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Dictys Cretensis

The grammarians and other writers who belong to the decline of the Roman empire, misled probably by the figments of the Alexandrian sophists, believed that various persons who flourished at the time of the Trojan war, had committed to writing, in prose and verse, records of the principal events, and that Homer had derived from these sources the materials for his poem. In this number was included Dictys of Crete, a follower of Idomeneus.


The name Dictys of Crete is attached to a narrative in Latin prose, divided into six books, entitled Dictys Cretensis de Bello Trojano, or perhaps more accurately, Ephemeris Belli Trojani, professing to be a journal of the leading events of the contest. To this is prefixed an introduction or prologue containing an account of the preservation and discovery of the work. We are here told that it was composed by Dictys of Gnossus at the joint request of Idomeneus and Meriones, and was inscribed in Phoenician characters on tablets of lime wood or paper made from the bark. The author having returned to Crete in his old age, gave orders with his dying breath that his book should be buried in the same grave with himself, and accordingly the MS. was enclosed in a chest of tin, and deposited in his tomb. There it remained undisturbed for ages, when in the thirteenth year of Nero's reign, the sepulchre was burst open by a terrible earthquake, the coffer was exposed to view, and observed by some shepherds, who, having ascertained that it did not, as they had at first hoped, contain a treasure, conveyed it to their master Eupraxis (or Eupraxides), who in his turn presented it to Rutilius Rufus, the Roman governor of the province, by whom both Eupraxis and the casket were despatched to the emperor. Nero, upon learning that the letters were Phoenician, summoned to his presence men skilled in that language, by whom the contents were explained. The whole having been translated into Greek, was deposited in one of the public libraries, and Eupraxis was dismissed loaded with rewards.

This introduction is followed by a letter addressed by a Q. Septimius Romanus to a Q. Arcadius Rufus, in which the writer, after giving the substance of the above tale, with a few variations, informs his friend, that the volume having fallen into his hands, he had been induced, for his own amusement and the instruction of others, to convert the whole, with some condensations, into the Latin tongue. It is worth remarking, that the author of the introduction supposes the original MS. of Dictys to have been written in the Phoenician language, while Septimius expressly asserts, that the characters alone were Phoenician and the language Greek. We may add to this account, that the writers of the Byzantine period, such as Joannes Malelas, Constantinus Porphyrogenitus, Georgius Cedrenus, Constantinus Manasses, Joannes and Isaacus Tzetzes, with others, quote largely from this Dictys as an author of the highest and most unquestionable authority, and he certainly was known as early as the age of Aelian.

The piece itself contains a history of the Trojan war from the birth of Paris, down to the death of Ulysses. The compiler not unfrequently differs widely from Homer, adding many particulars, and recording many events of which we find no trace elsewhere. Most of these, although old traditions and legends are obviously mingled with fictions of a later date, were probably derived from the bards of the epic cycle; but the whole narrative is carefully pragmatised, that is, all miraculous events and supernatural agency are entirely excluded. In style Septimius evidently strives hard to imitate the ancient models, especially Sallust, and occasionally not without success, although both in tone and phraseology we detect a close resemblance to the style of Appuleius and Aulus Gellius.

