Forward into the Past -15.11.2000


Martin Litchfield West

2000 Balzan Prize for Classical Antiquity

For his masterful editions and explanations of Greek poetry from Homer to the Attic tragedy as well as for his groundbreaking research in the alleged and still violently debated relationships between Greece and the Orient.


It might seem self-evident that someone who studies literature is engaged in literary studies. But one may distinguish at least three different approaches to the study of literature. The expression “literary studies” is really applicable only to one of them, or at any rate there is one that is primarily suggested by it. My energies have been mainly devoted to the other two. The three approaches are, firstly, consideration of the intrinsic qualities of literary works, their beauties or infelicities, the author’s imaginative universe, his compositional habits and techniques, and so on; secondly, inquiry into the work’s relationship to the world outside itself, its dating, its authenticity, its debts to earlier models or more loosely to the tradition in which it stands, the intellectual and cultural influences operating on the author; and thirdly – an approach which may draw on both the other two, among others – the endeavour to resolve doubts at the verbal level about what exactly the author wrote and what exactly he meant. These three approaches may be summed up as literary criticism, literary history, and philology.

I would categorize myself as a philologist and literary historian. My early training was almost wholly philological. At St. Paul’s School in London a legendary pair of teachers, W. W. Cruickshank and E. P. C. Cotter, concentrated on instilling in us a sense of Greek and Latin grammar and style. Week after week we translated passages of English prose and verse into Greek or Latin prose or verse, and our exercises were minutely and individually corrected and appraised. We also read authors, in class or by ourselves, but hardly saw beyond the meaning of the successive sentences and phrases. At Oxford the emphasis was not at first very different. We read authors and did linguistic exercises, and seldom wrote essays. But we began to be aware of literary history, of the various lines of tradition, and of the interconnections between different authors. We became acquainted with real living scholars and saw what questions interested them and how they thought. The dominant figure was Eduard Fraenkel, whose monumental Agamemnon we had, with bemusement, sighted even at school. Some of us on our tutors’ recommendation attended the famous but terrifying seminars which he used to hold each year, alternately on Greek and Latin texts. (Some of us indeed met our wives there.) Here we saw German philology in action; we felt it reverberate through us as Fraenkel patrolled the room behind our chairs, discoursing in forceful accents. As he spoke of his old teachers and past colleagues – Leo and Norden, Wilamowitz and Wackernagel – it was like an apparition de l’Église éternelle. We knew, and could not doubt, that this was what Classical Scholarship was, and that it was for us to learn to carry it on.

“The text must come first”, Fraenkel used to say, and discussion of textual problems constituted a major element in his seminars. In his youth he had been mortified by Leo’s surprise on discovering that Fraenkel was reading Aristophanes without an apparatus criticus. Indeed it is an evident truth that (as Bruno Snell once put it) “Philologie ohne Textkritik ist eine nichtige Spielerei”. If one takes the text on trust from whatever edition lies to hand, or (even worse) from whatever translation, one runs great danger of drawing conclusions or building constructions that are easily shown to be unsound.
The establishment of improved texts of ancient authors remains among our most important tasks, because it is on the texts that so much of our knowledge of antiquity rests. It is a mistake to suppose that scholars have long ago collated the manuscripts and made editions as good as can reasonably be hoped for. Five hundred years after the Renaissance huge numbers of manuscripts of even the most major authors still await collation and evaluation. And although hundreds of thousands of (usually erroneous) emendations have been proposed for corrupt or supposedly corrupt texts, the problems must continually be addressed afresh, and there is always the possibility of achieving convincing new solutions. As a young man I was advised (I think it was by E. R. Dodds) that whereas there might still be opportunities of emending prose texts, in the poets significant advances were no longer feasible. I believe I may claim to have falsified that pronouncement, as emendations of mine in over forty Greek poets have been adopted by other editors in their texts.
But the production of an improved text of an author does not depend only, or even mainly, on finding better manuscripts or making new emendations. It depends principally on unprejudiced reassessment of the whole of the available evidence for the text and the history of its transmission, and on the reconsideration of each question on the basis of this primary evidence, avoiding easy acquiescence in the choices of previous editors, which by palliating a difficulty may curtail the search before the truth is reached.

