5. Vico's Homer Makes the Greco-Roman Continuum Possible

If Vico’s program in the Scienza Nuova entails using iconography to divert pan-European discourse away from the Quarrel in order to proceed toward establishing an anti-Cartesian empirical model, what is the immediate target of his resulting new “ray”? Giuseppe Mazzotta gives this answer:
“La discoverta del vero Omero” unfolds by telling about a deliberate reversal of the most traditional and authoritative meditations on Homer's poetry. The polemical target for Vico … is Plato, whose uses of Homer are directly confronted. To discover the true Homer … means for Vico to establish the principle that “the wisdom of Homer was not at all different in kind” (NS/780) from the early poet-theologians of archaic Greece. This principle, as Vico goes on to say, counters Plato's opinion articulated in the Republic: “yet, as Plato left firmly fixed the opinion that Homer was endowed with sublime esoteric wisdom (and all the other philosophers have followed in his train, with [pseudo-] Plutarch foremost, writing an entire book on the matter) we shall here particularly examine if Homer was ever a philosopher. On this question another complete book was written by Dionysius Longinus, which is mentioned by Dionysius Laertius in his Life of Pyrrho [i.e., by Suidas in the article on Longinus]” (NS/780). [1]
I must disagree with Mazzotta if he means that the ulterior referent of Book III is Plato. I think it is actually Homer as people had commonly conceived “him”: a shadowy personage who, Vico believes, had always been misprised as a philosophical ancestor of Plato. In support of this view, I quote all the first part of §780: “Although our demonstration in the preceding book that poetic wisdom was the older wisdom of the peoples of Greece, who were first theological and later heroic poets, should carry as a necessary consequence that the wisdom of Homer was not at all different in kind …” Clearly, “not at all different in kind” refers to Homer’s “poetic Wisdom” as he had inherited it “from first theological and later heroic poets.” Observe that Vico’s order here does not contradict his later conjecture at §856, which I cited above as an example of his reliance on classical authority, that “the vain diligence of the chronologists [cf. Swift and Pope] has placed … [Hesiod] thirty years before Homer.” In §780 Vico establishes his knowledge of written authority by pointedly including the names of his sources—Plutarch, Dionysius Longinus, and Diogenes Laertius. And in accord with his “paradoxical” strategies throughout the Scienza Nuova, the most crucial thing Vico does here is to have us understand that Homer is the culmination of a lineage of “heroic poets” who were not philosophers.
Notice the similarity of Vico’s line of thinking here with Nagy’s, in the sense that both are asserting that “Homer” as a cultural phenomenon is best understood as reflecting an evolutionary process. As evidence, I cite what amounts to a position statement from Pindar’s Homer:
Essentially, the hermeneutic model of Panhellenism must be viewed as an evolutionary trend extending into the Classical period, not some fait accompli that can be accounted for solely in terms of, say, the eighth century. In other words the concept of Panhellenism as I use it here is a relative one. Thus various types of Archaic Greek poetry, such as the elegiac tradition preserved by Theognis, make their bid for Panhellenic status considerably later than Homeric and Hesiodic poetry …
I refer to this process, described here as crystallization, simply as textual fixation. I apply this notion of textual fixation to oral traditions with an emphasis on gradual patterns of fixity in an ongoing process of recomposition in diffusion, and without presupposing that the actual composition of the "text" required the medium of writing …
By Panhellenic poetry, then, I mean those kinds of poetry and song that operated not simply on the basis of local traditions suited for local audiences. Rather, Panhellenic poetry would have been the product of an evolutionary synthesis of traditions, so that the tradition that it represents concentrates on traditions that tend to be common to most locales and peculiar to none … Such a synthetic tradition would require a narrower definition than suitable for the kind of oral poetry and song described by Albert Lord on the basis of his field work in the South Slavic oral traditions. The difference is that such a tradition is in the process of losing the immediacy of the performer-audience interaction expected in the context of ongoing recomposition in performance. The teleology of this loss is attested: in the historical period Homeric and Hesiodic as well as old elegiac and iambic poetry is being performed verbatim by rhapsôidoi 'rhapsodes' at Panhellenic festivals … [2]
The key concept in Nagy’s differentiation is that he identifies “Panhellenic poetry” as the relatively late result of a “synthesis of traditions.” This argument resembles Vico’s, which he perhaps expresses most succinctly here in Book III:
§860. Though Aristarchus emended Homer’s poems, they still retain a great variety of dialects and many improprieties of speech, which must have been idiomatic expressions of [the] various peoples of Greece, and many licenses in meter besides. On the other hand, we seemed compelled to posit a sort of halfway existence and to say that Homer was an idea or heroic archetype [carattere] of the Greeks who recounted their history in song [my emphasis].
