Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.03.43

Vinko Hinz, Nunc Phalaris doctum protulit ecce caput. Antike Phalarislegende und Nachleben der Phalarisbriefe. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde Bd. 148.   Munich and Leipzig:  K. G. Saur Verlag GmbH, 2001.  Pp. 488.  ISBN 3-598-77697-7.  

Reviewed by John Henderson (
Word count: 2702 words

This thesis book (from Cologne, 2000) is a huge and hugely successful project. There is room for just 1,613 footnotes, and, believe me, no errors are to be found between these covers, as good as none. The will o' the wisp tyrant Phalaris has taken H into all corners of Europe, brought him into contact with scholars in a rainbow of specialisms, and plugged him into many otherwise unconnected disciplines. He has produced an admirably organized set of enquiries where details are easily accessed but the overall impetus is never lost. H has hunted down and assimilated a prodigious volume of reading, much of it numbingly undistinguished and unrewarding, and made an enjoyable as well as informative read. The writer has a light touch with his prose, and it is needed in some of the sections where only sorry tales of murk and bungling can be reported to us. I suppose it is a pity to find H level-headed and calm on a subject where vitriol and bluster are legendary. To the point where the young Richard Bentley's battle over Phalaris has effectively deterred virtually all scholarly interest in a once widely-read Greek text through century upon century. Or so the story has always run.

There are four main chapters, preceded by a brief and sprightly Introduction (pp. 11-17), and followed by a matching Conclusion (pp. 413-25). The vast Bibliography amounts to a valuable scholarly resource (pp. 427-65), and there are full -- over-full -- Indexes, of persons, mauscripts, and a score of passages where Greek text has been discussed (pp. 467-88).

The first topic is the Phalaris legend in Antiquity (pp. 19-126).

Not one connected narrative of Phalaris survives from antiquity. He is an exemplary, mythic figure from the start. The close of Pindar's First Pythian, excerpts from Aristotle's lost "Constitution of Acragas", from Polybius, and from Diodorus, remarks by Plutarch and Polyaenus, and enigmatic but crucial lemmata from Heraclides Ponticus, Timaeus, and Callimachus: an appetizing pile of problems for interpretation that threaten to occlude entirely the informational contribution of any or all the "donor" texts. Sicily had an anomalous position in relation to Hellas which it did not cede when Roman superpower re-centred the ancient Mediterranean. When Greek intellectuals after Alexander were working out their over-view of the cultural history and civilisation they had inherited, local accounts of Sicily traded with histories of politics and political theory in carving out a place within the overall picture. What survives from a once impressive heap of data on the early days of Greek colonization in the new world of the great island away in the West is mostly a string of not terribly exotic names of lost authors.

The tyrant Phalaris was kept from oblivion by continuing interest in the foundation of Acragas, the need to explain Pindar, and the proverbial status of his "brazen bull". Later chronography, at any rate, put Phalaris' ascendancy just a decade after the first settlement of the city early in the sixth century, and his rise was construed as the archetypal Strong Man leading the charge to impress and cow the natives now thrust into a hinterland created by the insurgents. Or, rather, and more to the point, at least the various salient phases in the generic narrative of the Tyrant's Coup leading to a spiral of dissension, repression, and eventual overthrow, were repeatedly thought through Phalaris. In such matters, historicity applies not to the content but to its circulation, as when Scipio Africanus Minor "returns" the Bull to Sicily upon his sack of Carthage. On the other hand, a scholar cannot escape getting embroiled in trying to work out if any of our testimonia know, can know, or might tell without knowing, what went on in early sixth century Acragas: what to make of a mixing-bowl doubly inscribed "Gift of Daedalus to Cocalus" and "Phalaris from Acragas to Athena of Lindos" ...? What objective correlate might Tatian's audience suppose for his statue of Phalaris in a line-up of 38 pagan aberrations?

Pindar polarizes Phalaris against Croesus. He makes sure the Brazen Bull ties Phalaris to eternal damnation. Aristotle gets Stesichorus to tell Himera a fable of short-sighted bartering away of freedom to tyrant Phalaris. Tales of cruel torture and would-be assassins shown charity flourish thereafter, saints could happily boil alive in the Bull, and Cicero immortalised the term phalarismos, to brand Caesar -- perhaps intimating he was prick as well as monster. Reference to the Bull in Callimachus gave Phalaris a place in Roman elegy. Skits from Lucian show a partial revaluation of the tyrant, as well as first connecting him with Pythagoras and showing the earliest extant knowledge of certain letters signed Phalaris. H dutifully tracks down all possible connections between the testimonia and our "Letters of Phalaris" collections before turning this round and running down any aspect of the Letters that may hook on to any moment in the legend of the Phalaris of mytho-history. The Letters know only a purely Greek Sicily and either fall or jump into all manner of anachronism. Not, concludes H, that they are not steeped in lore about Phalaris studiously gleaned from all over the ancient library. The epistles have a working knowledge of how Sicilian towns and tyrants must live up to their appointed roles in standard sermonizing and declamatory play-acting. Examination of their every last name shows an effort to mesh in with more or less plausible legends such as Stesichorus and Pythagoras, while pumping our tyrant's writ full of unmarked labels of post-Attic "koine" culture.

