The Life of a Classicist: Part Puzzle Enthusiast, Part Detective

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How to complete a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle with only 10 pieces in the box? It's everyday reality for classicists, given the fragmentary nature of the world we study. Bits and pieces thankfully stood the test of times, but others are inevitably missing. How to deal with these incomplete puzzles? Read how Matthew Payne - following in the footsteps of Joseph Scaliger - studies the most fragmented of fragments: individual quotes and citations from long lost works of literature.

When the film Se7en was released in 1995, the studio producing the film, New Line Cinema, advertised the film in newspaper ads with the words from an Entertainment Weekly review: “A masterpiece”. In fact, Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly’s reviewer, had given the film a B- rating and described it as “a small masterpiece of dementia”. Quotations pulled out of their context can be misleading, but at least with quotes on movie posters, you can go and find the original review. But what about quotations from texts that are now completely lost? In this blog I discuss the difficulties of working on Classical fragments, the snatches of text preserved from works otherwise unknown to us.

Searching for Lost Words: Joseph Scaliger
François Delpech's Engraving of Joseph Scaliger


Not too far away from my office, in the centre of Leiden, above the entrance to what is now a smart bookshop filled with fashionable coffee table books, there is small plaque that reads: “In dit huis beheerste één man meer talen dan wie ook in Europa”. The Dutch words translate as “In this house one man mastered more languages than any one else in Europe”, the boasted total was thirteen tongues, and they belonged to Josephus Justus Scaliger (1540-1609), one of the most famous scholars of his day, and arguably the greatest Classicist of all time. Before Scaliger arrived in Leiden, he had already made his name with his editing of and commenting on classical texts from Ancient Greece and Rome, the field we refer to nowadays as classical philology. These classical texts were one of the key drivers of the Renaissance, stimulating cultural innovation and development throughout Western Europe.

Plaque in Leiden (Breestraat 113), the Netherlands. Photo: Vysotsky (Wikimedia)


Scaliger’s specialty was obscure authors such as Festus and Varro. They frequently quoted from older Roman historians and poets whose works had not survived, and often these quotations contained archaic language or unusual names, which might have become garbled by scribes over the centuries: Scaliger’s talent was in puzzling out and restoring the original words, and to try to learn something about the lost work.

Quotations and Fragments

A quotation can be quite difficult to understand out of context. And, just like the movie studio and the reviewer, the person quoting may be sticking to the author’s words but not to their spirit or intent. Barristers quoting Dickens have a case to win, and so too when the Roman lawyer Cicero quoted an old writer like Ennius in court. We can’t always be sure that the points Cicero or Varro are making when they use a quotation is particularly true to the quotation itself, or whether they are making the quotation fit their own agenda.

Working on these fragments – which is what we call these bits and pieces that we try to piece together – is just as difficult and tenuous now as it was for Scaliger. The Roman tragedians of the Roman Republic whom I study – principally Ennius, Pacuvius and Accius – were incredibly formative in shaping the literary landscape of the most famous and familiar Classical authors, such as Catullus, Virgil and Ovid, and yet they only survive in these tiny samples which we must try to glean as much as we can from. It’s a bit like doing a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, with only ten pieces in the box. Perhaps if you look at them closely, you might be able to form a bit of an idea of what the picture on the box is. Alternately, they might be quite misleading, and puzzling this out is part of the fun. Yet by understanding the texts which came before Catullus, Virgil and Ovid, we can understand those authors better, because again we have greater insight into the world to which they belonged and what they were influenced by and responded to. In a sense, the whole study of the ancient world is a study of fragments, because there will always be pieces missing, but at least we can develop an idea of what we might be missing and hypothesise about it. You don’t actually need to insert every piece of a 1000 piece jigsaw to have a firm grasp on what the picture is.

Originally, tragic scripts would have been performed in theatres such as this one built in Orange, France. We are fortunate if twenty lines have survived from a Roman tragedy.
Lost in Translation

To edit involves interpreting, and interpretation can often be shaped by our own preconceptions. For instance, our concept of translation might be quite different to the Roman idea of what translation is. The titles of the Roman tragedies written by Ennius, Accius and Pacuvius are the same as earlier Greek works, and other Roman writers tell us that these were translations. Often, we can see which lines in the Roman play translate those in the Greek almost word for word. But at other times, we can’t make them fit. For instance, among the fragments of Ennius’ Medea, which for the most part seems translated very closely from Euripides’ Medea (a play which is entirely set in the Greek city of Corinth) there are a couple of lines which seem to suggest that Ennius added a totally new scene set in Athens.

Anthony Frederick Sandy's painting of Medea (1868), the subject of plays both by the Greek Euripides and the Roman Ennius


Working on fragmentary texts is part jigsaw puzzle, part detective work. It is the untangling of a complex web and the gleaning of meaning. But it is also about the stories and narratives that the words have travelled, the quotations passed down and the many individuals who have been part of that process. And hopefully, along the way, we learn something new not just about the ancient world, but about our history, and the ways we think and reason.