BMCR 2006.11.22

Heraclitus: Homeric Problems. Writings from the Greco-Roma World, 14

, , , Heraclitus : Homeric problems. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature,, 2005. 1 online resource (xxx, 144 pages).. $20.95 (pb).

All Classical scholars should welcome the first English translation of the only ancient work of Homeric allegory (aside from Porphyry’s “Cave of the Nymphs”) that has come down to us in its entirety. This excellent translation, accompanied by a revised version of the Teubner text and brief explanatory notes, is the work of Donald Russell (R.). David Konstan (K.), who has revised and improved the whole book, is also the author of the introduction, which contains a general profile of ancient allegory. While considering the translation (and, to a certain extent, the text) as the most valuable parts of this book, I shall focus in this review on every single part, from the introduction (section A, where I address more general questions) to the text (β translation (C) and notes (D).

I state here once and for all that I have myself independently produced an annotated Italian translation of the same work, published in 2005.1 The reader who should like to have more information about some of the points I make below, is thus invited to consult my book.

A. The introduction

Very little is known about Heraclitus. The terminus ante quem for his work is Cicero’s contemporary Alexander of Ephesus (quoted in 12.8), not Crates’ disciple Herodicus of Babylon (as K. writes on p. xi). Beyond that, there is only speculation (a bit like Ps.-Demetrius’ treatise “On Style”). The lack of any trace of Pythagorean-Neoplatonic allegoresis has led scholars to date the Homeric Questions to the 1st century AD (the mysteric terminology has no bearing on this issue: on this topic see below the end of this section). K. (pp. xii-xiii) ventures the hypothesis that Heracl. 53.3 and Plut. de aud. poet 19e, where conjunctions of planets are described as “predictive of events in the world”, might imply that this peculiar exegetical mode was a relatively recent trend in Homeric exegesis: given Plutarch’s date, this would point for our treatise to a date around AD 100. While I agree by and large with the dating, I am not convinced by K.’s argument: not only was astronomical exegesis in fact very common in the 1st century AD (one need just think of the interpretation of Od. 20, 351-352 in POxy 53, 3710, Ps.-Plut. de Hom. 108, Plut. de fac. lun. 931e and Heracl. qu. Hom. 75),2 but in the special case of ch. 53 Heraclitus is relating the old idea according to which the conjunction of all the seven planets will entail a general conflagration. This is the so-called “magnus annus”, known from Plat. Tim. 22c down to Cic. nat. deor. 2, 51 and to the Middle Ages: that this well-known theory should be projected on such a debated passage as the Theomachy in book 20 of the Iliad, is well conceivable even well before the 1st century AD.

The introduction gives no further details on Heraclitus, except for a short summary of the work and a few words on its possible function as a rhetorical showpiece and on its text (pp. xxvii-xxx). No special attention is paid to the possibility of dating the work on linguistic and stylistic grounds, ranging from hiatus to lexical choices and syntax: the word of such a connoisseur of imperial prose as the co-author of this book would have been especially welcome. In fact, Heraclitus’ koine avoids hiatus but does not follow the rules of Atticism, and lexical and syntactical features show proximity with authors from Strabo down to Ps.-Longinus and John Chrysostom. Also overlooked are such debated issues as the manuscript tradition (mss. are actually mentioned, but for example not even the shelfmark of ms. M is indicated), the indirect tradition (from Porphyry to the corpora of Homeric scholia and John Tzetzes) and the Nachleben (ascribed for centuries to Heraclides Ponticus, this work was read and quoted by Politian, Rabelais, Winckelmann, etc.).

R. pointed a few years ago3 to some rhetorical features of the “Homeric Questions” (after all, Heraclitus is defending Homer from the charge of impiety as if in a court); one regrets that the matter is not further investigated in this book because it would raise an interesting problem of genre. Heraclitus was, undoubtedly, a well-trained rhetor: but how did rhetors handle and judge allegory, and especially the shift from the “first” to the “second” sense? How did they believe allegory could avoid the risk of obscurity and project its aesthetic value on the underlying text? For these and related questions, the reader should now turn to the studies of Pierre Chiron.4

Furthermore, what is the relationship of Heraclitus’ work with the genre of zetemata / problemata, consecrated at least since the Hellenistic age? And what about other (often lost) works of the imperial age (by Dio Chrysostom, Maximus of Tyre, Telephus of Pergamon, Aristocles of Messene, Aelius Sarapio), focussing on the harmony or conflict between Homer and Plato, a theme that is ubiquitous in Heraclitus’ treatise and so fashionable in Hadrian’s times as to entertain the emperor himself (see Spart. Hadr. 16, 6)?

