Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.08.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.08.26

James Wilberding, Julia Trompeter, Alberto Rigolio (trans.), Michael of Ephesus: On Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 10; Themistius: On Virtue. Ancient commentators on Aristotle.   London:  Bloomsbury, 2019.  Pp. 276.  ISBN 9781350085077.  £85.00.  

Reviewed by Michele Trizio, Università degli Studi di Bari “Aldo Moro” (


This wonderfully produced book brings together the English translations of Michael of Ephesus’ commentary on Nicomachean Ethics 10 and Themistius’ philosophical oration On Virtue for the well-known and renowned Bloomsbury series ‘The Ancient Commentators on Aristotle’. In the footsteps of the earlier volumes in this series, the English translations of both these texts are prefaced by textual and historical introductions to the texts and authors, and are followed by a rich apparatus of notes, bibliography, and glossary. In what follows I will review the first part of the volume containing Wilberding’s and Trompeter’s translation of Michael’s commentary, and then I will discuss Rigolio’s translation of Themistius’ On Virtue.

Michael of Ephesus is a shadowy figure in Byzantine philosophy. While his biography is largely unknown, his extant works suggest he was one of the most prolific Aristotle commentators in the Greek Middle Ages. In the first chapter of their introduction to Michael’s commentary, Wilberding and Trompeter diligently collect the scant information on Michael’s life and work and rightly locate Michael’s scholarship on Aristotle after 1118, the year of the death of emperor Alexios Komnenos. This latter event was the turning point in the life of Alexios’ daughter, the princess historian Anna Komnena. In fact, as Robert Browning demonstrated in a 1962 trailblazing article, Anna took her father’s death as the opportunity for entering philosophical life and for supporting scholars, such as Michael, in producing commentaries on Aristotelian works upon which no commentary had existed.1 To their presentation of Michael I can only add a few remarks on Michael’s background and works.

With regard to the claim that, in light of the presence of technical medical vocabulary in his works, Michael may have been a physician,2 one should keep in mind that it was rather common for Byzantine philosophers of this period to receive a medical education as well.3 With regard to the list of Michael’s commentaries, it should be added that according to recent scholarship it is not certain whether Michael produced a full scale commentary on Aristotle’s Politics or just isolated scholia on some passages of it.4 Also, there is a scholion to Nicomachus of Gerasa’s Introduction to Arithmetics (1.23.15, ed. Hoche) transmitted in ms. G 62 sup. (Martini-Bassi 404) at ff. 65v-66r, together with two other scholia on the same passage by the well-known Eustratios of Nicaea and the obscure Nicholas Disypathos, here qualified as judge (kritēs). Although these scholia have been known since Tannery,5 they have largely gone unnoticed.6 I obtained a digital reproduction of the relevant folios of this manuscript and I can indeed confirm Tannery’s finding. I doubt, however, that Michael composed a full commentary on Nicomachus. On the contrary, he and his fellows Eustratios and (probably) Nicholas Disypathos were probably invited by their students to write a single note on a difficult passage of the text. That is why, I believe, the three scholia have come down to us together.

The next two chapters in the introduction discuss Michael’s allegiance to Neoplatonism. The authors show a distinct awareness of the contemporary debate and prudently account for both the presence of Neoplatonic vocabulary in Michael’s commentary on Nicomachean Ethics 10 and, at the same time, an inconsistency in adopting actual Neoplatonist standpoints (and sometimes even the rejection of some of these standpoints). Julia Trompeter develops the authors’ approach to Michael’s Neoplatonism by taking into consideration Michael’s discussion of Aristotelian happiness in Book X of the Aristotelian work. From her discussion it appears clear that, on the one hand, Michael mixes Platonic and Aristotelian elements but, on the other hand, that he never constructs a Platonic or Neoplatonic framework for Aristotle’s theory of contemplative happiness.

