Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.7.3


John T. Fitzgerald (ed.), Greco-Roman Perspectives on Friendship. Society of Biblical Literature Resources for Biblical Study, 34. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997. Pp. xiv, 330. ISBN 0-7885-0271-9.

Contributors: David L. Balch, Katherine G. Evans, Benjamin Fiore, S.J., John T. Fitzgerald, Ronald F. Hock, Alan G. Mitchell, Edward N. O'Neil, Richard I. Pervo, Frederic M. Schroeder, Gregory E. Sterling, and Johan C. Thom.


Reviewed by Mark F. Williams, Department of Classical Languages, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, wilm@calvin.edu.

A look at the list of contributors (p. ix) shows the collaborative nature of this book: eight scholars of religion and three members of classical studies departments have contributed individual chapters surveying themes of friendship in literature, philosophy, religion and society from the time of Homer to Aristotle (surveyed broadly in a single article) to the New Testament and later materials (represented inter alia by Chariton's novel Callirhoe, Lucian's Toxaris, Plutarch, Philo, and a survey -- again broadly done -- of Greek documentary papyri from Egypt). The original aim of the volume, as stated in the editor's introduction, was for an interdisciplinary collaborative group to "give close attention to ancient texts, both pagan and Christian, treating them in their own right as well as in relation to each other... Such a group would include not only NT scholars, but also classicists, students of ancient philosophy, ancient historians, cultural and historical anthropologists, and others who were interested in Christian origins." (p. 1)

A lofty aim, and one which should interest all students of the ancient Mediterranean world despite its ultimately narrow focus on Christian origins. The resulting volume sometimes rises above the limitation of its focus on early Christianity; however, absent a transcript of Fondation Hardt-style dialogue among its contributors, it is often weak precisely at treating these texts "in relation to each other" since there is little overlap in the individual treatments of subject matter. Also, cultural and historical anthropologists (and other social scientists apart from historians) are not represented in this volume, an absence especially to be regretted. For starters, given that some of the articles in the book cite bibliography from as late as 1996, it is a shame that nobody took account of Dutch sociologist Henk Woldering's survey Vriendschap door de eeuwen heen (Baarn, 1994).

Another limitation is the length of the individual articles: if you omit the 38-page contribution of Alan C. Mitchell, the average length of the articles is just over 21 pages; in fact, five of the articles are 18 pages in length (or less). An article's length is ordinarily of secondary importance after its quality, but the study of friendship in the ancient world has burgeoned in the last few years to the point where it can almost be called a minor industry in the broader subject fields of the ancient world. These papers were written originally for the Society of Biblical Literature meeting of 1991 (the delay in publication was due to the destruction of the editor's Florida home in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew), and already then the literature on the subject was so large that several of the contributors felt obliged to spend much of their allotted space either in surveying previously published work, a lot of it already well known, or in summarizing plot or content of seldom read ancient works. Thus many of the articles in this collection have the feel and heft of surveys of the status quaestionis rather than wholly original contributions seeking to solve some problem or other in ancient affective relationships. This is not a bad thing, of course: such surveys are useful, particularly as starting points for those who have recently become interested in the area treated by the survey. Specialists in the field may come away disappointed, however.

After his editor's introduction -- a nod from Jerusalem to Athens, with bibliography (mostly to the late 1980's) on friendship themes in major classical authors who are not otherwise discussed in this collection -- John T. Fitzgerald surveys "Friendship in the Greek World Prior to Aristotle" (pages 13-34). He provides an introduction to the old problem of the exact meaning of philos in Homer, and usefully calls our attention to the fact that it is indeed possible to discuss friendship in the homeric epics without knowing precisely what philos means, especially if we focus on an understanding of friendship as the absence of strife or wrath. This essentially negative definition of the term may raise a few positivist hackles but it can help us account for the sometimes bewildering variety of relations and affective states that the ancients placed under the rubric of philia or amicitia. Fitzgerald's bibliography in this article is up to date.

Frederic M. Schroeder next takes up "Friendship in Aristotle and Some Peripatetic Philosophers" (pages 35-57). In many ways this is the most original and challenging contribution to the entire collection. After surveying Aristotle's main treatments of the theme in the Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric, and Magna Moralia, Schroeder argues persuasively for the cognitive priority of character friendship over friendships founded on utility and pleasure (based on his reading of Eth. Eudem. 7.2.1236a15-35). Schroeder concludes his article by usefully surveying later Peripatetic thinking on philia, including the seldom read Arrius Didymus, Alcinous, and Aspasius. Schroeder's bibliography is current through 1993.

