This paper will discuss the scholarly debate of the past generation on the value of variant readings preserved by early Latin philologists for establishing the text of Virgil by reviewing readings that appear in the text of Servius’ commentary on Virgil’s poems. Servius’ commentary had first and foremost an exegetical aim, but in the course of explaining his texte de base, Servius occasionally mentioned, explained and evaluated variant readings, which were known to him from reading other scholars and collating other manuscripts than his preferred text. Zetzel (1973, 1981) argued for the wholesale rejection of readings found in the indirect tradition of Virgil’s text because ancient scholars, he felt, had been led astray by forgeries of Virgil’s manuscripts produced in response to the archaizing fads of the Second Century AD. Timpanaro (1986, 2001) responded that all or most of the variant readings found in ancient scholars, such as Probus, Donatus and Servius were genuine variants, produced by the processes that tend to corrupt all manuscript traditions and there was no reason to treat them as inventions meant to add value to archaizing forgeries. Some variants, he argued, preserved Virgil’s original text, where the surviving manuscripts had been corrupted by misreading, trivialization and intrusive glosses.
The tendency to devalue the textual information found in ancient commentators goes back to the great Homeric scholars of Alexandria. There will be a brief comparison of the patronizing comments on their work found in Reynolds and Wilson’s invaluable handbook Scribes and Scholars with the research of important scholars of Alexandrian scholarship, such as Rudolf Pfeiffer, Winifried Bühler and Klaus Nickau. Even the fine Oxford commentary on the Iliad is capable of confusing the fundamental distinction between “athetized” lines, which form part of the texte de base, but are marked by the editor with a marginal sign, and “omitted” lines, which are not found in the text at all.
Most of the talk will examine variant readings mentioned and discussed by Servius: A. 2.349-350; 6.383; 6.438-439; 6.289 a-b-c-d; 7.773; 9.610. These notes give a good idea of the different ways Servius dealt with textual variants. At 2.349-350 Servius is superior in judgment to the manuscript tradition and many modern scholars by defending audentem (in two ninth-century manuscripts) over audenti and audendi in the rest of the tradition. (Zetzel, 1981, 132 calls audentem an ancient conjecture.) At 6.383 Servius defends a lectio difficilior not found in the manuscripts. At 6.438-9 he defends the correct reading (and assumes another) against most manuscripts and most modern editors so that the text will accord with the stylistic norm that avoids duo epitheta for the same noun. (See Quintilian 8.6.43 and compare Servius’ note at E 3.38 with his strange discussion of supposed violations of this norm at A 2.392.) At A 9.610 he prefers the better reading against the manuscripts, modern editors and Donatus (DS manuscript F). At A 12.709 he correctly defends cernere instead of the unmetrical decernere (in all manuscripts except the first hand of P) because cernere is “the true and old reading,” citing a parallel from Ennius. Here and elsewhere, however, he argues that decernere is metrical.
Servius concentrates on exegesis over textual criticism, but in his discussion of variant readings he is usually critical and knowledgeable. He is capable of preferring good readings against his own lemmata, which represent his texte de base, a text he accepted but did not create. His lapses in judgment and knowledge are rare compared with his intelligent common sense in judging among variants.
New Age Servius