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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 July 2017

Stephen E. Kidd
Brown University
E-mail address:


In 1968 E.K. Borthwick, with a brilliant conjecture, cleared up a passage from Aristophanes’ Peace that had been considered ‘nonsense’ since antiquity. ‘Bell goldfinch’ (κώδων ἀκαλανθίς) the line seemed to be saying: a jumbled idea at best, gibberish at worst (1078). The scholium reads ad loc.: ταῦτα δὲ πάντα ἐπίτηδες ἀδιανοήτως ἔφρασεν, ‘all this is said as deliberate nonsense’, and later scholars generally follow suit (W.W. Merry, for example, in his 1900 edition of Peace refers to the line as ‘magnificent nonsense’). But Borthwick showed that this was not the case: ‘even nonsense expressions in Aristophanes’, he writes, ‘are not haphazard collocations of incongruous words signifying nothing’. What, then, to do with the ancient scholar (and those later ones) who failed to understand the passage, claiming it instead to be ‘nonsense’?

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 2017 

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I would like to thank Daria Resh for thought-provoking discussions about many of these scholia, Sara Chiarini for the invitation to present this paper at her conference on Ancient Nonsense (Exeter, July 2014), Ralph Rosen for his valuable feedback, the anonymous readers at CQ who did much to improve the article, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for its support of my research during this period.


1 I will quote and discuss this Peace passage more fully in the next section.

2 Merry, W.W., Aristophanes Peace (Oxford, 1900)Google Scholar, ad 1078: ‘We must be careful not to spoil the magnificent nonsense of this oracle by importing too much common sense into it.’ Cf. Mazon, P., Aristophane La Paix (Paris, 1904)Google Scholar, ad loc.: ‘il ne faut pas trop presser ce magnifique galimatias’, quoted by Leeuwen, J. van, Aristophanis Pax (Leiden, 1906)Google Scholar, ad loc. with hesitant agreement (‘itaque assentiendum fortasse …’); Rogers, B.B., The Peace of Aristophanes (London, 1913)Google Scholar, ad loc.: ‘But the language is purposely obscure and enigmatic, something in the manner of Lycophron’; Platnauer, M., Aristophanes Peace (Oxford, 1964)Google Scholar, ad loc.: ‘it would certainly be unwise to extract much sense …’.

3 Borthwick, E.K., ‘Beetle, bell, goldfinch, and weasel in Aristophanes’ Peace ’, CR 18 (1968), 134−9Google Scholar, at 134.

4 Although ἀδιανόητ– appears with various adjectival and adverbial endings in the scholia, I will generally use the neuter plural form ἀδιανόητα for convenience.

5 I will discuss this passage further in the ‘Conclusions’ section.

6 A modern, not ancient, term for these characters who appear in the latter part of comedies to spoil the coming celebration (see Cornford, F.M., The Origin of Attic Comedy [London, 1913], 132−53Google Scholar). For Aristotle (Eth. Nic. 2.7, 1108a19−26, 4.7, 1127a13−26; cf. Tractatus Coislinianus, ch. 12 with Janko, R., Aristotle on Comedy: Towards a Reconstruction of ‘Poetics’ II [London, 2002 (1984)], 216−18Google Scholar) an alazōn is simply a ‘boaster’ and laughable for that reason.

7 Venetus Marcianus 474, twelfth century.

8 Laurentianus plut. 31.15, beginning of fourteenth century.

9 Oxoniensis Bodleianus Holkhamensis 88, beginning of fifteenth century.

10 Less likely is the ‘lions singing to lambs’ of 1076, which receives the comment τὸ ἀδύνατον εἶπεν in the same manuscripts.

11 Olson, S.D., Aristophanes Peace (Oxford, 1998), ad 1077−9Google Scholar reports K.J. Dover's suggestion that the σφονδύλη ‘may be Ocypus olens, which produces a terrible smell when handled and resembles a chain of vertebrae, precisely as the name suggests’.