Benjamin Fiore, S.J. sums up "The Theory and Practice of Friendship in Cicero" (pages 59-76). The theory part comes easily and accurately enough, with his summary of the De amicitia; Cicero's practice, however, is summarized interestingly by reference not, as usually, to the orator's politics as reflected in his general correspondence, but to the Commentariolum petitionis, a handbook on electioneering perhaps composed by Cicero's brother Quintus and preserved among Cicero's letters. Fiore's analysis of the Commentariolum takes some of the idealistic sheen off of the De amicitia; his general conclusion is that the recommendations of the Commentariolum "do not seem to diverge from what can be learned of Cicero's practical political outlook and practice" (p. 69). Fiore's bibliography goes through 1991.

Johan C. Thom deals with "'Harmonious Equality': the Topos of Friendship in Neopythagorean Writings" in one of the deservedly longer offerings of this collection (pages 77-103). A quibble, first: which of the many topoi of friendship does our author have in mind? Surely this book demonstrates, as does much other recent research, that we should now talk of topoi of friendship (this complaint could be directed to Mitchell's article as well; Edward N. O'Neil's treatment of Plutarch avoids this annoying over-simplification). Be that as it may, Thom surveys the revival of Neopythagoreanism that began around the first century BCE and discusses the sometimes contradictory themes of friendship as they arise in four types of Neopythagorean writings: treatises (mainly as excerpted by Stobaeus), letters (including pseudonymous productions as well as those attributed to Apollonius of Tyana), collections of sayings, and biographies. Throughout Thom rightly calls attention to the things that set Neopythagorean writing on friendship apart from other ancient analyses of friendship -- the extension of philia to include relations between mortals and deities, for example (p. 86 f.), or the expansion of friendship to include relations between all the citizens of a polis or a state. Given the difficulties in dating the various Neopythagorean writings (dates mentioned by Thom range from the fourth century BCE on), it is extremely difficult to posit a political or even a social context for many of the materials he surveys; however, the sea-change from classical polis to Hellenistic kingdom to Roman imperium goes almost unremarked in this article; and it is difficult to believe that upheavals in these various socio-political contexts left little or no imprint on Neopythagorean thinking on friendship. Another area where I wish Thom could have transcended the limited focus of this volume is in possible Pythagorean influences from the first century CE upon post-apostolic Christian ideas of friendship with God (a theme that is important to Augustine among others, and that need not come only from Pythagorean or Neopythagorean sources, as Sterling's article shows); these influences, if they exist, might then be traced, directly or indirectly, through ascetic writers like John Cassian well into the high middle ages in western Europe. The latest item in Thom's bibliography is dated 1995.

Next, Edward N. O'Neil tackles "Plutarch on Friendship" (p. 105 122), brief scope for a large topic since Plutarch often dealt with friendship, both in specific theoretical essays (e.g., "How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend" and "On Having Many Friends") as well as in other more tangentially related discussions. O'Neil points out that Plutarch is a kind of cultural bridge in that he treats in Greek themes associated with friendship under Roman conditions (some of which drew the wrath of Juvenal). In discussing the key terms Plutarch associated with friendship O'Neil comes as close as any author in this volume to fleshing out the breadth and depth of ancient popular thinking about the subject. Of course by Plutarch's time most of the sentiments O'Neil discusses had become commonplaces, but the simple fact that they were topoi speaks of their staying power. Predictably, Juvenal and Plutarch come together when they each have to deal with such matters as flattery, that perversion of the sine qua non of friendship, parrhesia. O'Neil cites no sources later than 1983 in his notes but his analysis is elegant and original, and I know of no similar treatment of the topic.

