Greek non-technical works in Arabic

An interesting comment on my last post deserves further examination.  It read, in part:

Okasha El Daly’s Egyptology: the missing millennium: ancient Egypt in medieval Arabic writings mentioned a number of unexpected Arabic translations of Greek writings, including poets like Homer.

The link to the Google Books preview allows us to investigate a bit.  The book, indeed, looks interesting and I wish I could access it in full.

On page 26:

The other major sources used by Arab writers were the extant Greek and Latin sources on Ancient Egypt which were widely available in their original languages and also in translations in either Arabic or Syriac and perhaps also Aramaic and Persian.

A glance at the index of Al-Nadim (Al-Fihrist) shows that many classical sources were already known and quoted in Arabic writings in the 10th century and we have the Arabic versions of many of the classical sources, for example Josephus (Pines 1971), who was quoted extensively by Arab writers such as Al-Shahrastani.

Herodotus, Manetho, Plutarch, Plato and Plotinus among others were known and it was perhaps these sources which were being referred to by Al-Biruni (Al-Athar. 84) when he said that he acquired ‘Books which had die periods of reigns of the kings of Ashur of Mosul, and the periods of the kings of the Copts who were in Egypt and the Ptolemaic kings …’

This seems a little dodgy.  Pines in 1971 does not refer to a translation into Arabic of Josephus as far as I know, but to the possible presence of a version of the Testimonium Flavianum in the Arabic Christian history of Agapius, who is working from Byzantine chronicles of various sorts.

On page 62 we read:

Knowledge of ancient Egyptian also came from Arabic translations of many of the classical writers, whose works included references to ancient Egyptian language and scripts. These included Homer, Herodotus, Plutarch, Chaeremon, Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus (Budge 1929: 179ff; Iversen 1993: 38ff). These classical writers were widely quoted by Al-Nadim (Al-Fihrist: 315), Ibn Fatik (Mukhtar. 54), and Ibn Abi Usaybi`ah (Tabaqat: 50).

Now this is not very satisfactory, because the Arabic works in question cannot easily be consulted by anyone else.  Budge in The Rosetta Stone (1929) merely lists Greek writers on hieroglyphics, and says nothing about Arabic use of them, as far as I can tell.

On p.109-110:

It was common for long passages to be quoted from classical writers such as Homer, Herodotus, Iamblichus, Plato, and Plotinus even in Arab literary works, for example in the writings of Al-Sajistani and of Ibn Fatik.

Surprise at these early Arabic translations on the part of highly respected modern scholars seems to stem from a misleading presumption that Arabs translated only what was of direct practical use to them, such as medical books. For example, the eminent orientalist CH Becker (1931: 14-15) specifically commented on the enthusiasm of the Caliph Al-Ma’moun (early 9th century) whom he refers to as an ‘enlightened despot’, questioning his motives for translating a large number of works by Greek philosophers. Becker found such enthusiasm ‘unknown and abnormal in the Orientals’, suggesting that the Arab translations were not:

“as a result of an abstract desire to acquire science and knowledge, because if this had been the case then Homer or the Tragedies would have been translated as well, but the reality was that people did not take any interest in nor feel any need for them.” (Becker 1931:14-15, translated from German)

Becker’s assertion that the Arabs did not translate Homer is easily disproved by looking at the long quotations from Homer by Al-Sajistani (Siwan: 68ff) who referred to an Arabic translation of Homer produced by Stephanus the Elder (Ostanes). This is likely to be the Greek/Byzantine Alexandrian Ostanes, the philosopher and alchemist who, according to Al-Nadim (Al-Fihrist: 303f), also translated alchemical works for Prince Khalid Ibn Yazid (d. 704) in the first century of Islam.

But once again, we have a bunch of references to sources that we cannot check.  It is unfortunate that we cannot see the bibliography which expands these cryptic references.

The Fihrist of al-Nadīm is the title of a 1970 translation by Bayard Dodge.  A table of contents is here.  It looks as if the page numbers refer to this translation, from a non-accessible page in the preview.  The book is in print at, for a ridiculous sum.

I think, since I can’t get to a library, we’ll have to leave it here.  But it would be most interesting to know what each of these references says!