12 V reads κύων μόνον σπεύδουσα.

13 The sense of the παρ᾽ ἱστορίαν line is: despite the fact that enquiries have shown that a rushed labour does not result in blind pups, Hierocles’ oracle claims otherwise. For the ‘redundant or sympathetic negative’ of ὅτι μὴ κύων, see Smyth, H.W., A Greek Grammar for Colleges (New York, 1920), 622−3Google Scholar. For the proverb, cf. Archil. fr. 196a 39−41 and Aesop, Fab. 223, with Olson (n. 11), ad loc.

14 For ἀδιανόητ–, see Σ ad Vesp. 1309, Pax 1077, 1078, Av. 66, 952, 1001, 1375, 1377, 1395 (cf. schol. rec. ad Nub. 236; the different Plut. 806 will be dealt with below); for ἀνοηταίνει, see Σ ad Av. 1004; for μηδὲν λέγει, see Σ ad Av. 950b; for ληρ-, see Σ ad Eq. 950b; for φλυαρ–, see Σ ad Eq. 1001b (cf. schol. rec. ad Nub. 392 ff., Tzetzes ad Ran. 226a, 358a and passim).

15 V = Venetus Marcianus 474, twelfth century; E = Estensis α.U.5.10, fourteenth century; G = Venetus Marcianus 475, fifteenth century; M = Ambrosianus L39 sup., fourteenth century; Lh = Oxoniensis Bodleianus Holkhamensis 88, fifteenth century. Cf. Dunbar, N., Aristophanes Birds (Oxford, 1995)Google Scholar, ad 1376−7: the phrase ‘probably imitates the pleonasm typical of dithyramb …, for “fearless mind and body” is hardly a meaningful distinction’.

16 3. For a study of ‘obscurity’ in ancient scholarship, see Kanthak, A.-M., ‘Obscuritas—eine Strategie griechischer Wissenschaftsliteratur?’, in Schmitzer, U. (ed.), Enzyklopädie der Philologie: Themen und Methoden der klassischen Philologie heute (Vertumnus Bd. 11) (Göttingen, 2012), 157−85Google Scholar.

17 VEΓM.

18 For Aristonicus, see Erbse, H., Beiträge zur Überlieferung der Iliasscholien (Munich, 1960), 174−83Google Scholar; van der Valk, M., Researches on the Text and Scholia of the Iliad (Leiden, 1963−1964), 1.553−92Google Scholar; Montanari, F., ‘L'erudizione, la filologia, la grammatica’, in Lo spazio letterario della Grecia antica, 1.2 (Rome, 1993), 279Google Scholar; Razzetti, F., ‘Aristonico fra Aristarco e Didimo: alcune questioni di filologia omerica antica’, in Montana, F. (ed.), Aner polytropos. Richerche di filologia greca antica per F. Montanari (Rome, 2010), 4161 Google Scholar.

19 For the ‘four-man commentary’ or Viermännerkommentar (VMK), see van der Valk (n. 18), 1.107−32, 1.536−602; Erbse, H., Scholia Graeca in Homeri Iliadem: Scholia Vetera, 7 vols. (Berlin, 1969−1988), 1.xi−xiiGoogle Scholar, 1.xlvii; Dickey, E., Ancient Greek Scholarship (Oxford, 2007), 1823 Google Scholar; Nagy, G., Homer's Text and Language (Champaign, IL, 2004), 68 Google Scholar.

20 The text is from Erbse (n. 19). Friedländer, L., Aristonici Alexandrini Περὶ Σημείων Ἰλιάδος reliquiae emendatiores (Amsterdam, 1853)Google Scholar [= TLG] prints ἡ διπλῆ, ὅτι, but he is following not manuscripts (as he himself says at vi) but previous editions: for example, d’ Villoison, J.B.G., Homeri Ilias ad veteris codicis Veneti fidem recensita (Venice, 1788)Google Scholar prints ἡ διπλῆ, ὅτι (reported by Erbse, ad loc.). The ἡ διπλῆ περιεστιγμένη explains well what the ὅτι refers to in a text about signs.

21 A wide-ranging critical sign ‘equivalent to a “N(ota) B(ene)” for us’ suggests Schironi, F., ‘The ambiguity of signs: critical semeia from Zenodotus to Origen’, in Niehof, M. (ed.), Homer and the Bible in the Eyes of Ancient Interpreters (Leiden, 2012), 87112 Google Scholar, at 89−90.

