Of Digital Serendipity and the Homeric Scholia

“Habent sua fata libelli”, Martial remarks somewhere. A few  years ago I stumbled across the Suda  On Line . I was very taken with the idea that distributed labor could, with relatively modest individual effort, produce results of substantial collective benefit. I have also thought for some time that scholarship does not advance optimally if people always try to be smart rather than useful. Falstaff took special pride in the fact (“I am not only witty in myself, but the cause   that wit is in others”), and the academy would do well to think more  highly of useful work that in unknown and unpredictable ways becomes the cause  of wit in others sometime down the road.

I signed up as a translator for Suda  On Line , but must confess to my shame that I never did any translating. I was too busy with other things. One of the things  I was busy with was thinking about digital commentaries and the great virtue  of the commentary that information is always “ad locum” or “just in time”. In a manner that the Germans would call “hausbacken”  and the Americans far from bullet-proof, I had tried to move some esoteric  information about Homer  closer to the text so that students with relatively little Greek might find  it with not too much effort. From Anne Mahoney I learned that Michael Jones,  an undergraduate at Kentucky , had converted Dana Sutton ’s list of Homer papyri into well-formed XML. Anne sent me the file, and with some munging I converted it into TEI  and created for the papyri on any line a unique identifier that made it possible  to call up those papyri from any relevant line in the Chicago  Homer.

Encouraged by this effort I turned to the scholia. Erbse’s  edition of the Iliad   scholia is certainly a stupendous model of meticulous scholarship. On  the other hand, its six volumes of some 3,000 pages and voluminous footnotes complete with Latin introduction address themselves to an audience that is  now even smaller than it was thirty years ago ( and it was pretty small then):  an international fellowship of classicists who can converse in a lingua franca of scholarly Latin and have imbibed the principles and paraphernalia  of textual criticism and papyrology with their mothers’ milk. Look at almost any page of it, and you feel a little overwhelmed. At least I do.

But the scholia in their day were meant to help those who had difficulty  with Homer, and they   were not written in Greek, but in the scholarly vernacular (if there  is such a thing) of their day. I thought it might be helpful to move each   scholion to its place and by this “divide and conquer” strategy   make the aggregate a little less terrifying. With the help of Chris Karr, recently graduated from Princeton   and doing whizz kid programming in Northwestern ’s Academic Technologies group while figuring out what to do with his life, I  turned the TLG text of the scholia into a TEI  document good enough for fairly precise segmentation so that, with one or at most two mouse clicks from the Chicago   Homer, a reader would know whether there was a scholion on a particular passage and what it was.

Thus matters stood when I was invited last year to spend a week at the Center  for Hellenic Studies, that peaceful refuge somewhat implausibly nestled  between the Danish embassy and the Washington home of the Clintons. There  I had many opportunities to talk with Ross Scaife, whom I had briefly met  at some Perseus gathering years  before, and with Michael Jones. We talked about the progress of the Suda  On Line, and I was very struck with Ross’s account of how this project,  once launched on the web, gradually attracted its own family of new supporters and managers. As we talked, it became apparent that with some adjustments, the infrastructure of the Suda project   could be made to work for other projects, such as translating all or some  of the Homeric scholia. Thus the New Scholiasts  project was born, and in the late summer and fall of 2003 Michael Jones, now   a theology student at Cambridge , did those adjustments, with light supervision from Ross Scaife and from Raphael   Finkel, a University of Kentucky computer scientist and author of the Open Source QDDB   (“quick and dirty database”) on which the Suda project rests.  

In early December I sent a message to a new Homerica listserv announcing the New Scholiasts and   very quickly got an interested response from René Nuenlist at Brown University , who is writing a book on the literary criticism contained in ancient scholia and has been talking with John Lundon ( University   of Cologne ), Jessica Wissmann (Center for  Hellenic Studies), and Eleanor Dickey ( Columbia University ) about translating Homeric and other scholia. We had  some fruitful email discussions, and as a result of them the four have joined  the New Scholiasts as managing editors and will in fact be largely responsible  for the future direction of the project. This is a nice example of how the flexibility and speed of digital media help bring about a situation in which scholarly data thought too arcane or difficult to access are moved within easier ken of students and scholars struggling with this or that problem in Homer. With some luck  and energy (and keeping in mind the success of Suda  On Line) I can envisage a situation in which three years from now a non-trivial  percentage of the more interesting Homeric scholia are accessible to the reader  in ways in which they have not been since Byzantine days.

As Martial said, “habent  sua fata libelli.”

To refer to this please cite it in this way:


Martin Mueller, “Of Digital Serendipity and the Homeric Scholia,”  C. Blackwell, R. Scaife, edd., Classics@ volume 2: C. Dué  & M. Ebbott, executive editors, The Center for Hellenic Studies of Harvard   University, edition of April 3, 2004.