• Date of Birth: May 02, 1863
  • Born City: Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland)
  • Parents: Eduard, a physician, and Maria Gerstäcker B.
  • Date of Death: October 19, 1940
  • Death City: Leipzig
  • Death State/Country: Germany
  • Education:

    Study at Bonn1881-2, Greifswald, 1882-3; Ph.D., Göttingen 1883-7.


  • Dissertation:

    Quaestiones Diodoreae Mythographae (Göttingen 1887).

  • Professional Experience:

    Privatdozent Bonn, 1891-3; prof. Rostock, 1893-6, Basel, 1896-1903; prof. ord. Giessen 1903-6, Leipzig, 1906-40.

  • Publications:

    Thebanische Heldenlieder: Untersuchungen über die Epen des thebanisch-argivischen Sagenkreises(Leipzig : S. Hirzel, 1891); Prolegomena zur Geschichte des Theaters im Alterthum: Untersuchungen über die Entwickelung des Dramas, der Bühne, des Theaters (Leipzig : S. Hirzel, 1896); Lexicographi Graeci 9: Pollucis Onomasticon 1, Liber I-V (Stuttgart: Teubner, I-V:1900, VI-X:1931, indices:1937; repr. 1998); Mythus, Sage, Märchen (Leipzig: Quelle & Meyer [1922?]); Der Chor bei Menander, in Könsach, Gesellsch. d. Wissensch. Berichte ü. d. Verhandl. Philol-hist. Klasse, [Leipzig,] 1908 v. 60, p. 209-225; Hektors Abschied (Leipzig, B. G. Teubner, 1909); Homer: Dichtung und Sage, 3 vols. (Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, I:1914, II-1922, III-1927); Medea-Probleme (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1918); Die Ichneutai des Sophokles (Leipzig, B.G. Teubner, 1919); Griechische Lyrik Aus Natur und Geisteswelt (Leipzig & Berlin: B. G. Teubner, 1920); Die griechische Dichtung (issued in12 parts) (Wildpark-Potsdam, Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft Athenaion, [c1924-c1928]); “Der Spielplatz des Aischylos,” Hermes (1924) 108-18; “Ilias und Meleager,” RhM (1925) 1-12; “Programm und Festzug der Grossen Dionysiai,” Hermes 61 (1926) 459-64; Der Apollonhymnos des Kallimachos (Leipzig, S. Hirzel, 1927); Odyssee-Probleme,” Hermes (1928) 81-93; Der homerische Apollonhymnos und das Prooimion (Leipzig, S. Hirzel, 1931); “Troia, Mykene, Agamemnon und sein Grosskönigtum,” RhM (1931) 218-36; “Platons Kriton,” PhW (1932) 957-60; Tausend jahre altgriechischen lebens; Mykene, Sparta, Milet, Athen, Alexandria (Munich: F. Bruckmann ag. [c1933]); “Ekkyklema und thyroma,” RhM (1934) 21-38; Ahnenbild und Familiengeschichte bei Römern und Griechen (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1935); “Homerphilologie heute und künftig,” Hermes 70 (1935) 46-58; Leto auf Delos, Hermes 71 (1936) 351-62; Das Archaîsche Delos und sein Letoon,” Hermes 72 (1937), 190-201; “Antike Vogelbilder” Die Antike (1939) 323-37; “Homer und das Papier”Forschungen und Fortschritte (1939) 103-4; “Das archaische Delos,” Die Antike (1938) 81-119; “Antike Buchillustrationen” in FrühdruckenGutenberg Jahrbuch 15 (1940) 228-37; Buch und Bild im Alterum (Leipzig: O. Harrassowitz, 1945).

  • Notes:

    As a boy, Erich Bethe was introduced to Homer and Greek mythology by his mother, a niece of the travel writer and novelist Friedrich Gerstäcker (1816-72). After training in local gymnasia, Bethe entered Bonn, where, although he studied under Franz Buecheler (1837-1908), the archaeologist Reinhold Kekulé von Stradonitz (1839-1911), and the historian Arnold Schaefer (1819-83), and Hermann Usener (1834-1905), he nonetheless was torn between his interest in architectural history and science. After hearing a lecture by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1848-1931) he decided to devote himself to classical philology and transferred to Greifswald to study under that master as well as Adolf Kiessling (1837-93). When Wilamowitz moved to Göttingen in 1883, Bethe followed him and benefitted from working with Karl Dilthey (1839-1907), Hermann Sauppe (1809-93), the historian C. August Volquardsen (1840-1917), and the historian Friedrich Wieseler (1811-92). Along with Ernst Maaß (1856-1929), Bethe became one of Wilamowitz’s most loyal champions, though he was not uncritical of some of his views. 

