Suda On Line: Byzantine Lexicography
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The Suda On Line (

Raphael Finkel, William Hutton, Patrick Rourke, Ross Scaife, Elizabeth Vandiver


Certain fundamental sources for the study of the ancient world are currently accessible only to a few specially trained researchers because they have never been provided with a sufficiently convenient interpretive apparatus or, in some cases, even translated into modern languages. The Suda On Line project attacks that inaccessibility by engaging the efforts of scholars world-wide in the translation and annotation of a substantial text that is being made available exclusively through the internet. We have chosen to begin with the Byzantine encyclopedia known as the Suda, a 10th century CE compilation of material on ancient literature, history, and biography. A massive work of about 30,000 entries, and written in sometimes dense Byzantine Greek prose, the Suda is an invaluable source for many details that would otherwise be unknown to us about Greek and Roman antiquity, as well as an important text for the study of Byzantine intellectual history.

Begun in January of 1998, the Suda On Line (SOL) already involves the efforts of over one hundred scholars throughout the world. The goal of the project is to assemble an xml-encoded database, searchable and browsable on the web, with continuously improved annotations, bibliographies and hypertextual links to other electronic resources in addition to the core translation of entries in the Suda. Individual work becomes available on the web as soon as possible, with the minimum necessary initial proofreading and editorial oversight. A large pool of registered editors is empowered to alter and improve the materials in the database continuously as they see fit. The display of each entry includes an indication of the level of editorial scrutiny it has received. We mean to encourage the greatest possible participation in the project and the smallest possible delay in presenting a high quality resource to a wide public readership.

Our goal is not only to provide the SOL as a useful tool for researchers, but also to explore and facilitate the modes of scholarship now made possible by open source technology and the internet: the result will be a scholarly effort that is cooperative rather than solitary, communal rather than proprietary, worldwide rather than localized, evolving rather than static. Accordingly our work aims at two concrete results: in addition to our development of the Suda On Line itself as a respectable scholarly resource, we want to make a generalized, well-documented version of our software freely available for other collaboration-minded scholars to adapt for their own purposes.

The raw material

But finally, what is the Suda? It is a succession of some thousands of items, their extent varying from a single word to a page or more. In it we find the explanation of a difficult form... or of a rare word... a grammatical point... elucidations of words with several meanings... as well as notes on people, places and institutions and on concepts (kosmos, nous, physis). It is essentially an historical and literary encyclopedia, but it is also a collection of proverbs and a kind of dictionary of quotations. We might say that it is a 'dictionary of conversation' for the use of 'cultured' people: in this respect it is a reflection of the culture and of the ideal of culture for an era. [1]

Although the Suda defies easy categorization it is without question one of the most remarkable extant works of Byzantine Greek scholarship. The Suda was compiled probably in the latter half of the tenth century and certainly no later than 1000 CE, but its exact date is unknown, as is the identity of its compiler or compilers. Even the exact meaning of its title is obscure; it now seems most likely that suda is actually a Latin loan-word meaning "fortress," a fitting title for a work whose purpose was to preserve and protect samples of ancient learning and literature.[2] This was one of the primary goals of Byzantine scholarship in the tenth century; rather than creating new knowledge and areas of study, the scholars of that era labored to preserve the legacy of the past, and the Suda is one of the culminating achievements of "the encyclopedism of the tenth century."[3] Now, after yet another millennium has passed, we are revisiting the still-valuable work of these anonymous Byzantine scholars and preparing it for new media and new centuries of readers.

