17 Chapter Thirteen Homer, Venice, and Byzantium: Aldus Manutius’ First Edition of the Iliad

Felix Szabo

The tenth-century Byzantine manuscript known as Venetus A is one of the oldest surviving complete copy of Homer’s Iliad. It is without a doubt a scholar’s edition of the text—in addition to the poem itself, the manuscript contains copious commentary known as scholia compiled and derived from ancient scholars. Like so many Byzantine artifacts, after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 the manuscript eventually came to reside in Venice. Not long after the manuscript’s arrival, Venice would become the epicenter of yet another important Homeric development: Aldus Manutius’ first edition of the Iliad was printed in Venice in 1504. Though this was not the first printed edition of Homer’s poems, due to the name and fame of its publisher it would become one of the most influential developments in Homeric scholarship since the poems were first recorded in writing in the sixth century BCE. Given this close association of material, time, and place, it is natural to assume that Aldus must have consulted the Venetus manuscripts for the preparation of his printed edition. Yet evidence seems to indicate that this was not the case. How, then, could Aldus have managed to produce such a successful edition of Homer without consulting the Venetus A? This chapter will investigate this question through a series of historical contextualizations: first, by exploring the relationship of Venice and Byzantium; then, by examination of the literary and cultural climate surrounding the 1504 Iliad’s publication; and then, finally, by briefly considering the implications of the Aldus-Venetus disconnect.


Venice and Byzantium

Of all the Italian city-states which remained tied to Byzantium, perhaps nowhere was this relationship more important than Venice. Venice was the only one of the Italian maritime republics—the most powerful of which, aside from Venice, were Genoa, Amalfi, and Pisa—to maintain major ties to Constantinople throughout the medieval period, keeping relatively good relations with the eastern Emperor and amassing a comparatively rich wealth of Byzantine artifacts, from precious reliquaries and enamels (like those on the Pala d’Oro) to books and manuscripts (including the famous Venetus manuscripts of Homer).

This relationship would persist even after the Fourth Crusade, when Venice would become one of the major stopping points of Byzantine émigrés before and after the Turkish conquest of 1453. Venice’s unique status would eventually lead to its establishment as one of the major centers of Greek learning in the early Italian Renaissance, as we shall see illustrated here in this chapter in the first (1504) edition of Aldus Manutius’ Iliad.

The relationship of Venice and Byzantium go back almost to the near-mythical origins of both cities. During Late Antiquity, Ravenna and Aquileia were two of the most important Byzantine cities in Italy; it was from Ravenna that the general Narses oversaw the newly reconquered peninsula after successfully concluding the Gothic War in Justinian’s favor,[1] and it was again from Ravenna that the Ostrogothic kings ruled as the emperor’s viceregents. Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (r. 913–59) was remarkably knowledgeable about the history and topography of this distant, theoretically subject Italian city.[2] Early historically-attested Dukes of Venice commonly bore Byzantine honorific titles, such as protospatharios, hypatos, and magistros,[3] some of which would go on in later centuries to be used as family surnames. Even when the Venetians turned on Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, they at least seemed to appreciate the value of their ill-gotten gains: their spoils decorated the most important of the city’s civic spaces, the facade of Saint Mark’s Basilica. Venice’s insidious role in the Fourth Crusade notwithstanding, there was probably a respectably-sized Greek community in Venice as early as the late thirteenth century, comprised of individuals from all social classes.[4] Venetian art met Florentine “Roman-oriented visual language” with its own Byzantine responses.[5] During the fifteenth century, this relationship would continue to grow and evolve, especially as Venice gained—and exercised—substantial prestige and power in the arena of Italian politics.

