Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.01.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.01.13

William W. Fortenbaugh, Theophrastus of Eresus, Commentary Volume 9.2. Sources on Discoveries and Beginnings, Proverbs et al. (Texts 727-741) (with contributions on the Arabic Material by Dimitri Gutas). Philosophia antiqua 136.   Leiden:  Brill, 2014.  Pp. 290.  ISBN 9789004268821.  $171.00.  

Reviewed by Robert Mayhew, Seton Hall University (


The now standard collection of the sources for Theophrastus, published by Brill in 1992 (‘FHSG’),1 was to be followed by nine volumes of commentary: 1. Life, Writings; 2. Logic; 3. Physics; 4. Metaphysics, Theology, Mathematics, Psychology; 5. Human Physiology, Living Creatures, Botany; 6. Ethics, Religion; 7. Politics; 8. Rhetoric, Poetics; 9. Music, Miscellaneous. That plan has changed somewhat: for instance, Music and Miscellaneous will instead be covered by two volumes, 9.1 on music (in progress) and 9.2 on miscellaneous, which is the book under review here. It is the seventh of these commentary-volumes to appear, and the third by Fortenbaugh.

The focus of this commentary is the titles and texts attributed to Theophrastus that are not covered in the first eight volumes. 727 FHSG consists of “The List of Titles Referring to Collections and Miscellaneous Items” (FHSG vol. 2, pp. 584-8), and 728-41 are the source-texts that either come from certain of these miscellaneous works or are unassigned (FHSG vol. 2, pp. 588-99).

This book consists of an introductory chapter (pp. 1-5) and three long chapters: The Sources (ch. 2, pp. 7-66), Titles of Books (ch. 3, pp. 67-134), and The Texts (ch. 4, pp. 135-241). There follow a summary, a bibliography, numerous indices, and corrections and additions to the relevant portions of FHSG.

Chapter 2 is a mini-encyclopedia on the sources for these texts and titles. It is divided into four sections: 1. Greek and Latin sources (arranged chronologically), 2. anthologies, 3. scholia, and 4. Arabic sources.2 Some sources we expect (or hope) to be more valuable than others. For instance, Diogenes Laertius (from whom most of the titles come) is, whatever his limitations, clearly much more important and valuable than, say, Remigius of Auxerre (c. 841-908)—a fact that did not prevent Fortenbaugh from providing a fairly full account of Remigius. A particularly instructive entry is the one on Pliny the Elder, whose Natural History 7 is the source of texts 731-3 (pp. 11-17). As Fortenbaugh points out, the HN refers not only to the content of a lost work of Theophrastus (731-3 likely come from his On Discoveries) but also to an extant one: the History of Plants. So Pliny’s use of this latter should give us some idea of his reliability in the former. Fortenbaugh summarizes Pliny’s references to the History of Plants: “There are omissions, additions, changes in order and outright confusion” (p. 15). He provides several examples.

Here are the titles discussed by Fortenbaugh in the third chapter:3

727 no. 1 Lectures, 2 books (DL 5.42)
no. 2 Afternoon <Discussions>, 2 books (DL 5.46)
no. 3 Collection of Problems, 5 books (DL 5.45)
no. 4 Political, Natural, Erotic, Ethical Problems, 1 book (DL 5.47)
no. 5 The Problems by Theophrastus (Ibn-an-Nadīm, The Index 7.1)
137 no. 26a On the Problems concerning Nature, 1 book (DL 5.48 & 5.49)
no. 26b On the Problems concerning Nature (Ibn-Abī Ușaybica, Essential Information on the Generations of Physicians 4, chapter on Theophrastus)
727 no. 6 Aristotelian or Theophrastean Memoranda, 6 books (DL 5.48)
no. 7 Research Memoranda (scholium on Apollonius, Argonautica 4.834)
no. 8 On Research, 1 book (DL 5.47)
no. 9a Commentaries (Lumen animae B 7)
no. 9b Commentary (Lumen animae B 8)
no. 10 Robe (Dunchad, Glossae in Martianum Capellam 5.433)
no. 11 On Discoveries, 2 books (DL 5.47)
666 no. 4 On Invention (Georgius Choeroboscus, In Hephaestionis Enchiridion 5.10.2)
727 no. 12 On the Wise Men, 1 book (DL 5.48)
no. 13 Akikharos (DL 5.50)
no. 14 On Proverbs (DL 5.45)
no. 15 Letters, 3 books (DL 5.46)
no. 16a Letters to Astycreon, Phanias, Nicanor (DL 5.46)
no. 16b Letter to Phanias (DL 5.37)