Generally I believe that, when dealing with the issue of Michael’s philosophical profile, one must consider each commentary individually. In fact Michael’s profile appears chameleon-like in that it depends very closely upon the sources he utilizes. He may appear more a Neoplatonist in his commentary on Metaphysics 7-14, where Michael depends upon Syrianus,7 whereas in his zoological works, where he depends upon Alexander of Aphrodisias, he looks more a Peripatetic.8 It seems to me that in his commentaries on Nicomachean Ethics 5, 9 and 10 Michael is motivated to provide readers with a safe and sound explanation of the Aristotelian text without leading the readers astray. Therefore, these commentaries occasionally appeal to Neoplatonic source-material and never introduce elements radically alien to the Aristotelian text. I can only add that Michael’s reluctance to pledge allegiance to Neoplatonism is even more evident when compared with the resolute adoption of Neoplatonic standpoints by Michael’s fellow Eustratios of Nicaea who, contrary to Michael, laboriously frames his commentaries on Nicomachean Ethics 1 and 6 within a Neoplatonic system.9

It would be remiss of me not to comment briefly on how the translators established the Greek text as a basis for their translation. Usually translators in the ‘Ancient Commentators on Aristotle’ series rely on the critical apparatus of the Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca [CAG] edition. However, in the case of Michael’s commentary on Nicomachean Ethics 10 this is not possible. In fact, Heylbut’s 1892 edition of the Greek-Byzantine commentaries on Nicomachean Ethics is based only on a single manuscript (B), the fourteenth-century Paris Coisl. 161 (wrongly listed by the translators as eleventh-century) and on the text of the Aldine edition (a). However, as Mercati already in 1915 has demonstrated,10 the text of B possibly witnesses a later recensio of the text and is often defective. Thus Mercati suggested that we should rely on the earlier 269 – a manuscript that transmits a recensio of the text different than that of B – for improving the text of B. The problem is, however, that in order to use ms. 269 consistently one would need to establish the stemma codicum of the text to determine the place and role of this manuscript in the transmission of the text. Wilberding and Trompeter are aware of this problem. Accordingly, they accepted reliance on ms. 269 but confined themselves to a limited number of cases where the text of B is most probably corrupt or defective. I must say that, while waiting for a full-scale study on the text tradition of the corpus of Greek-Byzantine commentaries on Nicomachean Ethics, I find myself in agreement with the translators’ minimalist approach.

The final result of the translators’ textual philology is a translation very clear and pleasant to read. The notes to the text are extremely helpful and even take into account the problem of the Greek text of Aristotle that Michael had in front of him.

The second and shorter part of this volume contains the first annotated English translation of a philosophical oration attributed to Themistius (ca. 317-388 CE) and transmitted in Syriac with the title of On Virtue. As the translator of the text, Alberto Rigolio, rightly points out, the On Virtue is not unknown to previous scholarship, but it has figured only marginally in modern scholarship.11 By contrast, Rigolio’s rich and learned introduction to the translated text makes a very strong case for regarding the On Virtue as an important witness to late-antique philosophy and to Themistius’ contribution to fourth-century philosophical debates in the Greek-speaking world.

To start with, Rigolio provides a very useful overview of the structure and content of the text. Then he goes on with a very rich description of the philosophical content of Themistius’ philosophical oration. According to Rigolio, on the one hand the text is to be regarded as a sample of late-antique literary appropriation of ancient Cynicism comparable to that of authors such as Lucian, Maximus of Tyre and even the Emperor Julian; on the other hand, the On Virtue differs from similar literature from the same period in that it does not merely elaborate a literary portrait of Cynicism, but is the vehicle for authentic philosophical content. In fact, as previous literature suggests, Themistius’ knowledge of ancient Cynicism was not simply anecdotal, but originated from the author’s actual knowledge of Cynic literature.12 As a matter of fact Themistius’ On Virtue endorses the traditional topos of philosophy as a road leading to happiness and, accordingly, compares the Cynical view concerning the acquisition of happiness with those of Epicureanism and of Plato and Aristotle. While admitting that all these roads are useful and advantageous, Themistius advances the intriguing view that Cynic philosophy is superior in that it identifies virtue as the only good.13 With regard to Themistius’ praise of Cynic philosophy, Rigolio reconstructs in detail its relevance from the point of view of Themistius’ philosophy and underlines, among its most telling features, that the On Virtue makes no reference to Stoicism as a road to happiness, nor to Platonic philosophy as separate from Aristotelian philosophy.

