14 August, 2008


One scholarly excursion among others: a tiny tangle of errors.

This week I was reading the 1522 Geniales dies of Alessandro Alessandri, a real olla podrida of anecdotes, erudition and lore, very typical of the period. Here is what he writes about the celebrated Mount Parnassus:
Parnassus was a mountain of Phocis in Boeotia, divided into two hills [colles], Thitorea and Hyampeum, of which the one was sacred to Liber [ie. Dionysos], the other to Apollo, but Helicon to the Muses.
Now, Phocis was not in Boeotia. But perhaps we should forgive this oversight, as the scholars of the sixteenth century seem not to have been too clear on the difference. Thus in the Elucidarius of Hermann Torrentinus, completed in 1518, we read that Delphi is a 'town [oppidum] in Phocis', but in Charles Estienne's 1596 revision of this work, we discover that actually Delphi is a 'city [civitas] in Boeotia, next to Parnassus'. For what it's worth, both Parnassus and Delphi were indeed in Phocis, which was adjacent to Boeotia. Delphi itself was by the border.

I was more interested in these two hills of Parnassus. They are proverbial in classical literature, where the mountain is often called biceps, 'two-headed'. In fact the two points are not twin summits but low local peaks sitting above Delphi; today they have the names Rhodini, rosy, and Phleboukos, fiery, and together they are known as the Phaedriades, shining ones. But where was Alessandro getting his names, and where was he getting the notion that one was sacred to Apollo, the other to Dionysos?

My first stop was to check the commentary on Geniales dies composed by the French humanist Andreas Tiraquellus—a friend of Rabelais's—and published alongside the text in 1586. Tiraquellus claims Thitorea and Hyampeum are the names given to the peaks by Herodotus, and further points the reader to two commentaries from late antiquity: Servius on the Aeneid, and Lactantius Placidus on the Thebaid of Statius. So what does Herodotus say? Well, in his Histories 8.32 he mentions 'that summit of Parnassus. . . the name of it being Tithorea'. The word 'summit' is κορυφη, and in Lorenzo Valla's Latin version it is cacumen, although vertex is also used—the latter word defined in Valla's own Elegantiae, just so there is no confusion, as 'the highest point on a mountain'. Meanwhile, in Histories 8.39 we find an offhand reference to Hyampeia, also called a κορυφη (and vertex). So if you were a humanist carefully reading Herodotus in 1522, you might very naturally put the two together; Alessandro's orthography is a bit odd, but otherwise the names work.

The Greek writer Strabo, Geographica 9.3.15, also mentions, but does not identify, 'Hyampeia on Parnassus'. Plutarch, in his little essay On the Delays of Divine Justice, mentions Hyampeia as a 'rock' (πετρα) from which Aesop was thrown by the Delphians, and notes that, since this provoked Apollo's wrath, their place of execution was later transferred to nearby Naupleia. Pausanias, who composed his Description of Greece a hundred years later, cites Herodotus on Tithorea (10.32.8), but by his own time the name Tithorea applied to the nearby town, which Herodotus calls 'Neon'. Pliny, likewise, mentions the town of Tithorea, and it still a municipality today. Otherwise the names seem to have disappeared from the two peaks, neither of which, let us remember, is a summit.


The sixteenth-century physician Girolamo Cardano, whose Latin is so bad that Kristian Jensen once wrote an article about its awfulness, seems to have followed Alessandro on the matter of Parnassus, though it is also possible he filched straight from Herodotus. He tells us that 'Mount Parnassus was in Phocis, in Boeotia, exalting itself with two peaks [cacumina], Thitorea and Hyampeum: on one peak [fastigium] of which was Nysa, sacred to Bacchus, on the other Delphi, sacred to Apollo.' Again we find one peak assigned to Dionysos, the other to Apollo. Whence this?

