Monday, January 23, 2017


Christina S. Kraus, Christopher Stray (ed.), Classical Commentaries: Explorations in a Scholarly Genre. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xvii, 533; 4 p. of plates. ISBN 9780199688982. $200.00.

Reviewed by Benjamin Millis, Elze, Germany (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The editors of this volume are well known for their many contributions to the history of the discipline of Classics and more specifically the history of the commentary.1 This volume is a welcome addition to their previous work and maintains the high standards. To avoid making a long review even longer, only a selection of the papers are discussed below.

Part 1. Individuals: Commentaries and Modern Commentators

This section on individual commentaries/commentators is comprised of five articles: Finglass on Jebb's Sophocles; Stray on Fraenkel's Agamemnon; Thomas on Page's Virgil commentaries; Harrison on the Horace commentaries of Nisbet and Hubbard, Nisbet and Rudd, and Kiessling and Heinze; Oakley on Dodds' Bacchae.

A common theme throughout much of this section, even if it is not always stated as explicitly and forcefully as it might have been, is the outsized influence commentaries can have on subsequent scholarship. Good, or even decent, commentaries can create or increase interest in certain texts (and the reverse is also true; cf. Oakley's passing remarks on Platnauer's Iphigeneia in Tauris on p. 87); what is more, they can often dictate to a large degree the direction of scholarship simply because they have framed the debate and established the parameters of what can be done with the text under consideration and what questions can be asked of it, a state of affairs that can be surprisingly difficult to break free from even when one recognizes the phenomenon. Finglass and Thomas are both particularly good in highlighting the extent to which subsequent commentators often grapple with an illustrious predecessor almost as much as with the author they are putatively commenting on (e.g. Finglass pp. 23–4, Thomas pp. 65–8).

At first glance, the Kennedy Professor of Latin, known for his work on Livy, might not be an obvious choice to examine Dodds' Bacchae (although of course it was a Corpus Professor of Latin—Eduard Fraenkel—who wrote one of the most famous and influential commentaries on a Greek tragedy, a book naturally featured in the volume under review), but Oakley's study of Dodds' work is excellent and a real highlight of the volume. He fully contextualizes Dodds' edition in terms of the man and his work, the series in which the edition appeared, what Dodds (thought he) was trying to accomplish, and so forth. Particularly valuable are a series of short excerpts from the commentary in which Oakley analyzes, often via comparison with Sandys' edition, exactly what it is that makes Dodds' notes exemplary. Stray's account of Fraenkel's Agamemon is interesting and solid enough, but to my mind does not provide the (re-)assessment of the book that is needed, particularly in view of the enormous influence (for good and ill) that Fraenkel's commentary continues to enjoy.

Part 2. Traditions: Commentaries on Specific Authors and Texts

This section is somewhat more of a mixed bag, and more wide-ranging, than the section heading perhaps implies: Bartera on commentaries on Tacitus, Annales; Elliott on commentaries on Ennius, Annales; D'Angour on commentaries on Greek Lyric; Baltussen on ancient philosophical commentaries; Milanese on Italian commentaries on Lucretius; Haynes on Ovid in ancient commentaries on Virgil; Davies on historical commentaries.

Perhaps the most useful and important article in this section is Elliott on Ennius, Annales. In sum, she demonstrates quite clearly how tenuous deductions can easily become hardened into accepted fact via the authority of editions and commentaries. Also exposed is the more insidious effect of how basic editorial decisions (e.g. how the fragments are ordered) can determine subsequent scholarship and interpretation. Her observations pertain at least as much to editing texts as to writing commentaries (as she herself acknowledges) and, even if I disagree with her tentative suggestions for a way forward (which seem to me to be veering in the direction of a 'multitext', a concept discussed later in the volume by Heslin), have wide-ranging validity that should constantly be borne in mind not just by editors and commentary writers but by all users of editions and commentaries. Although Elliott very reasonably limits herself to discussion of the Annales, the issues she outlines affect all fragmentary texts, and an instructive parallel for her arguments might be the best recent work on the Greek comic poets that grapples seriously with many of the same problems.

