Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.25 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.25

Owen Hodkinson, Authority and Tradition in Philostratus' 'Heroikos'. Satura, 8.   Lecce:  Pensa Multimedia, 2011.  Pp. 147.  ISBN 9788882328665.  €13.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jason König, University of St Andrews (

This is a book that anyone interested in the Heroikos, in the reception of Plato, and in imperial Greek conceptions of sophistic and philosophical identity will want to read. Philostratus’ Heroikos recounts a conversation between a rustic vinedresser and a Phoenician merchant in the Thracian Chersonese. The vinedresser explains to his interlocutor how the Greek hero Protesilaus appears to him regularly in his vineyard. The bulk of the dialogue is taken up with the vinedresser’s report of Protesilaus’ account of the Trojan War and particularly with a series of sketches of other Greek and Trojan heroes. There has been a striking expansion of interest in this text, and indeed in the work of Philostratus more broadly, during the last decade or two. Much of it has focused on the way in which Philostratus manipulates traditions of ingenious correction of Homer, on the way in which it reflects practices of hero worship and religious thinking which were current still within the third century CE when Philostratus was writing, and on the text’s fascination with the tension between accessibility and distance in imperial representations of the Greek past. A key feature of that expansion of interest has been a new appreciation of the sophisticated literary texture of the work. Owen Hodkinson’s short monograph makes a valuable contribution to that trend. He focuses particularly on Philostratus’ complex engagement with Plato’s Phaedrus; in the process he also shows how the Heroikos, and especially Protesilaus’ account of the rivalry between Palamedes and Odysseus which lies at the very centre of the work, picks up on debates over the relative value of philosophy and rhetoric which were widespread within imperial Greek culture and also within Philostratus’ other work. This theme does not unlock the significance of the dialogue as a whole, as Hodkinson himself makes clear, not least because the issue of sophistic identity fades from view in some of what follows from the Palamedes section. Nevertheless Hodkinson does show that it plays a major role in Philostratus’ conception of the work. Hodkinson’s writing is very rich and subtle—at times so much so that it can be hard to see which of the many threads he is juggling is the most important for his argument: but that is in a sense simply a reflection of the complexity of the text he is dealing with.

After a brief introduction, chapter 2 offers a careful reading of literary texture in the opening of the Heroikos. Hodkinson shows how the text, right from the start, plays with a range of different generic markers, making it hard for us at first to know what kind of work we are reading, and what kinds of models the speakers are to be associated with. For example, the way in which Philostratus associates both the vinedresser and the Phoenician with Socrates figures makes it hard for us to know which of the two is going to be the more authoritative. Hodkinson then turns to intertextual echoes in the Heroikos. They have been often remarked upon before, particularly in relation to the locus amoenus where the bulk of the conversation takes place, but Hodkinson breaks new ground in showing just how intricate they are, and in making clear their significance for the rest of the text. He shows, for example, how the rest of the Heroikos picks up on the question (prominent but not pursued at length in the Phaedrus) of how far we should believe in mythical narratives, as well as the question of the relative value of rhetoric and philosophy.

Chapter 3 extends Hodkinson’s analysis of the relative authority of different speakers and characters. He looks first at Protesilaus, whose account sets out to displace Homer and exposes the contingency of Homer’s canonical status. Hodkinson also shows convincingly that Protesilaus is represented as an all-round scholar, both philosopher and sophist together, and in that sense acts as a model for the sophistic reader. The second half of the chapter (pp. 79-101) then extends the argument to Palamedes. Hodkinson points out that Palamedes was already represented as an intellectual figure in earlier traditions about his rivalry with Odysseus, accounts which Philostratus clearly knew well. Philostratus represents Palamedes (especially in Heroikos 33) as a sophist figure in the most positive sense of the word. He stands in contrast with his rival Odysseus, whose ingenuity is linked with all the most negative aspects of rhetorical identity, and whose stories are rejected in Platonic terms because of their capacity to deceive. Intriguingly, Odysseus is also linked with Socrates, not least in his Socratic rejection of the idea that Palamedes was the discoverer of the alphabet. Protesilaus reasserts Palamedes’ claim to that accomplishment in a way that overturns the Phaedrus’ negative portrayal of the written word, by linking Palamedes with true sophia (although with a certain amount of irony, given that Palamedes’ downfall is itself brought about by the written word; in that sense the text holds back from endorsing Palamedes’ authority in full).

Chapter 4 then offers a brief sketch of the Heroikos’ links with Philostratus’ valorisation of sophistry, and his interest in the relationship between sophistry and philosophy, in his other work. Hodkinson sees the Heroikos as part of ‘a general Philostratean concern with the validation of sophistry, achieved partly through distinguishing sophists from philosophers, but also through assimilating the two types, and especially by “reclaiming” Plato and Socrates for the sophists’ (111). And he links the philosopher-sophist-heroes of the Heroikos —the type represented by Protesilaus and Palamedes above all—with figures like Apollonius in the VA and Dio Chrysostom and the other philosopher-sophists in the opening pages of the VS. He also sees the Heroikos as part of Philostratus’ wider interest in linking sophistry with the classical and even heroic past, exemplified in the VS.

This final section makes a crucial contribution to the book as a whole, because it helps to make clear why there might have been so much at stake for Philostratus’ readers in Protesilaus’ anecdotes and in the allusive relationship with the Phaedrus which has been charted so painstakingly in the earlier chapters. Obviously there is a risk of over-reading here. For a reader approaching the work for the first time the sophistic-philosophical overtones that Hodkinson identifies are likely to be drowned out by other themes in some parts of the work. One might also take issue with the idea that Palamedes is really intended as a role model for the present day. On one level his role as inventor and innovator in so many different areas of expertise makes him strikingly distant from the belated intellectual culture of Philostratus and his contemporaries, and the work as a whole is very self-conscious about the comical anachronism of trying to harmonise heroic and imperial culture, even as it indulges in the fantasy that it is possible. And yet it is striking that the community of heroes in the Heroikos —with their networks of rivalries and alliances, their sense of the power of story-telling to fix reputation, their extravagant self-dramatisation and their verbal ingenuity, and their biographical habits of thought—are very close indeed to what we find for the sophists in Philostratus’ VS. And the technique of reactivating and transforming the past, so as to make it newly and surprisingly meaningful for the present, is of course a central feature of Philostratus’ other work and of the sophistic culture he describes in the VS: the anachronism of Homeric role models does not stop sophists like Herodes Atticus (as Philostratus describes him) from drawing on them. Hodkinson shows convincingly that the Heroikos is an exemplary representative of that wider trend, rewriting both the Phaedrus and the vast body of stories about Homeric heroes from the classical tradition (along with an enormous range of other texts) so as to engage readers preoccupied with debates over authority in the intellectual culture of the third century CE.

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