Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.05.49

Johannes Engels, Die sieben Weisen: Leben, Lehren und Legenden. C. H. Beck Wissen in der Beck'schen Reihe 2485.   München:  Verlag C. H. Beck, 2010.  Pp. 127.  ISBN 9783406587856.  €8.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Håkan Tell, Dartmouth College (


Johannes Engels has written a short and concise book on the Seven Sages, one with wider appeal to an educated German readership. It is published within the framework of C. H. Beck’s Wissen series, with the intended audience – as expressed on the publisher’s website – of the reader who wants incisive, brief, and authoritative information. On that point Engles has delivered eminently.

But just because the book is intended for a wide audience does not mean that it is not also of value to scholars. The first chapter, for example, which is the most substantial, contains in addition to the expected treatise on the sages an extensive discussion of doxography and also examines how source criticism on the tradition of the Seven Sages has been established. It is perhaps in the treatment of source criticism that the book is at its most useful. Another example of a chapter with appeal beyond the layman is chapter eight, which includes a surprisingly exciting account of Roman reception of the Seven Sages. Who knew that in the Roman imagination Solon was looked to for advice on constipation (p. 113)? Engels also includes a helpful bibliography, which calls attention to the dearth of English-speaking scholarship on the Seven (with the obvious exception of Richard Martin’s classic “The Seven Sages as Performers of Wisdom”).1

The focus of chapter one is twofold: the first part (pp. 9-40) deals with the history of the tradition of the Seven Sages and the different lists of individual sophoi that have come down to us from antiquity, while the second part (pp. 40-74) focuses on the sages themselves, their lives, and sayings. Engels starts out by arguing that there were oral traditions of the Seven Sages in circulation in the sixth and early fifth centuries BCE. The subtext for the discussion is Detlev Fehling’s controversial thesis that Plato invented the Seven Sages in the Protagoras and that any mention of wise men in earlier texts refers to individual figures without a sense of them belonging to a collegium. Engels, following Busine, Bollansée, Martin, and, ultimately, Snell, highlights traces of earlier traditions – both oral and literary – in support of his dismissal of Fehling’s thesis.2

The author next surveys the ancient works that discuss the Seven Sages and the various lists of them found therein, starting with Plato and working his way through, among others, Ephorus, Aristotle, Demetrius of Phaleron, Callimachus, Hermippus, Hippobotus, Plutarch, and Diogenes Laertius. Engels offers special insights on Hermippus and Hippobotus. Hermippus provides the most complete Hellenistic list of sophoi – seventeen in total – whom earlier writers had included among the Seven. In addition, he had access to unique, non-Athenian, material from the Ptolemaic library in Alexandria. His sources appear to be far more extensive than those of the Athenian tradition, including Plato, Aristotle, and extending all the way to Dichaearchus, and it is possible that in his list of seventeen sophoi are reflected earlier traditions of the Seven now lost to us. Hippobotus, too, is of interest since he includes Orpheus and Linus in his list of sages, thereby pushing the time line for the sages further back beyond the traditional period of the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE. Engels also speculates that by including the Thracian Orpheus, Hippobotus was more open to the possibility of a non-Greek origin of or influence on philosophy.

Engels offers a short introduction to each chronicler of the Seven Sages and contextualizes idiosyncratic material in each author based on his cultural, social, or personal circumstances; e.g. how Plutarch’s personal ties to Delphi inform the close connection he seeks to establish between the Seven Sages and Delphi in the Dinner of the Seven Sages. A particular focus is how the list of names of individual sophoi changes from author to author as a reflection of their specific historical circumstances.

The main contribution of this discussion is to highlight how dependent we are for our knowledge of the Seven Sages on doxographical research, especially in our understanding of why the names in the lists continually keep changing; and also the potential that further doxographical work has to shed new light on the sage tradition. One drawback of how this material is presented is that the treatment is not sufficiently detailed to add much new to our knowledge (which, to be fair, is not the stated ambition of the book), yet is detailed enough to make it difficult for a general reader to follow – and maintain interest in – the minutiae of source criticism.

In the second part of chapter one Engels proceeds to summarize our knowledge of twenty three sophoi who figure at one point or another in one the ancient lists. The standard seven are first treated: Bias of Priene, Chilon of Sparta, Cleobulus of Lindus, Periander of Corinth, Pittacus of Mytilene, Solon of Athens, and Thales of Miletus. Thereafter, he discusses the remaining figures in alphabetical order from Anacharsis the Scythian to Pythagoras of Samos. These summaries include a short historical snapshot, a discussion of each individual’s position in the sage tradition, and the sayings affiliated with him. They offer the novice reader a good overview of the available material, especially since references to the primary sources abound.

The remaining seven chapters of the book have the feel of appendices, as they range from three to six pages in length and discuss a variety of issues concerning the sage tradition left untreated up to this point. In chapter five, for example, Engels situates the Seven in the Greek wisdom tradition and argues, a bit surprisingly, that they constitute a sui generis group of practitioners of wisdom. Many contemporary scholars – G. E. R. Lloyd, to name one – have called attention to the fluidity of philosophical traditions and categories, and would perhaps resist the call for strict taxonomies. Engels considers the many areas of overlap between the Seven Sages and the Presocratics, lawgivers, sophists, and the rest, but maintains their separate identity; their unique status, he maintains, is reflected in their promulgation of practical philosophy in poetic, preferably aphoristic, form. Their philosophical interests lay in ethics and political philosophy. This statement illustrates well how Engels sees the Seven’s philosophical legacy: though their writings do not display the highly abstract thought of the later philosophical traditions, they nevertheless had a strong influence in laying the foundation for later, and more highly developed, ethical philosophy.

Chapter eight considers ancient images of the Seven Sages. Here Engels explores how familiarity with the Seven in imperial Rome was so widespread that they were appropriated even for satirical purposes. Excavations in Ostia, for example, have revealed a tavern from ca. 100 BCE with remarkable wall paintings of the Seven. Each sage is represented as sitting, and above the painting is a scatological inscription in Latin for the amusement of the diners. Solon is looked to for solutions to constipation (Ut bene cacaret, ventrem palpavit Solon), as is Thales, who admonishes exertion (Durum cacantes monuit ut nitant).

It is perhaps the ultimate irony that the Seven Sages in the Roman popular imagination are portrayed as just another Aesop, from whom, if we are to believe Leslie Kurke’s new book, they were so carefully distinguished in ancient Greece.3 They have thus undergone a complete reversal from representatives of the high wisdom tradition to embodiments of bowel humor.


1.   In C. Dougherty and L. Kurke, eds. Cultural poetics in archaic Greece: cult, performance, politics. Cambridge. 1993: 108-128.
2.   A. Busine, Le Sept Sages de la Grèce antique. Transmission et utilisation d’un patrimonie légendaire d’Hérodote à Plutarque. Paris. 2002; J. Bollansée, ‟Fact and Fiction, Falsehood and Truth. D. Fehling and Ancient Legendry about the Seven Sages.” Museum Helveticum 56, 1999: 65-75; R. Martin, see footnote 1; B. Snell, Leben und Meinungen der Sieben Weisen. 4th ed. München. 1971.
3.   Aesopic Conversations: popular tradition, cultural dialogue, and the invention of Greek prose. Princeton. 2011.

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