Thursday, September 11, 2014


Minna Seppänen, Defining the Art of Grammar: Ancient Perceptions of γραμματική and grammatica. Annales Universitatis Turkuensis, B 379. Turku: University of Turku, 2014. Pp. 256. ISBN 9789512956715. €15.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Stephanie Roussou, Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, University of California, Irvine (

Version at BMCR home site

A comprehensive study of the definitions and concepts of γραμματική or grammatica in Antiquity, as undertaken by Seppänen, had become highly desirable following the discussions of individual definitions of grammar previously undertaken by, for example, Vincenzo Di Benedetto,1 David Blank,2 Stephanos Matthaios,3 and Elmar Siebenborn.4 Taking into account a wide range of ancient definitions, this work (the author's doctoral thesis) illustrates the development and scope of grammar from Classical times to the second century CE. It consists of seven chapters: "Introduction," "The art of grammar in the making," "Hellenistic γραμματική," "The Roman grammatical experience," "The art of grammar in the first two centuries CE," "Questions of methodology: the case of Apollonius Dyscolus," and "Conclusion."

This work begins with an Introduction laying out the aim and chronological time frame of this study, the sources selected, the notion of defining in Antiquity, and the background of the definitions of grammar on the basis of its epistemological status and goal.

Chapter Two begins with a treatment of the prerequisites that form the concept of a τέχνη and continues with a discussion of ancient views of the history and development of grammar and a discussion of the concept of τέχνη γραμματική in Plato and Aristotle. For Plato, τέχνη γραμματική was expertise in letters, employed in the proper arrangement of sounds, and expertise in spelling. In Aristotle's Topica grammar is defined as the science of writing and reading. Plato and Aristotle were "pioneers" in the theory of the parts of speech, which later became part of technical grammar, but which according to Aristotle fell under the study of rhetoric or poetics. This chapter also treats the Stoic philosophers, who were concerned with language to some extent, though there is no evidence that they defined grammar and it is uncertain whether they were interested in literary criticism and philology.

The third chapter introduces the distinguished scholars who contributed to the development of Hellenistic γραμματική. One of the earliest of these was Eratosthenes, who defined grammar as "the complete mastering of literature" (γραμματική ἐστιν ἕξις παντελὴς ἐν γράμμασι), thus as a philological discipline. The word ἕξις "mastering" is frequently used in definitions in connection to τέχναι "rule-governed arts" and in philosophical contexts. No definition of grammar survives from Aristophanes of Byzantium or Aristarchus of Samothrace, the most distinguished Alexandrian scholars. Crates of Mallos, despite favouring the rationalist position, admitted that literary assessment should be based on ἐμπειρία "experience." Crates made a distinction between the κριτικός ("critic") and the γραμματικός ("grammarian"); he considered the grammarian inferior to the critic.

The Τέχνη γραμματική attributed to Dionysius Thrax begins with a definition of grammar, followed by a list of the parts of grammar. Dionysius' definition of grammar (transmitted in the Τέχνη γραμματική as γραμματική ἐστιν ἐμπειρία τῶν παρὰ ποιηταῖς τε καὶ συγγραφεῦσιν ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πολὺ λεγομένων "grammar is experience of the normal usages of poets and prose writers" and in Sextus Empiricus as γραμματική ἐστιν ἐμπειρία ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πλεῖστον τῶν παρὰ ποιηταῖς τε καὶ συγγραφεῦσι λεγομένων "grammar is experience for the most part of what is said in the writings of poets and prose writers") caused a long-standing debate throughout Antiquity. The discussion of later scholars essentially focused on two terms of Dionysius' definition: on ἐμπειρία and ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πολύ / ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πλεῖστον "normal/for the most part." The employment of the term ἐμπειρία "experience" in Dionysius' definition of grammar echoes the influence of the empiricist ideas, deriving from the methodological debate within the art of medicine, on grammar. From Dionysius' list of six parts of grammar the most important is the last one, textual and literary criticism (κρίσις ποιημάτων).

