Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.10.30 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.10.30

Michael Griffin (trans.), Olympiodorus: Life of Plato and On Plato First Alcibiades 1–9. Ancient commentators on Aristotle.   London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney:  Bloomsbury, 2015.  Pp. ix, 246.  ISBN 9781472588302.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Christopher Kurfess, University of Pittsburgh (


The past few years have seen a modest boom in the body of English-language resources for the study of Olympiodorus of Alexandria’s writings on Plato. Excellent critical editions of the relevant Greek texts have been available, if not easy to obtain, for some time, thanks largely to the efforts of L. G. Westerink. After producing an edition of Proclus’ commentary on the First Alcibiades (Amsterdam, 1954), Westerink went on to edit the commentary of Olympiodorus on the same dialogue (Amsterdam, 1956), and editions of Olympiodorus’ commentaries on the Gorgias (Leipzig, 1970) and the Phaedo (Amsterdam, 1976) followed. The Phaedo commentary featured an English translation, by Westerink himself, opposite the Greek text, as did his earlier editions of Damascius’ lectures on the Philebus (Amsterdam, 1959) and the Anonymous Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy (Amsterdam, 1962), both of which have been attributed to Olympiodorus at one time or other. A translation of Proclus’ Alcibiades commentary by W. O’Neill appeared in 1965, and in 1998 the team of R. Jackson, K. Lycos, and H. Tarrant produced a translation of the Gorgias commentary. In the last decade, each of Westerink’s dual-language editions, as well as O’Neill’s translation (facing Westerink’s Greek text), have been reprinted in slightly revised and relatively affordable editions by the Prometheus Trust in its Platonic Texts and Translations series. Olympiodorus’ Alcibiades commentary, however, has remained untranslated since the appearance of the critical edition nearly sixty years ago. The work under review is thus a step toward filling a definite gap in the scholarship.

In this new addition to the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series, Michael Griffin provides a translation, with notes, of the first nine of Olympiodorus’ twenty-eight lectures on the Alcibiades.1 The translation is accompanied, as is standard in the series, by an introduction, an English-Greek glossary, a Greek-English index, and a bibliography. There are also three brief indices of passages cited, of names and places, and of subjects. The Life of Plato mentioned in the title of the volume is not, as the title may suggest, a separate work (though it has been edited and translated in isolation from the commentary in the past), but a part of the preliminary material that precedes Olympiodorus’ treatment of the dialogue. One of the merits of Griffin’s volume is that it helps readers to see the Life in its proper place.

The volume marks something of a milestone for the Ancient Commentators series, of which Griffin is now, with Richard Sorabji, a general editor. Formerly published by Duckworth and Cornell University Press, and for a time appearing under the Bristol Classical Press imprint, the series now bears the logo of Bloomsbury Academic, and with the change in presses have come a few developments worth noting. Earlier titles in the series are being reissued in paperback, and electronic versions are also available, both of which are developments to be welcomed. The quality of the hardcover books, however, seems to have suffered in the rebranding. The sewn signatures, endbands, cloth covers and dust jackets that graced earlier books in the series are gone, replaced in the present volume by an adhesive binding and a glossy laminate cover. The interior formatting has also been altered, most noticeably in the spacing of the text: the new format has about ten fewer lines than one finds on comparable pages of other recent releases in the series.2

While it may reduce eye strain (perhaps a special concern with electronic versions), the loss of material per printed page has other consequences. Olympiodorus’ commentary is not so long that it could not have been included in a single volume (it is shorter than Alexander of Aphrodisias’ commentary on Aristotle’s De Sensu, which appeared complete in an earlier volume in the series) and it is unfortunate, particularly given the price increases that have accompanied the other changes, that this volume includes less than half of it. The translation proper occupies 90 pages of the book, covering 60 of the 144 pages of Westerink’s Greek text. It also incorporates extended (but not always complete) extracts from the dialogue at the beginning of each lecture, where the Greek text has simply a one- or two-line lemma to indicate the stretch of dialogue to be discussed.3 This is of help to the reader without the dialogue at hand, but calls for increasingly more of the available space as the commentary progresses and the ratio of commentary to text diminishes markedly. 528 endnotes, which are often helpful, but sometimes also unnecessarily repeat, verbatim and in extenso, material from the introduction or from earlier endnotes,4 add 57 pages to the translation.

Also contributing to the relatively small proportion of material translated is the fact that the introduction is conspicuously longer than is typical for the series, running to 66 pages, including notes and an appendix (the introduction in the Alexander volume, by contrast, is seven pages). Though the essentials might have been presented more concisely, the introduction does cover much useful ground, sketching Olympiodorus’ social and intellectual context and providing overviews of the dialogue and its reception in antiquity. Proclus’ commentary, from which Olympiodorus drew heavily, but which is extant only in part, is discussed in its own section. There are, beyond a fair number of typos, various factual errors that might mislead the general reader, but for the most part these are minor.5 One that may be of greater consequence for Griffin’s proposed reading of the commentary is the claim that Olympiodorus’ “tripartite division of the dialogue into ‘refutation’ (elenktikos, 106C–119A), ‘exhortation’ (protreptikos, 119A–124A), and ‘midwifery’ (maieutikos, or assisting in the birth of ideas, 124A–135D) derives from Proclus in Alc. 13–15. Proclus ascribes it to Iamblichus” (p. 36). While it is true that Proclus endorses a tripartite division which he attributes to Iamblichus, he decidedly does not employ the terms that Olympiodorus uses, having just objected to such a division at in Alc. 12,1–14.

