our misfortune, no complete Greek commentary has survived from antiquity, but the tradition of commentary writing had a profound impact on later scholarship, and much ancient material survives in what are known as “scholia,” scholarly notes extant in medieval manuscripts of ancient literary works. These notes are a conglomeration of centuries of exegetical activity and, because they are usually anonymous, can be difficult to assess from a historical perspective. In addition to their great diversity of origin is their diversity of coverage, including textual criticism, linguistics, historical or mythical background, geography, philosophy, poetic technique, and a good deal more. Taken as a whole, the scholia make up a vast corpus of scholarship that testifies amply to how ancient readers did their reading.

Modern scholars access the scholia for many reasons, but traditionally scholia have been valued most of all for the citations they transmit, especially since many of the cross-referencing quotations they contain are not otherwise attested in extant literature, or they testify to alternative readings of texts we do have from other sources. On the other hand, very little systematic attention has been paid to the art of citation itself as a scholarly technique within the commentary tradition. My project breaks new ground on this topic through a comprehensive analysis of one of its most prominent subsets: citations of Homer found in the scholia to other ancient authors (encompassing direct quotation, paraphrase, and other, more oblique forms of reference). By testing the extent to which Homer was used as a tool for interpretation and criticism in the commentary tradition, I can provide new perspectives on ancient scholarship that have thus far been developed only on a very small scale, if at all. I therefore contribute to the field of Classics by opening up new avenues in citation studies while also expanding our knowledge of literary authority and exegesis in the classical world.

Of all the authors cited in published editions of Greek scholia, Homer is the most prolific. By using a variety of techniques, including both digital textual analysis and print author indices, I have collected over 2000 individual scholia in which a Homeric word, phrase, or passage (“source text”) is paired with some part of the text being commented on (“target text”). Since many scholia cite Homer more than once, the total number of discrete pairings of a source text and a target text is over 2400. To organize and annotate this large amount of data, I have constructed a digital database via Heurist, a database-creation platform operated by the University of Sydney and designed primarily to aid researchers in the Humanities in data management (http://heuristnetwork.org). Serving as an interactive edition of Homeric citations in the scholia, the corpus is fully searchable, with all scholia translated into English, most of them for the first time. In addition, a sophisticated system of annotations enables complex analysis along numerous trajectories (see below). By coordinating a triangulated set of relationships between source texts, target texts, and the scholia themselves, the database maps the Homeric branch of an ancient information network used in the process of literary exegesis.

Receiving a 2019-2020 non-residential fellowship at the CHS in conjunction with a period of research leave at Johns Hopkins enabled me to pursue work on this project, and during the 2019-2020 academic year I expect to complete the work that is already underway on my monograph, which synthesizes some of the most important information that may be gleaned from the database. At the time of the monograph’s publication, I will make the database publicly available as a companion website, so that anyone will be free to explore any aspect of my study further, or to use the open-access data in the development of new research. The monograph consists of the following chapters:

  1. An introduction lays out the parameters of the project and its place in current scholarship.
  2. “Citing Homer: Form, Scope, and Source” thoroughly documents the formal aspects of Homeric citations in the scholia (e.g., typical language used to introduce quotations). Here I also treat the relative concentrations of source and target texts within the corpus, computations easily performed within Heurist—for example, the relative distribution of citations across both Homeric epics, repetition of source texts across different target corpora, clear patterns of clustering, etc. I also offer some hypotheses on the likelihood that such citations were copied from ancient compendia now lost to us, as is sometimes postulated.
  3. Homeros Pansophos” elucidates the fields of knowledge in which Homer is invoked as an authority, an impressive range including lexicography, grammar, poetic technique, mythology, geography and ethnography, natural and ethical philosophy, paremiography, and more. Building on the statistical analysis presented in the first chapter, I explore the relative concentrations of these categories to reveal the purposes for which Homer was most and least cited, and to show some meaningful trends in the way that these figures vary across the different target corpora.
  4. “Homeric Touchstones” gives a glimpse of how scholars used Homer for evaluative purposes through an examination of scholia in which target authors are judged to have composed properly or improperly in light of the Homeric texts. Also treated is Homer’s role in discussions of poetic license: may authors safely diverge from Homeric precedent, or do they thereby risk harsh criticism?
  5. “Homeric Intertexts” addresses how ancient scholars conceived of the abiding presence of Homer within the Greek literary cosmos, including the complex question of whether they had some notion of what is normally described today as “intertextuality.”  Here I discuss the dozens of scholia explicitly alleging that a target author has consciously copied, adapted, or rejected Homer. This investigation demonstrates most powerfully of all why ancient readers ascribed such value to ex Homero exegesis: Homer was not just an authority useful for critiquing other literature, but an integral force that guided its very composition.

During my fellowship period, I worked especially on, among other things, the relative concentration of Homeric citations across the Iliad and Odyssey, as well as the ways in which those citations tend to be introduced and what those modes of presentation reveal about the nature of commentary writing in antiquity. The following may be taken as a sample of findings that are made possible by the database.

  1. The Iliad is cited at more than twice the rate of the Odyssey, with a surprisingly sizable preference for Iliad Book 2, which alone accounts for more than 10% of the entire corpus, a sign above all of the great popularity of Homer’s “Catalogue of Ships.”
  2. The loose presentation of some Homeric citations and the types of errors found in the occasional misquotations suggest strongly that Homer was often cited by the commentators by memory. As about 20% of the citations do not come with any named designation of “Homer” or “the Poet” (as he was often known), and as numerous quotations are abbreviated or left short as an incipit for a larger passage, it is very likely that commentators expected their readers to access Homer by memory as well.
  3. The range of Homeric material presented is fantastically diverse, and over half of all citations are found only once in the published scholia, while only a small selection of about 50 citations occur more than three times. This data suggests (strongly, to my mind) that Homer’s presence in the commentary tradition was not primarily engendered by rote copying of passages from a handful of compendia. While such compendia certainly existed, the evidence seems to suggest that commentators simply knew their Homer very well, and that by their own creative powers they could apply a substantial range of Homeric material for numerous exegetical purposes.
  4. Citations of Homer in the commentaries to other authors often show a clear genetic affinity with the scholia to Homer that are found at the corresponding passages of the Iliad or Odyssey. This means that commentators interpreted the works of other authors not only by the help of Homer himself, but also by the help of his own coterie of commentators.

My project thus enfolds Classical reception, citation studies, and the digital humanities into a diachronic investigation of literary authority and influence that illuminates in new ways a central technique of ancient reading practices. With the help of digital tools, I provide a fresh account of how Homer came to colonize the margins of other texts, and the methodology used in this book, along with the companion website housing the interactive database, provides a rigorous and sophisticated model by which future projects may fruitfully examine the phenomenon of the literary citation.  The chance to devote time to this project at the CHS provided a necessary aid to its advancement, as well as a valuable space for my ideas and methods to be refined through attachment to the library and scholarly community there.

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