An interview with Francesca Schironi, author of The Best of the Grammarians

1. Francesca, thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your book, The Best of the Grammarians, shortlisted for this year’s Runciman Award. This is a book by a scholar about a scholar. Can you say a bit to explain to the non-scholar readers of our website what it is all about?

The book is the first comprehensive study on the methodology which Aristarchus of Samothrace (216-144 BCE) used to work on Homer, specifically in his commentary on the Iliad. Aristarchus is the most famous Alexandrian grammarian; he worked on many Greek authors (from Pindar to Aristophanes, from the tragedians to Herodotus); in particular his edition of Homer had an enormous impact and largely determined the text of Homer that we still read. Yet in modern times he has been generally ignored. There are several German dissertations written in the 19th century on specific topics, and in 1999 Stephanos Matthaios published a good book on Aristarchus’ grammatical doctrines, but no one has ever studied Aristarchus’ methodology in his exegesis of Homer. My goal has been to present to interested readers many fragments of his work on Homer with some contextual information and explain why Aristarchus was (and still is) considered one of the most important scholars of antiquity (hence the title of the book, The Best of the Grammarians). In particular, I was interested in looking at Aristarchus in dialogue with the intellectual trends of his time, especially with Aristotle’s philosophy and literary criticism and with the Hellenistic sciences.

2. Aristarchus’s prolific scholarly work is lost to us, and his thoughts and method can only be approached indirectly, through a study of the scholia (notes in the margins of manuscripts). He played an important role in Alexandrian scholarship; why have others found it so difficult to understand his contribution? How and why does your approach differ from your predecessors’, and how were you able to see the ‘big picture’ of Aristarchus’s method, rather than focusing on minutiae?

Aristarchus’ fragments are numerous, but mostly preserved in ‘arcane’ sources, such as the scholia (which as you say are marginal annotations in medieval manuscripts containing texts of Greek authors), the Homeric commentaries of Eustathius of Thessalonica (12th century CE) or the so-called Byzantine Etymologica, which are etymological dictionaries dating from the 9th to the 13th century CE. These texts are not part of the ‘reading lists’ of students of classics, neither at the undergraduate nor graduate level. So, students never encounter them, which means that these texts are very rarely objects of research. In addition, and as a consequence of being not widely known, these works are not translated, so to read them one needs to have an in-depth knowledge of ancient Greek. This is even more important because these are technical texts, with specialized terminology and sometimes unusual syntactic constructions. In fact, once you get used to their Greek, reading scholia is quite simple (I find it much more difficult to translate Isocrates or Plato, for example) –– but at the beginning they can be daunting. Even so, simply reading this material (which is extensive and scattered in many sources) is often not a very interesting experience. I mean, if someone is interested in a specific point of ancient criticism on a specific line, it is easy enough to get the information one needs from the scholia to that line. However, if someone wants to reconstruct the work of an ancient scholar as it emerges from those sources, the task is more complex, because it means reading all (or a large amount) of this material, isolating the fragments that deal with that specific scholar, and then studying them, looking for a coherent picture. Aristarchus never wrote a treatise on his own ideas about philology and how to comment on Homer. He simply commented upon the Homeric poems. So, I had to deduce his method and philological principles from (many) single cases. This can be discouraging. The difference in my approach compared to other scholars who have worked on Aristarchus and Hellenistic scholarship is that I wanted to go beyond the specific philological problems discussed in a handful of scholia and to grasp Aristarchus’ ideas and general methodology behind them. I mostly looked for similarities in approach and solutions rather than discussing in depth the specific problem of Homeric philology. My focus was on Aristarchus’ attitude toward a specific category of problems, not on his solutions to specific ones (even if, of course, I did discuss some of his specific solutions when it was needed for my goal).

3. Why did you decide to focus on Aristarchus? Were you interested in his important work on Homer, or did you relish the challenge of the detective work you would need to do in order to interpret the 4,300 fragments of scholia available to us? Or (judging from your published articles) is it because you’re a grammarian and linguist yourself?