22 Schironi (n. 21), 90: ‘the so-called diple periestigmene … to mark those passages where [Aristarchus] argued against his predecessor Zenodotus and against his Pergamene contemporary Crates of Mallos’, quoting from the list of signs in the Anecdotum Romanum (54.11−15): ἡ δὲ περιεστιγμένη διπλῆ πρὸς τὰς γραφὰς τὰς घηνοδοτείους καὶ Κράτητος καὶ αὐτοῦ Ἀριστάρχου καὶ τὰς διορθώσεις αὐτοῦ.

23 Cf. the suggestion of Brugman, K.B., Ein Problem der homerischen Textkritik (Leipzig, 1876), 110Google Scholar, reported by Erbse (n. 19), that the words θάρσει ἐμῷ are an interpretation, not a variant reading of Zenodotus.

24 Schironi, F., ‘Theory into practice: Aristotelian principles in Aristarchean philology’, CPh 104 (2009), 279316 Google Scholar, at 298 writes: ‘there are some interesting cases where Aristarchus argues against Homer himself’; however, it is questionable whether her examples in fact show this. Regarding Il. 12.175−80, all six lines are athetized because of being misplaced material from Book 15 (ἀθετοῦνται στίχοι ἕξ, ὅτι παρῴδηνται ἐκ τοῦ [verse 15.414]). Only in this context is 12.176 ‘laughable’ (γελοῖον): ‘because what has been said by this point regarding the battle at the wall?’ (τί γὰρ εἴρηται ἤδη τῆς τειχομαχίας;) which has not yet happened; ‘they have not yet even crossed the trench’ (οὐδέπω γὰρ διαβεβήκασι τὴν τάφρον). Also regarding Il. 18.38−49, it is only in the context of the lines being ‘considered spurious … on the grounds of having a Hesiodic character’ (ὁ τῶν Νηρεΐδων χορὸς προηθέτηται … ὡς Ἡσιόδ<ε>ιον ἔχων χαρακτῆρα)—since Homer, unlike Hesiod, generally refers to groups of Nymphs and Muses as groups (κατὰ τὸ κοινόν), not by individual names (ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ ὀνόματα)—that the concluding line is ‘laughable’ (γελοῖον), i.e. precisely because it is not Homer. Her example of 24.614−17a also is athetized and called ‘Hesiodic in character’ (Ἡσιόδεια τῷ χαρακτῆρι). Inasmuch as Aristarchus is athetizing all of these ‘laughable’ examples (i.e. removing them to preserve the real Homeric text), it is difficult to understand how this can be an act of ‘argu[ing] against Homer himself’ (298).

25 For Aristonicus and ἀδιανόητα, cf. Σ ad Il. 5.53b, 7.153a1 (at 11.413 Erbse reads correctly ἠγνόηται, not ἀδιανόητα as Friedländer [n. 20] prints: the manuscript can be consulted online at, 16.202a, 17.51b1, 24.293b; Erbse (n. 19) attributes the part of 5.700a identifying ἀδιανόητον to Didymus, 11.102−3 and the part of 18.283a1 identifying potential ἀδιανόητον to Nicanor; exegetical are 15.679b and 21.363e.

26 Cf. Aristonicus ad 5.53b: ὅτι घηνόδοτος γράφει ‘χραῖσμεν θανάτοιο πέλωρα’. ἀδιανόητον δὲ γίνεται τὸ λεγόμενον. 17.51b1: ὅτι घηνόδοτος γράφει ‘Χαρίτεσσι μέλαιναι’, ἀδιανόητον ποιῶν. 24.293b: ὅτι घηνόδοτος γράφει ‘καὶ οὗ’. ἔστι δὲ ἀντὶ τοῦ ἑαυτοῦ, καὶ ἀδιανόητος ὁ λόγος.

