The prestigious Bibliotheca Scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana, currently printed by the publishing house De Gruyter, adds a new title to its impressive catalogue: a slim but extremely refined edition of Gorgias’ masterpiece Helenae encomium. The editor, Francesco Donadi, is surely one of the scholars best suited for the task, having worked on the Sophists, and especially Gorgias, for decades. More specifically, Donadi already published over thirty years ago an Italian translation of the Encomium with a very learned introduction and notes (L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1982) as well as an edition of Pietro Bembo’s translation of it (L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1983) and a number of essays on related questions (the titles are available in the bibliography of the book under review). The current edition draws and improves on those previous works, especially as concerns the edition of the Greek text. It also makes the results of Donadi’s researches available in a streamlined edition, enriched by a Greek-Latin glossary of the most relevant words by Antonia Marchiori. This edition is further enriched by the editor’s decision to add the Latin translation of the Encomium done by Bembo and based on the text made available by Costantino Lascaris—a small but interesting chapter in the life of this text during the Italian Renaissance.
Already in his edition of 1982 Donadi lamented the poor editorial luck of this famous work of Gorgias and attributed it to a number of reasons: first of all, the uncertain and corrupt state of the Greek text, which presents many opportunities for controversy; then the dual tradition of the text itself—to be traced back (allegedly) to two archetypes from which all the other manuscripts derive—that makes things more complicated; finally, the almost complete absence of an indirect tradition upon which one could draw in order to formulate emendations to the text. We cannot but agree on this assessment of the situation, and add that Donadi’s commendable efforts to restore a text as faithful as possible to Gorgias’ original are evident in this edition, where Gorgias’ command of the Greek language and his deliberate use of grammatical and syntactical innovations in order to achieve a specific result in the hearer—bewilderment—appear in all clarity.
The Preface is dedicated mostly to two philological questions: the establishment of a plausible genealogy for the manuscript tradition of the text, and an account of the reasons which induced the editor to opt for Codex A as the basis for the present edition. In fact, the text of the Encomium of Helen is present in two anthologies, called A and X. The former, MS Burneianus 95, is preserved in the British Library and dates from the 14th century; the latter, MS Palatinus Gr. 88, is preserved in the library of Heidelberg University and dates from the 12th century. Donadi examined all the extant manuscripts, 38 in total, and from the collation of the manuscripts drew two conclusions: first, that the canonical opposition between A and X should be resisted or, rather, should be superseded by the recognition of a much more complex system. He posits the existence of an archetype α from which A is derived, together with β; from β an entire family of manuscripts derived, including X. Secondly, Donadi maintains that the superiority of A, when compared to X, is evident; hence his decision to use A as the basis for his own rendition of the text. Once the choice is made, the second problem the editor has to tackle is the presence of numerous changes to the text superimposed by ancient and modern interpreters. In this respect, Donadi states that he deliberately and systematically resisted the temptation to replace corrupt text with equivocal restorations or to do any other kind of guesswork. For this is exactly the problem that vitiates many ancient and modern editions: since Gorgias was known for his flamboyant style and use of parallelism in his sentences, many editors have decided to alter clauses or fill in words in order to restore this schema. Other editors, more philosophically versed, opted for interpreting the text instead of trying to restore its missing parts. The result is that the current manuscript tradition is encrusted with these later superimpositions.
