Did Dante Know the Ilias latina? Textual Echoes in the Prologue to the Purgatorio

Filippo Gianferri (Vassar College)

Dante Notes / November 25, 2017

In the first treatise of Convivio Dante asserts that no Latin translation of Homer was available at the time: “Omero non si mutò di greco in latino, come l’altre scritture che avemo da loro” (1.7.15). Critics have generally interpreted such an assertion as the proof that the poet was unfamiliar with the Ilias latina, a widely popular school text at his time, and largely deployed in primary education.[1] Benvenuto da Imola’s comment on the poet’s apparent ignorance of other two famous medieval texts on Trojan matter –namely, the two imaginary chronicles by Dictys Cretensis and Dares the Phrygian–supplies a simple yet pertinent objection to this argument.  Commenting on the evidence that Dante seems unaware of Dictys’s and Dares’s accounts of Ulysses’s death, Benvenuto suggests that the omission is probably intentional:

Verumtamen quicquid dicatur, nulla persuasione possum adduci ad credendum, quod autor ignoraverit illud quod sciunt etiam pueri et ignari; ideo dico, quod hoc potius autor de industria finxit, et licuit sibi fingere de novo, sicut aliis poetis propter aliquod propositum ostendendum.[2]

Like Dictys’s Ephemeris belli Trojani and Dares’s De excidio Trojae historia, the Ilias latina also enjoyed significant popularity from the ninth century on, as suggests the considerable number of medieval manuscripts transmitting this poem. Manuscript evidence shows that the Ilias was often copied in anthologies created for educational purposes.[3] Robert Black has also found evidence that the Ilias was used in Florentine education during the thirteenth century.[4] Finally, the Ilias appears in all major late-medieval lists of schoolbooks, such as Conrad of Hirsau’s Dialogus super auctores, and Hugh of Trimberg’s Registrum multorum auctorum.[5]

It is thus unlikely that Dante’s assertion in Convivio 1.7.15 was motivated by his ignorance of the existence of the Ilias. Significantly, the poet’s assertion that Homer had not been translated into Latin comes as an example of the impossibility to translate poetry at all: “E però sappia ciascuno che nulla cosa per legame musaico armonizzata si può della sua loquela in altra transmutare sanza rompere tutta sua dolcezza ed armonia.” Rather than being unaware of the existence of the Ilias latina, that is, Dante does not consider this work a translation. The Ilias latina is indeed not a translation of Homer’s Iliad, but rather an epitome and an “imitation,” as a medieval accessus suggested:

Ilias est fabula de destructione Troiae composita, in quo eum [i.e. Homer] iterum Virgilius imitatur in Turni bello et Eneae. Virgilius vero quia non plenarie cuncta descripsit, Homerus quidam latinus Homerum grecum in ea parte imitatur, et est eius intentio vel hunc Grecum imitari vel troianum bellum describere (Accessus Homeri, 6-10. Emphasis mine).[6]

It is of pivotal importance to appreciate that many medieval teachers, as suggests the Accessus edited by Huygens, probably saw the Ilias not as an exercise in translatio but rather in imitatio, which had been executed by “a certain” Latin Homer: “Homerus quidam latinus.”[7] In discussing the absence of translations of Homer, therefore, Dante is most likely not referring to the Ilias latina.

Furthermore, the author of the Ilias inserts explicit authorial claims in the text of the poem. The first and last lines of the poem (1-8 and 1063-1070) form the acrostic ITALIC*S SCRIPSIT (Italicus scripsit), a circumstance that persuaded some nineteenth-century scholars to attribute the poem erroneously to Silius Italicus.[8] The rubric of a fifteenth-century manuscript, the Vindobonensis Öst. Nationalbibl. Lat. 3509, identifies the author of the epitome as the mysterious Baebius Italicus: “BAEBII ITALICI POETAE CLARISSIMI EPITHOME IN QUATUOR/VIGINTI LIBROS HOMERI ILIADOS.”[9] Readers appeared to have lost sight of the acrostic during the Middle Ages. It could be argued, however, that a careful reader such as Dante – who himself uses acrostics in the Commedia – would have noticed it and interpreted it as an expression of authorial intention.[10] The unknown author of the Ilias presents his poem as a boat that reaches Homer’s harbor: “Iamque tenet portum metamque potentis Homeri.” The image of the poem that like a boat finally reaches the metam potentis Homeri may be interpreted as the poet’s accomplishment of his task to imitate, rather than translate, Homer.

