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Interpreting a Classic Demosthenes and His Ancient Commentators

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The Athenian statesman and orator Demosthenes (384-322 b.c.) was one of the most influential authors of Greek and Roman antiquity. The writings passed down under his name in the manuscript tradition include sixteen speeches delivered before the Athenian Assembly, nine others from important public trials, thirty-three from private law cases, six letters, a funeral oration, an essay on love, and a large collection of generalized introductions (prooemia).1 Of these writings, the speeches delivered in the Assembly and in public trials were generally considered to be his best. Demosthenes was also one of the classical orators included in the canon of ten Attic orators, a list of recommended authors that probably reached its final form in the second century c.e.2

Demosthenes was read more than any other ancient orator; only his Roman admirer Cicero offered any real competition. For hundreds of years he was studied by schoolboys eager to embark upon careers as public speakers, politicians, and patriarchs. Writers of all periods studied and imitated Demosthenes' style. Literary critics tried to describe the effects of his style on the reader or listener, and to explain how such effects were achieved. Biographers supplied their hungry reading publics with extensive discussions of Demosthenes' political career, his speeches, and even his personal quirks and sense of humor. Commentaries and dictionaries provided generations of readers with valuable discussions of the finer points of classical Athenian history and definitions of unusual or archaic words. Just as Homer was "the poet" of Greek and Roman antiquity, Demosthenes was "the orator."

Postclassical readers of Demosthenes faced a number of challenges, not the least of which was their distance from the world of classical Athens. In his speeches Demosthenes addresses the Athenians of his own day in terms calculated to advise, inform, and move them. There was no particular reason for him to assume that his published speeches would still be read hundreds of years later. There was no way to predict that a proper name or other word in those speeches would be unfamiliar to a reader six hundred years in the future, and no real reason to concern himself with that fact. Likewise there was no reason to provide footnotes to current events and well-known episodes from Athenian history. When Demosthenes refers in his tenth oration to the Persian king's previous restoration of the city's affairs (10.34), his original audience presumably knew what that meant. They did not need to be told that he was referring, as one ancient scholar argues, to a Persian-sponsored Athenian defeat of the Spartans in a naval battle at Cnidus in the 390s b.c.3

Even if Demosthenes wanted to give his audience such details, it is also possible that he could not. As J. Ober has argued, for political reasons an ancient orator had to "avoid taking on the appearance of a well-educated man giving lessons in culture to the ignorant masses."4 Demosthenes had to portray himself as knowledgeable (and therefore trustworthy), but at the same time he had to avoid giving the impression that he believed that he was better than anyone in his audience (and therefore untrustworthy). For these reasons Demosthenes' speeches did not and perhaps could not provide the philological and historical explanations that later readers might need. Nevertheless, Demosthenes was a "classic" author on a recommended reading list, and if such an author was to have relevance for each new generation of readers, these readers needed help.

The scholars who provided this help had no special title in antiquity. Given their interests and agenda, we may call them the philological and historical commentators.5 Unlike many ancient readers, these philological and historical commentators were not interested in mining Demosthenes' speeches for rhetorical gems or biographical data. Rather, they devoted themselves to reacquiring the factual knowledge that Demosthenes had apparently taken for granted in his original audience. Through their efforts Demosthenes could function in their own times and places as a historical eyewitness to a period universally recognized by subsequent generations as the greatest in Greek military, political, and cultural achievement.

Some of the tools and techniques of our commentators had already been applied in Hellenistic Alexandria to other authors, such as Homer and the dramatic poets.6 In addition to the traditional questions of grammar, word choice, and etymology, the commentators on Demosthenes also discussed the dates and authenticity of the orations, identified the historical persons mentioned in them, and explained references to unfamiliar facets of life in classical Athens. Our commentators were most interested in discussing philological and historical questions evoked directly by the literal details of the text. There was no discussion of rhetorical theory or its practical application, no moralizing, no discussion of Demosthenes the man, and no use of allegory. Cases of insurance fraud did not invite philosophical speculation on the immortality of the soul, and Philip of Macedon was never likened to the primordial chaos.

That the commentators devoted themselves to factually oriented topics has had a curious effect on modern scholars. Over the past century and a half, classicists have tended to approach such fragmentary and practical texts in a fragmentary and practical manner, efficiently reducing the whole to the sum of its parts. Correct etymologies are transported into our modern etymological dictionaries. Incorrect ones are dismissed in footnotes. Primary historical sources quoted in the commentaries are lifted out of their ancient context, reassembled elsewhere, used to reconstruct the writings of the Atthidographers, lifted again for historical essays, marshalled in columns, evaluated, accepted, dismissed. Ancient claims for authenticity are believed and noted in prefaces, or disbelieved and reduced to brackets. Identifications of persons, places, and things are whisked away to our dictionaries and encyclopedias as derivative comparanda for things we supposedly know much better from Cornelius Nepos or Plutarch or the scholia to Apollonius of Rhodes. Tidy, efficient, and utterly scientific, the modern scholarship on these sorts of texts unfortunately tells us little about the target authors, and even less about their commentators.