The second large topic concerns the medieval and Renaissance fortunes of the Letters of Phalaris (with a glance at their modern misfortunes into the present day) (pp. 127-294).

First H leafs through the tantalizing but tangled jungle of Byzantine citations and reference works, notably the Suda entry crediting Phalaris with "real amazing letters", amid a scattering of other witnesses to their circulation and concomitant appreciation of the tyrant's percipience and even wisdom. To this point H is confirming that all that Bentley once said is, unshakably, so. But when he reaches the Quattrocento, he is implicitly setting the battle itself into a properly historical context: the Letters of Phalaris had indeed been an astonishingly core text of Renaissance humanism, first through Griffolini's Latin translation (1440s), whose scheming Prince delivered to the courts of Europe just what they wanted, but later through a truly remarkable explosion of Greek manuscripts. By 1471 (you have been longing to know this), an epigram loudly acclaimed the emergence of the Letters into the limelight -- was it by F. Rolandello? Was it by Girolamo Bologni? -- "qui modo notus erat nulli penitusque latebat | nunc Phalaris doctum protulit ecce caput (etc.)". Ecce, indeed: p. 192. Now we can rest, knowing whence H's title.

At the time of the editio princeps of "Phalaris" Greek (1498), he was "one of the most read classical authors", if lagging way behind Cicero's Letters. With the Aldine edition (1499), which unusually included all 148 pieces we know and, because followed by Hercher's numbering (1873), was to prove definitive, we are at the zenith of the Letters' renown. H cites acclaim for their novelty, elegance, wisdom. Politian and Erasmus already knew them for "forgeries". By Bentley's day, the Letters had long ago gone off the boil, and H rapidly charts their demise to virtual disappearance from that day to this. He collects what he can of recent flickers of notoriety and bric-a-brac attached to Phalaris' name (p. 292), but accepts the brute's mail has had its day.

H's third main division focusses on the brief notoriety and permanent blight of Phalaris in "The Battel of the Books" controversy in turn of the seventeeth century Loxbridge (pp. 295-392).

Phalaris means the mettle of Richard Bentley. The story of the proof of the Letters' spuriousness has been a cherished myth of intellectual genius in a purist story of the fitful emergence of scholarly methodological rigour within classical scholarship. A Dissertation Upon the Epistles of Phalaris. With an Answer to the Objections of the Honourable Charles Boyle, Esquire (London, 1699: revised from the first version, of 1697) takes pride of place in this tale of inspirational genius trouncing establishment prejudice and reactionary inertia, as debutant Bentley invented himself fully-armed with the myriad skills required of the genuine contributor to modern classical studies. H does a terrific job of re-placing this myth into the context of the socio-political, religious, and culture wars of the decade inaugurated by Britain's Gloriously bloodless Revolution.

