Wednesday 25 April 2018

Ancient Greeks climbing Mount Olympus

Why didn’t ancient Greeks just climb up Mount Olympus and notice that there were no gods pottering around up there?
Mount Olympus as seen from the Dion Archaeological Park, Greece
This is a pretty common question on Q&A websites. The answers are usually wrong. Here’s a selection (all sic):
Quora, Jan. 2017:
‘it’s a really hard mountain to climb’
‘some did climb Mt Olympus and felt the presence of the gods’
‘they were afraid to climb it’

Quora, August 2016:
‘a really difficult mountain to climb’
first climbed in 1913
‘would be kind of taboo’
there were actually three Mount Olympuses, ‘one in sparta, one in thay and one outside athens’

Stack Exchange, June 2016:
one correct answer, but also plenty of --
‘it’s impossible to ascertain for sure’
‘people didn’t climb mountains until the 19th century’
‘Olympus was first climbed in 1913’

The Straight Dope, February 2009:
‘it would be blasphemy’
anyone who did climb ‘probably would have "seen" [the gods]. A sceptic's account would have been ignored’
they probably did and ‘concluded theiy were in the wrong place’

‘The home of the Greek gods [was] on the Mytikas peak’
‘in all regions settled by Greek tribes, the highest local elevation tended to be ... named [Olympus]’
‘Ancient Greeks likely never tried to climb the two main peaks’
Mt Olympus’ highest peaks:
  1. Mitikas (2918 m)
  2. Skolio (2911 m)
  3. Stefani (2909 m)
  4. Skala (2866 m)
  5. Agios Antonios (2817 m)
The answers that focus on the idea of gods as ‘metaphors’, or a distinction between the divine and visible worlds, are the best ones here. They’re a pretty good take on the topic. They can stand as the answer to the main part of the question.

But even they miss a reasonably important point. And that is that we know, perfectly well, that ancient Greeks did climb up Mount Olympus. Plutarch (2nd century) and St Augustine (4th-5th century) report on annual pilgrimages up the mountain. Ceramic plates have been found dotted around the various plateaus and passes at the top, similar to ones found at Dion, a small city to the northeast which was the home of the ancient sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos (Zeus the Highest). The clearest evidence comes from the Agios Antonios peak, where burned sacrifices were offered to Zeus and various other religious offerings deposited. Agios Antonios is somewhat separated to the south of the highest cluster of peaks, running Skolio-Skala-Mitikas-Stefani in a curve from southwest to northeast.

(Wikipedia does report the archaeological finds on Agios Antonios, to be fair. But the article takes the additional leap that the Agios Antonios finds somehow imply that the ancients didn’t climb up the higher peaks -- and that obviously makes no sense at all.)
The weather station on Agios Antonios, where remnants of ancient sacrifices to Zeus were found in 1961. (Source:
The textual evidence comes from ancient discussions of the fact that cloud cover is often lower than high mountain peaks. One ancient interpretation of this was that clouds and wind are confined to lower altitudes: and this leads to some factoids about mountain-tops. Here’s Plutarch:
For people who have placed ash on top of some mountains, or have left it behind after sacrifices there, have when investigating many years later found that it was still lying as they left it. ... Plutarch reports that letters, too, remained from one ascent of the priests to the next on Olympus, in Macedonia.
-- Plutarch fr. 191 Sandbach, reported by Philoponus, On Aristotle’s Meteorologica i.82
And Augustine:
In that air [at high altitudes] they say that clouds do not gather and no stormy weather exists. Indeed where there is no wind, as on the peak of Mount Olympus, which is said to rise above the area of this humid air, we are told, certain letters are regularly made in the dust and are a year later found whole and unmarred by those who climb that mountain for their solemn memorials.
Where Augustine’s Latin has ‘letters’ (litteras), Plutarch’s Greek has grammata, which can mean either ‘letters’ or ‘writings’. ‘Writings’ is the correct interpretation -- we’re not talking about letters scrawled into the ashes, like Augustine thought! -- and indeed the archaeological finds on Agios Antonios do include some inscriptions, including two dedications to ‘Olympian Zeus’.

