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Hipparchus Philologus

John Ryan

            Hipparchus’ second century BC commentary on Aratus’s Phaenomena has been acknowledged as the earliest extant ancient commentary, and yet scholarship has neglected its value as a locus for early discussion of reading strategies that we find practiced in the later commentary tradition. Instead, the focus has been on its value for reconstructing the history of astronomical knowledge (Neugebauer 1975; Lloyd 1987; Evans 1998) and, most recently, the commentary’s function of establishing a method of “doing” and “writing” science (Tueller and Macfarlane 2009). Regarding the Phaenomena, which had acquired a reputation for astronomical accuracy and precision, Hipparchus targets not the poem itself, as is often assumed, but its readership: in criticizing how previous commentators read the poem as an astronomical treatise, his treatment of the Phaenomena amounts to a call for critical reading within the scientific community (1.1.3-7). In order to achieve his primary goal—the creation of a critical, strictly scientific Aratean commentary unconcerned with literary merit—Hipparchus must distinguish Aratus’ text and meaning from contemporary astronomical knowledge in the second century BC. I argue that he establishes two source texts written by Eudoxus of Cnidus in order to fix Aratus’ authorial intention independently of his own insight into celestial phenomena.

            According to Hipparchus, the deceptive charm of Aratus’ poetry persuaded previous commentators to accept astronomical claims made in the Phaenomena (1.1.7). Accordingly, Aratus’ reputation for accuracy and precision became an editorial and interpretive tool (1.3.3). Focusing on the commentator Attalus of Rhodes as his primary target, Hipparchus criticizes both his procrustean interpretive strategy and his attempts to “save” Aratus’ astronomy through emendation and convenient selection of textual variants. Attalus assumes that the Phaenomena provides a precise, accurate account of the celestial phenomena, and edits and interprets accordingly. Denying this assumption, Hipparchus establishes Eudoxus’ works as source texts, with which he might access Aratus’ authorial intention (boulema). In order to demonstrate the relationship between Eudoxus’ and Aratus’ work, Hipparchus cites a series of parallels, in structure and in detail, marking common errors as particularly compelling evidence (1.2.1-22).

            Hipparchus establishes Aratus’ text and meaning through philological means: He invokes manuscript tradition, internal parallels (think Homerum ex Homero) and technical terminology in the field of astronomy, all to establish a concrete text and meaning (e.g., 1.4.9) that can be checked against his own knowledge of phenomena based on astronomical observation (theoria). In cases where the author’s intention cannot be established in this way, Hipparchus appeals to his source text as a criterion for determining intention. Whereas Attalus determines what Aratus “wants” to say by what actually appears to happen in the sky (e.g., 2.2.42), Hipparchus establishes Aratus’ meaning as static and fixed, divorced from his own knowledge of celestial phenomena.

            Hipparchus summarizes his point in one passage marking the transition between commentary on the Aratean tradition and his own model for astronomical precision (2.3.19-31). Attalus has interpreted Aratus’ doubt regarding the sign in which the belt of Perseus rises as evidence of Aratus’ precision and accuracy (or knowledge): Aratus, he claims, expresses doubt as to whether the belt rises in Bull or Ram in order to acknowledge observational complications in the matter. Hipparchus responds, however, that this is a nonsensical explanation of the text. Rather, Aratus’ doubt is an index of his ignorance and the disagreement of his two Eudoxean source texts. Thus Hipparchus simultaneously undermines Aratus’ reputation as an expert astronomer and exposes Attalus’ attempt to access Aratus’ intention through that very reputation. Hipparchus offers a more philologically sound method for determining authorial intent.

            Hipparchus’s commentary constitutes early evidence for developing theories of the nature of texts in antiquity. Astronomical literature, on account of its phenomenological content, affords an opportunity for this sort of reflection on the nature of a text in a way that a fictional narrative like the Iliad does not.

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Contexts and Paratexts of Hellenistic Poetry

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