Classics in Slices: Scattered Thoughts on Interpolation-Criticism

Gabriele Rota

ingenium magni livor detractat Homeri:
   quisquis es, ex illo, Zoile, nomen habes.

Envy disparages great Homer’s talent,
   but Zoilus,[1] you would be nothing if it were not for him.

(Ovid, Remedia amoris, 365–6)

“Interpolation” is a historical phenomenon, one more readily conceptualised in theory than described and explained in practice. We may define it as the insertion of non-authorial matter into a text. When editors decide to delete passages as interpolations, they can either bracket off the spurious insertions in situ or delete them from the page entirely. In fact, the abstract noun “insertion” captures and yet conceals what makes interpolation so difficult to reconstruct: insertion by whom?

Textual corruption, errors in manuscripts, are more straightforward to consider: “Who corrupted the text?” “A scribe,” that is, someone who, at some stage in the transmission of that text, copied it wrongly. In more complicated cases we have a chain of errors resulting in the corruption that we find in all the manuscripts, or we have corruption spreading in multiple directions, as scribes of different manuscripts make different errors independently of one another.

“At some stage” and “copied it wrong” – the italics above bring into focus two major problems shared by textual emendation and interpolation-criticism: the link between a particular textual problem and the over-arching “transmission” (the textual history) of which this problem constitutes a part, and our modern sense of an author’s language and style, the objective limitations of our subjective taste, and our understanding of an author’s objective limitations. The lines between what an author could not have, should not have, and we wish had not written are very thin indeed.

This essay will explore these issues in the context of Latin literature, which was transmitted by a series of manuscript copies from Ancient Rome to the dawn of the modern era.

Miniature of the 15th-century French scholar and scribe Jean Miélot, unknown artist, 1470/80s (Brussels Royal Library, MS 9278, fol. 10r).

Someone to blame

Who is the interpolator? As he cannot be the author, by definition, the interpolator is either a scribe (once again) or a reader. Narrowing down the identity of the interpolator to these two categories, however, does not really help us to unravel the mystery of his shifting identity.

First, the distinction between scribes and readers was much less clear-cut in the pre-modern era than it is nowadays: scribes could not copy texts by hand without reading them, and copies of texts from old into new books were not made exclusively by professional scribes beholden to professional standards of accuracy and fidelity. In other words, scribes were always readers, and readers acted as scribes on a regular basis, for themselves or their acquaintances and friends. Second, the categories of “scribes” and “readers” are too broad for this distinction to stand. It is as though we answered the question “Who is the interpolator?” by saying, ”Anyone who could interpolate the work in the past.” A textbook case of circular argument.

Besides, it is not entirely accurate to claim that the interpolator is never the author. Take the final lines of Ovid’s Tristia 1.7. From the maddening isolation of an irrevocable exile on the coast of the Black Sea, Ovid asks the poem’s unnamed addressee to preface his copy of Metamorphoses (a 15-book poem in hexameters) with three new elegiac couplets – which he proceeds to dictate – detailing the dubious circumstances of the unauthorised publication of Ovid’s magnum opus. His hope, within the fiction of the poem at least, is that his metrically incongruous six-line supplement will latch onto his addressee’s bootleg copy of Metamorphoses and thus become an inseparable part of the canonical text in the eyes of contemporary and future readers, just as if it had been there all along. Perhaps any reader of Tristia 1.7 was meant to interpolate the verses into their scroll of the Metamorphoses there and then!

The six additional verses (Orba parente… si licuisset, eram) as given in Domizio Calderini’s edition of Ovid (Stefano Corallo, Parma, 1477, vol. 3, i4v).

There can be no interpolation in a vacuum. First we must ponder the difference between an original shorter text and several subsequent conflations of that text marred by a steadily increasing number of spurious additions made to it. The interpolator is what enables us to make sense of that difference.

The very fact that we talk about “the interpolator” (in the singular), as if an imaginary individual were responsible for adulterating each and every text at any time (for unspecified reasons, if not just for the perverse sake of doing it), speaks volumes about the deep-seated preconceptions of our own critical practice. What matters is not mapping interpolation chronologically within the history of specific texts, but assessing the probability that passages of a given text may be genuine or spurious according to a sense of authenticity ultimately grounded in the same statistical sample – the text as transmitted – that we are striving to restore to its ideal natural purity. Yet another circular argument.

An imaginatively illustrated manuscript of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (the 11th-century “Neapolitan Ovid”, Naples, Bibl. Naz. MS IV. F. 3).

