Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.11.30

Gregor Staab, Pythagoras in der Spätantike. Studien zu De Vita Pythagorica des Iamblichos von Chalkis, Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 165.   München/Leipzig:  K. G. Saur, 2002.  Pp. 543.  ISBN 3-598-77714-0.  EUR 98.00.  

Reviewed by Jorgen Mejer, The Danish Institute at Athens (
Word count: 919 words

2002 was a good year for the study of Iamblichus and his writings on Pythagoras. Not only did we get the volume under review, but also the Greek text of Iamblichus' De vita pythagorica, a reissue of von Albrecht's German translation from 1963, accompanied by various interpretive essays by Michael von Albrecht, John Dillon, Martin Gerorg, Michael Lurje and David S du Toit.1 In the latter volume is also a reissue of von Albrecht's paper "Das Menschenbild in Jamblichos' Darstellung der pythagorischen Lebensform",2 the paper which was the first to emphasize that Iamblichus' work was not just a collection of testimonies on the life and thought of Pythagoras but also a testimony on the concept of human life in late antiquity -- in many ways the main inspiration for Staab's comprehensive and important 2001 dissertation at Jena University. 543 pages, including 1134 footnotes, are not exactly easy reading, but a book no scholar of late antiquity can afford to overlook it. Nor for that matter, any historian of Pythagoreanism.

This is not, however, a book about Pythagoras and Pythagorean philosophy, though it may be even more difficult in the future to find valuable information about the early Pythagoreanism in Iamblichus' treatise. The introduction (12-48) deals with some of the questions traditionally discussed by scholarship and outlines the different streams of Pythagoreanism in the Roman Empire. In two admirable short sections Staab places the De Vita Pythagorica in the context of Iamblichus' other works and philosophy and outlines the plan of his long book: his main contribution is a structural analysis in the shape of detailed commentaries on important sections of Iamblichus' work. Prior to this analysis we are offered (49-143) summaries of the Pythagorean tradition before Aristotle, the pseudo-Pythagorean literature, the three Pythagorean philosophers of the Roman Empire: Moderatus, Nicomachus and Numenius, and brief analyses of the two other Pythagorean biographies of the roughly same period, Diogenes Laertius' (8. 1-50) and Porphyry. Staab points out that it is difficult to discern any ideological purpose in Diogenes, while it is obvious that Porphyry's account of the life of Pythagoras is an idealizing biography that makes Pythagoras and his thinking the origin of the (Neo)Platonic school of philosophy.

Part II (144-237) deals with Iamblichus and his oeuvre: We see Iamblichus as a teacher of philosophy while his ethical theory in particular manifests itself in the shape of a series of virtues on the basis of Plotinus' doctrine, in particular Enn. 1.2. The significance of the Alcibiades Maior in the Neoplatonic school is demonstrated. Then follows, along the lines of O'Meara's book Pythagoras Revived, a brief overview of all of Iamblichus' Pythagorean compendium, including the newly published Arabic version of a commentary on the Carmen Aureum.3 Staab then shows how the somewhat overlooked prooemium to the De vita Pythagorica in fact is the preface to the whole compendium and how it contributes to the right understanding of Iamblichus' purpose. Finally in this part of his book, Staab turns against traditional Quellenforschung and proves that Iamblichus has contributed much more to his Pythagorean life than is usually assumed. Iamblichus' more extensive information about Pythagoras has nothing to do with his use of sources but with his intention to illustrate the right philosophical life with the paradigm of Pythagoras.

The major part of this book (Part III = 238-440) is a analysis of the structure of the De vita Pythagorica, with extensive commentaries on the content and form of the Greek text. Staab quotes liberally from Iamblichus' and other Greek texts but the Greek texts are always accompanied by his clear German translations. The main discussion deals with the structure of the text and the intentions of its author, the textual relations to other parts of Iamblichus' books, and to other sources, and in the footnotes one finds a wealth of information about the details of interpretation, both in Iamblichus' text and in other relevant texts.

In the last part IV (441-77) Staab sums up the results of his investigation. The De vita Pythagorica consists of three parts: the biography proper of Pythagoras (sections 2-57) which puts emphasis on how wonderful and famous Pythagoras was, the Pythagorean paideia (sections 58-133) and finally Pythagoras as the ideal philosopher and the embodiment of the Pythagorean/Neoplatonic virtues (sections 134-240). The whole treatise is deeply influenced by topoi that belong to ancient encomia. No wonder then that Iamblichus not only manages to attribute many different philosophical themes to Pythagoras, but also manipulates his sources to support his own image of Pythagoras. Pythagoras is presented as the real sources for Iamblichus' own ethical teachings. When Iamblichus' book ends with a section on Pythagorean friendship, is it because it is philia that makes it possible for human beings to become as similar to god as possible and hence as happy as a human being can be.

Despite its length, this book is tightly argued. In addition to its main argument it offers a wealth of observations on many other ancient Greek texts, e.g. on the many unfounded assumptions of source attributions (e.g. note 290), on the supposed Eastern origin of Pythagoras' philosophy (note 630, accepting the emendation Mochos as against Marcovich's new Teubner edition of Diogenes Laertius), or on the usage of Greek terms (e.g. notes 762 and 1040). Staab has used all the available scholarship and his Auseinandersetzung with it is always to the point. The book is very well produced and has very few misprints. In short, this is a specimen of the German dissertation at its best.


1.   Pythagoras: Legende-Lehre-Lebengestaltung, SAPERE 4, Darmstadt 2002
2.   Pp. 255-74, originally in Antike und Abendland 12 (1966) 51-63.
3.   H. Daiber (ed.) Neuplatonische Pythagorica in Arabischem Gewande. Der Kommentar des Iamblichus zu den Carmina aurea. Ein verlorener griechischer Text in arabischer überlieferung, Amsterdam 1995.

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