Help with Fragments, part 3: Brill’s New Jacoby Online

We’ve spoken about fragments on this blog before. In fact, we’ve even covered Greek historical fragments before. But both times, we looked only at the hard copy editions that were available. As we’ve noted before, digital isn’t always better. But often, digital editions have advantages over the printed volumes.

Here to explain some of those advantages for Greek historical fragments is Hans Beck, a professor of Classics at McGill. He’s an expert in fragments (among other things), and is one of the editors for the New Jacoby. In this post, he offers background on the project and the field in general.

The Nerd’s Eye: Brill’s New Jacoby

Here is something that puzzles me in the training of students. There is a good amount of excellent electronic research tools out there, compiled by leading researchers and made available by high-end publishing companies. But in their everyday operations, many students continue to turn to Wikipedia vel sim., rather than professional platforms. When it comes to ancient texts in particular, anything that is not in Perseus or Lacus Curtius is often dropped.

I suspect this has to do mostly with ignorance. I am frequently asked by students how they would find xyz, although I devote quite some time in the classroom to address practical questions on how to carry out research operations. In any case, the ball is in the court of scholars (like me) who should probably alert you even more of the existence of the powerful tools that are available and how you can do your magic with them.

Accessibility is of course a major issue. Unlike Perseus, many professional databases are fairly expensive for libraries to purchase licenses. There is a lot of money in the ever-growing segment of online publishing, and some publishers are tempted to milk public learning institutions in an attempt to compensate for the losses they may or may not experience in the print segment.

Many ways, however, work around the access issue (some of them legal), and I hope everyone will ultimately find a way to gain access to the information they require. Also, from what I’ve experienced at my own university, if enough people bombard the decision-makers in the library with acquisition requests, at some point this might lead to the desired outcome.

This said, I was hoping to introduce a platform to you here which you might find helpful. And also to place it in the history of scholarship and publishing, to give it a human face.

It is called Brill’s New Jacoby, which is published by – surprise – Brill in the Netherlands. Here’s the publisher’s website:

Jacoby Homepage

Your university will have their own authorized link, if they subscribe to the platform. Brill’s New Jacoby contains the textual fragments of all authors from the ancient world who were considered historians and wrote in Greek. There is the obvious caveat with the usage of the label ‘historian’ here. The governing principle is anyone who was said to have written ‘historical’ works – yep, we note that the genre-based approach triggers all sorts of questions about how to delineate the genre. Good old Hekataios is the best example. Mythographers are widely included in the collection, as are many geographers.

Anyways, it is amply clear that the database has a wide scope. It includes text fragments from all corners of the Greco-Roman world. The assembled authors touch on virtually any time and topic in Ancient History, from early Greece and Rome to Late Antiquity. The fragmentary texts of each ancient author are divided into groups of Testimonies (T) and Fragments (F). All ancient texts are translated into English. Each is accompanied by a brief commentary, a biographical essay, and a bibliography at the end.

Brill’s New Jacoby is abbreviated, maybe somewhat presumptuously, BNJ. Does this reflect the publisher’s intention to smuggle their name into the acronym? The more notorious example is Brill’s New Pauly, or BNP, to which Brill’s intellectual contribution was mainly to facilitate the English translation of a lexicon that had been put together by a German publisher before. It has become customary to speak of the New Pauly and the New Jacoby rather than crediting the publisher each time we reference the project. Alas, and to be fair, putting these projects to successful completion amounted to a significant financial undertaking, so it is OK to acknowledge that the publisher made the effort and took the financial risk.

Either way, the fact that the New Jacoby is ‘New’ implies that there is an ‘old Jacoby’. Here is another surprise: yes, that’s true. It’s Felix Jacoby’s Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, published in multiple volumes and parts from 1923 until Jacoby’s death in 1959 and beyond. Abbreviated as FGrH or FGrHist, the original Jacoby was published by Weidmann in Berlin and then Brill. Don’t confuse this series with its forerunner FGH, Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum, edited by Karl Wilhelm Ludwig Müller between 1841 and 1870. As the title suggests, FGrH was written in German. If the German part worries you, you will be relieved to hear that this is only half the truth. Because, for one, Jacoby didn’t include translations of the fragments, assuming that everyone knows Greek anyways. And when there were commentaries and further explanations that would help you to make the fragments more accessible, these texts were sometimes written in Latin. There you have it.

If you have never looked at the print version of FGrH, I urge you to go to your library and familiarize yourselves with those volumes, just for fun. They are pretty intimidating, if not downright scary. At least they scared the hell out of me when I was a student, almost as much as the Latin counterpart of Hermann Peter’s Historicum Romanorum Reliquiae, published between 1870 and 1914. By the way, this inaccessibility added to my conviction that I should do my own edition of Peter’s work one day, one that was less intimidating to users, and in any case to me. That’s why I did this in the early 2000s in two volumes in German, with my colleague Uwe Walter. All of this is now of course covered in the magnificent three-volume edition of Tim Cornell and his team, The Fragments of the Roman Historians (OUP 2013).

But back to FGrH. Felix Jacoby was an interesting guy. Born in 1876 in Magdeburg and Professor of Classics from 1906 to 1934 at Kiel University, he was removed from his position due to his Jewish family background and forced to immigrate to England in 1939, where he stayed in Oxford. But Jacoby’s situation was more complicated. In 1956 he returned to Germany and stayed there until his death. His great monograph Atthis. The Local Chronicles of Ancient Athens (Clarendon 1949), beyond its tremendous intellectual impact in the field, also, between the lines, betrays the difficult circumstances which he encountered as a stranger in Germany and England alike.

FGrH continued after Jacoby’s death, and in the 1990s Brill announced the extension into other rubrics such as “Biography and Antiquarian Literature” and “Historical Geography” (in English). Also, a team of scholars is presently engaged with the completion of the collection of historians, which will be published online. In the second half of the 1990s, the initial collection also appeared as a CD, which was really exciting back then, but disks were already a dying medium. And the contents of the historians hadn’t become really more accessible through this; recall the ancient languages problem we noted earlier.

What was needed was an all-new project, a New Jacoby. This is what Ian Worthington as editor-in-chief and a whole staff of sub-editors from the early 2000s set out to do. At this point, the vast majority of the work is done, and the completion of the last historians is presently announced for 2017.

As far as I can see, the final version of BNJ will contain 853 ancient authors, many of them anonymous. Author numbers in the new work correspond with those in FGrH, so Theopompos of Chios is FGrH 115 and BNJ 115: this allows you to track references to FGrH easily. Each entry opens with the testimonies and fragments. The numbering of fragments follows by and large that of Jacoby, but since there are also some fragments that were either unknown to Jacoby or excluded by him, there are minor inconsistencies. The screen is arranged in a way that fragments and translations are facing each other. Here is a screenshot from Ephoros (BNJ 70):

Jacoby Entry.png

Every fragment is contextualized in a comment, usually following right after. I find those comments particularly helpful, as they allow you to grasp what is at stake, and what the best readings for further orientation are. The final section includes a concise picture of the literary persona — emphasis on concise. Take, for instance, Aratos of Sikyon (BNJ 231), on whom we could say tons. When I prepared the entry with Arthur Eckstein, the challenge was to boil this down to one paragraph.

I could go on with this somewhat dry description of how the platform works, but I am confident that you will figure it out in no time once you get there. Note that the platform allows you to search for individual names of authors, browse an alphabetical register, or identify them through their FGrH/BNJ number. There are also very slick filters that allow you to run advanced searches in selected time periods and topics.

In sum, these editorial decisions make BNJ a great, useful database that offers up-to-date access to a vastly diverse body of ancient sources. All the while, and in an ironic way, they make Felix Jacoby’s shadow even longer, and his initial work even more awe-inspiring. Note how the recent team comprised many editorial managers and even more scholars who worked on individual ancient authors. In terms of knowledge advancement, BNJ is a truly global effort. Jacoby, on the other hand, did all this by himself. Yes, I realize what we usually say at this point, that in Jacoby’s day there was less scholarship to tackle, and the development of concepts and thought paradigms that altered the face of our discipline was only about to begin. Nonetheless, I can’t help but think of Isaac Newton’s metaphor of the Giants of the past, from whose shoulders we see further today. Check out what BNJ has to offer for your ongoing projects. It’s a gold mine of information, only a few clicks away. And, it increases the nerd-factor of your work when you cite something like Ineditum Vaticanum (BNJ 839 F 3), telling your reader to go and figure, no? Good luck with your research!

Hans Beck is Professor of Ancient History and MacNaughton Chair of Classics at McGill University. From 2004 to 2010 he served as sub-editor to BNJ in the area of Roman histories. He also contributed a great many entries on individual authors. See his website


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