BMCR 2006.01.51

Wandering in Ancient Greek Culture

, Wandering in ancient Greek culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 290 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226534979. $50.00.

Dealing with literature and philosophy from Homer down to the Greek novel, this is a work of ambitious and impressive scope, which analyzes the concept of wandering both as an element of factual life in Greek antiquity and as a metaphorical theme. The thread which holds the broad range of different sources together is, as M. announces in her introduction (p.1), the figure of Odysseus, who naturally appears more prominently in some chapters than in others. Throughout the book, M. highlights the paradoxical nature of wandering, which as she sums up in her conclusion ‘is synonymous with dislocation, ignorance, and dispossession but also provides exposure to otherwise inaccessible sources of wisdom’ (p. 263). Each type of source is discussed on its own merits, and the change in attitude to wandering is charted during the course of the book, becoming particularly apparent in the later chapters dealing with the literature of the Second Sophistic and the increased safety of travelling afforded within the Roman empire.

The book is divided into ten chapters, with an introduction and an epilogue, a substantial bibliography and a useful index. In her introduction, M. explains that her work will be based on analysis of three basic verbs (and their cognates): planaomai, alaomai, and phoitaô. Chapter one, entitled ‘Wandering in Space and Time’ examines the association between wandering and liminality, the sea, and omnidirectional movement, and also its links with various rites of passage including pregnancy as a cure for the wandering womb. Chapter two ‘Pains and Privations of Wandering’ addresses the mortal condition of wandering. It is shown to be a debasing condition, and the state of the exile/fugitive is emphasised, as is madness as a type of wandering with no return, both physical madness induced by gods (such as the case of Io’s pursuit by the gadfly) and mental derangement. This investigation into wandering as a mortal condition is developed in chapter three where the theme of wandering is examined in relation to the concept of life as a journey to death. M. introduces the philosophers here and remarks that both Stoics and Neoplatonists use Odysseus as their model, in spite of their different approaches to life (for the Stoics, it is explained, the purpose of wandering is an internal destination whereas for the Neoplatonists man wanders on earth because his true home is elsewhere). There is great emphasis in this chapter on wandering as defining mortality. M. states on p. 45 ‘to become immortal means to stop wandering’, and stresses that, in Homer at least, ‘wandering is viewed more as an inevitable punishment for being human than as an exceptional one due to an individual’s impiety’ (p.47).

Just as one is beginning to feel that M. is overstating her case since not all humans wander, and, in fact, some gods do, she moves on to her next chapter: ‘To Judge and to Deceive: The Wandering of the Gods’. The opening of chapter four addresses the paradox of the argument. If to be immortal means to stop wandering, how then are some gods characterized as wandering? In some ways one didn’t feel that this question was answered completely satisfactorily, although some interesting issues were raised during the course of the chapter. Zeus, as the chief god, is discussed as characterized by his immobility. He is generally seated, watching the world. But Zeus’ ‘holidays’ to Ethiopia are not mentioned by M., although in a sense they would confirm her association between immobility and observation, for when the gods are in Ethiopia, they are unaware of the world outside.1 A distinction is drawn between the aimless wandering of mortals and the wandering of the gods which is purposeful and often aggressive, where the gods’ wandering is a threatening movement comparable to the sudden wandering of diseases. Three subsections discuss Demeter, Dionysus, and the ‘enfants terribles’ Eros and Hermes. It is argued that Demeter’s wandering casts her as a human in distress, thus bridging the gap in the paradox of the original argument. Similarly Dionysus is presented as suffering like a mortal in his wandering. The paradox in Dionysus’ own nature is well brought out in the discussion, as is the association with Dionysiac madness. As regards Eros and Hermes, Eros’ wandering is said to be ubiquitous, while Hermes’ wandering is similar to that of Eros because it is deceptive in nature (p.88). But no distinction is made between Hermes’ function as (purposeful) messenger and his potential for wandering. Surely the two are different. The distinction made between wandering aimlessly and wandering with a purpose needed to be defended more clearly. Is not wandering by its nature aimless? The wandering of the gods is seemingly purposeful as a threat to mortals. But are not the gods a potential threat to mortals whether or not they wander?

Chapter five addresses itinerant sages in archaic and classical Greece, raising another paradox that ‘wandering is a mark of helplessness, and yet of superior power’ (p.91). The introduction which addresses the ambivalence between wandering, knowledge and truth leads in well to the discussion of ‘the enigmatic aura attached to wandering’ which is ‘exploited by sages’ (p.100). Empedocles’ complex self-representation is given particular attention here. The last section of this chapter addresses ‘wandering for the sake of profit’ considering both the ability to acquire wealth by wandering in Homer and the itinerant lifestyle of the Sophists, who are presented as lacking civic commitment through, for example, non-payment of taxes. The focus of chapter six is primarily theoria, the contemplation or observation of the world which is associated with wandering. M. discusses the figure of Io in the plays of Aeschylus, ‘Suppliant Women’ and ‘Prometheus Bound’, and emphasises the tension between Io’s indifference to the places she comes across and the potential for audience interest in the description of exotic locations. The wanderings of Io and Heracles are seen to be complementary, as between them they cover the entire surface of the earth (p.122). ‘Prometheus Bound’ is shown to bring out the opposition between wandering and authorised knowledge which comes through inspiration rather than exploration. An interesting point is made in this chapter about Greek perceptions of world travel as essentially wandering, not ‘travelling’, though the element of suffering associated with wandering is absent in this case. Discoveries are accidental rather than planned. The writings of Herodotus are important for the discussion here, and his wanderings are compared to those of Odysseus. Links, of course, are made between Herodotus’ wanderings and the wandering style of his writing. A minor criticism of this section is that the scholarly controversy surrounding whether or not Herodotus did travel to many of the places he describes was not adequately represented by p.127n.32 on Babylon. Doubts have been raised about other areas of Herodotus’ travel.2 M.’s arguments may have been better expressed here by treating the wanderings of ‘The Histories’ as a literary construct, rather than a factual narrative as she seemed to do.