One important point of which the reader should be made aware, but which does not come across particularly clearly in the introduction, concerns the character of the text Griffin is translating. The clearest statement that “Olympiodorus’ commentary is preserved from a student’s notes” is hidden in a note (p. 61, n. 77). It goes unmentioned (even in the section entitled, “The text of Olympiodorus’ lectures: this volume”) that the student in question was, in Westerink’s estimation, “none too brilliant” (1956, p. VIII) and that assorted gaps and lapses seem to show that the student’s notes are not a complete transcript of Olympiodorus’ lectures (1956, p. IX).

Despite its length, the introduction includes no discussion of the aims or method of the translation itself. There is, in the section on the text of the lectures just mentioned, the remark, “Editing or translating such notes can be a challenge” (p. 47), but Griffin does not elaborate on the particular challenges involved, nor explain how, as a translator, he has chosen to meet them.6 Some sense of the style and substance of the translation can be gleaned by considering a short sample, the opening sentence of Olympiodorus’ discussion of the diairesis of the dialogue at in Alc. 11,7–8: Περὶ δὲ τῆς εἰς τὰ κεφάλαια ἤτοι μέρη διαιρέσεως ἰστέον ὅτι εἰς τρία διαιρεῖται διάλογος· ἐλεγκτικόν, προτρεπτικόν, μαιευτικόν. O’Neill, in a footnote (n. 33) to his translation of Proclus’ commentary, renders the Greek thus: “But as regards its division into headings or parts, you must realise that the dialogue is divided into three: refutation, exhortation, and elicitation.” In Griffin’s translation, we read (p. 83):

[The division (diairesis) of the dialogue]
As for the division (diairesis) [of the text] into sections (kephalaia), it should be recognised that this dialogue is divided into three: [a section of] refutation (elenktikon), [another] of exhortation (protreptikon), and [a third] of midwifery (maieutikon).

Interestingly, the heading (one of many added to the first three lectures) matches a marginal note from Westerink’s apparatus: εἰς τὰ κεφάλαια διαίρεσις. (Such correspondences between the marginalia and Griffin’s headings occur fairly often, but this may be accidental. The marginalia are one of the attractive features of Westerink’s edition, and more use might be made of them in a translation.) As for the other bracketed supplements, O’Neill’s version shows that the sentence can be rendered intelligibly without them. Such brackets, and the parentheses enclosing transliterated Greek terms, are omnipresent in Griffin’s text, and may give the impression of a more literal or precise translation than comparison with the Greek bears out. In the present case, one may observe that ἤτοι μέρη is left untranslated and that there is no demonstrative pronoun in the Greek corresponding to “this” in the phrase “this dialogue”. In the translation as a whole, even technical uses of terms are not rendered particularly consistently, and the indices and glossary are not comprehensive enough to be of much help in investigating the occurrences of particular terms.7 In the commentary proper, the decision to adapt an existing translation of the dialogue for the lemmas seems to have led to discrepancies between the lemmas and the text of the commentary that could have been avoided by translating them afresh with an eye to the specific points made in the commentary. There are numerous instances of the same Greek sentences appearing in different English guises, as well as, more problematically, identical English locutions that translate different Greek ones.8

Despite certain imperfections, the translation is certainly serviceable, and the book will be helpful to anyone interested in Olympiodorus’ commentary who is more comfortable reading English than Greek.


1.   Olympiodorus is a commentator on Aristotle, with a Prolegomena to Aristotle’s logic and commentaries on the Categories and the Meteorology extant, but there seem to be no plans at present to translate these works for the Ancient Commentators series.
2.   A page of uninterrupted text in the introduction or translation of earlier volumes ran to 45 or 46 lines, and a page of notes to 51–53 lines. In the volume under review, a full page of the introduction or translation includes 35 lines of text, a page of notes, 38 or 39 lines.
3.   For several of the lectures (5, 6, 8 and 9), the extracts from the dialogue feature awkward omissions, sometimes of language that is directly commented on in what follows. No explanation for these omissions is given; they do not significantly reduce the length of the extracts, but they are sizeable enough to cause difficulties for the reader relying on the translation.
4.   Endnote 1, e.g., repeats verbatim a sentence from p. 46; endnote 2 repeats seven lines from p. 61, n. 79; endnote 113 includes, in full, a quotation from Proclus’ commentary already given on pp. 36–37.
5.   The plural of daimôn, e.g., is regularly misspelled daimônes (pp. 3, 41, 55 and 56); it is claimed that the post-Homeric expression kalos k’agathos, “is the standard description of an aristocratic hero in Homer” (p. 56, n. 28); the Alcibiades of Aeschines (of Sphettus) is dated to “318–314 BC” (p. 25), probably well after the Socratic’s death.
6.   On the editorial side, there is some confusion. Griffin goes on to remark, “I tend to agree with Dodds that obvious errors of fact should not be attributed to the lecturer” (p. 47; repeated in the endnotes), as though Dodds differed from Westerink on this point. In fact he did not, and had even quoted, with approval, Westerink’s attribution of mistakes at 45,2 and 61,8 to the note-taker rather than to Olympiodorus.
7.   E.g., skopos, in the sense of the aim of a work, generally translated “target” by Griffin, is sometimes “goal”, which those dependent on the glossary will have no indication that it is not translating telos.
8.   In such cases, typically one is Plato’s wording, the other Olympiodorus’ paraphrase.

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