The “proximate cause,” as it were, of §860 (which acknowledges Aristarchus, by consensus one of the best-regarded Alexandrian redactors of Nagy’s Period 5) is the problem inherent in positing one historical, literary “Homer,” given the obviously contradictory linguistic evidence. Vico realizes that the sustained Alexandrian project of assembling and preserving an “authentic text” flew in the face of the concept of a long, geographically decentralized antecedent oral tradition, which is a sound historical (that is, “anti-Cartesian”) model for explaining the multiple Homeric “local idioms.” Comparing Vico with Nagy yields an enlightening affinity: Nagy writes that this final stage took place “not long after 150 BCE or so, which is a date that also marks the disappearance of the so-called ‘eccentric’ papyri.” The factor that both scholars are recognizing is the fundamental threat that the enterprise of redaction, whether Peisistratean or Alexandrian posed to the heterogeneity that attends “Homer’s” Panhellenic origins. Though Vico does not say it outright in §860, he clearly thinks that the heterogeneity of the Homeric poems is evidence that they are actually best understood as Panhellenic cultural phenomena. He saves this insight to serve as the leading thesis of Book III, Section 2:
§873. When some of my friends, men remarkable for their acumen and scholarly learning, read my New Science in its less methodical first edition, they began to suspect that the traditional Homer had never existed, a thesis I had not yet conceived or formulated. In this light, the traditional accounts of Homer and his epics, combined with my own analysis of them, compel me to assert that the same thing happened to Homer as to the Trojan War. That is, it defines an important historical era, but the most perceptive critics agree that it never really took place. And like the Trojan War, if Homer had not left behind show’s great and certain vestiges in the form of his epics, so many difficulties would lead us to conclude that Homer was a purely ideal poet who in fact never existed as an individual.
This “Introduction” is a portal through which Vico progresses toward his ultimate message, which he announces in his title to Chapter One of the section: “The Inconsistencies and Improbabilities of the Homer Hitherto Believed in Become Proper and Necessary in the Homer Herein Discovered.” In three insights that come in lightning succession, Vico discloses the sweepingly modern direction of his thought on the Homeric Question:
§875 … [T]he reason why the Greek peoples so vied with each other for the honor of being … [Homer's] fatherland, and why almost all claimed him as citizen, is that the Greek peoples were themselves Homer.
§876 … [T]he reason why opinions as to his age vary so much is that our Homer truly lived on the lips and in the memories of the peoples of Greece throughout the whole period from the Trojan War to the time of Numa, a span of 460 years.
§878. [The] rhapsodes had exceptionally retentive memories, and, being poor, sustained life by singing the poems of Homer throughout the cities of Greece, and they were the authors of these poems inasmuch as they were part of these peoples who had composed their histories in the poems.
These remarkable observationsrepresent Vico's logical conclusions from his view expressed at §856 that the “Rinaldi” poets were “modern” manifestations of ancient archetypes. In turn, this invocation of a popular oral tradition is based on a foundational thesis regarding Homer he had made in §852:
By the etymology of their name from the two words that compose it, rhapsodes were stitchers together of songs, and these were songs they most certainly have collected from no other than their own peoples.
It is striking that in §852 Vico looks beyond the issue of “Homer’s” identity to envision an oral scenario that encompasses a broad culture. Moreover, he implies that this era predates the fragmented status of the “stitched-together” songs. If one accepts this progression from §852 to §875–§878 as significant, one can also accept Vico’s consistent tacit assumption that his "rhapsode" was an Archaic Panhellenic form of the same sort of cultural practice that is Period 2 of Nagy’s model. The strongest indication of an affinity comes, in my view, from Vico’s two Nagy-like phrases: “the Greek peoples were themselves Homer" and "Homer truly lived on the lips and in the memories of the peoples of Greece.” There is a methodological resemblance, as well. Vico’s reference to the “Rinaldi” singers represents one of his few uses of empirical evidence rather than anti-Cartesian literary authority to support a hypothesis. It is a fledgling attempt to provide his argument with a truly “scientific” element. Here, Vico anticipates the Parry-Lord extrapolation from the gúslars to various ancient oral traditions, as well as Nagy’s interest in reifying the “oral-evolutionary model” by seeking current and geographically diverse instances.
