Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.09.64

Sophia Kapetanaki, Robert W. Sharples, Pseudo-Aristoteles (Pseudo-Alexander), Supplementa Problematorum.   Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter, 2006.  Pp. 301.  ISBN 978-3-11-019140-0.  €82.24.  

Reviewed by Robert Mayhew, Seton Hall University (
Word count: 1736 words

Table of Contents

This book is easy to praise, but difficult to describe. Let me first attempt the latter.

Included in the edition of the Aristotelian corpus edited by Bekker and published in 1831 is a work in 38 'books' (pp. 859-967) entitled Problemata (which is almost certainly not the work of the same name which Aristotle is said to have written1). In 1857, Bussemaker appended to his edition of the Problemata three books of Problemata inedita (i.e., hitherto unpublished problemata) variously attributed in antiquity to Aristotle (384-322 BC) and Alexander of Aphrodisias (c. second to third centuries AD).2 The volume under review includes a new edition of the Greek text of these three books. As Problemata inedita is no longer an appropriate title, Kapetanaki and Sharples (hereafter K & S) have chosen to call them Supplementa Problematorum.3

K & S's Pseudo-Aristoteles (Pseudo-Alexander), Supplementa Problematorum consists of an extensive introduction (pp. 1-84), Greek text with facing annotated translation (85-279), and two indexes (281-301). The division of labor between K & S was roughly as follows: K undertook most of the work involved in collating the Greek MSS and creating the apparatus, while S drafted the introduction, translation, and notes (73-74). In the remainder of this review, however, I treat K & S as collaborators in every aspect of the volume and do not distinguish their individual contributions.

The introduction includes an extremely detailed presentation of the complex manuscript tradition. Its six parts are entitled: 1. The texts and their attributions (pp. 1-28); 2. Relations between the MSS (29-72); 3. Principles adopted in editing and apparatus (72-73); 4. Acknowledgements (73-74); 5. Bibliography (75-81); 6. Sigla and stemma (82-84). I cannot here convey (and leave the reader to discover) the amazing level of detailed information contained in Part 2. It is clearly the result of an enormous amount of work, as well as a brilliant piece of scholarship. (One complaint about the bibliography: a few of the items cited are not found in the bibliography--at least not in the form cited.)4

K & S's edition of the Greek text is based on a collation of over 30 Greek manuscripts, as well as a consideration of other relevant sources, among them the eighth-century Latin Problemata Bambergensia. Consequently, K & S are on much more solid ground than earlier editors. The apparatus is extremely detailed, typically sharing with the Greek text between a third and a half of the page. It is hard to imagine K & S's text being surpassed in this century.

Every scholar who sets out to produce a translation of a Greek text aims to avoid both the Scylla of slavish adherence to the original at the expense of readability and the Charybdis of sacrifice of fidelity to the Greek for the sake of stylistic elegance. K & S have produced an admirable translation that escapes both errors. To avoid Charybdis, however, they were willing at times to steer pretty close to Scylla. This is not a complaint, but a description; for such an approach is wise in a book that presents the first English translation of what is to most scholars an unknown text. The fact remains, however, that the translation (like the text it renders) is at times unclear. For example: "when the bronchial tube of the lung has been eroded it cannot be [re]generated, except by nature alone from seed again" (1.4; p. 99, brackets in the original). I find this line puzzling, but it is a faithful rendering of the Greek: βρόγχιον τοῦ πνεύμονος ἀναβρωθὲν οὐ δύναται γενέσθαι, εἰ μὴ ὑπὸ μόνης φύσεως πάλιν ἐκ σπέρματος (98).

The translation is heavily annotated: there are over 570 footnotes. Not everything in the text is explained (for example, we are left on our own to figure out what it means for an eroded bronchial tube to be regenerated "by nature alone from seed again"). But a massive amount of information is provided. Perhaps most important, K & S include a wealth of detail about parallels with other ancient texts: the Aristotelian corpus, including the Problemata in Bekker; the works of other Peripatetic thinkers, especially Theophrastus and Alexander of Aphrodisias; a vast range of ancient medical texts, from the Hippocratic corpus to Galen and beyond; the Problemata Bambergensia; etc. The place of the Supplementa Problematorum in intellectual history is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to determine (more on that shortly). The information these notes provide helps to set the various "problems" into the context of ancient discussions of a wide array of issues in natural philosophy and medicine.5

