Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.06.27

Ilaria Ramelli (ed.), Allegoristi dell'età classica: Opere e frammenti. Il pensiero occidentale.   Milan:  Bompiani, 2007.  Pp. xlviii, 948.  ISBN 978-88-452-5842-8.  €31.00.  

Reviewed by Robert Lamberton, Washington University in St. Louis (
Word count: 2019 words

Ilaria Ramelli's anthology of translations of the ancient Greek "allegorists," the latest in a series of very substantial volumes of translations with commentary prepared by her or under her care, is surely the largest and most comprehensive such collection to date, in any language. The reader must be satisfied with Robert Radice's introduction (ix-xlviii) and preface (vii-viii), in the absence of any account of the selection by Ramelli herself, but on the whole, the basic principle of selection is clear. The volume (as Radice informs us) is a "pendant" to I. Ramelli and G. Luccetta, Allegoria I, l'età classica, Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 2004. (vii) This picture is reinforced by the initial footnotes to each entry, which are typically prefaced with "Su quest'opera cfr. il mio capitolo, ##, in Allegoria, I". (97, 209, etc.) Further articulation of the rationale of the selection, however, is lacking, though it cries out for explanation. If these are the "allegorists of the classical age," then where, for instance, are the fragments of Anaxagoras and particularly of his student Metrodorus of Lampsacus, the most blatantly allegorical and classical in date of all? (I confess I saw some reference to Metrodorus, but I'm unable to relocate the passage in the absence of any index to this 1000-page volume.) And what are Philo of Byblos and the undatable Tables of Cebes doing here? Much is included, finally, that is neither classical nor allegorical, and many of the texts essential to an understanding of interpretive practice in the age of Plato and Aristotle are not to be found here.

Rather than a collection of the works and fragments of the "ancient allegorists", then, this massive collection assembles a sort of ideal anthology of (predominantly Greek) texts in translation to illustrate a particular history of pre-Christian Greek allegory and allegorism. This is an important distinction, since one might quite plausibly deny the existence of any such group as the "allegoristi dell'età classica" -- there was, in fact, no equivalent for "allegoristi" in pre-Christian Greek and the term ἀλληγορητής generously applied by Eustathius appears not to antedate him. To view the phenomenon of allegorical interpretation of texts as one that belongs to the era of the monotheisms, though its roots and antecedents clearly lie in the comparatively disorderly practice of polytheist interpreters is also quite plausible. The heyday of polytheist allegorical interpretation, in any case, was in the period of confrontation between Hellenism and monotheism (late 2nd to 6th c. CE), and the relevant texts (Numenius, Porphyry, Proclus, etc.) are, apparently for chronological reasons, not included here.

I will confine my own comments to the volume and the selection of texts under review (several of which have been published independently with more complete scholarly introductions and commentary over the past decade). Radice's opening comments insist that allegory is first and foremost "philosophical [allegory]" (ix) and the "importance of allegory" would seem in his view -- and perhaps in Ramelli's -- to lie in the fact that, historically, "l'allegoria costituì il principale trait d'union fra la filosofia greca e quella cristiana" (ix). This is not a surprising statement (particularly from a scholar who has made important contributions to the study of Philo), but it is unfortunate that the introductory material locates the importance of these texts in a cultural context that is both remote in time from many of them and, finally, irrelevant to the problems of understanding them. I confess to a general hostility to most of the generalizations offered here, and particularly to Radice's portrait of a Plato whose "intera filosofia. . .ha il carattere di un'ascesa mistica" (xvii), but at least the question "Was Plato an Orphic?" is answered in the negative (xviii).

The program of the anthology seems to reinforce the traditional model of the development of allegorical interpretation as a Stoic invention, with significant antecedents (notably the Derveni Papyrus). Since the evidence for odd reading on the part of the early Stoics must be carefully sifted out of the hostile reports of Plutarch, Galen, and Cicero (among others), a selection of translations of the relevant fragments -- even if only in von Arnim's severely truncated versions -- would be very welcome. The opening selection here, however, of von Arnim fragments (1-107), is disappointing in its lack of focus. In the absence of any clear definition of the subject at hand, Ramelli brings together a grab-bag of fragments relating to the infamous Stoic emendations and interpolations in classical texts, as well as to a variety of odd interpretive acts, and perhaps most relevantly, to etymology. (On this, see A. A. Long, "Stoic Readings of Homer," 58-84 in his Stoic Studies, Cambridge, 1996.) We are certainly given the evidence that early Stoics made strange, apparently unsupported claims about texts and that they analysed words in ways that made non-Stoic readers doubt their seriousness. But the evidence that these same thinkers were allegorists is lacking. Furthermore, Ilaria Ramelli is a prolific and meticulous translator, but one has the sense that the sheer bulk of this collection has led to some lapses. For example, in #59, SVF I 562 = Plutarch de aud. po. 33c, the author (Plutarch) is made to disapprove, rather than approve, of what he reports (P: οὐδ' αἱ παραδιορθώσεις φαύλως ἔχουσιν. . .IR: non sono molto felici le emendazioni. . .), and two words are parenthetically glossed with Greek terms that are not those of the original (gli amici represents φίλοι, not "ἑταῖροι" and "le etère (ἑταῖραι)" in fact represents πόρναι (20). None of these is in itself of great importance, but they undermine the credibility of the whole. Likewise disconcerting is the fact that even the dubious limits of von Arnim's fragments are not respected, and we are sometimes given only a fragment of a fragment, with no indication that this is the case (e.g. #69, SVF II 1009 [23-24]).

