Birt’s revised thoughts in 1923 on ancient chapter titles, divisions, summaries

When I translated the relevant portions of Theodor Birt’s 1882 classic, Die antike Buchwesen (The ancient book trade), I mentioned that Birt revised his opinions after the discoveries of papyrus fragments of actual ancient books.  In his Abriss des antiken Buchwesens  (Outline of the ancient book trade)(1923), he makes the following remarks.

[p.10] The ancient world knew nothing of printing or writing machines. A manuscript was not only the first incarnation of the text by the author, but also its method of reproduction. Therefore it is fundamental for all textual criticism to realize, first how the writing material and the book was put together, which carried the texts from the hand of the author through ancient and medieval times down to us, and second in what type of work the texts are found and were originally written. The “book trade” and “paleography” are auxiliary disciplines of textual criticism.

Roll and codex

Firstly in this “Outline of the ancient book trade”, we will cover the most important things. It is important to know that writing may already have been known in the Homeric age, but neither books nor book-copying; further, that the book of the ancient world was of a modest size, which contained only a small amount of text, and that the spacious bound codex first appeared in the 4th-5th century A.D.; it completely replaced the roll as a carrier of literature. The transmission of the text from the roll into the codex is above all the most important event in the history of the text. A codex could probably not contain the whole of Livy, but it probably could include a complete Virgil in itself. Thus, there are gathered together  24 dialogues in the Codex Clarkianus of Plato; Aeschylus comes together with Sophocles and Apollonius Rhodius in a Florentine ms. The medieval miscellaneous manuscript meant that we received in transmission the anonymous work “On the Sublime,” περὶ ὕ ψους, along with the Aristotelian φυσικὰ προβλήματα; and Seneca’s satire on Claudius, the “Apotheosis”, together with the lives of the saints, medical texts and other fragments, and Theophrastus’ Characters in the collected works of orators, along with Aphthonius, and Hermogenes. 

inscriptio and subscriptio

An ancient scroll never contained on the other hand more books (with exceptions later on); on the other hand, because the roll was not large, more extensive works fell into several books, i.e., rolls.  If we print each time the title of the work at the top of each book by an author (eg Lucanus de bello civili liber V), this goes back to the fact that in ancient times each book of the whole work consisted of a roll by itself, each also including as an indication of its membership the exact title words with the number.  Likewise, each book concludes with the word explicit or explicitus, ie “All rolled up or rolled up to the end”, and anyone who wants to imagine the original edition of a work like the Aeneid, has to add this also each time, [p.11] just as we are obligated to give accurately the unexpected book titles.  The latter has implications, e.g. for the Monobiblos of Propertius (a liber primus of the poet is missing).  Now, at last, an editor of this poet, C. Hosius has decided to put Monobiblos (1) in the title at least. This is likewise true of the Editio ad libellum of Apollinaris Sidonius. This original, where the title is guaranteed by the best text-tradition, means that the “edition” put a name on the poem-booklet that was sent out into the world. (2) Furthermore, it is wrong to print “liber quartus”, in the works of Τibullus over  the Panegyricus Messalae, against the reading of the mss., because “Panegyricus Messalae” was rather the ancient heading of the roll following the third book of Tibullus, to which then, so it seems, the Tibullus poem that is mistakenly numbered as IV 2-14, was added in ancient times as an appendix. There is no “fourth” book of Tibullus. It is also perverse to add the content of the so-called fourth book of Tibullus to the 3rd Book, as Hiller did.

(1) On monobiblos see Rhein. Mus. 64 p. 393 ff.
(2) Max Krämer, Res libraria cadentis antiquitatis etc., Marburg 1909, p. 49.

Chapter division

However a single prose book can be divided again into chapters and a book of poems into individual poems. It is necessary to determine to what extent those chapter divisions, together with chapter headings, and the tables of contents often prefixing the overall text, is ancient, and possibly to publish them carefully.  Treatment of this area was until the most recent times very bad, in that material that is genuine was rejected, and allowed to fall under the table.  Recently, R. Friderici (3) established that the chapter division of prose texts, such as stand before us in the New Testament, is quite ancient and prevailed in textbooks and especially in collected writings, with or without headings. As an illustration from inscription texts; so the Gortyn law already has chapter divisions. In the Heraclean tables the text was from the first divided into two parts, separated by the heading συνθήκα Διονψ́σω χωρῶν. So also in literature. The great Πίνακες or list of writers of Callimachus was divided into sections with headings such as δεῖπνα ὅσοι ἔγρψαν (Athenaeus, p. 244 A). Each Vita in Nepos’ book has a title, which sometimes uses hic as a reference, such as in cap. 2:  Themistocles Neocli filius Atheniensis. Huius vita ineuntis adulescentiae etc.  Rutilius Lupus does the same, and in a medical journal of the 5th Century B.C., which reaches us in an inscription, the process is quite similar: on the great Epidauros inscription IG. IV 951 f. the identity of the patient is always given briefly as a heading, then with οὗτος the medical history is given without a conjunction. (4) This explains why the Romans use the term “rubric”, rubrica (Digest. 43, 1, 2).  The chapter title was in fact written in red; as already in the lex Acilia repetundarum from the year 123 to 122 B.C.

(3) De librorum antiqu. capitum divisione atque summariis, Marburg 1911.
(4) Also in the Achiqarpapyrus it must be noted that the individual Sayings are separated: see Ed. Meyer, Papyrus­fund von Elephantine p. 111.

[p.12] Objections have been made to the transmitted chapter divisions of authors, e.g. in Cato’s work On Agriculture, because sometimes the divisions do not correspond very well to the sense.  But we have the classic demonstration of the Monumentum Ancyranum whose arrangement — Mommsen’s verdict – is no better.