In connection with this, I regret that virtually no mention is made of Heraclitus’ sources. Unfashionable as Quellenforschung may be, it still remains the only way to try and understand what in this work belongs to the author, and what to his predecessors, not only to those that are openly quoted (such as Apollodorus, Herodicus or Crates), but also to lost writings such as the common source — acutely identified by Hermann Diels — used by Heraclitus, Ps.-Plutarch, Ps.-Probus’ commentary on Virgil, and Stobaeus.

All this is not useless erudition: these data are essential in order to assess the “Sitz im Leben” of Heraclitus’ “Homeric Questions” and to understand that this work, though perhaps not a masterpiece, does not stand isolated in the panorama of imperial literature but entertains complicated relations with other writings and probably belongs to a class of “halbphilosophische Schriften” that enjoyed wide popularity in that period. The bulk of K.’s introduction (pp. xiv-xxvii) is devoted to a brief and very stimulating survey of ancient allegory. K. clings to the traditional idea that allegory was first created as a defensive instrument against Homer’s critics, but he also allows a place for the role of allegory in cultic contexts, at least from Derveni onwards (pp. xviii-xix). K. believes that allegorical meaning and response were in fact coaeval with and deliberately attached to the Homeric epic in the first place (pp. xiv-xv). This is certainly right, as many ancient commentators had already grasped; G. W. Most has even shown one instance (Il. 16, 33-35) in which Homer not only “speaks” allegorically, but solves — through the words of Patroclus – – his own allegorical riddle.5 More generally, Heraclitus regards Homer as a “strong allegorist”, namely a poet who consciously and deliberately concealed allegorical meanings in his poem, much in the same way as Alcaeus and Anacreon, quoted in ch. 5; this was essential in order to defend him from the charge of impiety. K.’s definition of allegory as a metonymy involving at a minimum two terms and a bond (generally an activity) between them (pp. xvii-xviii), is interesting because it provides a very broad basis for defining which interpretations can be called “allegorical” and which cannot. Yet Heraclitus is a peculiar case: as an author who openly speaks of allegory, employs a variety of exegetical practices (physical, moral, historical-rationalizing allegory etc.), and sometimes assents to plainly non-Stoic philosophical doctrines, Heraclitus offers a good starting-point for those who deal with the problem of the boundaries and scope of ancient allegory, and particularly of the Stoic theories in this field.

As a matter of fact, the traditional view of “Stoic allegory” has recently been severely challenged by Anthony Long, who maintains a) that Heraclitus was in fact no orthodox Stoic, the few undoubtedly Stoic elements in his work belonging to a “Gemeingut” devoid of any peculiar philosophical connotation, and b) that the etymological practice of the Stoics did not give shape to an allegorical system suo iure but was intended to illuminate single linguistic elements of mankind’s original language, without proposing any organic interpretation of literary works, without acquiring any narrative dimension.6 K. refrains from addressing this issue openly, but he seems to seek a compromise: for him, the Stoics used etymology in order to find justification of their theories in Homer, but they were also interested in the anti-Platonic defense of Homer per se (pp. xix-xxi). In order to grasp how many problems the very concept of ancient allegory poses, and how contradictory the Stoic appropriation of Homer often appears, the reader will consult the recent, sober essay by Richard Goulet.7 What is at stake here is not only Heraclitus’ philosophical definition, but also his problematic relationship with Annaeus Cornutus, which cannot be resolved as “allegory vs. etymology”, but unveils two very different — albeit sometimes parallel — exegetical approaches.

My final remark concerns Heraclitus’ frequent references to initiation and mystery cults. K. (p. xii and xxiv) detects here a hint of the “diaeretic” allegorical method, which was typical of Neoplatonic and Pythagorean exegesis from Porphyry to Proclus and beyond. In fact, Heraclitus not only implies that φιλομαθεῖς will understand Homer correctly and ἀμαθεῖς will not (see also for this Ps.-Plut. de Hom. 92, 3), but he openly states that good readers will have to explore the penetralia of Homeric wisdom (3, 2 and 70, 12), he speaks of Homer’s “secret truth” (53, 2), he stresses that only an οὐρανία ψυχή will be able to celebrate Homer’s Olympic mysteries (64, 4; the text should by no means be altered, as R-K suggest in the app. crit.; cp. Philo, quod deus sit imm. 151), and he presents Homer himself as a hierophant (76, 1) and a “theologian” (22, 1; 40, 2; 58, 4 etc.).8 The system of these numerous references should be compared with the “Mysterienterminologie” that occurs so often in Philo of Alexandria,9 rather than with the tenets of later Neoplatonic allegory: despite Dawson’s and Long’s recent studies, the profound relationship of Heraclitus with Philo and Biblical allegory is still underestimated by scholars. But what is more important, Heraclitus evidently inherits this tradition without being able to reconcile it with his anti-Platonic defense. Plato’s main criticism of Homer (resp. 2, 378d-e) consisted precisely in the observation that his ὑπόνοιαι are not easy to understand for children and young students and become clear only to those who dedicate long and qualified efforts to their study. By depicting Homer’s wisdom as a secret knowledge accessible only to the initiates, Heraclitus follows an established topos of ancient (esp. Philonic) allegory but on the other hand paradoxically justifies the main core of Platonic criticism.

To conclude, though I disagree with some of K.’s claims and wish he had touched upon more issues in order to specify the historical and ideological context of this work, I believe his introduction is a very stimulating starting point, especially for those wishing to study the role of allegory in ancient literary criticism.

B. The text

This is not a critical edition: no manuscripts have been collated, and the apparatus criticus carries only a selection of the most interesting variant readings drawn from earlier editions, chiefly the 1910 Teubner and Félix Buffière’s 1962 Budé. The latter, despite its popularity, is founded on very weak editorial principles and offers in many places a totally unacceptable text. This has led R-K to take the Teubner as a basis, revaluing some conjectures and especially the readings of the excerpts that ended up in the corpora of Homeric scholia. I entirely agree with R-K’s course of action, and I believe their text is a good one. My only complain is that — based as it is on previous editions — the apparatus criticus often leaves the reader in doubt whether a certain variant is transmitted by some mss. or is the fruit of conjecture.10 Having produced an edition of the Homeric Questions myself, I was honoured to see that in many cases I had made the same (not obvious) textual choice as ρ11 and that many discrepancies concern passages in which at least one of us has expressed doubts.12

In some cases, I disagree with R-K’s choice. 14.5 they keep καθαρώτατον, but καθαρώτερον (given by the scholia) corresponds to their translation “purer”. 15.5 they print συμπάν (probably a mistake for Heyne’s σύμπαν), but I cannot see cosmogonic accents in this passage, and I’d rather cling to the transmitted συμβάν. 20.5 the transmitted οἷα μετανοοῦντα ἤδη is acceptable because — contrary to what R-K write in note 2 — it does not imply that Achilles “has already repented”: the present participle describes an action in progress. 26.4 μυθούμενον means “speaking”, whereas “known from mythology” corresponds to Teubner’s conjecture μυθευόμενον. 31.5 Teubner’s οὐδενὸς προσδοκήσαντος should at least have been mentioned. 44.4 ἤλεκτρος is probably a misprint for ἄλεκτρος, carried by ms. D and occurring in the translation. 45.7 Muenzel’s εἰκὸς is syntactically more satisfying than the transmitted εἰκότως. 53.7 ταύτῃ should be corrected in ταῦτα (see R-K’s choice in 50.6). 62.1-2 διαπεττεύοντος must be transposed and referred to μειρακίου (so Hercher; see also Heracl. fr. 22 B 52 D.-K.); otherwise both sense and syntax are hardly acceptable. 70.10 δάπανος is an obscure hapax legomenon, whereas mss. DS offer a much more perspicuous πολυδάπανος (on the other hand, forms like 43.12 αἰθεριώδη and 58.2 ἐνουράνιον should not be rejected just because “less attested in other writers”). 73.10 R-K do not add εἰς, but they have to appeal to an unlikely poetic usage.

This edition provides a handful of new conjectures, almost all stemming from Donald Russell. Some conjectures affect particles (40.14; 72.12; 75.12); others are changes in the punctuation, sometimes debatable: I’d rather take 1.2 together with 1.3 than with 1.1 ( πάντα … ἠλληγόρησεν has a lapidary tone); in 8.1 if we take καὶ … κατασκευάζειν with the preceding sentence, αἱ λοιμικαὶ νόσοι introduces a new sentence without any connecting particle.

As for the remaining conjectures, I disagree with some of them (6.5; 7.9 the dative γεωργοῖς should not be understood with ἐφίσταται; 39.9; 41.8; 50.3; 63.5 κουφοφοροῦσα in the active is an implausible hapax; the complex reconstruction of 76.17 implies many changes and yields dubious syntax), and find others plausible but perhaps unnecessary (7.7; 25.10; 29.2; 30.3; 37.2; 41.3; 52.4) or less convincing then solutions proposed by earlier scholars (49.1; 69.11; 78.8). The most interesting conjectures are deletion of 32.1 δῑ ὧν, which better helps construe the sentence, and avoids Mehler’s correction of ἐμπειρία; 43.1 περιείληφε for περιήθροισε ( περιήθρησε Hercher); 60.3 διὰ for δίξα, which restores ἐμπειρία to its normal meaning; 64, 2 μυθώδη for μυθώδης (I had printed the same); 70.9 ἐκμανθάνων for ἐκμαθών; 75.1 add. ὑπελθούσης at the end of the lacuna. Perhaps the most brilliant conjecture of all is Russell’s μεμυημένοις for μιμουμένοις at 70.13, that fits in perfectly with the general picture of Heraclitus’ mysteric terminology discussed above in section A.

C. The translation

The translation is excellent, and represents in my opinion the most important achievement of this book, particularly because it will contribute to spread the knowledge of the “Homeric Questions” in the English-speaking world.

I shall list only a few cases where I disagree with R-K’s choices. 1.4 (but see also 42.2, 76.5 and 78.1) βίος is translated as “life” even in places where a more concrete “humanity, world” (see TGL III, 254) would appear more suitable to the context. 8.1 φθορά is not “destruction” but rather “corruption”, as in 8.6. 8.5 φυσικῶς probably means “according to a physical allegory”. 13.5 φορά is “impulse, motion” rather than “trajectory”. 18.4 ὁ λόγος cannot be “Reason” (rather “these words”, as suggested in the note). 20.11 οἱ μεγάλοι θυμοί must be “the great spirits” rather than “great outbursts of passion” (the gen. τῶν παθῶν must be construed with ἀποκόπτονται, as in the phrase ἀποκοπῆναι τῆς ἐλπίδος). 23.10 μοῖρα is not the “region” allotted to the element but rather a characteristic element of its nature. 23.12 κυκλοφορητικὴ is not “rotational”, but rather “circulative” or the like (see 23.13; 36.6). 26.16 θεωρητὸν πῦρ cannot be “the fire under consideration”, but (according to the only meaning of this verbal adj.) “the visible fire”, namely the aetherial fire as opposed to the terrestrial one (see e.g. Corn. theol. gr. comp. 33, 13-15 Lang). 40.2 συνεχῶς ᾀδόμενα means “mentioned successively” rather than “constantly celebrated”. 43.2 κοσμικὴ περίοδος is not “revolution” but “cosmic circle”, as in 48.2. 54.5 there is no hint in the context that the subject of ἔμελλεν should be Homer, whereas the verb διευκρινέω (here and in 54.4) points to “wisdom” as the subject. 56.8 I believe τῷ τρέφοντι depends on ἀνθεστάναι only, not “apo koinou” on ξαλεπόν. 62.1 παρεισελθών is not “when it arrived” but “as it entered him” (scil. Telemachus). 70.5 οὗτος cannot refer to the “anger”, but rather to the Cyclops. 70.8 ἡ δὲ φρόνησις is not “his wisdom”, but simply “wisdom”, since Ulysses now takes over the role formerly belonging to Athena. 73.4 ” rhapis suggests rhaptein” can be extrapolated, but does not correspond to anything in the Greek.