In "Political Friendship in the Historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities" (p. 123-144), David L. Balch looks at friendship as a political category (as it often is in Cicero). Much of Balch's 21 pages is taken up with plot summary, probably a necessity since Dionysius of Halicarnassus is seldom assigned and almost never read except by specialists in Roman history. He analyzes four narratives from the Roman Antiquities: the war between the Romans and Sabines (book 3), the conflict between patricians and plebeians (book 6), Coriolanus as a hater of poor plebeians (book 7), and finally Coriolanus as a just enemy of former Roman friends (book 8). Balch is uncertain exactly how to categorize the last two narratives, but he generally wants to read all four narratives as moralizing explorations of the pressures that can cause ruptures in political friendships, both between individuals and whole states. At the same time, Dionysius is anxious to prove to his Greek-reading audience the extraordinary resilience of the Romans who are his subject, thus justifying Roman superiority over the fractious Greeks; notions of amicitia were one means to this end. A good example of Balch's analysis is his reading of the strife between patricians and plebeians in which extremists on either side threaten to bring down the entire state, but the institution of political friendship enables more moderate views to prevail, thus ensuring the survival of the Roman state. Although Balch does not discuss it as such, Dionysius here gives a good example of the breadth of (political) friendship in antiquity: as Ant. Rom. 6.80.2 says, the plebeians claim they are being driven out of Rome by their friends (although a variant reading for FI/LWN here is FILI/WN): even the extremely broad definition of friendship offered by Fitzgerald in the first essay as the absence of strife and wrath seems inapplicable here. Yet, Dionysius' strange example of friendship has a Roman parallel in Tacitus, who describes the constant strife between Germanicus and Piso as taking place in an atmosphere of (official) amicitia in Ann. II.70 (Germanicus, says Tacitus, componit epistulas quis amicitiam ei renuntiabat); there is a similar example cited from a letter by Katherine Evans (p. 195). Balch profited from the delay in publication caused by meterological disaster: his bibliography includes items published as late as 1996.

In "An Extraordinary Friend in Chariton's Callirhoe: the Importance of Friendship in the Greek Romances" (p. 145-162) Ronald F. Hock offers an overview of the friendship between Polycharmus and Chaereas depicted in Chariton's ancient novel. I know of no other work dedicated specifically to friendship that takes the ancient romances as seriously as this article, and for that reason alone it is a welcome addition to the literature (and this is by no means its only merit). Hock takes the relationship between Polycharmus and Chaereas to be an example of philia hetairike, and along the way he challenges some recent and not-so-recent criticisms of the character of Polycharmus. Additionally, Hock analyzes other examples of friendship from the novel; especially interesting are his readings of the friendly relations between characters far down the social scale (e.g., Leonas, an overseer of slaves, and Theron, a robber kidnapper), as well as the "friendship" that exists between Chaereas and his wife Callirhoe. The couple's unfaltering commitment parallels that between Polycharmus and Chaereas. If Hock is right, Chariton's depiction of this married relationship is an outright challenge to Aristotle's view (EN 1157a14-15) that a friendship between husband and wife was not the highest form of friendship. The latest bibliographic item cited by Hock is from 1995.

It's often safe to assume that Lucian writes with tongue firmly in cheek, and this is Richard I. Pervo's approach in "With Lucian: Who Needs Friends? Friendship in the Toxaris" (p. 163-180). Pervo's burden in to show that Lucian's essay mocks concepts of friendship that, by Lucian's time, had become cloyingly sentimental (the fate of old topoi?). Toxaris is a debate between a Greek, Mnesippos, and a Scythian, Toxaris; their aim is to discover whose society has produced the superior notions and examples of friendship. Mnesippos's examples of friendship are overly sentimental, according to Pervo, while those of Toxaris exhibit barbarian excess, often to the point of ludicrousness. The topoi on the Greek side are threadbare, while those of the Scythians are potentially destructive to civilization. Our author necessarily spends much time in plot summary and quotation, but his analysis, though brief, seems to me spot on; those who disagree with Pervo's perspective on how seriously to take Lucian's tales will of course disagree with his conclusion as well. Pervo's latest bibliographic citation is from 1994.

In "Friendship in Greek Documentary Papyri and Inscriptions: A Survey" (p. 181-202) Katherine G. Evans surveys the evidence from a "sampling" of 18,000 papyri and inscriptions and finds the evidence for friendship "difficult to isolate, relatively scarce in quantity, and generally present[ing] a practical, even utilitarian, view of friendship where a friend is someone who does favors for you" (p. 181). Methodological issues loom large for Evans (as they must), and she spends the first several pages addressing them. The bottom line is that she relies on the presence or absence of the words philia and/or philos for her source materials. Further, she looked in depth at private letters, since this is "the one genre type that we know was specifically used in the ancient world to maintain friendship" (p. 183). Evans uncovers several surprising trends in these documents (the dearth of mentions of friends in wills and the evidence for friendships among disfranchised groups, e.g.), but they are not tied in very well with the insights offered by her collaborators in this book. Aware that in so brief an article she has only scratched the surface, she concludes by suggesting some avenues for further research. Evans's bibliography runs up through 1992.

