Heroes 10: Giambattista Vico (sort of)

27 July 2015
Vico

Vico

Somewhere in his autobiography, Casanova mentions a meeting with a Hungarian officer who didn’t speak French. In the eighteenth century, this was most unusual, at least among the well-to-do travelers that were Casanova’s usual company. Fortunately, the Hungarian officer and Casanova both knew some Latin, so conversation was easy.

No one, back then, would have denied that Latin was useful. It was also important: it was the language of international science and scholarship. Moreover, it was the language one had to learn to read law, because Roman legal traditions were still important. Writers and poets carefully read ancient texts so that they might emulate these examples. In Catholic countries, Latin was used in the church. If you wanted to read theology, you had to understand Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Because of the importance of the old languages, every European city had a Latin school.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]


Heroes: The Sources of the Sources

29 June 2015
Astruc

Astruc

As I explained in an earlier installment of this series, Nanni of Viterbo (1437-1502) had published a collection of bogus sources on ancient history. The sixteenth century witnessed a lively debate about the authenticity of these texts. One of the advances during this debate was that scholars learned what they might expect of a reasonable chronology of the ancient world. However, this was not the only advance. The scope and potential of numismatics and epigraphy was recognized. Today, we’ll focus on source criticism: the study of the sources of the sources.

In the Renaissance, history was very much an instrument that could be used for other purposes. Historical truth was not the most important aspect. For example, historical examples could be presented to teach explicit lessons. An example is the famous list of Roman emperors in Machiavelli’s The Prince, in which the author offers examples that confirm his theories. Of course, we would not call this objective history, because the author left out what he could not use.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]


Heroes: the chonological debate

15 June 2015
Scaliger (portrait from Leiden university)

Scaliger (portrait from Leiden university)

Two weeks ago, I blogged about Nanni of Viterbo (1437-1502), the man who claimed to have rediscovered several ancient texts that confirmed what the bible told about the ancient history of the Jews. His books stimulated a lot of debate. Among those who believed that the texts were genuine, was Martin Luther, but others were more skeptical. They turned out to be right, but it took almost a century until this was accepted.

Of course, it was a bit suspicious that Nanni had discovered so many texts, but in itself that was not an argument that every text was fake. The fact that each text confirmed the biblical account was not decisive either, because few doubted that the biblical account was true. But what to think of the words of ‘Berossus’ that the ten lost tribes of Israel had migrated to Spain, the home country of Pope Alexander VI? What to make of the claim that Noah, calling himself Janus, had been king of Italy? Was it really possible that Osiris had been a king, not a deity, and that the first capital of the world had been Nanni’s own hometown Viterbo?

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]


Heroes: Erasmus

31 March 2015
Erasmus. Statue in the Royal Library of the Netherlands (The Hague)

Erasmus. Statue in the Royal Library of the Netherlands (The Hague)

Yesterday, I discussed how Poliziano discovered the principles of textual criticism . In other words, he found out how scholars might reconstruct texts of ancient authors. Establishing the tradition, however, is just a first step.

Take, for example, the manuscripts of Arrian’s Anabasis , his book about the campaigns of Alexander the Great. In some copies, we read about a Babylonian canal named Pollakopas; in other copies, it’s called Pollakottas. As it happens, the solution is simple, because a Pallukkatu-canal is known from cuneiform sources, which means that Pollakopas is wrong. Probably, a scribe read π instead of ττ. A critical edition of the Anabasis will therefore opt for Pollakottas.

Still, we cannot entirely ignore Pollakopas: after all, we’re not interested in what Arrian should have written but want to know what he actually wrote. We cannot exclude the possibility that he himself was responsible for the error, which may have been corrected by a good scribe. Both words are therefore important and a critical edition will have a footnote with the ineliminable variants that the editor has decided not to use. These footnotes are called an ‘apparatus criticus’ and look like a cloud of abbreviations.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


Heroes: from Poliziano to Lachmann

30 March 2015
Ghirlandaio's portrait of Poliziano

Ghirlandaio’s portrait of Poliziano

Yesterday, I told about Angelo Poliziano, the man who realized that ancient sources are sometimes dependent on each other and should be dealt with accordingly: the original source can be used, the secondary text can be eliminated. Poliziano applied this principle also on the medieval manuscripts that had so diligently been copied by countless anonymous monks: realizing that manuscripts could depend on earlier manuscripts, he proposed the elimination of secondary manuscripts. This was the beginning of what is called textual criticism, the study of texts in order to reconstruct their original wording.

Our Greek, Latin, and Hebrew sources are handed down to us in medieval manuscripts, and because it is humanely impossible that a scribe copies a long text without mistakes, our manuscripts contain scribal errors. In the Middle Ages, copiists had often recognized these mistakes and had tacitly corrected them. However, their conjectures were usually pure guesswork. In fact, the medieval scribes contributed to the proliferation of errors.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


Heroes: Angelo Poliziano

29 March 2015
Ghirlandaio's portrait of Poliziano

Ghirlandaio’s portrait of Poliziano

There’s a lot to say about Angelo Ambrogini. Some biographical details first. Born in 1454 in the wine city of Montepulciano, and therefore nicknamed “Poliziano”, he became a student of Marsilio Ficino, one of the great philosophers of the Renaissance and a courtier of the Medici family. Poliziano remained in this city and was one of the teachers in the Florentine Academy until his death in 1494. Although he had many students, he was able to publish the poems of Catullus, translate parts of the Iliad, and publish all kinds of observations on the ancient texts.

In fact, he created a new way to write about classical poetry and prose. Until then, scholars had offered commentaries on the ancient texts, line by line, section by section, chapter by chapter. Poliziano jumped from one text to another, without much system. We might call his writings “essays”, although he himself likened his mixed bag to the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius.

[Read more on the website of Ancient History Magazine]


Heroes: Back to the beginning

28 March 2015
valla

Valla

The day before yesterday I announced a series of articles on the great scholars who contributed to our ever-changing image of Antiquity. The philologists, the archaeologists, the historians, the ethnographers, the social scientists, the epigraphers, the numismatists, the papyrologists, and those specialized in one region: the Egyptologists, the Biblical scholars, the Assyriologists, the Qumranologists, the Etruscologists, the Iranologists, the Mycenologists, the Hittitologists – you name a subject and there’s a subdiscipline for it.

Every age adds new approaches to the study of Antiquity. “Big data” has already revolutionized the study of historical linguistics and may at this moment be changing the way we look at historical causality. New fields of research continue to be developed

[Read more on the website of Ancient History Magazine]