Scholiastic Triumphs: Insights from Ancient Iliadic Readers

Charlie Baker

Scholia (“scholion” in the singular) is the term we use for marginal comments found in manuscripts or papyri that relate to the main text, and it is typically used in reference to Ancient Greek and Latin examples. In the best cases, the scholia in medieval manuscripts have been copied alongside the text for many generations. These notes may date as far back as the Alexandrian scholars of the 3rd century BC, but can belong to the Byzantine Period (at the end of the 1st millennium AD), and usually scholia dating from different eras are found side-by-side. Manuscripts of Homer (and the Iliad especially) contain a large corpus of scholia, which is our focus here. The Homeric scholia for many years were considered useful mostly for textual criticism, and when they appear in modern commentaries it is still almost an addendum; readers may be left with the impression that they are not worth reading today. By looking at a few examples, we will see that these scholia can, in fact, still improve our modern reading of the poem; instances of genuine scholarly insight are present in this strange mixture of ancient voices.

What do they contain? Anything a scholiast (or his source) thought worth commenting on: unusual Homeric Greek words, moral lessons, alternative readings of a line, extra mythological context or commentary on narrative “problems”. The Iliadic scholia are divided into “families” based on their source and content: the A scholia, named after the utterly fabulous Venetus A manuscript, deal with textual variants, while the D scholia mostly explain rare Homeric words and provide mythological context.[1] Here we will look at the bT family, named after a manuscript (T) and group of manuscripts (b) which contain them; they are “exegetical scholia”, meaning they seek to explain the text. This task takes the form of explaining words, poetic devices, plot elements, moral lessons and more.

The text of Iliad 1.1-25 in the utterly fabulous Venetus A (Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, gr. 822). The page can studied in more detail here.

The scholiasts, across the ages, have a few strange scholarly principles. Since they held Homer in enormous regard and lacked any understanding of oral composition, they often ended up backed into a corner: Homer’s poetry was one unified whole, and any apparent plot issues or contradictions could and should be explained away.[2] This, and the pedantry displayed in the scholia, on occasion suck the joy out of the poem. For example, Iliad 5 opens with a hero’s entrance for Diomedes, all high-production and VFX:

ἔνθ᾽ αὖ Τυδεΐδῃ Διομήδεϊ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη
δῶκε μένος καὶ θάρσος, ἵν᾽ ἔκδηλος μετὰ πᾶσιν
Ἀργείοισι γένοιτο ἰδὲ κλέος ἐσθλὸν ἄροιτο·
δαῖέ οἱ ἐκ κόρυθός τε καὶ ἀσπίδος ἀκάματον πῦρ
ἀστέρ᾽ ὀπωρινῷ ἐναλίγκιον, ὅς τε μάλιστα
λαμπρὸν παμφαίνῃσι λελουμένος Ὠκεανοῖο·
τοῖόν οἱ πῦρ δαῖεν ἀπὸ κρατός τε καὶ ὤμων,
ὦρσε δέ μιν κατὰ μέσσον ὅθι πλεῖστοι κλονέοντο. (Iliad 5.1–8)

Then in turn Pallas Athene gave might and courage to Tydeus’ son Diomedes, so that he might stand out amongst all the Argives and win fine fame; she set ablaze unquenchable fire from his helmet and his shield like the late-summer star [Sirius], which especially shines bright when it bathes in Ocean; just so did she make fire blaze from his head and shoulders, and thrust him forward through the middle where the masses roiled.

A little after his fiery entrance, Diomedes wounds Aeneas: Attic red-figure krater, c. 485 BC (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA).

To most readers, this passage is clearly metaphorical; Athena did not set fire to Diomedes, but she made him radiate light which resembles fire or starlight.[3] A critic of Homer named Zoilus (eventually known as the Homeromastix, or“Scourge of Homer”) took issue here, as reported by the D scholia: surely Diomedes would be at risk of getting burned by this fire? The scholiasts defend Homer, but are drawn into this nit-picking debate and overcomplicate the passage. D and bT scholia argue that the word ὡς “like, as” is missing and this is a simile, or one D scholion would have this be a phantasia “illusion” of fire. Finally a bT scholiast cuts through the debate: “at any rate, everything is simple for the gods [to accomplish].”[4] Perhaps “the gods can do anything; don’t ruin the fun” is a not unreasonable approach!

