Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Composition of the Venetus A: numbered similes

The following guest post by Holy Cross student Christine Roughan shows how careful observation of a largely overlooked feature of the Venetus A can help us reconstruct something about both the process of creating the manuscript, and the sources available to the scribes who worked on the Venetus A.

Epic simile numerals in the Venetus A

Christine Roughan

The reader of Homer has undoubtedly encountered what is called the 'epic simile': a comparison made in the poem that is multiple lines long. One example appears early in Book 2 of the Iliad:

ἠΰτε ἔθνεα εἶσι μελισσάων ἁδινάων
πέτρης ἐκ γλαφυρῆς αἰεὶ νέον ἐρχομενάων.
βοτρυδὸν δὲ πέτονται ἐπ᾽ ἄνθεσιν εἰαρινοῖσιν·
αἱ μέν τ᾽ ἔνθα ἅλις πεποτήαται· αἱ δέ τε ἔνθα·
ὡς τῶν ἔθνεα πολλὰ νεῶν ἄπο καὶ κλισιάων
ἠϊόνος προπάροιθε βαθείης ἐστιχόωντο
εἰλαδὸν εἰς ἀγορὴν. (Iliad 2.87-93)

Just as the companies of thick bees go
from a hollow rock, always newly coming.
And fly in clusters over spring flowers;
some flit crowded together here, some there;
even so the many companies from the ships and huts
before the low shore marched
in troops to the gathering space.

In the Venetus A manuscript, we observed Greek numerals in the exterior margins of folios, starting with 1 (Α) on 26r and reaching 193 (ΡϞΓ) on 322r. They appeared consecutively (except where numerals would be missing, causing the count to skip: see below), and we found that across from wherever these numerals appeared, an epic simile was present in the main text. The extended simile above is the first to appear in the Iliad, and so it was marked in the Venetus A with the Greek number for 1.
[NB: all images are linked to interactive views of the relevant folio highlighting this area. Click to see the region in a fuller context.]

Epic similes did not go unnoticed by the ancient scholars of Homer: a scholion on the lines above, for instance, describes their content as one of “τοὺς εἰκαζομένους,” or similes. Other manuscripts, such as the Venetus B and the Escorial Υ.1.1, also have this scholion (in a slightly longer form; however, the first part discussing “τοὺς εἰκαζομένους” is the same) and so acknowledge the presence of the epic simile. But neither of them, nor the Marciana 841, follow the Venetus A in numbering or otherwise marking each epic simile as it appears. [[This paragraph was revised on July 5, 2013, to clarify the reference to similes in the scholia and to update the names of the manuscripts.]]

The presence of these numerals raises a few questions. When were they added to the manuscript, and by whom? Were they included by the original hand responsible for the main text and much of the scholia, or were the numerals a later addition, perhaps during something like the scribe’s second pass Thomas W. Allen described in “On the Composition of Some Greek Manuscripts: The Venetian Homer” (Journal of Philology 26 [1899])?

Furthermore, what was the purpose of marking the extended similes with these numerals? Was the numbering merely a whim of their author, or does it point to a tradition of scholarly interest in these similes? Might it perhaps suggest a lost work on Homeric similes which the scribe expected his reader to know? The numerals may have been intended to index each simile as it appeared in the Iliadic text so that the manuscript's reader could find it in the hypothesized lost work. Or perhaps they were simply intended to call the reader's attention to the simile as something worthy of note. In that case, however, why would the similes be numbered rather than marked with some sign? (Compare the manicula of Latin manuscripts, for instance.) Naturally, conclusively determining the intention behind these numerals is even trickier than the already difficult task of determining when and by whom they were added.

What we have observed about the epic simile numerals – where they appear, their ink, and where they fail to appear – does point to some answers. Furthermore, findings drawn from our examination of these numerals even suggest possible conclusions about the sources and construction of the manuscript itself. Taken together, the observations detailed below suggest an early revision process in which a scribe worked through the manuscript adding material from at least one outside source.

What can be said for certain about these numerals? In our analysis of the ink, we found alternating strengths (instead of a gradual fade) for the numerals 82 (ΠΒ), 83 (ΠΓ), 84 (ΠΔ), 85 (ΠΕ), and 86 (Πϛ) between folios 165r and 167v. This might help answer at least one of our questions, suggesting that their author did not move through the manuscript solely marking similes. The numerals were probably added at the same time as other material was. The color of the ink also seems to match the ink of the main text and scholia.

