BMCR 2004.09.23

Platone. Il Simposio. Introduzione, testo, traduzione e commento. Quaderni della “Rivista di Cultura Classica e Medioevale” 5

, , Il simposio. Quaderni della Rivista di cultura classica e medioevale ; 5. Roma: Edizioni dell'Ateneo, 2003. 154 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 8884760453 €29.00.

Plato’s Symposium is a beautiful text and reading it is always a pleasure. Reviewing Arcioni’s book, moreover, made me rethink my own reading of the text.

The first chapter of the book contains seven introductory sections. Arcioni pays attention to the social function of the symposium in ancient Greece, the date of composition, the genre ‘dialogue’, the dramatic setting depicted in this particular dialogue, the contents of the various speeches within the dialogue, the stylistic characteristics of the speakers, and, finally, the text as compared to the text of Burnet. The Greek text is printed with an Italian translation on the opposite page. Most of the book consists of the commentary, followed by an extensive bibliography (divided into “commentaries and translations” and “works consulted”).

The first three paragraphs of the introduction briefly restate traditional views on the Symposium. Arcioni stresses the importance of symposia in the Greek world in general and in the Academy in particular. She gives the usual date of composition, after 385 BCE, but considers other possible dates as well. Her section on the genre of dialogue asserts the fundamental importance of dialectic in Platonic philosophy.

Arcioni vividly presents the picture painted by Plato. She elucidates the various levels represented in the text, including the dramatic dates of the various parts of the text (416 for Agathon’s victory, 404 for the opening discussion). She also stresses that the dialogue is not only about Eros, but also about Socrates himself. This analysis of the dialogue as a whole is followed by a short summary of the speeches.

In the longest section of her introduction, in my opinion the best part of the book, Arcioni gives a stylistic characterization of the speakers. She analyses their style and provides ample illustrations. Each of the speakers thus comes to life. She shows that each speaker gives a speech well suited to his character and his personality.

Arcioni’s text differs in 19 places from Burnet’s text. In three places she offers only a different punctuation, which, unfortunately, often leads to an ambiguous text. On 9 occasions Arcioni’s text favours the reading of the papyrus or a return to the transmitted manuscript text. We thus encounter a rather conservative text. In an introductory remark she defends her spelling ‐ει for the second person singular middle against the Oxford spelling ‐ῃ.1

Sometimes Arcioni seems to have forgotten her Greek text when she comes to the commentary or the translation. In 173a she prints ἢ αὐτὸς Σωκράτης;, but in her commentary explains the use of with reference to Humbert. I do not understand her text at 175d (comma before ἡμῶν, especially as she herself quotes the text from ἐάν onwards (p. 90). In 176b she defends the manuscript reading Ἀγάθων, but separates Agathon’s name from the preceding clause in her translation.

In 210c2 she defends the transmitted text, but I am not convinced by her explanation of καὶ ζητεῖν; Ast’s deletion of the word solves the problem, but there may be further problems with the text. In 211c7-8 the text is less stable than Arcioni’s commentary suggests.2

The Italian translation follows the Greek text closely. It is on the whole a faithful rendering of the Greek. In 193b1 I am inclined to follow Dover in his analysis of the text ( πάντ’ ἄνδρα as subject rather than object of παρακελεύεσθαι. A judgement on the literary qualities of the translation I will leave to native speakers of Italian.

A commentary necessarily addresses a large variety of problems. Thus, in most commentaries we find elementary help in translating the Greek (meaning of words, difficult syntax, etc.), explanations of references (names, places, etc.) as well as more thorough discussions of style, argumentation, philosophical content and the like. What kind of notes receive most attention largely depends on the commentary’s intended audience. Arcioni’s commentary is no exception. However, it is not made clear what audience she has in mind, nor have I been able to find a reference to the intended audience on the publisher’s website.

The attention given to the various parts of the text is slightly unbalanced. The first ten pages (in the Oxford edition) are not difficult, but get 13 pages of commentary. As the dialogue proceeds, there are increasingly fewer notes, whereas the text gets more difficult.

Arcioni groups her notes following the old Stephanus division, but she should have provided subheadings before the start of each new section of the dialogue. As it is, it is difficult to get a clear picture of the organisation of the dialogue, and in consulting the commentary I often lost track.

In her elementary notes Arcioni gives translations for unfamiliar Greek words (often followed by the etymology of the word) or explains syntactical structures (use of participles, etc.). Yet often I would have expected a note where none is given. To mention a few examples: 173b ἐν τοῖς μάλιστα may give problems; 207e μὴ ὅτι occurs twice and is not obvious at first glance; 210d1-3 contains quite a few participial clauses, and the text is not certain ( τὸ παρ’ ἑνί or τῷ παρ’ ἑνί).