At the same time, Vico is being innovative, addressing the problem of Homeric fragmentation in a more conventional “pre-Wolfian” sense. Mazzotta has summed up this aim by remarking on the general belief in Vico’s day that “the editorial unification of the Homeric poems, which originally were disjointed, fabulous popular proliferations, was willed by the Pisistratids [sic], at the Panathenaic festivals.” He notes that Vico covers this topic in §853–§856:
[T]his insight into the structural features of the compilation, which constitutes the Homeric encyclopedia …, gives access to an oblique reflection of Vico's: the link between poetry and politics, which is here represented by the tyrants’ decision to unify into a false unity the originally disjunct, heterogeneous, and contradictory Homeric poems. [3]
Mazzotta also fully realizes that a Homeric encyclopedia conflicts with Vico’s evolutionary theory:
[T]he stories sung by Demodokos or by Phemius in the Odyssey are … a mise en abîme of the "confused mass of material” (NS/853), of the "infinite difference" (NS/853) still visible in the styles of the two poems. The reason for this editorial falsification of the persistent, irreducible heterogeneity of the poems into a totalising, encompassing unity is political, and it emerges most clearly from the detail that the poems were to the sung at the Panathenaic festival (NS/854). [4]
Mazzotta rightly points out that the so-called “Peisistratean recension” is an “editorial falsification”; the question is whether Phemios and Demodokos represent this supposedly historical, essentially literary enterprise in Vico’s own Homeric paradigm, or whether his concept actually emphasizes oral performance, as do the Odyssey episodes to which Mazzotta refers. The usual interpretation of these “singers” in Ithaka, and later in the Phaiakian court (which is, significantly for Nagy’s emphasis on Panhellenism, far-flung from Odysseus’ homeland) is as latecoming mímēsis of aoidoi—that is, of Nagy's “(re-)composers-in-performance.” Significantly, on pottery Phemios is playing a lyre, which disqualifies him from being authentic in Nagy’s paradigm. In his contribution to the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Nagy insists, quite against the rhetorical force of most familiar iconography, that “the Homeric testimony about the singer's singing to the accompaniment of the lyre belies the synchronic reality of the rhapsode's reciting without any accompaniment at all.” [5] I submit that this technicality is ultimately moot where Vico is concerned, since one cannot expect him to have formulated such a distinction upon the information available to him. For this reason, it is hard to detect whether Vico differentiates in his mind between the poets-as-composers (aoidoi) and the rhapsôidoi—those who, much later, recited “Homer” professionally as a demonstration of their prodigious memories, a famous mímēsis being Plato’s Ion. (Let me hasten to point out that Vico’s apparent deficiency in this matter does not alienate him at all from Nagy’s position: “It is simplistic and even misleading to contrast, as many have done, the ‘creative’ aoidós with the ‘reduplicating’ rhapsôidós.” [6] ) I strongly suspect that the crucial fact is fact that the only étymon available to Vico is the rapsòdo, for which he readily provides the etymology at §852 of “stitcher-together of songs.” This is a semantic explanation, by the way, which Nagy himself accepts as a part of the gradual mythologizing of textual fixation: “in the scholia to Dionysius Thrax, Codex Venetus 489, it is reported that the Homeric poems were ‘sewn together’ (συvερράφησαv) by Peisistratos himself.” [7] Here is yet another example of the principle I have stressed throughout whereby Vico expropriates, without acknowledging it, a datum from the authority of antiquity, which he implements almost as if it were his own empirical discoverta. This procedure is entirely consistent with the anti-Cartesian bent of Vico’s overall argument in the Scienza Nuova, as Croce, et al., have characterized it. Yet in one respect Vico’s instrumentation of “stitched-together” differs from Nagy’s. Outside of the sequence I have considered above, Vico makes little mention of Peisistratos—or of texts, for that matter. He apparently sees the phenomenon as a mnemonic feat performed by illiterate artists using material acquired piecemeal. Vico essentially tries to delete the element of textuality from the fragmented Homer of the Quarrel. Wherever he acquired the phrase, Vico’s “stitched-together” implies a process that corresponds to Nagy’s Panhellenic Period 2. By contrast, Nagy specifies that “sewn together” as he uses it in conjunction with Peisistratos and Cicero is an act of recording and, by extension, of attempted “ownership,” which occurred far after Vico’s putative wandering bards. Proceeding further into Nagy’s model cancels this difference out. Eventually Nagy brings Pindar into his argument, noting that this poet refers to Homer using, in separate texts, the faintly self-contradictory metaphors of “sequential” sewing (verb: rhaptē) and “integral” weaving (verb: kuphainē); he concludes:
I hold open the possibility that the eventual division of the Iliad and the Odyssey each into twenty-four books results from … the cumulative formation of episodes in the process of even weighting. [8]
Nagy’s vision of a standardized, “authoritative” circumscription of “Homer” as the Iliad and Odyssey only is not really in sympathy with Vico’s downplaying of the Peisistratean recension in his image of Homer in Book III. Yet the things Vico actually says about the “rhapsodes” indicate that he has an intuitive grasp of an evolutionary process beginning with something like Nagy’s Periods 1 and 2. The most revolutionary aspect of Vico’s thought in §875–§878 is that he, like Nagy, sees the absolute necessity of surmising a phase that antedated a fragmented collection of songs, whether this amas (using Perrault’s famous word) were preserved orally or in transcripts. There is support for the notion that Vico understood that poets in the Odyssey were nostalgic representations of the oral tradition. He comments:
§870. Homer himself describes as blind the poets who sing at the banquets of the great, such as the one who studies at the banquet given by Alcinous [i.e., Demodokos at Odyssey 8.64], and the one who sings at the feast of the suitors [i.e., Phemios at Odyssey 1.153ff.].
