Homeric Scholia and the Multitextuality of the Iliad

Casey Dué and Mary Ebbott
We have worked closely with Greg Nagy since we were graduate students at Harvard, and each of us wrote her dissertation under his direction. Already at that time we also worked closely with each other; we worked together as Teaching Fellows for Greg’s large Core Curriculum course entitled The Concept of the Hero in Greek Civilization, and we team taught a junior tutorial on Greek tragedy. Greg’s enthusiasm for collaboration inspired us to continue working together on a variety of research projects even after we received our degrees, while at the same time we began serving as Co-Executive Editors of Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies, of which Greg became the director in 2000. It was in the Spring and Summer of 2000 that the intergenerational and collaborative Homer Multitext project was first conceived. In this article we will describe some of the many ways that Greg’s research and teaching have impacted the Homer Multitext, with particular attention to his work on Homeric scholia.
The Homer Multitext project (http://www.homermutitext.org) seeks to present the textual transmission of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey in a critical framework that accounts for the fact that these poems were composed orally over the course of hundreds, if not thousands of years by countless singers who composed in performance. We are the editors of that project, but it has been from the beginning a collaborative enterprise, involving a wide range of scholars and experts in various fields from all over the world. [1] Christopher Blackwell and Neel Smith have each taken on the title of “information architect” for the project, and their expertise and research in information technology support all aspects of the Homer Multitext, including its theoretical underpinnings and its digital architecture, but they are themselves trained Classicists (Neel Smith was in fact taught by Greg Nagy as an undergraduate at Harvard) and they have been our partners in all aspects of the project since that first summer. Doug Frame, Lenny Muellner, and Greg Nagy are Associate Editors and their scholarship has had a formative and guiding influence since the project’s inception.
Greg Nagy’s work on Homeric poetry, combined with his openness to and advocacy of new forms of media for presenting that work, is in multiple ways the foundation on which the Homer Multitext project is built. We two recently published a volume of essays and commentary on Iliad 10 that evolved out of our work on the Multitext. In that volume, we attempted to articulate the ways in which our own thinking about the Homeric epics has been influenced Greg’s research and teaching, and to situate that research within the history of Homeric scholarship:

The work of Gregory Nagy has informed and influenced ours to a considerable extent, one that is impossible to quantify. The range of his work and the numerous ways in which he has broadened the understanding of Homeric poetry are also difficult to summarize. His research includes comparative linguistics and the Indo-European background to the poetry, the religious concept of the hero and how it informs the epics, the performance of Homeric epic in antiquity, the textual tradition, the reception of Homeric poetry in other genres, synchronic and diachronic approaches to the epics, and the structure of mythical narratives (see Nagy 1974, 1979, 1990a, 1990b, 1996a, 1996b, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009). Although our interpretation of individual lines within the commentary as well as our overall approach will reveal the influence of Nagy’s work, we will highlight here just two important overarching ideas that have deeply affected what we want to achieve in this volume. The first is how the natural multiformity of composition-in-performance, articulated by Lord in terms of what he observed in the performances of the Serbian singers, [2] is reflected in the textual transmission of the Homeric epics. Nagy has asserted the importance of the scholia for understanding this aspect of the transmission. Our own explication of the text of Iliad 10, as introduced in the essay “Iliad 10: A Multitextual Approach” and the textual commentaries that accompany the four texts included in this volume, also understands multiforms within the textual record in terms of possible variations produced in performance that are equally possible and valid within the tradition.
The second key idea of Nagy’s that we would like to highlight here is a related one: the epic tradition evolved over time, and therefore we are required to take a diachronic perspective. In his evolutionary model, Nagy identifies five stages of evolution, which move from relatively most fluid to relatively most rigid over several centuries (for the most recent articulation of the model, see Nagy 2004:27). The implications of this model are many and significant. It fundamentally rejects the model which posits that an oral tradition came to an abrupt halt sometime in the eighth century BCE when the new technology of writing was used to record the monumental epics of a single singer, who was able to transcend the limits of said tradition, which he effectively ended, and whose works we (for the most part) have in our textual sources dating only from the tenth century CE onwards. In replacing that outdated and untenable model, Nagy’s evolutionary model offers a better framework for understanding how an oral tradition and the technology of writing coexist and influence one another for a long time before writing becomes dominant. Under this model, the hypothesis that Iliad 10 was later inserted (interpolated) into a text that had been composed otherwise by a single author and was fixed at some earlier point becomes highly unlikely, if not impossible. Indeed, through the work of Parry, Lord, Foley, Martin, Nagy, and others, we recognize that this is simply not the way oral traditional poetry operates. Therefore, we have the opportunity to consider Iliad 10 within the tradition and to try to understand it in oral poetic and evolutionary terms, rather than mistakenly applying a false notion about the “text” of the Iliad to it.