The Suda's more than thirty thousand entries of names, terms, and phrases are arranged in simple alphabetical order, so that grammatical points and philosophical concepts intermingle with biographies of ancient authors and quotations from ancient texts. According to N. G. Wilson, the Suda represents a "significant stage in the evolution of this type of reference book," since it "incorporates a mass of articles that are intended to be informative rather than lexicographical, and the result is a cross between a dictionary and an encyclopedia."[4]

The sources used by the Suda's compilers seem to have included Aristophanes, Homer, Sophocles, and the scholia (i.e., ancient marginalia) on these authors, as well as the Bible; however, the compilers relied most heavily on earlier scholars' abridgements of and selections from classical works. Since many of these earlier abridgements are no longer extant, and since they preserved bits of works that have also perished, there is much about the ancient Greek and Roman world that is known only, or primarily, through the Suda. Though it is by no means an exciting work of literature in its own right, the Suda counts as a crucial source for modern classical scholarship. As the Oxford Classical Dictionary notes, "in spite of its contradictions and other ineptitudes, [the Suda] is of the highest importance, since it preserves (however imperfectly) much that is ultimately derived from the earliest or best authorities in ancient scholarship, and includes material from many departments of Greek learning and civilization." [5]

Why does the Suda need to be translated and annotated?

Despite its importance, the Suda has never been translated into a modern language. This means that access to this crucial source of information on the ancient world has been effectively limited to those who know ancient Greek. While it was once the case that most art historians, theologians, and historians could read Greek, times have changed. Nowadays most researchers in fields other than classics whose work brings them into contact with the ancient world are effectively denied first-hand access to the information contained in the Suda. Moreover, educators who want their students to get experience working with primary source material cannot offer them one of the most fundamental sources of information for antiquity.

However, many of the entries in the Suda would be very difficult for non-specialists to understand, even in translation. This is where the need for annotation comes into play. Hypertextual glosses helps students who are unfamiliar with such direct evidence properly to contextualize it, while their direct confrontation with a tenth-century view of the ancient world provides insight into the processes and preconceptions of classical scholarship and the methods and materials of modern scholars' interpretations.

Why a collaborative translation?

The sheer size of the Suda (the most up-to-date edition runs to four hefty and tightly printed volumes [6]) and its lack of literary charm are sufficient to explain why no individual scholar has committed his or her career to translating it. Many scholars, each taking responsibility for selected entries or series of entries, can get the job done more effectively. Moreover, the vast breadth of subject matter covered by the Suda would challenge the expertise of even the most widely competent modern scholar. By sharing the load, individual translators can focus on those entries from the Suda that pertain to their area of expertise, thus producing better translations and more informed annotations.

Collaborative efforts always generate questions about how to allot proper credit to individual contributors. Given the searchable database format of the SOL it is a straightforward matter for translators and editors to print out their own peer-reviewed work for inclusion in, for example, promotion and tenure dossiers. Moreover, some translators have already established hypertextual links directly from their on-line résumés to their contributions in the SOL.


The goal of the Suda On Line (SOL) is the creation of an electronically produced, web-based and fully annotated English translation of the Suda lexicon, a major source of information about Greek and Roman antiquity. Not only after it is completed but already now while it is still in its early stages, the SOL is a useful resource for researchers, teachers and their students.[7] We are also working to integrate materials produced by this system with other established web-enabled sources of information about antiquity.

Our choice of the internet as the medium for publishing the SOL is crucial to the project's conception. This format has many advantages, of which accessibility and ease of use are perhaps the most obvious. Users can go to the project's web page and search the database in various ways: by strings in a full text search, with Boolean combinations, by keyword, by translator, etc. The display for each entry includes the headword in English and Greek (options for displaying Greek suit the requirements of different systems), the translation, footnotes and other annotations, and bibliographical references (where available and/or appropriate). The SOL's interface optionally generates the complete Greek text of each entry from the database of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, as well as links to the relevant entries in the LSJ Greek Lexicon (via the Perseus Project).[8]