In addition, there are at least three elements in the opening of Dante’s Purgatorio that recall the close of the Ilias, one of which is especially noticeable:

Sed iam siste gradum finemque impone labori,
Calliope, uatisque tui moderare carinam,
Remis quem cernis stringentem litora paucis,
Iamque tenet portum metamque potentis Homeri.
Pieridum comitata cohors, summitte rudentes
Sanctaque uirgineos lauro redimita capillos
Ipsa tuas depone lyras. Ades, inclita Pallas,
Tuque faue cursu uatis iam, Phoebe, peracto.
(Ilias latina, 1063-1065, emphasis mine)

Per correr miglior acque alza le vele
omai la navicella del mio ingegno,
che lascia dietro a sé mar sì crudele;
Ma qui la morta poesì resurga,
o sante Muse, poi che vostro sono;
e qui Calïopè alquanto surga
seguitando il mio canto con quel suono
di cui le Piche misere sentiro
lo colpo tal, che disperar perdono.
(Purgatorio 1.1-12)

A first general parallel is in the use of the navigational metaphor: whereas the author of the Ilias has pulled the oars out of the water – “remis quem cernis stringentem litora paucis” – for the boat is approaching the harbor, Dante is unfolding the sail to the wind. Secondly, both poets invoke the Muse Calliope in the context of an invocation to the Muses. It should be also noticed that as Dante’s Calliope is “following” the poet, so the cohort of the Muses in the Ilias is described in the act of following, comitata.[11] Thirdly, and most importantly, they both use the attribute “holy” to address the Muses – the author of the Ilias calls the entire cohors of the muses “sancta,” while Dante appeals to the “sante muse.”[12] Intriguingly, there also seems to be a textual echo of the Ilias’s “sanctaque virgineos […] capillos” in Dante’s invocation “O sacrosante Vergini,” in Purgatorio 29.37. The echo is only formal, however, as the author of the Ilias describes the cohort of muses as “sancta” and refers to Calliope’s hair as “virgineos.” The use of the attribute “holy” for the Muses appears only rarely in ancient Latin poetry, and its use in the Ilias is worth noting. A survey of the commentaries to the Commedia reveals that no classical antecedent has so far been proposed for the invocation “sante muse.”[13] A search in the main Latin databases has also produced no significant result. Even its appearance in the Ilias may be explained as a case of imperfect imitation. In the line “sanctaque virgineos lauro redimita capillos,” Baebius is likely rewriting Virgil’s Aeneid 3.81, “rex Anius… Vittis et sacra redimitas tempora lauro.” In Virgil’s text, the temples are crowned by the sacred – or holy – laurel, whereas Baebius in his rewriting transfers this attribute to the muses.[14] While Virgil deploys a poetical topos, as the laurel was traditionally referred to as sacred, Baebius creates an atypical combination.

A further contrastive argument may be offered to reinforce the potential pertinence of the intertext. Luca Lombardo convincingly demonstrates the role of Boethius’s Consolatio and its medieval commentaries as a primary model for Dante’s reception of the ancient Muses.[15] Significantly, however, Lombardo does not list Purgatorio 1.8 among the passages from the Commedia that have been informed by the Consolatio. Furthermore, the attribute “sante” sharply departs from Boethius’s model. At the beginning of the Consolatio, the poetic Muses are defined as “scenicas meretriculas” (Cons. 1.1,8), which has normally been read as the author’s rejection of poetry in favor of Philosophy. Lombardo points out that, in fact, medieval commentaries often interpreted this passage not as Boethius’s rejection of poetry tout court, but specifically of the elegiac Muses in favor of a more philosophical form of poetry. Even so, however, the Consolatio offered no suitable model for Dante’s depiction of the Muses as “holy.” Besides the exceptionality of the Ilias’s definition of the cohort of the Muses as sancta, the particular context of this association – namely, a nautical metaphor and an invocation to Calliope – would also support the intertextual relationship between the end of the Ilias and the opening canto of Purgatorio.

The presumed originality of Dante’s qualification of the Muses as “holy” has often prompted dantisti to interpret this epithet as an example of the poet’s Christianization of ancient pagan imagery.[16] Without challenging this hypothesis, however, it is also possible to propose that the Ilias offered Dante a formal model for the association of the ancient Muses with “holy” virgins, as he names them in his Purgatorio.[17]

The popularity of the Ilias in medieval education, together with the textual echoes I have proposed, and the evidence that medieval accessus did not qualify the Ilias as a translation, should invite to reopen the question whether and to what degree Dante might have been familiar with the Ilias latina. The fact that Dante states that Homer had never been translated may reflect a deliberate choice on the part of the author. Valentina Prosperi’s conclusion about Dante’s reception of the Trojan Chronicles may suitably apply also to the poet’s ambivalent stance toward the Ilias: “Restoring these texts to Dante’s knowledge gives us a new chance to appreciate his complete independence from even the most pervasive sources in favor of consistent artistic and ideological creation.”[18] Dante’s allusions to and silences about this and other medieval school texts ought to be carefully interpreted in light of the poet’s intellectual and artistic agenda.

*I wish to dedicate this note to Hildegund Müller, in recognition of all the time she has spent reading with me: best learning experience ever.