Vico both displays his acquaintance with Homeric lore and paves the way for the argument he initiates at §873. It is also noteworthy that the Homeric reference to the blindness of the aoidós as transferred to “Homer” himself was fully accepted in antiquity as fact, as evidenced once again by Lucian’s tale.
In my view, Vico's phrase “confused mass of material” in §853 reflects both a reliance on theories prevalent during the Quarrel, which he rarely acknowledges, and an obligation to demonstrate that, as Professor of Latin Eloquence, he is duly aware of Cicero's “authoritative” inclusion of the mythical “recension” in his own remarks on Homer in the De oratore 3.137. A further question then arises: why does the opinion of Cicero (106–43 BCE), a Roman living centuries after even the most late-coming Homeric “rhapsode,” carry such import? To begin answering this question, we must momentarily lay aside Vico’s use of “confused mass” and consider once again the citation from the De oratore:
Quis doctior eisdem temporibus illis aut cuius eloquentia litteris instructior fuisse traditur quam Pisistrati? Qui primus Homeri libros confusos antea sic disposuisse dicitur, ut nunc habemus.
Who was more learned in those times, and whose eloquence in letters became more “foundational,” than Peisistratos? It is said he was the first to give the order we have now to the formerly confused books [cf. Vico’s “confused mass” in §853; also in Perrault].
Cicero’s allusion to an event of singular gravitas in Greco-Roman cultural history cries out for analysis. First of all, he clearly sees that event as an editorial process, which predicates a written text. There is no hint of an oral “Homer” here. Moreover, speaking rather anachronistically, he is patently a Separatist rather than a Unitarian. I find, however, that the most tantalizing morsel of Cicero’s thinking is in dicitur; this little word is an appeal to the same brand of authority according to which Aeneas founded Rome and Numa Pompilius became its second rex after its other founder Romulus. (Note that Vico’s reference to Numa in §876 reflects the same desire to link Greece and Rome in his own theories of cultural evolution.) Is it too brash to suggest that Cicero’s dicitur simultaneously undermines that same authority by conveying a soupçon of doubt, or even risibility? My point is that while he may have thought about it, Cicero, as opposed to Vico, does not want to touch the elephans in camera, so to speak, of a pre-literate Homeric tradition.
Joseph Farrell has recently focused on the undeniably tight connection between Homer and ancient Roman culture. From the start, he presents this link as historically sound and validated through archeology:
[T]he historical Greek colonists of the eighth and seventh centuries brought with them stories of a heroic colonisation that was the direct result of the Greco-Trojan diaspora set in motion at the fall of Priam's city. The authoritative source to which these stories were traced was naturally Homer, which means not only the Iliad and Odyssey but also the epic cycle and Homer's followers in other poetic genres, such as Stesichorus and the tragic poets of Athens, as well as a rich artistic tradition that developed in intertextual relation to the Homeric poems and their literary descendants. This dispersion of authority prevents us from making facile assumptions about what is and is not “Homeric.” But even if one takes a conservative approach, adopting a limited purview in order to concentrate on evidence that points to Homer specifically, a conviction emerges that the settling of Italy took place within a Homeric frame of reference.
The earliest Greek colonists brought to Italy culture that was every bit as Homeric as the ones they left behind, if not a bit more so. Important aspects of the culture were adopted by the Etruscans and adapted to their own practices. For the period of about 750 to 350 B.C. these developments are clearly illustrated by a series of monumental burials, one Greek and two Etruscan, in which Homeric elements play a central role. [9]
Having established for his general purposes the still rather murky historicity of the Greek → Etruscan → Roman sequence, Farrell proceeds to discuss how various Roman authors used their knowledge of Homer in Greek, through quotation, allusion, and parody, to comment upon Roman life, and thus forge a connection with such Homeric themes as Achilles’ “Heroic Code.” I say “murky” because, inter alia, we have yet to decipher Etruscan writing, and hence must rely almost entirely on the evidence of Etruscan artefacts and iconography. Scholars are still skeptical about ancient Greek literary/historical versions of Etruscan origins, such as we find in Herodotus. Therefore, I suggest that although it is crucial to be cognizant of the “Etruscan filter” from an absolutist perspective, from a relativist one it is more important to see that the Romans themselves consistently sublimated it. As examples from outside literature, I cite Etruscan heirlooms such as the arch, the aqueduct, and Roman numerals as items the Romans thought of themselves as having invented. More directly, a huge proportion of the “Greek” statuary we have are Roman copies. This second-hand preservation is a sēma not only of the disappearance of Greek originals, but even more importantly of Rome’s obsessive desire to assert its own cultural continuity with Greece.