The distinction Augustine is making between different types of air is a standard feature of ancient cosmology. As sea level is thick, humid aēr; higher up is the clear, fiery aithēr. (These are the Greek terms.) These were regarded as distinct layers or spheres surrounding the earth, with the fieriest layer of aithēr in the neighbourhood of heavenly bodies like the sun. Augustine mentions in a few other places that rain doesn’t fall on the summit of Olympus, and in one place he attributes it to ‘one of the pagan poets’. The setting on Olympus, and Augustine’s misunderstanding of grammata, both suggest that the story originates in a Greek source. The most likely ‘pagan poet’ is Homer, Odyssey 6.41-46, which reports that Olympus
is not shaken by winds, nor ever wet by rain,
and snow does not come near, but pure cloudless aithrē (= aithēr)
is spread out, and a white brightness plays on it.
The story is fairly likely to have come to Plutarch and Augustine from a commentary on Homer: we know the scholar Crates of Mallos (2nd cent. BCE) discussed how Homer depicts the physical world in the Odyssey, so he’d be as likely a source as any.
The peaks of Mt Olympus, rendered in Google Earth looking from the west, with slopes exaggerated by a factor of 1.5. Notice the walking tracks up gentle slopes from the south-west (there are more tracks on the other sides).
The main archaeological evidence was discovered in 1961, when the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki was building a meteorological observatory on Agios Antonios. Excavators found a thick layer of ash, with ancient ceramic vessels, inscriptions dedicated to ‘Olympian Zeus’, and coins. Most of the evidence on that spot appears to date to the 300s CE, when Christianity was well established in the Roman empire, and not long before pagan religion was banned by emperor Theodosius. One older coin has also been found, from the 200s BCE, which may or may not suggest a long-standing tradition.

Now, there are some half truths among the answers above. For example it’s true that, as Wikipedia reports, the first recorded climb of Mitikas was in July-August 1913. But even Wikipedia emphasises that that’s just the first recorded climb. But it does at least appear to be true that no modern-style mountaineers had been up Mitikas before that date.

However, there are also outright falsehoods. Here are some corrections:
  • Mt Olympus is not a hard climb. It is free of snow for five months of the year, it is not high enough for oxygen deprivation to be a concern, temperatures are normally above freezing in summer, and Agios Antonios in particular is a basic walk for someone who’s moderately fit. A return trip can in principle be done in a single day from the trailhead. People even do organised runs up the mountain. Mitikas and Stefani are more challenging, in that they actually involve a bit of climbing.
  • There is no evidence to suggest any taboo or blasphemy.
  • There is no evidence to suggest that people who did climb to the top believed they had seen or ‘felt’ the gods there. (It’s not impossible, but we have no testimony on the subject.)
  • It’s true that there are several Mt Olympuses, but they’re not relevant to the question, and they aren’t generally the ‘highest local elevations’. The Olympus near Athens, out of Anavyssos, is under 500 m high; the one just outside Sparta is only about 150 m. (Not even a very significant hillock, by Greek standards!)
  • There is no evidence to suggest that it was specifically Mitikas that was regarded as the home of the gods.
The 16th century chapel on Profitis Elias (source: YouTube)
On that last point -- whether one peak in particular was especially sacred to Zeus -- even Agios Antonios isn’t the strongest candidate. That honour should probably go to the northernmost prominence, Profitis Elias (2803 m).

First: Elias, the Greek form of Elijah, supplanted Zeus in many parts of the Greek world, and is strongly associated with mountain-tops. Several peaks that were called ‘Olympus’ in antiquity are now named for Elias.

Second: the archaeological evidence mentioned above comes from Agios Antonios, the main southern peak, but the urban sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos was on the northeast side of the mountain, in the city of Dion. From Dion, Profitis Elias is the nearest (14 km) and most prominent peak. Physical remains of the sanctuary of Zeus at Dion were discovered in 2003, and included a nearly complete cult statue of Zeus enthroned. (Dion itself is named after Zeus: oblique forms of ‘Zeus’ take the stem Di(w)-, e.g. Dios ‘belonging to Zeus’.)