Davies offers a useful overview of the development of historical commentaries together with a discussion of the aims of such a commentary and the divergences from a more strictly literary commentary. Characteristically, he then offers concrete steps for how the two traditions might reunite to some degree in order to achieve a more nuanced understanding of historical texts. Readers familiar with other protreptics written by Davies in the last decade or so on various aspects of future work in ancient history will find a similar feel here, if a slightly different subject.

Part 3. Material: Form, Series, Markets

This section contains five articles: Gehl on Terence commentaries in Renaissance Italy; Gaisser on Latin erotic poetry in the same period; Gillespie on Pope's translation of the Iliad; Kraus on editions of Tacitus, Agricola; Gibson on the Cambridge 'orange' series (CCTC). Taken as a whole, the articles in this section illustrate two essential, if not always complementary, strands in the development of commentaries and commentary writing, namely 1. scholarly 'aspiration' and refinement and 2. commercial aspects and markets forces.

The continued development and refinement of ideas on how to write a commentary and what it should address is well brought out by Gaisser's overview of five Renaissance commentators on Catullus, Tibullus and Propertius. It is easy, and common, to conceive of commentaries as a scholarly genre that is essentially static (in terms of aims, methodology, form, etc.); Gaisser's contribution provides a clear narrative demonstrating that this is far from the case and, as a result, has a real, over-arching importance. Gillespie's examination of Pope's Iliad touches on many of the same issues, both theoretical (e.g. what constitutes a commentary and what are its aims?) and practical (e.g. matters of form and layout), and so forms a nice complement to Gaisser's article.

Another highlight of the volume is Gibson's history of the Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries (aka the 'orange' series). The ostensible subject matter, an institutional history of that commentary series, is interesting in its own right, but the real value in the article comes when Gibson moves beyond that narrow topic. Particularly useful is his thoughtful consideration of the different aims and audiences of commentaries and how these aims are achieved via the choice of precisely what information and level of detail to include and how it is presented; these differences are cogently illustrated by comparison of the commentary on two passages of Tacitus, Annales, one from the 'orange' series and one from the 'green and yellow' series, but both written by the same pair of authors. Also fascinating, at least to this reader, were the results of an informal survey of scholars regarding their views of the series (pp. 364–7). Gibson has clearly thought a great deal about commentary writing, and his contribution is peppered with passing observations of value (e.g. that commentators might usefully outline their critical agendas in greater detail and that readers ought to cease expecting that 'a commentary can cover everything or be the last word on a text' [p. 367]).

Part 4. Reception: History of Commentary

This section, like section 2, is again somewhat of a mixed bag and covers topics ranging in date from the Hellenistic period to the early 19th century in five articles: Bishop on the Hellenistic scholar Hipparchus; Farrell on Virgil's use of Theocritean scholia; Kraebel on Servius and biblical exegesis; Harloe on Heyne; Wilson on the Pindaric scholarship of Vauvillers.

Bishop offers a welcome reassessment of the aims of Hipparchus in commenting on Aratus and contextualizes him well by providing a useful overview of the 'detractor' school of ancient scholarship. Farrell provides a solid case for Virgil's use of Theocritean scholia in the Eclogues, but the more important point is one that is often overlooked: ancient scholarship was not simply an academic exercise or a shortcut for those who did not have access (for whatever reason) to ancient literature but was instead, at least by the Late Hellenistic period if not earlier, an integral part of reading and understanding literature and, as such, had potentially enormous influence among both the consumers and producers of subsequent literature.

Part 5. Futures: Commentaries and the Web

The final section of the volume contains two contributions, by Anderson and Heslin respectively, that look to the future of commentary writing and the possibilities opened up by advances in modern technology; these are followed by an afterword by Goldberg.

Anderson's main point is a sensible comparison of traditional and digital commentaries by someone who has worked on both, but worth highlighting is his subsidiary discussion of having students write commentaries themselves; my own experience as a student strongly confirms the pedagogical benefits of the exercise in teaching one to read texts closely. Heslin's contribution opens with a wonderful image of the entire corpus of existing commentaries as 'a gigantic, decentralized, thickly cross-indexed reference work' (p. 495); this is certainly my own experience, even if I had never thought of it in precisely this way. He goes on to note, quite rightly, that the various digitization projects have given access to older commentaries, and to early modern scholarship more generally, at a level previously unimaginable perhaps even to those fortunate few with ready access to the world's handful of truly elite research libraries. But the bulk of the article consists of advocating for a sort of 'multitext' approach to commentaries, and there is much here to disagree with, even after setting aside what seems excessive optimism that much of the work can be automated and a reliance on an outdated and somewhat offensive caricature of commentators and textual critics. There is nevertheless value here in that it exposes the tension that can exist between writers and users of commentaries and their often differing views on the purpose and desired scope of commentaries (from this volume, cf. Gibson as cited above; also D'Angour, esp. p. 170). It thus goes to the heart of a central, but unarticulated, issue: are commentaries mere compilations to aid 'higher' research or are they better understood as being legitimate works of scholarly interpretation themselves?