27 Didymus ad 5.700a: ἔνιοι δὲ ἀγνοοῦντες γράφουσιν ‘ἀπὸ νηῶν’. γίνεται δὲ ἀδιανόητον. Nicanor ad 11.102−3: καὶ ἀδιανόητόν ἐστι τὸ συνάπτειν ‘νόθον καὶ γνήσιον ἄμφω’, ad 18.283a1 ἐὰν συνάπτηται, ἀδιανόητον γίνεται. Exegetical: ad 15.679b ἀδιανόητον δὲ τὸ ἵπποις κέλητα ἵζειν, ad 21.363e ἀλλ᾽ ἄνευ τοῦ υ ἀναγινώσκων ἀδιανόητον ἡγεῖτο καὶ ἡμαρτημένον εἶναι.

28 Arist. frr. 949, 1 and 949, 2 Gigon (= Sext. Emp. Adv. Phys. 1.412−13 ed. Mutschmann and Adv. Geometras 57−9 ed. Mutschmann), clearly regarding the same passage of Aristotle on the question of ‘widthless length’ (μῆκος ἀπλατές); cf. Arist. fr. 5 Gigon (= Ath. 8.335 ff.) regarding the son of Sardanapalus.

29 Epicurus, Ep. Hdt. 46, Ep. Pyth. 96, fr. 34 Arrighetti. Phld. De signis 19, 21, 36, 57 De Lacy. For the ‘Epicurean use of inconceivability as an empirical test’, see De Lacy, P.H. and De Lacy, E.A., Philodemus. On Methods of Inference (Naples, 1978)Google Scholar, 106 n. 48, 157, 161 (on ‘inconceivability as a criterion of inference distinct from contraposition’); on Epicureans devoting ‘much of their time to the refutation of philosophers of other schools’, see De Lacy and De Lacy (this note), 153−4.

30 Polybius regarding Ephorus at 12.25.4; cf. 3.36.3 (30.22.8 refers to music, not to historiography).

31 Gal. De sect. 1.105.3, De instr. odor. 5.5.4, De plac. Hipp. et Plat. 2.5.60,,, De comp. med. 13.463.11, In Hipp. de natura hominis 15.55−6; In Hipp. prorrh. comm. 16.613, despite being a commentary on Hippocrates, accuses Hippocrates of nonsense, but this is because, unlike Homeric commentaries, the subject is medicine, not Hippocrates (cf. the treatment of Chrysippus’ On the Soul in De plac. Hipp. et Plat., citations above); ἀδιανόητα of a more textual nature at In Hipp. epidem. comm. iii 17a.679, In Hipp. vi epidem. comm. 17b.258; Geminus 5.63; 16.30 is with the sense of ‘fool, idiot’—LSJ s.v. ἀδιανόητος II, DGE II; cf. Pl. Hp. mai. 301c.

32 Cf. Sommerstein, Α.Η., Aristophanes Wealth (Warminster, 2001)Google Scholar, ad loc.; Wilson, N.G., Aristophanis Fabulae (Oxford, 2007)Google Scholar, ad loc.; Holzinger, K., Kritisch-exegetischer Kommentar zu Aristophanes’ Plutos (Vienna and Leipzig, 1940), 243−4Google Scholar.

33 E = Estensis α.U.5.10 (fourteenth century); θ = Laurentianus conv. sopp. 140 (fourteenth century); Ν = Neapolitanus II F 22 (c.1320); Βarb. = Vaticanus Barberinianus gr. 126 (fifteenth century); Ald. = the lost MS which Musurus used in his Aldine edition in 1498.

34 Sommerstein (n. 32), ad loc.

35 The line of course is not ‘meaningless’ in any strict sense—i.e. the line is easy enough to understand—nor is it in a strict sense that Sommerstein (or, it seems, the ancient scholar) uses the word. The objection of ‘meaningless’ here rather indicates that the line otiosely repeats, and thus does not cohere well with, lines 802−5. For further discussion of ‘cohesion’ and how a line is or is not ‘intelligible’, cf. Halliday, M.A.K. and Hasan, R., Cohesion in English (New York, 2014 [1976]), 130 Google Scholar.