Notes on the transmission of Aeschylus

The fifth century BC dramatist Aeschylus is one of the few Greek dramatists whose works have survived.  Originally more than 80 plays existed, and official copies were deposited in the Metroon in Athens.  His plays remained popular during the fourth and third centuries BC.  1

Some time after 240 BC, when the Library of Alexandria was created, Ptolemy Euergetes arranged to borrow the official Athenian copies, on payment of a huge deposit; and then calmly kept them, forfeited the money, and returned copies to Athens rather than the originals.  It is perilous to negotiate with those above the fear of law. 

The text was then worked on by the scholars of the Library, who athetised lines that they considered had been interpolated or amended, often by actors or producers in the interests of their own production.  But at the same time, in the second and first centuries BC, Aeschylus dropped out of favour, and became the property of scholars and grammarians, rather than the public.  Horace, Quintilian, and others comment on it during this and the next period.

At some point during the succeeding centuries, perhaps in the third century, a selection of seven plays was made, and an edition produced, with separate commentaries, probably for school use.  These are the only plays that have reached us.  Later still, during the early Byzantine period, a further selection from these of three plays was made — the so-called Byzantine triad, consisting of Prometheus, Seven against Thebes, and the Persians.  At the same time the commentary material was reworked as marginal scholia.  At some later point, two more of the seven plays, the Agamemnon and the Eumenides, were added to the curriculum.  These five plays are well attested in Byzantine manuscripts.

Fortunately in 1423 a manuscript arrived in Florence, written ca. 1000 AD, and containing all seven plays of the original edition, including the Libation-bearers (although the start of this is lost) and the Suppliant Maidens.    This manuscript is now in the Biblioteca Mediceo-Laurenziana (Laur. 32.9) and has the siglum M.  It is a high-quality parchment copy, which also contains the works of Sophocles and Apollonius Rhodius, with the scholia.  It is also the oldest of our codices.

There are about 150 manuscripts of Aeschylus.2  Almost all of these contain only the edition of three, with the plays in the order given above.  The last two plays exist only in M and its copies.  The Agamemnon and Eumenides exist in M and its copies, but also in three other manuscripts, at least one of which is known to be the work of Demetrius Triclinius, and the other two are thought to be his work also, but at a different stage of his life.  There are three further manuscripts: two contain the Agamemnon, one of which (V) is merely a few hundred lines; and the remaining one, at Salamanca, contains the Prometheus and Eumenides

None of the manuscripts other than M is older than 1200, a few are 13th century, and most belong to the 14-16th centuries.  A list of selected mss is given in the Loeb, but is perhaps too long for this post.3

The papyrus fragments recovered from the sands of Egypt mainly date from the 2nd century on, when Aeschylus was not in fashion.  Generally they reflect the text of the codices.  However a significant number of fragments from the satyr plays have been recovered.

The text of Aeschylus has suffered generally from Byzantine “corrections”.  The Suppliant Maidens has fewest scholia, and probably has been least interfered with.

M and some of the other manuscripts also contain supplementary material to the scholia.  There is a catalogue of the works of Aeschylus, both the tragedies and the satyr plays.  There is a description of his life; and also the hypotheses or argumenta, summaries of the content of each play, with details of the circumstances of performance.  There are two versions of the catalogue.  The life probably derives from a pupil of Aristotle, and is full of valuable, but not always accurate information.  The argumenta vary from play to play; complete for the three core plays; absent altogether for the two preserved by M; somewhere in between for the others.

There is, as far as I know, no transmission of the text into Latin, Syriac, or Arabic.  This observation, which will not surprise most of us, is necessary because of a remark in a sub-Da Vinci Code novel which I found myself reading this afternoon.  In Chris Roberson’s Book of Secrets (Angry Robot / Harper-Collins, 2009), on p.139, I read the following curious statement:

“Aeschylus, the acknowledged father of the Greek theater; only something like seven of his plays have survived.  Dozens of his plays, praised by the ancient world, are totally forgotten to us.”  She had lapsed into lecturing, but she was a professor so I forgave her. “Of the ones we have, several survived only in translations made later by Arab scholars.”

The translations into Arabic of Greek texts were mainly of technical works, such as the medical texts of Galen.  Nor am I quite sure that Christian people like Job of Edessa or Hunayn ibn Ishaq would appreciate being called “Arab scholars”!  So this all looked a bit strange.  Thus a bit of research online; thus this post.  The statement above is fiction, then; there are no Arabic versions of Aeschylus, as far as I can tell.