The term caput must be examined once more. (1) Perhaps it means the same as κεφάλαιον. In my opinion, caput in a book was originally the “top line of a paragraph” and then the section itself became so named, and also was occasionally numbered. (2)

(1) Jerome also names the chapter comma: see the Vulgate, praef. Iob: libri partium comma quod remanet; and in Habac. 3, 11, p. 649: commatice per capitula disseramus.
(2) On chapter numbering in antiquity see Friderici p. 12 f. When Cicero Pro Murena § 57 does not refute the individual charges prepared against Murena, but only the crimina themselves given only in brief, such as De Postumi criminibus, these are, in my opinion, words or title headings, capita, where the detail is missing.


Similarly, unless compelling grounds for suspicion are present, the transmitted summaries should be printed at the front of the work or the book, as H. Mutschmann has finally done in his insightful Sextus Empiricus. Also genuine are e.g. those in Josephus’ Antiquitates; genuine is the πίναξ τῶν κεφαλαίων of Hermogenes the rhetorician, especially the aforementioned Summarium of Cato, as I pointed out earlier, and as Friderici has corroborated on linguistic and substantive grounds. No different to these are Columella, Palladius, etc. Pliny in his Natural History, it seems, avoided section titles, but his whole first book was given over to the contents of his detail-rich work, and in this, as he tells us, Valerius Soranus was his model, whose books named βίβλοι ἐποπτίδες, i.e. “statements”, actually mean “the guardians”. (3)  The term ἐποπτίδες is related to σύνοψις [=synopsis] “Compendium” (Plutarch Mor. p. 1057 C).

(3) Friderici p. 56.

Poem titles

In contrast, reasonable doubt may be directed against certain poem section titles, namely such poems, that are on a smaller scale and are only parts of a book. (4) In Horace’s odes they must have been added not long after the poet’s death, because they betray good personal knowledge of him. In reality, it seems gradually after Ovid’s death to have become customary to provide the individual poems in the book collection with titles. Doubtful witnesses are Statius’ Silvae; secure witnesses are Martial Books XIII and XIV.  This process first arose, I suspect, in the service of anthologies or poetry reading. Among these is the earliest example known to me, the section title Ἴαμβος Φοίνικος, in a papyrus collection of the 2nd century B.C., after another one, which began the Phoenix text (5). Likewise Meleager must have given one in his Στέφανος, who gave a title to each of the epigrams which named the poet and so could not be omitted.  No older than Meleager is the Bacchylides papyrus, which shows not only section headings but also some poems arranged alphabetically in title order. (1) The titles found in Theocritus are in some part suspect. Only in Late Antiquity, in the time of Ausonius, when the habit had become established, do you have these subsequently invented and added for the older poets, Vergil’s Ecloges, Propertius, Martial books I-XII. Some poem titles in the Anthologia Palatina seem however to be relatively old, i.e. to belong prior to the time of Ausonius, because Ausonius translates them; this is true of Anthol.Pal.16, 275 εἰς ἄγαλμα τοῦ Καιροῦ, see Ausonius. epigr. 11 in simulacrum Occasionis et paenitentiae, and 16.129 εἰς ἄγαλμα Νιόβης, see Ausonius epigr. 51 in signum marmoreum Niobe.

(4) See Ad. Kiessling, Progr. Greifsw. 1876.
(5) See G. A. Gerhard, Phoinix von Kolophon p. 5.
(1) See Wilamowitz, Die Textgeschichte der griechischen Lyriker, Abhandl. der Göttinger GW. 1900 S. 43, ascribes these titles to a supposed edition by the Alexandrians. On the other hand Strabo p. 728 quotes Σιμωνίδης ἐν Μέμνονι διθυράμβῳ κτλ., so this Memnon, whether genuine or not, at any rate filled an entire book.

In particular there is the puzzle-poem, which we regularly encounter in late antiquity equipped with titles; the title gives us every time the solution, and it is indispensable.  This we see not only in Symphosius, but also in Anthol. lat. 281—284; 481 ff.; thus e. g.:

         De funambulo.
Vidi hominem pendere cum via,
cui latior erat planta quam semita,

a process, that appears to originate with Martial’s books of gifts, XIII and XIV; for if the descriptions of Martial’s gifts were not accompanied by the title, which gives the solution of the puzzle, it would often be very difficult to understand.

Birt then adds “Let us move on” and starts a new section on palaeography.

It is extraordinary that these interesting books have never received an English translation in all this time, and that no-one has attempted to produce a more definitive guide.  Birt’s remarks are rather vague, and his argument rather loose.  But his conclusion — that summaries and titles found in the manuscripts should be printed in the editions unless there is a very convincing reason not to — is striking, and probably right. 

One other remark seems worth highlighting.  He says that the section titles in the Monumentum Ancyranum do not correspond all that well to the sense of the text.  This inscription contains Augustus’ own account of his actions, and since it is contemporary, it has to be taken seriously.  One argument that is often made against the authenticity of chapter titles or summaries is precisely that, that they do not correspond to the author’s intention.  Yet here we have an indisputably ancient set of titles with the same problem.  From this he infers that this argument must be discarded. 

The argument has not been discarded, however.  In the Sources Chretiennes edition of the Adversus Haereses of Irenaeus we find chapter titles dismissed as non-authorial on just these grounds, ancient although they undoubtedly are, and found in both the Latin and Armenian versions and therefore presumably in the Greek from which both derive.  It would be nice to suppose that this argument is made today because Birt’s comments have been weighed but rejected.  I suspect, however, that his remarks have simply not been taken into account.

This brings to an end the translations of the German material on chapter titles from the 19th and early 20th century.  I’m not sure how much more time I will have, but I hope to return to the materials I have on this subject, and to start to post more of it.


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