Thursday 24 March 2016

Easter and its supposed pagan links

Note. This is superseded by a two-part piece I wrote in 2018, ‘Easter and paganism’: part 1, part 2.

Oops! I suddenly remember Easter is approaching. I actually had a couple of posts ready to fire off on misconceptions about Socrates, but they’ll just have to wait. This topic takes me out of my usual stomping grounds: but we did take a look at Christmas’ supposed pagan links back in December, so it only makes sense to take a squizz at Easter too.

Plus it’s hard to resist when the red rag of misinformation is being waved in your face. This billboard has been making the rounds on social media:

Image of billboard (unknown location and date)

Some commentators have claimed that it was erected by a group of conservative Christians offended at the supposed paganisation of Easter; I haven’t been able to verify that, though it seems likely enough. But the same material crops up in New Atheist propaganda too. Here’s a sample from Richard Dawkins’ Facebook page three years ago --

Posted to ‘The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (Official)’ Facebook page, 28 March 2013

This is the same kind of logic as equating Jesus with the Egyptian sky god Horus because ‘son of God’ happens to sound kinda like ‘the Sun’ in Modern English. (Yes, some people do genuinely think that: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)

When conservative Christians join forces with supposed rationalists in propagating such complete nonsense you have to pause and think. Sure, you can snidely remark that ‘The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science’ isn’t actually interested in evidence and logic -- and by all means, please do -- but that’s just a verdict, not an explanation.

On the Christian side, the motivation is about keeping Christian festivals pure and uncontaminated by any non-Christian elements. On the New Atheist side, the agenda boils down to arguing that
Christianity, like most modern religions, is a combination of older religions. There are no real new ideas, just recycled dogma used to control those who require a supernatural belief system
(as summarised by one of the commenters on the 2013 Facebook post). Now, motivations are not things that can be factually ‘right’ or ‘wrong’: it isn’t anybody’s business to dictate how people should want a religious festival to be conducted. What we can do, though, is look at the evidence that they draw on to inspire their preferences.

Briefly: there is none. There is no evidence to suggest any link of any kind whatsoever between Easter and Ishtar. Ishtar was a god whose heyday was in 3rd-2nd millennia BCE Mesopotamia. The earliest association of Jesus’ death and resurrection with the name ‘Easter’ is in an 8th century CE text by a monk in northern England (Bede, De temporum ratione §15). Similarly, there is no basis for Dawkins’ claim that ‘eggs and bunnies’ were ever part of Ishtar’s iconography.

More fundamentally, the English name ‘Easter’ is an idiosyncratic title for the festival. Most languages name the festival after the Hebrew Passover, or Pesach: that’s the case in both ancient and modern Greek (Πάσχα), Latin (Pascha) and the Romance languages (Pâques, Pascua, Pasqua, etc.), most Germanic languages (Pasen, Påske, páskar, etc.), and many others like Albanian (Pashkë), Finnish (pääsiäinen), Irish (Cáisc), Russian (Пасха), Turkish (Paskalya), and Welsh (Pasg). Most languages in the Slavic cultural zone instead call it one of several variations on ‘Great Day’ or ‘Great Night’ (Czech Velikonoce, Lithuanian Velykos, Polish Wielkanoc, Latvian Lieldienas). And then there are a few outliers, like Serbo-Croat (Uskrs, from an Old Slavonic word for ‘resurrection’) and Hungarian (Húsvét, from hús ‘meat’, marking the breaking of fast at the end of Lent).

But ‘Easter’? We find that, or a cognate of that, in only two languages: English (Easter) and German (Ostern). It is not derived from a phonetic variant of Ishtar, as both the Christian billboard and Dawkins seem to think, but from an Indo-European root *h2eusṓs meaning ‘dawn, sunrise’. This is the same root that gives us ancient Greek ἠώς/ἕως, Latin aurora, Lithuanian aušrà, and Sanskrit uṣas (all = ‘dawn’); in German and English it also gave us Ost/east ‘east’. (And in case it needs pointing out: Ishtar started out as a Sumerian goddess, not Indo-European, and her name has no connection to this Indo-European root.)