Venice had pursued this goal for much of the preceding century. Michele Steno, crowned Doge in 1400, had overseen the subsumption of Verona, Vincenza, and Padua into the Venetian Republic. Over the course of the fifteenth century, Venice would furnish the Holy See with three Popes: Gregory XII, Eugene IV, and Paul II. Despite menaces from France, Turkey, and Milan, Venice remained independent and militarily capable throughout this tumultuous century—even enduring the employ of three of the greatest (and occasionally most mercurial) condottieri in Italian history, namely, Francesco Bussone, the Count of Carmagnola, Erasmo of Narni (Gattamelata), and Bartolomeo Colleoni. Shortly after the publication of the first Aldine Homer, she would see most of the powers of Western Europe united against her in the first stages of the War of the League of Cambrai (1508–10).

This is the context in which Aldus Manutius began his printing enterprise. Ever the pragmatists, the Venetians naturally realized the immense potential for profit to be derived from their near-monopoly of Greek knowledge in Italy. Venice represented a trinity of resources for this purpose: elite interest, plentiful knowledge, and copious source material. Not only was the city copiously supplied with rich and interested elites, it was also home to, or within relatively easy letter-writing distance of, a significant population of Greek intellectual notables such as Demetrius Chalcondylas, Arsenius Apostolis, and Cardinal Bessarion. Venice was one of the largest repositories of Byzantine manuscripts in Western Europe.[6] To this day, many of the most important extant Byzantine manuscripts are located in Venetian libraries: the Menologion of Basil II (Biblioteca Marciana MS Gr. 17), an illuminated copy of Pseudo-Callisthenes’ Alexander Romance (Ms. Marcianus Graecus 408), and the Venetus manuscripts of Homer, commonly known as Venetus A (Marcianus Graecus Z. 454 [=822]) and Venetus B (Marcianus Graecus Z. 453 [= 821]). These manuscripts, then as now, form an indispensable basis for textual scholarship and criticism—particularly, in the case of the Venetus A and B, Homeric criticism.


The Venetian Cultural Matrix

Yet Homer had been lost to the West since the loss of Greek. At least one Antique attempt at translation seems to have existed, and even persisted into the medieval period: the so-called Ilias Latina, a straightforward but rather unchallenging paraphrase of which we know only the author’s name. Though attributed in the Middle Ages to Homer (and sometimes even to Pindar of Thebes) the opening and closing lines of the poem form an acrostic, which declares “Italicus wrote this” (“ITALICVS SCRIPSIT”).[7] Italicus seems to have relied minimally on the Greek original for his translation, apparently operating from his own memory of the poem’s events.[8] Nevertheless, this poem was read in Carolingian schools and even beyond.[9] After the Ilias Latina, an extremely rudimentary interlinear translation the Iliad by Leontius Pilatus appears in the second half of the fourteenth century (1368). With the help of his pupil Boccaccio, Pilatus eventually secured a position teaching Greek at the University of Florence, the first such position held in Western Europe since Antiquity, but the quality of his translation left much to be desired.[10] In the following century Lorenzo Valla, humanist and Latinist par excellence, would be commissioned by the King of Aragon to translate the Iliad into Latin prose. Valla’s translation, completed in the 1440s, would only be printed in 1474.

The tenth-century manuscript of Homer’s Iliad, now known as Venetus A, is first known to have belonged to Cardinal Basil Bessarion. Bessarion had played a major role in the Council of Ferrara (1438) and the Council of Florence (1445), the last major attempts at Byzantine-Latin reconciliation prior to the Ottoman conquest. After the fall of the Constantinople, Bessarion (as Latin Patriarch of the city) played a major role in exporting Byzantine culture to the West in hopes of preserving it. His library, donated in 1468 and constituting an important nucleus of what is now the Biblioteca Marciana, was dedicated to the Republic of Venice with the hope that it would serve Bessarion’s fellow expatriates as a repository of Greek culture outside of Greece.[11] How well the Republic lived up to Bessarion’s hopes for managing his library is a matter for debate as it evidently was left in the boxes in which it had been delivered for well over fifty years, and Aldus—though practically next door to where it was being kept—seems to have never actually consulted the Venetus MSS of Homer. The implication of his original donation sends a clear message. Whether or not the library would actually go on to be curated according to his wishes, Bessarion certainly expected that it would be used.