D. The notes

R-K declare from the start that they do not intend to produce a full commentary (p. xxix). In fact, most notes simply identify the Homeric passages quoted in the text; others comment briefly (and often pointedly) on aspects of Heraclitus’ vocabulary or syntax, or indicate parallels for Heraclitus’ etymologies and explanations.13 The reader is almost constantly referred to passages in Cornutus (with I. Ramelli’s commentary);14 this might be sometimes misleading, especially in view of the aforementioned differences (see section A) between Heraclitus’ and Cornutus’ allegorical methods, even in matters of detail (for instance, Cornutus identifies Athena with Zeus’ intelligence and thus with the Stoic Pronoia, whereas Heraclitus ch. 19 does not mention this aspect at all). Perhaps more systematic references to Buffière’s old but essential “Les mythes d’Homère” (Paris 1956) would have been useful to the average reader; as of now, one will still find Buffière’s notes in his 1962 Budé edition (or perhaps my own in the book quoted in note 1) very important towards a deeper understanding of such a complicated text as the “Homeric Questions”.

It would be idle to list here all the places where a note would have been of great help to the reader. For example, nothing is said about the Pythagoric background of the “music of the spheres” in 12.3, nor about Crates’ interpretation of the Homeric βηλός in 27.2 or about his cosmological ideas in ch. 36. Ch. 33-34 are hard to understand without the Cynic and Stoic image of Heracles as civilisator (34.8 must therefore refer to Heracles, not to Homer as the scholia put it). The extent and the precise typology of Platonic criticism are rarely clarified: ch. 39 on the Διὸς ἀπάτη is in fact a response to Plat. resp. 3, 390b-c; the same applies to ch. 40, 42 and 52-58 (why no mention is made here of Ps.-Long. Subl. 9, 6-7, a text R. knows so well?). Ch. 44-47 may seem abstruse to the reader ignorant of the quarrel between Aristarchus and Crates on the shape of the earth (a reference to M. Schmidt’s “Erklärungen zum Weltbild Homers”, Munich 1976, would have been helpful). Especially the understanding of the Odyssean chapters (62-63, 66-69) would have greatly profited from a comparison with ancient Homeric criticism: for example, the hot debate about Od. 9.1-11, from Athenaeus down to Lucian and Maximus of Tyre, is vital to ch. 79 of our work and more broadly to the picture of the relationship between Homer and Epicurus in antiquity.

However, these remarks do not affect the value of R-K’s achievement. This book offers a good text and an excellent translation of Heraclitus’ “Homeric Questions” and succeeds in arousing fresh interest in ancient Homeric allegory.


1. Eraclito, Questioni omeriche sulle allegorie di Omero in merito agli dei, a c. di F. Pontani, Pisa, ETS, 2005. I take this opportunity to emend my text (66.1 θέα“vision” is certainly the right word, not θεά“goddess”), my commentary (in 10.3 there is a clear reference to the Greek expedition to Mysia, which took place in the summer: see Procl. arg. Cypr. 38-39 Bern., Apollod. epit. 3.18 and schol. T in Il. 24.765a1), and my translation: 9.2 ἀναίρεσις is “recovering of the body”, not “uccisione”; 13.3 αὐτὸν ἐθόλωσεν means “lo intorbida” (scil. Apollo), not “la intorbida”; 15.1 γνώριμος is “disciple”, not “conoscente” (cp. 22.8; R-K’s note on Asclepius and Chiron is illuminating); 69.15 κατώρθωσε is probably a gnomic aorist, “completes”. See also below note 11. Finally, I must also add that the erroneous ascription to Heraclides Ponticus (see below) was brilliantly challenged, after Nathanael Mazerius in 1586, by Gilles Ménage, who first mentioned the quotations from our author in Eustathius (Aeg. Menagius, In Diogenem Laërtium observationes et emendationes, Amstelaedami 1692, l. IX, segm. 17, p. 399).