The religious aspects of *h2eusṓs are much harder to pin down than those of Ishtar or Pascha. In several parts of the Indo-European world *h2eusṓs provided the name of a dawn goddess, such as Eos (Greek), Aurora (Roman), Aušra (Lithuanian), Ushas (Vedic), and Eostre (Saxon English). These deities probably do have a degree of commonality in their origins, but it is very difficult to gauge how far their roots extend: Ushas is important in the Vedic hymns, but the others are relatively obscure. In particular, we know basically nothing at all about the Roman Aurora (before she got conflated with Eos) or the English Eostre, other than their names.

The Greek dawn goddess, Eos, snatches the mortal object of her desire, Tithonus
Mus. Fine Arts Boston 95.28, Attic kylix, ca. 470-460 BCE
The following snippet, from the 8th century English writer Bede, is the source of everything that we know about Eostre:
...Eostur-monath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretetur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cuius nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant; consueto antiquae observationis vocabulo gaudia novae solemnitatis vocantes.
...and ‘Easter-month’, which is now understood as the Paschal month, since it had the name from a goddess of theirs who was called Eostre, and they celebrated her festival in that (month); they now give the Paschal season a nickname after her name, referring to the joys of the new solemnity with a word customary for the old observance.
-- Bede, De temporum ratione §15
That is literally all the testimony that exists about Eostre. You’ll notice that there’s nothing about ‘eggs and bunnies’ here either. And there’s nothing like the amount of information that you’ll find if you read the Wikipedia article on Eostre. The sum total of everything in the world that is known about Eostre is
  • her name
  • she was a goddess in northern England some time before Bede’s lifetime
  • she had a festival in the same month as (the Christian festival now known as) Easter
Everything else that you may ever hear about her is surmise and speculation. This includes Jacob Grimm’s derivation of Easter from ‘Ostara’: Ostara is Grimm’s conjectural reconstruction of an Old High German form corresponding to Eostre; but since there’s no evidence to put Eostre anywhere except Northumbria, it’s not a necessary conjecture.

[Addendum, 28 March: in fairness to Grimm I should add that his conjecture was motivated by the parallelism between Bede’s ‘Eostur-monath’ and the German name for April instituted by Charlemagne, ‘Ostarmanoth’, as recorded in the Vita Caroli Magni. However, Charlemagne was no pagan, and the Vita doesn’t mention any pagan goddess: ‘Ostarmanoth’ already refers to the Christian festival. The hypothetical goddess is Grimm’s doing.]

We can try to find out a bit more by comparing the paraphernalia and linguistic formulas associated with the various Indo-European dawn goddesses. But not much turns up. In the Vedic hymns Ushas once gets called ‘daughter of Dyaus’, and it’s possible that there’s a parallel in a reference to the Lithuanian sun goddess as Diēvo dukrýtė. In a few places Ushas is called ‘immortal’ (ámartiyā) or ‘ageless and immortal’ (ajárā amṛ́tā); in Greek, Eos is twice called ‘immortal’ in 5th century BCE poetry, and ‘immortal and ageless’ is a common formula in early Greek epic (ἀθάνατος καὶ ἀγήρ[α]ος, especially in the longer phrase ‘immortal and ageless for all days’, the latter part of which is a very early formula; in one place, Iliad 8.538-9, ‘immortal and ageless’ appears in close connection with a reference to sunrise; in the Catalogue of Women both formulas get used in connection with Herakles’ wife Hēbē ‘Youth’, ‘he [became] immortal and ageless and possessed lovely Youth, / daughter of Zeus’).

See further M. L. West, Indo-European poetry and myth (Oxford, 2007) pp. 217-227, but with the caveat that West’s suggestions, however learned, are still pretty insubstantial. But even though they’re largely conjectural, there’s still nothing about ‘eggs and bunnies’!

The plain fact is that we don’t have any good evidence of where the Easter Rabbit, hot cross buns, and Easter eggs come from.

The Easter Rabbit. Grimm speculated that the rabbit was sacred to his conjectural goddess ‘Ostara’. Others have since suggested something similar for Eostre. But since everything we know about Eostre is contained in two sentences by Bede, this is all just speculation. No one has any real idea where the Easter Rabbit comes from. Speculating about pagan influences is perfectly legitimate, but taking those speculations for granted would be tendentious.