The manuscript itself is a large (390 x 290 mm), high-quality work, probably executed in Constantinople during the height of the so-called Macedonian Renaissance.[12] Though tension occasionally arose between the juxtaposition of Christian and pagan values, the role of Homer was constantly and centrally important in Byzantine cultural and intellectual life. Although theoretically Roman, Byzantium preserved little of the Latin literary canon. Latin itself seems to have become mostly extinct at least by the time of Heraclius (r. 610–41), if not earlier.[13] In the absence of Virgil, whose role in education is attested by numerous Pompeiian graffiti, children learned to read on Homer and the Psalms.[14] Even girls, who typically were educated on the Psalms alone, could (as Anna Comnena did) sneak it into their education by the entreaty of sympathetic courtiers and teachers.[15] Exclusive court circles made their own Homeric inside jokes, as the eleventh-century historian Psellus vividly records in his Chronographia:

One day, when we, the imperial secretaries, were all together, the empress’ retinue was taking part in a procession. Zoe [Porphyrogenita] herself and her sister Theodora walked in on this procession, followed by the Augusta, a new title granted [to the mistress of Constantine IX Monomachus, Helena] Sclerena by the empresses, at the instigation of Constantine. As they were on their way – the route led them to the theatre, and this was the first time the ordinary people had seen Sclerena in company with Zoe and Theodora – one of the subtle flatterers softly quoted Homer’s ‘It were no shame . . .’ [Iliad 3.156–7: ‘It were no shame for Trojans and well-greaved Achaeans if for long time they suffer hardship for a woman like this one,’ i.e., for Helen of Troy] but did not complete the lines. At the time Sclerena gave no sign of having heard these words, but when the ceremony was over, she sought out the man who had uttered them and asked him what they meant. …As soon as he told her the story in detail, and the crowd showed its approval of his interpretation of the anecdote as well as of the Homeric reference, she was filled with pride and her flatterer was rewarded for his compliment.[16]

Nor did this tendency decline after Psellus’ time. Anna Comnena, herself Psellus’ student, bases many of her idolizing, ekphrastic comparisons of her parents to Achilles (representing Alexius, naturally) or even Athena on Homeric sources. These descriptions in turn provided historiographical justification for their superiority, whether over attempted internal usurpations or external threats, such as the Normans, against which Alexius almost constantly fought.[17] The Odyssey remained known and read, if less frequently than the Iliad.[18] An introduction to Homer was almost de rigeur for the foreign empresses imported to Byzantium with such frequency, and formed a major part of their cultural initiation to Byzantium particularly under the Comneni.[19] Homeric reception and scholarship suffered, but continued, under the Latin empire,[20] and would eventually crystallize―as we will shortly see―in the work of Cardinal Bessarion.

Bessarion had already restored certain portions of the manuscript himself by the time of its arrival in Venice, but several interesting if incompletely-executed folia (including a Vita Homeri, Proclus’ Chrestomathia, and a series of illustrations) remained unbound.[21] The Venetus A is “the oldest complete text of the Iliad in existence,”[22] yet it represents the pinnacle of Byzantine scholarly acumen. The manuscript includes copious scholia, marginal commentary on the text of the poem taken from ancient and late antique authorities.[23] Each book of the poem is introduced by a line of dactylic hexameter outlining its content, from alpha (“Alpha: prayers of Chryses; plague among the army; enmity of the leaders”) to omega (“Omega: Achilleus, having taken a ransom, gives Priam the corpse of his son”).[24] The Venetus A provides the basis for most modern editions of the Iliad.[25] Both Venetus manuscripts, for example, are listed among the sigla of the Oxford Classical Text edition of the poem.[26] Yet, it seems that the Venetus A was not well-known by the early publishers of the Iliad like Demetrios Chalkondylas, and that Aldus Manutius—despite close physical and social proximity to the manuscripts—never actually consulted them.[27]

