How the text of Nonius Marcellus reaches us

The 4th century Latin dictionary by Nonius Marcellus is our main source for the fragments of lost Latin literature from the Roman republic — works like Accius, the satirist Lucillius, Varro’s Menippean Satires, the Tragedies of Ennius, Sissena and the Historiae of Sallust.  The format of the work is a word, a definition, and then one or more quotations to show the usage of the word.

The work was in 20 books, as was traditional for works of grammar.  But the books are of very uneven length.  In the three volume Teubner edition by W. M. Lindsay from 1903 — still the standard, I believe — volume 1 contains books 1-3; volume 2 contains only book 4, which is vast, and volume 3 contains books 5-20.  Book 20 is just a single sheet.   The manuscripts reveal that the work was split into these chunks for transmission also.

Three forms of the text have reached us. 

The first contains what is known as the ‘pure’ text.  This is pretty much untampered with, although subject to the usual perils of transmission.  Copying a dictionary composed of short quotes and spotting errors in it is quite a challenge if your Latin is not that good, and Angelo Mai, when he printed the first edition of the text of Cicero’s previously lost De re publica in 1822, described the text as A vertice, ut aiunt, usque ad extremum unguem ulcus est — as ulcerated from top to toe.

The second form of the text is known as the ‘doctored’ text.  In some places this is actually more faithful to the original than the corrupted ‘pure’ text.  But mostly it has been edited.  Some scholar of the Carolingian period revised the text to produce a more readable version, in the interests of those trying to learn Latin.  This was a very successful revision, and copies of this version out-number the pure text.

The third form is the ‘extract’ version.  The word and definition is included, but the quotations have been omitted in most cases.  The result is a glossary, doubtless intended for handier use in monasteries.

All three versions derive from a single archetype, in which a leaf from book 4 had fallen out, and been replaced for safe-keeping immediately after the first leaf of book 1.  The transmission is also rather mix-and-match: a single manuscript may use the first form for books 1-3, and the doctored text for book 4.

All the manuscripts are 9th century or later, and all of them, for all three versions, seem to be connected to Tours and the Loire valley in France.  In particular the literary activity of Lupus of Ferrieres there in the 9th century seems to be pivotal.

The pure text is represented by the following manuscripts:

  • L – Leiden, Voss. Lat. F. 73, dated to the start of the 9th century, from Tours.
  • F – Florence, Lauren. 48.1, 9th century, corrected and annotated by Lupus of Ferrieres.
  • HBritish Library, Harley 2719, 9-10th century.  Contains glosses in Breton, so was written in or near Britanny, not far from the Loire. Online.
  • E – Escorial M.III.14, mid-late 9th century, from Auxerre.  The book was at St. Peter’s Ghent during the 11th century.
  • Gen. – Geneva lat.84, 9th century, from Fulda in Germany, with which Lupus had connections.
  • B – Berne 83, 9th century, written at Reims in the time of Hincmar.
  • Cant. – Cambridge University Library Mm.5.22, end of the 9th century, from Bourges.
  • P – Paris lat. 7667, 10th century, from Fleury.

L contains all three sections of the text, and is a fine and carefully written book made at Tours in the early years of the 9th century, probably while Alcuin was still abbot of St. Martins there.  For books 1-3 it is the ancestor of all the other surviving manuscripts above.  It incorporates corrections from the doctored and extract families.

The corrections to F are interesting.  F3 contains readings and supplements known from no other source, and clearly right.  It must be inferred that this corrector had access to another old manuscript — perhaps the archetype of all the manuscripts itself, or a copy taken before the rot had set in.

For book 4, things change.  Book 4 of E is descended from book 4 of L, but the best manuscript of this book is Gen. which is NOT descended from book 4 in L, but from some common ancestor.  And Gen. was undoubtedly written at Fulda in Lower Germany.  There were links between Tours and Fulda, as we can see from the transmission of Apicius and Suetonius, and again we think of Lupus of Ferrieres, whose strong links with Fulda explain why a German manuscript appears in what is otherwise a bunch of manuscripts all written in one area of France.  Some of the notes may even be in his hand.  We can be reasonably certain that this book was brought from Fulda to the Loire area.  Book 4 in B is a cousin of Gen., written rather badly, and the other manuscripts are descended from Gen.

The chunk comprising books 5-20 is different again, with these books in L descended from the archetype, while H, P and E are all cousins of L via one or more now lost intermediaries.

The ‘doctored’ text does not tell us much more about how the text moved around in the Dark Ages.  The only complete representative of the whole family is G, Wolfenbuttel 96.  This was written, yes, at Tours between 800-850.

The ‘extract’ family exists in a bunch of manuscripts, and, once again, they are all connected with Tours, Reims, and Auxerre.

Nonius, then, was popular during the 9th century.  But he is a difficult author, and after this period he was not copied.  Only two medieval book catalogues (St. Vincent, Metz, s. XI, and St.Amand, s.XII) mention a copy.  The text did not circulate widely again until the 15th century.