Note that Fortenbaugh includes in his commentary those titles that appear elsewhere in the collection but which naturally receive treatment here: 137 nos. 26a and 26b (from the section on Physics) and 666 no. 4 (from the section on Rhetoric). The discussion of titles is quite learned and surprisingly lengthy. One should read the commentary on a particular title with the relevant discussion(s) of the source(s) of that title and (where there are surviving texts corresponding to a title) with the commentary on the text as well.4 I found the discussion of the Problems- titles (pp. 77-85), set in the context of Peripatetic problemata literature going back to Aristotle, to be particularly interesting and useful.

The texts that are the subject of the commentary in ch. 4 are divided in three: (1) Discoveries and Beginnings (nos. 728, 582, 729-36, 718); (2) Proverbs (nos. 529A-B, 737-8, 738.5, 710, 624, 549); and (3) Unassigned (nos. 739-41).

The commentary on the texts on discoveries is preceded by a sketch of Theophrastus’ predecessors’ remarks on this topic and a very interesting account of the evidence for Theophrastus’ discussion of discoveries in the fragments of his On Piety (nos. 584A-B) (pp. 135-42). Now to the texts themselves: 728, 730, and 734 all mention Theophrastus’ On Discoveries: 728 (from Clement of Alexandria) refers to various barbarian discoveries, 730 (from a scholium on Homer’s Iliad) to the discovery of the grinding of wheat, and 734 (from a scholium on Pindar) to the discovery of the potter’s wheel. Texts 731-3 all come from Pliny HN 7 and deal with who first alloyed bronze (731), who invented stone quarries (732), and who invented painting (733). No titles are mentioned, but On Discoveries would seem to be the obvious source. Texts 735 and 736A-C are 9th-century Latin sources (e.g. John Scotus Eriugena), clearly related, which all attribute to Theophrastus’ Robe claims about the invention of the alphabet (735) or of language (736A-C). It is entirely possible that Theophrastus said something about these inventions, but not in a work with the title Robe (Πέπλος), which does not appear among the lists in Diogenes Laertius. Fortenbaugh comments: “That Theophrastus himself wrote a work entitled Robe is doubtful. It is even more doubtful that such a work was in circulation in the ninth century, so that it could be consulted at first hand” (pp. 177-8; see also pp. 101-6, in the chapter on titles). Again, On Discoveries would seem to be the obvious source.

Fortenbaugh discusses two texts here that are not found in the ‘On Discoveries’ section of the text / translation volumes. (1) 582: From the section on Religion, another text from John Scotus Erigena, this one attributing to Theophrastus’ Robe an account or mention of the origin of the Pythian prophet. I found the discussion of it (pp. 146-50), however interesting, out of place, though the Robe-attribution justifies its being covered here.5 (2) 718: From the section on Music, a brief passage in Athenaeus concerning what Theophrastus said about Andron of Catania’s innovation in aulos-playing. In addition to the discussion of it here (pp. 190-5), it will be dealt with in the commentary-volume on music. Fortenbaugh speculates that this text is possibly a reference to something in Theophrastus’ On Discoveries, though he says his On the Musicians (DL 5.49) and On Poetics (DL 5.47, 48) are candidates as well.

The commentary on the texts on proverbs is preceded by an excellent account of the Peripatetic interest in proverbs (195-207). Only two of the seven texts discussed in this part of the commentary come from the Proverbs section under ‘Miscellaneous Items’ in FHSG—the only two texts that refer to Theophrastus’ On Proverbs. Both are quite brief: 737 (from Harpocration, Lexicon on the Ten Attic Orators) concerns the proverb ἀρχὴ ἄνδρα δείκνυσι (“rule reveals the man”), the source of which according to Theophrastus is Bias; 738 (from Stobaeus) concerns the famous Delphic saying γνῶθι σαυτόν which, according to Theophrastus (against the opinions of some others), is a proverb. The commentary attempts to explain what precisely this might mean (pp. 215-20). Fortenbaugh adds a ‘new’ text (738.5); he believes it should be included in a second edition of FHSG, after 738. It comes from a scholium on Euripides’ Hippolytus and concerns the other famous Delphic saying, μηδὲν ἄγαν (“nothing to excess”).