In the absence of all positive evidence, a wide field is thrown open for conjecture with regard to the real author of this work, the period at which it was actually composed, and the circumstances under which it was given to the world. Setting aside its alleged origin and discovery as quite unworthy of credit, many questions present themselves. Have we any proof that there ever was a Greek original at all ? If there was a Greek compilation on the same subject, are there sufficient grounds for believing that what we now possess was derived from it ? Is it not more probable that the Latin chronicle was the archetype, or, at all events, independent, and that the introduction and prefatory epistle were deliberate forgeries, devised for the purpose of attracting attention and securing respect in days of ignorance and credulity ? Again, if we admit that this is really a translation from a Greek original, at what epoch and in what manner did that original first appear ? Is the story of the presentation to Nero a pure fabrication ? Are Septimius and Arcadius real personages ? If they are, to what era do they belong ? To these inquiries, which have been an swered by different critics in most contradictory terms, we reply : 1. It is certain that a Greek history of the Trojan war bearing the name of Dictys was in circulation among the Byzantines named above, by some of whom, who had no knowledge of Latin, the ipsissima verba are cited. 2. It is impossible to read the Latin Dictys without feeling convinced that it is a translation. The Graecisms are numerous and palpable, so that no one who examines the examples adduced by Perizonius can entertain any doubt upon this head. 3. It is a translation, fairly executed, of the narrative used by the Byzantines. This is proved by its close correspondence with the fragments found in Malelas and others, while the want of absolute identity in particular passages is fully explained by the assumption that it was not a full and literal but a compressed and modified version. 4. These facts being established, we have no reasonable grounds for rejecting the epistle of Septimius to Arcadius as spurious; but so common were these names under the empire, that it is impossible to fix with any degree of certainty upon the individuals indicated. Hence, while the date of the letter is placed by some as early as the middle of the second century, Perizonius refers it to the time of Diocletian, while others bring it down as low as Constantine, or even a century later. 5. Lastly, among the multitude of hypotheses proposed with reference to the origin of the work, one is so ingenious, that it deserves to be rescued from oblivion. It is a matter of history that Nero made his mad progress through Achaia in the thirteenth year of his reign, and that Crete was actually ravaged by an earthquake at that very period. Hence Perizonius supposes that Eupraxis, a wily islander, well aware of the passion displayed by the emperor for everything Greek, and more especially of his love for the tale of Troy, forged this production under the name of his countryman, Dictys, with regard to whom traditions may have been current, caused it to be transcribed into Phoenician characters, as bearing the closest resemblance to the Cadmeian letters first employed by the Hellenes, and finally, availing himself of the happy accident of the earthquake, announced the discovery in a manner which could scarcely fail to excite the most intense curiosity. According to these views, we may suppose the introduction to have been attached to the Greek copy by the first editor or transcriber, and to have been altogether independent of the Latin letter of Septimius; and this idea is confirmed by the circumstance, that some MSS. contain the introduction only, while others omit the introduction and insert the letter. Those who wish to obtain full information upon the above and all other topics connected with the subject, will find the whole evidence stated and discussed in the admirable dissertation of Perizonius, first printed in the edition of Smids, Amst. 1702, and inserted in almost all subsequent editions, and in the introduction of Dederich, the most recent commentator.

The compilations ascribed to Dictys and Dares [DARES], although destitute of any intrinsic value, are of considerable importance in the history of modern literature, since they are the chief fountains from which the legends of Greece first flowed into the romances of the middle ages, and then mingled with the popular tales and ballads of England, France, and Germany. The Tale of Troy, according to Dunlop, in his History of Fiction, was first versified by Bernoit de Saint More, an Anglo-Norman minstrel, who lived in the reign of our second Henry, and borrowed his groundwork of events from Dictys and Dares. This metrical essay seems in its turn to have served as a foundation for the famous chronicle of Guido dalle Colonne of Messina, a celebrated poet and lawyer of the 13th century, who published a romance in Latin prose upon the siege of Troy, including also the Argonautic expedition and the war of the Seven against Thebes. In this strange medley, the history, mythology, and manners of the West and of the East, of the Greeks in the heroic age, and of the Arabian invaders of Christendom, are mingled in the most fantastic confusion. The compound was, however, well suited to the taste of that epoch, for it was received with unbounded enthusiasm, and speedily translated into many European languages. From that time forward the most illustrious houses eagerly strove to trace their pedigree from the Trojan line, and the monkish chroniclers began to refer the origin of the various states whose fortunes they recorded to the arrival of some Trojan colony.


Under these circumstances, we need not feel surprised that Dictys Cretensis was among the earliest works which exercised the skill of the first typographers. That which is usually recognized as the editio princeps is a 4to. in Gothic characters, containing 68 leaves of 27 lines to the page, and is believed to have issued from the press of Ul. Zell at Cologne, about 1470. Another very ancient edition in Roman characters, containing 58 leaves of 28 lines to the page, belongs to Italy, and was probably printed at Venice not long after the former.

Of more modern impressions the best are those of Mercerus, 12mo., Paris, 1618, reprinted at Amst. 12mo. 1630, containing a new recension of the text from two MSS. not before collated; of Anna Tanaq. Fabri fil. in usum Delphinii, 4to., Paris, 1680; and of Lud. Smids, in 4to. and 8vo., Amst. 1702, which held the first place until it was superseded by that of Dederich, 8vo. Bonn, 1835, which is very far superior to any other, comprising a great mass of valuable matter collected by Orelli, among which will be found collations of two very old and important MSS., one belonging to St. Gall and the other to Berne.

Further Information

In addition to the dissertations of Perizonius and Dederich, see Wopkens, Adversaria Critica in Dictyn, and the remarks of Hildebrand in Jahn's Jahrb. für Philol. 23.3, p. 278, &c.


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