I encountered a capital example of this in editing Aeschylus. In the middle of his Supplices there is a famous choral ode that begins and ends with the praises of Zeus, “Lord of Lords, most blessed of the Blessed Ones, most powerful of Powers”. The closing lines, as given by the tenth-century manuscript on which the tradition of this play depends, say:

He obeys the rule of no one seated above him; he is able to execute deed as soon as word of whatever his servile mind brings forth.

It is obvious that Aeschylus cannot have referred to Zeus’ mind as “servile”; it is a complete contradiction of all he has been saying about the god’s being the supreme master of the universe, subject to no one else’s will. The line must be corrupt. Franciscus Portus in the sixteenth century made it inoffensive by changing a single letter. With the substitution of a beta for a delta, making doulios into boulios, the line became

of whatever his counselling mind brings forth.

Editors were content with this, and it became the received text of Aeschylus for the next four hundred years. But it is wrong. Karl Heinrich Keck in 1851, by going back to what is transmitted and considering the problem anew, hit upon a far better solution. By repunctuating, redividing the words, and not replacing a whole letter but adding a single stroke to a letter so as to make an uncial lambda into a delta, he arrived at:

he is able to execute deed as soon as word. 
What of these things is not brought forth by Zeus’ mind?

This is certainly what Aeschylus wrote. It is superior to Portus’ conjecture not because it is better to change half a letter than a whole letter, but because it transforms a limp ending into something much more pointed and absolutely characteristic of Aeschylus; both the form and the content of the rhetorical question are closely paralleled elsewhere in his work. Yet Keck’s palmary emendation was scarcely noticed, and Portus’ facile emollient continued to occupy editions. The reason is that scholars had ceased to think that there was a problem. Even after the truth was found, they preferred to stay with the reading that had become familiar rather than stir themselves to consider an alternative. I could wish it had been my own conjecture; but I am no less happy to have unearthed it and restored it to its proper place in the text. It perfects the ode. 

A small matter, perhaps. But it serves to illustrate two greater things. One is the cumulative nature of Classical studies. For five hundred years scholars have been labouring to understand and where necessary correct the text of Aeschylus and other ancient authors. The modern editor has to look back over those labours and pick out what was profitable in them. The books of nineteenth-century or even sixteenth-century scholars are often still useful. The other thing is that one has to try to step outside the scholarly tradition of which one is a part. On the whole it has led us forward out of the mists to a clearer view of the objects of our study. But from time to time it may have taken a wrong turning, and a whole line of scholars has followed their leader along a false path. One must try to avoid tagging along behind them. It is not easy to question the beliefs in which one has been brought up, or the consensus of critics that a particular solution to a problem is the correct one, even if this consensus is the consequence of inertia rather than repeated independent evaluation.

My work on specific texts has included commentaries, especially on the poems of Hesiod, and translations, especially of Hesiod (in prose) and the lyric, elegiac, and iambic poets (in verse). The commentary remains one of the most useful types of work for the consumer and the most educative for the producer. It forces him to face up to questions of every kind: textual, interpretative, linguistic, stylistic, cultural, mythological, historical, and so on. When I was writing my first commentary (on Hesiod’s Theogony) Stefan Weinstock asked me if it was to be “insular” or “continental”. He meant, would it be the sort of commentary that seeks only to elucidate the particular work which is its object, or the sort that reaches out in all directions and is full of material relevant to other authors in which related things occur. When he put the question, I was not familiar with the distinction, and not sure of my answer; but I think that in the event I leaned towards the continental, and find most value in those commentaries that have the ambition to build bridges out from the work under discussion to the rest of ancient literature. A note in such a commentary often becomes the classic statement of some observation relevant to many authors but prompted by the study of one. By making cross-references to commentators on other authors, scholars create a network of links across the exegetical corpus, and the seeker after insight on some point may find himself bounding happily from one volume to another.