36 For Didymus, see Dickey (n. 19), 7; White, J., The Scholia on the Aves of Aristophanes (London, 1914)Google Scholar, xxv−xxix (at xxix: ‘not the notes of a dullard’; cf. West, S.Chalcenteric negligence’, CQ 20 [1970], 288−96CrossRefGoogle Scholar); Boudreaux, P., Le Texte d'Aristophane et ses commentateurs (Paris, 1949), 91137 Google Scholar; van der Valk (n. 18), 1.536−53; Pearson, L. and Stephens, S., Didymi in Demosthenem Commenta (Stuttgart, 1983)Google Scholar, iii−xiv; Gibson, C., Interpreting a Classic: Demosthenes and his Ancient Commentators (Berkeley, 2002), 5175 Google Scholar; Harding, P., Didymos: On Demosthenes (Oxford, 2007)Google Scholar; for Symmachus, see White (this note), xlix−liii; Boudreaux (this note), 144−60; Koster, W.J.W., ‘De Phaino et Symmacho commentatoribus Aristophanis’, Mnemosyne 26 (1973), 225−9CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Trojahn, S., Die auf Papyri erhaltenen Kommentare zur alten Komödie (Leipzig, 2002), 141−2CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dickey (n. 19), 29−31.

37 R = Ravennas 429, tenth to eleventh century; V = Venetus Marcianus 474, twelfth century; E = Estensis α.U.5.10, fourteenth century; Γ = Laurentianus plut. 31.15, fourteenth century; M = Ambrosianus L39 sup., fourteenth century. The scholium at 1001a seems to be derived from this. Ad 1004, διόλου ἀνοηταίνει reiterates the verdict.

38 So reads the Venetus Marcianus (V), according to Koster 1309a; but there is considerable variation of the scholium among the different MSS.

39 Alternatively Didymus is saying that everything but ‘τρυγί’ is ‘indecipherable’.

40 1309b Koster, written by a second hand in the manuscript (Γ3, Koster xxi for discussion).

41 It is also omitted in dictionaries of Greek rhetorical terms: cf. Anderson, R.D. Jr., Glossary of Greek Rhetorical Terms (Leuven, 2000)Google Scholar; Lausberg, H. ([trans.] Bliss, M.T., Jansen, A., Orton, D.E.; [edd.] Orton, D.E. and Anderson, R.D.), Handbook of Literary Rhetoric. A Foundation for Literary Study (Leiden, 1998)Google Scholar.

42 Translation from Russell, D.A., Quintilian. The Orator's Education. III. Books 6−8 (Cambridge, MA, 2003)Google Scholar.

43 For discussion of Quintilian's adianoēta, see Cousin, J., Études sur Quintilien. Tome II: Vocabulaire Grec de la terminologie Rhétorique dans L'Institution Oratoire (Amsterdam, 1967 [1936])Google Scholar, 29 s.v. ἀδιανόητον; Cousin, J., Quintilien. Institution Oratoire. Livres VIII−IX (Paris, 1978), 279−80Google Scholar; Ahleid, F., Quintilian. The Preface to Book VIII and Comparable Passages in the Institutio Oratoria (Amsterdam, 1983), 147−8Google Scholar; Pucci, J., The Full-Knowing Reader (New Haven, 1998), 61−3Google Scholar.

44 Russell (n. 42), 336 n. 32; Cousin (n. 43), 29 s.v. ἀδιανόητον, although not specifying this passage, writes ‘La terme n'a dû passer qu'assez tard de la langue commune dans la langue de la critique, vers l’époque de Denys d'Halicarnasse.’ Cf. Accadia, S.D. di, I Discorsi Figurati I e II (Rome, 2010), 177Google Scholar. Heath, M., ‘Pseudo-Dionysius: Art of Rhetoric 8−11’, AJPh 124 (2003), 81105 Google Scholar has recently dated the text to a generation after Quintilian, suggesting Aelius Serapion (fl. c.e. 130) as its author.

45 Cf. 9.16.33: αὐτὸ τὸ προοίμιον τοῦ σχήματός ἐστιν ἀρχή, ‘the proemium itself is the beginning of the figure’. He refers to Il. 19.217−19 as the proemium at 9.16.16.