What, then, could have made Venice so attractive as a potential venue in which to publish books in Greek? The most obvious solution is that of demographic appeal. Not only was Venice home to one of the largest communities of the post-conquest diaspora, it had a significant printing industry from which to draw labor and the aforementioned great libraries of the Venetian state from which to draw material.[28] A pre-existing community of Italian Hellenists and wide-ranging trade connections further enhanced its appeal.[29] Printing Greek was not as easy as printing Latin; after the text itself had been established—itself a long and laborious process—it had to be set, proofed, and finally reread by someone “not only skilled in the technical aspects of typography but also familiar with the style of the author in question.”[30] Yet Aldus surely recognized the immense potential of operating a Greek press in such a Hellenophilic environment. After setting up his press, he had established his own personal Academy, the Neaccademia, whose members were required to speak in Greek and reportedly had to pay a fine if they misspoke.[31] Nor could he have been blind to the appeal of Homer, the greatest of the ancient poets—praised by Dante, agonized over by Petrarch, and eagerly chased after by Boccaccio. By the time of Aldus Manutius, Italy no longer had only the desire to engage with the Greek classics, a desire that in one form or another had remained constant since Antiquity. Instead, thanks to the work of Byzantine émigrés like Manuel Chrysoloras, Demetrius Chalcondylas, and Marco Musuro, the Italy of Manutius’ day now also possessed the knowledge and means with which to engage with these texts. This potential was realized, in no small part, by the first Aldine edition of the complete works of Homer. Now, in the final portion of this essay, we will examine a copy of this edition and in doing so contextualize many of these high-level cultural and philological developments.


The Aldus-Venetus Disconnect

This copy of the first Aldine edition of Homer is a testament to the Aldine mission as a whole. Printed in Venice in 1504, this particular copy survived a number of later collectors and annotators (including one whose notes were taken in a script that remains unknown) but remains in fairly good condition. It is the first volume of two printed by the Aldine press, which between them contain all the works traditionally ascribed to Homer: the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Homeric Hymns, and even the Batrachomyomachia, the fanciful and parodic “War of the Frogs and the Mice.” In addition, this edifying material is supplemented by a variety of introductory works, including a dedicatory letter from Aldus himself along with several ancient lives of Homer, from Herodotus, Plutarch, and Dio Chrysostom. Each volume contains (though not in the same place) the famous Aldine printer’s device, a fearsome and rather sinuous dolphin entwined around an anchor, all encapsulated by Aldus’ name.

Aldus’ Homer was not the first edition of Homer to be printed in Italy. That honor went to Chalcondylas, whose editio princeps of the Iliad was published in Florence in 1488. Nor was it even the first work of Homer to be printed in Venice—the Batrachomyomachia had been published nearby in Murano at the monastery of Saint Peter the Martyr in 1496.[32] Aldus himself would eventually publish an edition of Chrysoloras’ Erotemata in 1484, in addition to a Constantine Lascaris’ Grammatica, in 1495. The typeface in which he does so is based on the handwriting of his friend Marco Musuro, engraved in Bologna by Francesco Griffo.[33]

The first Aldine edition of Homer is perhaps most striking, in comparison to its medieval ancestors or even many of its incunable predecessors, for its size. The book itself is relatively small: it’s fairly substantial in heft (286 sheets, or 572 pages as we would think of them today), but is only 17 centimeters tall. Compared to such tomes as the Venetus A, this smaller and infinitely more affordable format offered scholars economy and portability with which no manuscript could compete. Manutius was the first printer to offer such small editions of the classics—let alone the Greek classics—and the book’s portable size (the precursor to modern trade paperbacks) helped to offset the considerable, though no longer astronomical, expense of its purchase.[34] Once a potential scholar of Homer had learned Greek, with this book in hand he would no longer be tied to the library of a particular city or noble family. This meant greater freedom to travel throughout Italy or even throughout Europe, which in turn facilitated the exchange of scholarly thought throughout the West. The resulting positive feedback loop led to an explosion of scholarship, laying the foundations for much modern Homeric scholarship in turn.

