Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.01.23

Polymnia Athanassiadi (ed.), Damascius. The Philosophical History.   Athens:  Apamea Cultural Association, 1999.  Pp. 403.  ISBN 960-85325-2-3.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by Robert Lamberton, Classics, Washington University in St. Louis (

Polymnia Athanassiadi's elegantly produced and very welcome bilingual edition of the text more familiarly known as Damascius's Life of Isidore gives us the last in the series of ancient Platonist biographers in a form more accessible than ever before.1 Our most important source of information, stemming from within their own circle, concerning the last polytheist philosophers of Athens and Alexandria, Damascius's book is widely cited but, because of its fragmentary state, an overall understanding of the work remains elusive. For this reason alone, A.'s bilingual edition should be in the collection of every library concerned with classics, with the history of philosophy, or with the world of late antiquity and the eclipse of Greco-Roman polytheism. Her accurate, often eloquent translation is certainly the form in which this important text will be read in English for the foreseeable future.

Isidore, who shuttled back and forth between Alexandria and Athens in the 470's and 480's, reluctantly accepted the Athenian succession (diadoche) -- what we might think of as the chair of Platonic philosophy -- in the early 490's, though it is unclear how long he may have occupied that chair. Indeed, there is much that remains obscure about the last phase of the Athenian Platonic succession, the status and number of successors (diadochoi) at any given time, and their sequence, down to the closing of the school by Justinian in 529. Damascius, in any case, had studied rhetoric in his native Damascus before coming to Alexandria to continue his education in the early 480's, aged perhaps twenty. He traveled with Isidore to Athens in 489, two years before a Christian mob looted the Serapeum -- a period when Alexandrian polytheists suffered persecution, torture, and worse at the hands of their Christian fellow citizens. Damascius and Isidore spent eight months together on this journey, savoring the wonders of numinous sites in Syria, and visiting Aphrodisias in Asia Minor. When it was over, Damascius had abandoned rhetoric for philosophy (a career change that had, since the second century, become a topos) and is assumed himself to have taken on the leadership of the Athenian school during the first or at the latest the second decade of the sixth century. He was a far more productive scholar and philosopher than his predecessors in the years since Proclus (d. 485). A. (With Chuvin 1990, p. 140, among others) attributes to Damascius the reform and general revitalization of the school -- and of Athenian philosophy in general -- that attracted Justinian's attention (p. 45). There is a larger principle lurking here. In both cities, Platonism seems to have been inseparable from polytheism. In the intermittently and unpredictably repressive Christian empire of the late fifth and early sixth centuries, the price of peace and tranquillity for the polytheists was to keep a low profile. In Alexandria, the flamboyant and confrontational Pamprepius had brought disastrous repression on his co-religionists in the 480's (frs. 112-113 with notes). Damascius's success as diadochos in Athens, a generation or so later, seems paradoxically to have provoked a reaction that severely curtailed, if it did not end, the activities of the Platonists in that city.

Respecting a tradition among the Platonists of the Roman Empire that stretched back to the end of the third century (when Porphyry wrote the biography of his teacher Plotinus, still the masterpiece of the genre), Damascius undertook the biography of his teacher Isidore. To judge by the surviving fragments, his book consisted largely of biographical notes and anecdotes about the Platonists of Athens and Alexandria in the fifth century, from the celebrated (e.g. Hypatia) to the most obscure (e.g. Isidore's Alexandrian friend Sarapion, who fully realized the injunction lathe biosas and devoted his inconspicuous, isolated life to reading the poetry of Orpheus). Damascius's book was in any case far more inclusive than the designation Life of Isidore implies, and A.'s decision to rehabilitate the title Philosophical History (used by the Suda and with a Porphyrian precedent) has a great deal to recommend it. The book survived intact to be read in the ninth century by Photius, who in his characteristic manner copied and paraphrased snippets of varying length and coherence. (That is, many phrases and sentences are of indeterminate reference -- the subjects of isolated sentences are often impossible to specify with certainty, and so on.) This series of excerpts (in codex 242 of the Bibliotheca) has been assumed, probably rightly, to reproduce the overall sequence of the original work. Photius (or another excerpter) later returned to Damascius's work and copied out a number of excerpts for their stylistic interest. A century later, the compiler of the Suda made extensive use of Damascius's History, which he excerpted in illustration of hundreds of words and expressions, and mined for articles on various Platonist teachers. From that point in time, all trace of the intact text of Damascius's History disappears. Needless to say, this patchwork of excerpts results in a tantalizing but ultimately insoluble puzzle. Rudolf Asmus, the modern scholar who did most to reconstruct the text, cited one of his earliest predecessors in the endeavor, the seventeenth-century historian Le Nain de Tillemont, on the Photian material: "On en pourrait tirer beaucoup de choses touchant les philosophes payens de ce siècle (sc. de Zénon) en y joignant Suidas qui a beaucoup de choses de Damasce: mais je ne sais si cela en vaudrait la peine" (Asmus 1909, p. 424).