On a different level Arcioni has many notes that show a good insight into the meaning of the text. She gives a thorough discussion of the proverb in 174b, where opinions widely differ. She is equally thorough in her discussion of Aristophanes’ hiccups in 185c. In 214b she has three notes to clarify the discussion between Alcibiades and Eryximachus, without stating the obvious or turning to speculation. Yet, in other places I would have expected more notes, e.g., to clarify Socrates’ arguments in his discussion with Agathon.

In her discussion of word order and the use of particles Arcioni is rather disappointing. Much work has been done recently on both topics,3 and her commentary would have benefited from these. As it is, Arcioni refers to older reference works (Denniston, Des Places) or grammars (Monteil, Humbert) and often her explanation for a particular word order or particle follows the line of “stressing the word preceding the particle, or set apart by the unusual word order”. In 174d she has a note on τὸν οὖν Σωκράτη ἑαυτῷ προσέχοντα τὸν νοῦν. The position of τὸν Σωκράτη immediately followed by ἑαυτῷ prefigures the thoughtful meditation of the philosopher, Arcioni explains. Yet, to use modern pragmatic terminology, Socrates is the new Discourse Topic, and ἑαυτῷ is the most important information (Focus), which adequately accounts for the word order without having to use impressionistic arguments.

Arcioni appears to be extremely fond of sound patterns and stylistic observations. To start with the first, I will not deny that 185c παυσανίου δὲ παυσαμένου is deliberate, nor that Agathon’s speech is much more poetical (especially in the last paragraph) than any other speech in the dialogue. The Greek ear is more sensitive to sound patterns than our own Western-European ears (at least, this reviewer’s ears). But in my opinion Arcioni often goes too far in her predilection for alliteration, homoioteleuton, assonance, and, moreover, in her explanation of these.

Almost any consonant of the Greek alphabet can be used to underline a specific meaning. One of the most striking examples is found in her commentary on 192d ( δύναται … μαντεύεται … βούλεται … αἰνίττεται), where she notes: “l’omoteleuto col martellante suono delle dentali esprime bene l’imbattarsi affannoso degli uomini nelle difficoltà e nelle incertezze del vivere.” What makes the dentals better suited than, let’s say, gutturals?

There is hardly a page in her commentary where the word ‘homoioteleuton’ is not found at least twice. Homoioteleuton is invoked to call attention to the extraordinary situation of Socrates wearing shoes (174a), to the tight unity of the two lovers in the final words of Aristophanes’ speech (192c), to the continuing renewal of mankind (208a), to give only three examples. A concept that is applied so often and in such different circumstances loses its effectiveness. Moreover, as almost any coordination of two substantives or verb forms leads to homoioteleuton, we are hardly justified in assigning meaning to it.

The text is produced carefully, although the Greek suffers from quite a lot of omitted or misplaced accents and breathings. A more serious drawback, however, is the layout of the Greek text. Arcioni is most likely not responsible, but I must warn future readers. The Greek text, 71 pages in Burnet’s Oxford edition, has been squeezed into only 29 pages in this one. If we want readers to enjoy reading the text in Greek, this is not the way. The dialogues between Agathon and Socrates, and between Socrates and Diotima form a pleasant exception, as each speaker gets a new line.

To summarize, the reader who turns to this edition for help in understanding the Greek is often disappointed. The reader who is satisfied with the translation to guide him or her through the text can find much of value in the commentary and the introduction. For a detailed discussion, however, other editions (Dover or Rowe, to name two recent English editions — I have not consulted other Italian editions) remain indispensable.


1. The spelling ‐ῃ is apparently still the prescribed Oxford spelling. Cf. S.R. Slings, Platonis Rempublicam, Oxford: Clarendon, 2003, xvi.

2. In 211c8, Arcioni prints ἵνα γνῷ, the reading of the papyrus (as she states on p. 22). I have not been able to consult Vendruscolo’s edition of the papyrus, but Grenfell and Hunt print και γνω.

3. On word order, e.g., Helma Dik, Word Order in Ancient Greek, Amsterdam: Gieben, 1995 (based on Herodotus, but her theory is valid for other Greek texts too). On particles, e.g., Albert Rijksbaron, New Approaches to Greek Particles, Amsterdam: Gieben, 1997 (a collection of papers on various particles).