BMCR 2005.03.03

The Letter of Speusippus to Philip II. Introduction, Text, Translation, and Commentary. Historia Einzelschrift 176

, The letter of Speusippus to Philip II : introduction, text, translation and commentary ; with an appendix on the thirty-first Socratic letter attributed to Plato. Geschichte. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2004. 196 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 3515083960. €38.00 (pb).

Speusippus succeeded Plato as head of the Academy in Athens in 347. His letter to Philip II of Macedonia (r. 359-336) is the thirtieth letter in the collection of so-called Socratic Letters, which are mostly spurious and date from the first century AD. The authenticity of Speusippus’ letter is similarly suspect, or at least it was until the persuasive discussion of E. Bickermann and J. Sykutris, Speusipps Brief an König Philipp, published in 1928. Both scholars identified the letter as a public document, written to play a role in the public debate about Philip’s imperialistic policies and to discredit Isocrates’ Philip (of 346), and they concluded from its style and vocabulary that it was genuine. Subsequent scholars have followed suit, and it is reasonably safe to say that this short letter (131 lines of Greek) is the only complete work we have to date by Speusippus.

The letter champions the cause of a certain Antipater of Magnesia, who was writing a history of Greece in Athens. He had been wronged by another Magnesian and was seeking assistance from Philip who by then controlled Magnesia. The date of Speusippus’ letter is unknown, but it cannot predate 343/2 because of its reference to Ambracia and Philip’s activities in that area (sec. 7). It an important document for the light it casts on the attitude of fourth century Greek intellectuals to Macedonia, on the Academy’s attempt to resurrect a similar relationship with Philip as it had enjoyed with his predecessors, and on aspects of Greek history, mythology, and rhetoric.

Bickermann and Sykutris built on their discussion of authenticity with a criticism of Speusippus for writing in the manner that he did, in particular, for his attacks on certain fellow intellectuals, and for how he shamelessly panders to Philip at the expense of Athens. Isocrates comes under the most attack for his Philip of 346, which, Speusippus says, was discussed by those at the Academy (sec. 1). Criticisms of this work, for omitting the services of the king’s family to the Greeks, for example, run throughout the letter. Isocrates and his pupil Theopompus are also denigrated for their adverse remarks about Plato, whom Perdiccas III held in high regard. Just as subsequent scholars were influenced by the arguments of Bickermann and Sykutris on authenticity, so too they criticised the letter for many of the same reasons (Natoli has some good quotations from several scholars on p. 10). Consequently, little attention tends to be paid to it as a source for Athens’ relations with Philip II.

Natoli sets out to elevate the importance of this letter as source material and improve its generally dismal evaluation. He boldly asserts in his Preface, for example, that as a result of his study, “Future writing on matters such as the expulsion of Amyntas III, the reign of Perdiccas III and his relationship to his brother and successor Philip II, the historical writing of Theopompus of Chios and the use of the oikeion paradeigma, to mention only a few, will now need to take into account the evidence of Speusippus’ letter” (pp. 10-11).

The meat of his book is an Introduction (pp. 17-100), Text and Translation (pp. 101-109), and Commentary (pp. 110-160). The long Introduction discusses matters of methodology, authenticity, the intellectuals of the time and their relationship to each other and to Macedonia, the rhetorical structure and purpose of the letter, and the historical background. In the Text and Translation, Natoli uses the text established by Sykutris with four minor changes (at sections 3, 5, 12, and 13: discussed in the commentary ad locc.), and his accurate and idiomatic translation flows smoothly. The Commentary is an extremely full one for such a short text. It is primarily historical, but rhetorical matters are also addressed.

It is in the Introduction that Natoli proposes a re-evaluation of the letter’s content and purpose, which takes him in a radical new direction from existing scholarship. He does not believe that the letter is a public document but a private one. It had nothing to do with political affairs, but was written to win Philip’s patronage of the Academy and to counter his friendly relations with Isocrates and his rival school. To support this theory, Natoli proposes several new arguments for the letter’s authenticity beyond those of Bickermann and Sykutris. He believes that Speusippus’ appeal to the good deeds or euergesia of Philip’s predecessors has been misunderstood, as have the references to Plato that seem to indicate the king’s regard for the philosopher. He thus argues that the historical context of the letter is better suited to events in the reign of Perdiccas III (368-359), whose death in battle against the Illyrians led to the acclamation of his younger brother Philip as king.

In the letter, Speusippus urges that Plato’s good services during the reign of Perdiccas should be remembered (sec 12). At first sight, this seems a dangerous stratagem since relations between Philip and Plato had cooled dramatically because of the latter’s apparent interference in Macedonian politics during the reign of Perdiccas III. (On this, see further below.) However, Plato died in 347, and so 4-5 years later Speusippus decided to reestablish contact between the Academy and the Macedonian king. Thus, suggests Natoli, Speusippus’ use of Plato was not dangerous, for he linked it to the concept of euergesia, his aim being to persuade Philip that he needs to continue serving the Greeks as did his predecessors. Since Perdiccas supported Plato and hence the Academy, Philip should now support the Academy. In order to counter Philip’s friendly relations with Isocrates, Speusippus used his Philip and its failure to deal with the king’s predecessors properly as a vehicle for attack.

For Natoli, the letter is far less connected with its immediate political background, as is commonly thought, but has to do with the intellectual rivalry between the Academy and Isocrates. Natoli’s thesis has implications for Isocrates’ Philip and for the letters attributed to Plato that are contained in the Socratic Letters. He argues for the authenticity of the Platonic letter (the thirty-first of the Socratic Letters) that tries to persuade Philip to be content with territorial settlement agreed to by Perdiccas in Appendix I (pp. 161-174), which includes a text and translation of the letter. He does so by comparing and contrasting this letter with the five others attributed to Plato (a text and translation of them are given in Appendix II, pp. 175-177), as well as by arguments elsewhere in the book that Speusippus quoted from Plato’s letter to Philip in sec. 12 of his letter.

Not everyone will agree with Natoli’s arguments, which I have to say I find overly sophisticated and even contrived at times, and his assertion in the Preface (quoted above) is perhaps too bold. However, his reinterpretation of this letter does warrant consideration. Moreover, in giving us a new edition of the text, which takes into account publications since the 1928 edition of Bickermann and Sykutris, he has shone a much-needed spotlight on the letter’s importance as a historical source.

Note: Numerous errata exist in the book. This journal’s editor tells me that Natoli has put together a list of all errata online. It does not include all of them (for example, p. 107: Antipaters’ not Antipater’s, and on the same page the numeral 8 for the translated eighth section is missing).