You are here


On the Good King According to Homer, composed by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus of Gadara, is the only surviving example of extended Homeric criticism from the Late Republic. The work was written in the lifetime of Virgil, and by no less than someone who served in some capacity as a mentoring figure for him. On the Good King explores Homer's view of kingship in the Iliad and Odyssey. Philodemus intended the treatise to have practical implications as well, and his analysis of the virtues and vices of rulers in Homer, as Oswyn Murray was already able to demonstrate, is directed towards the Roman nobility of his day, senators such as Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar and the dedicatee of the treatise. The work assumes that a responsible statesman can deal well and to his own profit with princely responsibilities, and that Homer's princes provide useful models of good and bad behavior.

On the Good King is one of many texts recovered from Herculaneum which has enjoyed remarkable textual advances as a result of new techniques for reading the papyri. Chief among these for this scroll is the placement of fragments, known as sovrapposti and sottoposti, which had adhered incorrectly in the process of the unrolling in 1809 and thus dogged earlier editors by obscuring the text of numerous columns. Most every fragment, thanks to the refinement of an earlier technique, has now been placed (virtually not physically) in its original context. Moreover digital images of the text captured in the infra-red range have rendered legible scores of passages that had been previously illegible. The overall result has been a harvest of some 30% new text. Moreover, since the stichometry of the roll has been calculated correctly for the first time, we can now know both the amount of text lost between the various frames of papyrus (sometimes more than ten columns) and the original length of the treatise. A further development was the discovery by Richard Janko of transcripts of the first Italian scholars to study the treatise. These transcripts prove that one of the hands found in the pencil drawing made shortly after the papyrus was unrolled, a hand considered by earlier editors to be a primary witness to the text, is derived entirely from the other hand in the drawing.

Much textual progress has thus been made, and yet there are several passages which could surely benefit from seminar discussion. Among the issues confronting participants of the seminar will be the question of how the work is an epanorthosis, a 'rectification', as Philodemus claims in a passage at the end of the work in which he describes the method by which he has operated in composing the work. An important new reading excludes the political interpretation of the passage, namely that Philodemus saw his exegesis as having a bearing on 'the correction of dynasties'. Instead, more in line with the interpretation of Asmis and Obbink, the term must now been seen as a technical term of ancient literary criticism. It concerns the internal correction of morally bad behavior in the poem and the false impressions a reader may potentially derive from that bad behavior. Nevertheless, this new reading does not diminish the political implications of the work as a whole. Indeed, new textual developments cast light upon issues such as the relationship between Epicureanism and politics, the proper cultivation of reputation for a statesman, and proper management of the emotions. One prominent theme which has seen much textual improvement concerns the importance of treating ones subjects—and even one's enemies—humanely and properly, even those who have participated in plots against the throne.

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy