PURA. Purism In Antiquity: Theories Of Language in Greek Atticist Lexica and their Legacy

Lexicographic entries

(Moer. α 96, Poll. 3.116, Poll. 5.162–3, Poll. 9.24–5)

A. Main sources

(1) Moer. α 96: ἄθλιος Ἀττικοί· ἀτυχής ἑλληνικὸν καὶ κοινόν.

Cod. V reads ἄθλιος· ἀτυχής κοινόν | Cod. F omits καὶ κοινόν.

Attic-speakers [say] ἄθλιος (‘struggling’, ‘miserable’). ἀτυχής [is] Greek and common.

(2) Poll. 3.116: θᾶττον ἂν τοῦ αἵματος ἢ χρημάτων μεταδούς τινι, οἰκτρός, στενός, ἄθλιος, κακοδαίμων, ταπεινός, ἐλεεινός, ἄγχων τοὺς χρήστας, ἀποπνίγων τοὺς ὀφείλοντας, ἀπάγων ὑπερημέρους.

Codd. B and C omit θᾶττον – ἐλεεινός | Codd. F and S omit στενός | Codd. A, B and C omit ἀποπνίγων τοὺς ὀφείλοντας.

One who would rather give his blood than his money to someone [can be defined as] ‘pitiable’, ‘scanty’, ‘pitiful’ (ἄθλιος), ‘a poor devil’, ‘mean’, ‘piteous’, ‘one who strangles the debtors’, ‘one who chokes the debtors’, ‘one who brings before the magistrate the unpunctual debtors’.

(3) Poll. 5.162–3: ἐπὶ τοῦ μηδενὸς ἀξίου […] ἄθλιος.

Codd. B and C omit ἄθλιος.

About one who is worthy of nothing [you can say] […] ἄθλιος.

(4) Poll. 9.24–5: ψέγων δὲ ἐρεῖς στενήν, βραχεῖαν, ἀθλίαν, ταλαίπωρον πόλισμα πολισμάτιον, πολίχνη πολίχνιον, κώμη.

The text is missing in cod. C | Codd. A, B and L omit ἀθλίαν, ταλαίπωρον πόλισμα.

When you abuse [a small city], you can say ‘narrow’, ‘small’, ‘pitiful’ (ἀθλίαν), ‘miserable town’, ‘little town’, ‘small town’, ‘little small town’, ‘village’.

B. Other erudite sources

(1) Hsch. α 1598: *ἄθλιος· ταλαίπωρος. (v5)

ἄθλιος: Miserable.

(2) Hsch. α 1599: ἀθλίων· ἀτίμων, ἐπιπόνων.

ἀθλίων: Unhonoured, patient of toil.

(3) Schol. (Ariston.) Hom. Il. 5.670a: <τλήμονα·> ὅτι οἱ νεώτεροι τλήμονα τὸν ἀτυχῆ, ὁ δὲ Ὅμηρος τὸν ὑπομενητικόν, ἀπὸ τοῦ τλῆναι. (A)

<τλήμονα:> [Aristarchus puts a diple] because later poets [call] τλήμων one who is ἀτυχής (‘unfortunate’), while Homer [uses τλήμων] for one who endures, from τλῆναι (‘to endure’).

(4) Thom.Mag. 15.5: ἄθλιος κάλλιον ἢ ἀτυχής· τὸ δὲ ἀτυχὴς ἐπαίνων ἀντὶ τοῦ ἀμέτοχος, κάλλιστον· ὡσαύτως καὶ τὸ εὐτυχὴς ἐπαίνων.

Codd. ALaRaGE have κάλλιστον, while CDPFO read κάλλιον.

ἄθλιος is better than ἀτυχής; yet ἀτυχής ἐπαίνων (‘having no share of praises’) instead of ἀμέτοχος (‘having no share of’) is very good, as is εὐτυχὴς ἐπαίνων (‘blessed with praises’).

C. Loci classici, other relevant texts

(1) Aesch. Supp. 571–3:
καὶ τότε δὴ τίς ἦν ὁ θέλ-
ξας πολύπλαγκτον ἀθλίαν
οἰστροδόνητον Ἰώ;

And who then was it who applied a healing charm to her who had wandered so far in misery, the gadfly-tormented Io? (Transl. Sommerstein 2009, 365).

(2) Soph. Ant. 1300:
φεῦ φεῦ μᾶτερ ἀθλία, φεῦ τέκνον.

Ah, ah, unhappy mother, ah, my son! (Transl. Lloyd-Jones 1994, 123).

(3) Eur. Med. 230–1:
πάντων δ’ ὅσ’ ἔστ’ ἔμψυχα καὶ γνώμην ἔχει
γυναῖκές ἐσμεν ἀθλιώτατον φυτόν.

Of all creatures that have breath and sensation, we women are the most unfortunate. (Transl. Kovacs 1994, 305).

D. General commentary

ἄθλιος is the Attic form of the ‘epic’ adjective ἀέθλιοςἀέθλιος (from ἄεθλον, ἆθλον), originally meaning ‘winning the prize’ or ‘running for the prize’ (LSJ). Τhen, with a semantic shift highlighting the efforts made in order to win, it acquires the meanings ‘struggling’, ‘miserable’, ‘wretched’ (with or without moral overtones: see LSJ, s.v. ἄθλιος II.2-3), and ‘ruinous’ (see DGE, s.v. ἄθλιος III). The adjective sometimes implies a ‘combination of pity and scorn’ and can serve as an abusive form of addressForms of address, as Dickey (1996, 163) points out (for this use, cf. A.2, A.3, A.4 and cf. e.g., Men. Dysc. 880 τί μοι προσαυλεῖς, ἄθλι’ οὗτος; ‘Why pipe at me, you wretched cur?’ [Transl. Arnott 1979, 333]). It is well-attested in poetry, as well as in the high- and low-register prose of Greek’s entire history (surviving even in Modern Greek), without any perceivable alteration in register. Additionally, ἄθλιος occurs more than 30 times in documentary papyriPapyri (mainly petitions) dating between the 4th and 6th centuries CE.

According to (the present form of) Moeris’ lemma, ἄθλιος should be preferred to the ‘Greek and common’ ἀτυχής. Indeed, sometimes ἄθλιος overlaps with the concept otherwise expressed by ἀτυχής, i.e., ‘unhappy’: two classical examples are C.2 and C.3. Moreover, ἄθλιος frequently occurs with τύχη and its cognates: cf. Eur. Alc. 1038 ἐμῆς γυναικὸς ἀθλίους τύχας ‘My wife’s unhappy fate’ (Transl. Kovacs 1994, 257); Hel. 1082 τὸ δ’ ἄθλιον κεῖν’ εὐτυχὲς τάχ’ ἂν πέσοι ‘That misfortune may prove to be a blessing’ (Transl. Kovacs 2002, 133); Ar. Pl. 825 ἀνὴρ πρότερον μὲν ἄθλιος, νῦν δ’ εὐτυχής ‘A man once ruined, but now fortunate’ (Transl. Henderson 2002, 541). As for ‘pragmatic formulas’ such as ἄθλιος καὶ δυστυχής (see e.g., Isoc. 3.58), it is difficult to say whether this is simply a synonymic dittology or evidence that the two adjectives were perceived as having complementary meanings.

At first glance, Moeris’ prescription therefore seems to be related to a matter of ‘word choice’. Owing to its phonology, as well as distribution (it appears more than 130 times in 5th-century Attic tragedy), ἄθλιος perhaps felt ‘more Attic’ than ἀτυχής – at least in the realm of Attic poetry. Thomas Magister (B.4) echoes, and partly depends upon, Moeris’ prescription (A.1) (see Ritschl 1832, LXXV; Hansen 1998, 30). While ἀτυχής indeed occurs in Attic authors such as Antipho, Plato and Aeschines (cf. also Poll. 6.205Poll. 6.205), it is almost entirely circumscribed to prose. However, the hypothesis that Moeris’ prescription is a matter of word choice is obfuscated by the distribution of the two forms; ἀτυχής is far less frequent than ἄθλιος, and it rarely occurs in documentary papyriPapyri, see P.Münch. (= TM 78543) [2nd century BCE] and P.Cair.Masp. 1.67020.4 (= TM 36786) [6th century CE]. Thus, it is unclear why Moeris defined ἀτυχής as κοινός: one wonders whether it really was a vernacular competitor of an overwhelmingly widespread adjective like ἄθλιος. It is also of note that its cognate and quasi-synonym δυστυχήςδυστυχής is more commonly used.

An alternative explanation of Moeris’ lemma is still possible. Moeris could be drawing from earlier scholarship, comparing various synonyms meaning ‘unfortunate’, but adapting this information to the typical structure of his lexicon, which opposes Attic-speakers to Greek-speakers. The basis for the existence of such a source comes from Homeric scholia dating back to AristarchusAristarchus, wherein the Homeric usage is compared to that of the later poets (see Schironi 2018, 654, with further bibliography). These scholia deal with various adjectives that have a wide range of meanings and pragmatic nuances, as is the case with ἄθλιος. Apart from the scholion in B.3, consider also:

  • Schol. (Ariston.) Hom. Il. 10.480aSchol. (Ariston.) Hom. Il. 10.480a (A): <ἑστάμεναι μέλεον σὺν τεύχεσιν·> ὅτι οἱ νεώτεροι μέλεον τὸν ἀτυχῆ, ὁ δὲ Ὅμηρος ἀντὶ τοῦ ματαίως (‘<ἑστάμεναι μέλεον σὺν τεύχεσιν:> [Aristarchus puts a diple] because later poets [say] μέλεος meaning one who is ἀτυχής [‘unfortunate’], while Homer [uses it] in the meaning of ματαίως [‘in vain’]’);