The on-line format also allows for continuous editing and updating, crucial to our conception of the SOL as an evolving work forever subject to improvement by many hands. We have spent a good deal of time considering how best to make editorial oversight possible. Web-based forms and dynamically generated e-mail now handle most routine communication among contributors. New work goes onto the web immediately; individual authors never need to wait for publication until the entire project is finished as in the case of a print format. Thus the project achieves immediate utility even at early stages when the bulk of the work remains to be done. Furthermore, entries can be updated immediately whenever new information arises.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of a web-based publication such as the SOL, however, is the potential for interoperability with other projects. Although we want as much annotation as possible within the database itself, we are also greatly leveraging the development of the SOL by associating its data with other existing resources. A hypertextual SOL can provide not only the Greek text of the Suda and its translation, but also a wide variety of links to, for instance, other relevant Suda entries, lexica and morphological parsers, web-enabled atlases, bibliographical databases, the Bible, the ancient vitae of any major authors or other figures mentioned in the text, and essays by various scholars.

In the field of Classical Studies certain well-established scholarly databases have achieved a remarkable degree of sophistication and utility. For example, we have been able to make assigned portions of the Suda available on-line to translators because the text was in machine-readable form in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae. Our interface also generates dynamic links from individual Greek words in those assigned entries to Morpheus (a morphological parser) and the Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon of Classical Greek, both available from the Perseus Project. Thus translators and editors without convenient access to a print edition of the Suda can nevertheless get most of their work done via the SOL interface alone. And rather than have translators compile their own bibliographies in every case, we can often get better results simply by creating links into such massive and well-structured archives as the Gnomon Online bibliographischen Datenbank offered by the Katholische Universität Eichstätt.

But clearly many other possible synergies exist or will emerge over time, and we mean to pursue them whenever doing so appears to be worthwhile. We can filter our data against lists of geographic entities and ancient authors and other personal names and on that basis implement links that will redirect our readers to any other pertinent external resources, e.g. the web-enabled atlases, site plans, and architectural materials of the Perseus Project. Moreover, the SOL is being created in the context of The Stoa Consortium for Electronic Publication. We foresee ties to several other now incipient consortial projects, for instance the vivid QTVR panoramas of Bruce Hartzler's Metis, or Demos, the project led by Chris Blackwell that aims at becoming a comprehensive assortment of modular resources for the study of classical Athenian democracy.

All this copious annotation and hypertextuality should result in an on-line Suda useful not only to classical scholars and historians, but to a much wider audience as well. Students at all levels will be able not merely to read the translated Suda entries but to understand their wider context. Although bare translation would be of little use to most non-specialists, a translation replete with links to other ancient works and to modern scholarship will open a whole world of information to both the interested neophyte and the trained specialist.


The SOL project depends on volunteers from the worldwide community of classical scholars. These volunteers are responsible for the three main areas of endeavor involved in the project: translation, editing, and technical matters.

Anyone capable of translating classical Greek is eligible to volunteer for the translation and annotation of a single entry, a group of entries on similar subjects or a series of alphabetically continuous entries. For example, a number of translators are currently working on blocks of entries from the beginning of the encyclopedia in an attempt to complete the first letter ("alpha"), and some faculty members have begun to assign selections to the Greek students, both undergraduate and graduate. Other contributors have chosen major entries relating to their area of expertise (such as Rhetoric, Drama, Medicine, or Greek History). The SOL interface allows managing editors to see at a glance which entries have been assigned and which remain available, and there are easy ways to find items of likely interest.

We are using Adler's edition of the Suda as the source for our translation. This is both the most recent and the most easily accessible edition; if a library has the Suda at all, it most likely has it in Adler's edition. Furthermore, Adler's numbering of the entries in the Suda has become the standard to which scholars refer. Some of our volunteers, however, do not have access to Adler or any other edition of the Suda, and for that reason we provide the text on-line, with several options for Greek display.

When they are ready, translators submit their work on the web using a form with areas for annotation, bibliography and links to other web resources. On-line access to the full source text is useful even for those translators who have Adler's print edition at hand, since it lets them glance at the original Greek of their entry while they work, and do morphological parsing and lexicon lookups as needed. Once they have entered their translations on the web site, translators can return to the database later and further modify their entries.