Third: in the mid-1500s, St Dionysius of Olympus built a chapel dedicated to Elias on Profitis Elias, which is still standing. Some reports claim that the chapel was built on the site of an older ruin. If there is any basis to that claim, I’m guessing it comes from traditions or records kept by the Monastery of Agios Dionysios, on the north-eastern slope of the mountain. If a ruin existed, we don’t know how old it was, and it seems unlikely that anyone will ever find out: no one’s going to go digging up a 16th century chapel of intense interest to a nearby monastery, and the highest-altitude chapel in Greece to boot. But even without physical remains being dug up, there’s a fairly strong some suggestion of a long-standing religious significance to the site. [Note: this paragraph has been edited several months after the writing, as I’m unable to find any basis for the UNESCO claim about ancient ruins.]
Sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos, Dion (source: Wikipedia)
Just as an interesting end-note: we have on record an ancient measurement of the height of Mt Olympus, and it’s intriguingly accurate. Plutarch quotes an inscription at Pythion, on the west slope of the mountain, which stated that one Xeinagoras, son of Eumelus, measured the height of the mountain as follows:
The sacred height over Apollo’s Pythion
    of Olympus’ peak, in vertical measure,
is ten full stadia, and in addition
    a plethron less four feet in size.
Eumelus’ son placed a measure of the distance,
    Xeinagoras. Farewell, lord, and grant your blessings.
We’ve got no idea what methodology Xeinagoras used, but the measurement isn’t too shabby. A plethron is 100 feet, and a stadion is 600 feet, so this comes out to exactly 10.16 stadia. The length of a stadion is not exact, but usually ranged between 181.3 and 192.25 m (figures quoted by the New Pauly); conversion to Roman measurements allowed greater precision, which made the stadion between 184.4 and 185.1 m. Taking the mean of those two figures, 184.75 m, Xeinagoras’ measurement comes out as 1877 m over the elevation of Pythion. Pythion is at about 700 m, so this gives a total of 2577 m for the summit of Olympus. It’s definitely not perfect -- 341 m short of the elevation of Mitikas, 226 m short of Profitis Elias -- but not half bad considering that Xeinagoras probably didn’t even have access to Roman surveying techniques, let alone modern ones.

Further reading

Monday 16 April 2018

Why are there no Romans named ‘Quartus’?

Quintus, Sextus, and Decimus were common Roman personal names, or praenomina. They come from numbers: they mean ‘fifth’, ‘sixth’, and ‘tenth’.

But only some numbers are represented. Why don’t we see Romans named ‘Primus’, ‘Secundus’, ‘Tertius’, or ‘Quartus’? Or for that matter ‘Septimus’, ‘Octavus’, or ‘Nonus’?
Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. (Sorry, too late for a spoiler alert.) Gaiman bucks Roman custom and has the princes of a royal family named for Latin ordinal numbers from ‘first’ to ‘seventh’. Here they appear as ghosts in the 2007 film based on the novel: left to right are Quintus, Tertius, Primus, Septimus, Secundus, Quartus, and Sextus. Septimus, in the middle, is one of the main antagonists in the story.
Today’s post isn’t really a debunking of a popular myth. An unpopular myth, maybe. I’m posting it because it’s something I just learned this morning, and it shocked me. It’s one of those things that’s staring you in the face all the time when you’re reading about the Greco-Roman world. So when I found out the true explanation, I felt a little bit betrayed -- as though it was something I ought to have known all along.

I guess it’s hard to find the time to get around to thinking about why Romans had names that meant ‘fifth’, ‘sixth’, and ‘tenth’. If you do think about it, you’re likely to make the same assumption that I did: that children were named for the order in which they were born. The 1st son would be Primus, the 2nd Secundus, the 3rd Tertius, and so on.

But that isn’t the case. If it were, we’d see corresponding names for the first to fourth children. And they just don’t exist. We do find Primus, Secundus, Tertius, and Quartus as regular cognomina -- official nicknames -- but not as personal names, and not at an early period. They start to pop up in the imperial period, and they’re not in Rome: they appear in Celtic contexts, which tends to suggest contamination from Celtic naming customs (Petersen 1962: 349 n. 6).

What’s the solution, then? Should we assume that the first four sons would get ‘real’ names, like Marcus, Titus, Publius, and so on? And when the parents got to their fifth child, suddenly they’d be all like ‘Hey let’s start using numbers now.’

