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More Useful and More Trustworthy? The Cyclical Poem in Scholia

Jennifer L Weintritt

Northwestern University

The poems of the Greek Epic Cycle are best known for what they are not: Homer. In the Poetics, Aristotle contrasts the many plots of the Cypria and the Little Iliad with Homer’s superior sense of unity (1549b). Likewise, Horace warns against the sprawling promises of the scriptor cyclicus (Ars P. 136-39). These pronouncements have dominated modern assessments of the Cycle and its legacy (Griffin, Horsfall). Yet, the recent turn in scholarship towards appraising literary criticism in practice through scholia (Nünlist) and emphasizing the context in which fragments are transmitted (Elliot) offer new tools for understanding the Epic Cycle in antiquity. In this paper, I examine the occasions for the Cycle’s citation in scholia and offer a more nuanced view of its ancient reception.

On the one hand, Homeric scholia geared towards textual criticism present a negative portrait of the Cyclical poems: they are an influence that must be guarded against (Severyns; Schironi). Yet, we also see scholiasts appeal to the epics in order to assist the reader in understanding the work at hand. Why does Pindar call Achilles’ spear ‘furious’ (ἀκμᾷ | ἔγχεος ζακότοιο; Nem. 6.46-54)? For one scholiast, the answer lies in the Little Iliad, which described the spear as forked, a reflection of its owner’s unique capacity for destruction. With a selection of comments from Homeric, Pindaric, and Euripidean scholia, I explore when it was appropriate to turn to the Cycle and what knowledge of these poems could contribute. Viewed from this angle, the scholia reveal that Cyclical epics were a trusted and generative source for later poets working within the Trojan War myth. For example, a scholiast defends Euripides against an accusation that he has misunderstood Homer by citing the Iliou Persis, a source he designates as “more useful and more trustworthy” (χρησιμωτέροις καὶ ἀξιοπιστοτέροις; Schol. Eur. ad Andr. 10).  Furthermore, in Homeric scholia, we see the poems’ nebulous connection to the Iliad and the Odyssey raise questions about continuity that shed light on the way epics were thought to interact.

In opposition to high profile critics like Callimachus (Ἐχθαίρω τὸ ποίημα τὸ κυκλικόν; Ep. 28, Pf.), the scholia demonstrate that, in practice, the Cyclical poems wielded more influence than is usually assumed. This new approach to the Cycle through scholia lays the foundation for fruitful inquiries into its reception by later poets, Greek and Roman. It also suggests that future editions should place more emphasis on the context in which we find the poems’ fragments. In doing so, we can deliver a more holistic and robust account of the Epic Cycle and its place in the ancient canon.

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