Although these paragraphs were written with specific reference to our arguments about Iliad 10, they are equally applicable to the theoretical infrastructure on which we have built the Homer Multitext. The Multitext takes as its starting point the historical documents that transmit the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey from antiquity, including quotations in ancient authors, papyrus fragments, medieval manuscripts and their accompanying scholia. Instead of privileging one source over another, or culling from among them to produce a single authoritative text, we value each of these documents individually for the multiforms that they transmit, and the insight that they might provide into the poetics, composition, and performance of these song traditions. The Iliad and Odyssey were at one time dynamic and evolving, and the particular nature of oral epic song, as described by Milman Parry and Albert Lord, allowed layer upon diachronic layer of this poetry to be preserved within the system of formulaic language as it evolved. Greg’s diachronic view of Homeric poetry enables him (and us and all of his students) to appreciate the multiformity attested in the surviving historical witnesses as the byproduct of a system that evolved over many centuries, and to search for meaning in the poetry that was created over time and passed down through performance.

Of course, Greg Nagy was himself the student and later colleague of Albert Lord, who was the student of Milman Parry, and Parry and Lord’s path breaking fieldwork and publications on oral epic poetry have profoundly influenced our work as well. [3] (The term multiform, for example, as opposed to variant, is Lord’s: see Lord 1960: 119.) Albert Lord was still an undergraduate when he accompanied Milman Parry on his first trip to Yugoslavia in 1933, where they recorded and interviewed and transcribed the performance of dozens of singers in the South Slavic oral epic tradition. Parry’s early death in 1935 meant that Albert Lord had to assume to role of principal investigator in this work long before he otherwise might have, and it was not until 1960 that his book The Singer of Tales was published. Two years later, Greg became Lord’s student. By 1966, they were no longer professor and student, but colleagues, and they collaborated on many initiatives at Harvard until Lord’s death in 1991.
It was perhaps this close relationship with Albert Lord, who was himself a mentor to many young scholars at Harvard, that inspired Greg’s own eagerness for collaboration with younger scholars and students. In any case, we have certainly been beneficiaries of it. Grateful for the mentoring that we have received, we have sought to emulate Greg by adopting an intergenerational approach to the Homer Multitext project. Because the editors and architects of the project are all professors at institutions without a graduate program in Classics, we have focused our efforts on finding ways to involve undergraduates. And we have had great success.
The Homeric scholia have been a particularly fruitful area of research for undergraduate students, and it is here where the influence of Greg’s research is often most felt. His work has revealed much about the editorial methods of the great Alexandrian scholars of Homeric epic, demonstrated the importance of the evidence offered in the scholia for preserving performance variations within the epics, and, as a result, made the scholia an important resource to be reckoned with for understanding both the poetry itself and also its evolution and transmission. A key feature of the Homer Multitext is that it presents the scholia within their own historical documents and in close association with their individual placements on the page, rather than conflating the many transmissions of the scholia into a single “edition.” This fidelity to the spatial arrangement of the scholia results in a complete inventory of all scholia within each manuscript and reveals even more about the interactions between text and marginal commentary on the page.
There are two interrelated procedures that our students follow for creating the digital edition of the scholia. Thus far, our students have worked mainly on the scholia of the Venetus A (Marc. Gr. 454 [=822]), but we have also had students work on the two Escorial manuscripts (Escorialensis Υ.I.1 and Escorialensis Ω.I.12; Allen’s E3 and E4, West’s E and F) and now beginning on the Venetus B (Marc. Gr. 453 [=821]), and one of our students will, as her senior thesis, create a digital edition of Allen’s U4 (Marc. Gr. 458). Using A as our example, however, the procedures involved are: (1) an inventorying and mapping of all writing on each folio-side, including both individual scholia and other marks or images present on the page; (2) the creation of a diplomatic edition of each and every scholion, representing the spelling, punctuation, and accentuation as it appears (although we regularly expand ligatures and abbreviations of word ending). This edition is structured in TEI-XML markup.
Inventorying and mapping the scholia (we will limit this description to the scholia since that is our focus here) of one folio-side involves using the digital image of that folio. Our students have now created (on their own) a process for accomplishing both procedures in teams, and that collaboration helps to make the process both more efficient and more accurate, as two sets of eyes read the small, compressed writing of the scholia. The students, starting at the top of the folio, note the beginning and ending of each scholion, and use digital tools to define the space (as a proportion of the folio) and location of that scholion on the page, and record that space and location in an XML notebook that coordinates that location and space with a unique identifier of the scholion. Each set of scholia (main marginal scholia, intermarginal scholia, interior scholia, exterior scholia, and interlinear scholia) is defined within the structured mark-up. When the inventory and mapping is complete, one transformation of the information can result in an image of the page. The structured data allows both visual and automated checks to ensure that all scholia have been accounted for. Since the diplomatic digital edition of the scholion is then associated with this place on the page, users of the Homer Multitext will be able to move quickly and easily between the image of the manuscript and the digital text. The Multitext editions provide complete and effortless access to the primary sources, because one of our editorial principles is to make the sources as available to the reader as they were to the editor, so that the reader may easily check the evidence used to create it.
Once each scholion has been given a unique identifier and its location on the page has been mapped, the students then transcribe the text of the scholia, also using an XML notebook. Once the digital diplomatic edition of each scholion has been created, the students also apply TEI-XML mark-up to the text, noting such elements as personal names (which are also catalogued in an XML notebook), place names (also catalogued), which words are used “as words” (important for etymological or grammatical discussions), quotations from poetic and other texts, and words that are abbreviations (supplying their understanding of what the full word is, so that readers have a choice of seeing either or both). The digital text will not only be easier for users to read, but will also allow automated searches for names or words or other features. A goal of the project is to eventually have an English translation of each scholion as well, but for now the students have been translating scholia in which they have particular questions about the mark-up (translating a scholion about etymology, for example, helps to identify which words are being used for their Greek spelling or morphology, rather than for their lexical meaning) or that were not published in either Dindorf’s 1875–1888 edition or Erbse’s 1969–1988 edition. An automated comparison can be run only against Erbse’s edition (which, by design, excludes scholia from the Venetus A based on content, especially, or sometimes based on date or placement), but preliminary findings on the work of two students, Melissa Browne and Francis Hartel, who created digital editions of books 3 and 4 in the Venetus A, showed that about 20% of the scholia they identified were not published in Erbse’s edition. In summer of 2011, Thomas Arralde, Stephanie Lindeborg, and Christine Roughan created a digital edition of Iliad 1 from the Venetus A, and their edition has almost 50% more text from this manuscript than Erbse’s edition.
The students’ editions will be published as part of the Homer Multitext project and will thus be of use for future scholarship on the Iliad and its scholia. With such a digital edition, scholars will be able to answer questions in new ways that were not possible before, and also to ask questions that have not yet been imagined. The students themselves have formulated and pursued such research based on their creation of the edition. With the deep knowledge of the primary source gained through their work on Iliad 1, for example, Arralde, Lindeborg, and Roughan then chose individual avenues for further research, with remarkably sophisticated results. Two articles resulting from this further research have already been published on the Homer Multitext blog (see http://homermultitext.blogspot.com/2011/08/mystery-scholion-stephanie-lindeborg.html and http://homermultitext.blogspot.com/2011/09/composition-of-venetus-numbered-similes.html), with three more to be published soon. Their work investigates and even answers questions about the sources for the scholia and other features of this manuscript, demonstrating the truth of Greg’s conviction that careful study of the scholia has much to offer us in understanding both the oral and textual traditions of the Iliad.
Greg has served as a personal inspiration to us for his scholarly generosity and the value he has placed on inter-generational models of scholarship. We hope that we have honored both of these inspirations by presenting the collaborative work on the Homeric scholia that our own students have contributed to the Homer Multitext and by highlighting in this way the evidence offered by these scholia for the multitextual nature of the Iliad.


