BMCR 2007.07.28

The Philosophers of the Ancient World: An A-Z Guide

Trevor Curnow, The philosophers of the ancient world : an A to Z guide. London: Duckworth, 2006. 1 online resource (xvii, 296 pages) : maps. ISBN 9781849667715 £16.99 (pb).

The title accurately describes its contents. Curnow (C.) has culled a broad range of sources to compile a single volume reference book containing concise identifications of those philosophers who lived in the period between 600 BC (Thales of Miletus) and AD 641 (the year in which the last volume of the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire ends) in Europe, North Africa, and West Asia. Even by wisely excluding ancient philosophers of the East, C. nets more than 2,300 individuals. Despite a few minor shortcomings, it is likely that many experts in the field will often be glad to grab this convenient, reasonably priced paperback from their shelves and spare themselves some trips to their campus libraries.

Who does C. count as philosophers? He assumes that those using his book “will primarily be interested in what counts as philosophy today” (1), and so selects those ancients who meet this criterion. But C. also desires to sketch areas of overlap in antiquity and so he includes some of the most important mathematicians, physicians, other polymaths, and those theologians who engaged in supra-Christian philosophical debates. This guide contains ten helpful maps of the cities and areas referenced (ix-xviii), a short introduction explaining its aims and features (1-2), “A Brief Overview of the History of Ancient Philosophy” (3-5), explanations of the conventions and format followed in the entries (6), the names and identifications (7-286), a bibliographical essay that cites the principal sources used and offers very selective suggestions for further reading (287-292), and an index of places to use in conjunction with the maps (293-296). The sections of the bibliographical essay are reference, general, the Presocratics, Pythagoras and Pythagoreans, the Sophists, Socrates, Plato and Platonism, Aristotle and the Peripatetics, Hellenistic philosophy, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynics, Scepticism, Neoplatonism, Minor Schools, Gnosticism, and Christianity.

Three audiences for this book are explicitly targeted: those familiar with ancient philosophy in need of a handy reference work, those new to the subject seeking a useful introduction, and those wanting background reading to learn about the intellectual life of the ancient world. Since it is a handsome, cleanly produced, clearly written volume of fewer than 300 pages, it will be a welcome resource for experts. Yet it is no surprise that the three-page overview of the history of ancient philosophy cannot begin to introduce effectively even a handful of the most important of the thousands of individuals listed in the guide. No three-page essay could achieve this. The more substantial entries outline major aspects of the individuals’ philosophies, and, as highly condensed summaries go, they are serviceable enough. But most of the entries are shorter than four lines of text. The longest (on Plato and Aristotle) are two pages. So C.’s overview would have to be much longer and considerably more detailed to help newcomers navigate through such an ocean of names. This is not meant as a criticism of the guide itself, but as a check on the zeal of the publisher to pitch their product to multiple audiences.

The maps are indispensable. They are of Attica and Athens; Italy; Egypt; Western Europe; Southern Greece (including Crete and the islands of the southern Aegean); Northern Greece; North Africa; the Black Sea, Asia Minor and the Near East (including Cyprus); Western Asia Minor (including its larger lakes and coastal islands) in larger scale; and one labeled “Armenia to India” spanning the region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (neither of which is labeled) and the River Indus. With the Orontes River in Syria, these are the only four rivers mapped. While dozens of cities and some districts are located, only shorelines are drawn. The maps would have been more user-friendly had a few major mountains and more major rivers also been depicted. The absence of some districts from the maps poses a slight nuisance. For example, Antiochus of Aegae is dated to the second/third century AD and is said to have come from Cilicia, while Antiochus of Cilicia is also dated to the second/third century AD (27). This could confuse the non-expert, since Cilicia is neither displayed on a map nor listed in the index of places. The index lists no districts but only cities and their corresponding maps. Convenience could have been gained by moving this index from the rear of the volume to the front, next to the maps.

A few small gripes can be offered. In the Bibliographical Essay C. reports that “[t]he Epicureans have not been particularly well served” (291), citing three works published before 19931 while skipping others.2 But several fine books on Epicureanism have appeared since 1993.3 While it is possible that C. judged these works to be too specialized for “those newer to the area” (287), I’m inclined to think that the Epicureans have been better served than C. claims.

