Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.03.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.03.13

Voula Tsouna, Philodemus, On Property Management. Writings from the Greco-Roman world, 33.   Atlanta:  Society of Biblical Literature, 2012.  Pp. xlv, 125.  ISBN 9781589836679.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by David Armstrong, University of Texas (

This volume, like its predecessor in the series (W. B. Henry’s Philodemus: On Death [WGRW 29], 2009), is a major step forward in making Herculaneum texts available in an attractive and comprehensible format to the reading public. The text is constituted by a leading expert, in both cases, in consultation with other experts (Elizabeth Asmis in Henry’s case, David Sedley and David Konstan in Tsouna’s), and using all currently available helps, such as digital imaging. Both texts have in common that the surviving portion of their papyrus rolls is about the last quarter of the original, and opens with a flurry of confused and difficult fragments. Then comes a series of coherent and more successfully unrolled columns, 28 in On Death (cols. 12-39), 22 in On Property Management (cols. 7-28), that are relatively easy to read and get clearer as they go on. Henry, in re-editing all of On Death to modern papyrological standards, left little standing of earlier editors' attempts to fill in cols. 1-11.1 Probably, had Tsouna done the same, she would have left as little of (in the ordering of the 1906 Teubner text of Christian Jensen) Cols. A and B and I, Fragment I, Fragment II, Cols. IIIa, IV, V, VI, II, the disordered fragments of PHerc 1424 before continuous text begins (col. VII-XXVIII). Instead, she reprints Jensen's text (hereafter J 1906) and translates it, with a few minor changes.

Philodemus discusses two older sources of theories about oikonomikē, the art or technique of “property management”. Cols. A-B summarize an account which Philodemus thinks is by Theophrastus, and which is also preserved in the Aristotelian corpus as “book I” of three separate essays under that title, perhaps even by different authors. The remaining fragments + col. VII 1-47 comprise a critique of Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, for Jensen re-ordered the scattered fragments by the order in which they discuss ch.1-4 init. of Xenophon. The discussion resumes at col. VII , after a lacuna Jensen estimated (1906, xxii) at 12 columns, of which only bits of cols. "II" and "III" survive. At VII.27-47 the rest of Oec. (14-21, on farming) is dismissed as irrelevant. 3. At VII.37-XII.1 there follows a critique of “Theophrastus”. The remainder of the papyrus (XII.2-XXVIII.10) defends the Epicureans’ own views about the administration of property and wealth.

Probably what is lost at the beginning, therefore, as Jensen theorized, was a largely “neutral” exposition of what is said in Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, followed by a similarly neutral exposition of his successor and imitator “Theophrastus”. A bit of its final portion survives in cols. A-B. Then, there was a critique of the two texts, in the same order. First of Xenophon, Oec. 1-14 (cols. I-VII.26)—but here only the discussion of Oec. 1-4 init. survives in the fragments, followed by a lacuna—then of 12-14 init. at VII.1-26. Only Philodemus' critique of the opening discussion between Socrates and Clitomachus survives. We have lost his critique of the only part of Xenophon that rivets modern readers’ attention—Oec. 4-14 init., Ischomachus’ self-complacent exposition of how he educated his naïve bride to be a model housewife and to manage the house-slaves indoors by participating in cooking and cleaning, just as he himself participates in the farm-work outdoors, thus ensuring maximum efficiency and profit in both spheres. Philodemus’ view of these precepts must be conjectured from what follows, a cursory critique of them as they were condensed, in treatise form, into “Theophrastus”.

Happily, the most interesting part, for a student of later Epicureanism, coincides with the best-preserved part. Here Philodemus expounds topic 4: “property management” as it should be seen by Epicureans themselves (cols. XII.2-XXVIII.10, i.e. to the end), including those with Roman pupils (XXV.38), like Philodemus himself.

