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Multiple Explanations and Unresolved Ambiguity in Porphyrio’s Commentary on Horace

Bram van der Velden

Many present-day commentators will say that there is not such a thing as the ‘one single best interpretation’ of a word, line or poem. They often use concepts such as ‘ambiguity’ and ‘polysemy’. One of the arguments used against this tendency is that it is anachronistic and stems from a lack of philological competence. Nisbet mentions the “problem with dead languages that none of us knows them quite well enough to exclude all misunderstandings; an inexperienced student faced with a difficult unseen may be excused for finding it quite exceptionally polysemous.” (Nisbet 1995, 429). Is a ‘failure’ to arrive at one single interpretation indeed due to a lack of knowledge of the languages?

To test this assertion, one could analyze the role of ambiguity and multiple interpretations in the critical frameworks of ancient commentators, native speakers of Latin or Greek. A reasonable place to start this enquiry is Porphyrio’s commentary on Horace. Contrary to many other ancient commentaries, this work clearly originates with one person: it is not an accretion of (often contradictory) glosses by a number of anonymous interpreters. It is dated to the beginning of the third century AD (Kalinina 2007, 15-16 summarizes the available evidence), which is relatively early for ancient commentaries on Latin poetry. 

The first step in my argument is that the standard mode of this commentary is the resolution of ambiguity. Phrases such as “non <wrong interpretation>, sed <right interpretation>” help the young student of Horace to choose between two possible ways of reading the text. This tendency to exclude possible multiple readings, however, makes comments that allow multiple interpretations to co-exist all the more interesting.

In the second part of my paper, I construct a typology of these interpretations which leave ambiguity unresolved. We can distinguish between comments involving technical terminology (amphibolia/ambiguitas);  unanswered questions  (utrum <interpretation 1> an <interpretation 2>?); the phrases aut (vel) <interpretation 1> aut (vel) <interpretation 2>, and various circumlocutions such as “duplex intellectus est” (ad Odes 2.7.11-12)  and “dupliciter intellege” (ad Odes 3.2.2). The phenomenon is quite common: in Porphyrio’s commentary on the Odes, 46 of these cases of unresolved ambiguity can be found. These ambiguities can be classified as ‘syntactic’, ‘semantic’ or ‘pragmatic’. This last group contains what we might call referential ambiguity. One example: Porphyrio mentions that the  mentes of Odes 3.24.53 could be those of puerorum or of luxuriosorum. This type of ambiguity is often connected to questions related to specific and general meanings of lines, for example: does quos in Odes 4.2.17 “Castorem a<c> Pollucem significat, an generaliter quicumque ex certamine sacrorum agonum uictoriam reportauerint?”. Some of these ambiguities are ascribed to the author (e.g. ad Serm. 1.1.16 “eleganter adfectata ambiguitas”), but most are not.

Diederich’s monograph on Porphyrio’s commentary contains a section called “Negativkritik?”, under which there is the heading “Obscuritas (amphibolia, ambiguitas): Verstoß gegen die perspicuitas” (Diederich 1999, 268-71). The basis for this heading are various artes grammaticae which mention ambiguitas as something that should be avoided.  In the third part of my paper I argue that this negative view of ambiguity is nowhere to be found in Porphyrio’s commentary. The phenomenon seems to be very common for him, and is never discussed in a negative light. The same holds true for other ancient commentators, who also do not regard the possibility of multiple interpretations as a reason for criticism (cf. Thomas 2000 on Servius).  There are interesting parallels from other fields of ancient scholarship: the “habit of indecision” (Hardie 2008, 69) is found in other types of ancient quaestio as well, such as cosmology, mythology and historiography. Porphyrio does consider some interpretations to be clearly ‘wrong’, but his range of ‘correct’ interpretations is surprisingly wide. It would therefore, I argue, be too easy to contrast modern ways of reading with an ancient ‘reductive’ way of interpreting texts.

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