Homer Forced the Birth of Philology (F.A. Wolf)

Again, from the Prolegomena ad Homerum by F. A. Wolf:


“This story allows us a chance to make a few overarching comments about the birth of the practice of criticism. And this also permits us to evaluate the nature of the recensions which were reportedly made in that period. For I don’t think that anyone will be surprised today that the Greeks of the time—who were by chance more men of genius than of learning,—even though they were completely estranged from the polymathy to which kings eventually provided ample time, that they were already starting to turn their attention to that art which is the collected sum of the various disciplines of literature and antiquity.

Indeed, all the foundations which would guide the ancients to the art of criticism already existed at that time. Among them I would put in first place the ancient method of preserving songs by only the use of memory; in the second, the errors and frauds perpetrated in ascribing authorship; and in the third, the many kinds of easy mistakes made by untrained hands in preparing the first manuscripts.

But even if this last case would precipitate a need for this art after many generations, anyone who is familiar with the Greeks will easily see that their genius would not have been able of declining so severely or so eagerly to such nitpicking concerns if their writings were only corrupted in the way that most books are. Let it stand as the singular fate of the monuments of Homer and his peers that in some sense they forced philology to be born—and that they did so even before the word for Critic or Grammarian was commonly spoken.”


Haec narratio nobis occasionem offert in universum dicendi nonnulla de ortu studii critici, ex quibus existimare liceat de conditione earum recensionorum, quae hoc saeculo offeruntur factae esse. Nunc enim nemo, puto, mirabitur, Graecos iam tum, quum prosperrima sorte sua ingeniosiores essent quam doctiores, et ab illa [corrupt text] cui reges deinde otium praebuerunt alienissimi, animum paullatim applicuisse ad eam artem, quae tota collecta est ex multiplici doctrina litterarum et antiquitatis. Etenim quae causae maxime perduxerunt veteres ad criticam artem, iam tum eaedem exstiterant omnes. In quibus primo loco posuerim modum illum conservandorum olim Carminum ope unius memoriae, proximo errores et fraudes in prodendis auctoribus eorum, tertio varios facillimosque lapsus rudium manuum in primis exemplaribus parandis. Sed etsi haec postrema causa eius- modi est, ut post aliquot saecula istius artis desiderium necessario fuisset allatura, tamen qui Graecos norit, facile intelliget, ad tam minutulas curas ingenium eorum nec tam mature-nec tanto studio potuisse descendere, si sola omni scripturae communia menda libros corrupissent. Maneat igitur, singularem fortunam Homericorum et supparum monumentorum extudisse quodammodo philologam criticen, idque etiam antea, quam nomen Critici aut Grammatici vulgo auditum esset.

On the (rather thorough) Absence of Writing in Homer

From F. A. Wolf’s Prolegomena ad Homerum section XX:


“Now there is not only no evidence or even whisper of [epistles] in Homer and no indication at all of even the most tenuous beginnings of institutionalized writing or that “gift of Cadmus” but—and this is clearly the most significant piece—only contradictory evidence. The word for ‘book’ is nowhere; a word for writing is nowhere; mention of letters is nowhere.

In so many thousands of lines there is nothing about reading while everything is set up for hearing. There are no contracts or treaties except in person; there is no source for stories from earlier days except for memory, rumor and uninscribed monuments. We find the repeated and, in the Iliad, diligent, invocation of the Muses, the goddesses of Memory. No title is inscribed on pillars and tombs which are often mentioned.

There is no other kind of inscription at all: we don’t find stamped coin or fabricated money; there’s no use of writing in domestic affairs and trade; there are no written or drawn maps; and, finally, there are no couriers or letters. If these had been customary in Odysseus’ homeland or if “folded tablets”* had been available to the inquiries of the suitors and Telemachus, we probably would have a much shorter Odyssey or, as Rousseau decided, we wouldn’t have any Odyssey at all!”


