Homer and New Book Technologies: Antiquity to Present

As someone who has a deep appreciation for the textual and material remains of the ancient world, it doesn’t surprise me that communities of classical scholars have been and still are, counter-intuitively to many, at the cutting edge of book technology and textual markup methods. The Wikipedia article on “Digital Classics” notes:

This apparent paradox may be as a result of the many methodologies and different sources of evidence that classicists have always had to embrace, from literary sources and linguistics, to art history and archaeology, history, philosophy, religious theory, ancient documents such as inscriptions and papyri, and so forth. The fragmentary nature of many of the texts and languages of the ancient world, the scattered evidence from the material culture of ancient Greece and Rome, and the necessity to evaluate all these varieties of evidence in context are particularly likely to benefit from digital approaches such as databases, text markup, and image manipulation.

There are many admirable examples of contemporary, digital projects oriented around the study of antiquity, but before looking at a few of those, this post will offer a few thoughts about the history of Western classical scholarship and its relationship with contemporary, nascent book technologies. As will be shown, the adoption or development by classicists of new technologies or markup languages is often first and most ardently applied to the preservation and/or the marking up of that most canonical of ancient Greek poets, Homer. This tradition dates back to some of the first Western literary scholars and maintains a robust presence today.

As a quick preface, we have textual fragments of the Iliad and Odyssey that date from the 7th century BCE onward; the textual transmission in the earliest period seems particularly volatile and complicated, due in part to the transition from oral poetic traditions towards the new written media that froze what was previously fluid. One scholar rightly asks, “does the Homeric text have a definable starting point?” In any event, it is tempting to think that this new, written literary medium was developed for the sake of preserving these poems, given the cultural status of the epics. Also, it is likely that the idea of a glossary was first conceived as a tool for helping students and scholars grapple with Homer’s texts, as our earliest glossaries in ancient Greek are glossaries based on the Iliad or Odyssey. The same applies to lexica.

Aristarchus, the Asterisk, and Alexandria

Sources from antiquity claim that the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus as far back as the 6th century BCE commissioned a standard version of the Iliad, but there is no significant evidence of a substantial narrowing in textual variations until the second century BCE. Then, the scholar-librarians of the library of Alexandria were able to take advantage of the library’s resources, an advancement that Nagy describes as a “quantum leap”, and compare different manuscript traditions of Homeric epic. The scholars began to show something of an obsession with getting at the “authentic” text (as they thought such a thing existed and had special worth). Thus came the idea of textual corruption, the fall from authentic, Homeric grace that these scholars wanted to remedy. To me, this revealed some anxiety about the evidently protean and fragmented nature of the very text that was esteemed as the golden exemplar of Greek literary genius. One of these Alexandran scholars, Aristarchus, was so influential in the history of Homer’s textual transmission that the history of Homer’s manuscripts is broken up into “Pre-Aristarchan and Post-Aristarchan” phases.

Aristarchus and others developed innovative methods for marking up the text, encoding it for the sake of revealing their interpretations, most especially with regard to the “authenticity” that was so sought after. Hence from this is birthed the asteriskos, * , a symbol used by Aristarchus to denote text that was genuine but mistakenly duplicated. So also the multi-purpose diple, > , and the dotted diple, >:, that Aristarchus used to say “I do not agree that this is a genuine part of the text”. Another Alexandrian scholar, Zenodotus, used a simple – sign to mark a line that he regarded as fake. A later medieval scholar notes about these hyphens that, like arrows, they “pierce the false” (see more on this topic here). The modern equivalent of that last example is the <del> tag in TEI. One of the results of the Alexandrine experiments is the still-prevailing model of the Iliad chunked into 24 books, despite the fact that it is likely no such division existed in Homer’s time. We also have no evidence that suggests that the author(s) of what we know as the Iliad and the Odyssey even referred to their poems with these titles. Textual encoding is always an act of interpretation; these particular act of encoding find themselves instantiated in almost every modern edition, web or text, of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

It is also interesting to note that manuscripts that contain stark divergences from the editions standardized by Aristarchus came to be considered “wild”, despite the fact that many of these manuscripts predate the library of Alexandria and continued to exert influence beyond their time.

The study of Homer at Alexandria pushed forward new standards in textual markup that would soon be applied to the Bible. Here are the seeds that would grow into the modern Textual Encoding Initiative. Just as there are debates about what syntax and vocabulary should be standardized within TEI, scholars in the Renaissance would complain and argue about the poor level of standardization for the punctuation marks on manuscripts.

The Codex, Images, Links

After the parchment scroll, a significant innovation that helped pave the way to the modern book was the codex. A codex is a book made up of multiple sheets of material, usually stacked and bound with a fixed edge. It permitted radically different ways of reading than the vertically unfolding scroll. The first mention of an early sort of codex is found in a Latin epigram by the Roman poet Martial. Martial wrote his epigrams in the first century AD, and this intriguing mention shows that some of the earliest prototypes of the codex were used for Homer’s epics:

Ilias et Priami regnis inimicus Ulixes
Multiplici pariter condita pelle latent.

The Iliad, and the story of Ulysses, hostile to the kingdom of Priam, lie deposited in these many folds of skin.

It would take hundreds of years before the codex form became popularized, and the first community to embrace it was that of the early Christians. The earliest Homeric codex dates to a a few hundred years after Martial wrote. 