Like Plutarch, Philo of Alexandria lived in two worlds. Gregory E. Sterling's "The Bond of Humanity: Friendship in Philo of Alexandria" (p. 203-223) explores the possible influence of Stoicism upon the Torah exegete. In this well-crafted article Sterling demonstrates that Philo stands within hellenic traditions of thinking about friendship (p. 205-211), and then analyzes Philo's writings for evidence of his thinking on the practice and extent of friendship (p. 211-221). Not only does Philo see it possible to extend friendship to his fellow Israelites (much as a Stoic kosmopolites would extend it to his fellow citizens); like the Neopythagoreans and some others, he also considers the possibility of friendship with God. As Sterling notes (p. 218), Philo "redefined the boundaries of friendship and kinship along religious lines." This represents a profound departure from the political friendship that lies back of much Roman writing on the subject, and this religious conception of friendship had a long life in late antiquity and the middle ages (cf. Aelred of Rievaulx's De spiritali amicitia from the 12th century), but of course tracing these developments lies beyond the scope of Sterling's article. Sterling's latest bibliographical reference to printed material dates from 1992.

Alan C. Mitchell's "'Greet the Friends By Name': New Testament Evidence for the Greco-Roman Topos on Friendship" (p. 225-262), by far the longest piece in the collection, is mostly literature survey for its first half; it reads like the first chapter in many a dissertation. Mitchell's purpose is "to look at the places where evidence for the friendship topos has been discovered and to raise some questions about the peculiarity of its use" (p. 226). He modifies this purpose in the next sentence, saying he will in fact survey work already done on the topic and issue his own critique of that. He indeed surveys this work of others but Mitchell's own voice is scarcely heard until p. 237, where he deals with Luke-Acts, after he has already surveyed work on the Pauline corpus (specifically I Thessalonians, Galatians, I and II Corinthians, Romans, and Philippians). Mitchell's treatment of Luke-Acts here is based on a revised abridgment of his article "The Social Function of Friendship in Acts 2:44-47 and 4:32-37 (JBL 111 (1992) 255-72), where he finds that "Luke intended to challenge his community to extend friendship to one another across status divisions" (p. 237). Two pages on, Mitchell sharpens his thesis somewhat: "friendship traditions became a vehicle Luke used to encourage upper status people in the community to benefit those beneath them." Specifically, the Christian upper crust are to be encouraged to use their possessions to benefit all the members of the Christian community. In the context of this early Christian debate on the place of possessions, classical topoi of friendship serve to challenge these wealthy Christians to share their goods. There are many problems with Mitchell's analysis: his assumption of a specific audience for Luke-Acts without ever naming that audience (do we really know enough about the distribution of wealth among early Christians to give warrant to Mitchell's thesis? And would that audience be susceptible to persuasion from pagan friendship topoi?); his assumption of Luke's intent to blur or erase class lines within the early church as opposed to the apparent indifference of early Christians (including, famously, Luke's mentor Paul) to such class lines (which shouldn't be confused with distinctions in ethnicity, which Luke mentions as a problem in Acts 6); the difficulty of applying limited statements from Acts 2 and Acts 4 as normative for the whole of the early church as it is depicted in the rest of Acts (why no apostolic pronouncement [cf. Acts 11:18 and 15:22-33] on this important theme, unless Luke is just editorializing?) -- the list could go on. This is the least convincing article of the collection, though it will serve a useful purpose as a survey of scholarship. Mitchell's extensive bibliography goes through 1996.

Fitzgerald's collection is a worthy addition to the burgeoning literature on ancient friendship. Its bibliographies are useful because most of the authors have updated them since the original date of the SBL seminars. Although the authors spend more effort at surveying their respective subfields than I would have liked, the book will provide a useful introduction to ancient friendship that often transcends its narrow focus on early Christian origins. The collaboration between New Testament scholars and classical philologists that led to this volume is a healthy thing, and the SBL, Dr. Fitzgerald and his collaborators are all to be commended for their efforts. I hope that such collaborations continue, at SBL, the American Philological Association and the various regional organizations.