Actually, I never really decided to focus on Aristarchus. I teach and work in the US and it has always struck me how free students in this country are to decide the topic of their MA thesis or their dissertation. My adventure with Aristarchus started when I was an undergraduate student in Italy, at the University of Pavia. We had to write an MA thesis and so I chose the professor with whom I wanted to work (Prof. Domenico Magnino) and went to see him. I said to him: “I like fragments”—but what I was really thinking about were the fragments of lyric poets, like Sappho or Archilochus, whom I have always loved. He invited me to come back the next day. When we met, he said: “so, you will work on fragments — the fragments of Aristarchus of Samothrace”. I had never heard that name before. And this was my MA thesis: the collection and commentary of the fragments of Aristarchus on the Etymologicum Magnum. Just because I had started it, I also continued on the same topic for my PhD, completing the work by collecting all the fragments in the rest of the other Byzantine Etymologica. This became my first book, published in 2004. So, it was not really an interest of mine, and I have always had a love-and-hate relationship with Aristarchus. Yet, I also knew that working on an author that very few people worked on would pay back. I would probably not have had the same career if I had decided to work on Greek tragedy or lyric poetry, as I originally wanted to do. There are so many good scholars in these fields, so it is much more difficult to make an impact–– especially for younger scholars. Instead, by working on such an obscure and technical topic, I became the expert on Aristarchus quite early on, and this was an undeniable advantage. Now scholia and ancient scholarship have become quite a fashionable topic but when I started, this was not the case.
This is also why I decided to embark on this bigger project on Aristarchus after my first book came out. The latter was really nothing more than a dissertation, written with the typical approach of Italian scholarship. In Italy, and especially in Scuola Normale where I did my PhD, they train classicists essentially to become philologists, that is, scholars who have an excellent knowledge of the ancient languages, of editorial techniques, paleography, etc. All these skills helped me tremendously with my research and also, later on, with my teaching. Yet when I came to the US as an assistant professor at Harvard, I realized that Classics in the US was quite different. There is a need to see the big picture, to go beyond the mere edition and commentary. For this reason, I decided to stick to Aristarchus a bit longer (…) and try to place him in a broader context. What came out is still a rather technical book, but I have also tried to look at Aristarchus’ background, for example by underscoring the influences that Aristotle had on him, beyond the Poetics, or by suggesting possible links between his scholarship and the Hellenistic sciences, or by comparing him with his predecessor Zenodotus and with his contemporary Crates of Mallos.

4. Aristarchus made a number of assumptions about Homer that underpin his work: 1) that Homer was a flawless poet, 2) that he was internally self-consistent, and 3) that he was the sole author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Do you agree with Aristarchus’s evidence and conclusions on these points? Should the scholars of more recent times who debate the Homeric question perhaps give more weight to his views, particularly on the question of Homer being a real person, who wrote both poems?

I do not think that Aristarchus’ importance for us lies in what he thought about Homer. For me, his importance is in the systematic approach to a text that he developed, and in his efforts for founding philology on firmer basis. This is something that should be still valid today, I think. As for his specific ideas on Homer, on the other hand, I personally do not find them so important for modern Homeric criticism, unless from a purely historical perspective. But I also always say that I am not a Homerist, so my perspective is different. I am interested in the methodology of ancient sciences and technical disciplines in general, so I am interested in Aristarchus as a scholar and intellectual. I am not a literary critic nor an editor of Homer, so I am much less interested in studying Aristarchus’ specific choices in his Homeric edition to see whether they are good or not. In fact, I study Aristarchus’ methods and philological principles as a ‘historian’, not necessarily because they are good and should be taken as a model, but because they tell us something of the intellectual history of that period. The question of his ‘assumptions’ is of course my own way to express Aristarchus’ modus operandi. As I said, nowhere does Aristarchus say how he proceeded in his Homeric commentaries and editions. After studying many single cases I came up with these ‘assumptions’ which seem to me to underpin his work. So while his ideas about Homer are not something we should follow, there is a lesson that modern philologists and scholars in general should take from looking at Aristarchus’ method, beyond admiring his efforts in founding the ‘techne’ of philology. We should realize our own ‘assumptions’ and bias in our own work. In other words, my study of Aristarchus made me realize how philology, the ‘Wissenschaft’ par excellence in classical studies, is in fact biased by the simple fact that each of us has preconceived ideas on how a text (or anything else) should be. This is unavoidable and it is in fact the only way to proceed, yet scholars should be more aware of this, while sometimes I still hear claims of ‘absolute truth’ in our field. Perfect scientific objectivity is impossible to obtain—even in sciences, not only in philology.

5. How has Aristarchus’s work as a grammarian editing the Iliad shaped our understanding of Homer? Through understanding Aristarchus as well as you do, do you feel you understand and appreciate Homer better too?

As I said, I do not see myself as a Homerist and do not even consider myself a ‘literary’ scholar. Of course, I enjoy Greek literature and I decided to do classics because I loved Homer (and lyric poetry). Yet when classics became my profession, I realized that I was much more interested in technical topics rather than literature. After starting this work on Aristarchus, I became more and more interested in Greek science and Aristotle. So, if anything, Aristarchus has made me read more Aristotle and more Greek mathematics. That said, now when I read Homer, I mostly have in mind the questions that the ancients were asking, which are very different from ours. I would say that through my work on Aristarchus and ancient scholarship I have deepened my understanding of the ‘reception’ of Homer in antiquity. Indeed, I often say that what I do is not working on Homer but on the Hellenistic reception of Homer.

6. Readers of your work have praised its meticulous approach, lucidity, and courage in outlining a clear picture of Aristarchus’s methods. Where did you start with the massive task of dissecting the scholia? How did you manage to keep track, organise and cross-reference them? Did you have a hypothesis about his methods before you started, or did your conclusions emerge gradually as you went along?