Donadi provides also a succinct but very interesting history of the manuscript tradition, which highlights certain important moments and specific editions. In it, a special place is occupied by the MS Matritensis 7210, or La, which was copied by Constantine Lascaris in the 1460s in the library of St Mark in Florence, and shows copious conjectural interventions by Lascaris himself. Donadi states (p. xxiii) that La certainly derives from MS Palatinus Graecus 88 (X), which was brought to Italy by the Byzantine scholar Manuel Chrysoloras when he accepted the invitation of Coluccio Salutati to teach Greek grammar and literature in Florence (1397). The text of the editio princeps, by Aldus Manutius (Venice 1513), derives mostly from the MS Matritensis 7210, copied and amended by Lascaris with the addition of some interventions by Marcus Musurus, the most likely editor (“sine ullo dubio” according to Donadi: p. xxxi). It is already interesting that Aldus decided to use a manuscript owned by Lascaris, who lived and taught in Messina at that stage; even more interesting, perhaps, is the fact that the link between Messina and Venice was a young Venetian aristocrat destined to a glorious future: Pietro Bembo. Bembo studied Greek for two years under Lascaris and provided the very first Latin translation of Gorgias’ Encomium during his stay in Messina (1493). When he went back to Venice the following year, Bembo brought with him the translation and a copy of the codex La on which Aldus based his edition. Bembo also appended a laudatory dedication to his translation to Ferdinand of Aragon, then viceroy of Sicily, whom he had probably met in Naples, but then disregarded the translation after his return to Venice. To our great interest, Donadi prints this dedication together with Bembo’s translation and Lascaris’ text of the Encomium. This decision makes the current edition much more interesting from an historical point of view, for we can witness to Bembo’s first efforts at translating. It is my impression that Bembo’s Latin rendition does not capture the sense of drama that pervades Gorgias’ text, and his choice of Latin words to translate key Greek concepts is not impeccable; but this can be attributed to youth and inexperience and Bembo’s subsequent lack of interest in the translation is very telling. Also, thanks to the dedicatory letter, we have an early example of Bembo’s talent for currying favour with important people, an ability which served him well in life and was instrumental in his finally being appointed cardinal by Pope Paul III. In the dedication we also have a glimpse of the flourishing intellectual life of Sicily at the end of the 15th century. When Bembo was studying under him, Lascaris was writing the Lives of illustrious Sicilian and Calabrian philosophers, which obviously included Gorgias.
It is worth recalling that the first printed Latin translation of Gorgias’ Encomium was done by William Canter and published in 1566. When, in 1593, the famous French printer Henri Estienne, better known as Stephanus, reprinted Aldus’ text, he added Canter’s parallel translation. Translating Gorgias was a difficult business, as testified by the author of another important edition of the Greek orators, Johann Jakob Reiske (in 1773), who stated flatly that he was not interested in trying to understand Gorgias’ sophisms. The same difficulty was lamented by the abbot Athanasius Auger in his translation of 1781. The 19th century and the rise of German philology witnessed the appearance of the first edition of the text conducted with scientific rigour, Immanuel Bekker’s Oratores Attici (1822-3). In 1841 another German philologist, Hermann Sauppe, demonstrated that all manuscripts of Gorgias’ text, except for A, descend from X. Other German editions include that of Friedrich Blass (1871), which is full of conjectures, although not at the level of Otto Immisch’s (1927), who displaces entire paragraphs in addition to making arbitrary conjectures. By contrast, Hermann Diels’ text of Gorgias in his Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (1903) is very well-balanced and made this work the standard reference for the Sophists and the Presocratic philosophers in general. Another milestone edition, whose influence crossed the Italian borders, was Mario Untersteiner’s I Sofisti (1949), which combines incredible erudition with a very strong interpretive effort: for Untersteiner gives Gorgias pride of place, together with Protagoras, in his description of the Sophists as discoverers of the “dramatic sense” of reality and of the tragic nature of life and human knowledge, which is characterized by contradictions.
So far I have mostly reviewed the history of Gorgias’ text in the wake of Donadi’s work, in order to show both the importance of this work and the significant contribution made by Donadi himself. I wish to conclude by saying that Donadi’s edition supplies us with a text that is both authentic and very readable and, therefore, provides a perfect foundation for philosophical interpretations. Gorgias’ style is restored together with his bold grammar, his flamboyant use of adjectives and his imitation of legal rhetoric. The key to understanding this piece of bravura is possibly in the very last word, where Gorgias states that he wrote his speech on Helen in order to amuse himself, as a divertissement. Be it as it may, the speech exudes a sense of tragedy in its insistence that Helen was only a human being at the mercy of forces superior to her: these include “the decision of Chance, the will of the Gods and the decree of Necessity” (6.37-8) but also the power of speech, “this mighty sovereign who, with the smallest and most invisible body, accomplishes most divine deeds” (8.52-3). Speech can persuade and it can deceive; in both cases it works like an enchantment and enslaves and controls other people’s souls. The victims cannot but surrender their free will and are therefore innocent. Donadi’s respect for the text is commendable as is his scarce use of conjectures: one at 16.105 is especially illuminating, and Donadi records with gratitude that it was suggested to him by his former teacher in Padua Carlo Diano, a great classicist and very interesting philosopher is his own title. This is a work with a long history, and it shows.