2. See M. Broggiato, Interpretazioni antiche e moderne della visione di Teoclimeno nell’Odissea (Od. 20.351-357), in R. Nicolai (a c. di), ΡΥΣΜΟΣ. Studi L. E. Rossi, Roma 2003, 63-72.

3. D. A. Russell, The Rhetoric of the Homeric Problems, in G. R. Boys-Stones (ed.), Metaphor, Allegory, and the Classical Tradition, Oxford 2003, 217-234.

4. P. Chiron, Allégorie et langue, allégorie et style, allégorie et persuasion: le témoignage des traités de rhétorique, in B. Pérez-Jean – P. Eichel-Lojkine (ed.), L’allégorie de l’Antiquité à la Renaissance, Paris 2004, 41-73. P. Chiron, Aspects rhétoriques et grammaticaux de l’interprétation allégorique d’Homère, in G. Dahan-R. Goulet (ed.), Allégorie des poètes, allégorie des philosophes, Paris 2005, 35-58.

5. G. W. Most, Die früheste erhaltene Dichterallegorese, Rheinisches Museum 136, 1993, 209-212.

6. A. A. Long, Allegory in Philo and Etymology in Stoicism: a plea for drawing distinctions, Studia Philonica Annual 9, 1997, 198-210. A. A. Long, Stoic Readings of Homer, in R. Lamberton-J. J. Keaney, Homer’s Ancient Readers, Princeton 1992, 41-66. But see also G. W. Most, Cornutus and Stoic Allegoresis: a Preliminary Report, ANRW II.36.3, Berlin-New York 1989, 2014-2065. D. Dawson, Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria, Berkeley – Los Angeles 1992.

7. R. Goulet, La méthode allégorique chez les Stoïciens, in G. Romeyer Dherbey – J.-B. Gourinat, Les Stoïciens, Paris 2005, 93-119.

8. See R. Lamberton, Homer the Theologian, Berkeley-Los Angeles-London 1996, 22-31, who, however, fails to quote the occurrences in Heraclitus.

9. See Chr. Riedweg, Mysterienterminologie bei Platon, Philon und Klemens von Alexandrien, Berlin-New York 1987, 71-92, esp. 90-91. About Homer, I point particularly to Philo, de prov. 2, 40-41.

10. For example at 7.10 the reading ὄρθριον for αἴθριον (certainly right, despite R-K’s choice) is not a Teubner conjecture, but the reading of mss. GaS. I also regret that some conjectures are adopted tacitly: for example, Badham should have been explicitly credited honoris causa with the wonderful (and unanimously accepted) πνίγη for τῇ γῇ in 7.9, and Ianos Laskaris with the no less certain πεδιάδι for δυάδι in 9.1 (he penned this emendation on the margin of his ms. London, Royal 16.c.17).

11. I refer to passages such as 3.2-3; 7.14; 8.2; 16.4; 17.6; 24.2; 26.15-16; 33.1; 33.6-8, 34.5; 35.9; 40.4-5; 42.5; 48.3; 53.3; 54.2 and 7; 55.3; 65.2 and 4-5; 68.3; 69.3; 70.1-4.

12. I would now incline to adopt some more old conjectures: 5.8 the addition of πραχθέντ’ is likely; 5.16 ἐπιγινώσκομεν is better than ἐπείπομεν; 6.6 τοῦ δημώδους…θρυλουμένου, instead of the accusative, avoids a harsh anacoluth; 26.12 φυσικῶς may in fact belong to the first sentence rather than to the second; 44.4 van Lennep’s ἔτι ἑλίκτωρ is much better than ἐπιελίκτωρ; 79.5 in παρὰ Λωτοφάγοις the dative is much better than the acc. In 61, 1 εἰς ἄνδρας (given by the scholia) makes more sense than εἰς τὸν ἄνδρα.

13. The references are generally correct; but on 55.1 (p. 94 note 1) Plat. Crat. 400a (perhaps 406a?) does not carry the (later) etymology of Λητώ from λανθάνω.

14. A. Cornuto, Compendio di teologia greca, ed. I. Ramelli, Milano 2003.