Have you ever wondered how we still have poems or histories or stories written thousands of years ago? Were there publishers that long ago? Were there bookstores? How did these works survive? In an earlier blog post, we read a poem by Anyte, a Hellenistic poet writing 2,300 years ago. How is it we have her poetry today? Today’s blog post, written by contributor Jon-David Hague, explores these questions because the Hellenistic era was critical to the survival of these writings and gave rise to the kind of scholarship we recognize today in our schools and universities.
First, the ancient Greeks didn’t have an alphabet (note 1) until around 750 BCE, when they picked up a Semitic alphabet from the seafaring Phoenicians with whom they traded (note 2). About this same time there lived, we think, a poet named Homer (Ὃμηρος) to whom we traditionally attribute the authorship of the lengthy and influential epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, (note 3) which are the first literary works – that we know of – from Greece. Homer was likely part of a tradition of poets who traveled and sang poems to music from memory. These poets likely did not write anything down. Most scholars think one person didn’t create both the Iliad and the Odyssey, but it seems a fact that both the emergence of writing system and the solidification of these epic poems happened at the same time around 750 BCE.
So when was something literary actually written down and kept (note 4)? Let’s fast-forward to 550 BCE when, most likely, the epics of Homer were written down, so there would be official copies to be kept and read at festivals in Athens (note 5). Another hundred years later, around 430 BCE we hear about booksellers in public spaces in Athens (note 6). Books (not in the sense we know them today0 and bookstores might have been common then in Athenian marketplaces. Possibly you could find a copy of Homer, other early Greek philosophical works or the poems of lyric poets like Sappho (note 7). The years from roughly 450 BC to 400 BC were a period of tremendous literary and artistic expression in Greek drama, historiography, and philosophy. Maybe having copies of books that one could own and study helped bring about the dynamism of this era.
Unfortunately, no originals of what was written down in these early times survived. But the originals did survive long enough for copies to be made. We know that Aristotle, the famous student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great, had his own library and even wrote about poetry, drama, and Homer. So now, with Aristotle, we are roughly at the same time as the Hellenistc poet Anyte, who I previously wrote about. She likely had her own books or at least access to books. Posidippus of Pella, a contemporary poet with Anyte, seems to have had this (note 8).
About two hundred years after Anyte, around 100 BCE, a poet named Meleager of Gadara (modern-day Jordan) collected works from a wide range of poets (46 total) from early Greece up until his own times, including his own poetry. He called his collection a Garland or Στέφανος. Anyte was in this Garland. Importantly, for a span of 200 years, Anyte seems to have remained a favorite alongside other perennials like Sappho. Even though Meleager’s original collection does not survive today, others were able to copy it.
Then around the year 900 CE or so, an individual called Constantine Cephalas combined multiple collections into one whole: Anthologia Graeca or the Greek Anthology. This new collection included copies of Meleager’s Garland, copies of collection by Philip of Thessalonica (created around 40 CE and generally called The Garland of Philip) and another one by a Byzantine lawyer named Agathias from the 500s CE including only contemporary poets of the Roman emperor Justinian. As you can probably guess: Cephalas’ original text from about 1,100 years ago does not survive for us to see and read today.
But – surprise, surprise – Cephalus’s text survived long enough for others to copy it, and today we do indeed – at last! – have two main sources for the Greek Anthology and the poems of Anyte. The first was copied from Cephalus’s work not long after he created his anthology. We call that one the Palatine Anthology (Anthologia Palatina). The other copy dates to 1300 CE and it’s called the Planudean Anthology (also called The Anthology of Planudes, after Maxiumus Planudes, the Byzantine scholar who put the anthology together). They exist in the world to this very day – the Palatine manuscript is in Heidelberg, Germany and the Planudean manuscript is in Venice, Italy – and modern scholars use these manuscripts to create the Greek we can read today in modern texts to get to know Anyte and other authors.
- In Greece, there had been other forms of writing like Linear A (as yet undeciphered) from the island of Crete, used until the 1400s BCE, and Linear B from mainland Mycenae, used until the 1200s BCE. John Chadwick helped decipher Linear B and has a short, good book on it called The Decipherment of Linear B (1958). Linear B seems mostly used for bureaucratic matters and not literary. Shortly after 1200 BCE, the Greek society of that time collapsed. We don’t know why. Scholars have called the period from 1200 BCE to 750 BCE the Greek Dark Ages.
- The ancient Greek alphabet is based on Phoenician, a Semitic language like Hebrew. Alpha = Aleph (ox in Hebrew) and Beta = Bet (house in Hebrew). If you turn A on its side or upside down it looks like an ox with horns. I. J. Gelb’s A Study of Writing (second edition 1963) is a good introduction to the subject.
- These epics were about the Trojan war and events around it and after it, a war in which the Greeks fought against the Trojans (modern-day Gallipoli [roughly] in Türkiye). The Greeks fought this war for the Greek king Menelaus whose wife Helen was taken by/ran away with the Trojan prince Paris. In the epics, the war lasts 10 years. The Odyssey depicts Odysseus’s (the Greek king of the island of Ithaca) beleaguered 10-year journey home after this 10-year war.
- I exclude here epigraphy which was the practice of writing on stone or vases. There are important early examples of such writing, notably, the Athenian Dipylon vase (still in Athens) from sometime just after 750 BCE, which has a poetic line in hexameter – the meter Homer used in his epics – dedicating the wine jug, on which the lines are written, as a prize to dancers at a competition.
- If you can find a copy of Scribes & Scholars (Oxford published the third edition in 1991), it’s the best guide to the transmission from the past to the present of Greek & Latin literature.
- We have a line from the old Athenian comic poet Eupolis who lived in the later 400s BCE that goes “where books are for sale”. See Jeffrey Rusten (editor), The Birth of Comedy (Johns Hopkins University Press 2011) pg 269. This book is a treasure of translations of fragments of Greek comedy from 486 to 280 BCE.
- Plays and poems and history and the like, when they were written down, were written down on papyrus scrolls. Our word “paper” comes from this. Papyrus was made from the insides of the stems of papyrus reeds.
- As if from a movie, tomb raiders found on a mummy, as part of its wrapping, a papyrus scroll containing hundreds of lines of poetry that had never been seen until the University of Milan bought the papyrus in 1992 on the black market. That papyrus wrapping had a few poems from Posidippus that we knew about already so some scholars think all the poems on it are his. The papyrus is officially called P.Mil.Vogl. VII 309.