In this book I seek to tie together the Parry-Lord theory of oral composition with the evidence of the Ptolemaic papyri of the Homeric Iliad . This necessarily includes an examination of the traditional practice of textual criticism, in an effort to show that the texts of Homer must be treated rather differently from the texts of classical and biblical authors in general.
Accordingly my first chapter looks both at the principles of textual criticism, and at some of the ways in which they have been applied. The discipline partakes of the elements both of a science and of an art, and some of its most noteworthy practitioners have often had personal characteristics seemingly as “eccentric” as any of the textual evidence I will be considering.
My second chapter moves from classical texts in general to Homer in particular; I seek to show that the Homeric textual evidence is different in nature, not just in degree, from that of other authors. I suggest that the nature of the case calls for a different approach: one in which the goal is not—and cannot be—to establish the one true “original” text, since such a thing never existed in the way that it did for such authors as Pindar or Virgil.
In my third chapter I introduce the Ptolemaic papyri of the Iliad , first describing their discovery and the initial reactions of scholars, then placing their evidence into the context of other textual evidence of the Iliad . I spend some time examining their perhaps most “eccentric” feature—the so-called “plus verses”—including some visual aids in the form of charts and tables that are designed to help the reader grasp a sense of the unusual nature of the evidence. One of my goals is to show that the evidence of the Ptolemaic papyri, small in scale though it may be, should be seen as representative of what must have been a much larger reality; if we had Ptolemaic papyri covering the whole of the Iliad (rather than the few passages we do have), we should expect that the proportion of plus (and minus) verses—as well as other significant variation—would have been just as high for the whole as it is for our small but tantalizing sample.
I end Chapter Three with short analyses of some passages from the Ptolemaic papyri—passages which include both plus verses and significant variation within neighboring lines. Although I do not account for all such cases of textual variation, I do seek to show that in these cases (and in others that I might have excluded) the nature of the variation is “organic”—lines have not been “dropped” into place arbitrarily; rather, they give the appearance of having “grown” in their current locations, in the process modifying their surroundings and resulting in a coherent “version” of an episode that is no less “Homeric”; they may indeed (witness the passages analyzed) be more emotionally intense than the versions with which we are more familiar.
I end with an appendix that contains a list (by no means comprehensive) of some of the terms—particularly Latin—used in traditional textual criticism. Some of these will no doubt be familiar to most classicists, but a few may not. Also in the Appendix are some further examples of cases where the transmission of a “text”—whether written or mathematical or even musical—shares in the same kind of “multitextuality” that I am claiming is exemplified by the Ptolemaic papyri.
I note here that this book will also be available in electronic format, with additional supplementary material, on the Center for Hellenic Studies website, URL This will enable further electronic dialogue on the topics discussed in this book, and I welcome opportunities for such conversations.
I have benefited and learned a lot from the prior work of several scholars, including particularly, with respect to the Ptolemaic papyri, that of T. W. Allen, B. M. Bolling, D. F. Sutton, M. J. Apthorp, S. West, and M. L. West. The fact that my own conclusions may not always concur with theirs does not lessen my appreciation for their diligent and careful scholarship. I offer my grateful thanks to Carolyn Higbie, Timothy Boyd, and Albert Henrichs for helpful comments and advice on earlier versions of this project. I express my deep appreciation to Leonard Muellner for his regular and friendly encouragement, and to Gregory Nagy for his constant support and for being a model of clarity of thought and expression. Finally, my sincere thanks to Jill Curry Robbins for her editorial wisdom, good humor, and patience.