[1] On Dante’s ignorance of the Ilias, see Guido Martellotti, “Omero,” in Enciclopedia Dantesca. Recently, Robert Black has argued that Dante’s education was perhaps even more limited than previously suggested, and that the poet did not even have a solid elementary Latin education.  The poet’s admission of his lack of confidence in reading Boethius and Cicero’s Latin (Conv. 2.12), his seeming ignorance of the Ilias latina (Conv. 1.7.15), and the rather elementary sample sentences that he deploys in De vulgari eloquentia 2.6.4, may all be signs of limited Latin training. See Robert, Black, “Education,” in Dante in Context, eds. Zygmunt G. Barański and Lino Pertile (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 260–76.

[2] Benvenuto da Imola, comm. Inferno 26.136-142. All commentaries to Dante’s poem are cited from the Dartmouth Dante Project: http://dante.dartmouth.edu. A recent study by Valentina Prosperi shows that several loci in Dante’s works bespeak his knowledge of the two Trojan legends. Valentina Prosperi, “‘Even Children and the Uneducated Know Them:’ The Medieval Trojan Legends in Dante’s Commedia,” Medievalia et Humanistica, n.s. 40 (2015): 83–112.

[3] Baebii Italici Ilias Latina, ed. and transl. by Marco Scaffai (Bologna: Pàtron, 1982), 29–36. The most relevant manuscript studies on the diffusion of the Liber Catonianus-type of anthologies and their use in medieval schools are Marcus Boas, “De librorum catonianorum historia atque compositione,” Mnemosyne, n.s. 42 (1914): 17–46; and Idem, “Cato und die Grabschrift der Allia Potestas,” Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 81 (1932): 178–86.

[4] The manuscript Florence, Biblioteca Riccardiana, 1221.2, for instance, dates from the first half of the thirteenth century. It contains the text of the Ilias with simple interlinear vernacular glosses of southern Italian provenance, as well as other annotations, all made by “an unformed hand,” probably belonging to a pupil. Robert Black, Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy: Tradition and Innovation in Latin Schools from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001): 199. Black’s conclusion concerning Dante’s ignorance of the very existence of the Ilias comes, thus, as a surprise. It is certainly conceivable that the poet had no first-hand knowledge of the Latin epitome. The possibility, however, that he did not even know of its existence appears less likely, given its use in contemporary education. On the diffusion of the Ilias during the medieval period, see also Marco Scaffai and Paolo Serra Zanetti, “Tradizione manoscritta dell’Ilias latina,” in In uerbis uerum amare: Miscellanea dell’Istituto di filologia latina e medioevale dell'Università di Bologna (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1980): 205–77.

[5] Scaffai, Baebii Italici, 34–36.

[6] Accessus ad auctores, Bernard d’Utrecht, Conrad d’Hirsau: Dialogus super auctores; Édition critique, ed. R. B. C. Huygens (Leiden: Brill, 1970), 25–26.

[7] I thank Hildegund Müller for pointing me to this decisive evidence.

[8] Scaffai, Baebii Italici, 11–13.

[9] Scaffai, Bebii Italici, 83.

[10] See, for instance, the acrostics in Purg. 12.25–58 and Par. 19.115-141. See also Antonio Soro, “Pesce in Paradiso V.97-109: Un Acrostico Inverso,” Electronic Bulletin of the Dante Society of America (Feburary 16, 2009).

[11] I thank Simone Marchesi for suggesting this parallel.

[12] Scaffai (Bebii Italici, 190) translates sancta as an attribute limited to Calliope alone. Even though grammatically both readings are possible, Scaffai’s is syntactically more pertinent. The fact, however, that Calliope may be singled out as sancta among her sisters does not deprive the whole lot of this attribute, which, it should be noted, remains a rare feature to be found in such a context.

[13] Benvenuto is the first to propose that Dante might have derived the attribute “sante” from Cicero’s Pro Archia, where the Latin orator asserts that the muses “faciunt homines sanctos et sacros” (Benvenuto, comm. Purg. 1.7-12). The fact that Cicero does not call the muses “sanctae,” but rather the poets, who are inspired by the muses, is perhaps a less damning element than the philological circumstance that Cicero’s Pro Archia, like other Ciceronian texts, was “rediscovered” and circulated long after Dante’s death.

[14] Once again, I thank Hildegund Müller for suggesting this hypothesis to me.

[15] Luca Lombardo, Boezio in Dante: La ‘Consolatio philosophiae’ nello scrittoio del poeta (Venice: Edizioni Ca’ Foscari, 2013).

[16] Giuseppe Giacalone’s commentary on Purg.1.8 (1968) provides a good example of this critical view: “Del resto è consuetudine, anche di Dante, reinterpretare la mitologia pagana in chiave cristiano-figurale, al punto da considerare le divinità pagane come metafore e prefigurazioni di ideali cristiani. Per Dante le Muse sono sante, perché la poesia è nel mondo antico l’unica anticipazione della santità.” The same conclusion has been proposed also by later commentators such as Robert Hollander and Nicola Fosca.

[17] It is also worth noting the antagonistic parallel between Dante’s mention of the “Piche misere” and the Ilias’s naming of the muses as “Pierides.” 

[18] Prosperi, “Even Children,” 83.