Triangular balance

Now we may turn to the extent of critical bias and the astounding double layer of distrust it entails. First, critics fashion themselves as the most accredited guardians of the texts that they study, which causes them to be biased against those whom they regard as less sophisticated readers – or simply as “readers”, passive users of texts, as opposed to themselves, the “scholars” who actively engage with those texts.

This line of thinking is very easily open to the objection that the ancient interpolator – whether he was a reader, a scribe, or a scholar – is much more similar to the modern critic (spirited and reckless) than to the modern reader (slothful and uninventive in the modern critic’s view).

Second comes the bias of critics against other critics, which causes them to split into fiercely opposing factions. Traditionally, radical and conservative critics have been at war against each other on the battlefield of textual criticism. Radical critics are those who advocate full-scale editorial intervention in a given text, conservative those who believe that the text is more or less sound as transmitted. “More or less” is there to indicate that the dichotomy is actually a spectrum.

The deletion of verse 104 of Juvenal’s third satire in Otto Jahn’s edition of the poet (Reimer, Berlin, 1851), which ushered in a new age of keen interpolation-hunting in Latin and Greek literature. The critical note in Latin at the bottom notes that, despite its appearance in some manuscripts, it is spurious and not written by Juvenal.

Interpolation-criticism wiped out these “radical vs conservative” dynamics, by indicating a third way that radicals and conservatives had not even contemplated. Its popularity as a critical method skyrocketed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it is still alive and kicking as an approach. Its theoretical basis, however, was perfected much earlier and over a much longer period of time – almost without interruption between the end of the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment (c. 1400–1750). Interpolation-criticism both reflects and transcends the cultural and political fragmentation of Europe in the centuries that were key to its development. This process was not owed to one dominant national “school”, even if Italy was central at the start, and England and Germany towards the end of this process.

But how does interpolation-criticism fit into the manifold controversies of textual criticism? The radical critic, the conservative critic, and the interpolation-hunter investigate the same object – a text – and, provided that they do not act in bad faith, they formulate the same preliminary assessment: the text is problematic; something is not clear about it, which prevents complete and proper understanding of it. The three critics would agree about the diagnosis, but strongly disagree about the treatment that ought to be prescribed.

Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540–1609), prince of critics.

Conservative critics would maintain that there is nothing inherently wrong with the text, that what we read is what the author wrote, and that, instead of conjuring up words and syllables from concordances and dictionaries, radical critics should put forward new interpretations of the transmitted text. “The text is fine, it is just that we do not understand it.” This is what many literary critics do: they disavow textual emendation as some sort of odd elitist sorcery and embark on impossibly sophisticated reappraisals of the very text that has puzzled us (readers) and them (critics) for decades.

Radical critics, in turn, would maintain that their conservative counterparts are too dogmatically prone to the transmitted text, too lazy, or simply too stupid to realise that the problem is mechanical—a scribe’s or a few scribes’ blunder. They are the ones who know better and will show you exactly how to emend. This account is deliberately exaggerated, but it hardly differs from how the ingenious Cambridge textual critic A.E. Housman derided conservative colleagues at British and continental universities roughly a century ago.

A.E. Housman (1859–1936) taking a breather from textual criticism in the garden of his friend Percy Withers (Souldern Court, Oxfordshire, 1922).

Interpolation-hunting is equally distant from both these opposing views, or perhaps it combines them. The interpolation-hunter would agree with the conservative critic that the transmitted text requires no emendation, but also with the radical critic that the author did not write the text as transmitted – any of it, in fact. If the interpolator takes all the blame for the problematic text, the textual problem is settled.

It thus combines thoroughness without credulity, scepticism within realistic expectations. This is how interpolation-hunting surpasses, or seemingly surpasses, the dichotomy at the heart of textual criticism. “Seemingly” because deletion is hardly ever the only possible answer, and the best critics are those who are ready to embrace, without preconceptions, each of these three approaches depending on the problem at issue – or, even better, all three approaches at once.

Annotations and corrections to the start of Catullus 64, the poem about Peleus and Thetis, and Ariadne and Theseus, in the oldest manuscript witness (Oxford, Bodleian MS Canon. Class. Lat. 30, Northern Italy, 1360s).

Salt in the wound

There are two ways of demonstrating beyond reasonable doubt that a passage is spurious. One way is showing that the language and/or style of the passage is incompatible with that of the author; in other words, that the author could never have written the passage. Nothing less than that will do, as language and style vary greatly within a literary corpus, and very strange things are bound to happen every now and then in perfectly genuine passages of literature.