The book was filed under sci-fi and fantasy at my local bookshop, and I bought it under that impression, sadly.  It is a little annoying when something you read for light relief tweaks your scholarship muscle! 

But I don’t think we should complain.  Mr. Roberson merely sought to tell a story, and amended reality slightly in order to do so, on a matter which only specialists would detect.  That is, I suppose, what fiction is; and if Swallows and Amazons could take liberties with the Lake District, why shouldn’t Chris Roberson invent an Arabic transmission of Aeschylus? 

Anyway, if anyone reads this obscure novel, and their curiosity is stirred about Arabic versions of ancient Greek literature, surely that is all to the good?  Let us not be too stuffy about these things.

1.  This post began as a summary of information from Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, The art of Aeschylus, University of California, 1982, p.11 f.  Online at Google Books here.
2.  R.D.Dawe, The collation and investigation of manuscripts of Aeschylus, Cambridge, 1964.
3.  Loeb Classical Library edition, ed. H.W.Smyth (1922), volume 1, p.xxxv.  The Loeb is online here.

UPDATE: I gather that the book to read is Alexander Turyn, The Manuscript Tradition of the Tragedies of Aeschylus (Polish Institute Series No. 2. New York City, 1943).   Unfortunately I don’t have access to it.  Why aren’t books like these online?


On the lives of the philosophers

It is a salutary experience to read through Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the eminent philosophers.  I have just completed volume 1, and in the process have gained quite an insight into the running of the Greek states, just from the way in which they interacted with various individuals.  The wills of some of them are given by Laertius as well.  As a guide to daily living, it is revealing.

Unfortunately it is also somewhat disgusting.  Few of the philosophers are men whom any of us would respect.  The majority are addicted to money and vice.  From the way in which the Greek states tended to deal with them, it seems clear that these people rarely enjoyed a very good reputation.  The charge against Socrates, of corrupting the young, is amply evidenced in other cases.

Among the most obvious rogues is Aristippus, and you can read the Life here.

Having come forward as a lecturer or sophist, as Phanias of Eresus, the Peripatetic, informs us, he was the first of the followers of Socrates to charge fees and to send money to his master. … He was capable of adapting himself to place, time and person, and of playing his part appropriately under whatever circumstances. Hence he found more favour than anybody else with Dionysius, because he could always turn the situation to good account. He derived pleasure from what was present, and did not toil to procure the enjoyment of something not present. Hence Diogenes called him the king’s poodle. Timon, too, sneered at him for luxury …

He is said to have ordered a partridge to be bought at a cost of fifty drachmae, and, when someone censured him, he inquired, “Would not you have given an obol for it?” and, being answered in the affirmative, rejoined, “Fifty drachmae are no more to me.” And when Dionysius gave him his choice of three courtesans, he carried off all three, saying, “Paris paid dearly for giving the preference to one out of three.” And when he had brought them as far as the porch, he let them go. To such lengths did he go both in choosing and in disdaining. …  He bore with Dionysius when he spat on him, and to one who took him to task he replied, “If the fishermen let themselves be drenched with sea-water in order to catch a gudgeon, ought I not to endure to be wetted with negus in order to take a blenny?”

… Being reproached for his extravagance, he said, “If it were wrong to be extravagant, it would not be in vogue at the festivals of the gods.” … When he was reproached by Plato for his extravagance, he inquired, “Do you think Dionysius a good man?” and the reply being in the affirmative, “And yet,” said he, “he lives more extravagantly than I do. So that there is nothing to hinder a man living extravagantly and well.” … One day, as he entered the house of a courtesan, one of the lads with him blushed, whereupon he remarked, “It is not going in that is dangerous, but being unable to go out.”