Fortenbaugh includes in his commentary on proverbs five texts from elsewhere in the text-translation volume. Nos. 529A and B, in the Ethics section, from two different commentaries on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, both refer to Theophrastus’ On Dispositions and concern the proverb ἐν δὲ δικαιοσύνῃͅ συλλήβδην πᾶσ’ ἀρετὴ ἔνι (“In justice every virtue is brought together”). No. 710 (from Athenaeus), in the Rhetoric and Poetics section, refers to Theophrastus’ On the Ludicrous and discusses the proverb μέγας οὐδεὶς σαπρὸς ἰχθύς (“no rotten fish is large”). No. 624 (from Plutarch’s Greek Questions), in the Politics section, concerns the proverb αὕτα κυρία (“This is valid”); no title of Theophrastus is mentioned. Finally, no. 529 (from Athenaeus), in the Ethics section, refers to Theophrastus’ On Pleasure and mentions Ionian luxury and “the golden proverb” (ἡ χρυσῆ παροιμία). But the text is lacunose, and unfortunately the actual proverb is not quoted. Fortenbaugh’s commentary (pp. 234-5) discusses what might be missing. The ‘Unassigned’ texts (739-41) are three brief Herculaneum papyrus fragments from (it seems) three works of Philodemus: P.Herc. 807 (On Death), P.Herc. 1021 (Index of Academics), and P.Herc. 1025 (On Love of Reputation).6 The third of these is only three words long. Fortenbaugh succeeds in squeezing out the little these fragments have to offer (pp. 235-41). Take for example no. 739. Philodemus says: “Theophrastus denied these things” (Θ]εό|φραστον ἀθετε[ῖ]ν ταῦτα). Fortenbaugh speculates (p. 237):

As stated, the immediately preceding text is too lacunose to be helpful, but in an Epicurean work On Death it is perhaps reasonable to think of an unqualified assertion like “Death is nothing to us” and a full blown materialism that rules out an immortal intellect. Such views would be unacceptable to Theophrastus, but it seems quite impossible to demonstrate that these views accurately represent the object of ἀθετεῖν. Further speculation would be otiose.

Scholars of Theophrastus and early Peripatetic philosophy will no doubt find this volume useful. Others who might find it useful include anyone interested in ancient accounts of human discoveries, ancient accounts of proverbs, the issues involved in assessing the titles of ancient works, or the relationship between lost works and the relevant source texts. 7


1.   William W. Fortenbaugh, P. Huby, R. W. Sharples and D. Gutas, Theophrastus of Eresus, Sources for his Life, Writings, Thought and Influence (Leiden: Brill, 1992).
2.   The cover and full title-page include, after Fortenbaugh’s name, “with contributions on the Arabic material by Dimitri Gutas.” I assume Gutas was responsible for the section on Arabic sources.
3.   Most titles come from Diogenes Laertius (which I abbreviate ‘DL’). Some entries give more than one source, but I list only the first one provided.
4.   Titles relevant to the few ‘miscellaneous’ texts that can be assigned to a work with some degree of probability are On Discoveries, On Invention, and On Proverbs. The first two likely refer to the same work: cf. Περὶ εὑρημάτων and Περὶ εὑρήσεως. In light of this, I think “Sources on Discoveries and on Proverbs et al.” would have been a more elegant subtitle, and just as accurate.
5.   Fortenbaugh is aware of this: “Referring to text 582 within a section of ‘Discoveries and Beginnings’ may seem a bit of a stretch” (p. 150).
6.  I say ‘seems’ because it is not certain whether Philodemus is the author of the second work, and it is not certain whether the third fragment comes from On Love of Reputation.
7.   The book is beautifully produced, though there are a number of typographical errors: e.g. ‘they are all are’ (p. 71 n. 12), ‘painitng’ (p. 252). One error could cause confusion: at the head of the odd-numbered pages from pp. 89-111, ‘137’ should be ‘727’.

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