In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ancient Greek and Latin Grammarians

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Textbooks
  • Grammatical Sources
  • Glossographical Sources

Classics Ancient Greek and Latin Grammarians
Franck Cinato
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0321


Grammarians are specialists of language(s) and texts. Although their status, attributions, and functions have changed across history, their teaching builds the foundation for not only linguistic knowledge but also a wider cultural background, including analysis, methodology, and general culture. Grammarians emerged as specialists from the discipline of philology and with the rise of libraries. The following article proposes a general overview on both Greek and Latin grammarians, from the beginning until Late Antiquity (from Aristophanes of Byzantium to Priscian), focusing on the significance of their grammatical works and the underlying links between them. Thus this article is closely connected to other articles in Oxford Bibliographies in Classics. The reader will find more topics related to theories developed by grammarians (see namely, David Butterfield’s articles “Ancient Classical Scholarship”, particularly the section on “Philology and Grammar,” and “Marcus Terentius Varro”; Kathleen M. Coleman’s “Latin Lexicography”; Casper C. de Jonge’s “Ancient Literary Criticism”; Rainer Jakobi’s “Donatus”; Francesco Ademollo’s “Ancient Philosophy of Language”; Elaine Fantham and Emily Fairey’s “Quintilian”; Thomas Bénatouïl and Gretchen Reydams-Schils’s “Stoicism”), and has tried to avoid redundancy as much as possible. As the purpose of this article is to give starting points on the characters themselves, the citations are not exhaustive as far as grammarians mentioned. Though the Latin grammatical tradition originated from the Greek, further developments of Greek teaching had little influence on Latin until Priscian, who synthesized the traditions and so constitutes the culmination of the grammatical discipline. Although episodic contacts existed among grammarians before Priscian (for example, Macrobius, Charisius) and although Greek and Latin grammars, due to their common origin, share many fundamental similarities (general organization, as well as phonetics, morphology, and style; preliminary definitions; basic concepts, such as the “parts of speech”—partes orationis—inspired by Neoplatonic philosophy), from this basic common core, Latin grammarians developed their own independent theoretical framework.

General Overviews

The main sources on grammarians, in addition to their own works, are to be found, for the Greeks, in the Souda’s biographical entries (a Byzantine encyclopedic dictionary from the end of the 10th century), Sextus Empiricus (Against the Professors), and Diogenes Laërtius (Lives of the Philosophers); for the Latins, in Suetonius (De grammaticis et rhetoribus), Gellius (Noctes Atticae), and Macrobius (Saturnalia). The most ancient testimonies related to grammarians appear in Greek sources, though some of them are only known through later writers. From the texts which survived, Greek grammatical doctrines seem more homogeneous than the Latin, though it must be conceded how difficult it is to evaluate, given what may have been lost. But actually, the facts are much more complicated than the “classic” hypothesis of Barwick 1922, namely that two kinds of grammar (tekhnê grammatikê) result from the Stoic dialectic treatises and represent two kinds of grammar: one from Dionysios Thrax, the other developed at the Pergamum school of Crates of Mallus. The tekhnê of Pergamum could be understood as the prototype of the Latin school Ars grammatica, and Donatus may have conserved the heritage of Crates. Desbordes 1995 counters that, even if Dionysius Thrax and Donatus were the most successful models, the ancient grammars had many other models, not necessarily preserved in a well-established manuscript tradition. For example, in the first book of his Institutio oratoria, Quintilian (c. 35 CE–d. c. 96 CE) describes a grammar distinct from the Artes Donati, related to the model promoted by Asclepiades (fl. 1st century BCE), who finished his career in Spain. Similarly, Varro’s grammatical system, quite distinct from these models, has had no posterity. Although famous in their time, some grammarians are known only by name (Kaster 1988), and others only through fragments (such as Verrius, Scaurus, and Consentius). The Ars of Charisius, composed more or less at the time of Donatus, derived from a different tradition, the same as Dositheus. Donatus and his commentators stole the spotlight for a while (see Servius Honoratus (Marius/Maurus Servius Honoratus; 370/380?–d.?; fl. post-400) and Pompeius Grammaticus (5th/6th Century)), but by the beginning of the 6th century CE, Priscian’s Ars grammatica was regarded as the great achievement of the ancient grammatical tradition. Although it was a Latin grammar, its Greek students had both Greek and Latin preoccupations, especially regarding the syntax. Because grammarians were intimately involved in education, general reading was helpful to contextualize their teaching (Auroux, et al. 2000; Desbordes 1995; Bonner 1977; Law 2003; Marrou 1965; Pailler and Payen 2004; Swiggers and Wouters 2000).

  • Auroux, S., E. F. K. Koener, H. J. Niederehe, and K. Versteegh, eds. 2000. History of the language sciences: An international handbook on the evolution of the study of the language from the beginning to the present. Vol. 1. Handbücher zur Sprach-und-Kommunikations-wissenschaft 18.1. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter.