Nope. The scholarly consensus is that these names originally came from the names of the months in which they were born.

If that surprises you, you’re not alone. I was startled too. It was originally suggested by the 1st century BCE scholar Varro, and it appears he was dead right. The standard modern discussion is 56 years old, Petersen 1962, but Petersen’s argument hasn’t been superceded. If anything the argument has been strengthened by parallels that have been found in other ancient Italian languages.

There are a couple of complications. First: Quintus and Sextus don’t sound like month names. However, prior to the lives of Julius Caesar and the emperor Augustus, the Romans had different names for the 7th and 8th months of the year: Quintilis (‘fifth-ilis’) and Sextilis (‘sixth-ilis’). (see this previous post from March for more details, and for discussion of why the months’ names don’t match up to their position in the year.)

Second: it’s not just the number-months. March, May and June aren’t named for Latin numbers, but children born in those months got names related to the months anyway: not Martus, but Marcus; Maius is a rare name, but it exists; and June gave Iunius both as a praenomen and as a gentilician (family) name.

And third, there’s a semi-regular pattern of praenomina ending in -us with corresponding family names ending in -ius: hence Marcus ≈ Marcius. This helps fill in the gaps with some of the numbers. We don’t see Octavus as a praenomen, but we do see Octavius as a family name {edit, six weeks later: also ‘Octavianus’ as a praenomen, but that looks like it’s modelled on ‘Octavius’, not on ‘October’}; Iunius is rare as a praenomen, but common as a family name; Maius appears both as a praenomen and a family name.
Month praenomen gentilician name
Martius (March) Marcus Marcius
Aprilis (April) -- --
Maius (May) Maius Maius
Iunius (June) Iunius (very rare) Iunius
Quintilis (July) Quintus Quinctius
Sextilis (August) Sextus Sextius
September Septimus (rare, archaic) Septimius
October -- Octavius
November -- Nonius
December Decimus Decius (Roman),
Decimius (Samnite)
Varro, who first came up with this explanation, was bothered a bit by the lack of any names corresponding to April. But not enough to prevent him from proposing it anyway, and not enough to put off modern proponents. (The fact that the name ‘April’ appears to come from Etruscan may have a lot to do with this gap in the table. Maybe one of the other traditional Roman praenomina, like Gaius and Publius and Titus, was related to an older Latin name for April? Who knows.)
The Cambridge Latin Course, volume 1, stage 11. I think the appearance of ‘Quartus Tullius’ here is an unintentional error. In the story he has a brother, Marcus, and Marcus at least was a real historical person: he served three terms as a duumvir in Pompeii. (The lesson? Even textbook authors can jump to conclusions.)
What are the arguments in favour of Varro’s theory? Well, first is the fact that the number-based praenomina start with Quintus and end with Decimus, and this constraint corresponds tidily to the fact that month-names also start at ‘fifth’ (Quintilis) and end at ‘ten’ (December).

Second is the fact that we find some related names in two ancient Italic languages related to Latin, Oscan and Faliscan, in ways that suggest they’re also related to month names.

Oscan was spoken by the ancient Samnites, in the Appenine mountains south of Rome, and we have a Samnite family named Decimius attested in Roman sources. In Rome itself the corresponding name was ‘Decius’. In a study of the ancient Samnites, E. T. Salmon (1967: 53) cites the Oscan names Mamerkis ≈ Marcus, Sepis ≈ Septimus, and Dekis ≈ Decimus, and states that Mamerkis is actually formed from the Oscan name for the month of March. I haven’t been able to confirm the last point, but it’s certainly true that Mamerkis is related to the god Mars, who was called Mamertis in Oscan.

Petersen cites some parallels from Faliscan and Oscan too. Marcius only appears as a family name in Rome, but Petersen points to an example of Marcius as a praenomen in a Faliscan inscription (1962: 352 n. 16).