Interestingly, Etruscan culture is a topic of early European history about which many of Vico’s contemporaries shared Farrell’s confidence, for the very reason that they believed themselves to have deciphered Etruscan inscriptions. Harold Stone observes:
Eighteenth century scholars took seriously their contemporaries who claimed not only to read the Etruscan language, but to be arguing over the fine points of its grammar. They were much less impressed by Vico's rereading of ancient evidence and it is easy to see why. The Etruscologists asked acceptance for an analysis based on evidence that no one understood, while Vico wished his readers to doubt everything they had read about archaic Greece and Rome based on his idiosyncratic interpretation of evidence. It was much easier for this culture to doubt the evidence of sense perception than to deny what it had memorized in its primary and secondary school education. One of the few gains of the contemporary decline of the general knowledge and interest in Greek and Roman literature and history in our academic training is that most of us have an easier time perceiving Vico's general point than did eighteenth century readers. [10]
The key observation in this passage is that those who fancied themselves initiates in the arcane semiotics of Etruscan civilization “claimed [to have] … evidence that no one understood.” From today’s perspective, their confidence is insupportable. Stone seems to think that the more widespread familiarity with classical literature in the eighteenth century inhibited the acceptance of Vico’s ideas, implying that he didn’t know the literature, misunderstood it, or found it irrelevant to his paradigm. Again I stress that Vico’s consistent recourse to classical sources actually drives his thought. Etruscan culture per se has nothing to do with Homer in the Scienza Nuova, since Vico’s authorities were literary, historical, and synchronic. An example of this last category is his association of the Rinaldi singers with Horace as a frame for a Homer/Hesiod reference.
The upshot is that Vico received his model for Homer from ancient Rome and from the Quarrel rather from the Etruscologist “craze” to which Stone refers. One must emphasize that this interpretation is entirely in keeping with Roman versions of the relationship, as well. Cultured Romans had a high stake in seeing the Greco-Roman literary connection as direct. Farrell’s conclusions make this point in no uncertain terms:
Why… did the Romans esteem Homer … [so much]? What made those who mattered in the most powerful nation on earth adopt the foundational texts of an alien culture as a central element in their own aristocratic self-fashioning? Was it indeed the influence of Homer's great Roman imitators in the field of epic—Livius Andronicus, Naevius, Ennius, Vergil—that made it so important for elite Roman readers to gain an accurate knowledge of Homer in the original Greek? Or is this not to put matters the wrong way around? Is it not far more likely that the Roman epigoni found their audience so receptive because that audience was already familiar not merely with the text of the canonical Iliad and Odyssey, but with certain habits of interpreting those stories that had been practiced on Italian soil for centuries before the specifically literary imitations that we know ever came into being? Significant here is not merely the extensive frequency with which Homer sprang to the lips of educated Romans, but particularly the fact that this was as likely or perhaps even more likely to happen in trivial and humorous contexts as compared with serious occasions. Such habits seem to imply a very long tradition—longer, perhaps, then the recorded history of Roman literature—of comparing aspects of contemporary life to Homeric paradigms. In fact, self identification with the actions and characters depicted in Homer's epics and adoption of ideals embodied in those actions and characters, is characteristic not only of Roman but other Italian elites as well. [11]
This assessment articulates well the overriding reason for the propinquity educated Romans felt to Greek civilization: they wanted to preserve what they conceived to be their own diachronic heritage. No wonder they took such pains to let Athens flourish more or less in statu quo as the only place to get a first-rate education. But the relationship is even more dynamic than Farrell has presented it. The “Homeric frame of reference” he describes can be seen in the Romans’ paradoxical ever-present conflicting senses of virtual blood-relation with, yet inferiority to, the Greeks. A clear example is in the Aeneid, when the Greek-speaking survivor from the losing side, Aeneas, “made a refugee by Fate” (fato profugus) from Troy, both prefigures and emulates the adventure-tossed Greek Odysseus (Ulysses) dum conderet urbem, “in order to found a city,” inferretque deos Latio, genus unde Latinum, “and in order to bring the [Trojan] gods into Latium, whence the Latin people.” Surprisingly, Farrell does not address this paradox directly; yet it penetrates Roman paradigms of language and literature. There are formal manifestations, such as the adapted Latin dactylic hexameter and the mímēsis of Homeric narrative components, such as the Nekuía. Beyond these obeisances, however, there is more than a hint of neurosis. Thus Vergil ends the first half of his epic with a picture of the major cultural consequences of Aeneas’ heroism. In Book 6, there is an extended passage, “re-enacting” at once Teiresias in the Nekuía and Priam’s catalogue of the Trojan heroes for Helen as the two of them stand on the Trojan walls. In Vergil’s mímēsis of Homer, Aeneas views a parade of representations (mímēsēs) of Romans who are to follow his founding of the state, culminating in Vergil’s patron Augustus. The spirit of the Roman hero’s father Anchises (standing in, as it were, for Teiresias and Priam) sums up his comparison of Greek and Roman heroes (Vergil Aeneid 6.851–53):
Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento.
