Thursday, June 2, 2011


John A. MacPhail, Jr. (ed.), Porphyry's Homeric Questions on the Iliad: Text, Translation, Commentary. Texte und Kommentare, Bd 36. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2011. Pp. 310. ISBN 9783110195439. $137.00.

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht University (

Version at BMCR home site

This book is a very welcome addition to the growing library of Porphyrian scholarship and ancient Homeric exegesis. Porphyry's Homeric Questions is an important work in the history of Homeric criticism. In contrast to allegorical readings of Homer such as we know them, for instance, from Heraclitus the Stoic but also from Porphyry's own De antro nympharum and De Styge, in the Homeric Questions Porphyry solves problêmata by applying the principle of Homêron ex Homêrou safênizein: 'the poet explains himself.' Based on a new collation of the manuscripts, this is the first critical edition of Porphyry's Homeric Questions on the Iliad since the one by Schrader in 1880 and 1882. In the short introduction, MacPhail briefly deals with Porphyry's life and works, the manuscript tradition of the text, scholarship on the Homeric Questions, and the principles of the new edition. The editor has eliminated much that in older studies had been wrongly attributed to Porphyry on stylistic grounds and has constructed the text on the basis of a distinction between extracts of the Homeric Questions, epitomes of the extracts, and Porphyrian scholia, all confusingly interspersed in previous editions. The Greek text and English translation are presented at facing pages, with the critical apparatus at the bottom of the left page and the commentary (in the form of brief explanatory notes) at the bottom of the right page. Porphyry here demonstrates his ability to be a rational philologist who tries to solve many Homeric zêtêmata by taking recourse to either etymology or comparative exegesis, i.e., by clarifying the meaning of a Homeric passage (or solving apparent contradictions between passages) by means of parallel passages with identical or comparable expressions. The tone is consistently apologetic: Homer makes no mistakes. It is as if we see a Church Father interpreting the Bible on the principle of 'Scriptura sui ipsius interpres' (a principle that the Fathers of course borrowed from the exegetes of Homer, as did the Alexandrian Jewish exegetes of the Bible before them).

MacPhail's edition is welcome because he provides us with a new and good critical text and with the first translation into a modern language. The translation often is a bit awkward but it well reflects the frequently contorted phraseology of Porphyry. Nevertheless, in the execution of his task MacPhail leaves several things to be desired. For instance, the word 'commentary' in the book's subtitle evokes expectations which are not fulfilled. What is called the commentary consists of only a very limited number of short explanatory footnotes (on average only slightly more than one note per page), whereas Porphyry's often obscure text is badly in need of more elucidation. Also when Porphyry refers to predecessors, one would be happy to get some information about the more obscure ones among them – not every reader knows who exactly Hermo of Delos was, or Trypho, or Zoilus, or Apion, authors about whom we sometimes know next to nothing but sometimes quite a lot.1 When Porphyry quotes other authors, usually the passage is identified by MacPhail, but several times it is not (see, e.g., the quotes from Aristotle at pp. 76, 82, 114, 188). The translation is not everywhere accurate. At p. 21 (ad A 169, in the last line) chrysês is left untranslated, and the same applies to chrysothronos at p. 31 (ad B1). Sometimes one and the same word is translated in two different ways without obvious reasons: at p. 31 (ad A 526) palinagretos as 'revocable' and 'taken back'; ateleutêtos as 'unfulfilled' and 'unaccomplished'; at p. 63 (ad B447) polemoio teras as 'sign of war' and 'portent of war.' And there are more instances. Sometimes words have dropped out, e.g., p. 39, 'when he [is] saying,; p. 43, 'prevention [of] all such future disorderliness' etc. Also the reverse occurs: p. 59 'then took the son of Cronos took the aegis.' Further, at p. 191, line 1, in "Achilles was nursed his wrath" the word 'was' should be deleted. There are also spelling errors in names: Gianantoni should be Giannantoni; Goulet-Gazé should be Goulet-Cazé; and note 'bueautiful' at p. 211. Also the Greek is not without minor errors. P. 18, line 5 from bottom, ai should be kai; p. 21 note 3, ek/entheiazô should be ek/entheiazei; p. 64, line 5 from top, xy should be oxy; p. 68, line 8 from bottom, diatouto should be dia touto; p. 70, line 7 from top, ethei de with acutus on the second word and full stop should be with gravis and no full stop. And there are more such cases. Sometimes a reading is incomprehensible, e.g. when at p. 196 the participle dasynontas follows a name in the nominative singular ("Callistratus … aspirating the word" is M.'s translation); it should be dasynôn. The critical apparatus sometimes provides irrelevant information, such as that one manuscript has the name Agamemnon with two accents instead of one. Throughout the book the author has problems with quotation marks. They are not consistently applied, sometimes the opening quotation marks are there but the closing ones are lacking, sometimes it is the other way round; sometimes they are single whereas most other ones are double, without apparent distinction. A more thorough correcting of the proofs could have weeded out many of such irregularities and it is a pity that this book is somewhat marred by them. Otherwise it is a fine work, with a valuable edition, a good translation, and some helpful notes. But a real commentary on Porphyry's text remains to be written.


1.   See, e.g., P.W. van der Horst, "Who Was Apion?," in his Japheth in the Tents of Shem: Studies in Jewish Hellenism in Antiquity. Leuven: Peeters, 2002, 207-222. MacPhail does not even mention Neitzel's 1977 edition of Apion's Glôssai Homêrikai.

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