A modern philologist or historian, however, may hold that the fragmentary and practical nature of such writings fairly well justifies our rating them by degree of accuracy. Considerable sympathy with this view is understandable. Facts are important. The truth of history, though it is increasingly unfashionable and perhaps naïve to say so aloud, is important. And the hard questions with which the modern reader of ancient oratory must always come to terms are important: Is this speaker telling the truth? Does he really expect his audience to know the historical details that he seems to assume of them, or is he trying to capitalize on their ignorance, patriotism, or fear? Can this speech provide an accurate understanding of the historical persons, places, and events mentioned in it?7 This modern quest for the truth about the past sends us to the ancient commentators, whom we tend to hold to modern standards of accuracy regarding this particular historical detail, the use or faithful transmission of that source, or the true meaning of this or that word or phrase.

This approach has proved valuable in a number of areas. If it were not for careful modern studies of the ancient commentaries on Demosthenes, we would know less about a great many topics: the chronology of Philip's campaigns, the fate of the philosopher-king and tyrant Hermias of Atarneus, the authenticity of some of Demosthenes' speeches (which directly affects our understanding of Greek history), and the contents of some lost comedies, to name a few examples. But this piecemeal approach has also left two groups largely to the side: the educated scholars through whose diligence the text of Demosthenes was supplied with commentaries and lexica, and the other ancient readers who eagerly sought out not only Demosthenes' writings but also these secondary companion-pieces. In other words, modern scholarship has already as thoroughly as possible answered the question, What can these commentators tell us about Demosthenes and the fourth century? However, the question that has never been asked of these texts as a group, and which is to be examined in detail here, is, What can these commentators tell us about commentators, about commentaries, and about the ancient readers who consulted them?

Approached in this way, the ancient commentaries on Demosthenes have a fascinating new story to tell. This book attempts to give a detailed and generous portrait of a scholarly industry that touched generations of ancient readers from the first century b.c. to the fifth century c.e. and beyond. The story of the ancient philological and historical commentaries on Demosthenes begins with the first-century commentaries of the Alexandrian scholar Didymus Chalcenterus. These commentaries, as we shall see, were soon dismembered into special lexica to individual speeches and also into other commentaries. Some of these new scholarly works were read and adapted in the second century c.e. by Harpocration in his Lexeis of the Ten Orators, as well as by even later lexicographers and commentators. Down to the end of antiquity, lexica and commentaries were involved in a kind of scholarly symbiosis, alternately feeding and being fed by one another. Some words and ideas from the ancient philological and historical commentaries even found their way—largely via excerpts from popular reference sources—into the Byzantine scholia to Demosthenes.8 Written and revised in some cases hundreds of years after the latest of the ancient writings surveyed in this book, these comments in the margins of mediaeval manuscripts of Demosthenes show that it was almost exclusively his rhetoric that interested scholars after the end of the ancient world.

Long study of the ancient philological and historical commentaries on Demosthenes has led me to formulate three working hypotheses that inform much of this book. It will be useful to state them here at the outset rather than frequently repeating them throughout:

1. "Fragments" of ancient scholarship cannot be taken at face value.

Quotations from otherwise lost works (called "fragments") have been stripped from their original contexts and redeployed in new, foreign contexts. This impedes our ability to assess their original significance accurately, for several reasons. First, a "fragment" is not necessarily an accurate representation of a scholar's idea, much less the specific language with which it was conveyed. There were no generally accepted scholarly principles in antiquity that dictated how one should represent the ideas of another scholar, and no regularly observed conventions of denoting when an excerpted passage was an exact quotation, a quotation with ellipses, a quotation containing some paraphrase, a paraphrase, or a summary. Second, commentators in the ancient world rarely preserve the evidence and arguments used by previous scholars. They may, for example, report that an earlier scholar believed that a certain speech was never delivered, but they do not usually state on what evidence their source based this conclusion, if in fact that evidence was even provided in the original source. Third, and most important, "fragments" of ancient scholarship are often situated in a polemical context and thus tend not to represent the excerpted author at his best. We shall see this clearly illustrated in Harpocration's responses to Didymus, as well as in Didymus's responses to earlier, anonymous views.

Modern practitioners of source criticism (Quellenforschung) have not always paid adequate attention to the rhetorical strategies of ancient scholars, whose purpose is seldom simply to record accurately and completely the views of earlier scholars in an objective, value-free medium.9 Throughout this study, therefore, I have endeavored to consider the original context of fragments, the alterations to which they may have been subjected, and the rhetorical aims of the scholars providing them.