What can be said about the nature of this work and its author? Unfortunately, given the available evidence, it is easier to say what this book is not and who its author is not. (K & S discuss these issues in Part 1 of the introduction, and in what follows I am drawing on their discussion.) None of the three books is actually by Aristotle or Alexander, though parts were variously attributed to either or both in antiquity. The Supplementa Problematorum is not a set of extra books of Pseudo-Aristotle's Problemata that became detached from the Problemata included in Bekker's edition of the Aristotelian corpus (despite the fact that the Supplementa Problematorum and Bekker's Problemata appear together in a few manuscripts). It is not one unified work: for example, 2.39-192 is of a higher quality--and much closer in nature to the Problemata in Bekker--than 1 or 2.1-38 or 3 (and there is no reason to think that 1, 2.1-38, and 3 originally formed a unified work into which 2.39-192 was later placed).

Not much else can be said about who wrote this work, and there is no scholarly consensus on when it was written. As K & S explain, Richter argued that the Supplementa Problematorum come from the Hellenistic period, Flashar thought they date to not long after Alexander of Aphrodisias, while Usener viewed Books 1-2 as a Byzantine compilation (pp. 27-28). K & S seem to be closest to Flashar. Further, they argue that the author of Pseudo-Alexander, On Fevers, who was broadly Peripatetic in outlook and contemporary with Alexander of Aphrodisias, may be considered "a candidate for the authorship, or at least the compilation, of parts of our material as well" (27). I think the Supplementa Problematorum is best viewed as a late Peripatetic collection--the result in part of continual revision, accretion, and combination--which nevertheless reflects questions and interests of earlier Peripatetic thinkers.

Borrowing in part from a useful chart on p. 4, one can summarize the contents of the Supplementa Problematorum as follows: 1.1-22 (medicine, foodstuffs); 2.1-38 (physiology); 2.39-53 (dizziness, sneezes, yawning, hiccoughs, giddiness, belching); 2.54-82 (hair and nails); 2.83-97 (voice and hearing); 2.98-104 (smell); 2.105-26 (nausea, excretion, purging); 2.127-92 (four-footed animals); 3.1-8 (plants and bread); 3.9-29 (wine and olive oil); 3.30-41 (various foods); 3.42-49 (miscellaneous). Despite the impression given by some of these topics, and by the titles passed down from the manuscript tradition (e.g., Natural Puzzles and Medical Problems, see note 3 below), we are, in the words of K & S, "definitely not dealing with any sort of therapeutic manual, and the driving force is intellectual curiosity" (1).

Any reader who shares this curiosity and turns to the opening "problem" of Book 1 will encounter the following question: "Why are testicles of cockerels fed on milk large and easy to digest?" It would be a mistake simply to raise an eyebrow and not read on, however, as there is interesting material in what follows. For in answering this question, the author refers to "the testicles of both females and males" (pp. 91 & 93). But female "testicles" (i.e., ovaries) were unknown to Aristotle, as their discovery was (as we are told in a note) "one of the achievements of Hellenistic anatomy" (93 n. 162). So in the very first "problem" we learn something about the relationship of this (part of the) work to the thought of Aristotle.

To whet the readers' appetite, and to illustrate further that not everything in this work is orthodox Aristotelianism, what follows is a sample of "problems" that I found particularly interesting. 1.10: "Why do those who have been struck hard on the temples die?" Part of the reason, the author suggests, is that "the brain . . . contracts and, along with it the psychic pneuma is compressed and thickened, and so the soul, not being provided with its proper instrument, departs from the body; for the destruction of a bond effects the release of what was intertwined" (p. 103). 1.12: In answer to a question about the digestibility of yolk, the author claims that the egg "seems to resemble the universe: for it too is spherical, made of four elements, and shares in the life-giving faculty" (105). 2.88: This contains a brief but fascinating answer to the question "Why do all not speak in the same language?" (181). 2.127-92: This section of Book 2 (which in ms. K is a separate book with its own title--see 211 n. 437) is devoted to four-footed animals, and should be of interest to scholars and students of the history of ancient biology after Aristotle and Theophrastus (meager though that history is).6 2.158, on why boars have tusks, contains a rare instance of teleological explanation: "is it that as nature has given horns for the sake of defense and assistance, so it has given tusks to boars?" (233). (As in the Pseudo-Aristotle Problemata, in the Supplementa Problematorum explanation of natural phenomena is generally in terms of material causation and necessity.) Finally, here are two unusual questions from Book 3: "Why if one carves letters on a nut and plants it, does the tree that grows from it bear nuts with the same letters?" (3.1) and "Why do they say that rue is a charm against witchcraft?" (3.6) (257).