Editorial Revision and Quality Control

In order to encourage the participation of translators and editors, and in order to make the SOL database a useful scholarly resource as quickly as possible, we are committed to making material for SOL available to users as soon as it is submitted. We acknowledge that this philosophy raises concerns. One of the major issues with electronic publication of scholarship is the potential it has for circumventing time-tested procedures for quality control. While we do not want simply to add to the sea of uncontrolled material on the Web, at the same time we insist on our right to experiment and indeed we have no desire to replicate the print-publication paradigm in electronic format. Many of the advantages that electronic publication offers, including immediacy, accessibility and adaptability, are seriously handicapped by traditional editorial processes, where chronic bottlenecks frequently develop in the effort to keep the publishing house's imprimatur off of anything with any detectable shortcomings. In order to exploit these advantages of the web while at the same time maintaining a reasonable level of quality control, submissions to the SOL database undergo the following process of editorial evaluation and monitoring:

1. Initial submissions immediately become accessible to users searching or browsing at the SOL site, but their "draft" status is clearly marked.

2. Once a submission has been carefully vetted by one of the SOL editors for errors and significant omissions, its status as part of the SOL database may rise from draft into one of two categories: low or high. At every stage of this process, the editors who participate in vetting and improving the entry will be prominently identified to the user, along with any descriptive comments they may provide concerning their editorial work.

3. Most importantly, even an entry that has achieved high status will not be considered perfect and immutable. At the discretion of the editors, improvements, changes and additions of links and bibliography can continue indefinitely.

While this way of doing things puts more of the burden of quality control on the end user, our system of marking editorial status gives researchers significant assistance in coming to an informed decision about the reliability of the material in SOL. In fact, our system offers definite advantages over the canonical paradigm of peer review from the consumer's point of view. In print scholarship (and electronic scholarship that merely follows the traditional model) the number, identity, and qualifications of reviewers remain hidden, and one must usually base one's estimate of the reliability of the scholarship solely on the identity of the author and the general reputation of the venue. In the standard paradigm, moreover, the end product is more or less fixed, whereas our database is being improved continuously.


Web-based resources can be designed to work together because the internet technologies on which the Web relies were engineered to enable different computers to communicate with one another. Just as SOL can and does incorporate links to material in the databases of the Perseus Project's and the TLG, so the designers of those projects, and of any other internet text, can incorporate links to the information in SOL. Any search on SOL is represented by a single Web address, or universal resource identifier (URI), which can easily be used to create links from another internet text to the results of any possible search in SOL. Such hyperlinks are a universal standard analogous to a footnote or bibliography listing, and they can be utilized by any Web application. Because the SOL is a resource freely available to anyone with internet access, one may view the contents of any linked SOL search merely by clicking on the link. Anyone wishing to cite a Suda article in an electronic commentary on a text, or a scholarly monograph, or even a student paper published in a course archive, need only incorporate the URI for a given search into a link to allow the reader to check the quotation for himself.

When compared to other existing internet resources for the study of classical civilization, the Suda has special value: because it is distilled from a comprehensive compilation of ancient sources, it can become an encyclopedic reference for creators of hypertextual editions of literary texts, authors of internet monographs, and editors of more specialized reference works. The breadth of the Suda's content provides an ideal medium on which to culture a source-based encyclopedia of the ancient world. In this context, the annotations can become even more important than the translations: a heavily-annotated internet Suda has the potential to become the hypertext reference of first resort, in the same way that the Oxford Classical Dictionary is a reference of first resort outside the internet context, the reference one checks first for bibliography and general information on a subject.


For the SOL to realize this potential, it must be translated accurately, annotated copiously, and reviewed constantly. In the standard paradigm, the usability and modifiability of a text is inversely proportional to its size; quite literally, mega biblion mega kakon. In an internet paradigm, the size of a text places no technical impediments in the way of revision or ease of reference, but rather provides richer opportunities for linking, cross-reference, and annotation. As the database increases in size, more readers find the text useful, and so more readers are attracted to revise, expand, and annotate the text. So long as professional standards are maintained in the recruiting of translators and editors, as the numbers of translators and editors increase, and as SOL increases its number of readers, the translations in the database will continue to improve in reliability and the annotation will become more extensive. We expect that contributions to the database will accelerate (there are already hints that it is doing so) as it becomes richer and increasingly reliable.