Hae tibi erunt artes: pacique imponere morem,
Parcere subiectis et debellare superbos. [12]

“These will be your skills: to impose a more of peace,
To be sparing of those who accept [Roman] hegemony,
And to demilitarize the insolent.”
This prediction has been, in effect, set up by a catalogue (6.756–845), an epic time-voyage featuring legendary Trojan and Roman founder-figures, a few of them historical (e.g., Cato the Elder, the Gracchi, and Augustus’ own Uncle Iulius). [13] Buried in Vergil’s “shock and awe” genealogy, there is a quasi-Plutarchan element of Greco-Roman comparison at lines 6.838–39:
eruet ille Argos Agamemnoniasque Mycenas
ipsumque Aeaciden, genus armipotentis Achilli …

[Another descendant (?), ille] will dismantle Mycenaean Agamemnon’s Argos,
And so [belatedly] wreak vengeance on Aeacus himself, the grandsire of the potent warrior Achilles.”
Exactly which Roman Vergil means by ille remains controversial. Some scholars attribute the ambiguity to the unfinished state of the epic at Vergil’s death. But what if his vagueness is deliberate? If his actual poetic interest is in reminding his audience of a Homeric connection, omitting a specific referent for ille furthers this purpose, since it focuses attention on cultural kótos [14] itself rather than an historical agent. While the immediate referents in Aeneid 6 are etiological, military, and political, I submit that its manifest force is metonymic for the entire cultural relationship. A tongue-in-cheek but epideictically defensible way of expanding Vergil’s set in lines 851–853 (Anchises / Teiresias / Priam) is as follows: “The Greeks may have had their Homer, and Hesiod and Pindar and Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides and Demosthenes and Herodotus and Xenophon and Thucydides; and Solon and Lycurgus and Themistocles and Pericles and Alexander the Great; and Archimedes and Eratosthenes and Euclid and Hippocrates; and Socrates and Plato and Aristotle and Praxitiles and Myron; and … —but whom will Greece eventually fall to? Why us, by Iuppiter! And how shall we treat them? Why, we shall actually reward their relatively complaisant submission (compared to that of Karthage, for instance!) to the military and political domination only we Romans can exercise (not to mention the order Roman law naturally brings to any people lucky enough to come under our aegis), by peaceably assimilating Greek culture—and loving it!” This sort of defensive response to the spell Greek civilization held over Rome even omits the fact that most Roman war-machines, as well as many military strategies, were based on Greek prototypes, as well.