And most strikingly of all, he cites an Oscan family name Sehsimbriis. This is transparently based on an alternate formation for the name of the month of August. In republican-era Latin, August was called Sextilis (‘sixth-ilis’); Sehsimbriis must reflect an Oscan formation which would correspond to Latin *Seximber.
Note, a day later: I’m no longer too sure of this. If Sehsimbriis did correspond to *Seximber, it’d be an artificial formation, based on analogy with September, November, etc.: the Latin for ‘six’ is sex, not *sexem/sexim. A strict formation ought to be just *Sexiber. (Or in Oscan maybe something like *Sehsikbri-: sehsik- appears to be the Oscan for ‘six’.)
So there we have it: some of the most common praenomina in Latin, Marcus, Quintus, Sextus, and Decimus, come from month names. If your name is Mark, you’re named after the month of March. The idea must surely be that in the earliest times, the names would have corresponded to the month in which the boy was born.

There are some caveats and provisos, mind. First, customs changed over time. The practice of naming children directly for months was long gone by the historical period. And in the imperial era, some number-based names were formed by analogy with the traditional names: as a result we start to see some innovations like Decimius as a praenomen, as in the name of the poet Decimius Magnus Ausonius.

Second, women’s names are different. Men’s names followed a regular pattern of praenomen plus gentilician name; women’s names were much less regulated. And among women we do see Prima, Secunda, Tertia, and Quarta as personal names alongside Quinta. So however exactly the month-name custom worked originally, it didn’t work the same way for women’s names. It could be that for women these names did originally indicate order of birth.

And third: we do see some other number-names popping up as gentilician names which do not correspond to month names. These names seem to come from non-Roman contexts. For example, the Roman name Pomponius is based on a non-Roman word for ‘five’. ‘Five’ in proto-Italic was *kwenkwe. Latin preserved /kw/ sounds relatively faithfully, and so ended up with the form quinque ‘five’. But in many languages, /kw/ transformed into /p/: so in Oscan the word for ‘five’ was pumperias or pompe. This or a related language must have provided the gentilician name Pomponius, basically an Oscan equivalent of Quinctius. In the same way proto-Italic *kwetwōr ‘four’ ended up as quattuor in Latin, but pettiur or pitora in Oscan: a form related to these must be the origin of the Roman gentilician name Petronius.


  • Petersen, Hans 1962. ‘The numeral praenomina of the Romans.Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 93: 347-354.
  • Salmon, E. T. 1967. Samnium and the Samnites. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thursday 5 April 2018

Christian scribes interfering with ancient texts?

Are texts like Herodotus’ Histories and Petronius’ Satyrica the same as when the authors wrote them? Or have they been irreparably messed around with by the dozens of scribes who copied them and re-copied them over the centuries?

How likely is it that mediaeval scribes with a Christianising agenda haven’t meddled with ancient texts?
Modern readers of ancient literature often don’t spare a moment to think about the many steps separating modern editions from the ancient ones. When they do, though, sometimes they’ll begin to have serious doubts about how well they match the originals. They may even completely lose trust in the textual tradition.

Passages like the following don’t exactly inspire confidence.
At this time came Jesus, a wise man. If indeed it is right to call him a man: for he was a wonder-worker, a teacher of people who delight in receiving the truth, and he attracted many Jews, but also many of the Greek (world). This man was the Messiah [Christos].

And when he was accused by the leading men amongst us, Pilate sentenced him to crucifixion. Even then, those who had loved him at the beginning did not stop doing so. For he appeared to them on the third day, alive again. The divine prophets had announced these things and countless other marvels concerning him. And even now the tribe named after him, of the Christians, have not yet disappeared.
-- Josephus(?), Antiquities of the Jews 18.63-64 (§3.3)
This passage appears in manuscripts of the 1st century historian Josephus. But it’s basically impossible to accept that Josephus really wrote it. He was a romanised Jew, and definitely no Christian. The passage is so notorious that it has its own nickname: the ‘Testimonium Flavianum’. (‘Flavius’ is the Roman name that Josephus acquired when he defected to the Romans.)