In textual criticism the aim is to discern the truth behind the appearance – what the author actually wrote, as against what appears in the manuscripts. In deciding what is the truth, there are several criteria to be applied: sense, diction, metre, and the like, but also the plausibility, in the light of known processes of transmission, of the assumed relationship between the hypothetical original text and the text as actually preserved. In the case cited from Aeschylus, for example, the intrinsic excellence of the emended text combines with the ease of the assumption that the loss of one stroke from a delta in an ancient text without word division resulted in the transmitted reading. Analogous methodological considerations apply in some of the questions of literary history with which I have grappled. The literary history handed down from antiquity should be seen as having a status similar to that of an ancient text in a medieval manuscript. It is the end product of a process of transmission, in the course of which distortions and falsifications may have occurred. It cannot necessarily be taken at face value. The original truth may have come through the transmission process unscathed. But where different original truths might have come out with the same final appearance, we have to inquire which of them the appearance represents.

Just as there are editors of texts who are constitutionally disposed to believe in whatever the manuscripts offer, so in literary history there are some who will accept as creditworthy “tradition” any proposition that seems to have documentary backing. Because we have a manuscript corpus of some 1400 elegiac verses labelled as “Theognis”, there are those who insist on believing that Theognis wrote them all, despite compelling indications that he was only one of many poets represented in the collection. The great majority of scholars, to be sure, accept that it is some sort of anthology. By analysis of its contents I have tried to explain the process by which it came to appear in its present form.
In some other areas I have found myself attacking much more firmly entrenched positions, for example, that a poet Homer wrote the Iliad and Odyssey, that the Prometheus Vinctus is by Aeschylus, and that a teenage girl called Erinna was the author of a much-admired poem called The Distaff. In each case I have not only argued that the received opinion is false, but endeavoured to explain the process by which history was falsified, and the relationship between the original truth and the eventual appearance. In my revisionist history, the Iliad and Odyssey are anonymous seventh-century epics propagated by rhapsodes who called themselves Homeridai and attributed their poems to their fictitious eponym “Homer”. The Prometheus, and certain other plays anciently current under Aeschylus’ name, were the work of Aeschylus’ son Euphorion, who entered them in the competition claiming that his father had left them unperformed at his death. Erinna’s poem was a brilliant, romantic pseudepigraphon composed by a male poet. I know that these views will continue to be resisted, chiefly because many people are too firmly attached to the conventional ones. But a scholar must hope that in the fullness of time the arguments will be considered on their merits and either countered with others equally rational or allowed to prevail.

A more complex essay in the field of literary history is represented by my book The Orphic Poems (1983). From the fifth century BC to the end of antiquity there are countless references to Orpheus and to “Orphic” rituals, practices, and writings, and a few references to “Orphics”. A collection of “Orphic Hymns” has come down to us, as well as what pretends to be Orpheus’ own account of the voyage of the Argo and numerous fragments of other poems. Modern scholars have often assumed the existence of some sort of religious movement describable as Orphism; but about its development there has been wide disagreement. What was evidently the most important of Orphic texts to the late Neoplatonists, the lengthy Rhapsodies, has been variously dated to the sixth century BC, to the Hellenistic period, or even later. Most scholars have felt so bewildered by the whole situation that they avoided taking up any position. I rejected the notion of any unified “Orphism”, and instead set out to establish, so far as might be possible, what different “Orphic” poems were current in antiquity, what was the nature of their subject matter, at what periods and in what circles they were composed, and how (if at all) they related to one another. There was an abundance of evidence, but for progress to be made it required much analysis and synthesis, helped along by some boldness in speculation. It is a controversial area, and will remain so. But however much I may have gone astray in details, I believe that I followed the right path and that the edifice I constructed will prove to have a solid frame.
Boldness in speculation is a quality that critics will find in most of my work. For some it is a term of censure: these are people who are always ready to denounce a speculation as “mere” speculation. I should reserve the expression “mere speculation” for cases where the hypothesis is not guided by particular indications, or has no special explanatory value. It will be found that many of the stones that I throw have the attractive property of killing two birds. These, I would claim, are something more than “mere” speculations. Solid proof is hard to come by in our field, and the scholar who ventures nothing without it may be highly respected for soundness, but is unlikely to advance the subject very much. One must sometimes deploy one’s imagination, while maintaining a critical (and self-critical) spirit. As Gottfried Hermann once wrote: nec temere hariolandum est in antiquitatis pervestigatione, neque carere divinationis adiumento possumus.