Iam vero non modo nullum tale in Homero exstat testimonium rei vel vestigium, nullum ne tenuissimorum quidem initiorum legitimae scripturae vel Cadmei muneris indicium, sed, quod longe maximi momenti est, contraria etiam omnia. Nusquam vocabulum libri nusquam scribendi nusquam lectio-fiis nusquam letterarum: nihil in tot millibus versuum adlectionem, omnia ad auditionem comparata; nulla pacta aut foedera nisi coram; nullus veterum rerum famae fons prae-ter memoriam et famam et illitterata monumenta. eo Musarum, memorum dearum, diligens et in Iliade enixe repetita invocatio; nullius incippis et sepulcris, quae interdum memorantur, titulus; non alia ulla inscriptio; non aes signatum aut facta pecunia; nullus usus scripti in rebus domesticis et mercatura; nullae geographicae tabulae; denique nulli tabellarii, nullae epistolae, quarum si consuetudo fuisset in patria Ulyssis, vel si percontationibus procorum et Telemachi suffecissent, procul dubio Odysseam aliquot libris breviorem, aut, ut Roussavius coniiciebat, omnino nullam haberemus.


*A reference to the only indication of writing in Homer, coming from Glaukos’ speech to Diomedes when he describes Bellerophon as sent to Lykia by Proitos with a “folded tablet” (6.168-170):

“He sent him to Lykia, and he gave him murderous signs
Which he wrote on a folded tabled, many heart-rending things,
In which he ordered his father-in-law to welcome him in order to kill him.”

πέμπε δέ μιν Λυκίην δέ, πόρεν δ’ ὅ γε σήματα λυγρὰ
γράψας ἐν πίνακι πτυκτῷ θυμοφθόρα πολλά,
δεῖξαι δ’ ἠνώγειν ᾧ πενθερῷ ὄφρ’ ἀπόλοιτο.

The Vindolanda Tablets from Britain

What Does an Oral ‘Homer’ Mean?

The ‘modern’ Homeric ‘Question’ simmered for many centuries before it received its most clear articulation at the end of the 18th century when Wolf, who had been working on an edition of the Homeric text, published his Prolegomena.  He was one of the first to argue persuasively for the oral derivation of the Homeric poems. In the (declining) style of the time, Wolf published in Latin.

The full Latin text is available from Google books and on the Homer Multitext Project website. A fine translation was published in English in 1985/1988 by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and James E. G. Zetzel.

Friedrich Augustus Wolf, Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795) section 23


“But what if the suspicion of a few scholars is likely, that these and the other compositions of those days were not written down but were first created by poets using memory and circulated as songs and then were ‘published’ widely by the singing of rhapsodes who were trained by their particular discipline to learn them? And if because of this, before they were fixed in writing, what if many changes naturally occurred either intentionally or by chance?

What if, for this reason itself, as soon as they began to be written, they exhibited many divergences and soon added new ones from the hasty adjustments by those who were eager to polish them and to align them with the best laws of the poetic art and their own custom And what if then this whole creation and series of two eternal songs are not of a single poet whom we are used to crediting for his genius but more from the dedication of a more polished time and thanks to the collected efforts of many—that the very songs from which the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed did not have a single author and this can be argued from likely propositions and reasons? What if, I ask, we must take up a belief different from the popular one about all of this, what then will it mean to restore the ancient gleam and original form to these poems?”


At vero, si nonnullorum probabilis est suspicio , haec et reliqua Carmina illorum temporum nullis litterarum mandata notis, sed primum a poetis memoriter facta et cantu edita, tum per rhapsodos, in iis ediscendis propria arte occupatos, canendo divulgata esse; ex quo, antequam scripto velut figerentur, plura in iis vel consilio vel casu immutari necesse esset; si hanc ipsam ob causam, statim ut scribi coepta sunt, multas diversitates habuerunt, mox novas subinde adsciverunt temeritate et coniecturis eorum, qui ea certatim expolire, et ad optimas leges poeticae artis ad suamque consuetudinem loquendi corrigere studebant; si denique totum hunc contextum ac seriem duorum perpetuorum Carminum non tam eius, cui eam tribuere consuevimus, ingenio, quam sollertiae politioris aevi et multorum coniunctis studiis deberi, neque adeo ipsas docdd, ex quibus Ilias et Odyssea compositae sunt, unum omnes auctorem habere, verisimilibus argumentis et rationibus effici potest; si, inquam, aliter de his omnibus, ac vulgo fit, existimandum est: quid tum erit, his Carminibus pristinum nitorem et germanam formam suam restituere?