It happened once that he set sail for Corinth and, being overtaken by a storm, he was in great consternation. Some one said, “We plain men are not alarmed, and are you philosophers turned cowards?” To this he replied, “The lives at stake in the two cases are not comparable.” …

To one who accused him of living with a courtesan, he put the question, “Why, is there any difference between taking a house in which many people have lived before and taking one in which nobody has ever lived?” The answer being “No,” he continued, “Or again, between sailing in a ship in which ten thousand persons have sailed before and in one in which nobody has ever sailed?” “There is no difference.” “Then it makes no difference,” said he, “whether the woman you live with has lived with many or with nobody.” …

He enjoyed the favours of Laïs, as Sotion states in the second book of his Successions of Philosophers. To those who censured him his defence was, “I have Lais, not she me; and it is not abstinence from pleasures that is best, but mastery over them without ever being worsted.” to one who reproached him with extravagance in catering, he replied, “Wouldn’t you have bought this if you could have got it for three obols?” The answer being in the affirmative, “Very well, then,” said Aristippus, “I am no longer a lover of pleasure, it is you who are a lover of money.” …

When Charondas (or, as others say, Phaedo) inquired, “Who is this who reeks with unguents?” he replied, “It is I, unlucky wight, and the still more unlucky Persian king. … Confound the effeminates who spoil for us the use of good perfume.” … Polyxenus the sophist once paid him a visit and, after having seen ladies present and expensive entertainment, reproached him with it later.

One day Dionysius over the wine commanded everybody to put on purple and dance. Plato declined … Aristippus, however, put on the dress and, as he was about to dance, was ready with the repartee …

He was once staying in Asia and was taken prisoner by Artaphernes, the satrap. “Can you be cheerful under these circumstances?” some one asked. “Yes, you simpleton,” was the reply, “for when should I be more cheerful than now that I am about to converse with Artaphernes?” …

 A courtesan having told him that she was with child by him, he replied, “You are no more sure of this than if, after running through coarse rushes, you were to say you had been pricked by one in particular.” Someone accused him of exposing his son as if it was not his offspring. Whereupon he replied, “Phlegm, too, and vermin we know to be of our own begetting, but for all that, because they are useless, we cast them as far from us as possible.”

He received a sum of money from Dionysius at the same time that Plato carried off a book and, when he was twitted with this, his reply was,, “Well, I want money, Plato wants books.” …

He said the world was his country. Theft, adultery, and sacrilege would be allowable upon occasion, since none of these acts is by nature base, if once you have removed the prejudice against them, which is kept up in order to hold the foolish multitude together. The wise man would indulge his passions openly without the least regard to circumstances.

A conman with a line of blarney would behave just so.  The majority of them seem no better. 

Our image of a philosopher is perhaps that of the Roman period, of a man dedicated to virtue.  But it is telling that the Romans passed edicts expelling the philosophers from the city from time to time — indeed the Athenians did so, even in the classical period — and with this as our example, it is easy to see why.

I confess to being a little disappointed.  I do not think I shall purchase volume 2.


Greek text critical marks as described by Diogenes Laertius

I’m reading through the first volume of Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Philosophers.  In book 3, devoted to Plato, we find the following interesting excursus, which I copy from a version present on Wikisource here.

65. The right interpretation of his dialogues includes three things: first, the meaning of every statement must be explained; next, its purpose, whether it is made for a primary reason or by way of illustration, and whether to establish his own doctrines or to refute his interlocutor; in the third place it remains to examine its truth.

And since certain critical marks are affixed to his works let us now say a word about these. The cross × is taken to indicate peculiar expressions and figures of speech, and generally any idiom of Platonic usage; the diple[65] (>) calls attention to doctrines and opinions characteristic of Plato; 66. the dotted cross (⨰) denotes select passages and beauties of style; the dotted diple (⋗) editors’ corrections of the text; the dotted obelus (÷) passages suspected without reason; the dotted antisigma (Ꜿ) repetitions and proposals for transpositions; the ceraunium the philosophical school; the asterisk (∗) an agreement of doctrine; the obelus (−) a spurious passage.

So much for the critical marks and his writings in general. As Antigonus of Carystus says in his Life of Zeno, when the writings were first edited with critical marks, their possessors charged a certain fee to anyone who wished to consult them.

65. A wedge-shaped mark >, used in early papyri to denote a fresh paragraph.

It is always good to see the actual basis for some of the remarks that get made in text critical handbooks.  Here at least, we have an explicit statement of what marks indicate what.


More on getting hold of Bar Hebraeus

A very quick reply from Glasgow University Library.  It’s good news — they can do me a photocopy of vol.2 of Bar Hebraeus Chronicon Ecclesiasticum for 24 GBP ($36).  That is not much more than I spent on a Kessinger reproduction of vol. 3 last week.  Unfortunately we have to pay a further 20% to the government — the tax gatherers demand a percentage whenever any of us take a deep breath.  There will also be a postage charge to deliver the pile of paper.

