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

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

THE NEOPLATONISTS AND THEIR BOOKS

ROBERT LAMBERTON

The ancient Greeks might aptly be called people of the word, but decidedly not people of the Book. That is, they reveled in their own words, in their speech acts—and their fascination with these peculiar products of their minds and bodies amounted to an unprecedented narcissism in the use of language. They refined them, polished them, developed a whole science of their production—and most of all, they preserved them. In the process, decisions were made about which of these products were the best, and so worthy of emulation, sometimes in the form of imitation, by those who aspired to do even better than their predecessors. Devoted as they were to their own words, however, the Greeks never collectively embraced or privileged a specific corpus of texts such that they might be thought of as scriptural, as a Book.

It needs no special pleading, then, to establish that the Greeks had no scriptural canon, but the status of canons in several other contexts in the Greek world remains problematical. By the fourth century B.C.E. their collections of preserved texts came to form the basis of the great libraries of the Hellenistic world. The Protean list known as the “Alexandrian canon”, laying out a cultural map of the proper objects of emulation among the authors of the past, genre by genre, came to function as an ideal that shaped both Greek and Roman elite education. Still, it was not really a canon. Quintilian, who provides the richest account of it in the literature, calls it the ordo a grammaticis datus (Inst. Or. 10.1.54), and immediately expands it, by adding not just Latin authors (understandably neglected by the Greek scholars who created the original) but by adding more Greeks, authors whose omission by the Alexandrians Quintilian felt a need to correct. If, then, a canon is a list of texts characterized by stability, the ordo was not a canon.

Along with stability, we expect a canon to have, or to be invested with, authority. The striking thing about the authority of the ordo

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