We observed that the numerals never appeared on the replaced folios, even when an extended simile did appear in the text. Thus the numerals would date from before Bessarion’s fifteenth century restorations. A second hint regarding their date: on 90v we found a faint exterior scholion squeezed into the space between the numeral 41 (ΜΑ) and the edge of the page, which suggests that the numeral was written in first.

The Missing Numerals

While the numerals did progress in ascending order, we observed that some were missing. Of the 193 numerals expected, 35 were nowhere to be seen on the folio, though epic similes were present in the main text. The following is a description of what we observed concerning the missing numerals:

-The first break occurs after 12 (ΙΒ) on 33v; there is a gap of sixteen numerals between lines 2.488-4.434, and the sequence continues again with 29 (ΚΘ) on 60r. This first lacuna is notable for how many numerals are missing: where later gaps usually consist of one or a couple, this gap has sixteen unmarked epic similes.

-The next break occurs after 34 (ΛΔ) on 65v; there is a gap of four numerals between lines 5.186-5.760, and the sequence continues again with 39 (ΛΘ) on 77v. In this case folios 69-74 are restorations. We found that all of the unmarked similes here appear on those folios.

-A break occurs after 43 (ΜΓ) on 92r; there is a gap of two numerals between lines 7.76-8.297, and the sequence continues with 46 (ΜϜ) on 106v.

-A break occurs after 121 (ΡΚΑ) on 211r; there is a gap of one numeral between lines 16.276-16.350, and the sequence continues with 123 (ΡΚΓ) on 213r.

-A break occurs after 141 (ΡΜΑ) on 226r; there is a gap of six numerals between lines 17.151-17.653, and the sequence continues with 148 (ΡΜΗ) on 236v. Folios 229-234 are restorations, and we observed that five unmarked similes appear on those folios. One unmarked simile, however, does appear on an original folio: what would be simile 142 appears on 228v.

-A break occurs after 150 (ΡΝ) on 237v; there is a gap of four numerals between lines 17.729-18.150, and the sequence continues with ΡΝΕ (155) on 242r. Folio 238 is a restoration, and again all of the unmarked similes appear on that folio.

-A final break occurs after 190 (ΡϞ) on 311v; there is a gap of two numerals between lines 24.55-24.554, and the sequence resumes with the final numeral 193 (ΡϞΓ) on 322r.

In cases where replacement folios cannot explain the absence of these numerals, explanations such as ink fading, losing the edge of the folio, or human error might. The ink of 7 (Ζ) on folio 32r, for instance, is extremely faint.

it is not impossible to imagine that in some cases the ink faded even further to invisibility. On folio 60r, the loss of part of 29 (ΚΘ) shows how numerals could have been lost with trimming to the edge of the page. If neither of these are the case, the writer of these numerals was human: he may have occasionally missed some, especially if he worked with another source and did not number the similes himself.

But while these reasons might account for the occasional missing numeral, such as 122, it seems extremely unlikely that the ink faded to invisibility for all sixteen numerals absent between folios 33v and 60r.

The Sixteen Missing Numerals

The observations detailed so far help us consider answers to the questions the numerals’ presence raised in the first place. The numbers must have been a part of the manuscript before the fifteenth century, when lost folios were restored without them. Analysis of the ink hints at an early date, as its hand and color is similar to that of the main text and scholia, and its changing strengths would suggest it was added along with other material. The one example where a numeral and an exterior scholion share the same space also points to an early date. The simile numerals were certainly in place before the fifteenth century; there is nothing yet to rule out that they may be as early as the manuscript’s initial construction. Additionally, the fact that the similes are numbered rather than simply marked makes it more likely that the numerals were meant as a reference, rather than just an indication that the extended similes were worthy of note.

The sixteen missing numerals are even more informative, since this lacuna might be explained by considering how the manuscript was originally constructed.

Much of the codex is constructed from quaternions: gathers (or "quires") of four bifolios each. Folios 12-19, for instance, form the first quire. Interestingly, we observed that for the missing sixteen numerals, the corresponding unmarked similes appear between folios 39v and 59v, and thus only within the fourth, fifth, and sixth quires. None of these quires contain a numeral. The sequence ends with the last extended simile in the third quire and picks up again with the very first simile to appear in the seventh.

