Homer in the Margins: The Art of Citation in the Ancient Literary Commentary

Database Overview

In the 3rd century BCE, Greek literary culture took a decisive turn with the establishment of the first massive libraries. These substantial collections, of which the library at Alexandria in Egypt was most prominent, enabled scholars to engage in new levels of research and, most importantly for us, provided a context in which authoritative editions of canonical literary works could be produced through the careful collation of extant versions. Closely allied with this project of textual criticism was the construction of extensive line-by-line commentaries to explain the text and to justify any proposed emendations. These hypomnemata (“notes”), as they were called, existed in separate papyrus rolls that were linked to the text via lemmata, and they addressed a broad range of topics—lexicography, mythology, ethnography, literary criticism, and more—all in service of illuminating the text for the reader.

Sadly, we possess none of these commentaries in their original form, but they initiated a rich tradition of exegetical scholarship that continues today.  Over the centuries these original Alexandrian commentaries were copied, adapted, epitomized, and expanded according to the needs of an ever-changing readership, and eventually they found their way into the margins of the same medieval manuscripts that transmit the ancient literary works themselves.  Although transformed in many ways over the years, at their core the “scholia,” as the notes are called, share the same DNA as their Alexandrian predecessors, and there is ample reason to believe that they accurately communicate the principles and methods–if not always the exact language–of ancient scholars.  (Indeed, the tradition appears to have been fairly conservative in its transmission, a notion supported in part by the papyrus record, as some unearthed hypomnemata fragments bear a very close resemblance to the medieval marginalia.)  It is therefore possible to see in these copious scholia a holistic picture of ancient exegetical practices, even if it is often impossible to connect the notes with specific times, people, and places. 


Some marginal comments to the opening verse of the Iliad, found in the famous Venetus A manuscript (10th cent. CE). The first question addressed is why Homer would begin his epic with “wrath,” an ill-omened word.

Citations in the Ancient Commentary

One of the most prominent aspects of this tradition is the illumination of a text by the inclusion of literary citations.  These references–which perform a variety of functions that include justifying idiosyncratic verb usage, providing background myths, exemplifying poetic techniques, and much more–are usually regarded as the most valuable aspect of the ancient commentary tradition, since they preserve many fragments of works that would otherwise be totally lost to us, or give variant readings for texts we possess in another form.  Yet, despite a recent renewal of interest in the scholia sua gratia as a window into the world of ancient literary criticism, there has been no significant study of the practice of citation itself as an interpretive tool.   My project is an attempt to break some new ground within this topic by examining an important subset of the data: citations of Homeric poetry used in the scholia to other ancient authors.

The great Alexandrian scholar Aristarchus of Samothrace is often credited with one of the most famous principles of ancient exegesis: Homēron ex Homērou saphēnizein, “to clarify Homer by Homer”—that is, to solve obscurities and difficulties in a Homeric passage by using other Homeric passages as a basis for comparison.  This system of exegesis is rooted in two assumptions: 1) Homer is consistent in his diction, style, and technique.  2) Homer is an authoritative source of knowledge for the form and content of poetry.  In service to this end, the Homeric scholia (by far the most massive corpus of ancient commentaries still extant) contain thousands of cross-references to other Homeric verses in order to explicate a given word, verse, or passage.  But in truth Homer’s shadow loomed much larger than this, for the scholia to many other authors (both prose and poetry) employ hundreds of their own Homeric citations to explain or enrich the text at hand.  While by no means the only citations therein (the scholia to Euripides, for example, cite many authors in varying concentration and for varying purposes), the Homeric citations are the most numerous and the most prominent.  Well over 2000, in fact, may be found spread throughout the scholia to about two dozen authors, ranging from the great lights of Pindar and Sophocles to the lesser known Oppian and Nicander.  These citations testify to the wide use of an amplified version of the Aristarchan dictum: “to clarify all authors by Homer.”

It is an unfortunate fact that the scholia resist any clean chronological analysis.  Known provenance is indeed a rarity, and even when a known scholar is named, we may not be looking at the exact words of the original. On the other hand, with such a massive amount of data available, it is possible to speak confidently about the characteristics, limits, and trajectories of the tradition as a whole. In this way each citation gains importance as an echo from the polyphonous scholarly past: if these reverberations are difficult to interrogate individually, together they have much to tell us about the ancient art of citing Homer.  