The volume as a whole offers much of value to those interested in thinking seriously about commentaries and their aims, purpose(s) and development. Explicit nowhere that I noticed is the often overlooked truism that commentaries are the traditionally dominant form of academic engagement with ancient texts and that the contemporary dominance of monographs, with commentaries relegated to the status of a sort of Hilfsmittel, is a relatively recent phenomenon; setting the stage in this way might have helped better contextualize the many valuable studies herein. The copy editing is of decent quality, but there are more errors than one might wish even if they are normally annoying rather than baffling; similarly, some bibliographical references are missing from the bibliographies, and the bibliographies do not always adhere to strict alphabetical order. The dust jacket illustration (the stacks in the Main Hall of the Cincinnati Public Library) was an inspired choice, and one can only read with regret the further information that such a wondrous place was demolished in 1955.

Authors and Titles

1. Form and Content, Christina S. Kraus and Christopher Stray
Part 1: Individuals: Commentaries and Modern Commentators
2. Jebb's Sophocles, P. J. Finglass
3. A Teutonic Monster in Oxford: The Making of Fraenkel's Agamemnon, Christopher Stray
4. My Back Pages, Richard F. Thomas
5. Two-author Commentaries on Horace: Three Case Studies, Stephen Harrison
6. Dodds' Bacchae, S. P. Oakley
Part 2: Traditions: Commentaries on Specific Authors and Texts
7. Commentary Writing on the Annals of Tacitus: Different Approaches for Different Audiences, Salvador Bartera
8. Commenting on Fragments: The Case of Early Roman Poetry, Jackie Elliott
9. Between Scylla and Charybdis: Text and Conjecture in Greek Lyric Commentary, Armand D'Angour
10. Philosophers, Exegetes, Scholars: The Ancient Philosophical Commentary from Plato to Simplicius, Han Baltussen
11. Italian Commentaries on Lucretius, Guido Milanese
12. Citations of Ovid in Virgil's Ancient Commentators, Justin Haynes
13. The Historical Commentary, John Davies
Part 3: Material: Form, Series, Markets
14. Selling Terence in Renaissance Italy: The Marketing Power of Commentary, Paul F. Gehl
15. From Giovanni Pontano to Pierio Valeriano: Five renaissance Commentators on Latin Erotic Poetry, Julia Gaisser
16. Translation and Commentary: Pope's Iliad, Stuart Gillespie
17. Agricolan Paratexts, Christina S. Kraus
18. Fifty Shades of Orange: Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries, Roy Gibson
Part 4: Reception: History of Commentary
19. Hipparchus Among the Detractors, Caroline Bishop
20. Ancient Commentaries on Theocritus' Idylls and Vergil's Eclogues, Joseph Farrell
21. Biblical Exegesis and the Twelfth-Century Expansion of Servius, A. B. Kraebel
22. Christian Gottlob Heyne and the Changing Fortunes of the Commentary in the Age of Altertumswissenschaft, Katherine Harloe
23. Vauvilliers' Pindar and its Place in Pindaric Commentary, Penelope Wilson
Part 5: Futures: Commentaries and the Web
24. Heracles' Choice: Thoughts on the Virtues of Print and Digital Commentary, Peter J. Anderson
25. The Dream of a Universal Variorum: Digitizing the Commentary Tradition, Peter Heslin
26. Afterword, Sander M. Goldberg


1.   See The Classical Commentary: Histories, Practices, Theory, Roy K. Gibson and Christina Shuttleworth Krauss eds, Leiden: Brill, 2002. Apart from his book Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England, 1830-1960, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. 1998, Stray has edited or coedited at least ten volumes on the history of scholarship and of the classics in education.

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