Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar

GIS report 23/01/2015: footnotes in Homer and reading the stars

A new year, a new term – and, most importantly, a new season of the Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar. As Graham and I assume consular power and begin our reign of ever-increasing decadence and despotism, ultimately culminating in our imperial phase of tyranny, corruption and moral degeneracy, we invite our loyal populace to soothe their woes and forget their cares each Friday this term at the GIS. We offer you a seminar series bursting at the seams with scholarly rigour, academic brilliance, controversial reassessment and wide-ranging discussion: come one, come all, and certainly come for a drink afterwards.

Tom Nelson kicked off the first seminar of the term with his paper ‘“So they say…”: Homeric Footnotes and Epic Intertextuality,’ in which he sought to reintegrate a key concept in modern scholarship on Latin poetics back into Hellenistic studies, and to determine how far back into the mists of time and extant literature we might find it. The ‘Alexandrian footnote’ (Ross 1975) is a mannerism of Latin poetry whereby mentions of tradition and report (dicitur, ‘it is said’; fama est, ‘the story goes’; ferunt, ‘they relate’), or of memory (memini, ‘I remember’), flag up specific allusions to literary predecessors dealing with a similar topic, character or theme. Tom noted that while this allusory quirk is easily identifiable in Latin poetry, classicists have been reluctant to identify similar ‘footnotes’ in Greek poetry, a few fragments of Callimachus besides – leaving an open field for his investigation.

The very model of a footnoting philologist?

There are various methodological problems in the search for intertextuality in early Greek poetry: the oral origins of the texts and their reliance on formulaic compositional techniques, and the lack of surviving contemporary and preceding evidence with which to compare the text. After walking us through these, Tom pointed out that certain commentators and scholiasts on the Homeric texts recognised similar allusive signposts, taking Homer’s φασί(ν) (‘they say’) as indicative of “the speech of a learned man”, and following up perceived references. He then turned to the Homeric texts themselves, advancing the theory that φασί(ν) is frequently used in contexts familiar from the ‘Alexandrian footnote’s use – memory, genealogy, events taking place prior to the poem’s action, (im)mortality, things mentioned elsewhere in the Homeric canon, and so forth – and thus perhaps points to the presence of an intertextual poetics of allusion, systematised through ‘footnotes’, as early as Homer. A lively discussion followed, covering Tom’s methodology, the distinction between metapoetic self-consciousness and footnoted intertextual allusion, the question of ‘contentious’ or even ‘illusory’ footnotes, and the distribution of Homer’s φασί(ν) in narratorial voice or characters’ speech.

This was followed by a leap to the third century AD with Claire Hall’s paper ‘Written in the Stars: Origen and Plotinus’, in which she explored these two contemporary yet starkly different intellectual figures and their attempts to navigate the theological and philosophical problems of divination by the stars – though she reassured us in advance that no knowledge of astrology would be necessary.

‘written in the stars | a million miles away | a message to the main…’

Commencing her paper with a Mills and Boon novel as prop and copious quotation of Tiny Tempah, Claire demonstrated the perhaps transhistorical problems with the use of the stars for divination of human affairs: clashes between free choice and destiny, the impossibility of human omniscience, and the question of whether the stars themselves are causes or merely signs of future events. After giving us the lowdown on Origen, an early Christian theologist, and Plotinus, an influential (and pagan) Neoplatonist philosopher, she untangled their various approaches to astrology. Origen seeks to preserve human free will, necessary for salvation, by restricting the stars to being representations of the correct and true interpretation of future events, but not their cause – similar to the role of scripture. For Origen, the stars can only be read by divine and semi-divine consciousnesses such as angels, and our belief that we can read them is attributable to demonic influences; successful human readings of the stars, such as those by the Magi or by Jacob, are due to inspiration by the Holy Spirit. Plotinus, by contrast, maintains that the stars are readable, but only to the same extent as other natural tools as divination, such as weather signs and augury; he also attributes a certain level of efficacy to them. Through a parallel examination of the two men’s astrological writings, Claire illuminated a seemingly small and self-contained area of thought which nonetheless intersects meaningfully with larger issues in their respective intellectual spheres.

Join us next week for Gabriele Rota’s paper on the Oxford Fragments commonly accepted as part of Juvenal’s Sixth Satire, in which he will readdress not only their history and place in the history of scholarship but their authenticity itself, and for the appearance of my co-consul Graham Andrews, who will regale us with a paper on Herodian’s account of the year AD 238, featuring ‘six emperors. Two civil wars. A Roman army invading Italy from the Danube. And all that before the end of July.’ This will, of course, be followed by the much-anticipated birthday-and-launch party for Res Gerendae. See you there!


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