2. Ancient commentators were writing for ancient audiences.

Ancient commentators purposefully used excerption and paraphrase to emphasize one particular point at the expense of all the other points that could have been emphasized. Their choices are often not the ones that modern scholars—in our eagerness to use the commentaries for quite different purposes—would like them to have made. Any sense of disappointment that we may feel, however, may simply be a reflection of an unexamined assumption that the purpose of such texts is to provide us with "parallels" and other "information." Take, for example, this selection from the lexicographer Harpocration, in which he relates Didymus's interpretation of the Greek verb dekateuein, "to pay a tithe":

To pay a tithe:...When Demosthenes says as follows about a certain young woman in Against Medon, namely that "she has neither paid her tithe nor celebrated the mysteries," Didymus the scholar in his book on the subject/speech says that Lysias, in Concerning the Daughter of Phrynichus, said that "to pay a tithe" means " to act the she-bear..."10
In this lexical entry, Harpocration reports that Didymus had adduced a parallel from the orator Lysias in order to explain a certain passage in Demosthenes. In both of the orations cited, "paying a tithe" is said to be a euphemism for taking part in a ritual dance in honor of Artemis, in which young girls dressed as bears. So far Didymus. But some of the questions that modern researchers might bring to this passage are left unanswered. There is no summary of either of the orations cited; this is regrettable, because neither survived antiquity. There is no full list or discussion of the civic duties of young Athenian girls to complement or contradict what is known from elsewhere. There is no perceptive analysis of the role of the goddess Artemis in Greek life. The list of what the passage does not provide for a modern scholar could easily be extended. But Harpocration and Didymus were not writing for a modern audience. Harpocration's purpose was to provide his readers in the second century c.e. with material that he deemed useful for understanding the vocabulary of the Attic orators: some alternative meanings of a Greek verb for "to pay a tithe," a demonstration of how the word is used in classical Greek oratory, and a brief reference to relevant secondary source material. And that is all. It is important to keep in mind that ancient scholars, like other ancient authors, were writing for audiences with educational backgrounds, expectations, and needs that were often quite different from our own. They could not anticipate our interests, and so should not be faulted excessively for failing to cater to them.

3. Date and place of composition do not necessarily determine a commentary's accuracy.

A well-stocked library at one's fingertips and an Alexandrian pedigree do not necessarily result in a brilliant commentary based on the earliest and (hence) most infallible source materials;11 likewise, a late-ancient date alone does not necessarily result in a work consisting of mindlessly cut-and-pasted, diluted, misunderstood mishmash.12 To assume otherwise would be, at worst, demonstrably incorrect; at best, counterproductive and misleading. I do not raise this point out of a misguided desire to mount a defense of, lavish undeserved praise upon, or boost the self-esteem of those ancient scholars who, by any reasonable standard, should properly remain at the bottom of the class. I raise it in order to suggest that the burden of proof should be (but usually is not) on anyone who would assume that there is a necessary cause-and-effect relationship between an ancient commentary's brilliance, accuracy, or usefulness—or substitute any other word denoting its value to modern scholars—and its date, place, or social circumstances of composition. The scholars of late antiquity, it should go without saying, did not suffer from a mental disability caused by their spatial or temporal distance from Hellenistic Alexandria. To accept this sort of view requires implicit commitment to an overall "decline" model of intellectual life in late antiquity that seems more often to have been assumed for historiographical convenience than rigorously demonstrated. Therefore, I have resisted the temptation to construct a rise-and-fall narrative of the ancient philological and historical scholarship on Demosthenes, which might place the Alexandrian Didymus and Berol. 9780 at its apex and hold up later commentaries and lexica as examples of the supposedly sad state into which the supposedly unoriginal, rehashed scholarship of late antiquity had devolved.

As has long been recognized, commentaries in general are a most useful source for the intellectual historian. Even though they survive only in a fragmentary state, the ancient philological and historical commentaries on Demosthenes allow us to pose questions about the intellectual world of antiquity that his texts alone—stripped of the ancient scholarly apparatus that was meant to accompany them—cannot even begin to answer. Commentaries serve as records of the interactions between reader and target author, between reader and scholarly apparatus, and between reader and scholar. They allow us to catch a glimpse of ancient readers at work and, if only for a moment, to see Demosthenes through their eyes. They reveal that different ancient readers of Demosthenes—other commentators, students and teachers, historians, and others—had different needs and interests. The commentaries show us how ancient scholars locate topics of interest (either in the text of Demosthenes or in another scholarly aid), cast them as worthwhile questions or problems, and then explain them for varied purposes and audiences. In addition, these texts reveal the interaction of generations of scholars both with the text of Demosthenes and with the received views of other scholars. They show, for example, how the Alexandrian scholar Didymus evaluates and dismisses the allegedly unfounded views of his ill-informed predecessors. They also show, a century or so later, how the lexicographer Harpocration criticizes Didymus for his allegedly illogical, improbable, and ridiculous assertions. The ancient philological and historical commentaries on Demosthenes thus serve as a record of fierce intellectual battles fought in the schoolrooms, libraries, and published writings of Greek and Roman antiquity. At stake was nothing less than the correct interpretation of a classic.