None of this explains the disconnect between Aldus’ excellent scholarly edition and his apparent non-use of the Venetus manuscripts. The Venetus A was one of the best copies of Homer’s works available at the time, so why didn’t Aldus consult it? Yet upon further consideration, this disconnect may not be so strange after all: there may simply not have been any need to do so. Given Venice’s longstanding Byzantine inheritance, there may have been source manuscripts available of sufficient quality that Aldus may not have needed to consult the Venetus A. Thus, Aldus’ sources for the 1504 Iliad must have been contemporary – and, in themselves, a fascinating glimpse into the philhellenic culture of Renaissance Venice.



Keywords: Dante, Arsenius Apostolis, Basil II, Basilios Bessarion, Giovanni Boccaccio, Francesco Bussone, Byzantium, canon, Christianity, Manuel Chrysoloras, Dio Chrysostom, Bartolomeo Colleonii, Anna Comnena, Constantine VII, Constantinople, dedicatory epistles, Erasmo of Narni, Eugene IV, Florentine (dialect), France, Greece, Greek, Gregory XII, Francesco Griffo, Heraclius, Herodotus, illustration, interpretation, Italian, Italy, Amalfi, Aquileia, Bologna, Florence, Genoa, Milan, Padua, Ravenna, Rome, Venice, Verona, Vincenza, Justinian, Constantine Lascaris, Latin, Aldus Manutius, Marco Musuro, Narses, Pala d’Oro , commentary, dedicatory epistles, patron, Paul II, Petrarch, philology, Leontius Pilatus, Pindar of Thebes, plague, Proclus, Michael Psellus, Pseudo-Callisthenes, Aragon-Spain, Michele Steno, Turkey, typography, Lorenzo Valla, Venetus A, Virgil




Blackwell, Christopher W., and Casey Dué. “Homer and History in the Venetus A.” In Recapturing a Homeric Legacy: Images and Insights from the Venetus A Manuscript of the Iliad, edited by Casey Dué, 1–18. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2009.

Browning, Robert. “Homer in Byzantium.” Viator 6 (1975): 15–33.

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. De Administrando Imperio. Edited by G. Moravcsik. Translated by Romilly Jenkins. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, 1967.

Dué, Casey. “Epea Pteroenta: How We Came to Have Our Iliad.” In Recapturing a Homeric Legacy: Images and Insights from the Venetus A Manuscript of the Iliad, 19–30. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2009.

Falkenhausen, Vera von. “Greeks in Italy at the Time of Dante (1265–1321).” In Dante and the Greeks, edited by Jan M. Ziolkowski. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2014.

Geanakoplos, Deno. Greek Scholars in Venice: Studies in the Dissemination of Greek Learning from Byzantium to Western Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Grendler, Paul F. The Universities of the Italian Renaissance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Hennessy, Cecily. “Young People in Byzantium.” In A Companion to Byzantium, edited by Liz James, 81–92. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Kaegi, Walter. Heraclius: Emperor of Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Kennedy, George A. Introduction to The Latin Iliad: Introduction, Text, Translation, and Notes. Fort Collins, CO: George A. Kennedy, 1998.

Magno, Alessandro Marzo. Bound in Venice: The Serene Republic and the Dawn of the Book. Translated by Gregory Conti. New York: Europa Editions, 2013.

Marcon, Susy. “Introduction: A Lovely Edition of the Iliad of Homer, on Parchment.” In Recapturing a Homeric Legacy: Images and Insights from the Venetus A Manuscript of the Iliad, edited by Casey Dué, xi–xiv. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2009.

Monro, David B., and Thomas W. Allen. Introduction to Iliad, Books I–XII. Vol. 1, Homeri Opera. Oxford Classical Texts. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford Classical Press, 1920.

