2010-05-04

Chronicle of Hippolytus

This has not been one of the major reasons for my latest blog detox, but I've become involved in a translation project, which has cost me a few evenings and will cost me a few yet.

Tom Schmidt has worked on a translation of Hippolytus' Chronicle—a text I'd already noticed in my TLG work because of its morass of unknown proper names. I've helped Tom revise the translation, and he has just posted the second edition on his blog. There will be a third edition sometime over the next couple of months, which will deal with why I was interested in the text in the first place. And somewhere in there, there will be Cool Google Earth tricks.

Let me take things from the start.

Hippolytus' Chronicle was written in 235 AD. Chronicles as we know them are informal bits of history, assembled around the scaffolding of reigns of kings, and plot synopses of the narrative from Genesis up to the Roman Empire. Hippolytus provides some of that scaffolding, from the Biblical side, as one of the first Christian forays into writing history: lists of high priests, judges, the begats of Adam and Abraham, and the list of the 70 peoples dispersed at Babel (with some post-Genesis interpretations of who those peoples had ended up as).

The list is garbled from the Septuagint in places: in fact the second redaction of the chronicle, written a century later, corrects some of the garblings. But the chronicle (in its slightly corrected variant) was enormously influential: its lists turn up at the beginning of tens of chronicles, in Greek, Latin, and Armenian. In fact these later copies help us reconstruct the original text, since the surviving text closest to Hippolytus' original, the Madrid manuscript, still has gaps in it.

The Madrid manuscript also includes a text absent from all other versions: a mariner's guide to sailing the coast of North Africa, and a (possibly distinct) guide to Syria, Asia Minor, Cyprus, and Crete. This text is known as the Stadiasmus or Periplus Maris Magni: "The Measurement In Stades, Or Circumnavigation Of The Great Sea, videlicet, The Mediterranean."

The Periplus is not attributed to Hippolytus, and indeed it may not even have been Hippolytus himself who included it in the chronicle text. But someone saw its huge list of place names, and thought it would fit right in with Hippolytus' begats and lists of peoples. It was published by Müller in 1855, before Hippolytus' Chronicle proper, but the text is still included in Helm's 1955 edition.

As you can see from our rendering (or the Latin or Greek in Müller's edition), the Periplus lavishes attention on every little nook of the African coastline: its approach to Asia Minor is more summary, which is why Helm thinks it conflates two separate itineraries. But as the discussion in the Barrington Atlas explains, its excruciating detail is not because sailing North Africa was a pleasure cruise. The route had huge commercial importance, and Egypt was still the breadbasket of the empire; but the coast was sparsely populated, dangerous, and parched. That's why the Periplus spends so much attention on where to find water. And why mariners had to know the tertiary (III) meaning of the adjective πλατύς: πλατὺ ὕδωρ was not "broad water", but "brackish".

Hippolytus' Chronicle attracted my attention in my TLG work, because I'm ever on the lookout for unfamiliar proper names, and the Chronicle has them aplenty, between every single port in North Africa, and the twisted tribal names of the Caucasus or Libya. (Hippolytus' Taramantes are the Garamantes, for example: tau looks a lot like a gamma.) So I was eager to help out with working the names out, with reference to the secondary literature: the Barrington Atlas, Smith's much older (but freely online) Geographical Dictionary, and Müller's edition—which was much bolder than Helm in meddling with the Periplus' placenames, to match Ptolemy and Strabo.

The version we've just put up has not done that work yet: in fact you can tell where I left off footnoting. It's a big job, with several sources to check, and we didn't want to hold off making it available until it was perfect. That's not the way publishing works on the Intertubes, after all: early feedback is good, and all that. We will go back over the place names in the next month or so.

The major task in doing that will be to reconcile the placenames of the Periplus with the persistent identifiers of the Pleiades project, drawn from the Barrington Atlas, which is how we'll find the canonical form of the place names. (More on those identifiers here and here.) That way—to reconcile my day job with my other vocations—we can harness URIs to draw references from classical texts into the Semantic Web, and the other goodies that the Web now makes possible. Such as plotting the Periplus onto Google Earth. (Cf. the geocoded Bible on Openbible.info.)

But that's for the next month or so; the place names are still left buggy for now, but any and all feedback is welcome. Please leave comments over at Tom's blog if you do have feedback.

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The Other Place (opɯcɯluklɑr)

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