At points, then, the scholia are a little pedestrian and can get stuck “in the weeds” of Homeric minutiae that we find easy to dismiss. On occasion, however, the scholia can make genuinely surprising and enlightening points on Homer’s poetic craft; I have learned more than I care to admit from reading them. I present two examples here, on two apparently unremarkable instances in the first half of the Iliad: Ajax threatening Hector in Book 7, and Odysseus reporting back to Agamemnon after the Embassy of Book 9. In Book 7, Hector has temporarily halted open battle to challenge a Greek champion to a duel. Eventually Ajax is chosen, and he taunts Hector before the fight:

Ἕκτορ νῦν μὲν δὴ σάφα εἴσεαι οἰόθεν οἶος
οἷοι καὶ Δαναοῖσιν ἀριστῆες μετέασιν,
καὶ μετ᾽ Ἀχιλλῆα ῥηξήνορα θυμολέοντα.
ἀλλ᾽ ὃ μὲν ἐν νήεσσι κορωνίσι ποντοπόροισι
κεῖτ᾽ ἀπομηνίσας Ἀγαμέμνονι ποιμένι λαῶν·
ἡμεῖς δ᾽ εἰμὲν τοῖοι οἳ ἂν σέθεν ἀντιάσαιμεν
καὶ πολέες· ἀλλ᾽ ἄρχε μάχης ἠδὲ πτολέμοιο. (Iliad 7.226–32)

Hector, now you shall know clearly, from one man alone to another, of what quality are also the champions among the Danaans, even after Achilles, the breaker of men, the lion-hearted. But he stays among the prowed ships which travel the sea nursing wrath against Agamemnon, the shepherd of the troops: yet we are of such mettle that we may face you, and we are many. But begin our fight and battle.

Hector (L) and Ajax battle it out in the film Troy (dir. Wolfgang Petersen, Warner Bros, 2004). In Homer’s version, the duel ends in a draw and they exchange gifts.

A bT scholion here responds to an implied question: “Isn’t this a rather foolish speech for Ajax to make? Now Hector knows that Achilles isn’t fighting!” Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that, before this, Achilles’ withdrawal is only mentioned in the presence of Trojans by Apollo and Hera.[5] Rules of any kind don’t apply to the gods, as our scholiast on Diomedes will tell us, so perhaps we can discount those instances and say this is the first time Hector learns that Achilles isn’t fighting. In steps our scholion: “[Ajax] appropriately browbeats his enemy with the expectation of a greater man, so that [Hector] might not be filled with hope thinking that Achilles has died or sailed away.”[6] It is not an error at all! Achilles, being such a great warrior, would already have been missed by the Trojans (e.g. at the earlier ceasefire and duel that took place in Book 3) and Ajax here is able to ensure that Hector knows that this absence is only a temporary one. What may seem at first to be an insignificant utterance, a Homeric repetition of information to fill in a speech,[7] is in fact a careful piece of rhetoric and, presumably, a calculated revelation by the poet.

The Ambassadors of Agamemnon in the Tent of Achilles, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1801 (École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts, Paris, France).

In Book 9, the Achaeans send some heroes to negotiate Achilles’ return and promise an extravagant series of gifts from Agamemnon. The key members of the party are Odysseus (the quick-talking strategist), Ajax (the simple soldier and second-best to Achilles), and Phoenix (Achilles’ old mentor). Achilles first tells them that he does not care for the gifts and intends to sail away the next morning (Il. 9.359–63), then eventually concedes that he will stay until Hector reaches and sets fire to the Achaean ships (Il. 9.650–3). Phoenix stays with Achilles, so the other two return to Agamemnon to make a report. Agamemnon asks Odysseus about whether Achilles will return or not, and Odysseus seems to leave out some key details:

αὐτόν σε φράζεσθαι ἐν Ἀργείοισιν ἄνωγεν
ὅππως κεν νῆάς τε σαῷς καὶ λαὸν Ἀχαιῶν﮲
αὐτὸς δ᾽ ἠπείλησεν ἅμ᾽ ἠοῖ φαινομένηφι
νῆας ἐϋσσέλμους ἅλαδ᾽ ἑλκέμεν ἀμφιελίσσας.
καὶ δ᾽ ἂν τοῖς ἄλλοισιν ἔφη παραμυθήσασθαι
οἴκαδ᾽ ἀποπλείειν…
ὣς ἔφατ᾽﮲ εἰσὶ καὶ οἵδε τάδ᾽ εἰπέμεν, οἵ μοι ἕποντο,
Αἴας καὶ κήρυκε δύω πεπνυμένω ἄμφω. (Il. 9.677–85, 688–9)

He ordered you yourself to consider among the Argives how you would keep the ships and the Achaean troops safe: but he threatened at the lighting of dawn to drag his well-benched curved ships to the sea. And he said that he would advise the others to sail home… thus he spoke: these men too can report these things, who followed me, Ajax and the two heralds, both wise.