Heurist’s Role

Heurist has provided a fluid framework in which to handle such a diverse body of material involving so many discrete factors.

Structure of the Database

Three major record types are used in analyzing the data:

  1. The scholia to non-Homeric works that contain references to Homer
  2. The passages of non-Homeric works to which the scholia are appended (Target Text)
  3. The passages of Homer that are referred to (Source Text)

An example of the first type appears below: here a commentator cites Iliad Book 2 in order to explain the mention of a particular island in Book 4 of Apollonius’ Argonautica.  The record contains reference information for both passages, as well as the Greek text of the scholion, my translation, and any relevant notes I wish to add.  Two other fields allow for more specialized marking.  1) A “Category” entry shows the topic of the question at hand; here the issue is the naming of an island, hence “Geography” (elsewhere Myth, Grammar, Poetic Technique, and several others).  2) A “Qualification” field allows the scholion to be tagged with a keyword so that it may be compared with others of its kind; here “Allusion,” because the scholion suggests explicitly that Apollonius consciously followed Homer – a special type of note, as most scholia simply provide a parallel without laying bare the commentator’s thoughts on the connection).

A sample Scholion record

From this scholion record it is easy to bring up examples of the second and third types.  One may view the target text to which the scholion applies by clicking the link for Apollonius above, yielding the result below.  Here one finds the reference information, the Greek text with my translation, and, at the bottom, the link back to the scholion record (which also records the special tags described above).

A sample record of the passage to which the scholion was attached

From the scholion record, clicking on the Homeric reference brings up an example of the third record type (Source Text).  Again, text and translation are readily available, along with a space for any notes needed to contextualize the passage.  At the bottom one finds links to other scholia that refer to this same Homeric passage.  As can be seen below, Iliad 2.829 is cited three times to make a geographical point in the scholia to Apollonius; the links provide access to the records for each scholion. 

The Homeric passage referred to in the scholion

Aims of the Project

Now that the database is nearing completion, it can provide answers to some important questions:

1) For what purposes is Homer cited (see the “Category” description above), and with what frequency?

2) What parts of Homer are most well known to the commentators? For example, which book of the Iliad is cited most? Are there any “golden” passages that are cited with tremendous frequency across the scholia to different authors?

3) How much does the genre of the target text affect the way Homer is cited? E.g., how do the citations to Apollonius differ from those made in connection to the texts of Demosthenes?

4) To what extent do ancient readers use Homer as a standard by which to judge other authors? What happens when an author goes against a Homeric precedent? (Relevant scholia can be marked by the “Comparison” tag for easy assemblage of evidence.)

5) Perhaps most importantly, to what extent did ancient readers conceive of authors as looking to Homer for guidance? Where do the commentaries lay bare an assumption that the text that they are explaining can be understood only in light of other interconnected artifacts from the Greek literary universe? In short, can the citations help us to tease out an ancient form of “intertextuality”? (The “Allusion” tag allows ready retrieval of examples.)

Additionally, the database may be useful to scholars wanting to know about the afterlife of a given Homeric passage within the commentary tradition, and it is easily searchable to this end, either by reference number or keyword. Those interested more broadly in the role of citation as an exegetical practice, or in the history of citation from antiquity to the Byzantine period, will also find meaningful analysis here. Finally, it is hoped that the inclusion of translations to all entries will be useful to newcomers in the world of scholia, where translations are not yet in vogue, and where the often compressed and idiosyncratic language of the commentaries can at times be particularly difficult.

In these ways the Heurist platform will serve—true to its etymology—as the discovery mechanism for the role of citation in the tradition of the ancient literary commentary. By tackling this traditional philological problem from the perspectives offered by the Digital Humanities, we can develop a new understanding of the history of Homer’s readers and, given the extent of his shadow, even the history of reading itself.

Special thanks to Ian Johnson and his team for their continued help in organizing and maintaining the database.

Joshua M. Smith
Assistant Professor, Classics
Johns Hopkins University