Aulus Gellius thought of his own work as being divided into “chapters”

Book 11, chapter 9 of the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius is a tale from the lost author Critolaus.  It relates how Demosthenes accepted a bribe not to speak against the Milesians.  Chapter 10 begins as follows:

10.  Quod C. Gracchus in oratione sua historiam supra scriptam Demadi rhetori, non Demostheni, adtribuit; verbaque ipsius C. Gracchi relata.

1. Quod in capite superiore a Critolao scriptum esse diximus super Demosthene, id C. Gracchus in oratione, qua legent Aufeiam dissuasit, in Demaden contulit verbis hisce…

10. That Gaius Gracchus in a speech of his applied the story related above to the orator Demades, and not to Demosthenes; and a quotation of Gracchus’ words.

1. The story which in the preceding chapter we said was told by Critolaus about Demosthenes, Gaius Gracchus, in the speech Against the Aufeian Law, applied to Demades in the following words…

At the end of the preface, we find also these words:

25Capita rerum quae cuique commentario insunt, exposuimus hic universa, ut iam statim declaretur quid quo in libro quaeri invenirique possit.

25Summaries of the material to be found in each book of my Commentaries I have here placed all together, in order that it may at once be clear what is to be sought and found in every book.

We learn a great deal from this about how a second century author with a collection of miscellaneous material organised it.

Caput is being used somewhat flexibly, but here we see it used both to indicate the summary of the content of a self-contained portion of a book — a chapter title, if you like — and also for that self-contained portion itself.  We might say “passage”, but there seems no special reason not to say “chapter” and “chapter title / summary”.

This tells us that Aulus Gellius himself organised his work into capita — chapters.  Also that he composed these capita — chapter summaries.  We may speculate that a literary slave may have been used to compose these, as Cicero had Tiro do work for him, and Josephus used Greek ammanuenses to give polish to his works.  But there seems no need to suppose this.

On reading the Loeb, I thought at first that we also knew that these capita (chapters) were numbered at some point.   If we look at book 8 in the Loeb, we find under the chapter summaries (capita) in a couple of cases small excerpts from the lost text.  These, of course, have been extracted by editors from quotation by later authors, who must have specified the numeral of the chapter.  So chapter 3 has a fragment. 

3. Quem in modum et quam severe increpuerit audientibus nobis Peregrinus philosophus adulescentem Romanum ex equestri familia, stantem segnem apud se et assidue oscitantem.

Et adsiduo oscitantem vidit, atque illius quidem delicatissimas mentis et corporis halucinationes.

3.  In what terms and how severely the philosopher Peregrinus in my hearing rebuked a young Roman of equestrian rank, who stood before him inattentive and constantly yawning.

. . . and saw him continually yawning and noticed the degenerate dreaminess expressed in his attitude of mind and body.

But what does the actual source say?  Well, the Loeb note on the fragment says:

 This fragment is preserved by Nonius, II, p121, 19, s.v. halucinari.

That’s not very helpful, is it?  I must admit that the over-brevity of Loeb references always annoyed me!  What normal person could follow such a reference?  Even I don’t know who “Nonius” is, and I have a better grasp of ancient literature than almost anyone not professionally active.  Which work, which edition, I wonder, is meant? 

But the  mention of a work at the end suggests a dictionary compiler, and a search brings first the Wikipedia article for Nonius Marcellus, a 4-5th century grammarian, then W.M.Lindsay’s 1901 article, and then Muller’s 1888 edition: vol. 1, and vol.2.  Finally Lindsay’s 1903 Teubner, vol. 1vol. 2 and vol. 3.  All I have to do now is track down the reference, and even so, it is still nearly impossible.

After two hours struggle, I find that the correct reference is book 2, which is in vol. 1 of Lindsay, in the section under H (which is NOT in alphabetical order), Lindsay p. 175.  At the head of this page are some gnomic numerals “121. 122 M.”  The “page” is therefore a reference to some elderly standard edition.  This reads:

HALVCINARI, aberrare et non consistere atque dissolvi et obstupefieri atque tardari honeste veteres dixerunt, ut est (cf. Gell. VIII, 3): ‘et adsiduo oscitantem vidit atque illius quidem delicatissimas mentis et corporis alucinationes’.

But this gives no textual link to Aulus Gellius.  So my initial impression here was mistaken.  Possibly some of the other fragments will give us more information, but I lack the time to pursue this now.

There is more we could learn, if we knew more about the textual history of this collection of all the capita, immediately following the preface.  Because book 8 of the Attic Nights is lost.  Yet we do have the capita for book 8.  This means that either the collection of all the capita was transmitted at the correct place; or, that the collection of capita circulated independently.

All this is valuable information on the way in which ancient authors worked.  They did have chapters, if they chose.  They did have chapter titles, if they chose.  They did have chapter numbers, if they chose.

So is there really any case for denying the authenticity of any transmitted chapter divisions, numerals, and headings, unless we find multiple different ones in the manuscripts?  If so, what is it?