Chapter seven discusses the paths of the philosophers from Parmenides to Plato on their journeys to the truth. For Parmenides, the truth is reached ‘by traveling in his mind along a straight path’ (p.147) and M. demonstrates how Parmenides highlights his rejection of wandering through Homeric echoes. The figure of Socrates is shown to be complex. He rejects wandering in the world at large, but wanders in his native city and is never in search of material gain. The case of Plato is also full of complexities. He travels himself after the death of Socrates but in his ideal state the guardians do not need to travel. For Plato, as for Parmenides, the journey to the truth is a straight path, although Plato adds the concept of ascent. But Plato can simultaneously welcome wandering as the kind of unsettling motion which can initiate philosophical thought. M. remarks that ‘The Laws’ is the only Platonic dialogue to take place while walking, a point which could have been linked (as with Herodotus) to the particularly rambling style of this dialogue. As one would expect, this chapter dealt with many complex issues, but there seemed to be one point of confusion, or at least a distinction in terminology that was not clearly explained. M. used both the term ‘wandering’ and the term ‘travelling’ in this chapter. Clearly a journey on a straight path to a specific goal is not ‘wandering’ and this is why M. uses the term ‘traveling’ in the phrase quoted above, but it was not made clear to what extent philosophical ‘travelling’ and ‘wandering’ were different, or whether M. wished to argue that they were the same.

The following two chapters, ‘In Praise of Homeless Wandering’ and ‘The World as Home’, deal with the Cynics and Stoics respectively. In her discussion of Diogenes, M. points to an important development in the perception of wandering, where this most dreaded state can be turned into a chosen role through which the Cynic can achieve freedom. Dio Chrysostom is also given some attention here, as are the wandering heroes who become models of Cynic wisdom. The link between the two chapters is made effectively by raising the issue of the influence exerted on Dio by the Stoic Posidonius. M. sets herself the questions: ‘Did the Stoics glamorize wandering? If so, in what sense?’ (p. 204). Posidonius was unorthodox in his views, but his ideas were not completely dismissed by later Stoics. Although they do not glamorize wandering, Stoic contemplation is possible while wandering. The case of Apollonius of Tyana is then examined and it is found that his biographer Philostratus shows Apollonius’ movements as wandering only to put them on a par with ‘godlike elusiveness’.

The final chapter addresses wandering in the Greek novel. Here the context of increasing mobility in the world is important, and M. remarks on the development of travel as ‘tourism’ in this period. The philapodêmos is described as a character who ‘bordered on the wanderer’ (p.221), and it is argued that the ‘distinction between traveling and wandering is very thin in the novel’ (p.223). An important development here is the irrelevance of the return journey in most novels, a significant contrast to the nostos wanderings of the archaic epic heroes. M. suggests that this is a development from Apollonius’ ‘Argonautica’ and the sense of dislocation felt in its last episodes. Wandering in the novel is usually a determined search for the beloved. It is noted that the exception to the rule is Heliodorus’ Aethiopica, where the journey is a clear linear nostos and that this has Platonic overtones. The association between wandering and unbelievable stories is shown to have been exploited by writers such as Antonius Diogenes and Lucian, and M. argues for a play on words between plasma‘creation’ and planê‘wandering’ in both authors. The chapter comes to a close with a discussion of the intersection of fictionality with the wandering of narrative progression in the novelists. The ‘Epilogue’ gives an overview of the book’s findings and relates some of the philosophical trends to those found in Christianity.

This book is well presented, although longer footnotes would have been easier to read had they been justified on the right hand side (an editorial point). I noticed just one typographical error: Choephorae for Choephoroi or Choephoroe (p.38 and p.65n.9). To a classical scholar, the time period dealt with in each chapter will be obvious, but one wondered whether the undergraduate student might have benefited from some dates with which to contextualise the sources used. Inevitably with a work of this scope, each scholar within his/her own field may have wished to see more detail developed in one or other area. But this aside, there was one methodological approach which was disappointing. Given that M. refers to the specific Greek terminology which she is investigating in her introduction, it is frustrating that the Greek terms used in any given quotation are only randomly supplied. Often quotations are given only in English with the translation ‘wandering’. M. does occasionally point to distinctions in the usage of the terminology for wandering in the Greek world (e.g. pp. 81-2 on phoitaô). However it is impossible to judge whether there is any development in the significance of the terms themselves over time, for example, or whether certain terms are used in circumstances particular to each, which is a shame. In the later chapters, there is too much slippage between ‘travelling’ and ‘wandering’. The point made briefly in chapter six about perceptions of travel as wandering with relation to the earlier sources does not necessarily hold for the later sources and needed to be redefined accordingly. Confusion of this kind could have been avoided if the Greek terms for ‘wandering’ and ‘travelling’ had been given in all instances. Nevertheless, the broad scope of this book will ensure that scholars and students from many fields will consult it.


1. Cf. e.g. Iliad 1.424-5 and see J. S. Romm, The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought (Princeton, 1992) 50ff.

2. E.g. O. K. Armayor, ‘Did Herodotus ever go to the Black Sea?’, HSCP 82 (1978), 45-62.