Dindorf, W., ed. 1875–1888. Scholia Graeca in Homeri Iliadem. Oxford.
Dué, C. ed. 2009. Recapturing a Homeric Legacy: Images and Insights from the Venetus A Manuscript of the Iliad. Cambridge, MA.
Dué, C. and M. Ebbott. 2009. “Digital Criticism: Editorial Standards for the Homer Multitext.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 3.1: http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/003/1/000029/000029.html.
———. 2010. Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush: A Multitext Edition with Essays and Commentary. Cambridge, MA.
Erbse, H., ed. 1969-1988. Scholia Graeca in Homeri Iliadem. Berlin.
Lord, A. B. 1960/2000. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA.
Lord, A. 1991. Epic Singers and Oral Tradition. Ithaca, NY.
Lord, A. 1995. The Singer Resumes the Tale. Ithaca, NY.
Nagy, G. 2004. Homer’s Text and Language. Champaign, IL.
Parry, A., ed. 1971. The Making of Homeric Verse. Oxford.


[ back ] 1. Please see http://www.homermultitext.org for a list of contributors.
[ back ] 2. For example, Lord 1960/2000:120: “To the superficial observer, changes in oral tradition may seem chaotic and arbitrary. In reality this is not so. It cannot be said that ‘anything goes.’ Nor are these changes due in the ordinary sense to failure of memory or a fixed text, first, of course, because there is no fixed text, second, because there is no concept among singers of memorization as we know it, and third, because at a number of points in any song there are forces leading in several directions, any one of which the singer may take.”
[ back ] 3. See Dué and Ebbott 2010:ix–xi, 3–29, and passim.