The study of ancient music might be thought to be a field offering large scope for conjecture. But in fact, for the type of critical conjecture described in the previous paragraph, it offers very little scope. What is lost, is lost utterly. We fancy we have some notion of the constraints governing the music of Aeschylus. Anyone might compose melodies for the lyrics of the Agamemnon observing those constraints, but no such enterprise would deserve a place in a scholarly publication, because there is no possibility of reconstructing the lost music even conjecturally. Writing my book on ancient Greek music, therefore, was very largely a matter of gathering the mass of scattered evidence together and trying to explain each aspect of the subject in terms clear enough for my own understanding and for that of other untutored people. The most original part of the book is the analysis of the surviving melodies and fragments of melodies and the description of common features found in them.
The other major strand in my work that deserves notice here is the investigation of oriental influences on Greek poetry and philosophy. I was led into this by my doctoral work on Hesiod’s Theogony, a poem which shows such striking mythological parallels with Hittite and Babylonian texts that no one denies a historical connection. The interest thus stimulated subsequently found expression in several articles and in two books published twenty-six years apart. The first of these, Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient (1971), leaves a good deal to be desired, as others have noted. But it has aroused enthusiasm in some quarters, and I do not disown it entirely. The accounts of Pherecydes and Heraclitus are perhaps the most substantial contributions in it. I regret that the book has been almost totally ignored, totgeschwiegen, by the “professional” historians of Greek philosophy, who remain absorbed in their own traditional agenda.

The other book, The East Face of Helicon, published in 1997 (6000 years to the day from the Creation of the World as calculated by Archbishop Ussher), is a different matter. This time I prepared myself for the task more thoroughly by studying the most relevant oriental languages – Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Hebrew, Hittite – and reading the relevant texts in the original. The scope of the book is, broadly speaking, Greek poetry and myth from the beginnings down to 450 BC. It is not a new idea to explore cultural connections between archaic Greece and western Asia – Walter Burkert, the Balzan prizewinner of 1990, had published a valuable survey of the question – but my study is the most comprehensive to date, and its very bulk gives it a chance of making an impression on the general consciousness. The subject is of the highest importance for our appreciation of early Greek poetry and the influences that shaped it. Already in 1964 H. Petriconi, in a discussion of the Epic of Gilgamesh as a model for the Iliad, wrote that

The days of an exclusively “classical” scholarship are over. To write about Greek literature without knowing something of the West Asiatic has become as impossible as studying Roman literature without knowledge of the Greek.

I believe that the truth of this provocative assertion is increasingly being recognized. However, the West Asiatic contribution, pervasive as it appears, is only one ingredient in the rich compound that is Greek culture. In the years to come I hope to investigate another ingredient: the Indo-European heritage of mythology and of poetic language and form. It is all part of literary history.
There is a view, fashionable in some quarters, that all interpretation of the past is necessarily subjective, that history is whatever you care to make of it, and that the very idea that there is such a thing as objective historical truth is a naive positivist error. If that were the case, scholarship would be little more than an intellectual game; and there are indeed those who seem to treat it as such. But such extreme relativism is nonsense. Of course many different types of equally valid history can be made by asking different sets of questions. But there are objective underlying facts, to which every construction must relate. They are not always attainable. But the scholar must try to attain them, or get as close to them as possible. That is far from being the only task. A fact is of little interest except in relation to other facts. Finding the most meaningful relationships is the great challenge, in scholarship as in life.

Insert your email address here to sign up for our newsletter with all the latest updates on the International Balzan Prize Foundation .

By subscribing, I confirm that I have read and understand the General Terms and Conditions of EU Regulation 2016/679, in particular with regard to my rights, and hereby consent to the processing of my personal in the manner and for the purposes indicated therein.
Fondazione Internazionale Premio Balzan