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