Eratosthenes and Dionysius Thrax both define grammar as dealing with the study of literature, but their definitions differ in that Eratosthenes describes grammar as the complete (παντελής) mastering of literature, while in the two versions of Dionysius' definition, the use of the words ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πλεῖστον and ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πολύ under the influence of the empiricist ideas considers that the experience is always "for the most part."

This chapter also discusses the attack against grammarians in the first book of Sextus Empiricus' Adversus mathematicos. Sextus' account of the definitions of grammar by Chaeris and Demetrius Chlorus mirrors the discussion caused by Dionysius' definition, while the definitions by Ptolemaeus the Peripatetic and Asclepiades of Myrlea depict the tendency of hostility against Dionysius Thrax's employment of the terms ἐμπειρία and ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πλεῖστον or ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πολύ.

Demetrius Chlorus is said to have defined grammar as follows: γραμματική ἐστι τέχνη τῶν παρὰ ποιηταῖς τε καὶ τῶν κατὰ τὴν κοινὴν συνήθειαν λέξεων εἴδησις ("grammar is an expertise of what is in poets and knowledge of the words in common usage"), thus assigning to grammar a double genus ("class, category"), i.e. τέχνη "expertise" and εἴδησις "knowledge." Di Benedetto is right in pointing out that this definition is a bit problematic as transmitted, due to the τε after ποιηταῖς, and I agree with his suggested addition of the phrase συγγραφεῦσι λεγομένων καὶ after ποιηταῖς τε καί.5 Sextus finds fault with this definition in that the scope of grammar is presented as too broad, thus preventing one from being in complete command of it.

Chapter Three also includes two other definitions of grammar, by Ariston of Alexandria and Alexander of Aphrodisias; these are similar in that they both form part of a discussion of the technique of defining, and they appear in the context of a philosophical commentary on Aristotle. The fourth chapter deals with the Roman art of grammar and contains six main sections. Section one deals with Suetonius' De grammaticis, including accounts of valued grammarians and professors of language and literature, beginning from Andronicus and Ennius and continuing with C. Octavius Lampadio and Q. Vargunteius, L. Aelius Stilo (Praeconinus) and Servius Clodius, Sevius Nicanor, Aurelius Opillus, M. Pompilius Andronicus, M. Antonius Gnipho, L. Ateius Philologus, C. Iulius Hyginus, Gaius Melissus, Marcus Pomponius Porcellus, Quintus Remmius Palaemon, and Marcus Valerius Probus. The second section provides an appraisal of other prominent scholars in Rome, including Tryphon, Philoxenus of Alexandria, Didymus, Aristonicus, Seleucus, Ptolemaeus of Ascalon, and P. Nigidius Figulus. Section three is dedicated to Marcus Terentius Varro, the most significant Roman scholar in the first century BCE, and contains a discussion of Varro's definition of grammar as transmitted by Marius Victorinus, an exposition of the parts of grammar according to Varro, and a treatment of Varro's De lingua Latina. The fourth section is a treatment of Marcus Tullius Cicero's ideas regarding the role of grammar in the framework of school curricula. The fifth discusses Tyrannion's definition of grammar as "contemplation of imitation" (θεωρία μιμήσεως). The terms μίμησις and θεωρία most probably go back to the Aristotelian concepts. Finally, the sixth deals with Dionysius of Halicarnasssus' contribution to our knowledge of the development of grammar, especially through his treatment and historical account of the parts of speech.