To those entries where he can, C. appends in round brackets works by the individual in question available in English translation. In square brackets he appends “further reading, whether monographs or relatively substantial treatments in larger works or on internet sites” (6). For Musonius Rufus (191) C. misses a Greek text with English translation4 and offers as his single reference the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, vol. 6 rather than other studies.5 More recent references could have been provided in other cases. The entry on Socrates is one such instance.6 For Parmenides a work more recent than 1986 would have been desirable.7 C.’s stated goal of avoiding clutter in order to preserve more space for the entries (6) is quite reasonable and he achieves it. But the impression remains that mention of scholarship in the last ten to fifteen years is sparse. Though C. explicitly prefers to include “the most accessible sources” (6), including internet sites, that preference would not appear to warrant more than a few of the omissions. I know of no relatively substantial treatments on Euphrates, so it might seem that no further reading could be provided for his entry. Yet an essay by Michael Frede8 deserves mention precisely because of how ingeniously he manages to fill in so many big gaps in our very sketchy knowledge of Euphrates. Consequently, C’s choices of references suggest that they are designed to assist neophytes more than experts.

One habit of labeling was troublesome. One entry begins: “Carneades was a Platonist who succeeded Hegesinus of Pergamum as head of the Academy.” Yet in the second paragraph C. states that it is certain that Carneades was a Sceptic (70). Though C. seems comfortable referring to any head of the Academy as a Platonist, I worry that this could mislead incautious readers.

Entertaining tidbits spice up a number of the identifications. Diogenes Laertius reported that Carneades of Cyrene would let his hair and nails grow long rather than leave his studies of philosophy (70). Chrysippus of Soli died laughing or as a result of drinking or both (78). After abandoning Stoicism due to his inability to practice indifference to serious eye pain, Dionysius the Renegade gained a reputation for seeking pleasure wherever he could find it and died by starving himself (108). Epimenides, one of the Seven Sages of ancient Greece, could separate his soul from his body and once slept in a cave for over fifty years (118). Gorgias of Leontini, who lived to be over a hundred, attributed his longevity to never doing anything for anyone else (136). Before he took up philosophy, Pyrrho of Elis was a painter, but not a very good one (236). According to Heraclides of Pontus, Pythagoras remembered all his prior incarnations, including his last one as a fisherman named Pyrrhus of Delos.

I found few mistakes.9 The minor flaws reported detract little from the general utility of this guide. The expert can use it as a handy resource for quickly identifying hosts of obscure figures. The non-expert can use it, with due caution, to learn a bit about the more prominent ancient philosophers in the West and to begin searching for more detailed accounts of their thought.


1. Norman De Witt, Epicurus and his philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1954). Howard Jones, The Epicurean tradition (London: Routledge, 1992). Catherine J. Castner, Prosopography of Roman Epicureans, from the second century BC to the second century AD (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1991).

2. For example, Diskin Clay, Lucretius and Epicurus (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983).

3. David Sedley, Lucretius and the transformation of Greek Wisdom (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998). Diskin Clay, Paradosis and Ssrvival: three chapters in the history of Epicurean philosophy (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan, 1998).

4. Cora E. Lutz, Musonius Rufus: “the Roman Socrates” (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1947).

5. A. C. van Geytenbeek, Musonius Rufus and Greek diatribe (Assen: van Gorcum, 1962); J. T. Dillon, Musonius Rufus and education in the good life (Dallas: Univ. Press of America, 2004).

6. T. C. Brickhouse and N. D. Smith, The trial and execution of Socrates: sources and controversies (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002), The philosophy of Socrates (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000), and Plato’s Socrates (Oxford Univ. Press, 1994), for example, are all more recent than C.’s reference to G. Vlastos, Socrates: ironist and moral philosopher (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991).

7. Patricia Curd, The legacy of Parmenides (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998) and the revised paperback version The legacy of Parmenides: Eleatic monism and later Presocratic thought (Las Vegas: Parmenides Publishing, distributed by the University of Chicago Press, 2004). C’s reference is S. Austin, Parmenides: being, bounds and logic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

8. “Euphrates of Tyre” in Richard Sorabji (ed.), Aristotle and after (Institute of Classical Studies, University of London, 1997), 1-11.

9. Two entries, Apollonius [1] and Apollonius of Cyrene, share identical descriptions, yet are not identified as either the same person or possibly the same person. Typographical errors: “things” should be “thing” (13); “Mansfield” should be “Mansfeld” (17); “important” should be “importance” (134); “Selecucia” should be “Seleucia” (295).