Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.10.09

Debra Nails, The People of Plato: A Prosopography of Plato and Other Socratics.   Indianapolis:  Hackett, 2002.  Pp. 414.  ISBN 0-87220-564-9.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by Christopher Planeaux, Indiana University, Indianapolis (
Word count: 1648 words

This is an important book.

Debra Nails, associate professor of philosophy at Michigan State University, sets out to provide a "concise guide to the persons represented in the Platonic dialogues" (p. xxxvii). This work also includes persons from other Socratic writings who may not appear in or relate directly to Plato (or the Platonic dialogues) but nonetheless provide useful information for the stated goal. Though not touted as such, the book appears intended as a companion for Plato, Complete Works, ed. John Cooper (Hackett 1997) -- even sharing similar covers. Prof. Nails will introduce a scholar of Plato, veteran and novice alike, to the complex and technical world of prosopography, defined as: "individuals and their relations with reference to contemporary historical events." She also sensitizes readers to the rich tapestry of historical characters in Plato's dramas. All students and teachers of Plato should possess this book, Nails' target audience.

The author (hereafter N.) collected data for ten years from wide, scattered and varied sources. N. wished to understand "more fully how Socrates interacted with others" (p. xi) and to provide useful information for "those who teach and research the philosophy of Plato" (p. xxxvii). She divides the book into three areas: some introductory material (pp. xi-xlviii), the entries (pp. 1-306), and appendices (pp. 307-367). A glossary of Greek and specialized English terms follows as well as a collection of indexed maps (pp. 401 ff., after the bibliography). The organization is sharp, the typeface attractive, detailed genealogies and other timelines are lucid and effectively placed within the text.

N. does not list fictional or absent persons1 and does not discuss symbolism or etymology. She concentrates on "the genuine and spurious dialogues and letters of Plato and other authors of Socratic logoi."2 She includes "historical persons who appear or are mentioned as alive or recently deceased, prominent family members of these persons, the homonyms with whom they are often confused, and a few additional individuals whose works or lineage help to clarify aspects of the lives of others" (p. 1). She consulted a vast array of sources from inscriptions to secondary literature but does not discuss the fourth century in any detail nor is she comprehensive through late antiquity.

N. correctly notes that Plato "wrote about real people -- some of them still active and living in Athens -- people with reputations, families, neighbors and political affiliations, people who show up elsewhere in the existing historical record: lampooned in comedies, called as witnesses, elected to office, being sold, marrying, buying property, traveling, dying ... without whom Plato's dialogues would be denatured" (p. xxxvii-xxxviii).

The supplied dramatic-historical context indeed deserves more attention as it also cuts across other areas. Plato's use of festivals in the staging of his dialogues, for example, provides several avenues for interpretative exploration. Many dialogues have prominent celebrations that serve as precise settings, are part of the background, or are referenced for some purpose in a conversation: the Anthesteria (Lysis); Bendideia (Republic); Lenaea (Symposium); Great Panathenaea (Parmenides); Lesser Panathenaea (Timaeus-Critias); Olympia (Hippias Major and Minor); Asclepieia (Ion); and Delia (Phaedo) -- the last, by implication, would include the Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito as well as the Theaetetus, Sophist, and Statesman (and possibly the Cratylus too). In the Timaeus-Critias, for example, the elder Kritias uses the occasion of the Panathenaea to highlight certain aspects of an initiation festival (Apatouria), and the Symposium, which occurs at a second celebration after Agathon's first victory during the Lenaea, has many complex allusions to the Eleusinian Mysteries -- another festival of "initiation." As N. notes in her entry, the family of Kallias son of Hipponikos had a crucial role in this festival to Demeter.

N., however, also stresses that details from the historical context will not "offer a key for unlocking the meaning of any dialogue. Some of the worst readings of Plato have been grounded on that indefensible assumption. And [she does not claim] that Plato's philosophy is grounded in the specifics of his social and cultural environment in the sense that it is an inevitable outcome of that environment, interesting only or chiefly as a social construction of that particular time and place" (p. xxxviii). N. advocates a quasi-middle ground: "I am saying that the lives of the people of Plato, insofar as they can be reconstructed, need to be read back into the dialogues in an informed and responsible way. It is sometimes important to get the history right" (p. xxxviii).

Perhaps the most useful tool of the book, besides the obvious (ready identification of the personalities in and of themselves), is the cross reference of source compilations long dispersed over a very wide area. For example, knowing Plato's Agathon of the Symposium = PA 83 = LGPN2 2 = PAA 105185 = DPhA 41 = RE 13 is more impressive than may be first appreciated, as it will guide one to the sources promptly, saving much time and energy. I will admit now, however, that I have not had the time to cross check all the references myself.

Almost of equal use will be the concise listing of ancient sources in each entry. For example, knowing Plato's Kallias son of Hipponikos appears (or is mentioned) in the Protagoras, Apology, Theaetetus, Cratylus, Eryxias, Axiochus as well as Xenophon's Symposium and Hellenica, in addition to speeches of Aeschines, Andocides, Lysias, Antiphon, the plays of Aristophanes, and a dozen or so inscriptions (with the specifics cited), will greatly aid studies of a dialogue. It will also assist a classicist who needs ready references.

N. also includes a brief outline for the Athenian calendar, the social development and significance of certain ages for Athenians, explanations for demes, phratries and clans, a timeline, maps, and specialized terms, which helps to navigate the necessary technical vocabulary of prosopography. Although intended for the non-specialist, the material will prove most useful for anyone engaged in prosopographical research. In short, the information's handiness, having it all neatly at one's fingertips, in effect makes this book almost indispensable and one that classicists, historians, and philosophers alike must own.