It’s nearly certain that a Christian scribe or scribes interfered with the text of Josephus at this point. Origen knew book 18 of the Antiquities, and he flatly states that Josephus did not accept Jesus’ messiahship. That was in the 200s. By the 300s, though, the damage had been done: Eusebius quotes the corrupt passage in full, three times, as an example of a non-Christian Jew accepting Jesus’ divinity.
Note. Origen on Josephus: Against Celsus 1.47 (referring to Ant. 20.200, but also with knowledge of book 18); Comm. Matthew 10.17 (referring to Ant. 20.200). Eusebius on Josephus: Demonstratio evangelica 124b-c (3.5); Ecclesiastical history 1.11; Theophany 250 ed. Gressmann. Later witnesses to Josephus also quote or paraphrase the Testimonium.

There’s room for disagreement over the extent of the scribal misdeeds here -- some scholars think it’s a complete fabrication, maybe even forged by Eusebius himself; others think that maybe only the bits in bold have been tampered with -- but there’s no doubt that tampering did happen.

The Testimonium Flavianum as it appears in cod. Ambrosianus F 128, 11th century. (source: Roger Viklund’s blog)

When we look at this, shouldn’t we just give up all hope of ever reading the texts that ancient writers actually wrote? Shouldn’t we take it for granted that ancient texts are riddled with forgeries? -- and that the Christian church, which transmitted ancient texts through the mediaeval period -- well, Latin texts, anyway -- sanitised everything it could, and destroyed anything it couldn’t?

Well, I have good news and bad news. First, the bad news. We know that there are loads and loads of ancient forgeries -- that is, ‘forgeries’ in the sense that we can be sure they weren’t really written by the author that they’re linked to. We know that Euclid didn’t write large chunks of the Elements, that Simonides didn’t write the famous epigram about the Spartan dead at Thermopylae, that Euripides didn’t write the Rhesus, that Seneca didn’t write the Octavia, and that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John didn’t write the Christian gospels of those names.

This is called ‘upward attribution’. When people don’t know who the real author of a book is, they very often end up assigning it to a famous name. You can see the same process in recent stuff too. When people assign spurious quotations to Albert Einstein, or any Japanese animé to Hayao Miyazaki, or the ‘Windows 95 song’ to Weird Al Yankovic, that’s upward attribution. It’s not usually a deliberate deception. It’s a natural consequence of a group of people having an interest in a book, but imperfect information about it. Errors can often go viral in that situation.

And now, the good news. Authorial attributions may sometimes be doubtful or wrong, but the texts themselves are comparatively robust. Did you notice, when I introduced the Testimonium above, I said ‘passages like the following’? That was intentionally misleading. In fact there is nothing like the Testimonium. As an example of religiously-motivated tampering, which has completely displaced the original text, it is unique.

We know of other examples of Christian interference, but none where that interference was anything like as successful as it was in the case of the Testimonium, and hardly any of a comparable size. (If Christian scribes had really censored and re-written ancient texts that way, how would we ever have got the bawdy humour of Aristophanes or Petronius? And no, Sappho isn’t a counter-example. Ancient moralists sometimes took issue with her sexual reputation, both pagan and Christian, but no one took a decision to destroy her poems. There was still an edition of her poems in use in Egyptian schools as late as the 7th century. Sappho wasn’t lost because she was a woman or because of her sexuality: she was lost because she was a lyric poet, and all early lyric poets ended up being lost.)

Critical edition of Herodotus, with the apparatus showing the omission of Histories 1.199 in three of the twelve manuscripts that the modern editor used for this edition. (Herodoti Historiae, ed. C. Hude, Oxford, 1908)

The biggest parallel I’m aware of is in Herodotus. Some manuscripts leave out a chapter, Histories 1.199, that describes sacred prostitution at the temple of Ishtar in Babylon. But I’d better repeat: some manuscripts. The bowdleriser’s limited success only goes to show how unrealistic it was for a misbehaving scribe to expect to taint the entire manuscript tradition.

You see, scribes were on the whole a conscientious lot. Sure, there were exceptions, like the assholes who tampered with Josephus and Herodotus. But there was no Mediterranean-wide conspiracy. Dishonesty and ulterior motives have always existed, but scribes in different places and times acted independently of one another. The ulterior motives that drove scribes in one generation, or in one place, had no guarantee of persisting into the next.