By 1688, William Lloyd, once tutor of Wadham Coll., Oxford, latterly a Bishop, had for two decades belonged to a group of "latitudinarian" Anglicans identified with the progressivist scientific rationalism of the Royal Society (including, as time went on, Burnet, Tillotson, Wilkins, Still[ingfleet], Robert Boyle, Wm Wotton, Newton, Locke, Evelyn, Wren). As personal tutor to Still's second son Jas. since 1682, Bentley through his twenties had the run of one of the best private libraries in the land, and when he accompanied his charge to Wadham (at Lloyd's recommendation) in 1689, the network of his patrons had moved into key positions in the new regime around Wmnmary. Through Lloyd, B at once pitched into collaboration with Wadham's H. Hody, energetic work in the Bodleian, and strenuous liberal sermons in London. By 1694, Hody was chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and B was prebendary to the Bp of Worcester and the newly-appointed King's Librarian, migrating between Worcester and St James' Palace until 1700, when he made his permanent move to Cambridge as the new master of Trinity College (already King's Chaplain, and leading organizer of CUP; Hody had by then become Regius (nb: more patronage) Professor of Greek at Oxford). B had seized those hectic months among friends in Oxford to launch his career, including R.B., classical scholar, and through the 1690s had taken every opportunity to set out his various scholarly wares, with a constant pattern of over-powering entree followed by delaying tactics before delivery on promised product. The Phalaris dissertation(s) arose from a hilarious melodrama of insult and revenge, posture and smear, scholarship and pamphleteering. But it involved collision between great coalitions and power blocs operating across the array of institutions running the country. The power-knowledge nexus pitched liberal Wadham vs reactionary Christchurch, latitudinarians vs Non-Jurors (who could not swear the oath of allegiance to William). The spat over Phalaris arose from a paragraph of over-enthusiastic praise for the Letters in a rangey Essay upon the ancient and modern learning by the superannuated former ambassador Sir Wm Temple (1690: earliest English friend of Wmnmary), intended as a put-down for the Moderns in their current feud with the Ancients in Louis le Grand's Paris. B's embryonic research on fragments of the Greek poets and on lexicography already equipped him to prove to anyone he could possibly interest that just because no one would ever be able to create Homeric epic better than Homer, or Aesop's fables better than Aesop's, that didn't mean that our Aesop's fables are as Aesop wrote them; and in epistolography, just because old-fashioned readers like Temple found them convincing portraits of royal-tyrannical wisdom and wile, that didn't mean Phalaris wrote the letters ascribed to him. It was supererogatory farce when he wound up squaring up to the combined forces of Christ Church as they lined up in defence of their boy, the sole ChCh nobleman BA in three decades: for C. Boyle had got in first with what B chose to regard as intolerable insult in the prefatory remarks to Phalaridis Agrigentinorum Tyranni Epistolae. Ex MSS. Recensuit, Versione, Annotationibus, et Vita insuper Authoris Donavit Car. Boyle, ex Aede Christi (1695, Oxford: commissioned by the Head of House to provide a Christmas present for college members, and a project devised to cure young Boyle's itch to join the war in Flanders). When B flattened the "learning" which could pretend (casually half-pretend) that Phalaris wrote his Letters, in an appendix to the second edition of his friend W. Wotton's Reflections Upon Ancient and Modern Learning. With Large Additions. With a Dissertation Upon the Epistles of Phalaris, Themistocles, Socrates, Euripides, & c. and Aesop's Fables. By Dr. B (1697, London), the game was on, and the still more extravagant, enormously entertaining, and withering reply was ghosted by the heavy guns of Christ Church: C. Boyle Dr. B's Dissertations on the Epistles of Phalaris, and the Fables of Aesop, Examin'd by the Honourable Charles Boyle, Esq. (Jan. 1698, London). B's full retort, A Dissertation Upon the Epistles of Phalaris. With an Answer to the Objections of the Honourable Charles Boyle, Esquire (March, 1699, London), came from the new Master of Trinity, onto pastures new. Temple's nugatory response was posthumous, and the anonymous finale, A Short Review of the Controversy Between Mr. Boyle, and Dr. B. With Suitable Reflections upon it, And the Dr.'s Advantagious Character of Himself at Full Length. Recommended to the Serious Perusal of Such as Propose to be Considerd for their Fairness, Modesty, and Good Temper in Writing (1701, London), is both the funniest salvo of all and well past the sell-by date. Ditto the effort of Temple's former librarian, J. Swift, A Tale of a Tub. Written for the Universal Improvement of Mankind. Diu multumque desideratum. To which is added. An Account of a Battel between the Ancient and Modern Books in St. James's Library (1704, London), which may have been written at the time of strife in 1697, but which certainly only surfaced in Queen Anne's newly re-oriented Britain.

H has read his way through the fascinating saga of insult and counter-insult, as told and re-told with ever-increasing fantasy and in-authenticity, until the spuriousness of B's tyrannous rants and the [Boyle] gang's multi-authorship left Phalaris' Letters way behind in their wake. In particular, H has successively read his way past all this, and into its context within post-revolutionary church and court configurations. He has not quite seen how formatively the Lloyd-Hody Wadham scene framed B's pre-fabricated debut. And what remains is the important task of assessing the preparatory researches that gave B the ammunition to fire off in every direction, apparently on the instant. He did not invent his own attitude to language and philology, to collation and editing, to encyclopedic cultural study of antiquity in the round, and particular emphasis on foundational chronography (historicizing pagan and Christian civilization). Nor did he work alone or unaided. Just what reference works did B work with, and seek to surpass? What was it like to be welcomed into libraries proud with fresh catalogues and unsorted new acquisitions? Until this work is undertaken, the myth of Richard Bentley, autarchic genius, must remain unscotched.

The final main chapter deals unflinchingly with the transmission of the Letters, in particular their passage into nineteenth- and twentieth-century editions (pp. 393-412).

It is H's painful duty to set out clearly and fully just how inextricable a mess we are in if we want to get this entertaining Greek classic back before a public. Hercher was in a hurry to assemble the whole corpus of Epistolographi Graeci, and took all manner of liberties with the editing. When the diplomat Tudeer published his "preliminary" findings about the nature of the transmission of the Letters (1931), he good as hung up a sign warning scholars to steer clear. The (incomplete and corrupt) manuscripts are all over Europe, they give wildly divergent tallies, versions, and arrangements of the material, in what promises to remain an unruly mess of uncollated mayhem. The problem of determining the sort of cohesion we might expect from such a text is not unparalleled; but the labour involved just might be. H has already walked into a tough assignment in clearing up a host of mistaken reports and surmises by Tudeer! In terms of aggiornamento, I would reckon that H finishes up having thrown down a challenge to classical scholarship to find a reason to put time and energy into publicizing these "Letters from a Dictator" once again. Is there another tale to tell, and put beside the story of their past glory, and fall from grace? If so, let us hope that currently incipient interest in Greek epistolary fiction is about to find it.

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