Nicol, Donald M. Byzantium and Venice: A Study in Diplomatic and Cultural Relations. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Pincus, Debra. “Venice and the Two Romes: Byzantium and Rome as a Double Heritage in Venetian Cultural Politics.” Artibus et Historiae 13, no. 26 (1992): 101–14.

Psellos, Michael. Fourteen Byzantine Rulers [Chronographia]. Translated by E. R. A. Sewter. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966.

Zorzi, Marino. Foreword to Recapturing a Homeric Legacy: Images and Insights from the Venetus A Manuscript of the Iliad, edited by Casey Dué, vii–x. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2009.

  1. Donald M. Nicol, Byzantium and Venice: A Study in Diplomatic and Cultural Relations (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 2–3.
  2. Ibid., 20–21. For an example of Constantine’s encyclopedic knowledge of the distant western city, see De Administrando Imperio, ed. G. Moravcsik and trans. Romilly Jenkins (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, 1967), 28.
  3. Nicol, Byzantium and Venice, 50.
  4. Vera von Falkenhausen, “Greeks in Italy at the Time of Dante (1265–1321),” in Dante and the Greeks, ed. Jan M. Ziolkowski (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2014), 389.
  5. Debra Pincus, “Venice and the Two Romes: Byzantium and Rome as a Double Heritage in Venetian Cultural Politics,” Artibus et Historiae 13, no. 26 (1992): 106.
  6. Nicol, Byzantium and Venice, 420.
  7. George A. Kennedy, introduction to The Latin Iliad: Introduction, Text, Translation, and Notes (Fort Collins, CO: George A. Kennedy, 1998), 9.
  8. Ibid., 11.
  9. Ibid., 13.
  10. Paul F. Grendler, The Universities of the Italian Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 78.
  11. Marino Zorzi, foreword to Recapturing a Homeric Legacy: Images and Insights from the Venetus A Manuscript of the Iliad, ed. Casey Dué (Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2009), ix.
  12. Susy Marcon, “Introduction: A Lovely Edition of the Iliad of Homer, on Parchment,” in Recapturing a Homeric Legacy, xiii.
  13. Walter Kaegi, Heraclius: Emperor of Byzantium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 22, 30, 35.
  14. Cecily Hennessy, “Young People in Byzantium,” in A Companion to Byzantium, ed. Liz James (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 87.
  15. Robert Browning, “Homer in Byzantium,” Viator 6 (1975), 16.
  16. Michael Psellos, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers [Chronographia], trans. E. R. A. Sewter (Baltimore: Penguin, 1966), 6.61.
  17. See, for example, Alexiad 1.10, 2.10, 5.7, and elsewhere.
  18. Browning, “Homer in Byzantium,” 17.
  19. Ibid., 27.
  20. Ibid., 29.
  21. Marcon, “Introduction,” xiv.
  22. Christopher W. Blackwell and Casey Dué, “Homer and History in the Venetus A,” in Recapturing a Homeric Legacy, 1.
  23. Ibid., 6–9.
  24. Ibid., 10–12.
  25. Casey Dué, “Epea Pteroenta: How We Came to Have Our Iliad,” in Recapturing a Homeric Legacy, 26.
  26. David B. Monro and Thomas W. Allen, introduction to Iliad, Books I–XII, vol. 1, Homeri Opera, Oxford Classical Texts, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford Classical Press, 1920), xx.
  27. Dué, “Epea Pteroenta,” 27.
  28. Deno Geanakoplos, Greek Scholars in Venice: Studies in the Dissemination of Greek Learning from Byzantium to Western Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), 117–118.
  29. Geanakoplos, Greek Scholars in Venice, 119.
  30. Ibid., 119–120.
  31. Alessandro Marzo Magno, Bound in Venice: The Serene Republic and the Dawn of the Book, trans. Gregory Conti (New York: Europa Editions, 2013), 55.
  32. Magno, Bound in Venice, 113.
  33. Ibid., 120.
  34. Ibid., 54–55.


Homer Among the Moderns Copyright © by Felix Szabo. All Rights Reserved.

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