You know what’s my pet peeve? Scholars who cite fragmentary sources by their fragment numbers only.

I guess you could say I’ve had some dealings with fragmentary sources. I recently finished an Honours Thesis about Greek and Roman religion which was set in the context of pre-Socratic and Hellenistic philosophy. These were both really interesting periods in the development of philosophy but most of the major pre-Socratic and Hellenistic philosophers survive today in pithy little sound bites, quotations, summaries and doxographies. All too often the ancient writer who quoted one of these philosophers was a sworn enemy of their school and specifically brought up a quote from them to discredit what they said.

But why should I gripe about ancient writers? It wasn’t their job to help Classics students find reliable information about whatever it was they were quoting. It wasn’t even the source’s job to preserve and transmit texts. In all honesty, Augustine had no idea that his City of God would become the sole witness for Varro’s sixteen long books on Divine Antiquities. How can we blame ancient writers for not being more convenient to our very particular purposes over a thousand years after they died? It’s amazing that they saved anything at all for us, by accident.

My gripe is with scholars who make the simple task of finding a quote in an ancient text needlessly difficult.

If the scholar really prefers to reference the fragment number, there’s nothing to stop the scholar also providing the actual citation of the source as it appears in an ancient text. We can all be happy that way. All of us.

Except when it's Philodemus. Philodemus literally exists in shreds.
Except when it’s Philodemus. Philodemus literally exists in shreds.

So what runs through my mind when I see someone cite a fragmentary statement as “Xenophanes, Fr. 23” with no further clue as to where it came from?

Okay, keep cool, they might have referenced it properly in the last two pages or so. Better scan through those tiny printed footnotes looking for the words, “Xenophanes, Fr. 23”. Crap, it’s not in the last two pages. Should I keep searching further back or flip to the bibliography to see what text edition they used for the fragment numbers?

All right, I’ve looked over those footnotes from here to the start of the chapter, and I haven’t found any other references to fragment 23. Could the author have named the fragment properly in a preceding chapter? Hmmm… let’s turn to the contents page… no, the preceding chapters are all about completely different things. Although the Introduction might have mentioned it. Should I flip there? No, it’s pretty short, I’m not sure if Xenophanes would even be mentioned in it.

Okay, I’m turning to the bibliography… oh nice! This book has an index of “passages cited”… and no, “Xenophanes, Fr. 23” is not cited on any other page. That didn’t help me but at least it ruled out some of my options.

I feel like I haven't really been using these things all that much. But they're so pretty!
I feel like I haven’t really been using these things all that much.

Now let’s find this bibliography. The general bibliography is handily split into Primary and Secondary sources, but half the titles are in German or French. Time to pretend I know these languages! Which of these even cited the fragments properly?

It’s no use anyway! Even if these books are physically at my Uni library, it’s 11 o’-clock at night and I can’t guarantee I’ll have time to borrow books tomorrow.

You know what, I’m feeling lucky. I’ll put a makeshift bookmark in this part of the bibliography (a nearby pencil) and start Googling keywords from the Xenophanes quote. The internet might instantly point me to the actual place for this, so I won’t have to hunt down a physical book. Oh, nope, these words are far too general. Maybe I’ll just Google for a full collection of Xenophanes’ quotes and hope Fragment 23 is included in them.

Sometimes I forget and think I've lost my pencil before finally realising it was in my book all along
Sometimes I forget and think I’ve lost my pencil before finally realising it was in my book all along

So, I’ve found Fragment 23 again, but it’s not referenced at all, even by fragment number, because this site didn’t bother to preserve any of those citations. I’ll keep this tab open in my browser for no reason whatsoever, simply because it feels like half an achievement to have been able to find the same unreferenced quote.

Argh! My elbow just knocked the book off the table and my loosely-inserted bibliography bookmark has fallen out. Let’s put it back in before the little dimple in the pages becomes regular again… too late, I’ve gotta flick through and put it in again. Oh but there’s a tiny note at the back of this book I missed! So apparently all the fragment numbers correspond to those in a very specific text edition which was printed at the end of the 19th century in German. It’s in my university library catalogue, but it’s 11 o’-clock at night. Because I totally didn’t leave writing this essay to the night before.

Is it on Google books? Yes THERE … oh. No Preview Available. So all Google books has done is copy its title and cover image for me to stare at wistfully. Super helpful, Google. Suuper.

Time to try to game the system with Amazon.com – come on, give me the option to – darn, no sample view.

Ah, Archive.org probably has it. But the title has an umlaut in it, and the search results won’t show up unless I spell the German words properly. How do you insert umlauts again? Okay, I’ve done a quick Google search for it. Apparently in Microsoft Word you can type Crtl + Shift + : and then the letter. There, that worked.

Finally! I’ve got the text from archive.org open, but it’s all in either German or Ancient Greek. That… might be a problem. I know next to no German so I guess I’d better read the Ancient Greek. But since this book was published in the 19th century, all the verse/chapter numbers in the Greek edition are in Greek numerals. And text titles are in CAPITALISED Greek (nearly unreadable). Also, the “search text” function on archive.org doesn’t recognise polytonic Greek characters. Shall I leaf through this book randomly and hope to stumble on it? Or shall I do a Google search on how to convert Hindu-Arabic numbers into Greek numbers?

Augh. You know what, what’s the worst that can happen if I just cite this thing by its fragment number and say that I quoted the text from this modern source?

What’s the worst thing that can happen?

It looks lazy.

It looks like I didn’t leave myself enough time to properly reference things.

And I do not wish to appear in the least bit unprofessional even as I am sitting here, writing the essay at the eleventh hour.

And everyone will know I’m just a hack.

No! Never! Nooo…

And then inevitably, some undetermined length of time will pass after I give up hope searching for this citation. Having totally put the goose chase behind me, I stumble upon the fragment again completely by accident in a book which actually does cite its sources properly.

Xenophanes, properly cited both by his fragment number and by his location in Classical texts. From Kirk & Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (1957), p169
Xenophanes, properly cited both by his fragment number and by his location in Classical texts. From Kirk & Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (1957), p169

The original location, Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata, was two clicks away on Google. Two clicks. All this time. And it could have been at my fingertips from the start.


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