                Second to Wilamowitz as an influence was the Bonn archaeologist Georg Loeschke (1852-1915), who impressed Bethe with the importance of archaeology as a complement to philology. Loeschke’s views enhanced Bethe’s admiration for Wilamowitz’s use of archaeology in his philological work. Bethe regularly acknowledged Loeschke’s influence in many of his subsequent publications.

                His childhood interest in myth matured in the form of his doctoral thesis in which he argued that there was a catalogue of Greek myths dating from the first century CE that was subsequently used by Diodorus and other mythographers. Although the conclusion of his thesis was proven to be problematic, Bethe greatly stimulated interest in ancient mythography. 

                He travelled to Italy, Greece and Asia Minor in 1888 and worked on his study of heroic Theban songs, Thebanische Heldenlieder, which upon his return to Germany, he submitted as his habilitation at Bonn. His second book, on theater, criticized some views of Wilamowitz and Wilhelm Dörpfeld (1853-1940). Bethe then began his work on Pollux’s Onomasticon, which took him to Spain and France seeking manuscripts. He found the work difficult and 37 years passed before its completion. In the meantime, he moved to Basel, where he began a lifelong friendship with the linguist Jacob Wackernagel (1853-1938), whose historic approach to language influenced Bethe, who became the first scholar to approach the Homeric poems from a historical perspective. He then moved to Gießen, where his lectures, Mythus, Sage, Märchen, sold out quickly and were reissued in 1922.  

                His move to Leipzig in 1906 widened his scholarly horizons, but he still maintained his childhood fascination with the backgrounds to Homer and the beauty of his poetry. His three-volume work on the legendary basis of the Homeric poems advanced beyond F.G. Welcker’s (1784-1868) work on the Homeric Cycle. Bethe maintained that the Iliad and Odyssey were integral parts of the Cycle, which comprised war poems (Iliad, Cypria, AethiopisIliou Persis, Little Iliad) and homecoming poems (Odyssey, Nostoi, Telegony). He gave a startling composition date of 600 BCE for the Homeric poems. His views were criticized by John Adams Scott (1867-1947) and Martin P. Nilsson (1874-1967) but defended by George Melville Bolling (1871-1963).  Worse, it brought him again into conflict with Wilamowitz and their relationship chilled for good.

    When the Great War arrived, Bethe volunteered to train troops for the front and published further on Greek tragedy. After the war, he turned to Greek lyric poetry and the first of his volumes on the history of Greek poetry. In 1927 he was named Rector at Leipzig and dedicated a dormitory named for him. Shortly afterward he became ill and periodically had to remove himself from the classroom. He continued his work, determined to write a major cultural history of Greece. In 1933 he published five lectures on Greek city-states at various points in time: Mycenae in 1260, Sparta in the 7th century, Miletus in the 6th century, Athens around 430, and Alexandria in 250.  He wrote on the role of family history in Greece and Rome, noting that the Greeks tended to associate their ancestors with the gods, while the Romans associated their ancestors with the services they provided the state. He wrote articles on the religious history and topography of archaic Delos, especially the role of Leto. His interest in the unified design of the ancient book and illustrations led him in his last work, one that traces books and their images through centuries of change in time, material and culture. Bethe read the first proofs of his last book on his deathbed. The book was edited by his student, the archaeologist Ernst Kirsten (1911-87), and published posthumously.

  • Notes (2):


  • Sources:

    Otto Kern, Gnomon 17 (1941) 142-4; J. Marcadé, Revue Archéologique 24 (1945) 123-4; Martin P. Nillson, The Mycenaean Greek Mythology (1932) 6ff.; John Adams Scott, Dio Chrysostom and the Homeric Origin of the Cycle,“ CJ19 (1924) 315-16; Scott, “Homer and the Epic Cycle,” CJ 19 (1924) 445-7; George M. Bolling, “Professor Scott and Erich Bethe,” CJ 19 (1924) 444.


  • Author: Ward Briggs