If the scribe completely finished adding certain material to one quire before starting to add it to the next, it might explain why entire quires are missing numerals: he accidentally neglected to add them when he was working on those quires. This would mean that while adding the simile numerals the scribe worked, not folio-by-folio or book-by-book, but rather quire-by-quire.

A clue concerning how simile numerals in these quires were skipped might be that the Catalogue of Ships begins on 34r, the end of the third quire. Throughout the Catalogue of Ships, the scribe includes numerals in the interior and intermarginal sections of the folio that mark how many ships are specified in the line. For example, where line 2.576 reads that Agamemnon brought 100 ships, a capital rho appears to the left of the line as the Greek number 100. The color of the ink and our observation that intermarginal scholia will wrap around the Catalogue numerals (see 38v) point to their early inclusion in the manuscript.

The fact that these Catalogue numerals start where the simile numerals disappear could be purely coincidental, or it could offer a reason why the scribe forgot to number the sixteen Homeric similes. A hypothesized scenario: the scribe works through his manuscript quire-by-quire, adding simile numerals, Catalogue numerals, and other material (perhaps intermarginal and interlinear scholia, as in Allen’s hypothesis). He includes simile numerals up to 33v and starts adding Catalogue numerals on 34r in the third quire. In the start of the fourth quire there are no similes to be marked, but he includes Catalogue numerals up to 39r. When he finishes the Catalogue of Ships, the scribe considers his work adding numerals finished, and accidentally neglects to resume marking similes when they start up again on 39v. He continues with whatever other material he was adding at the time, but does not remember to include simile numerals again until he begins the seventh quire.

This scenario is purely conjecture. The proximity of the Catalogue numerals to the missing simile numerals could simply be a coincidence; even the proposed link between the sixteen unmarked similes and the three quires they appear on could be a coincidence. Still, the possible explanation of adding simile numerals in a later pass during the manuscript's initial construction, quire-by-quire, does match up with other observations: the ink possibly being the same as that for the main text and scholia; the simile numerals being added at the same time as other material. And the missing sixteen numerals are difficult to explain otherwise, unless for that entire stretch the scribe either wrote with extremely faint ink, or placed the numerals at the very edge of the page.

If the simile numerals were added at the same time as the Catalogue numerals, they would date no later than the intermarginal scholia: the fact that these intermarginal scholia wrap around Catalogue numerals indicates that the scholia were added after the numerals. Admittedly, the hand changes between simile numerals and Catalogue numerals, a difference most pronounced in how the scribe writes the letter mu (compare simile 43 (ΜΓ) on 92r to forty ships marked on 34v, for example). Vertical strokes on the Catalogue numerals are often deliberately thickened and sometimes not even filled in, as in 12 (ΙΒ) on 36v. Perhaps, however, this difference in style reflects a difference in the sources the scribe drew the Catalogue and simile numerals from.

That the writer of the simile numerals did not notice when he overlooked multiple similes further suggests that he copied the numerals from another source rather than generate them himself. Otherwise, if he read through the manuscript marking similes as they appeared, when he accidentally missed one (let alone sixteen), why would he skip ahead in his numbering? The simile numerals most likely came from another source, then, either the scribe's exemplar for the manuscript (if he had one) or –the more likely option if he is adding material during a later pass– directly from a lost source on Homeric similes.

So our findings allow for a reconstruction in which the Venetus A’s scribe completed the main text and main scholia, then worked through his manuscript again, quire-by-quire, adding additional material beyond the manuscript’s exemplar. Whether this is the same pass when the scribe added intermarginal scholia, or when he added the Catalogue numerals, is difficult to determine conclusively, but it was a step likely done before exterior corrections were added in the margins. During this pass the scribe drew on new material, leading to the inclusion of the epic simile numerals in the manuscript: numbers intended to refer readers to their source. Where once the reader of the Venetus A perhaps had an entire text he could refer to when he encountered an epic simile, helpfully numbered in the margins, today we only have left the cryptic Greek numerals which hint at what is lost to us.


  1. Today in the Homer Multitext seminar we discussed this wonderful post. We happened to notice a typo, so I have updated it.