The idea comes from Christian Jacob’s article on Athenaeus in the collective work Athenaeus and his World (2000). Jacob claims that the way Athenaeus navigates through the large corpus of literature available to him could be compared to what a creator of electronic hypertexts would provide. It is, according to Jacob, a reading of a large and heterogeneous corpus of texts, where decisions are made in order to link together key words of lexical searches or thematic investigations. Jacob calls this a new way of reading but also a new way of writing. This is exactly what happens with electronic publications, where often the distinction between readers and writers tend to disappear.
A similar proximity of ancient dealings with their books and modern internet publications, can bee seen when thinking about the ancient concept of editing (ἔκδοσις). It has often been emphasized that it should not be compared to the modern idea of editions or publications. The link between the author and his text was not so tight as it is in a modern book, with copyrights for both, editors and authors. Van Groningen for instance emphasizes that by editing a text an ancient author loses control over the text. It can be copied and altered freely by readers either directly from the original or from a copy of the text. This is also perceived as one of the dangers of online publications.
However besides this disadvantage, there could also be an important gain from this online experience for scholars working on ancient texts. It could bring us again closer to the ancient ways of dealing with literature. It could for instance bring new insights on questions concerning revisions of ancient books by the authors themselves. Would a revision done by, let’s say, Thucydides or by Strabo on his own work be similar to a work updated on internet, which has already been quoted in its older form in other texts? Quoting an online publication and the difficulties linked to the possibility of updating a previous version of a text and the absence of pagination could perhaps be compared to the ones faced by an ancient reader trying to refer to a book or to make a quotation.
In this context, and besides the difficulties just mentioned, we could also add a statement made by G. Nagy, who believes that an online edition of the Homeric texts could come closest to the way they were available in Antiquity. There would be no need to find an original, first or best text of the Homeric poems and the many variants could coexist as they did in the different versions available in different places throughout Antiquity.
So by losing such great achievements as the codex (a very stable gathering of pages) or printing (a mean of making hundred of identical and unchangeable copies of a text linked to an author and an editor), classical scholars may also gain a lot…
Jacob Ch., Athenaeus the Librarian, in Braund D./Wilkins J. (ed.), Athenaeus and his World, Exter 2000.
Van Groningen B.A., “Ἔκδοσις”, Mnemosyne 16, 1964, 1-17.
Nagy G., Editing the Homeric Text: West’s Iliad, in Homer’s Text and Language, Urbana/Chicago 2004.