I intend my farcical hyperbole to underscore why it is that Cicero orated in Greek in the Roman senate; why the shocked and dying Caesar asked the conspirator Brutus “Kai su, teknon?” (“You too, son?”) and not Shakespeare’s “Et tu, Brute?”; and most pertinently, why Cicero felt compelled to take up the Peisistratean recension of Homer as a sub-topic natural to Latin oratorical theory. The answer is that, in a weird way, Rome was Greece—though not necessarily “improved”—to the Romans of Cicero’s era and class. In this vein, Richard Thomas remarks:
I suppose I have been suggesting, paradoxically, that [Vergil was] the poet who did the most, pace Ennius, to equate Latin with Greek on the level of promoting it to a considerable and universal literary language [and] at the same time flirted with the opposite, with directing his verse to the roots to which it is immediately tied. If Vergil, why not Cicero, whose latinity, at the forefront with that of Vergil, ensured that preservation of the language and culture that we study? … Cicero in general has a cultural linguistic program quite similar to that of Vergil: the Latin language and culture can match that of Greece; this is what Ciceronian periodicity is all about. [15]
Nor did this copula perish with Augustan Rome. Plutarch (c. CE 45–125) is perhaps antiquity’s most shining example of someone who strove constantly to reify the Greece-Rome continuum. It is important to recognize that he was doing so some time after Cicero and Vergil, which testifies to the perdurability of the linkage. In Homeric Questions, Nagy examines in detail various stories of a textual recension. He notes that the mythical unification of Homeric stories from Archaic times has the support not only of Cicero, but also of the “authorities” Herodotus, in his Histories, “Plato,” in the spurious Hipparchus, and Plutarch. A topic of contention becomes whether Athens or Sparta, cultures in the Panhellenic sphere that in most things were utterly polarized, could take credit for this project. To address the Spartan provenance, Nagy provides this translation from Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus:
For there was already a not-too-bright fame attached to these epics among the Greeks, and some of them were in possession [verb kéktemai ] of some portions, since the poetry had been scattered about by chance, and it was Lycurgus who was the first to make it [i.e., the poetry] well-known. [16]
“Scattered about” not only suggests Cicero’s libros confusos, it could arguably serve as the template for all similar language used to evaluate Homer’s literatur’nost’ during the Quarrel. Taken together, these opposing claims justify Nagy’s conclusion:
On the basis of the other narrative traditions … concerning the topic of an archetypal text that disintegrates in the distant past only to become reintegrated at a later point by a sage who then gives it as a gift to his community, the story of a “Peisistratean recension” can be explained as a mūthos that bears clear signs of political appropriation by the Peisistratidai. Particularly striking is the parallelism in the accounts of Plutarch and Cicero between Lycurgus, lawgiver of Sparta who gives his community the Homeric poems, and Peisistratos, described as one of the Seven Sages, who likewise gives his community of Athens the Homeric poems … Greek myths about lawgivers, whether they are historical figures or not, can reconstruct these figures as the originators of the sum total of customary law. [17]
Nagy’s two examples of textual “ownership” of Homer—Cicero and Plutarch—are Roman, though the latter was “hyper-Hellenized,” so to speak. What I am driving at is that Vico’s concentration on Homer in Book III entails a relationship that forcefully corroborates Nagy’s point about lawgiver myths being post facto etiological orderings.
In summary, then, the Greco-Roman continuum is a prominent feature of Vico’s perspective on the Homeric Question, which he understands through the ancient “authorities” themselves, as providing a credible historical framework that has been supplemented by empirical contemporary art forms. Some of these, such as the cantastorie, are, in effect, “descendent forms” with which Vico is personally familiar. It is Vico’s apprehension of the relationship between the ancient and the modern that makes him particularly incisive. Moreover, it would be a mistake to believe that the rise of modern linguistics and archaeology immediately discredited Vico’s representation, roughly from Books II through IV of the Scienza Nuova, of a natural, quasi-“Aristotelian” evolution from “Greek” to “Roman” civilization in antiquity. In fact, one can discern a need to preserve such a foundational seamlessness in even as discriminating a critical view as that of Wilamowitz. As Albert Henrichs has noted:
Wilamowitz sah die Antike von Homer bis zum Ende des römischen Weltreichs als kulturelles Kontinuum. Das von ihm angestrebte und auch realisierte Ideal war ein universales Verständnis der gesamten “griechisch-römischen Kultur” in all ihren Erscheinungsformen. [18]
Wilamowitz saw antiquity from Homer all the way to the end of the Roman Empire as a cultural continuum. The ideal which he both strived for and realized was a universal understanding of the entire “Greco-Roman culture” in all its manifest forms.
Henrichs stresses that Wilamowitz adopted this view quite consistently. Speaking in 1914 of the Classicist’s role, Wilamowitz says, “Doch ist seine productive Tätigkeit immer von der Hinterlassenschaft der Hellenen ausgegangen; er var Philologe” (“Indeed, his productive activity always came out of the Hellenic legacy; he was a “philologist”). [19] Lest one be tempted, however, to assume that by Philologe Wilamowitz confined his definition to textual scholars like Richard Bentley, one must allow Henrichs to finish his assessment:
Aber Philologie erschöpfte sich für ihn keineswegs in Sprachwissenschaft, Literaturgeschichte, oder Textkritik … Von bloßer “Wortphilologie”, wie sie Richard Bentley (1662-1742), Gottfried Hermann (1772-1848) und Karl Lachmann (1793-1851) betrieben haben, hielt er nichts : “Aber Philologie ist nun einmal mehr.”
