Homer, the Bible, and Beyond: Literary and Religious Canons in the Ancient World

By Margalit Finkelberg; Guy G. Stroumsa | Go to book overview

CANONS OF LITERARY TEXTS AT ROME

AMIEL D. VARDI

When I was asked by the organizers of this project to discuss Roman canons, I was faced with two main difficulties: I was not sure in what sense one can speak of literary ‘canons’ in the ancient world, and I was even less sure as to what ‘Roman’ could mean in such a context.

In modern literary studies, as for example in Harold Bloom’s recent monograph tided The Western Canon, the term normally refers to a more or less authoritative or standard list of works representing the best literary products of a specific culture or era. A similar concept of’canon’, if it is to be apphcable to the ancient world, should consist of the following notions (a) a list (b) of selected literary works, (c) which are regarded as sharing a special value (being the only ones extant, the best, the most representative, or the most suitable for a specific purpose); in addition such a list should also be (d) more or less standard and generally known, as well as (e) authoritative, in the sense that it is generally accepted or at least acknowledged when it is rejected. This too is a relatively modern sense of the term ‘canon’, formed in the eighteenth century in analogy to the theological canon of biblical books officially accepted by the Christian Church as genuinely inspired. The Greek word kanon, meaning ‘rule’ or ‘yard stick’, was never used in the modern literary sense of ‘canon’, nor is the theological sense attested before the fourth century CE1. But the concept, or rather, cluster of kindred concepts, was not alien to the classical mentality, and was represented, for example, by the term ‘classicus’ coined by Aulus Gellius in the second century C.E., by

1 The modern sense of ‘canon’ is first used in D. Ruhnken’s preface to his edition of Rutilius Lupus (Leiden, 1768), p. xcv = Opuscula varii argument? (Leiden, 1823), 386. For the history of the term, see H. Oppel, “κανών. Zur Bedeutungsgeschichte des Wortes und seiner lateinischen Entsprechungen (regula—norma)”, Philologus, Suppl. 30.4 (1937); R. Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship I: From the Beginnings to the End. of the Hellenistic Age (Oxford, 1968), 204–8. For the Christian denotation, Euseb. Hist. Eccl. 6.25.3.

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