Typos appear minimal: the entry for Herakleides of Klazomenai lists Aristophanes' production of the Assemblywomen as 492 or 491 BCE (p. 159);3 Plato for Plato (p. xlvi) and Plato for [Plato] (p. 230). The reader, however, will easily catch and correct these.

On the other hand, I must note one rather significant oversight. No entry for Homer exists, the one Plato calls "the educator of Greece." Knowing the Bard is crucial for the bulk of the corpus and the key component of the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. In addition, no entry exists for Taureas of the Charmides, the owner of the palaistra where the conversation between Sokrates, Kritias, and Charmides unfolds. Taureas later stood accused and convicted of profaning the Mysteries of Eleusis.4

Some might also question the relative treatment of a few entries. N. provides a rather lengthy description for an Athenian Simon (p. 261-2), whose cup archaeologists located near a sandal shop. He may or may not have been the Cobbler mentioned by Diogenes Laertius (2.122-3), and yet all references to "Simon the Cobbler" remain buried within this entry (perhaps the emphasis needs reversing?). Pisander of Acharnae, mentioned once by Xenophon, possesses an extended entry (p. 241-2), whereas we find Poulydamas, the rather colorful athlete mentioned by Plato, buried in an appendix. Some, for example, might confuse the pancratist with the tyrant of the same name.5 For a reference work that seeks thoroughness, these may perhaps come across as significant gaps.

Appendix 1 emerges as the least satisfying part. It discusses too briefly the "dramatic dates" of the dialogues, so I shall keep my comments brief.6 Certainly, the more I examined this book, the more I appreciated that detailed discussions of prosopography on prominent historical personalities leads naturally to questions of when a particular dialogue may supposedly take place. "Dramatic dates arise as a matter of course from [Plato] representing family, friends, and circumstances as he imagined or remembered them" (p. 307). I firmly agree, as well, with N.'s basic conclusion: "the dialogues taken together exhibit a remarkable coherence: at their center are a few Athenian family groups from a handful of demes ... and individuals who are often related by blood or marriage" (p. 308). Consequently, dissatisfaction arises from the shortness of the discussions that follow. On the one hand, knowing a precise date can greatly elucidate certain aspects of an interlocutor's disposition (his age, for example), while, on the other hand, several presumed anachronisms within specific dialogue require careful discussion. Such a journey becomes quite hazardous.

For example, N. dates the Protagoras c. 433/2, and quickly notes the most pertinent indicators. Perikles and his sons are still alive (all dead by 429); Alkibiades is quite young "with his first beard;" etc., but she skips altogether the question of whether the Greater Alcibiades might take place before (and thus create problems for the dating of) the Protagoras and does not address two apparent indicators that might place the Protagoras ca. 420 (Callias' inheritance and Pherecrates' play). For the Symposium, moreover, N. neglects to mention the scattering of the Mantineans mentioned by Aristophanes or the hypothesis that alludes to the Theban Sacred Band, which could be serious anachronisms.7 For other dialogues, N. overlooked important research. She fails to cite Morrison, for instance, during her brief discussion on the Meno who decisively addressed an apparent anachronism and established the conversation's date.8

Nitpicking this section could go on for quite some time, and I do not want my bias against an appendix to detract from the overall work. If nothing else, this book should stimulate discussion from philosophers to classicists from one end of the spectrum to the other. A sourcebook of this detail will provide the specialist and novice with excellent resources, and I challenge anyone not to learn something.

As I said, this is an important book.


1.   Though, I must confess, I am not entirely clear on what N. means by "absent" -- unless she intends perhaps the "unnamed" or "assumed." She has, for example, entries for Connus (Socrates' music teacher mentioned in both the Euthydemus and Menexenus) as well as Damon, Miccus, and Anaxagoras among others who certainly are not "present" at the Platonic conversation unfolding.
2.   Some might question the implication here that, in the strict/technical sense, Plato wrote within the genre of Socratic Logoi. Others will object that the author simply assigns the Greaters Hippias and Alcibiades, Rivals, Theages, Clitophon, and even the Lessers Hippias and Alcibiades and Hipparchus as spurious without explanation.
3.   Similarly: 455 for 355 (p. 45) and 495 for 395 (p. 21).
4.   LGNP2 1; PA/APF 13429; And. 1.47, 4.20; Dem. 21.147; Plut. Vit. Alc. 20; Pl. Chrm. 153a. See also: HCT 4 277-281 viz. 280-1 section 2; D.M. MacDowell, Andokides: On the Mysteries (Oxford 1962).
5.   I have encountered one such gloss. S. White, "Thrasymachus the Diplomat," CPh 90 (1995), 317ff. White erroneously identifies the pancratist with the political leader of the same name (Xen. Hell. 6.1, 4). The pancratist died while foolishly attempting to stay a cave-in (Paus. 6.5.8-9; Diod. 9.14.2), whereas a certain Poulyphron assassinated the statesman Poulydamas (Xen. Hell. 6.4.32).
6.   I must declare, however, a keen interest and bias on this particular subject, as it is a specific topic I have researched for over a decade.
7.   H.B. Mattingly, "The Date of Plato's Symposium," Phronesis 3 (1958) 31ff.; J.S. Morrison, "Four Notes of the Symposium," CQ n.s. 14 (1962) 45-6; K.J. Dover, "The Date of Plato's Symposium," Phronesis 10 (1965) 2 ff.
8.   J.S. Morrison, "Meno of Pharsalus, Polycrates, and Ismenias," CQ (1942) 57 ff. The issue had been Plato's reference at 91e to τὰ Πολυκράτους χρήματα by Ismenias of Thebes.

Read Latest
Index for 2003
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:53, Friday, 03 April 2009