They’re very good, and their charge is quite reasonable compared with some libraries.  But it highlights just how much we all owe to Google Books and  These two sites make millions upon millions of these books available, for nothing.  You don’t have to pay the government to be allowed to read, nor the postal service to deliver them.

Once I get the thing, I will run it through my scanner and put it online as a PDF.  That will be another book that none of us will have to pay to access.


From my diary

Now that the Eusebius book exists, it is possible to order copies.   The Amazon site doesn’t show it as available, but I can certainly order them myself.  The hardback is pricey tho — $75.  But if you want one, send a message to me and we can talk.  I have various people I need to email, but I thought I would wait until Amazon is working.  (I also need to add  blurb to Amazon).

One problem that I face is complimentary copies.  There will be as few of these as I can manage, because at this stage of the project, of course, I want to sell copies, not give them away, in order to recover the costs of getting the thing translated.  Once sales dry up, I intend to put the translation online, but that will be some way off.

The first set of copies that I owe are to the translator of the Greek, David Miller.  These I have requested today.

The next set are owed to Bob Buller, who kindly typeset the book as a one-off to get me under way.  He’s in the US; and this reveals a problem at Lightning Source — I can’t order them for manufacture in the US.  I’ve emailed and asked, since I certainly filled in all the forms for this.  I’ll hold off for a day or so on US copies owed, and see if I can get this resolved, for they will arrive much sooner that way.

I owe a set to the French Sources Chretiennes people, as payment for permission to use Claudio Zamagni’s Greek text.  I have just emailed them to check address details.

The paperback needs to get underway as well.  Fortunately I  uploaded all the files some time back (I find), and all I need to do is get a proof — requested today — and then approve it.  With luck this will be available in a week or so.

I’m still finding the Lightning Source site very “fighty”.  It does daft things like pop-up a box to tell you to click something on the next page (!)  I think they were badly swindled by their web designer, in truth.  I got no reply to my enquiry as to what happens next after proofs.  Fortunately I have some books which might tell me!

UPDATE: Amazon, bless them, have expired my Amazon Sellers account now I want to use it to upload content.  How silly of them — wastes their time and mine. 


From my diary

I have a bunch of notes online about Syriac writers.  I entered these by setting up a wiki on my own site, and doing it there.  The url is, and, since I had to give it a title, I rather grandly titled it the Encyclopedia of Syriac Literature

I didn’t actually want other people editing it — although perhaps that was a mistake — so I locked it down, and made sure that only people with accounts could edit, and that only I could allocate accounts.  In truth it was — and is — just rough notes from standard sources.  And I never had the chance to do a lot.

Still, it contains quite a bit that is not found elsewhere online.  My hosting company ( changed their PHP installation lately, and, when I went to look for my notes on Aphrahat, I found that it didn’t work.  A couple of days and I now have it working again, in case anyone uses it. 

It’s a project that I ought to return to, in truth.  Perhaps one day!


From my diary

I’ve received the modern printing of vol. 3 of Bar Hebraeus Chronicon Ecclesiasticum.  It’s OK, if a bit grainy.  But of course what we all want is PDF’s.  I will look at scanning it into PDF when I recover from my little indisposition.

But I’ve also found that Glasgow University Library has a copy of the work.  I think well of that institution, who have always been of the greatest help to me, freely loaning books through inter-library loan which no-one else would.  Some years ago, indeed, they photocopied the two volume Commentary on John by Cyril of Alexandria for me, which was a mountain of paper.  They didn’t charge very much, and of course it allowed me to get the thing online.  They deserve well, these people.

Anyway, I’ve written to ask if they would photocopy vol. 2 for me, and if so at what price.  I will, of course, create a PDF once I get it.


Eusebius update — the proof has been approved

Much rejoicing here at Pearse Towers.  The proof copy of the hardback of Eusebius, Gospel Problems and Solutions, has arrived.  I examined it, and I’ve gone onto the printer’s website and given my approval.  It’s done, basically.

The next question is when we can buy copies.  I have emailed Lightning Source asking this question.  I suspect that I can order copies direct from LSI myself right now.  But I don’t know how long it will take before we can buy copies from Amazon.  More news when I have it!