Pseudo-Aristoteles (Pseudo-Alexander), Supplementa Problematorum is handsomely produced. The Greek used in the text and the apparatus is clear and legible. I noticed a number of minor typographical errors,7 and there are a few inconsistencies in the way in which the material is presented.8

A blurb at the publisher's website claims: "The material in this book will be of interest to historians of ancient science, medicine and thought, and to students of the transmission of ancient texts." I would add more specifically that anyone interested in the nature and development of later Peripatetic thought should find this superb volume worth reading.


1.   See Hellmut Flashar, Aristoteles: Problemata Physica (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1962), pp. 303-16.
2.   In 1841, Ideler's edition of two books of Medical Puzzles and Physical Problems, attributed to Alexander of Aphrodisias, was published. This was followed in 1859 by Usener's edition of what he argued were two more books of the same work. The latter books are identical to the first two books of Bussemaker's Problemata inedita.
3.   One may wonder what the Supplementa Problematorum were called in antiquity. The following titles are found in the manuscripts: (a) Natural Puzzles and Medical Problems, (b) Medical Problems and Natural Puzzles (and in some manuscripts, these titles appear with the word Selections), (c) Medical Puzzles and Natural Problems. K & S went with Natural Puzzles and Medical Problems: Selections. I find it unclear whether this title is meant to be of Book 1 alone, or of Books 1-3; but see pp. 21-22, 87 n. 149. Book 2 bears the title Natural Problems; no title for Book 3 survives.
4.   I noted the following: Guardasole 2003 (p. 6 n. 42), Broadie 1993 (22), Hubert-Drexler 1952 (41), Irmer 1977 (97 n. 171), Sharples 2002b (143 n. 275), Sharples 1998 (275 n. 555 and 277 n. 566).
5.   I would add the following three parallels not mentioned by K & S: re. 2.67 & 189 (on hair not growing on scars), cf. Pseudo-Aristotle Problemata 4.4; re. 2.186 (on what is unconcocted having an evil odor), cf. Pseudo-Aristotle Problemata 4.12 & 24; re. 3.37 (on why wind-eggs do not decay), cf. Aristotle, Generation of Animals 2.5 (which claims that they do decay).
6.   See James G. Lennox, Aristotle's Philosophy of Biology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), ch. 5: "The Disappearance of Aristotle's Biology: A Hellenistic Mystery".
7.   For example: p. 5 n. 39, 'Theophrstus' should be 'Theophrastus'; p. 13 n. 73, 'mention' should be 'mentions'; p. 31, an entire sentence in the middle of the page is mistakenly in bold; p. 89, seventh line, 'on the one' should be 'on the one hand'; p. 93 n. 164, 'formed made' should be either 'formed' or 'made'; p. 125, the last sentence of 2.12 is ungrammatical--perhaps the 'of' should be omitted; p. 137 n. 254, 'Thuucydides' should be 'Thucydides'; p. 157 n. 312, third line, 'air' should be 'hair'; p. 217, in 2.137 the period after 'weight' should be a comma.
8.   I noted four: (1) The Greek text is on the left side, and the translation on the right; but on pp. 120-21, text and translation are switched. (2) Where necessary, K & S use Greek (rather than transliteration) in the introduction and, of course, in the apparatus; but in the notes, they employ transliteration--with one exception, inexplicably, on p. 133 n. 247. (3) In Part 2 of the introduction, in the discussion of the manuscripts, throughout pp. 29-52, 68-70, the practice of using bold to designate the letters that identify manuscripts is employed inconsistently. For example, on p. 29, the initial M of the first paragraph is in bold, whereas the M with which the second paragraph begins is not. (4) For the most part, citations in the introduction and notes are shorthand references to the bibliography (e.g., "Wilson 1978, 171"). I noted four exceptions: what should have been cited as Young 1961, 33 (p. 111 n. 188), Graves 1955, 71 n.3 (111 n. 192), Pearson 1910, 50 (191 n. 399), and Potter 1988, 62 (201 n. 416) are presented with full bibliographical detail and not mentioned in the bibliography.

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