As for the dating of the On Virtue, Rigolio tentatively proposes spring 362. His arguments, although not definitive, nevertheless appear sound and reasonable given the present information on Cynic philosophy in late antiquity. In particular, Rigolio points to overlaps in content and arguments with two orations delivered by the Emperor Julian around the same period, in which Julian harshly criticizes contemporary cynics for not matching the level of true Cynic philosophy. 14 As is well known to specialists, Julian and Themistius were at odds with each other and Themistius must surely have felt his prominence at court in danger. Rigolio accepts the established chronology for Julian’s two orations against the cynics – March 362 and June 362 respectively – and accordingly suggests dating the On Virtue to the same period. If this is the case, clearly Themistius endorsed Julian’s praise of what he thought to be the authentic Cynic philosophy, with the difference that Themistius allows the existence of other roads – the Epicurean and the Peripatetic ones – which, although less perfect, were equally worthy of consideration, whereas Julian on the contrary thought that all philosophical schools of his time were to be considered as manifestations of one and the same philosophical and religious wisdom. In other words, Themistius’ On Virtue made a case against Julian’s construction of his Hellenic orthodoxy. Although in general Themistius’ praise of Cynic philosophy accommodates Julian and his effort to praise authentic Cynicism, yet he does not fail to introduce, politely, a critique of Julian’s project.

A few notes on Rigolio’s translation of the On Virtue. The peculiarity of this oration is that it survives only in Syriac. As Rigolio makes clear in his introduction, the text is not a word-for-word translation from Greek into Syriac, but rather a free translation from the original Greek. Rigolio has done a wonderful job in explaining very carefully to readers unacquainted with Syriac translations of Greek philosophical works how the translators’ peculiar way of rendering the original Greek into Syriac has affected the text. Rigolio has based his English translation on Sachau’s edition of the text, 15 although he was also able to benefit from textual emendation from other specialists in Syriac literature.16 The final result is a translation very fluent and pleasant to read, which Rigolio completes with an excellent set of historical and philological notes. I am confident that this English translation of On Virtue will finally make accessible to a wider English-speaking readership a text otherwise almost unknown and understudied.

All in all, the volume under review is a welcome addition to the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series. It is hoped that the presence in one and the same volume of a medieval Greek commentary and of a text transmitted in a language other than Greek opens the way to the inclusion in this prestigious series of more texts like the ones published in the volume.


1.   See R. Browning, ‘An Unpublished Funeral Oration on Anna Comnena’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 8 (1962), 1-12.
2.   The source is K. Praechter, ‘Review of Michaelis Ephesii In libros De partibus animalium’, Göttingische gelherte Anzeigen 168 (1906), 861-907, at 863-4.
3.   See H. Hohlweg, ‘La formazione culturale e professionale del medico a Bisanzio’, Koinonia 13 (1989), 165-88.
4.   See M. Curnis, ‘La Politica di Aristotele tra Michele Efesio e Demetrio Petrizzopulo’, Erytheia. Revista de estudios bizantinos y neogriegos 37 (2016), 247-99.
5.   See O.P. Tannery, ‘Rapport sur une mission en Italie’, Archives des missions scientifiques et littéraires 13 (1888), 405-55, at 453.
6.   With the exception of I. Nesseris, Higher Education in Constantinople in twelfth-century, 2014 (Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, in Greek), 286-7.
7.   See C. Luna, Trois études sur la tradition des commentaires anciens a la ‘Metaphysique’ d’Aristote, Leiden 2011.
8.   See P. Donini, ‘Il De anima di Alessandro di Afrodisia e Michele Efesio’, Rivista di Filologia e di Istruzione Classica 96 (1968), 316-23.
9.   See e.g. M. Trizio, ‘Eleventh- to twelfth-century Byzantium’ in S. Gersh (ed.), Interpreting Proclus from Antiquity to Renaissance, Cambridge 2014, pp. 186-225, at 190-201.
10.   G. Mercati, ‘Fra i commentatori greci di Aristotele’, Mélanges d'archéologie et d'histoire, 35 (1915), 191-219.
11.   For example there is an earlier Italian translation, in M. Conterno, Temistio Orientale, Brescia 2014. Other mentions of the On Virtue have been diligently recorded at p. 227 n. 1 in the volume under review.
12.   See A. Brancacci, ‘Temistio e il cinicismo’, Elenchos 21 (2000), 381-96.
13.   On this subject, see S. Prince, ‘Antisthenes and the Short Route to Happiness’ in P. Bosman (ed.), Ancient Routes to Happiness, Pretoria 2017, 73-96.
14.   See A. Marcone’s excellent ‘The Forging of an Hellenistic Orthodoxy. Julian Speeches against the Cynics’ in N. Bake-Brian and S. Thougher (eds), Emperor and Author: The Writings of Julian the Apostate, Swansea 2012, pp. 239-50.
15.   E. Sachau (ed.), Inedita Syriaca, Halle 1870
16.   Cf. e.g. T. Nöldeke, review of Sachau (ed.), Inedita Syriaca, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgendländischen Gesellschaft 25 (1871), 282-7.

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