The other way is proving that the transmission of the passage (if it has not been transmitted together with the work to which it may or may not belong) makes it historically impossible for the passage to have been included in the work originally issued by the author. While this sounds totally objective in theory, in practice the detailed reconstruction of textual history at such an early stage of transmission is unlikely to provide incontrovertible proof. Therefore, both ways are inadequate for the same reason: the amount of evidence available for the Classical period of Latin literature is insufficient; that is, corpora are of very limited extent, and (as an additional problem) their early transmission is so veryobscure.

Small individual examples fail to capture the methodological tensions of the triangular conflict among conservative critics, radical critics, and interpolation-hunters. At the risk of dealing with the facts superficially, I will turn now to some major examples on which the scholarly community has not yet come to a unanimous verdict (and never will, unless new evidence, textual or otherwise, resurfaces and tilts the balance).

The title-page to Richard Porson’s Letters to Travis (1790), a 450-page demolition of Archdeacon Travis’ attempt to defend the authenticity of the comma Johanneum, an interpolation to the First Epistle of John (1 John 5:7-8).

Murder on the rooftop

The so-called “Helen Episode “is an awkwardly repetitive passage of Virgil’s Aeneid (2.567–88). Aeneas, from the roof of Priam’s palace in Troy, is contemplating in helpless bewilderment the sack and destruction of the city by the Greeks. Suddenly he spots Helen walking below him and contemplates at length whether he should kill her (this is the repetitive part) before his mother Venus appears to him and convinces him not to.

The transmission of the Helen episode is even more problematic than its un-Virgilian language and implausible content. It is only found in some 15th-century manuscripts (written one and half millennia after Virgil’s death) and in Servius’ late-antique commentary on the poem (written about AD 400). Servius cites the Helen Episode separately from the canonical text of the Aeneid, and, as a consequence, does not include it in his commentary on the whole poem. Servius’ citation is the most likely source of the Helen Episode’s appearance in the aforementioned late-medieval manuscripts of Virgil.

The verses of the Helen Episode as given in Servius’ preface to his Aeneid commentary in a manuscript of the 10th or 11th centuries (Paris, BNF Lat. 16236, f.59v).

Conservative scholars retain the passage on the grounds that some Virgilian metrical quirks in it could not have been reproduced so accurately by a later imitator, and that the Helen Episode, along with the unquestioningly authentic text around it, constitutes an “inseparable” allusion to Homer that nobody but Virgil himself could have made. Some radical scholars would also retain the passage, but disagree with others about the extent to which they should emend the Helen Episode so that it conforms to Virgilian (that is, the highest possible) standards of language and style.

Interpolation-hunters, finally, impugn the strikingly late emergence of the Helen Episode in order to cast doubt on the premises of its authenticity. Then (and only then) do they explain the verbal infelicities as the work of an interpolator, a figure not much later than Virgil, rather than as a chain(saw) of scribal mistakes in a very peripheral and obscure strand of the Aeneid’s transmission.

The fall of Troy, illustration to Virgil Aeneid 2 by the “Master of the Aeneid“, 1530s (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

Director’s cut

Comparable cases could be adduced – along the same three lines of critical appraisal – in many other intractable passages of Classical literature. It will suffice to mention but a few. Eight convoluted lines criticising the satiric poetry of Lucilius as unbearably old-fashioned—at the polar opposites of the Augustan standards of poetic refinement—are found at the start of the Horace Satires 1.10. But these lines are foiund only in a minor (and otherrwise unremarkable) branch of their transmission. In this case the late-antique commentaries on Horace by Porphyrio and Pseudo-Acro bear no witness to the supplement, which suggests it was unknown to them at the time.

The so-called spurcum additamentum (“dirty supplement”) to Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (10.21) is a pornographic passage involving a mature woman and an animal (the donkey, into which Lucius, the main character of the novel, had been transformed). Absurd in terms of both language and content, the additamentum appears as a marginal addition to a direct copy of the extant archetype, where it was inserted (although it is impossible to tell from which source) by Zanobi da Strada. He was an associate of the more famous Tuscan humanist Giovanni Boccaccio, who shortly before had discovered the archetype of Metamorphoses in the library of Montecassino – and possibly stole it from there. It is telling that Eduard Fraenkel, who played a pivotal role in the 20th-century debate about the authenticity of the additamentum, humorously nicknamed the putative author of the passage Spurcus: the interpolator became the interpolation.

