Martin Litchfield West
2000 Balzan Prize for Classical Antiquity
Born in 1937 (1937 – 2015), a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, West is considered one of the world’s leading classical philologists. His masterly critical editions include Hesiod’s works, Greek lyric, orphic poetry and all of Aeschylus’ tragedies. His Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient offers a decisive and well-balanced contribution to the age-old debate over the “originality” of Greek culture and its indebtedness to other cultures. His groundbreaking studies on early Greek music are also noteworthy.
Martin West is rightfully considered an irreplaceable, indeed unique figure in the world of Greek studies. He combines the methods and techniques of traditional philology with comprehensive studies going far beyond the call of his discipline.
Handling the dry business of editing and commenting texts which have suffered serious, sometimes irreparable damage in the manuscript tradition with a virtuoso-like performance which is no less productive, it is to him that the academic world owes new editions of Hesiod’s didactic works, a large part of the surviving fragments in the minor genres (elegy and iambus), of Aeschylus’tragedies and of the Iliad. His mastery of the editorial work – collecting and arranging codices, restoring and interpreting corrupt, difficult loci by means of parallels drawn from other collections – is unrivalled, thanks to his stupendous learning and his skill at finding connections leading to ever more amazing solutions.
It is on the editions that West has built his activity as a commentator, whether in the commentaries accompanying the text, or in collections of studies published separately. West’s commentaries of Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days (seventh century BCE) stand out for their accuracy, reliability and multiple perspectives: they have from the start become indispensable standard works for anyone in the field of ancient Greek poetry. Equally revolutionary has been the inclusion of ancient Oriental sources only recently made available; Works and Days acquires a distinctive trait in the light of the exemplary collection of Sapiential literature of Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian and Old Testament origin.
For the text of Aeschylus – the most difficult of the Greek classics – West has written excellent studies on grammatical and orthographical questions. His book on Orphic poetry combines a masterly command of materials with the iron determination to transform a “bottomless morass” into something in keeping with the philological tradition.
As papyri are newly discovered, West is always ready to make the best possible use of them. His edition of the Iliad offers a profusion of textual variants which ground themselves in these materials. Thanks to his combinatorial acuity, a papyrus from Cologne, quite famous in the academic world, was found to be the work of the stubborn early Greek poet Archilocus.
Though West deserves full praise as a rigorous as well as a courageous textual critic, his work as a builder of bridges with the ancient Orient is even worthier of recognition. Our knowledge of the ancient cultures of Asia Minor and the Near East has increased enormously over the past decades. West has acted accordingly, learning Hebrew, Akkadian and Hittite, reading texts composed in these languages in order to help solve a question debated since the days of the Romantic Age: whether the Greeks had actually created their culture virtually ex nihilo, as claimed by many, or whether they had been reached in pre- and early literary times by large currents of Eastern influence. West has – from his first attempts at Hesiod commentaries onwards – given an account of his authoritative research in two books: Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient, 1981, and The East Face of Helicon – West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth, 1997.
The second work in particular, thanks to countless parallels in terms of contents and style, has thrown light, with hitherto unequalled evidence, on a dark area ridden with conjectures, thereby laying the foundations on which future research may build.
West’s research has not confined itself to the two main areas referred to here. Particularly worthy of mention is his comprehensive work on Greek music, covering this extremely difficult subject in all its aspects with the mastery that is his wont.