[Addendum, 27 March: like the eggs discussed below, rabbits and hares are a very ancient symbol in various religious iconographies. The problem is how to link the pre-Christian iconography to the Easter iconography. J. B. Lehner, writing in the 1930-1938 edition of the Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, believed the ‘Osterhase’ dated to the 18th century; C. J. Billson, writing in 1892 about the tradition of hunting and eating a hare at Easter, found evidence of the custom in southern and central England (Kent, Hertfordshire, Surrey, and Leicester) going back to at least 1620 and perhaps to 1574. In 1957 J. B. Bauer tried (subscription needed) to draw a line between evidence of that period and testimony from Christian symbols and writers dating back to the 3rd century, but the links look tenuous to my eye, and the earliest evidence cannot be tied to Germany/England.]

[Addendum 2, 28 March: the Rabbit appears earlier in Germany too: a 1682 essay by G. Franck von Franckenau mentions that in central Germany Easter eggs were called di Hasen-Eier (hare-eggs) from a folktale that der Oster-Hase hid the eggs in the grass and bushes to be found by children. That still doesn’t antedate Billson’s English hare-hunting customs, but it shows that the Rabbit/Hare wasn’t a late import into Germany. On the other hand, the tradition that Franck von Franckenau describes is associated with other animals in other parts of Germany, notably the Osterfuchs (‘Easter fox’).]

Cross buns. It’s hard to find any reputable discussion of the history of this yummy foodstuff. The Wikipedia article is atrocious. ‘The ancient Greeks may have marked cakes with a cross’, we are told: well they may also have enjoyed standing on their heads whistling The Star-Spangled Banner, but let’s stick to evidence, shall we? By the way, the word ‘bun’ most certainly does not come from Greek boun (which is a form of the word for ‘ox’); the OED isn’t confident in the etymology of ‘bun’, but suspects that it may come from Old French.

According to the OED the earliest occurrence of the term ‘cross bun’ is
Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs
With one or two a penny hot cross buns.
-- attributed to a Poor Robin’s almanack of 1733
The Almanack cited doesn’t seem to be extant, but it doesn’t matter, because I’ve found a still earlier reference in Henry Bourne’s Antiquitates vulgares, or The antiquities of the common people (Newcastle, 1725), p. 312. Prior to that date, the only serious contender for cross buns is the ‘St Alban’s bun’, with an incised cross, reputedly invented by Thomas Rocliffe and given as alms to the poor starting in 1361. It’s hard to find documentation even for that, other than in recent news media. But I’m prepared to believe it could be true.

[Corrigendum, 30 March: the reference in Bourne’s book is actually part of an appendix written for a 1777 reprint. So the lost 1733 Poor Robin’s almanack remains the earliest known reference to cross buns.]

Anyway, as with the Easter Rabbit, the upshot is that there is no unbroken tradition of cross buns going back to antiquity. Unlike the Rabbit, even if earlier references did turn up there doesn’t seem to be any room to imagine pagan input into the tradition.

Easter eggs. The eggs are much more complicated, because egg-decorating has been a custom in many different cultures for many millennia. But there’s very little to indicate when, where, and why eggs became associated with Easter. Some people have suspected a connection with ‘cosmic eggs’ in Indian, Egyptian, and Greek Orphic mystic thought, but there’s nothing to support a link. One very early Christian text cites the phoenix as an example of a natural wonder (First Clement §25, probably late 1st cent. CE); but Clement’s phoenix isn’t reborn in an egg, it instead builds a tomb for itself. Even if there is a real link there, there’s no later evidence to corroborate it. Wikipedia alleges that Easter eggs were decorated by ‘early Christians of Mesopotamia’, but provides no traceable evidence: this looks like it must be inspired by the Persian festival of Nowruz on the March equinox, since egg decoration is one of the customs associated with Nowruz, but it’s not easy to verify how far back the custom goes or whether there’s any reason to link the custom with ‘early Christians of Mesopotamia’.