Chapter Five, a treatment of the art of grammar in the first two centuries CE, consists of five main sections. The first contains a discussion of Philo of Alexandria and his reaction against the grammarians' adoption of philosophical ideas, methods, and theories that do not directly contribute to the interpretation of literature. The second concerns L. Annaeus Seneca and his attacks against the liberal arts, including grammar. Seneca also finds fault with the fact that philosophers have degraded themselves to the status of the grammarians by being more concerned with the study of language and careful speaking than with ethics. The third discusses Pliny the Elder's contribution to the art of grammar. Pliny's Dubius sermo exemplifies the balance between experience and the rational rules of analogy within the art of grammar. The fourth examines Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, who is the first (with the possible exception of Ariston) to include correct language as one of the parts of grammar, along with the interpretation of literature. From Quintilian we learn the relationship between grammar and rhetoric; grammar is considered necessary for successful rhetoric. The fifth provides an account of Aulus Gellius and his Noctes Atticae, which contains various grammatical remarks and discusses critical assessment. Gellius scorns the grammarians' dependence on ratio and highlights the preeminence of auctoritas.

Chapter Six deals with Apollonius Dyscolus' methodology of grammar and systematic treatment of syntax. No definition of the art of grammar has survived from Apollonius, who focused on both literary exegesis and correct language and considered the study of syntax significant for the interpretation of literature. His technical treatises represent a new stage in the development and function of grammar: literature serves as a means (i.e. as evidence for grammatical phenomena) rather than being the purpose, in opposition to the traditional philological process, in which grammar is employed for the interpretation of literature.

Chapter Seven, the Conclusion, efficiently summarizes the results of the study. Seppänen's analysis illustrates the three features that have influenced the formation of the definitions of grammar: dialectic and the methods of "technical" writing, the conflict between empiricists (experience) and rationalists (reason), and the grammatical tradition. Seppänen has shown how philosophical ideas interweave with grammar and contribute to its development. Both empiricists and rationalists agreed that grammar was an expertise (τέχνη or ars), but rationalists considered that empiricist practice did not fulfil the prerequisites of a τέχνη. Seppänen's study shows that there are three main stages in the development of the definitions of the art of grammar: in classical times γραμματική deals with letters and essentially represents reading and writing; Hellenistic γραμματική and Republican grammatica focus on the interpretation of literature, including textual criticism; and finally the late Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic γραμματική and imperial grammatica incorporate correct language.

Seppänen employs and analyses effectively the sources and quotations cited, and illustrates her arguments with clarity, making the appropriate comparisons and connections between the various definitions of grammar. Concepts employed in the definitions are laid out efficiently in the light of their philosophical connotations.

Most quotations are accompanied by translations, which will be very useful for readers, especially because of the abundance of technical terms. It is a pity, however, that quotations in Greek suffer greatly from typographical errors.

The book contains a number of tables and an extensive Index locorum at the end. Both of these are very helpful for the reader. It would be desirable to have a comprehensive table at the end of the book, summarizing the milestones of the definitions of grammar and its development through the centuries, as well as an Index of technical terms.

The chronological scope of Seppänen's study extends to the second century AD and thus does not deal with most of the extant Latin grammatical texts, but we look forward to a future discussion covering the definition and concept of grammar in the later imperial period; Seppänen suggests in her Introduction that she may undertake this project.6


1.   Di Benedetto, V. (1966), "Demetrio Cloro e Aristone di Alessandria," Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa 35: 321-24.
2.   Blank, D. (1998), Sextus Empiricus: Against the Grammarians (Adversus mathematicos I); translated with an introduction and commentary (Oxford).
3.   Matthaios, S. (2011), "Eratosthenes of Cyrene: Readings of his 'Grammar' Definition," in S. Matthaios, F. Montanari and A. Rengakos (eds.), Ancient Scholarship and Grammar: Archetypes, concepts, and contexts (Berlin) 55-85.
4.   Siebenborn, E. (1976), Die Lehre von der Sprachrichtigkeit und ihren Kriterien: Studien zur antiken normativen Grammatik (Amsterdam).
5.   Di Benedetto (1966), 322.
6.   I am deeply grateful to Eleanor Dickey for her feedback on my review.

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