As a result, when scribes spotted problems in a text they were copying, they very often took pains to correct them. It’d be going a little far to say that the system was self-correcting, but the system did overall aim at faithful reproduction and restoration. That’s why Herodotus’ bowdleriser didn’t get away with it. In Josephus’ case, the forger got luckier -- but also bear in mind that there we aren’t talking about a mediaeval forger, but an ancient one, probably earlier than the 300s.

Nearly all transmission errors that we see in mediaeval copies of ancient texts are accidental. Where we do see damage caused by a scribe’s deliberate action, it’s normally because the scribe is trying to fix it, but botching the job. Most ‘deliberate’ errors are caused by scribes spotting a problem, trying to correct it, but not getting it quite right; or else spotting something that looks like a problem but is actually correct.

Here’s an example of a Christian scribe ‘correcting’ something that looked like a mistake, when it was actually right. Maybe, once you know the details, you’ll agree with me that the scribe was conscientious.

Petronius’ bawdy Satyrica (1st century CE) is a novel about the hapless Encolpius, his love-slave Giton, and friend Ascyltos, and their misadventures in the Greek parts of southern Italy. At one point they attend a party where many of the guests can barely speak Latin. The language jokes make this an exceptionally difficult text, especially for mediaeval scribes who normally didn’t know any Greek. According to the sole surviving manuscript, a character says
aut ego non me novi, aut non deridebis, licet barbam auream habeas. Sathana tibi irata sit, curabo ...

‘Either I don’t know who I am, or you won’t get the last laugh, even if you have a golden beard! I’ll make sure Satan is angry at you ...’
-- Petronius, Satyrica 58
Now, Satan clearly doesn’t belong in a 1st century novel written by a Roman aristocrat. Petronius probably never even heard of Satan. He must originally have written Athana, not Sathana: the Greek goddess Athena, but with her name in the Doric dialect. The episode is set near Naples, and there was more than one temple of Athena nearby: one on the cape south-west of Sorrento, and another in Paestum a little further south.

The scribe who introduced the error had a source text that didn’t look like the one I printed above. The manuscript he was copying from would have looked more like this:
Latin manuscripts usually don’t have word breaks or punctuation. Now, our scribe knew perfectly well that ATHANA wasn’t a Latin word or name. But he didn’t know Greek, and he certainly didn’t know Doric! So he didn’t realise it was a deliberate solecism: he very reasonably inferred it was a copying error. He imagined that Petronius had originally written HABEASSATHANA, with a name that was very familiar to the scribe and which happens to work very nicely in the context: ‘Satan’. At some point, he guessed, another scribe had accidentally missed out the second S. And so he added it back in.

Critical edition of the Petronius passage, with the apparatus showing editorial repairs to the manuscript readings. Notice also the obeluses or ‘daggers of despair’ on the following line, indicating a place where the text is so corrupt that it can’t be restored with confidence -- not because of scribal malevolence, but once again because there’s too much Greek (ἀλογίας and maybe more), and the scribe couldn’t understand it. (Petronii Arbitri Cena Trimalchionis, ed. Martin S. Smith, Oxford, 1975)

This is what actual Christianising interference usually looks like. It’s an error, but it arises out of the scribe’s conscientiousness, as an attempt to restore the text, not erase it. This kind of thing is much more typical than the intentional damage that we see in Josephus, anyway!

In a sense, Antiquities 18.63-64 is a precious treasure: it’s one of the very, very few cases of deliberate forgery that was so comprehensively done that we actually can’t be confident in restoring the correct text. Irreparable textual forgery is a real rarity! Texts that have been attributed to the wrong authors are common; textual mistakes are very common. But malicious textual inaccuracies -- not so much.

Where we have multiple manuscript traditions, they’ll normally provide enough evidence for a modern editor to fix malicious alterations. The entire process of modern textual criticism is devoted to teasing out transmission errors and forgeries, and repairing them. When even that isn’t enough, when it just isn’t possible to restore the original text -- as with the Testimonium Flavianum -- any responsible critical edition will highlight that fact very transparently. Because that’s the entire point of critical editions.

Further reading

  • Olson, K. A. 1999. ‘Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavianum.Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61.2: 305-322.
  • Reynolds, L. D.; Wilson, N. G. 1991 [1968]. Scribes and scholars: a guide to the transmission of Greek & Latin literature, 3rd edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.