  • Schol. Hom. Il. 19.287bSchol. Hom. Il. 19.287b (A): <δειλῇ:> τῇ ἀτυχεῖ (‘<δειλῇ>: ‘unfortunate’’), which probably depends on previous in-depth investigations on the original meaning of δειλόςδειλός (‘cowardly’, ‘miserable’); see also B.1 and B.2 (notice that in the D Scholia to the Iliad ἄθλιος is often an interpretamentum of δειλόςδειλός: see e.g., schol. [D] Hom. Il. 5.574 [Zs], schol. [D] Hom. Il. 11.441 [Zs], schol. [D] Hom. Il. 17.670 [Zs], schol. [D] Hom. Il. 21.464 [Zs]).

  • ἄθλιος, ἀτυχής, δυστυχής, ταλαίπωρος etc. are all interpretamenta (often occurring together) in various lexicographic entries: Σ δ 429Σ δ 429 (~ Phot. δ 850Phot. δ 850), Su. π 2041Su. π 2041 (cf. schol. Ar. Pl. 220b–cSchol. Ar. Pl. 220b–c), EM 134.26EM 134.26, 619.50EM 619.50, schol. Ar. Nu. 504aSchol. Ar. Nu. 504a.

These parallels suggest that Moeris’ lemma may relate to a larger discussion on various adjectives meaning ‘unfortunate’. It is conceivable that Moeris did not take ἀτυχής to be a serious competitor of ἄθλιος. Rather, his goal was probably that of prescribing an adjective within a firmly Attic milieu – and ἄθλιος, widespread in Attic poetry as well as in prose, certainly was.

As for the label ἑλληνικὸν καὶ κοινόν given to ἀτυχής, it cannot be taken (so far as we can see) as a trustworthy socio-linguisticSociolinguistics evaluation, since there is no evidence for ἀτυχής being a part of every-day vocabulary. One must therefore take into account the possibility that in our lemma, ἑλληνικὸν καὶ κοινόν works as a stylistic markerStyle that takes its value in relation to the ‘higher’ ἄθλιος, and characterises ἀτυχής as ‘minderwertig’, i.e., ‘of lesser value’ (Maidhof 1912, 327).

E. Byzantine and Modern Greek commentary


F. Commentary on individual texts and occurrences



Arnott, W. G. (1979). Menander. Vol. 1: Aspis. Georgos. Dis Exapaton. Dyskolos. Encheiridion. Epitrepontes. Edited and translated by W. G. Arnott. Cambridge, MA.

Dickey, E. (1996). Greek Forms of Address. From Herodotus to Lucian. Oxford.

Hansen, D. U. (1998). Das attizistische Lexicon des Moeris. Quellenkritische Untersuchung und Edition. Berlin, New York.

Henderson, J. (2002). Aristophanes. Vol. 4: Frogs. Assemblywomen. Wealth. Edited and translated by Jeffrey Henderson. Cambridge, MA.

Kovacs, D. (1994). Euripides. Vol. 1: Cyclops. Alcestis. Medea. Edited and translated by David Kovacs. Cambridge, MA.

Kovacs, D. (2002). Euripides. Vol. 5: Helen. Phoenician Women. Orestes. Edited and translated by David Kovacs. Cambridge, MA.

Lloyd-Jones, H. (1994). Sophocles. Vol. 2: Antigone. The Women of Trachis. Philoctetes. Oedipus at Colonus. Edited and translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones. Cambridge, MA.

Maidhof, A. (1912). Zur Begriffsbestimmung der Koine besonders auf Grund des Attizisten Moiris. Würzburg.

Ritschl, F. (1832). Thomae Magistri sive Theoduli monachi Ecloga vocum Atticarum. Halle.

Schironi, F. (2018). The Best of the Grammarians. Aristarchus of Samothrace on the Iliad. Ann Arbor.

Sommerstein, A. H. (2009). Aeschylus. Vol. 1: Persians. Seven against Thebes. Suppliants. Prometheus Bound. Edited and translated by Alan H. Sommerstein. Cambridge, MA.


Andrea Pellettieri, 'ἄθλιος (Moer. α 96, Poll. 3.116, Poll. 5.162–3, Poll. 9.24–5)', in Olga Tribulato (ed.), Digital Encyclopedia of Atticism.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.30687/DEA/2974-8240/2022/01/001

This article provides a philological and linguistic commentary on the adjective ἄθλιος, discussed in the Atticist lexica Moer. α 96, Poll. 3.116, Poll. 5.162–3, Poll. 9.24–5.

Homeric scholarshipLexiconἀτυχήςἑλληνικόςκοινός