Epic Fabrication! Creating and Curating Fragmentary Traditions

About a month ago Hannah Čulík-Baird wrote a blog post about citation of authority and the quotation of fake or misrepresented quotations (among other themes). Now, perhaps it is in part guilt for this site’s own participation in the quotation-economy that drives my interest, but I have been at times obsessed over the past year with false attributions to Aristotle and with coming up with some kind of a scale for the general fakeness of a quotation. But, as I found out at a workshop at MIT organized by Stephanie Frampton, it is not just the ‘vulgar mob’ that is misappropriating the past—no, we professionals have been actively selecting, shaping, and fabricating it for a long time.

Some ways in which we do this are simple, and understated, as in the editing of a text where we apply inconsistent, unfair, or unclear criteria in choosing one form or variant over another. But some things we do are quite bolder. And this brings me to something I love (and Hannah does too): fragments.

I think that there is a misconception—which I once had—that fragments of lost poems and texts are exactly what they sound like—lines that exist on scraps of manuscript, stone, metal, and papyrus. While this is true for a few, the vast majority of the things we call fragments are actually embedded in other places and we have been excising them from the parent text and recreating them as something else since at least the Renaissance. (Florilegia, essentially quote books, and miscellany texts going back even further are another topic too).

Let’s look at two examples of fragmentary epic poets to make some sense of how we are actively engaged in the creation of the past, Creophylus and Peisander. Creophylus of Samos is dated to the Archaic period and is said by some to be Homer’s friend or even son-in-law. He is said to be the author of an epic “Capture of Oikhalia”. The best testimonia (“witnesses”) for this are a combination of imperial Greek (i.e. “second sophistic”) and later, although a passage from the Hellenistic period is embedded in Strabo (Strabo 14.1.18 including Call. Epigram 6 PF; Proclus Life of Homer 5; Hesychius Miletus, Life of Homer 6, Suda k 2376 [drawn from Hesychius]. Also: schol. ad Plato’s Republic, 600b; Photius, s.v. Creophylus).

There are three fragments attributed to Creophylos. They might all be bogus. The first fragment [ὦ γύναι, <αὐτὴ> ταῦτά γ᾿ ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὅρηαι, fr. 1] is from the Epimerismi Homerici  dated to the early Byzantine period. This line can be justified as an entry in an hexameter poem. But there is nothing about it that makes it necessarily appropriate for a poem by Creophylus about the sack of Oikhalia by Herakles. It could be “To the woman complaining that there was nothing to eat, I said, / “Woman, you see these things in front of your eyes at least…” Or many, many other possibilities. None of which necessarily have to be about Herakles.

Kreo Fr 1
From West’s 2003 Loeb

The second “fragment” as it is listed in West 2003 is not fairly a fragment at all but two late testimonies to content. The first part is from Strabo 9.5.17 and the second is Pausanias 4.2.3. Both use a reference to Creophylus to or a poem attributed to him to discuss the location of the mythical Oikhalia.

It is, I think, somewhat distortive to even group these together. In Strabo, we get a reference to the “Author of the Capture of Oikhalia” (ὁ ποιήσας τὴν Οἰχαλίας ἅλωσιν) while in Pausanias Creophylus is credited with a Heraklea which told the story set in Oikhalia. Neither “fragment” presents any clear language from a poem. It is debatable, as well, that these references are to the same poem and poet rather than using a brief reference to the past as evidence for the authority of an assertion. The use of these ‘fragments’ says much more about the people whose opinions are being reported, the methods of the authors doing the reporting, and cultural ideas about authority and antiquity than they can possibly say about a legendary lost poem.

Kreo fr 2

The third fragment is also a summary of content and not a citation of actually lines. It comes from the Scholia to Sophocles’ Trachiniae and presents three different numbers of the sons of Eurytus. This detail has been selected for the purpose of showing the range of options and depth of research. It has been selected in service as well of elucidating another text from a different genre and it too says very little about any poem.

There is a circuity in what we say about figures like Creophylus as well. Compare Joachim Latacz’s entry on Creophylus in Brill’s New Pauly to the entry in the Suda:

Kreo Pauly 1

Here’s the Suda. From what I can see, our official “modern entry” adds the testimonia from above and some details from the Suda with little critical engagement with either.

“Kreophylos, the son of Astukles, a Chian or a Samian. An epic poet. Some say that he was homer’s son-in-law through his daughter. Others claim that he was only Homer’s friend and that after he welcomed Homer he received from him the poem “The Sack of Oikhalia

Κρεώφυλος, ᾿Αστυκλέους, Χῖος ἢ Σάμιος, ἐποποιός. τινὲς δὲ αὐτὸν ἱστόρησαν ῾Ομήρου γαμβρὸν ἐπὶ θυγατρί. οἱ δὲ φίλον μόνον γεγονέναι αὐτὸν ῾Ομήρου λέγουσι καὶ ὑποδεξάμενον ῞Ομηρον λαβεῖν παρ’ αὐτοῦ τὸ ποίημα τὴν τῆς Οἰχαλίας ἅλωσιν.