46 αἶψά τε φυλόπιδος πέλεται κόρος ἀνθρώποισιν, | ἧς τε πλείστην μὲν καλάμην χθονὶ χαλκὸς ἔχευεν, | ἄμητος δ’ ὀλίγιστος, ἐπὴν κλίνῃσι τάλαντα | घεύς, ὅς τ’ ἀνθρώπων ταμίης πολέμοιο τέτυκται, ‘quickly comes a surfeit of battle for men, where the bronze strews most straw upon the ground, but the harvest is smallest, when Zeus inclines the balance, he who is for men the steward of war.’ In this speech, Odysseus is advising Achilles to allow the Myrmidons to eat before battle.

47 Sardianus, like the many commentators above, is calling for an emendation of the word περιών because the sentence καὶ περιὼν ὅλην διέλυσε δύναμιν strikes him as ‘nonsense’ (ἀδιανόητον), not because the word ‘peut être interprété comme équivalant à «l'emportant sur» ou à «faisant le tour de»’ (Cousin [n. 43 (1967 [1936])], s.v. ἀδιανόητον) and is therefore double entendre (Sardianus says nothing about these two possible meanings). Nor does Sardianus ‘propose finalement, après avoir écarté περιών, le leçon Περσῶν’. He rejects Περσῶν as ‘incongruous’ (ἀσυνάρτητον), since the ‘whole text is about the sack of Troy’ (περὶ γὰρ τῆς Ἰλίου ἁλώσεως ὁ πᾶς λόγος αὐτῷ), and so proposes Τρώων (γράφεσθαι οὕτως ὑπέλαβον ‘καὶ Τρώων ὅλην διέλυσε δύναμιν’).

48 For lost rhetorical treatises, one suspects a Stoic source: if, according to Chrysippus, all language is ambiguous, shouldn't ‘nonsense’ be ambiguous as well? For Stoic rhetoric, see Barwick, K., Probleme der stoischen Sprachlehre und Rhetorik (Berlin, 1957)Google Scholar; for ambiguity, see Atherton, C., The Stoics on Ambiguity (Cambridge, 1993)Google Scholar. For false loanwords in other languages, cf. Furiassi, C. and Gottlieb, H. (edd.), Pseudo-English: Studies of False Anglicisms in Europe (Berlin, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Miller, L.Wasei eigo: English “loanwords” coined in Japan’, in Hill, J., Mistry, P.J. and Campbell, L. (edd.), The Life of Language: Papers in Linguistics in Honor of William Bright (Berlin, 1998), 123−40Google Scholar.

49 Cf. Didymus’ usage of ἀδιανόητον at Hom. Il. 5.700a, discussed above. Zenobius (second century c.e.) in his Epitome of the Proverbs of Didymus and Lucillus of Tarrha (Ἐπιτομὴ τῶν παροιμιῶν Διδύμου καὶ Ταρραίου) 2.85.4 also reports a saying which is spoken ἐπὶ τῶν ἀδιανοήτων ‘for nonsense’ (i.e. spoken to identify something as nonsense; cf. Suda Δ 1031): βέβληκ’ Ἀχιλλεὺς δύο κύβω καὶ τέτταρα, a line which originates in Ar.  Ran. 1400 (see Dover, K.J., Aristophanes Frogs [Oxford, 1993]Google Scholar, ad loc. for discussiοn) with much the same bathetic force as the more famous ληκύθιον ἀπώλεσεν.

50 The rare exception is when an author is being, for lack of a better word, comic: e.g. Σ ad Lucian 21.1.1 (Zeus Trag.): ἀδιανόητος ὅλος ὁ στίχος, ὡς τοῦ Διὸς καὶ τὸ τραγῳδεῖν ἀγνοοῦντος.

51 See above n. 28.

52 See Schironi (n. 24), 298−300 on τὸ γελοῖον.

53 Soph. el. 3.173a32−40 with Janko (n. 6), 174; cf. Kidd, S., Nonsense and Meaning in Ancient Greek Comedy (Cambridge, 2014), 151−5CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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