The most useful treatment, it seems, is a discussion of -- you’ll love this -- mediaeval egg blessings, in Adolph Franz’s book Die kirchlichen Benediktionen im Mittelalter (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1909), vol. 1, around pp. 589-594. I haven’t been able to get access to Franz’s book -- alas! who wouldn’t want to read a discussion of mediaeval egg blessings? -- so I have to rely on a 1925 second-hand report by the Breton scholar Dom Louis Gougaud (subscription required). Gougaud’s executive summary is that Easter eggs are a much later development than either the conservative Christians or the New Atheists would have you believe:
The true origin of Easter eggs is ... the prohibited use of eggs during Lent. Indeed, Adolph Franz, the learned historian in ecclesiastical blessings of the Middle Ages, says that he has never discovered, in the sacramentaries or rituals anterior to the 10th Century, any special form for blessing the eggs.
A modern egg blessing in Poland (source:

Even after the 10th century, eggs and Easter do not get associated with one another strictly. There are plenty of mentions of various kinds of food at Easter which happen to include eggs, but that isn’t compelling evidence for ‘Easter eggs’ as a thing.

But one of Gougaud’s references sticks out: a French letter dating to 1399 treats ‘Easter eggs’ as something more-or-less proverbial --
Lesquelz alerent demander leur potage, que en appelle Eufs de Pasques.
... people who would go and ask for their (allotment of) food, which is called ‘Easter eggs’.
-- reported by Du Cange, Glossarium mediae et infimae Latinitatis (orig. publ. 1678) s.v. ‘Ovum’
(Du Cange’s source for this snippet is ‘Lit. remiss. ann. 1399 in Reg. 154. Chartoph. reg. ch. 459’: if anyone can expand this cryptic abbreviation, please do!) This gives pretty strong support to a link in one of Gougaud’s other references, a mediaeval discussion of Easter customs at the Abbaye de Fleury, St. Benoît-sur-Loire -- regrettably undated, though Gougaud seems confident that it is earlier -- where we find mention of a custom of giving alms to a hundred poor people, which at Easter (and only at Easter) included two eggs.

So a link with Ishtar is a product of the modern imagination; Eostre is for real, but we know essentially nothing about her. Eostre probably has something to do with other Indo-European dawn goddesses but we have no evidence at all about what the parallels might be. The Easter Rabbit and Easter eggs might have some pagan origin, but there’s no actual reason to think so, and no verifiable link to any pre-Christian customs. The idea of putting designs on buns is surely not a Christian invention, but the association of hot cross buns with Good Friday surely is.

What have we missed? Oh right, the date of Easter. For that I’ll link to my older post on Christmas: the date of Christmas follows from the date of the first Easter anyway. The traditional date of the Resurrection was probably chosen to coincide with the March equinox. Even that doesn’t represent a borrowing from pagan customs, though: contrary to popular belief, ancient pagans weren’t really into solstices and equinoxes as a religious thing. The Greco-Romans, at least, tended to be interested in solstices and equinoxes for calendrical and astronomical purposes. If religious purposes came into it at all, it was very much secondary, like how some Greeks celebrated the summer solstice as the start of the calendar year. It looks very much as though calendrical and astronomical purposes are the impulse for early Christian interest in the equinox too. However, other than the reference in Malachi 4:2 to ‘the sun of righteousness’, and the likelihood that the Quartodeciman movement of the 2nd century was involved in some way, the exact nature of the theological rationale is likely to remain mysterious.

Monday 14 March 2016

How far removed are we from ancient testimony?

Popular opinion often seems to have it that our evidence on the history of the ancient world is way, way, way more direct than it actually is. Here’s an example from a social media site: a questioner is asking about the historicity of the battle of Thermopylae. Some well-meaning soul explains that Herodotus is our source (misleadingly: I can understand leaving out Ctesias’ and Trogus’ accounts, but there’s no excuse for ignoring Diodorus/Ephorus), and the questioner asks a follow-up question:
Are the manuscripts [Herodotus] authored still intact or were translations made by other verifiable sources then?
Holy high expectations, Batman! I don’t say that to bash the questioner: we learn by asking questions, and if you’re not aware of how we actually get our information about that era, it’s not automatically crazy to imagine that we might know Herodotus’ history through his own autograph copy. After all, we do have some ancient artefacts associated with well-known individuals: we have autographs by Exekias, a copy of Vergil’s Eclogues annotated in the hand of a 4th century Roman consul, a memorial for one of the Athenian generals at Marathon, and (probably) the actual body of king Philip II of Macedon. There’s no obvious way for a layperson to know that these are very exceptional things. So this isn’t a criticism: the quotation above is meant to illustrate a widespread assumption, one that is very common among lay enthusiasts.