Indeed, the task was so forbidding that it should come as no surprise that Tillemont threw up his hands, and that it was not to be completed for two centuries. Asmus (1909, 1910) built on the work of scholars including Eduard Zeller, who had largely disengaged the passages of Damascius -- substantial paragraphs and isolated phrases alike -- from their matrices in Photius and the Suda. After detailing his method and his results in a pair of articles, Asmus published a translation (1911), arranging the fragments around the sequence of what we may (with A.) call Photius's first reading.

The next important step was Clemens Zintzen's 1967 edition of the Greek fragments, the form in which most scholars have approached the text for more than a quarter century. Zintzen presented the remains of Damascius's text in columnar form -- the epitoma photiana (in 230 numbered passages) on the left-hand page and the fragmenta (a total of 370 arranged in provisional sequence, 81 from the second series of excerpts in Photius, the rest with one exception culled from over 350 Suda entries) juxtaposed on the right. (Thirty-three further snippets Zintzen considered dubia et incertae sedis are largely left aside by A.) Zintzen followed Asmus closely, effectively organizing his edition of the Greek after Asmus's German. As A. points out (p. 64), Zintzen's principal contribution to the material was to add a number of fragments given to Damascius by Ada Adler in her edition of the Suda. It is unlikely that the surviving evidence for Damascius's text will ever be displayed more comprehensively or with greater clarity. Zintzen's edition is in many ways exemplary, but as sequential narrative it is unreadable. It calls out for exactly what A. has done -- a new and improved consecutive translation (updating Asmus 1911). By presenting her translation with a facing Greek text, she has done her reader a great service. Scholars working on Damascius may still need to go to Zintzen in order to get one step closer to the evidence, but for most purposes A.'s bilingual edition will prove more than adequate and vastly easier to use.

A.'s basic procedure has been to follow Asmus's order, based in turn on Photius (pp. 67-69). She has added two fragments to Zintzen's list and reorganized the sequential excerpts from Photius (in part on prosopographic grounds) without substantially altering their order. The dubia aside, she includes nearly 90% of Zintzen's fragments. The relationship between her text and Zintzen's is made admirably clear in a double concordance (A > Z and Z > A) (pp. 385-403). A detailed comparison of her translation with Asmus's is beyond the scope of a review, but in general Asmus supplied (in italics) a substantial amount of interpolated commentary, restoring or reinventing a continuity for Damascius's text that the bare fragments, as A. presents them, often lack. A., on the other hand, brings us closer to the evidence of the Greek fragments themselves, and her work of restoration is far less obtrusive.

Duplication of content, frequently reinforced by a shared turn of phrase or item of vocabulary, frequently makes it possible to identify two or more fragments -- from Photius and/or the Suda -- as versions of the same Damascian original. Zintzen sometimes cut and pasted fragments, but more often (again following Adler) he printed such fragments side by side, so that his right-hand column is frequently fragmented into two or even three subcolumns. The evidence is thus assembled at the cost of readability. This is precisely where A. often facilitates access, though with some loss of precision. She frequently integrates complementary fragments to reconstitute, or at least approximate, the original, but the success of these integrations is uneven. Many are quite plausible, but some are arbitrary and questionable. At stake is not so much the overall sense -- which is generally clear enough -- but the basic task of the editor to restore as faithfully as possible what the author actually wrote.

Just to take an example, A.'s fragment 85B (on Asclepiodotus's musical research) integrates into a substantial narrative passage from Photius a phrase from the Suda's entry s.v. diesin (i.e. diesis, a minimal musical interval). The point is that Asclepiodotus was unable to reconstruct the "enharmonic" scale, because the "minimal interval" (diesis), once audible to humans, has become inaccessible to our sense of hearing, and the enharmonic scale has been lost along with it. That the two passages are derivative from the same passage of Damascius is certain, but the Suda adds a genitive absolute phrase explaining the loss of the enharmonic scale, "our ear being no longer trained to hear it" (A.'s translation, p. 214). This phrase adds nothing at all to the passage from Damascius reproduced by Photius, and in fact repeats information just supplied. It looks more like a clarificatory expansion of the Suda's than something Photius simply failed to copy (though the latter explanation is not impossible, either). Still, we are left with the question, whose voice are we hearing? A. gives the phrase to Damascius and the result is readable, if wordy, Greek and the English is correspondingly inclusive and accessible. Zintzen, by juxtaposing the two passages, suspends judgment and presents the evidence -- but in so doing leaves the text in a fragmented state that is very difficult to read.

There are dozens of examples of this sort, and most are of no more significance than the one spelled out above. The fact remains, though, that there is a cost to the reintegration of the disiecta membra of this battered text. It depends on assumptions and decisions on which no two readers are going to agree entirely.