Odysseus omits the key concession that Achilles said he would fight again if fire reached the ships. The bT and D scholia step in with some suggestions: Odysseus appears to be deliberately reporting only what Achilles said to him, and it is not untrue to say that Achilles “threatened to leave”. Why he does this is a matter of dispute: the scholia, as the product of many hands, are rarely in total agreement. The bT scholion argues that Odysseus says this to make the Achaeans fight with good courage (that is, not expecting Achilles will save them), and that the final two lines above are intended to stop Ajax speaking so he won’t be shown up by a fuller report.[8] The D scholion, on the other hand, argues it is because Achilles replied to them harshly (and this is the impression that sticks in Odysseus’ head, we presume).[9] Porphyry, a scholar of the 3rd century AD, in his collection of Homeric Questions reports another opinion, apparently from a scholar in the Alexandrian circle: that Odysseus doesn’t want to upstage Ajax if he wishes to give a report, as it would be an insult to report his part for him.[10]

We don’t get the clear-cut answer to which we were treated in the previous case, but a fruitful set of options and a good alternative perspective from which to approach this passage. On first reading, we might not take notice of Odysseus’ omissions, or we might see this passage as a non sequitur, perhaps even an awkward shunting of the narrative so the Achaeans can continue fighting without knowing Achilles would step in to prevent total failure. On considering the scholia, however, we should be open to the possibility that this is another careful piece of rhetoric, with two distinct possibilities. Odysseus may be deliberately withholding information to force the Achaeans to fight like their lives depend on it, checking Ajax at the end so he doesn’t add anything, or he may be expecting Ajax to step in and fill out the message (and thus avoids his territory).

The Iliadic scholia are far from perfect as a commentary; modern offerings are certainly more comprehensive and (usually) more reliable. Good editions of scholia on various texts can be found, but translations exist only for individual scholia quoted elsewhere; for the time being this leaves the scholia largely accessible only to experts. The scholia are typically consulted as a source on ancient scholarship, reception of texts, and sometimes educational practices. Nevertheless, even just the few cases above should show that rewards do await those who venture into them, including fresh (or perhaps I should say well-preserved) perspectives on corners of familiar works that are easily overlooked.

Charlie Baker teaches Classics at Westminster School, London. His research is focused on the Homeric epics and their scholia.

Further Reading

Those who are interested in Ancient Greek scholia and scholarship are strongly advised to seek a copy of Eleanor Dickey’s superb Ancient Greek Scholarship (Oxford UP, 2007). This volume provides a more detailed look at the scholia, and exercises for the reader to learn how to read the Greek they employ. An excellent detailed look at Aristarchus, a founding father of ancient scholarship, can be found in Francesca Schironi’s Best of the Grammarians (U. of Mich. Press, Ann Arbor, 2018).

On the Iliad, scholia can be found in two sublime editions: Harmut Erbse’s 7-volume Scholia Graeca in Homeri Iliadem (De Gruyter, Berlin, 1968–88), and Helmut van Thiel’s Scholia D in Iliadem (Universitäts- und Stadtbibliothek, Cologne, 2014). The latter is available freely online here.

The Odyssey scholia are in the process of being re-edited by Filippomaria Pontani, with the first four volumes (covering Odyssey 1–8) published at the time of writing: Scholia Graeca in Odysseam (Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, Rome, 2007–20).


1 This is something of a simplification, as families of scholia often overlap with one another. The Venetus A is now known as Codex Marcianus Graecus 822, and its scholia also examine matters of punctuation and accentuation. The D scholia, erroneously named after the scholar Didymus, are unusually found without a text of the Iliad.
2 This had been, since at least the time of Aristotle, the subject of an entire genre of “Homeric Questions”.
3 What else is safe divine fire if not a manipulation of light? At Il. 22.25–32, Achilles shines like Sirius because of his reflective armour; to shine like starlight does not necessarily mean to be on fire.
4 ἀλλ’ οὖν τοῖς θεοῖς πάντα εὐχερῆ. The scholia referenced here are Σ 5.4 D (ἀκάματον), Σ 5.7a1 T, Σ 5.4 D (ἐκ κόρυθος…). The letter Σ, it should be noted, is the standard abbreviation for “scholion”.
5 Il. 4.509–13 and 5.787–91 respectively.
6 Σ Il. 7.228–9 bT …ἐπίτηδες καταπλήττει τὸν πολέμιον τῇ τοῦ κρείττονος προσδοκίᾳ, ὅπως μὴ εὔεπλις ᾖ οἰόμενος τεθνάναι Ἀχιλλέα ἢ ἀποπεπλευκέναι.
7 Lines 229–30 have already occurred at Il. 2.771–2.
8 Σ Il. 9.682–3 bT …ἀνακόπτει δὲ τὰ Αἴαντος εἰπὼν “εἰσὶ καὶ οἵδε τάδ’ εἰπέμεν”, ὅπως μὴ αἰσχύνοιτο Αἴαντος πλέον κατορθώσαντος. ἢ ἵνα ἐκκόψῃ αὐτῶν τὴν ἐλπίδα καὶ εὐψύχως μαχέσωνται …
9 Σ Il. 9.679 D …ῥητέον οὖν ὅτι “ἐπεὶ αὐτῷ σκληρῶς ἀπεκρίνατο” …
10 … εἰ δ’ αὔτως καὶ τὰ πρὸς Αἴαντα φθάσας εἶπε ῥηθέντα, ὕβρις ἂν ἦν τοῦ Αἴαντος…