Autograph of Exekias, the famous 6th century BCE Athenian potter and vase-painter. (Source:

This is very reminiscent of the bizarre standards of evidence that ‘Jesus mythicists’ usually demand for the existence of a 1st century CE Judaean cult leader by the name of Jesus. A 2008 book by Dan Barker, which sounds like it ought to be reasonably conscientious -- Barker has a Wikipedia article devoted to him, and his own book decribes him as ‘one of America's leading atheists’ -- writes
Jesus supposedly lived sometime between 4 B.C.E. and 30 C.E., but there is not a single contemporary historical mention of Jesus, not by Romans or by Jews, not by believers or by unbelievers, not during his entire lifetime. ... The lack of contemporary corroboration does not disprove his existence, of course, but it certainly casts great doubt on the historicity of a man who supposedly had a great impact on the world. Someone should have noticed.
Gosh, how could we not have noticed? Well, in the real world we have only one solitary surviving contemporary historiographical source. It is Velleius Paterculus’ history of Rome: a history of an Italian city and its ruling class. It would be crazy to expect it to mention a cult leader who lived in the far reaches of the empire and had no significance outside Judaea during his lifetime. (Bear in mind that even a much more exalted figure, the prefect of Judaea at the time Pontius Pilate, is attested by a grand total of one contemporary source -- and not a historiographic source, but a badly damaged inscription.) This is very different from the Herodotus enquirer above: one is an uninformed person posing an honest question to improve their knowledge, the other is an uninformed person pretending to be an authority.

Both situations are the result of someone having very unrealistic impressions about the kind of evidence that we have. We don’t have the papyrus on which Herodotus wrote; we don’t have archives of Roman bureaucratic records. Any kind of commentary on current events is a very, very rare thing. We have much fewer surviving ancient historians than Dan Barker imagines (or seems to imply), and those historians typically deal with events decades or centuries before their lifetimes, and focus on politics and military affairs at the highest level.

There’s no contemporary historiographical source on Alexander the Great either. That doesn’t ‘cast great doubt’ on his historicity, because that would be a colossally inappropriate methodology to apply.

So if even Alexander the Great isn’t attested by contemporary sources, how can we be confident about any ‘facts’ at all in antiquity? The answer is that with different kinds of evidence, we have to adopt different methodologies. Judging ancient history by the criteria that you’d use for 20th-21st century events, or even 19th century events, is inherently nonsensical: it’d be like using carbon dating to test dinosaur fossils. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t even make sense to think about it that way.

Broadly speaking we have to tune our methodology around a two-pronged approach:
  1. Chain of evidence
    1. source criticism (how did surviving ancient sources get their information?)
    2. transmission of sources from antiquity to the present
  2. Burden of evidence
    1. independent corroboration
    2. contextual fit (how well does a source fit the period it’s describing, the period when it was written, and other writngs by the same author?)
    3. intentionality (what is the point that our source wants to communicate, and what assumptions does it take for granted?)
(Points 2b and 2c are cribbed from Jonathan Hall’s History of the Archaic Greek world, 2nd edition 2014, chapter 2.) Taking all these considerations together, if we can work out a narrative that modern interpreters can agree on even when they’re coming to the evidence with opposing biases, then we have something that we can reasonably call a ‘fact’ about antiquity. There’s no question of ‘proving’ anything: ‘proof’ isn’t even on the table. That’s not a disaster, because ‘proof’ is something that only happens in mathematics anyway. Instead we try to find a way of agreeing on a balance of probabilities.

Even when we are looking at people like Thucydides and Cicero who wrote about contemporary events, our information still isn’t first-hand: it isn’t second-hand either. It’s more like twentieth-hand. Take a look at the following diagram:

Manuscript stemma for the text of the ‘Latin Dictys’; colour scheme and dates in the left margin added by me. (Source: W. Eisenhut, Dictys Cretensis Ephemeridos belli Troiani, Teubner, 2nd ed. 1973, p. xlvii; for full explanation see pp. xi-xlviii.)

This diagram shows the surviving manuscripts for a specific text, the Latin version of ‘Dictys of Crete’. It also shows how these manuscripts relate to one another, and the common ancestors from which each manuscript can be shown to have been derived. (For the record, ‘Dictys’ is a quasi-novelisation of the Trojan War, purportedly written by ‘Dictys of Crete’, one of the soldiers in the Greek army. Not well known, but it still has considerable importance in the transmission of Greek heroic legends from Homer all the way to the present day.)