Let’s do this again briefly with with Peisander. According to the Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda (s.v. Peisandros), Peisander of Rhodes wrote about the “deeds of Herakles” in two books in the 7th Century BCE (and Herakles was also prominent in narrative lyric poetry like that of Stesichorus)— but his earliest testimony goes back to the Hellenistic period as well, in an epigram ascribed to Theocritus. But the rest of the testimonia are later: another collection of Strabo, Quintilian, Clement, and more. Almost all of his ‘so-called’ fragments consist of other authors claiming that Peisander gave some version of known tales about Herakles. Here’s a list:

  1. The Nemean Lion: Peisander, fr. 1 (Ps. Eratosthenes, Catast.12)
  2. Learnean Hydra: Peisander, fr. 2 (=Pausanias, 2.37.4); Panyasis, fr. 6
  3. Cerynian Hind: Peisander, fr. 3 (= Scholia to Pindar. Ol. 3.50b)
  4. Stymphalian Birds: Peisander, fr. 4 (=Pausanias 8.22.4)
  5. Sailed Across the Ocean in a Cup: Peisander fr. 5 (Athenaeus, 469c)
  6. Antaeus: Peisander, fr 6 (=Schol ad Pind, Pyth 9.185a) [giant wrestled on way to Hesperides]
  7. Conflict with Centaurs: Peisander, fr. 9 (=Hesychius nu 683)
  8. Sacking of Troy with Telamon: Peisander, fr. 10 (=Athenaus 783c)

Fragment 7 (preserved by the schol. To Aristophanes’ Clouds) has “Athena the grey-eyed goddess made a warm bath for him at Thermopylae along the shore of the sea.” (τῶι δ᾿ ἐν Θερμοπύληισι θεὰ γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη / ποίει θερμὰ λοετρὰ παρὰ ῥηγμῖνι θαλάσσης.) In typical late antique style, something about this is repeated at several other places (Cf. Zenob. vulg. 6.49; Diogenian. 5.7; Harpocr. Θ 11.) indicating a proverbial status for the lines or a common source. Other than the contextual information and the tradition that Athena helped Herakles (and other heroes) there is little here that makes a certain part of a poem about Herakles by Peisander.

Fragment 2 is a line with no context from Stobaeus: “There’s no reason to criticize saying even a lie to save a life.” (οὐ νέμεσις καὶ ψεῦδος ὑπὲρ ψυχῆς ἀγορεύειν.). This is another proverbial utterance with nothing particularly Heraklean about it as is fragment 9 (“there’s no thought in Centaurs” νοῦς οὐ παρὰ Κενταύροισι) cited by Hesychius.

So, again, as with Creophylus, Peisander’s ‘fragments’ are for the most part distorted quotations and receptions which are willfully presented as evidence of a lost poem when they are more fairly evidence for the way that ancient authors in the post-Hellenistic period constructed authority or explored variation and multiform myth in their own research and retelling. To be clear: I am not saying that these passages are not worthy of study or that they have nothing to tell us about the past. I am saying that the way we treat them is far from transparent and probably not that useful.

As discrete entries in collections of fragments and encyclopediae about the past, these details seem rather anodyne, but once you really think about them, the patterns they represent should give us some concern about the degree to which we fabricate and stitch together elements of the past to our liking. Once these ‘fragments’ enter scholarly texts—as they do in Davies 1988, Benarbé 1996, and West 2003—they become re-canonized as evidence for lost poems and mythical traditions. The last decade or so has seen an uptick in research and publishing on the fragments of the so-called epic cycle with insufficient acknowledgement for the contribution of this scholarly enterprise—all the way back to the Hellenistic period—in fabricating both the concept and its content.

Such thin evidence is then re-presented as concrete blocks upon which we build intricate arguments. And the level of knowledge, patience and time it takes to evaluate the veracity of these constructions is increasingly available only to a select few. And even those of us who have the time and training to understand that this house of cards is really a sculpture of broken toothpicks and tissue paper are too habituated to the claiming of these textual artifacts as fragments that we are unable or unwilling to call them something else.



For the standard version of the fragments and testimonies see


Benarbé, A. 1996. Poetorum Epicorum Graecorum. Leipzig.

Davies, M. 1988. Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Göttingen

West, M.L. 2003. Epic Fragments. Loeb Classical Library.


For More:

Burgess J. S. 2001. The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle. Baltimore.

Davies, M. 1989. The Greek Epic Cycle. London. [a moderate reconstruction]

Fantuzzi, M. and Tsagalis, C. (eds). 2014. The Greek Epic Cycle and its Ancient Reception. Cambridge: 213–25. [collection of essays from somewhat different expectations]

West, M. L. 2013.The Epic Cycle. Oxford. [the most extreme of the reconstructions]



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