A.'s translation is outstanding, and comparison with the Greek again and again reveals remarkable ingenuities. Translating a text as fraught with difficulties as Damascius's inevitably involves risks, and there are numerous arguable points, but what impressed me here was how seldom I encountered anything to find fault with, and how often I was left full of admiration for the precision and wit of her renderings.

Three appendices, one on an archaeological matter and the other two historical and prosopographical, conclude the volume. The first makes a case for an association between Damascius and a mansion ("House C") on the north slope of the Areopagus in Athens. The evidence is circumstantial rather than conclusive, but it is evidence nevertheless, and the appendix is valuable for linking Damascius's text to a building where, if not a resident, Damascius must at least have been a visitor (p. 347). The second (pp. 348-349) succinctly presents A.'s solution to the problem of the two Asklepiodoti of Aphrodisias, and the third (pp. 350-357) makes an impressive case for locating Zosimus, the author of the New History, in the context of late fifth-century Alexandria.

A.'s Damascius is in some ways different from Zintzen's. Her introduction fleshes out the portrait of an idiosyncratic figure, at once the Proust (p. 40) and the Ronald Syme (p. 41) of his time. She tells us that "a systematic assault on rhetoric" is an "obsessive theme" of his book (p. 41). True, Damascius marks his own conversion from rhetoric to philosophy in emphatic terms (fr. 137B) but the gist of his criticism of rhetoric is simply that it is a distraction from more important things. Indeed, like Numenius, whose history of the early Platonists A. is surely correct to invoke as an antecedent and model for Damascius's History (p. 40), he was clearly an innovative and highly self-conscious stylist -- excessively so, in Photius's judgment (Test. III, p. 339). The teaching of rhetoric and the teaching of philosophy were so intertwined in Damascius's world that a "systematic assault" on the one from the perspective of the other is unlikely -- though the echoes of the thousand-year-old polarization symbolized by Plato and Isocrates can frequently be heard. I am reluctant to believe A.'s claim that Damascius's book is in a meaningful sense anti-rhetorical and "really a satire on the current educational system judged by its results" (p. 42).

Photius (whose antipathy toward the "kenophron" Damascius surfaces so frequently that one might wonder why he devoted so much time to reading an author he detested on grounds both stylistic and religious) points out that Damascius had something bad to say about absolutely everyone, notably those he praised (Test. III, p. 337). This is borne out by a remarkable number of catty, self-satisfied criticisms in the fragments. A. embraces Photius's characterization, but appropriately attempts a more sympathetic reading of Damascius's faultfinding (pp. 26-27). She emphasizes as well his critical distance from Isidore (pp. 33-34), even accepting as Damascius on Isidore some extremely damning criticism included in the Suda article Isidoros ("in the realm of knowledge he appeared to be not terribly strong" [71B]). Zintzen drew the line here and, expressing the opinion that Damascius talibus verbis ... nullo modo Isidorum describere potuisse (p. 135, ad 160-164), argued (perhaps too) ingeniously that the Suda had misrepresented as a description of Isidore material from Damascius's discussion of Isidore's teachers Heraiscus and Asclepiades. Problems of this sort in the interpretation of Damascius are legion -- in this last instance, and from time to time elsewhere, one wishes A. had been a little more generous in her annotation.

Damascius's book will never be restored to the status of a linear, coherent narrative, in part because (as Photius points out and as Damascius himself repeatedly admits) the original itself was characterized by endless digression and narrative convolution. The attempt to organize the surviving material into some sort of approximation of the sequence of the original is further hampered by the practice of both excerpters (Photius and the Suda). As a result, A. (no more or less than her predecessors) is left with many sentences and phrases that float in space, and whose juxtaposition seems even more abrupt and problematic to the reader of the English than to the (perhaps more patient, more resigned) reader of the Greek fragments. Not uncommonly, the splitting up of a Suda article results in bewildering connectives: for example, A.'s fragment 106B, on Hypatia, recovered from the Suda entry under her name, begins "The memory of these events..." (p. 254). But the preceding sentence of the Suda (with the narrative of the "events" in question) is over a hundred pages distant, in fragment 43E (p. 130).

This is not, then, precisely what Damascius wrote, and what A. gives us is at several removes from the Philosophical History. What it is, however, is the best and most readable approximation we are likely to see of what Damascius did write -- and we are very fortunate to have it.


Asmus, J. R. 1909, 1910. "Zur Rekonstruktion von Damascius' Leben des Isidorus," Byzantinische Zeitschrift 18, 424-480 (I); 19, 265-284 (II).

idem., 1911. Das Leben des Philosophen Isidoros von Damaskios aus Damaskos. Wiederhergestellt, übersetzt, und erklärt von Rudolf Asmus. Leipzig: Meiner.

Chuvin, Pierre 1990. Chronique des derniers païens. Paris: Les Belles Lettres/Fayard.

Zintzen, Clemens 1967. Damascii Vitae Isidori Reliquiae. Hildesheim: Olms.


1.   Distributed in USA by The David Brown Book Co. and in UK by Oxbow Books,

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