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In Classical Greek the word kanōn (lit. ‘rod’) was used to mean ‘rule’ or ‘standard’; hence its use as the title of a manual on proportions by the sculptor Polyclitus (2) and as the name of a statue illustrating his principles. The word was later applied by Christian writers to what became the approved selection of books of the Bible, but it was not used in pagan antiquity in the sense of a list of chosen ‘best authors’. (Dionysius of Halicarnassus uses it of (e.g.) Lysias as ‘the perfect model of the Attic dialect’ (Lys. 2), and Photius in the 9th cent. ce applies it to any author who represents the ‘standard’ of the genre or the model for another writer: e.g. Thucydides (2) is the kanōn for Cassius Dio, Bibl. 35b33.) The idea of compiling lists of the best writers in a particular genre, such as the Nine Lyric Poets, was attributed by Roman writers to Alexandrian scholars, particularly Aristarchus (2) and Aristophanes (2) of Byzantium (Quint. Inst. 10. 1. 54). This makes sense in so far as much of the scholarship of the time was devoted to the rescue, classification, and exegesis of earlier literature, and the Alexandrians could use the books in their Library, with Callimachus (3)'s Pinakes as the major work of reference, to tell them which authors had stood the test of time (qui vetustatem pertulerunt, Quint. Inst. 10. 1. 40). But they must also have been familiar with the much earlier lists of the type ‘the Nine Muses’ or ‘the Seven Sages’, and it is possible that (e.g.) the Nine Lyric Poets already formed a recognizable group.

The Alexandrians themselves seem to have used the term ‘those included’ (οἱ ἐγκριθέντες‎) for the select authors; in Latin the favoured term was classici, and Quintilian used ordo and numerus to designate a selective list. The ‘included’ authors had a much better chance of survival than those not listed, partly because their works (or some of them) attracted scholarly commentary and were thus more easily studied, and more likely to be available for recopying, by successive generations. Papyrus discoveries have tended to confirm the influence of the Alexandrian lists: Menander (1), Bacchylides, and Hyperides, all notable rediscoveries, are known to have been among the ‘included’ authors.

The choice of certain numbers, especially three and multiples of three, was no doubt useful as a mnemonic device, but it gives a misleading sense of authority and fixity to lists which were in fact subject to variation. Even the famous three great tragedians, familiar without further identification as early as the 4th cent. bce (Diog. Laert. 5. 88), could appear in a list with Ion (2) of Chios and Achaeus (2) as well as on their own (TrGF 12 CAT A 3), and the ten Attic Orators are not always the same ten (or ten at all). Even the biblical canon, with its strong theological implications, has not always been defined in exactly the same terms, despite belief in its divine authority and unalterability. The pagan lists (of authors, not books) were certainly less authoritative, and the term ‘canon’ itself is probably best avoided, as Pfeiffer warned. It was first used in the modern sense by David Ruhnken in 1768, in an essay tracing the history of the ancient lists which displays a sharp awareness of their limitations. The most that can be said is that the ancients had a pragmatic sense of which were the ‘best’, or most useful or most famous, authors in the different genres, and that it was works by these authors that by and large formed the basis of the educational system in late antiquity. The very strong emphasis placed by ancient educators on speaking and writing skills, with rhetorical composition as the summit of achievement, gave pride of place to the imitation of admired models (see education, roman).

Out of the ancient works that were known or rediscovered during the Renaissance, markedly different ‘canonical’ selections have been made in different periods, and the changing process of reception continues, with new theoretical and political implications as western culture itself is held up to scrutiny.


D. Ruhnken, Historia critica oratorum graecorum, also contains text of Rutilius Lupus, De figuris (1768).Find this resource:

    R. Pfeiffer, A History of Classical Scholarship 1 (1968), with earlier bibliography.Find this resource:

      P. Ackroyd and C. Evans, Cambridge History of the Bible 1 (1970).Find this resource:

        Critical Inquiry (1983): Canons.Find this resource:

          A. and J. Assmann (eds.), Kanon und Zensur 1987.Find this resource:

            Annals of Scholarship 10/1 (1993): Reinterpreting the Classics.Find this resource:

              J. Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993).Find this resource:

                T. Morgan, Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds (1998).Find this resource:

                  J. Porter (ed.), Classical Pasts: The Classical Traditions of Greece and Rome (2006).Find this resource:

                    L. Hardwick and C. Stray (eds.), A Companion to Classical Receptions (2008).Find this resource:

                      For Polyclitus: J. J. Pollitt, The Art of Ancient Greece, 2nd edn. (1990).Find this resource:

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