One sees why Tsouna has left the earlier fragments to the next Teubner or comparable editor to improve on, as she warns the reader at the end of her introduction (xliv-xlv). She translates them, and presents them, as they stand in the old Teubner—with the proper skepticism—and is willing to be judged by what she makes of cols. VII-XXVIII. In fact Jensen himself would not nowadays have put his exempli gratia reconstructions of the earlier fragments into the text as if they were gospel truth, but into apparatus or commentary. Tsouna also leaves textual improvements of J 1906 in VII-XXVIII almost entirely to the next editor. But a dozen or so suggestions of hers and David Sedley’s are offered in lieu of an apparatus.

Judged on these columns, Tsouna's patient, clear and accurate translation and commentary is everything a first-time reader could wish for. Her translation is an excellent performance—even artistically. She repunctuates the Greek to make the sentence units longer, and translates it into longer sentences than is customary nowadays to suit this practice, and to reflect Philodemus’ artfully informal piling up of clause after clause, without parallelism or antithesis except by accident, as if he were thinking out the sentences as he spoke them. I find this technique both audacious and delightful. Her introduction echoes the excellent chapter on this text in her The Ethics of Philodemus (Oxford 2007), but in more detail, as do the efficient and helpful end-notes.

Probably, therefore, one should start with a quick reading of VII-XI, from which a little can be gleaned about the rival texts and about Philodemus' attitudes. (1) Philodemus has rearranged his citations from Xenophon and "Theophrastus" to conform them to his own practice of avoiding hiatus. (2) Philodemus recognizes that "Theophrastus" is secondary to and parasitical on Xenophon's Oeconomicus, a recognized classic on the subject and "of superior value" (VII.37-42). (3) Although suspicious of neat scholastic divisions, Philodemus accepts that it is convenient to divide household economy into ktēsis, diakosmēsis, khrēsis and tērēsis: acquisition, orderly arrangement for use, actual use, and preservation. But, he adds, arrangement is surely just part of “use” and “preservation” both, and the other categories may be equally fluid (X.29-43). (4) For Epicureans, the bachelor life, provided one had friends, lacked nothing essential to happiness. Philodemus is as emphatic against "Theophrastus" as he had probably already been against Ischomachus, in laying down that the good household economist as such, let alone the sage, does not necessarily marry and have children (VIII.45-IX.3, with Tsouna's excellent note 32 at pp. 91-2). As for Ischomachus' precept, endorsed by "Theophrastus", that masters must work alongside the slaves, even rising earlier and retiring later than they do and (worst of all) getting up at night, to get optimal results, he rejects the idea with a shudder of comic horror (XI.30-41).

Philodemus is lecturing before a late Republican Roman elite whose wealth and resources dwarfed those of the Athenian "rich" of the 4th century BCE, who did not have to have a wife just to keep their household going indoors as well as outdoors, and who had nothing to gain by joining in the farm work or housework of their multiple properties. What follows in XII-XXVIII gives the same feeling throughout. Epicurean attitudes to property-management and housework, once revolutionary in their individualism and independence, have become commonplace to the elite of a more prosperous age. Here too, as the occasional presence of hiatus shows (Philodemus is kept by reverence for the Founders from rearranging or altering their exact words), we have a combination of Hermarchus' and Metrodorus' views with Philodemus' and his Athenian teachers' own.

Philodemus begins and ends this section (XII.18-24, XXVII.46-XXVIII.10) by invoking Metrodorus' treatise On Wealth, but also his own (p. 102, n. 79). Book I of Philodemus On Wealth (fragmentary) was published by Adele Tepedino Guerra in CErc 8 (1978), 52-95. What we argue is probably book II (also fragmentary) has just now been published by J. Ponczoch and me in CErc 41 (2011), 97-138. Neither text, however, tells us much about the relevance of what is said to Roman—as opposed to Athenian—audiences. They are not extensive enough.