The first instances of manuscript “illumination”, the process of decorating and sometimes illustrating a manuscript, most commonly appear in manuscripts of the Bible, the Iliad, and the Aeneid. Although not a new technology per se, these are some of the first attempts at integrating text with image. Below is an example of one such attempt, a manuscript of the Iliad that dates to the 5th or 6th century CE (perhaps from Constantinople):


There was a wave of Homeric scholarship in the Byzantine area, although this scholarship is largely unread and unpublished; Byzantine studies as a whole is something of a marginal field in classical studies, although more interest has been paid these past two decades on the time period. One Homeric scholar of Constantinople, the Bishop Eustathius, is said to have invented the “marginal index”, but I must admit I don’t know what a marginal index is, exactly.  

A codex of the Iliad, probably written in the tenth century CE, shows a scribe dealing with issues of referencing, linking, and annotating. The text of the Iliad is central, and the red symbols around the text are links that point to correlating symbols in the margins of the text. This way the reader can see which lines of text the annotations are about.


Homer in Print

Another huge leap in book technology comes with the printing press. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey would be among the first Greek books printed in Florence, and again we see the new printing technology being applied first to the Iliad and Odyssey before any other Greek text. It looks like the printed Greek texts that predate this are all grammars. Below is an image of a page of the first printed Homer. The blank space is where an artist would be expected to embellish the page, most likely with a fancifully decorated first letter:


The Iliad is also the first book besides the bible to be printed with a facing translation, a useful feature that our contemporary digital editions replicate in various ways. This bilingual (Latin and Greek) edition of the Iliad was published in 1477:


The Book Wheel

In the 16th century, evidence of an interesting device, the “book-wheel”, begins to appear. One Italian inventor Agostino Ramelli describes the device he has in mind in his 1588 book Le Diverse et Artificiose Machine,

“This is a beautiful and ingenious machine, very useful and convenient for anyone who takes pleasure in study, especially those who are indisposed and tormented by gout. For with this machine a man can see and turn through a large number of books without moving from one spot. Moreover, it has another fine convenience in that it occupies very little space in the place where it is set, as anyone of intelligence can clearly see from the drawing.

We can see in this passage the modern obsession with being able to do more powerful things with ever-shrinking hardware. Take a peek at the drawing that Ramelli mentions in the last sentence above. If Ramelli thought this didn’t take up a lot of space, we can guess what he might think of our Kindle:


As is widely noted, one of the things this machine seeks to enable is similar to what the modern hypertext does, the book below the book, connected but separate – linked. The call of humanists prompted the development of this ill-fated gadget. Some scholars have suggested that book-wheels were primarily used by the “secretaries of poor scholars who were employed by aristocrats to study and excerpt the classics for them.” If that last claim were true, I would give another web-based pat on the back to my fellow classicists if not for the fact that the majority of scholars at that time were classicists, at least to a certain extent. Like the scholars of Alexandria, they had the “perceived need for a rapid consultation of multiple texts”. Ramelli’s particular concern with those scholars with gout is considerate.

As a quick aside: it is interesting to me that the transition to printed books over hand-written manuscripts came with the same dreams and anxieties that occupy our current transition to digitalia: promises of all-encompassing libraries, the collection of all knowable information, the tantalizing idea at the core of Borges’ short story, the Library of Babel. Soon after the appearance of printed books, scholars were lamenting the insurmountability of this new deluge of information. Here is one scholar confronting some of the deluge rather merrily with a book wheel. image

In Brief, Homer and Digital Humanities

In keeping with the trend, many early digital humanities projects revolve around classical languages and literature. The project that is often regarded as the beginning of the whole digital humanities enterprise was Roberto Busa’s creation of a Latin dictionary of the corpus of Thomas Aquinas. The digital edition of this work, with hypertext links (“cum hypertextibus”), was available in 1992. Digital editions of Homer were not far away. The Perseus Project has a long history, but at present you can read editions of the Iliad and Odyssey in ancient Greek, with two commentaries and two translations available for simultaneous viewing.

Modern priorities hinge less on establishing definite versions of the Iliad and Odyssey and more towards presenting the various traditions in such a way that facilitates comparison and preserves variation. Although still a lively interpretive space for classicists, the discussion about what is authentically the Iliad or the Odyssey is less acrid than it was a hundred years ago, and far less acrid than it was in 2nd century Alexandria. Scholars are generally more open to celebrate the difficult nature of these texts as they have come down to us and the puzzles they present, with an acceptance about the problematic nature of texts derived from oral sources. It is now the fashion to accept that at no point did any sort of definitive version of these epics ever exist, although some readings are still tentatively privileged over others as more reflective of the core of the Homeric tradition than others. One digital humanities project, the Homer Multi-Text Project says:

The Homer Multitext project seeks to present the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey in a critical framework that accounts for the fact that these poems were composed orally over the course of hundreds, if not thousands of years by countless singers who composed in performance. The evolution and the resulting multiformity of the textual tradition, reflected in the many surviving texts of Homer, must be understood in its many different historical contexts. Using technology that takes advantage of the best available practices and open source standards that have been developed for digital publications in a variety of fields, the Homer Multitext offers free access to a library of texts and images and tools to allow readers to discover and engage with the Homeric tradition.

I still want a book-wheel.


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