But for him, the scope of Philologie was in no way exhausted by “science of language,” “history of literature,” or “textual criticism.” … He had little regard for mere “textual study” as practiced by Richard Bentley (1662–1742), Gottfried Hermann (1772–1848) und Karl Lachmann (1793–1851): “But now Philologie is something else again.” [20]
Wilamowitz was a Philolog in much the same way as Vico was a filólogo. Both defined “philology” as encompassing knowledge of cultural evolution, with language itself forming only one aspect of that process. Throughout this study I have maintained that Vico and Bentley must be considered together as epitomizing Homer’s oral-versus-written duality if we are to understand how Vico stands out, and to appreciate fully the prescience, modernity, and persistent influence of his theories, in contrast to those of contemporaries. It is largely because Vico and Bentley were contemporaries with markedly different skills, backgrounds, and purposes that they provide such a replete perspective on how The Homeric Question was formulated in the eighteenth century. In consistently refusing to let his definition of Philologie be circumscribed by the “writerly” terminology once typical of Classical scholarship—e.g., “literary history” and “textual criticism”—Wilamowitz vindicates the belief I share with Gregory Nagy that Vico anticipated even the great F. A. Wolf in making today’s Homer controversies “possible.”


[ back ] 1. Mazzotta, New Map (Chapter 2, n. 5 above), 142.
[ back ] 2. Nagy, Pindar’s Homer (Chapter 3, n. 33 above), 54.
[ back ] 3. Mazzotta, New Map, 149.
[ back ] 4. Mazzotta, New Map, 149–150.
[ back ] 5. Nagy, “Poets and Poetry” (Chapter 1, n. 6 above), 6.
[ back ] 6. G. Nagy, Greek Mythology and Poetics (Ithaca, 1990), 42.
[ back ] 7. Nagy, Homeric Questions (Chapter 1, n. 9 above), 83.
[ back ] 8. Nagy, Homeric Questions, 88; and see the full argument at 77–88.
[ back ] 9. J. Farrell, “Roman Homer,” in Cambridge Companion (Chapter 1, n. 14 above), 256–257.
[ back ] 10. Stone, Vico’s Cultural History (Chapter 3, n. 12 above), 314.
[ back ] 11. Farrell, “Roman Homer” (n. 9 above), 270.
[ back ] 12. In Book II, “Poetic Wisdom,” Vico cites this line to make a specific point about the development of Roman society, and, by implication, European culture in general. After referring to the origin of deities in a Greek context, he gives the etymology of Saturn, the Roman counterpart of Kronos, as from sati, “sown fields.” He then comments:
§553 … [T]o borrow the language of the jurists, … Grotius’s simpletons and Pufendorf’s abandoned men had recourse to the altars of the strong to save themselves from Hobbes’s violent men … Thereupon the strong, with a fierceness born of their union in the society of families, slew the violent who had violated their lands, and took under their protection the miserable creatures who had fled from them. And above the heroism of nature that was theirs as having been born of Jove [i.e., Iuppiter] or engendered under his auspices, there now shone forth prominently in them the heroism of virtue. In this heroism the Romans excelled all other peoples of the earth, practicing precisely these aspects of it, sparing the submissive and vanquishing the proud …
Two things are notable in these remarks that relate to my argument. First, there is Vico’s seamless movement from Greek to Roman religion. Second, the mention of three recent legalist contractarians confirms that Vico hungered for involvement in the big Continental social debates, and was accordingly developing a competitive paradigm of his own. This paragraph is an excellent epitome of Vico’s technique of invoking quasi-historical fantasia, through classical auctoritas, to approximate an anti-Cartesian scientific method.
[ back ] 13. Regarding the political uses of Homer, Nagy writes, “The distinction between historical tyrants on the one hand and mythical lawgivers or sages is oftentimes blurred.” (Homeric Questions [Chapter 1, n. 9 above], p. 74). Note how aptly this observation about the Greek tyrants’ motives applies to my analysis of what Vergil is doing, as well.
[ back ] 14. This is Homeric Greek for the rage of the vendetta, as when Odysseus and Telemakhos bring about “closure” by slaughtering Penelope’s suitors.
[ back ] 15. R. F. Thomas, Reading Virgil and His Texts: Studies in Intertextuality (Ann Arbor, 1999), 244.
[ back ] 16. Nagy, Homeric Questions, 72.
[ back ] 17. Nagy, Homeric Questions, 74.
[ back ] 18. A. Henrichs, “Nachwort” to U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, Geschichte der Philologie, 3rd ed. (Stuttgart and Leipzig, 1998), 82.
[ back ] 19. Henrichs, “Nachwort” (n. 18 above), 82.
[ back ] 20. Henrichs, “Nachwort,” 82. This translation has been aided by the kind consultation of Professor Henrichs.