    Chapter 11, “The Establishment of Linguistics in Greece,” and chapter 12, ‘The Establishment of Linguistics in Rome,” are particularly relevant. Other significant contributions that are particularly relevant overviews include, I. Sluiter, “Language and Thought in Stoic Philosophy,” pp. 375–384; M. Baratin, “À l’origine de la tradition artigraphique latine, entre mythe et réalité,” pp. 459–466; and F. Desbordes, “L’ars grammatica dans la période post- classique: le corpus grammaticorum latinorum,” pp. 466–474 (reprinted in Desbordes 1995, pp. 235–250).

  • Barwick, K. 1922. Remmius Palaemon und die römische Ars grammatica. Leipzig: n.p.

    A classic book, still useful, but dated on many issues. Its concept of “Schulgrammatik” is still being reassessed. Reprinted: Hildesheim, Germany, 1967.

  • Bonner, S. F. 1977. Education in ancient Rome: From the Elder Cato to the Younger Pliny. London and Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Bonner’s book provides a noteworthy contribution to ancient education, but some points need to be checked (see A. D. Booth’s review in Phoenix 32.2 [1978]: 164–169). Chapters 4–6 touch specifically on teaching grammar and rhetoric (see especially chapter 5). See also the last part of the book. Reprinted: Abdingdon, UK, and New York, 2012.

  • De Paolis, P. 2010. L’insegnamento dell’ortografia latina fra Tardo antico e alto Medioevo: teorie e manuali. In Libri di scuola e pratiche didattiche. Dall’Antichità al Rinascimento. Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studi Cassino, 7–10 maggio 2008. Edited by L. Del Corso and O. Pecere, 229–291. Cassino, Italy: Universita di Cassino.

    A good and detailed introduction to the treatises on De orthograhia with many valuable bibliographical references.

  • Desbordes, F. 1995. Les débuts de la grammaire à Rome. Lalies 15:125–137.

    This contribution forms a diptych with the article “L’ars grammatica dans la période post-classique. . .” (Auroux, et al. 2000), which is useful for its fresh reading of the appearance of the grammarians in Rome. Reprinted in M. Baratin, G. Clerico, B. Colombat, and J. Soubiran, eds., Idées grecques et romaines sur le langage: travaux d’histoire et d’épistémologie (Lyon: École normale supérieure lettres et sciences humaines, 2007), pp. 217–233.

  • Kaster, Robert A. 1988. Guardians of language: The grammarian and society in Late Antiquity. Berkeley and Oxford: Univ. of California Press.

    This is a wide-ranging overview on the history and context of ancient grammarians. It also proposes a prosopography and various useful appendices; still the best point of departure on the subject of grammarians. Reprinted in 1997 by the Regents of the University of California and is now available online.

  • Law, Vivian. 2003. The history of linguistics in Europe from Plato to 1600. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781316036464

    A large overview that proposes insights of crucial moments in Western development of linguistic thought. This textbook is organized chronologically from origin up to the Renaissance, with special attention to the Carolingian period.

  • Marrou, H. -I. 1965. Histoire de l’éducation dans l’Antiquité. 2 vol. Paris: Éditions du seuil.

    Dated on some topics (first published in 1948, Paris: Éditions du seuil), Marrou remains a good introduction to education in the Greek (Vol. 1) and Roman (Vol. 2) world, of which grammarians occupied a large part. Divided into three parts: (1) Education from Homère to Isocrate; (2) Hellenistic Education; and (3) Rome and Classical Education. Chapters 5–7 of Part 2 (Vol. 1) and chapters 3–5 of Part 3 (Vol. 2) are relevant to contextualize the grammarians’ work. See also Pailler and Payen 2004. An Italian translation by Umberto Massi titled Storia dell’educazione nell’antichita (Rome: Studium, 1950 [reprinted 1966, 1984]). English translation of the 3rd edition, 1956, by George Lamb, A History of Education in Antiquity, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956 [reprinted, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982].

  • Maurice, L. 2013. The teacher in ancient rome: The magister and his world. Lanham, MD.

    In the pursuit of Kaster’s enterprise, Maurice’s book focuses on the figure of the teacher, about whom grammarians are only one component of a large spectrum of professions devoted to education. Chapter 1 (pp. 10–13) gives a portrait of the grammaticus as teacher, then surveys other topics related to pedagogy (classroom, school furniture, etc.). Useful information to put flesh and blood on the bones of the ancient testimonies.

  • Pailler, J. -M., and P. Payen, eds. 2004. Que reste-t-il de l’éducation classique ? Relire “le Marrou” Histoire de l’éducation dans l’antiquité. Toulouse, France: Presses universitaires du Mirail.

    Produced for the fiftieth anniversary of the first edition of Marrou’s History of Education. An essential complement to Marrou’s work, providing corrections and adjustments, along with different levels of critical reading (cultural, political, etc.).

  • Swiggers, P., and A. Wouters. 2000. Grammaires grecques (et latines) sur papyrus. In Manuscripts and Tradition of Grammatical Texts from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Proceeding of the Conference held at Erice, 16–23 oct. 1997 as the 11th Course of International School for the Study of Written Records. 2 vol. Edited by P. De Paolis, M. De Nonno, and L. Holtz, 59–88. Cassino, Italy: Edizioni dell’Università degli studi di Cassino.

    The authors address the question of grammars on papyri. Useful information about grammarians, still useful despite Scappaticcio 2015 (cited under Grammatical Sources).

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