Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.07.28

Jan Bollansée, Hermippos of Smyrna and his Biographical Writings, a Reappraisal. Studia Hellenistica 35.   Louvain:  Peeters, 1999.  Pp. xxxvi + 271.  ISBN 90-429-0779-7 (pb).  2400 BEF.  



Reviewed by Daniel E. Gershenson, Tel-Aviv University
Word count: 716 words

In this volume Jan Bollansée has expanded his doctoral dissertation in papyrology. It was written to begin with at Leuven as part of the project of continuing Felix Jacoby's unfinished Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, undertaken in 1991 by G. Schepens of Leuven, and G.A. Lehmann, then of Köln. Bollansée's book, a revision of his doctoral dissertation, has appeared in the excellent Belgian Hellenistica Series founded by L. Cerfaux and W. Peremans, and it lives up to the high standards of the series. It is an important study of a hitherto little-known, Greek author. Based on the few fragments of Hermippos to be published shortly in the continuation of F. Jacoby's Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, Bollansée has succeeded in showing that Hermippos was the first biographer, and in fact the originator of the genre of biography. By arguing cogently, on the basis of Hermippos' epithets "Aristotelian" and "Callimachean", Bollansée has succeeded in dating him to the second half of the third century B.C.E.

I enjoyed Bollansée's book, not only for its clear presentation of the material concerning Hermippos and for its measured and intelligent conclusions but chiefly for its being the exciting story of the unveiling of Hermippos and his works. For example, Hermippos wrote poetry as well as prose. Bollansée determines that, being a scholar, he combined his bibliographical work with his biographies. Nor was Hermippos an impartial biographer. In the fragment of his life of Pythagoras preserved in Diogenes Laertius 8:41, for example, he tells the story that labels Pythagoras an impudent charlatan who worked in tandem with his mother. Each of these points must be carefully argued since many of the fragments of Hermippos derive from papyri, and new papyri are liable to change our view of Hermippos drastically.

Hermippos' work, was based in part on Aristotle's lists of the great dramatists of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., which included short notes about each author. Hermippos expanded these short notes into full biographies. (The earlier biographies among the Greeks, Xenophon's Cyropaedia and Memorabilia, are in fact philosophical treatises dealing with education, and are not biographies per se. Nor is Isocrates' life of Euagoras I of Cyprus a true biography either; it is rather an encomium.) Still, Hermippos himself was not a biographer in the modern sense of the term, for he was essentially a storyteller. His biographies were essentially piquant narratives, composed of story after story, of fact and fiction. We know that Hermippos wrote biographies of Pythagoras, Aristotle and Theophrastus, inter alios, as well as of Gorgias and Isocrates. He seems to have been the author of the canon of the Seven Sages, although there are many lists of seven great ancient sages. Bollansée determines that many of Hermippos' biographies were invented Death-stories, i.e. interesting narratives of how great men met their death, after the manner of Sokrates. Bollansée points out that it is very unlikely that Hermippos of Smyrna ever made a complete edition of his biographies.

The organization of Bollansée's book is as follows: His first chapter is an analysis of the life and works of Hermippos of Smyrna, necessary in order to distinguish him from Hermippos of Byblos. Next, in chapter IIA, "The Biographical Writings: A. Presentation of the extant Material" he surveys the preserved titles of Hermippos' biographies as well as the fragments that do not preserve the names of the biographies. In chapter IIB, "Subject Matter and Organization", he determines that Hermippos was a serial biographer and that his biographies were not only of political figures but also of philosophers and rhetoricians, etc. and that he published no complete edition of his biographies. Here he also surveys the use of Hermippos' material in later literature. In chapter III, "The Biographical Method", he discusses the writing of "Death-stories" in ancient Greece as well as Hermippos' work in the library of Alexandria, from which it seems that Hermippos the "Callimachean" really worked in the Library of Alexandria.

In one appendix Bollansée thoroughly and soberly investigates, and rejects, the theory that Hermippos was the author of Diogenes Laertius' catalogue of the works of Aristotle, and in another appendix he investigates the claim that Hermippos' biography of Hyperides was the source of the report, found in P.Oxy. 15.1800 that Hyperides spent the last days of his life in Macedon.

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