Finally, a couple of hundred lines of Ovid’s Heroides 16 (verses 39–144) and 21 (verses 145–248) do not appear in any of the surviving manuscripts, and were completely unknown to the Renaissance before they cropped up in an edition of Ovid printed at Parma in 1477 by Stephanus Corallus. Two titans of 20th-century British textual criticism – E.J. Kenney and Michael Reeve – made a strong case, in favour of and against their authenticity, respectively.

The spurcum additamentum to Apuleius added in the hand of Zanobi da Strada (Florence, BML Plut. 29.2, f 66r, written c.1200).

Rational extermination?

After the preceding sections on theory and a historical retrospect, I now conclude with a question of substance. What does interpolation-criticism do to Classical literature? The most elementary and yet inescapable problem with which readers and critics of Classical literature are faced – and all are in the same way – is that only a very limited portion of it has survived from Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The realisation that most of the literature written in Antiquity is forever lost is a daunting one, and determines the very tentative nature of our inferences about such a distant past.

The discovery of a sizeable corpus of Greek fragments on papyrus in the last century and a half has allowed a certain degree of improvement and optimism; even more so the massive discovery of Greek and Latin Classical texts – unknown or even unheard-of throughout the whole of the Middle Ages – by scholars from all around Europe, the humanists, in the Renaissance.

The tendency of modern Classical scholarship has been to come to terms with the lack of first-hand sources and try to recover as many alternative sources as possible in every possible way. Supposedly ancillary disciplines, such as epigraphy, numismatics, codicology, and palaeography are now stronger than ever. And serious attempts have been made to harmonise traditional philological – and archaeological – methods with computer science (from coding and 3D imaging to machine learning) and statistical methods borrowed from the social sciences.

An illustrated 5th-century AD Greek medical treatise is revealed by multi-spectral imagery beneath a 10th-century Arabic translation of the Gospels (Mt Sinai Monastery, Egypt).

In this age of great technological advancement and constructive intellectual effort, interpolation-criticism runs in the opposite direction, as it enforces a reduction of the sources available by invalidating all that do not measure up to (more or less arbitrarily superimposed) standards. Interpolation-criticism is in fact very postmodern in this sense: it embraces the lack of objective truth by exposing a number of subjective lies that shatter many of the few scraps of fact on which we were told we could count. So what is left? Too many washed-out words eaten up by mobile or irremovable brackets, left prey to the volatile whim of critical judgement. But textual critics know well that judgement cannot but be subjective. The sooner good texts of the Greek and Latin Classics are made available to readers, the better. Ultimately, a handful (if just a handful) of editorial mistakes or misattributions is acceptable collateral damage.

Gabriele Rota is a Junior Research Fellow in Classics at The Queen’s College, Oxford, where he is also the Outreach Officer and Seminar Convenor of the Centre for Manuscript and Text Cultures (CMTC). His research focuses on the textual transmission of Cicero’s letters, the history of interpolation-criticism from antiquity to the Enlightenment, and Ovid’s exile poetry.

Further Reading

The most recent introduction to interpolation-criticism in English is Richard Tarrant’s TextsEditorsand ReadersMethods and Problems in Latin Textual Criticism (Cambridge UP, 2016) 85–104. George Goold’s “Servius and the Helen Episode,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 74 (1970) 101–68, is a superb practical demonstration of how much interpolation-criticism can accomplish.

On the opening of Horace’s Satire 1.10 see Emily Gowers’ edition and commentary Horace, Satires. Book 1 (Cambridge UP, 2012). On the spurcum additamentum,see, e.g., the discussion in Maaike Zimmerman, Apuleius, Metamorphoses. Book X (Forsten, Groningen, 2000). The articles by Reeve and Kenney on Heroides 16 and 21 are: Michael Reeve, “Notes on Ovid’s Heroides,” Classical Quarterly 23 (1973) 324–38, at 334–7, and Ted Kenney, “Two Disputed Passages in the Heroides,” Classical Quarterly (1979) 394–431.

For a general introduction to textual criticism (its terminology and methods), see Leighton Reynolds and Nigel Wilson, Scribes and ScholarsA guide to the transmission of Greek and Latin literature (4th ed., Oxford UP, 2013) 208–42. For a critical overview of the transmission of the various Classical Latin authors discussed in this piece, see the relevant articles in Leighton Reynolds (ed.), Texts and TransmissionA survey of the Latin Classics (Oxford UP, 1983).


1 Zoilus was a Greek grammarian of the 4th cent. BC who was known as Ὁμηρομάστιξ (Homēromastix, “Homer-whipper”) because of his stern critical analysis of Homer’s poetry.