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Much ink has been spilled on Servius’s transmission and his procedures of abridgement and adaptation of Donatus (e.g. Goold 1970, Naumann 1975), and Servius is of course mined for what he says about Vergil, but relatively little attention has been given to the fundamental principles of his commentary itself (the exception is Zetzel 1981 on Servius as textual critic). This paper seeks not to redress the balance entirely, but rather to illuminate one aspect of Servius’s scholarly methodology. It has long been known that Servius knew Greek—especially Homeric—commentaries directly (Funaioli 1930, Fraenkel 1948, Mühmelt 1965); indeed, Joseph Farrell (2008) has recently essayed the provocative idea that Servius may even have engaged in deliberate intertextual rivalry with such commentaries. This paper builds on the observations of these scholars, but takes a different tack. I will investigate to what extent Servius follows the assumptions and working methods of Greek scholars, focusing on one principle in particular: for Servius, did Vergil ever nod?

This question provides a particularly interesting test case because it is clear that for Aristarchus, Homer was inerrant and perfectly internally consistent. If it seemed that Homer made a mistake, then in fact, according to Aristarchus, either the text has been misunderstood or else the text is wrong and in need of correction or obelization. Naturally Aristarchus’s axiom of Homeric inerrancy occasionally induced ridiculous contortions in an attempt to save Homer’s correctness, but, the axiom having been accepted, the conclusions did follow. Servius did not wield the obelus, but he does seem to have followed the same general principle: Vergil does not make mistakes. Unlike modern commentators, who do not shy away from pointing out errors in their authors, Servius tries to defend Vergil at any cost.

Sometimes his methods are sophisticated. Just as Aristarchus realized that the Homeric Kunstsprache was not koine Greek, so Servius knew that Vergil’s Latin was not that of his own day, and we find innumerable notes vindicating Vergil by reference to the “archaic” language of the antiqui or maiores. This too, however, can lead Servius into absurdity, e.g. ad Aen. 10.710 (cf. ad Aen. 2.471), where he willfully construes a nominative as an accusative (in fact Vergil’s text is corrupt). More to Servius’s credit is his realization, also found in Aristarchus, that the poet and his characters are allowed to say different things: many notes justify a word or a phrase by claiming that it is spoken in the persona poetae (e.g. ad Aen. 6.900). Other times Servius refers merely to poetica licentia, which can extract Vergil from many an otherwise sticky situation (e.g. ad georg. 1.100).

Less sophisticated is his technique of occasionally simply omitting Donatus’s criticisms altogether. At georg. 2.172 Donatus had raised a difficulty of interpretation and made a sarcastic comment (ceterum quid grande, si inbellem auertis?); Servius offers another interpretation and omits the sarcasm entirely. Donatus sometimes uses the word reprehendere to reprove Vergil; Servius invariably either omits Donatus’s note (e.g. ad Aen. 1.92) or, less frequently, defends his author (e.g. ad Aen. 1.275), but nowhere does he allow Vergil to be reprehendi. Vergil never does anything male, although sometimes his critics do when they fail to understand his poetry (e.g. ad Aen. 7.268 or ad georg. 1.24): those who dare to criticize Vergil always come a cropper themselves.

Finally we must consider Servius’s usage of debuit dicere (sc. Vergilius). This is a fixed phrase that Servius employs not infrequently (some 40 times), and at first sight it might look like a criticism. Nevertheless, as Kaster (1988:180-184) notes, this phrase really means nos debemus dicere or just dicimus (sc. hodie), and in general the phrase is coupled with further explanations like figurate or antique dictum. Servius uses this as code to warn his own students away from such expressions, and so we might complete the phrase simply as debuit dicerenisi Vergilius fuisset (“and you, boy, are no Vergil”).

This leads us to our last question. If Servius never allows Vergil to make a mistake, why has he adopted this principle? Plainly some of his predecessors had not considered Vergil infallible (obtrectatores Vergilio numquam defuerunt!). Has Servius deliberately returned to an Aristarchean ideology? Perhaps, but perhaps this similarity is just a red herring. It is well to consider the different audiences for which the two scholars were writing: Aristarchus wrote for fellow scholars; Servius for the schoolroom. It served obvious pedagogical purposes to shield one’s canonical author from adverse criticism by a room full of adolescents. I would thus suggest that Servius employs many of the methods of Greek scholarship for the same practical purpose as Greek scholars, viz. to vindicate his author from reproach, but that the ideology underpinning that desire is far different.