Lucan, Pharsalia 5.72-73, describes Parnassus as 'a mountain sacred to Phoebus [Apollo] and Bromius [Dionysos]', without distinguishing its peaks. Macrobius, a cultured pagan nobleman writing in the late fourth century, writes that 'the Boeotians, although they speak of Mount Parnassus as sacred to Apollo, nevertheless pay honour there both to the Delphic oracle and to the caves of Bacchus as dedicated to a single god, so that both Apollo and Liber Pater are worshipped one the same mountain. . . Apollo and Liber are one and the same god.' Servius, a contemporary of Macrobius, says the same in a comment to Aeneid 6.78; meanwhile, in his note on Aeneid 10.163, he writes that
Parnassus is a mountain of Thessaly next to Boeotia. . . which is split into two peaks [iuga], Cithaeron belonging to Liber, and Helicon to Apollo and the Muses.
Servius is really confused. Not only is Parnassus not in Thessaly, but Cithaeron and Helicon are two entirely different (though adjacent) mountains in Boeotia; iuga can mean 'range, ridge' as well as 'peak', and perhaps Servius took Parnassus as the whole morass of mountains in Central Greece. Cithaeron was indeed sacred to Dionysos, and Helicon to Apollo and the Muses. At any rate, the attribution of Apollo and Dionysos to separate peaks seems to stem from Servius' confusion between Cithaeron/Helicon and the biceps Parnassus.

A century and a half later, Lactantius Placidus, in his note on Thebaid 1.62-64, follows Servius in describing Cithaeron and Helicon as two iuga of Parnassus. Isidore of Seville, whose Origines (mid-seventh century) was the single most important source of classical information in the Middle Ages, agrees with Servius and Lactantius: although he first assigns Parnassus to Apollo (14.4.12), he later (14.8.11) says that Apollo and Liber were worshipped on separate peaks, which were named after Cithaeron and Helicon.

This is how mix-ups get transmitted as the standard line to the Middle Ages. And it doesn't stop there; Boccaccio picks the story up and runs with it, noting in the short entry on Parnassus from his De montibus: 'one peak [vertex] is sacred to Apollo; the other to Bacchus'. So it was from this river that Alessandro fished out his lore about Parnassus, only like a good one-upman humanist he had the ingenuity to trick it up with names he fadged together from Herodotus.

In the eighteenth century scholars were still getting it wrong, though a bit less wrong. Richard Jackson, in his Literatura Graeca (1769), writes that Phocis 'is famed for three mountains, Parnassus sacred to Apollo. . . [and] Helicon and Cythaeron, both consecrated to the Muses.' According to Edward Dodwell, in his 1819 Classical and Topographical Tour Through Greece:
The two celebrated rocks, the Phaedriades, rise almost perpendicularly above the fountain, dividing into the two points of Naupleia and Hyampeia, which were sacred to Bacchus and to Apollo.
Dodwell has taken Plutarch's Naupleia—not localised by the Greek—as the other of the two Phaedriades. It is the latest in a long line of fudges and confusions.


All this will no doubt be seen as a pointlessly long discussion of a dull subject: the name and nature of two hills of Parnassus. But it reveals a serious problem inherent in historical geography. Our approach to the identification of objects and places is now fundamentally archaeological: we go to see what we can find on the site itself, and measure the classical sources accordingly. But for Latin-speaking scholars from the Renaissance through to the nineteenth century, all information came through a network of late, obscure and often fragmentary literary sources, badly preserved in crabbed-handed manuscripts, and then in clumsily-edited fifteenth-century editions. Trying to decipher just where and what were Parnassus and its hills, peaks, ridges, summits (colles, iuga, vertices, fastigia, cacumina) was no simple matter.


John Cowan said...


The true spirit of early Vunex rises to the top.

Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, John: a rare compliment from you.

John Cowan said...

Only, I think, because what I like or agree with I generally leave alone, and comment only on what I take issue with. (I have just linked your post on hating reading from a Hat comment.)

But once for all: Vunex is lovely stuff, and I read almost all of it with both pleasure and approbation.

michael reidy said...

Wandering hills, fascinating excursion. It is surprising that Parnassus was erroneously located in Boetia as a 'Boetian' was a dull, stupid person. Boiwtizo - to be like a Boetian.

Conrad H. Roth said...

John, I can understand this attitude: it is the editor's mindset. Anyway, your compliment is much appreciated.

Michael: Yes, and see Erasmus' adage on Batavian ears--

"Quemadmodum Graeci dicunt βοιωτιον ους, id est, Boeoticam aurem pro pingui, crassaque, itidem Martialis Epigrammatum libro 6. Batavam aurem dixit agrestem, inelegantem tetricamque:

Tu ne es, tu ne ait, ille Martialis,
Cuius nequitias iocosque novit,
Aurem qui modo non habet Batavam."