By convention, Roman letters are used for manuscripts that still survive; Greek letters are used for ones that are lost. The methods used for constructing a ‘stemma’ like this are pretty solid and well-tested. They’re the same as those used in evolutionary biology for reconstructing the stemma of extant species of living creatures. (Or rather, biologists originally borrowed philological methods to develop their own.) There are of course always uncertainties, especially when later manuscripts are based on more than one previous manuscript: hence the dashed lines and the occasional question mark in the diagram.

So the diagram shows that we have fourteen surviving manuscripts, and one fragment. From these, the editor has deduced the existence of several lost ‘hyparchetypes’, that is to say, the common ancestors of the surviving manuscripts, represented by the Greek letters β γ ε π ρ σ τ and τ'; and, at the top, the lost archetype from which all of these are ultimately derived. (The E at the bottom represents late annotations in an older manuscript; κ represents a manuscript which is known to have existed, but has been lost.)

The thing that would probably be most startling to the Herodotus questioner, back at the start of this post, is the dates of the surviving manuscripts. Fully half of them date to the 1400s: they’re contemporary with the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press. The very earliest, E, is from the early 800s. And that’s still a long way removed from the original text of the Latin Dictys, which was probably written in the 300s.

In fact it’s even more complicated than that. Because the Latin Dictys was itself a translation from a Greek text: and that was written probably in the late 1st century CE. The Greek text doesn’t survive (except for four fragmentary ancient papyri), but we have a heap of independent testimony about it. Here’s my own reconstruction of the chain of testimony for the Greek version:

Stemma of Dictyean material in Byzantine sources; italics indicate lost sources.
(P. Gainsford, ‘Diktys of Crete’, Cambridge Classical Journal 58 (2012) pp. 58-87, at pp. 65-74)

You’ll notice the Latin Dictys is tucked away in the top left corner. And, for reference, there exist many other Greek witnesses -- the likes of Isaac Porphyrogennetos, John Tzetzes, and Konstantinos Manasses -- who are omitted from this diagram because they’re not independent sources. They don’t add anything to our knowledge of Dictys that isn’t already in the texts shown above.

What’s the upshot? Well, when we open up a copy of an ancient author, whether it’s a popular translation, a slapdash Project Gutenberg text, or a professional critical edition, what we’re looking at is a long way removed from the person who originally wrote it. We’re at least five steps removed from the Latin translator of Dictys -- probably more like a dozen steps removed, once you include the number of steps from the translator’s hand to widespread publication in antiquity. For earlier authors, like Herodotus, we can expect the number of steps to be correspondingly greater.

However, that doesn’t mean that we should have no faith in the text. We don’t need to assume that scribes were indiscriminately adjusting and fiddling with ancient texts throughout history. On the whole, both ancient and mediaeval copyists have been a very conscientious bunch. And perhaps more importantly, the ways in which they have interfered are very well understood nowadays: usually it’s possible to compensate for them, and to correct their alterations, whether intentional (very rare) or accidental (very common). There are uncertainties in modern texts of ancient authors. But a reliable critical edition will always annotate these uncertainties very rigorously.

Popular translations ... well, not so much. Some modern translations are very unreliable. Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Homeric Iliad omits large chunks of the poem, for reasons that are controversial even among specialists; popular translations of the Bible are often directed by translators’ personal beliefs more than by fidelity to the texts reconstructed by philologists. But that’s just a fact of life: popular versions can never be completely in step with specialists.

Even staying up to date can be hard: thanks to the internet and the vagaries of copyright law, it’s much harder to get access to modern critical editions than to 19th century editions. And that can make a difference, because the modern critical editions are often quite different from the 19th century ones. The current standard edition of the Latin Dictys, by Werner Eisenhut (1973), is based on a detailed analysis of 15 manuscripts; the previous critical edition, that of Ferdinand Meister (1872), was based on just 6, and didn’t put nearly as much effort into working out the chain of influences between them. There’s always room for improvement. For some of the most popular of ancient authors we rely on only a handful of manuscripts, or even on just one: in that kind of situation there’s much more reason to be sceptical about the accuracy of the text.