Here there is plenty to judge by—compare two earlier studies by David Balch and Elizabeth Asmis,2 especially the latter. Asmis argues that Philodemus adapts the Founders' doctrines extensively to the special circumstances of wealthy Romans, especially when he recommends having one's property at the service of friends as a main reason, second only to survival, for having it at all. (A particularly fine working-out of this topos takes up a whole column, XXIV.20-XXV.22; cf. also XXVI.1-8, XXVII.5-11.) She singles out from Philodemus' list of desirable and undesirable sources of income the recommendation that, although it is undesirable to get one's income from a farm that has to be worked by oneself, it is entirely desirable to have the income of a "leisurely" (euskholos) farm-retreat used for study and the entertainment of friends, where one owns the land, but the actual work is done by others (XXIII.7-18). This certainly seems more like a Roman than a Greek leisure-class view of country properties (the Sabine Farm!). Philodemus also downgrades going to war for plunder as a lifestyle (XXII.16-28), along with the life of politicians and artisans (29-32), which seems to agree with the Roman poets' view: one goes to war for self-preservation, duty, friends and country, as one does business in the City (negotium), but one retires to one's country place for philosophic pleasure (otium). Philodemus is also all for renting out real estate or skilled slave laborers (XXIII.19-23) for income—activities like managing a country place, which needed a lot more work and "face-time" from the 4th-century Athenian upper-class property-owner like Ischomachus than from the far more opulent Roman elite of Philodemus' circle, who will have managed such investments through agents and overseers (epitropoi kai hupotetagmenoi) in consultation with amici, as Philodemus recommends (cf. XXVI.9-28).

The next, more thorough editor and commentator will want to know exactly how much of cols. XII-XXI comes from Metrodorus, and how much from Philodemus himself. Tsouna opposes3 the claim of Sudhaus (Hermes 41, 1906, 45-58), that most of XII-XXI consists of quotation and paraphrase from Metrodorus' On Wealth. Asmis is inclined to side with Sudhaus. But they agree that Philodemus has transformed Metrodorus' material to suit the largior aether breathed by the Roman elite. All readers should be grateful to have the synoptic view Tsouna's text and translation provides of a leading Epicurean adapting himself to the contemporary Roman construction of elite attitudes to the otium / negotium and rus / urbs dichotomy, especially intertextual readers of Latin poetry from Philodemus' day all the way to Statius' and Juvenal's.

A final note: we know (especially since Geert Roskam's Lathe Biōsas: On the Vicissitudes of an Epicurean Idea, Leiden 2007) that Epicureans never "forbade", as Cicero and Plutarch pretend, the risks and pains of politics, or making a living, or property management, or public office, or even warfare, to their students. They just required them to justify taking such pains by "conditional reasoning" as Roskam calls it, or the "hedonic calculus", in Greek summetrēsis sumphorōn kai asumphorōn (Epicurus, Menoeceus 130). You justify taking risks and enduring pains by the greater pleasure and security that they can provide for yourself and your amici.

Here, Philodemus and Metrodorus are on the same page throughout: successful property-management is neither following the Cynics and living in a tub to avoid the bother, nor getting so obsessed with it as to be (in Philodemus' vivid—if restored—phrase) "trapping oneself on treadmills" (XIV.28). It is taking trouble, but trouble that will pay off and help not just you but your friends (is allakton for greater pleasure, XV.37, XIX.22, and parametrētrikon tōi phusikōi telei, in a measure that accords with natural goals, XVII.45, cf. XXV.47) And if it does not pay off, then you must take more trouble, not less. This treatise sheds more light than any other Herculaneum text on the "hedonic calculus" by which the Epicureans could justify an all-but-Stoic amount of painstaking, just to ensure and secure pleasure. For this and many other reasons Tsouna, Sedley and the series editors David Konstan and John Fitzgerald deserve applause for making On Property Management accessible for further study. ​


1.   Compared to his predecessors, e.g. M. Gigante, “L’inizio del quarto libro 'Della Morte' di Filodemo" in his Ricerche Filodemee, 2nd edn. (Naples 1983), 115-62.
2.   David Balch, “Philodemus, ‘On Wealth’ and ‘On Household Management:’ Naturally Wealthy Epicureans against Poor Cynics" in J. Fitzgerald, G. Holland and D. Obbink (eds.), Philodemus and the New Testament World (Leiden, 2004), 177-96; Elizabeth Asmis, “Epicurean Economics” in the same, 133-76.
3.   "Epicurean Attitudes to Management and Finance" in G. Giannantoni and M. Gigante (eds.), Epicureismo Greco e Romano (Naples, 1996), ii. 710-24.

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