I started by reading the scholia. Of course, having prepared an edition with commentary of the fragments of Aristarchus in the Byzantine Etymologica, I had some sense of what Aristarchus’ work was about. Yet, I had no idea of his method in a more general way. Since the scholia offered a much richer amount of evidence than the Etymologica, when I decided to embark on this new project, I immediately realized that I needed to organize the material in a way that would have allowed me to retrieve data later on according to specific criteria. So, I built a Filemaker database (actually, I had someone build it for me), in which I could insert the text of the scholia, add my translations, and add Greek and English keywords for each scholium (i.e., fragment) I was including in my database. This database was searchable, so at the end I could research within all these scholia those dealing with specific topics. Once the database was in place (it took almost two years to complete it, of course while teaching and doing other things), I started working on the material. I would select a topic (e.g. Aristarchus’ analysis of Homeric glosses, atheteseis, discussion of Zenodotus’ previous readings) and pull out all the scholia connected with that idea. This was the basis for the chapters of my book. Reading all these scholia and organizing them by key words and topics was the first step toward a deeper understanding of Aristarchus’ work. Then, by looking at many single instances of the same philological problem, I could start figuring out his method in more detail.

7. It will always be quite difficult to make your magnum opus accessible to general readers. Have you considered writing as it were a short introduction to Aristarchus, to convey to a wider readership his significance in the history of Greek literature and the distinctive scholarly methods which earned him his high reputation among scholars?

Many colleagues have asked me to write a ‘shorter’ version of my book. I think it would be a good idea and would fill a gap, as I know that my current book is not for the faint of heart. And certainly it is not for the general public. In fact, I have already collected material on this project. So I might do it at a certain point. Yet after the book was over, I felt the need to keep myself far from Aristarchus and the scholia, turning my interests elsewhere. But one can always go back to first loves…

8. You say your parents have never stopped telling you how much more interesting the ‘real world’ is! Now that you have finished this major work, do you feel you have produced what was needed to make them change their minds?

No, not at all. In fact, my mother passed away two months after the book came out after a long illness, so she never saw it. My father has been busy with more serious problems lately, so he never looked at the book either, even if he has a copy. This has been a tough year for everyone in my family. However, I would not have liked them to change their minds. I think they were right, and I will be always grateful to them for having taught me that life must be ‘lived’. As much as I worked hard and there have been times when my life was mostly about my academic work (and getting tenured), what really helped was to always have something else that was able to connect me with the ‘real’ world. I have always loved traveling and I did it as much as I could. I am also a ‘physical’ person, and since my time as a post-doc in Oxford, I have realized that to do my academic job well, I also had to have daily physical activity. So, since then, I have always combined writing and research with running, going to the gym, and ice skating. All my work on Aristarchus was also accompanied by dancing, which I do with my husband, at least four times a week. A life with interests beyond Aristarchus is what allowed me to do this book—hence the dedication to my parents and my husband.

9. What next for you? A well-earned rest after spending ten years on this book?

My plan was indeed to take a pause and just study new things without pressure. But this year has turned out to be quite busy with two new projects. One is the edition, translation and commentary of Hipparchus’ commentary on Aratus. As I said, I have become more and more interested in Greek science, and especially astronomy. The text of Hipparchus on Aratus is also the most ancient Greek commentary that has reached us by direct tradition. It is also a polemical commentary, as Hipparchus, a scientist, criticizes Aratus and his source, Eudoxus, because their data (and methodology) are faulty. By working on Aristarchus and his atheteseis of Homeric lines that did not fit with what he thought of Homer’s art, I have become fascinated with the idea of what a commentator does when the author he is commenting on shows problems or inconsistencies. And Hipparchus is the ultimate example of it. In this regard, I am also working on Christian authors commenting on the Bible, exactly from this perspective: what happens when a ‘sacred’ text has problems? This project on Hipparchus has priority now because I have just won an NSF grant that funds me to carry it out. This project is actually broader and covers all the commentators of Aratus: I have hired a post doc who will translate all the scholia to Aratus. We are preparing a website where scholars will have access to the text of Aratus and all the commentaries on it, line by line, along with explanations of the astronomical phenomena described. The project has just started on June 1 and will last two years.

The other project is completely different and represents a welcome change in my scholarly work. It is about the Greek dances of Martha Graham, that is, the dances she choreographed based on Greek myths, and has its origin in my interests in classical reception and in my love for dance. To carry out this project I am collaborating with a pupil of Martha Graham and former directory of the Martha Graham Company, Christine Dakin. By combing our philological and artistic expertise together, our aim will be to investigate how Graham’s dances play with and rework Greek myths, to show their intellectual and artistic value, as well as Graham’s own engagement both with important twentieth-century intellectual trends and with classical texts.

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