The selections from von Arnim cover Zeno, Cleanthes, Chrysippus (von Arnim's catch-all for ideas attributed to "the Stoics"), Diogenes of Babylon and Antipater of Tarsus. The following section devotes a hundred pages to Diogenes' student Apollodorus of Athens, and in particular to passages that seem to derive from his book On the Gods. The importance of this work for the history of Stoic ideas about the gods is unquestionable -- and, predictably enough, it abounds in interpretations of words, and particularly of cult epithets. It would certainly deserve a place in an anthology of texts on the antecedents of theology in Greek polytheism, but in itself it offers little to justify its inclusion here.

With Crates of Mallos, we are on solider ground (219-328). Eustathius clearly placed him at the head of the line of ἀλληγορηταί who maintained that the shield of Agamemnon was a representation of the cosmos (#12, 237-238). While claims that Crates was a Stoic may mean little except that his readings were eccentric (or non-Aristarchan), it seems clear that he impressed upon the history of Homer interpretation some of the properly allegorical readings that surface periodically in the scholia and elsewhere. He was also, as this selection of fragments makes clear, a serious philologist who was not always (by our own lights) correct, but whose scholarship was respected.

The following four sections present the Incredible Stories of "Palaephatus" along with the comparable material by "Heraclitus" and the Vatican Anonymous attached to them by Nicolaus Festa (Mythographi Graeci III, fasc. II, Leipzig: Teubner, 1902) -- as well as the stories of Conon, from Photius (329-441). Together, these amount to an interesting selection of (largely rationalizing) mythography, representative of various stances toward myth, but primarily of the impulse to decode the fantastic stories into an often banal reality.

The two selections from Cicero's De natura deorum (ii, 45-72 [mislabeled 45-76 on 443, 447, etc.] from the speech of Balbo, the Stoic, and iii, 39-64 from that of Cotta, the Epicurean) clearly belong in any textbook on (polytheist proto-) theology, summing up the positions of the etymologising Stoic with his commitment to divine providence, and that of his mocking opponent. Once again, these are not exactly the passages I would have chosen to throw light on the specifically allegorical interpretations Cicero attributes to the Stoics here, or on Epicurean debunking of those interpretations -- though Cotta does make the point that all this explicatio fabularum and enodatio nominum (iii, 62 [466]) is quite pointless.

Ramelli's Cornutus translation is reprinted here (487-559), with greatly reduced commentary, from her bilingual Anneo Cornuto, Compendio di teologia greca published by Bompiani, in the same series as the present collection, in 2003. Many of us have lamented the non-appearance of Glenn Most's long awaited new Teubner of Cornutus. Ramelli is the only one who has done something to fill that gap, and she deserves a great deal of credit for doing so. Her translation does a great service to this essential manual of interpretation of myth.

Heraclitus' Allegories certainly deserves its place here among the fundamental texts of ancient allegory. We are, however, approaching the proximal historical limit of this collection at this point, and if Numenius and the other second-century figures are excluded, we might well ask whether Heraclitus' collection of allegories, assembled around its defensive program, does not fall rather with the later group. The untenable arguments for a first- or early second-century date are still repeated, however, with appropriate qualifications (D. Russell and D. Konstan, eds. and trs., Heraclitus: Homeric Problems, Atlanta: SBL, 2005, vi-viii), so for the time being it may stand as a summing up of this aspect of Homeric allegory, on the eve of its return to prominence. Likewise, the Ps-Plutarch Life and Poetry of Homer, which more than any other text puts Homeric allegory in perspective and clarifies its limited but important role in the Roman Empire's understanding of the Iliad and Odyssey, impinges on the flowering of allegorical reading in the second century.

The remaining selections -- Chaeremon of Alexandria (671-707), Ps-Plutarch, "On the Festival of Images at Plataea" (821-832), the Tablet of Cebes (833-859) and Philo of Byblos (861-896) all strike me as documents primarily relevant to the history of religion rather than that of allegorical interpretation, and their claim to belong to the "classical age" is weak. But all do, however indirectly, throw some light on the history of allegory (and they are clearly relevant to the historical development traced in Allegoria, I).

This leaves only the Appendix (897-943) which presents a bilingual of the Derveni papyrus, based on the text published by Betegh (G. Betegh, The Derveni papyrus, Cambridge: CUP, 2004), with reference to T. Kouremenos et al., The Derveni papyrus, Florence: Olschki, 2006). In the 45 years since the initial (and admirable) publication of the core of this odd text (S. Kapsomenos, "The Orphic Papyrus Roll of Thessalonica" BASP 2 (1964), 3-31), the bibliography on it has mushroomed, along with the unanswered questions. The Derveni interpreter has been portrayed as everything from a pious, priestly Orphic to a debunking Epicurean-before-the-fact, all with equal verve and credibility. The text itself, until just a few years ago, seemed to change faster than the interpretations -- or, at least, to keep up with and undermine them at every turn. The importance for the history of interpretation of this text is clear to all, but there is little agreement about its substance. Perhaps it is appropriate that the Derveni papyrus has the position it does in this collection --not, as historically it surely deserves, at the beginning of the story, but relegated to an appendix at the end, the key, perhaps, to the whole story, if only we could agree on which lock it fits.

This rich anthology brings together in remarkably accessible form a wealth of texts, some well known but others quite obscure. All have some relevance to the history of religion, and most to the history of the interpretation of texts and myths. If, given its bulk and its modest price, the collection lacks the clarity of focus and the scholarly aides (in particular, indices) that one might have hoped for, we should nevertheless be grateful for what is here. It will repay many hours of exploration.

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