A user interface on the web enables the process of translating and editing the SOL, so that a standardized interface and a direct connection to the same text are available to collaborators throughout the world. An interlocking set of PERL scripts interacting with a database called Qddb generates this SOL user interface dynamically. University of Kentucky Computer Science graduate students Huar En Ng and Mukund Chandak have done the programming under the supervision of Raphael Finkel (Professor of Computer Science at UK), with weekly strategy sessions in which Ross Scaife also participates. Most of the available features except searches and Help resources require authentication by user ID and password. The four-part hierarchical arrangement of the interface enables more or fewer features for participants depending on their level of registration, as follows:

Managing Editors may
  • assume another participant's identity
  • generate e-mail to specific categories of participants
  • approve pending registrations
  • assign and reassign entries
Editors may
  • modify and assign status to entries
  • note the nature of the modifications they have made
Translators may
  • request, translate, and modify specific entries
  • choose to see original TLG entry in various display flavors of Greek (including transliterated and TLG "beta code")
  • utilize links to the on-line Liddell Scott Jones Lexicon of Classical Greek as needed
Guests may
  • search the database in various ways and view entries along with their source texts
  • read logs of recent activity
  • update their user profiles
  • see a roster of all active participants

Resources in the Help section currently include

  • a brief explanation of betacode
  • an easy way to browse lists of the headwords in the SOL
  • an easy way to search through the entire untranslated source text of the Suda in order to find items of interest
  • a list of standard abbreviations for works and authors


Ultimately, the Suda On Line project serves a number of scholarly and pedagogical interests. Electronic publication increases the circulation of an important resource for the study of the ancient world: the collaborative translation and copious annotation improves the accessibility and utility of the text; the technologies used in publication enable synthesis with other reference works and resources; and the publication model generates a precedent for other publishers to use in the creation of new resources.

In the hyperlinked world of internet publication, the utility, interest, and reliability of any one resource are dramatically increased by the availability of other related resources. An electronic Greek text on its own has a number of uses: it can be read, searched like a concordance, quotations can be copied into another document. Add hypertextual cross-references, and a new range of features becomes available: quick reference to comparable passages, greater ease in evaluating possible allusions. Add an English translation, and the text becomes available to readers outside the classical profession who might have an interest in the material or a need for the evidence it provides, and to students just learning how to evaluate primary sources and recognize the difference between primary and secondary sources. By facilitating extensive annotation within a framework of scholarly accountability, the creators of the SOL hope to see new interpretations and understandings of the classical world arise from the synthesis of previously unconnected material.


1. Paul Lemerle, Byzantine Humanism: The First Phase Trans. H. Lindsay and A. Moffatt. (Canberra, 1986) p. 345.

2. On the title and theories explaining it, see Lemerle, pp. 343-344, n. 91.

3. Lemerle, p. 309.

4. N. G. Wilson, Scholars of Byzantium (Baltimore, 1983) Pp. 145-147.

5. S. Hornblower, and A. Spawforth eds., The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd edition, Oxford, 1996) s.v. "Suda".

6. A. Adler, ed. Suidae Lexicon (5 volumes). Stuttgart, 1928-1938.

7. As of mid-April 2000, there were nearly 1,500 translated Suda entries in the database, with a further 1,500 in progress. The rate at which entries are being translated has been increasing.

8. Perseus: An Evolving Digital Library of Ancient Greece, Gregory Crane, ed. (; Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, Maria Pantelia, ed. ( We wish to thank Professors Crane and Pantelia for the very helpful spirit of friendly cooperation they have consistently displayed toward the Suda On Line.

Last changed: May 14, 2019   

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This document was last updated Tuesday May 14, 2019.

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